Travel tips

I’ve been planning vacations for years and along the way have picked up tips for saving time and money – and having great experiences. In this post, I’ll describe each tip. Maybe one or more can help you!

Copenhagen, Denmark

Before I start – full disclosure:  I am not an expert with using all of the tips. And, things change so what may be helpful in the past may not be helpful in the future.  Lastly, I am not paid for recommending these services. Basically, the information here includes my opinions only and when you use these services, you accept all risks.

West coast of Ireland

Before I describe my tips, I need to tell you about searching in INCOGNITO MODE.  This is a way to browse online in private so that your website history is not saved. I’ve read it prevents airline, rental car, etc. prices from increasing once your history is “learned”. And I think it’s true – I’ve seen an increase in price occur when not browsing in incognito mode vs. browsing incognito. So, before you do any searching for travel-related costs that can fluctuate, first create a new incognito window:

For Windows: Press CTRL + SHIFT + N

For Mac: Press COMMAND + SHIFT + N

Here’s how it looks on a Windows computer:

From - filter "free to share and use" -

From here you can search for anything and the website history is not recorded.

NYC subway


  1. Lonely Planet books – Get travel ideas from these books. I would bet most libraries have these (mine does and I buy the older copies at book sales). Lodging, restaurants, nightlife, attractions, history, and more are provided. They also include itineraries depending on how much time you have and what you’d like to do.
  2. Blogs – Free. They’re out there, so search for them. Like this one for Hawaii. Look for posts that provide tips on where to go or what to do in a city or country.
  3. TripAdvisor – Free. I mainly use this site to look for top-rated  Things to Do and Restaurants. But there is also a Travel Forum where you can try to find answers to your questions, like what’s a good city to stay in that is a few hours train ride from Zurich.
  4. Thorntree forum – Free. Similar to TripAdvisor’s Travel Forum, but IMO Thorntree has more of an adventure/outdoor vibe.
  5. Rick Steves – Free. The website states he is the leading authority on European travel. It’s ALL here. He also has an audio Europe app that I use to learn more about certain countries and their cultures.


  1. Google flights – Free. Sign into your google account and once you’ve defined the search filters for airports, dates, etc. you can track the search and receive an email when the price changes. When it’s low, buy! The Price Graph, Flight Duration, and trip Times are especially helpful. Play around with the filters to get the results you want.
  2. Skyscanner – Free. This has a flight search engine and I’ve used it a handful of times. It can also be used for hotels and car rental.
  3. Momondo – Free. Yet another flight search engine. I like the visual of the price differences between dates as a bar graph. The results are listed by cheapest, quickest, and best. It can also be used for hotels and car rental.
  4. Airline carrier – When you’re ready to purchase airline tickets, take the extra step to check the airline’s website, because it may be the least expensive.
  5. Secret Flying – I subscribe to the free email that lists the cheapest fairs for the day. Like New York to Copenhagen for $294 RT. Go to the FAQ page to find the link for the daily email. For a monthly fee, you can become a member and unlock personalized results. I have not yet booked a flight deal found through SF.
  6. Scott’s Cheap Flights – I subscribe to the free email that is sent when cheap international flights occur. The best flight deals are emailed to premium users who pay a yearly fee. I have not yet booked a flight deal found through SCF but someday I will because the prices are so tempting!
  7. GoEuro – Free. This site compares prices for travel via flights, trains, and buses in Europe. I’ve used it a few times and it’s convenient.
  8. Expert Flyer – Free. Create a new Seat Alert to determine the seats that are occupied for a flight. It’s very handy if you’re particular about where you want to sit. Or maybe you are thinking about buying tickets but this site reveals there are many open seats so you may want to wait to see if the price goes down. There is a limit to how many free Seat Alerts you create per day. A Pro subscription is available for a fee.
  9. Seat Guru – Free. I use this site to learn the layout of the seats on the flight I’m interested in. For example, Aer Lingus has planes with two (vs. three) seats on each side, convenient for a couple. Or if you don’t like to fly on the huge planes, this site will help point them out and you can avoid them.


