This was a very interesting RoadTrip from a lot of perspectives, but mainly it taught me again to slow down and realize that (as I think is the motto somewhere): "Life is a journey. Take the scenic route." Every time I was more concerned about getting from Point A to Point B in a hurry, I had a stressful drive. Every time I just paid attention to the land I was passing through and got down into the small towns and back roads, I had a great time. I also learned anew that there is far more to experience than a few "must sees". There is always something worth while wherever you are. Everywhere is someone's hometown with features that they are proud of and keep them there. It's well worth the time to enjoy where you are than just constantly being in a rush to get somewhere where you're not.
A day to just get to the midwest. Uneventful flight (that is to say 'good' in today's world where almost any news regarding an airline flight is bad) to St. Louis. Even though we arrive just before rush hour, we manage to pick up the rental car and clear the city's traffic within an hour and work our way north along the Little Dixie Byway. Amazing what green country looks like. We've been living in the desert southwest for so long, that this much growth surprises us, especially the trees everywhere. We poke around some of the small towns that pop up along the river, Clarksville had a few restaurants that looked inviting, but Louisiana did not. Our body clocks are now demanding to be fed, so we head up to our stop for the night, Hannibal. We managed to find a local eatery DaNancy's on Broadway. Not world class cuisine, but the kind of place I like to find in a small town - a friendly place where the locals hang out. Good, solid food, and lots of it; A friendly and attentive owner; and clues on what else to see in town (besides Twainiana) and they had the best oldies station playing in the background, one we never would have found on our own.
We spend the morning poking around all the buildings associated with S.L. Clemens (aka Mark Twain), of course. But also, at my wife's insistence, we take a narrated trolley ride (or Twain Ride as they call it) around town which was another gem. There is a lot more history in Hannibal than just the well known writer, including the birthplace of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, a WWII German POW camp, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and other stuff (too much to remember right now at any rate). From Hannibal, we continue up-river alternating between following the Great River Road and taking shortcuts across big chunks of Illinois on some back roads. I'm amazed at how far out of your way mapping routines will send you in order to keep you on Interstate Highways. I could routinely save 10-20% on mileage over what they offered and get better scenery to boot. Anyway, the other main stop today was Clinton, Iowa. I was born there (too) many years ago, but armed with my birth announcement from the paper and some faded b/w photos of my older sisters standing out front I managed to find our old home. I was still an infant when we moved away, so I have no particular memories of the place, still it was nice to see and to get some current pictures for my sisters who do recall it. It hasn't changed that much, a new front porch but otherwise recognizable. Just as we were about to leave and were taking some last pictures, the current occupant walked up and asked if he could help us. He was willing to show us the inside and again I could recognize a couple of the rooms from the old pictures. It is for sale and for someone used to large-city, southwest prices it's a steal.
Two other bits from today. 1) We got to drive a bit on the old Lincoln Highway as we headed east into Illinois. It is well marked, even where it departs from the current alignment of US-30. 2) To finish up the day we made our way up to Rockford, IL to spend the night. This part took us through Ronald Regan country, around his birthplace and boyhood home near Dixon. I don't know whether it's ironic or poetic justice that the main local highway, named for a President who took great pride in cutting taxes is the Ronald Regan Memorial Tollway.
Today is the first of several days for visiting family. We drive on up to Milwaukee where I spend the morning with my 94 year old uncle and his daughter (my cousin, of course). Not only great to reminisce, but he also tells me stories I had never heard about my parent's early years. One of the options on this trip, depending on time, is to take a walk around the University of Wisconsin campus where my parents met. I also visit with another cousin in Milwaukee and yet another in Green Bay. One of the things that strikes me about today, though, is that after driving in mostly rural settings over the last couple of days, today was mostly on Interstates, and the difference is not flattering to the superslabs. Drivers are ruder. The scenery, although the same, goes by too fast to really be appreciated. You get no feel for the tempo of the land you're driving through - just the same fast-food and franchise joints at every exit. The superslabs certainly serve a purpose, but that purpose is not what I need on this trip, and thankfully tomorrow we'll get back to the local roads through the northwoods of Wisconsin.
Another day for visiting with relatives, having a brat and a beer on a riverbank deck, touring a large commercial nursery that doubles as a wildlife sanctuary (saw wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, deer, etc.), meeting whole new generations of cousins, and of course swapping stories and memories. Just to keep up the RoadTrip aspect and to get from place to place, we probably drove about 125 miles through some of Wisconsin's northwoods and lakes. It's wonderful country, especially when seen from ground level at 45-55 and to a geologist with a passing acquaintance with the effects of glaciation.
Two themes are emerging: family and boyhood homes. Today starts with a drive to Appleton, WI to see the boyhood home of Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss). We've already seen Mark Twain's and mine, but Harry's is not yet open (it opens at noon on Sunday) and the second theme is calling, so we check with the local visitor's center for their recommendation for a good local place to eat and get a few ideas. after lunch we head around Lake Winnebego to the east (the far less crowded side) to get down to Fond du Lac for the next part of today's activities.
More relatives, more brats. Today we visited with two sets of cousins in Fond du Lac, WI. 'Little Fondy' is a town that (I hope they won't be offended) hasn't changed all that much since I visited it as a young boy. The lakeside park still has a carousel and a little zoo as well as a great miniature train ride as well as open land at the south end of Lake Winnebego and a lighthouse you can climb to the top of. It also has Gilles Frozen Custard Drive-In on S. Main St., a hamburger and ice cream joint straight out of the 50's where you pull up to a parking space, flash your lights, and a real honest-to-goodness carhop comes and takes your order.
