Book Review: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

A man walks into The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and tries to attack a painting with a knife. Fortunately, Robert Oliver is restrained before doing any damage to the painting, and ends up being involuntarily committed for mental illness.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, begins to treat Oliver and in doing so, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the beautiful old-fashioned woman whom Oliver is obsessed with painting. His journey takes him to Oliver’s former wife and former lover, as well as halfway around the world. What he uncovers is a tragic love story; while along the way he finds a love of his own.

The Swan Thieves was written by the same woman that wrote The Historian (I recommend it highly), and Kostova weaves an intricate tale of love and relationships, and the nuances of the human mind. Her character development is superb, with each character possessing their own strengths and flaws; their own triumphs and tragedies.

I was captivated from beginning to end, trying to anticipate what was around the next corner, hating to put the book down to go back to the real world. The conclusion leaves questions, and just like life, things don’t always get wrapped up neatly. As is always the case with true love, the story will stay with you long after the end.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version, which was wonderfully narrated by different voices.

Argyle Winery Conducere, 2011

Argyle released one of its vintage sparkling wines, a 100% Chardonnay sparkler with a hint of minerality, and lots of cream on the palate.  Upon popping the cork, this wine has lots of bright bubbles, but they fade quickly to a light effervescence in the glass.

It has flavors of cream, butter, and is a rich sparkling wine with just a hint of stone and minerals. Several of the reviews that I read talked about its minerality, but I didn’t pick up much of that.  One review said it tasted like a Big Hunk candy bar, but I certainly didn’t get any of that.  I’m not even sure that I have had a Big Hunk candy bar…

2011 Argyle Winery Conducere – 100% Chardonnay

To me, it tasted more like what it is; the sparkling version of a Chardonnay.  Granted, Oregon certainly goes more for the unoaked variety of Chardonnay, but this one certainly has that light butter taste.  Flavorful, delicious, and certainly worth picking up a bottle if you can find it around.  It is sold out at the tasting room.

Happy Weekend!

 

Free Ice Water at Wall Drug!

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Is there such a thing as a trip to the Badlands without a stop at Wall Drug? This iconic store, originally a pharmacy, has become an American legend, due to the road signs that line I-90 for miles in both directions. Additionally, they give away free bumper stickers and people erect signs in far off places announcing how many miles it is to Wall Drug.  These marketing strategies have absolutely aided in their success.

Wall Drug was opened by Ted Hustead and his wife in 1931; they were looking for a small town with a Catholic church where they could establish their pharmacy business. Wall is currently in the “middle of nowhere,” and I can only imagine that it was even more remote over 85 years ago. His wife Dorothy deserves the credit for its ultimate success. Mount Rushmore had just opened, and she had the idea to offer free ice water to tourists traveling west to see it during the hot, dry summer. The idea brought lots of people in and the store took off!

The Famous Wall Drug Store

Wall Drug is basically a shopping mall where you can buy all sorts of kitschy souvenirs, including a mounted “jackalope,” which is a jackrabbit with antlers.  I have no idea how this thing ever took off, but I guess I need to remember that we have a long history of venerating mythical creatures, and why not – it is fun!  Apparently in Douglas, WY, where the first taxidermy jackalope was created in 1932, they have an “official” jackalope hunting season, which occurs for only one day.  In case you are interested in bagging your own jackalope, the season occurs each year on June 31 (a nonexistent date as June has 30 days), from midnight to 2 a.m. The hunter must have an IQ greater than 50 but not over 72.  Permits are available from the Douglas, WY Chamber of Commerce.  I think that would be pretty awesome to get one!  But I digress…

Mom and I combined our visit to Wall Drug with dinner.  I had a buffalo burger, which was good, but somehow I neglected to snap a picture…  We decided to forego the ice cream for dessert, although it did look really delicious.  Instead we took a bit of time to go find the rideable Jackalope out back!  Because a trip to Wall Drug is not complete without sitting astride a 10 foot tall fiberglass Jackalope!  The stirrups were too short for this equestrienne, but I tried to make the best of it with my long remembered equitation skills.  Mom even played along and climbed up there too.

The Wall Drug Cafe – I got to stare at the ice cream counter all through dinner!

 

Me riding the Jackalope

 

Mom riding the Jackalope!

We also found a stuffed bison to pose with – she had seen better days – I imagine she’s been petted by millions over the years. And we checked out an exhibit on gold mining, where you can pan for gold for a fee, but it was closed when we were there.  The mall has a Western art museum as well that would have been cool to check out if we had more time – it is free to visit.

Me with the stuffed bison – up close and personal

In the end, we departed with full bellies but passed on purchasing the mounted jackalopes or other Wall Drug souvenirs, and got on the road towards home (Custer, SD, that is…).  We still had a fair bit of driving and one more, very odd, stop to make…

West 2016: Badlands NP Wildlife

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Do you have any idea how long I have been trying to get a decent photo of Bighorn Sheep?  I was thwarted in Colorado at Colorado National Monument, got the faintest glimpse of them at dusk on the drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park, got blurry pics of them at Pikes Peak, and then missed them again at Joshua Tree

But Badlands National Park did not disappoint!  We saw Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep for the first time that day at the Burns Basin Overlook.  There were three of them.  Two were resting on the rocks, and one was walking unhurriedly.  My mom didn’t get out of the car at first, so I had to go back and drag her out to make sure she got to see them too.  Of course, I did make sure to get some photos first.  I was so excited!