  1. Airbnb – Free. Find a home or a room to rent – and more. This is my preferred lodging choice because I like to stay with the locals in a neighborhood in my own place with a kitchen. If you join Airbnb this coupon will give your $40 off your first trip of $75+.
  2. TripAdvisor – Free. This site can also help you find a top hotel/motel/inn/B&B in your price range.
  3. Sabbatical Homes – A fee is charged for home rental, exchange, sitting, and sharing. I would like to try this someday, perhaps an exchange with a home in Europe.
  4. Trusted Housesitters – You can stay for free at someone’s home if you take care of their pet(s). They could be donkeys or guinea pigs or something else (but are mostly dogs and cats). A fee is charged. I have not used this service but would like to.
  5. MindmyHouse – For house/pet sitters. A fee is charged. I have not used this service but am intrigued.
  6. Couchsurfing – Stay with hosts from all over the world for free. Get to know them and their culture. You don’t always have to sleep on a couch! I’ve done this a few times in New Hampshire and Canada.


  1. AutoSlash – Free. Provide a few pieces of information such as where you want to pick up and drop off the rental car, dates and times, and car size and AutoSlash does the searching for you to find the lowest Pay Now and Pay Later prices. And with free cancellation, you can reserve, cancel, and reserve at a better price (what I did 3x when I rented a car in Phoenix).
  2. Hotwire – Free. For many years this was my go-to site for renting a car. (Hotels and flights are also available.) Now it looks like most rentals do not have free cancellation.
  3. Turo car rental – Free. Everyday people rent their car to you. It seems worth a try.
  4. Uber / Lyft – Free. Everyday people drive you where you want to go for a fee. I’ve used Uber to get to the airport or get picked up at the airport. It’s fast and easy.
  5. Taxi – In some cities/countries this may be the only service available; e.g. in Paris, I used a taxi from the stand at the airport and a G7 taxi within the city.
  6. Sixt car rental – Free. Vehicles are available in over 100 countries. I’ve used this site several times. Oftentimes free cancellation rates are available.


  1. Seat61 – Free. THE site for learning about worldwide train and ferry travel. I’ve used this site multiple times when researching train travel in Europe.


  1. Google Maps – Free. Use the app to download one or more offline maps for the locations where you’ll be – and accessing those maps during travel does not require internet service. I do this every time I travel.
  2. Citymapper – Free. Use the app to travel via different modes. There are over 30 worldwide cities included and counting. I used this when visiting NYC to provide instructions for getting from one point to the other via subway.
  3. Waze – Free. Use the app when driving anywhere in the world. Other users (wazers) warn of traffic, accidents, etc. I’ve used this and once took an alternate route to avoid a traffic problem in Indiana.


  1. Currency Converter – Free. Get the app to convert any two currencies.
  2. Global ATM locators – Free. Here’s one for Mastercard and one for Visa.


  1. Google Translate – Free. The app translates text in different languages in multiple ways. One way is to use the Camera functionality to view printed material such as a restaurant menu or a sign; it will be converted before your eyes.
  2. Duolingo – Free. Learn a language. I’ve tried using this to learn Swedish and thought it was too slow-going but you may have better luck.

Lunch in France

Afternoon tea in England

Please enter a comment if you have experience with one or more of these tips – and/or have additional tips!

Happy Travels,


England Airbnb

Norway mountain roundabout


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Motown Museum and more

About a month ago my partner and I went to the Motown Museum in Detroit with friends.  It was great! In 1959, “a young African-American songwriter named Berry Gordy founded his company with a loan of $800 from his family, marking the birth of the Motown Records Corporation.” Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and many more got their start here.

August 3rd – Here’s a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe-Pye Weed in our backyard.


A foggy morning blends the boundary between the sky and Lake Mendota:

Mid-August is prime time for blooming Common chicory along roadsides. It apparently has many health benefits, such as boosting immunity and improving heart health. And I thought it was just a coffee substitute.

Biocore Prairie is part of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve near the University of Wisconsin’s (UW) Picnic Point, located west of the campus. The prairie was an abandoned agricultural field and is now an outdoor teaching area. It is a quiet and pleasant place and I encourage you to visit it.