Today we start south out of Wisconsin. I have one last visit with a cousin who runs a farm which now grows mostly corn for ethanol, and feed for a small heard of beef cattle. But the pride of the place is a 500 pound pig that their daughter raised from a piglet to full size in just a year and a half. After lunch we take a drive down toward Madison, stopping at Horicon Marsh for a nice little walk on a floating boardwalk, and besides the expected ducks, geese, herons and egrets, we get to see some pelicans as well. Then it's on to Madison. We tried out Ella's Deli since someone had recommended it on these forums recently. It's unique, that's for sure. If you have kids it's a must, but otherwise it's a bit overpriced for unremarkable food that comes in fairly small portions. Still we enjoyed the experience. Then we walked the University of Wisconsin campus. My parents met here when they were both students back in the Depression and I took the opportunity to see some of the buildings they would have taken classes in and walk with my wife along the lake shore paths they would have walked when courting. Life has a way of coming full circle some times.
Retracing our steps back down to the Mississippi, we are staying in Keokuk tonight. While I realize that there are arguments on both sides of the book-ahead/bed-on-the-fly argument, tonight a clear winner is book ahead. We knew we wanted to stay in this general area so that we would be set up to visit the historic town of Nauvoo in the morning before heading on to St. Louis, so my wife scoured the web and found a nice Bed and Breakfast, the Grand Anne. What we have is their annex, the Belknap House. For less than we spent last night to stay in a single room at a mid-level motel hard by I-90/I-94 in Madison, tonight we have an entire house on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. 9-10 rooms including 6 bedrooms, full kitchen and 3 baths. Around 6 PM the Delta Queen went through the locks at the base of our backyard and we've been watching barge traffic work its way up and down the river all evening. Took a great sunset stroll along Grand Ave., the site of a lot of homes built in the mid to late 19th century when people in this area made their fortunes in manufacturing. A couple of other great things about Keokuk. We stopped in the local information center to ask if there was a library where we could hook on to the web (there was and it was free for a half hour - but you could also just keep clicking to get an extra ten minutes as often as you wanted, as long as no one else wanted the terminal) and to ask about restaurants (we got a great recommendation). Before we could leave the center, however, and without us even asking for them, we were presented with a can of authentic Mississippi Mud and a Keokuk geode. Apparently Keokuk, or more specifically, the Wildcat Springs State Park across the Mississippi in Hamilton, IL is famous for them and you can just pick them up along the stream bank. In return, I told them the story of the Delaware River mud used to rub up all the baseballs used in major league baseball games.
On the other hand, we winged it today in finding accommodations and did every bit as well. More about that in a bit. We awoke in Keokuk and headed to a very 'local' breakfast joint that we couldn't have found without asking, but that everyone we asked said we should try, the Fort Worth Cafe. Definitely off the beaten track but a good, hearty breakfast for not much money. You could tell the locals. The couple that walked in after us and sat next to us never ordered, but had their food delivered within a few minutes of arrival. Anyway, the morning's highlight was a trip up to Nauvoo, IL for a tour of the now restored Mormon town. It is incredibly well done. We took an hour long horse drawn wagon ride tour through the town and along the Mississippi with narration, viewed a short film on the history of the town, and could have walked through any number of living history displays of various skills and crafts including brick making, smithing, etc. And it's all free, although to be fair, the history is a bit slanted, but then so is the history of the Vatican.
From there, we came down the Great River Road, this time on the Illinois side. My goal on this leg was to enter St. Louis using the Golden Eagle Ferry. My wife was more than a little nervous about this as she had grown up in St. Louis and was not even sure that such a ferry existed, or that it would still be running for the day by the time we got there. But what really gave her pause was the fact that when I showed her on the map which roads we would be taking to the ferry, they were not red, they were not green, they were not black, they were not blue. They were a light shade of gray. When she saw the actual roads, she thought even that designation was being generous. But she hung in as I just kept pressing south on ever narrower roads until we finally saw a few small signs for the ferry. For $6 we got a quick ride across the Mississippi - and had missed a whole lot of traffic. Soon enough, however, we were back on the Interstates navigating the St, Louis metro area until we came to our digs for the night, which my wife had managed to find on line the evening before while using the Keokuk library's computers. Tonight we stay in the Lodge at Grant's Trail. Think of a Rocky Mountain hunting lodge plunked down in the middle of St. Louis. But the best part is that besides my wife and I, there is only one other guest. The place closed at 5:00 and would take no one else. There was no staff, but we had free run of the place, including all the common rooms, kitchen, deck and grounds. The staff showed up in the morning to make breakfast. And again, we had paid more for some four cinder block wall motel rooms on occasion.
Over the next few days we mostly visit with my wife's friends and family, and attend lunches, dinners and parties all of which centered on a wedding. We do manage to make two small personal side trips. One is to Grant's Farm, once owned by the 18th President but now run by Budweiser and a zoo like environment that is home to the Clydesdales. The other is, of course, a visit to the Arch. Due to the press of time and crowds, we do not take the ride up but rather just tour the Museum which is probably more informative anyway. But our choice proved particularly fortuitous since we visited on Saturday, July 21. But all-in-all a great trip.