Bighorn Sheep at Burns Basin Overlook

I spotted some pretty little songbirds, but couldn’t really tell what kind they were because they were silhouetted against the blue sky.

They might be Mountain Bluebirds, but I couldn’t tell for sure…

We decided to drive down the Sage Creek Rim Road, a gravel road that is supposed to be where the bison and the bighorn sheep often hang out.  There is also a prairie dog town a few miles down the road.  We didn’t see any bison that day, but we were not disappointed because we had already done some fabulous spotting at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Yellowstone National Park was still coming up later in the trip!  Soon we happened upon a huge herd of animals grazing in the field in the distance.  At first glance, we both thought they were deer, but after watching them for a few minutes, I figured out that they were bighorn sheep!  We took some photos and continued on, because they were pretty far away.

Soon we came upon a bunch of sheep hanging out right by the road, and often, in the road!  There were a lot of babies too!  I had so much fun just watching them and taking photos.  They were stunning and so close!  They weren’t bothered by us at all.

Baby Bighorn Sheep!

Not even this guy, who was too lazy to even stand up all the way to re-position himself for better grass!

This guy… I have no words…

It was tough to pull away from the bighorns, but we headed the rest of the way to the prairie dog town.  These prairie dogs didn’t want to pose as nicely for us though…  I did get a nice shot of a Western Meadowlark though!

Prairie Dog! He was on a mission…

 

Western Meadowlark at Badlands

We did so much wildlife spotting that it was starting to get late, and we wanted to grab some dinner.  We returned the way we came, stopping for some more photos of the bighorn sheep, before heading out of the park.  Just outside, we found a lone pronghorn posing beautifully, so I got some photos of him too!

 

Is this not the cutest trio of butts ever!

 

A stately Pronghorn, just outside of the park

It was a great day for wildlife!

 

West 2016: Badlands NP Scenery

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Badlands was one of the places I was most excited about on our trip.  I love desert landscapes, and was really looking forward to seeing the spectacular colors of the eroded buttes and the prairie grasses.  Badlands National Park did not disappoint.

Mom and me with the Badlands Sign! Can you tell by my hair that it was windy?

Mom and me with the Badlands Sign! Can you tell by my hair that it was windy?

After arriving at the park, and snapping the obligatory poses with the entrance sign, my mom and I stopped at the first viewpoint – the Big Badlands Overlook.  The views here were amazing, with the buttes showing all their beautiful colors and the grass down below (pictures don’t really do it justice).  We were able to get some great photos of the scenery and enjoy our first looks at the park.  But wow, was it hot!  It was hovering between 95 and 97 degrees!  Wow!  So of course, I have a very red face in all my photos that day, from the heat!

Mom and me - Selfies overlooking the buttes

Mom and me – Selfies overlooking the buttes

 

Piddles enjoying the view of the Badlands

Piddles enjoying the view of the Badlands

We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center and had a picnic lunch outside.  The picnic tables have space-agey sun covers over them to protect you from the heat – you do have to be careful about pinning your stuff down so it doesn’t blow away though!  There was a bit of a breeze the day we were there, which of course made the heat slightly more bearable.  Then we went inside and watched the park movie and checked out the exhibits in the Visitor’s Center.  They had a great exhibit on the pre-historic animals and fossil record within the park.

Some of the spires towering above the prairie grasses

Some of the spires towering above the prairie grasses

After the Visitor’s Center, we headed out to see more of the park.  We stopped at lots of the viewpoints and I did some short hikes.  I hiked up the hill at the Saddle Pass trail head while my mom waited at the car, doing some sketching and journaling.  It was a short but very steep uphill climb to some great views, made much more challenging by the fact that the terrain was loose scree, so I slid back down a little bit at several points.  I didn’t end up going all the way up the hill, but I managed to get high enough to enjoy the scenery, and for the car to look like a little dot in the distance below.

The view from near the top of Saddle Pass - our car a speck in the distance

The view from near the top of Saddle Pass – our car a speck in the distance

Mom and I also walked the 1/2 mile Fossil Walk.  It is a flat boardwalk trail that has interpretive plaques showing the types of fossils that have been found in the park.  It was neat seeing what is buried underneath the layers here, and getting a close up view of the colors in the landscape.  Fossils found here include dogs, alligators, rhinoceroses, and ammonites.  There were lots of kids climbing on the buttes here – they had a lot of energy for such a hot day!

Me on the Fossil Walk

Me on the Fossil Walk

The Yellow Mounds Overlook and the Pinnacles Overlook were fairly self-explanatory.  Although they did promise rattlesnakes, and the only one we saw all day was one that was dead and flat in the road (sorry I didn’t get a photo…).

The Yellow Mounds at Badlands - yellow indeed!

The Yellow Mounds at Badlands – yellow indeed!

 

They promised! But Badlands did not deliver

They promised! But Badlands did not deliver…

As sad as it was though that we didn’t see any rattlesnakes, we did see plenty of wildlife at Badlands – I’ll be posting about them next!

 

Oliver Sleeps

Oliver likes to sleep like a person these days.  Tucked up next to me, under the covers, with his head on the pillow.  I don’t have the heart to tell him if he wants to be a person, he needs to put in a 40 hour work week…  He really does have the life.

Who could resist that face?

Who could resist that face?