I spotted this Northern Cardinal at Biocore. It appears to be leucistic in that there is a small white patch above the eye and there is no characteristic “mask” of black on the face. Leucism is a genetic mutation that prevents pigment from being deposited on a bird’s feathers.

Examples of prairie flowers:

A gentian – perhaps Hybrid Bottle Gentian:

Cup Plant:

Rough Blazingstar – one of my favorites:

The Lakeshore Nature Preserve Audio Trail is available by calling 608.327.5715. I called the number and selected “6” – and learned of a fire that consumed the area in 1935. It burned down a 15-room farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings. Prior to the fire, prosperous Madisonians would ride their horses on trails in the area, and then return to the farmhouse to sit on the porch with a cool drink. The owner of the farm also build the fieldstone wall at the entrance to Picnic Point (see later in this post).

In the woods adjacent to the prairie there were a few Jack-In-The-Pulpit plants. Each red berry produces 1-5 seeds. And they are poisonous.

Found on the periphery of the woods, White Snakeroot is a member of the Aster family. These are very prolific in spreading and will easily take over a yard or field. The plant is toxic, and has caused ‘Milk Sickness’ fatalities because the toxins can pass through the milk of dairy cows to humans.

I think I accidentally stumbled upon a theme here – poisonous plants. While walking back to the car from the prairie, I encountered Pokeweed. Although birds can eat the berries without a problem, all parts of the plant are poisonous to humans.

The UW campus Picnic Point entrance displays a massive fieldstone wall built in the late 1920s. Apparently the rocks were hand-picked from farm fields. There are many interesting specimens.

Dragonflies like the rocks, too. This is a darner but I cannot determine the exact species – can you?

I took pictures of various rocks on the wall. According to the fieldstone website (also includes definitions), the pinkish area of this rock contains Feldspar Megacrysts:

This bubbly-looking rock is Calcite cemented sandstone:

This rock is not identified on the website – any geologists out there know it?

There is evidence of differential weathering in this rock: “Removal by physical or chemical processes of components of a rock by preference to their hardness or chemical reactivity, resulting in an uneven surface.”

I don’t know….?…but it’s cool.

A deer wandered into our backyard on September 8th. That’s not unusual, but it was during the day and it appeared to be resting in an exposed area. It stayed several hours. We quietly investigated and it clumsily got up, putting most of it’s weight on the front legs. A call to Fellow Mortals Wildlife Hospital in Lake Geneva instructed us to give the animal time, space, and some water.  They thought perhaps it had been hit by a car.

Later that day it moved to a secret spot within one of our rain gardens:

And then a day or so later it moved to a neighbor’s backyard. We were encouraged by it’s mobility. The deer ate a steady diet of the neighbor’s hostas. A few days before it left I snapped these pictures from inside the house. In all, the deer stayed 10 days.


A female Monarch butterfly in the backyard emerged from a chrysalis late in the season – September 22nd:

Speaking of butterflies!

My new children’s picture book My First Book of Common Wisconsin Butterflies is now available at the Madison library and through Amazon.

If there is one photograph on a page, the male and female of the species look similar/same. If they look different, the male is shown at the top of the page and the female at the bottom.

Lastly, if you haven’t heard of them, Groundswell Conservancy is a remarkable organization. It “protects special places, forever, in and around Dane County, Wisconsin.” They host events and one can also volunteer for them.

Enjoy the natural variety of days and nights in your neighborhood,


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Scandi Nature Sampler

My sweetie and I vacationed in Scandinavia the early part of the summer and I thought I’d share some nature moments from that. All three countries – Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – were beautiful and interesting in their own ways.

We arrived in Copenhagen, and, wanting to stretch our legs after a long flight, decided to walk some of the city. We read that Hans Christian Andersen was buried in the nearby Assistens Cemetery.  Anderson is the author of many fairy tales, including The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, and The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The graves are arranged in small sections, with multiple paths and abundant greenery, making for a lovely park-like setting. In fact, we learned that for hundreds of years people have gathered here to use it as a park – have tea, or a bottle of wine, or a few beers and lounge around, socializing. What a great idea!

Copenhagen is FILLED with bicyclists. Wikipedia states “almost as many people commute by bicycle in greater Copenhagen as do those who cycle to work in the entire United States”. Way to go!

