(click on links to view accompanying images).
In the last couple of years, I’ve come to the realization that I haven’t seen much of the world. I just haven’t. Family vacations tend to stick the same comfortable environs every-other-year after every-other-year, and I’ve never really been blessed with the funds to travel far and wide for spring and summer breaks like the normal college students. However, I’ve got to admit that until about a year ago, I was pretty content despite all of this. I mean, I’ve had an inherent longing to discover all the nooks and niches of this wonderful planet, but I never had much of an outward desire to visit these locations until, once again, the internet exposed me to another new wonderful obsession (the predecessors being mp3s, fantasy football, and Apple movie trailers).
In the spring of my senior year of college, I bumped into roadsideamerica.com, and it opened my eyes to all of the United States’ offbeat roadside tourist attractions. It listed all the attractions by state, making planning a road trip ridiculously simple. I figured I’d start close to home and begin with the Midwest for my first road trip, and that’s exactly what I did. I planned a driving tour of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio that included some of the most ridiculous stops, attractions, and museums I’d ever heard of. This summer, in the latter portions of July, the year of our Lord two-thousand and five, I (along with my brother and good mutual college friend Ed Harter) traversed these three states and fully breathed in their terrific essences (expect Berwyn, Illinois, which smelled like an anus). This is the record of these travels…
Kyle and I drove to Springfield late last night and crashed at Ed’s place so we could get an early start in the morning (it would’ve taken us an extra hour to drive from Bloomington to Springfield). We arose pretty early, which wasn’t very difficult since I chose the floor to Ed’s housemate’s bedding. My girlfriend has instilled in me this new, unnecessary fear of other people’s dead skin and dust mites. Anyway, we grabbed some bagels, threw on our “Midwest Road Fest” t-shirts (which I homemade and had to mend after an unfortunate run-in with the spin-cycle), and hit the road, driving only a few miles to our very first destination:
The Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library, Springfield, Illinois
This is a brand new attraction for the summer of ’05, so there were a number of people already in line waiting for the museum to open when we pulled into a parking spot across the street. As Kyle said, “we didn’t beat the campers,” which included a large conglomerate of Lincoln nerds and senior citizens. I say this well aware of the fact that we were three college-age males wearing matching t-shirts, but I somehow feel that this is not the point I am trying to make. I, using my long-outdated student identification card, earned a two dollar discount, and we headed into the wonderful world of Lincoln.
The place was set up with an atrium that branched out into several attractions on the sides. Immediately when we walked in, there were life-sized wax statues of the Lincoln family right in front of us, which we took care to take advantage of for a wonderful photo opportunity. One of the exhibits had to do with Lincoln’s earlier life, so we walked through this cabin in a line of old people at the approximate pace of soil creep and admired such fascinating authentic historic articles as, um… well, mostly everything in this particular exhibit was a “replica,” which epitomizes “lame,” so we skipped the old line, pushing down several elderly women along the way, and headed to the next thing: a 3D movie entitled “The Ghosts of the Library.” This part was kick-ass, and Ed admitted (rightfully so), that he would love a similar theater system in his own basement. I most certainly concurred.
The rest of the highlights of the Lincoln museum included the real-life Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, and the gift shop, which somehow inspired Ed to use some of the stores props to turn himself into a spot-on Lincoln impersonator, that is of course, assuming Lincoln was retarded. On the whole, I’d say it was a worthwhile adventure, but I didn’t find myself wanting to go back for more. In all honest, I think we all had had enough Lincoln to last us a Cold War, which is what made the next attraction on the itinerary slightly less enjoyable than it would have been had it stood on its own.
The Lincoln Home, Springfield, Illinois
I remember going to Springfield for an 8th grade field trip and wanting to venture inside the Lincoln home, but alas, my class never was allowed to bask in the wiles of such an adventurous place. I was a little romantic and optimistic back then, eh? The house was cool, especially since I studied so much Lincoln in a college class that I took, but there weren’t many surprises. The main thing I liked about the place was the eerie feeling that such an important historical figure had done his lounging, working, and baby-making in the very rooms that I occupied at that moment. However, this sensation only crossed over me in brief flashes. The tour itself was pretty unspectacular, but it’s something I can say I did, right?
On the tour, one idiot asked, “Did Lincoln have any slaves?” Everyone else in the tour looked around at each other incredulously, as if he had just asked “Would it be possible for me to take a dump on the original Lincoln stove?” The tour guide actually laughed for an instant before realizing the idiot was serious. Of course, I suppose it’s not so ridiculous when we consider the fact that the man who wrote the words “All men are created equal” was doinking his own hired help. Ah yes, the wonderful history this young country has woven for itself!