Culture and specifically art is very important to the Danes. Here’s an example of one of many statues found in the parks throughout Copenhagen:

Sweden was next on the itinerary. We took a train there, got a rental car, and drove to our lodging, located roughly between Stockholm and Gothenburg.  The area actually looks a lot like Wisconsin! One day our hosts gave us their bicycles to use and provided a map outlining a path, plus a favorite swimming spot to experience. How could we resist?

We walked nearby roads and trails in the evenings. It is a lovely area.

Ach – a big black slug!

And – a Fieldfare bird – a member of the thrush family – much like our American Robin.


Oslo, Norway was our next stop. It is about the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska.  And we were there in June. That means it never truly gets dark. It’s 10:12 pm – time for bed!

An enchanting 7-hour train ride from Oslo to Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, was a highlight. We gained altitude, peaked, and then returned to sea level. Below are a few photographs from the journey.

Our lodging in Bergen was situated on the slope of Mount Floyen.  One morning we hiked to the top and were rewarded with stunning views of the harbor. We took the Funicular (mountain tram) back to the city – and it took only six minutes!

Our next lodging was several hours away overlooking a fjord that is less-traveled by cruise ships. During the drive there we took in many new scenes. Below is the Steinsdalsfossen Waterfall. It’s been there since 1699, and you can walk safely behind it. Fun!

Our final destination was overlooking Hardangerfjord – what do you think of this view?

One morning we hiked up the mountain behind us…

…all the way to the top, a little more than 1,000 meters.

Norway has 18 scenic tourist routes. One day we drove the Hardangervidda route. There was impressive scenery everywhere. Below is a photograph of the Vøringsfossen waterfall. There’s a hotel on the top of the cliff.

Here’s another scene from the route that was higher in elevation:

We visited the Norwegian Museum of Hydropower and Industry. It was a hydro-power station from 1908 to 1989. It is an eerily quiet, fascinating place, full of the original machinery and control room equipment.

On our flight home we passed over Greenland. I got very excited about this!


In closing, I learned of several Norwegian sayings that don’t make much sense. Here’s one:

“Der er ugler i mosen”

Translation: There are owls in the bog.

Meaning: There is something secretive about a situation.


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A Multitude of Monarchs

On July 9th I found five of these small white dots on different Common milkweed plants:

It’s a monarch butterfly egg! They are laid singly, are about 1 mm long, oval-shaped, white to off-white, and have longitudinal ridges. The egg stage is 3-8 days in length.

Once a larva hatches from the egg, it eats the eggshell and then eats only milkweed leaves. That’s its only job. The body grows so fast it must molt the outer skin four times. After each molting, the larva is in a new instar stage, bigger in size than the last. Each instar stage lasts 1-5 days. The fifth instar larva forms a pupa (commonly called a cocoon) and 1-2 weeks later, a monarch butterfly emerges. The below photograph shows all of the life stages on a Common milkweed leaf (except for the pupa):

From - license=free to share and use - from

Here are two larvae on a Tropical milkweed (aka Blood flower) annual plant on July 17th:

They are likely 4th instar. Notice the fecal droppings too. They are eating machines.

That same day I was weeding around the house and found an empty pupa / chrysalis tucked within iris leaves:

It’s July 20th, shortly after a rain shower, and I check on the Blood flower. Sure enough, both larva are still there. Here’s one:

And the other:

They  joined one another for a final photograph:

I’m thinking they are both 5th instar larvae.

Here’s another type of Tropical milkweed – “Silky Gold” – and it is a perennial. Monarchs should use it as well (and ants like it too, apparently):

Monarchs produce a new generation of butterflies in about a month. The butterflies live 2-6 weeks which means they are more noticeable as the summer goes on. The monarchs that migrate to Mexico in the fall will be the 4th generation, the great-great-grandchildren of those that left Mexico in the spring. This generation also live 6-8 MONTHS.

Fascinating stuff!

The Joe-Pye-Weed in the rain garden is about five feet tall now and will attract various butterflies soon (if not already):

I was reading that the flowers were named after a man who used the plant medicinally for those suffering with typhus fever. Also, the flowers and seeds were used in producing pink dye for textiles.

Purple coneflower seems to be at its blooming peak now. It’s such a reliable and stunning addition to any garden, and attracts both butterflies and birds.

Recently I noticed this dragonfly in the front yard. After doing some investigating, I think it is an Autumn Meadowhawk skimmer. It typically appears in mid to late July in Wisconsin. Here is more information about the species.

We recently re-watched the movie Jaws 43 years after it was released. It is still scary. Great white sharks, the top predators in every ocean, are intelligent and can swim up to 35 mph. I hope I never get to meet one!

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Until next time,


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Ice-out on Blue Lake

This post is overdue; however, I hope it provides a wisp of cool air if you live in an area experiencing the heat and humidity of summer!

In early May I helped a friend open her resort near Minocqua, Wisconsin for the season.

I brought our cat Riley and the two of us stayed in my favorite cabin #2. The resort is steeped in nostalgia. It has been in operation since 1922 and is on an island (accessible by a bridge).

We arrived on the first day of fishing season which normally is a day the boats flock to the water shortly after midnight. But on this day it was quiet because the lake still had ice.

Ice-out was in progress. The ice darkens and you’ll see wet patches here and there. Spring is imminent!

If there is a wind, the large ice patches shift throughout the lake. Small ice particles collide with one another and make a slushy sound, like your hands sifting through small crystals. I was fascinated by the sound – and the patterns on the water surface:

The sunset brought surprise golden reflections in the melted water:




Nightly visitors to the resort blend in with the background:

The view from the bridge is breath-taking:

The following day brought abundant morning sunshine that Riley took advantage of:


Blue skies!

Typical northern Wisconsin fieldstone fireplace:

By the evening of the second day the lake was almost free of ice:

I was gifted a view of two Common loons that apparently arrived that day. I was able to photograph one:

A few minutes later they both called out in a tremolo, a wavering call made when alarmed or to announce their presence. Here are sounds Common loons make.

The next day I took a walk in the “neighborhood”:

Fungus on a fallen tree provides a visual interest:

White birch trees are native to northern North America. The bark peels like paper in horizontal strips. The bark is highly weather-resistant due to its high oil content.

From the Daily Buddha:

Today is a brand new day; a day to heal, a day to love,

a day to forgive, a day to encourage, a day to start afresh.

Although no one can go back and make a brand new start,

anyone can start from today and make a brand new minute.

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Waiting for shoots

I took a day-long class at the Arboretum last August to learn how to monitor Monarchs in our yard this year. It’s going to be great. The kickoff is when I notice Common milkweed shoots emerging from the ground.

Once the shoots are up I’ll inspect all of the milkweed plants once a week for any sign of a Monarch — from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (not a cocoon since a cocoon has a silk covering) to adult (butterfly).

I am hoping to see this!

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I’ll be submitting the data collected weekly to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) website. The MLMP mission is “to better understand the distribution and abundance of breeding monarchs and to use that knowledge to inform and inspire monarch conservation.”

If you want to see how the adults are migrating in the United States and Mexico, take a few seconds to watch this fascinating animation.

Nature is doing it’s usual thing of surprising us. Every season is different from the last, and I like that.  Here, the Crocus welcomed some warm weather and then it snowed, again. This photograph was taken on April 9th:

Two days later I caught a glimpse of these Snowdrops by a neighbor’s garage. Many people say Snowdrops are the first dependable sign of spring.

This is one of my favorite trees in the area:

Bird migration has started. I saw this little one on the driveway on April 14th – an Eastern Phoebe. The species is among the first migrants. When perched, Eastern Phoebes wag their tails up and down.

Another snowfall brought the Fox Sparrows to the area on April 14th. We saw them on the ground using their feet to kick away debris to uncover insects and seeds. It was fun to watch.

They are similar in appearance to Song Sparrows however Fox Sparrows have some yellow on their bill and lack a blotchy dark dot on their breast.

Here’s a Dark-eyed Junco. Usually by mid-April they have begun their migration north to Canada, but this year they stayed for another week.

Oh no!

This is an American Goldfinch – I’m thinking an immature male. It’s that time of year when their feathers change from a dark olive to summer plumage – light yellow for females and bright yellow for males.

April 17th brought two American Woodcocks by the house! This was a first. They were content to rest in the sun for awhile. Before flying away, they searched for food by digging their bills deep into the soil in search of earthworms. And they found some! They will breed throughout Wisconsin.

The last snowstorm of the winter hit on April 18th. Before it started I spotted a Yellow-rumped Warbler in the front yard. Yes, they have a yellow rump but also spots of yellow on the head, face, and along their sides by the wing. This is another species only seen in Wisconsin during migration periods of spring and fall.

After the snow melted (again), I got my bike out of storage and toured the neighborhood. Troy Gardens is nearby, and it consists of community garden space, an outdoor oven for weekly pizza gigs, a CSA garden, and about 10 acres of prairie with trails. It’s quite beautiful. Here are two of several signs placed throughout the land:

On Wisconsin!


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Almost finished

Winter is almost finished and the winter scene jigsaw puzzle I’ve been working on all winter is almost finished as well. (It’s in an unheated shack.)

Although I look forward to warm weather and new flowers from the nursery and bike-riding, it also means the end of reading a book in front of a fire and soup-every-Sunday and sleeping in. Sigh.

In late January I participated in a bird-watching event for Madison Audubon Society. The national organization predicts that hundreds of bird species will lose 50% or more of their habitat in the next 65 years due to climate change. However, some species like the Eastern Bluebird are predicted to gain habitat.

I volunteered for a “block” near Windsor and plotted out 12 areas where a bluebird might be spotted (on the edge of a group of trees, near a field, and near water). For each of the 5 minutes I stood in the 12 areas, I counted the number of each species of bird I saw or heard. There were no bluebirds, but I did count over 500 Canada Geese along with the expected birds, such as the Black-capped chickadee and the White-breasted nuthatch.

While walking around Windsor Golf Course I noticed these prints made by either Canada Geese or Mallard Ducks:

A few days later at home I spotted a picture-perfect scene of a Northern Cardinal:

One day I noticed this American Goldfinch at the feeder.  I’m thinking it’s an immature (non-breeding) male, because of the areas of yellow around its neck and the black wings with white wingbars.

Here is evidence of the only time I went cross-country skiing this winter – note Lake Mendota in the background to the right:

I’ve been known to take pictures of and then stomp on these ice and air compositions:

In mid-February I led a nature walk in nearby Warner Park. It was cold and gray and windy, yet 15 people showed up! One of the things we talked about was life beneath the ice – that is, how fish and amphibians survive the winter.


In early February I spent some time on the west coast in the warm sunshine – what a treat! The next week my sweetie and I went to NYC.  This photograph was taken as we neared NYC:

One day we walked the High Line in Manhattan. From Wikipedia – “The High Line is a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park, greenway and rail trail. It was created on a former New York Central Railroad spur…”. Nature is very much part of this experience, with trees and shrubs and flowers growing between and around the tracks in a very creative way.

The Audubon Mural Project takes place mainly in Harlem. From the website: “The project is inspired by the legacy of the great American bird artist and pioneering ornithologist and is energized by Audubon’s groundbreaking Birds and Climate Change Report, which reveals at least half of all North American birds are threatened by a warming climate. The project commissions artists to paint murals of each of the report’s 314 species, and has been widely covered in the media, including most recently by The New York Times.”

The New York Historical Society Museum has all 435 of John James Audubon’s watercolor paintings of bird species. The paintings are noteworthy because they were the first to show the birds in their natural habitat and the male and female interacting with each other.

Here’s one example – of House Wrens:

Blue and white sky over Manhattan:

The NYC subway system offers an extensive array of art, mostly with tiles.  I had no idea. See this for more. It’s fantastic.

Last day in Brooklyn:

Last week I walked to Lake Mendota with the dog and heard strange burp-like sounds. The air bubbles trapped under the ice were travelling to the shore. It was cool and creepy at the same time. The dog was perplexed, looking down at the lake while turning his head from side to side.

There was a prairie burn near Madison a few days ago that I happened to drive right by. After a few minutes I saw the other burn-line from the right as well. Oh!


“Count each day as a separate life”. – Seneca



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