Cozy Dog Drive-In, Springfield, Illinois
All that Lincolning definitely roused our appetites, so we made our next stop: the Cozy Dog Drive-In. This restaurant is an old Route 66 stop that claims itself as the birthplace of the corn-dog. The inventor apparently thought that meet sans a stick is simply unsatisfactory. Whether or not it actually was the first restaurant to sell the breaded wiener, I will say that it was the most delicious damn corn dog I hath ever tasted. I coupled my meal with another Cozy Dog original: Route 66 Route Beer! What a terrific play on words! The beverage itself was what one would expect from a root beer, but the moniker made it ultimately more delicious.
The décor of the place was great, and I got a picture taken next the giant cut-outs of the twin Cozy Dog mascots, who also looked delicious. The building itself was newer, but they kept all of the original signage from the first store, which I have to admit looked pretty cool in a rustic sort of way. Good eats, good atmosphere, and (surprisingly) good donuts, which they also make from scratch every morning!
Cars on a Spike, Cermak Plaza, Berwyn, Illinois
If this hadn’t have been featured in Wayne’s World, I probably wouldn’t have had much desire to visit the place, but as it turns out, Cermak Plaza had much more to offer than I originally realized…
Before we got to the car statue, we passed a giant rust-colored statue a few blocks south of our final destination. It looked big and cool, so we pulled off and grabbed some pictures of it. It had something to do with Louis and Clark (who I humorously yet inadvertently have been calling “Lois and Clark” for the last week), but the statue only depicted a large Native American paddling a pilgrimesque white man in a rusty-looking canoe. Also, this was the portion of our journey that smelled like the armpit of a fat and sweating man. Needless to say, we took our snapshots and moved on as quickly as possible, hoping against all hopes that the rest of the town didn’t smell as putrid.
The cars on the spike were about as enjoyable as we expected. In doing some background research, we found out that the statue was put up in 1989 and cost about $75,000 to construct. Personally, I don’t see any way that this could be possible, as the “art” itself is just eight gutted cars on a giant spike, but I guess there are aspects of funding giant car sculptures that we simply do not understand. We took it in, walked around the plaza for a look at some other sculptures, then headed off for the next attraction, if it’s polite to call the next stop an “attraction.”
Showmen’s Rest, Forest Park, Illinois
In 1918, a train carrying one of the more popular circuses of the time collided with another train, killing many of the performers in the passenger cars. Back then, people who worked in circuses were nomads and freaks with little discernable past, so obviously there were a lot of unanswered questions lingering when it came time to bury all of these people. The eventually put them all in a lot at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois in graves whose tombstones have no names. The lot is marked by a giant elephant tombstone, and this tombstone and story made visiting this lot more than interesting enough for a stop on our road trip.
It took us a minute to find the lot since this particular cemetery was so freakin’ huge, but eventually we did bump into it (it was like the last damn place we looked, of course). There were SO MANY “Unknown Male” graves there that you almost felt bad for all of these people. A few of the performers were apparently identified and so given “proper” tombstones, one of which held the label of “Baldy.” For some reason, thinking of this tremendous tragedy while visiting the graves of those killed left a pretty somber impression. It was neat to visit, but didn’t really leave us with much to joke about for the time being.
Then, of course, the looming black clouds started to roll in from the west…
The Leaning Tower of Niles, Niles, Illinois
This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The tower itself is a half-size replica of the real leaning tower in Pisa, Italy, only this one sits in front of a YMCA in a Chicago suburb. Other than the fact that this particular attraction was very interesting to look at, what made this stop so special was our encounter with the polite Asian tourists with whom we struck up some lovely conversation. After a short period of time, the head of the Mongolian crew asked if Kyle, Ed, and myself would join them in their picture to help prove to all of their friends that they actually WERE in America. The guy said something about our blue eyes. I felt so used. It was neat.
We finished the lovely picture shoot with the more-than-cordial Mongolians, who threw up peace signs in every single one of the pictures, and the head of the Asian crew shook our hands and bid us adieu. He said to us (and I kid you not): “Drive safety!”
We all agreed that he needs to be more carefully next time he speaks his Engrish. Good times.
The First Franchised McDonald’s, Des Plaines, Illinois
For boasting itself as a tourist attraction, this place sure did suck. This definitely was the location of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s, but they tore it down and built a new one over the old lot. Realizing people’s need for history, they built a replica of the original building across the street, which now serves as one of the crappiest “museums” in the world. It wasn’t even open, so we just had to wander around the outside of the structure and make due with what was available for gendering there. Inside the store window, where patrons would order their 15-cent cheeseburgers, stand two generic store mannequins wearing old McD’s garb and rusty spatulas. Even the 50s-style cars in front of the place were covered up. We were done with that place relatively quickly. It made a pretty decent photo opportunity, but the good FOOD was found a couple blocks south, where we finally ate dinner.
Choo-Choo’s, Des Plains, Illinois
Our last stop of the night, we had to hope that Choo-Choo’s would be a good one, and it definitely ended up being just that, even though the average age of the customer in said restaurant was about three. It’d be a miracle if 5 people in the whole building were potty-trained. This fact aside, the food was absolutely great (I had a burger and a shake—both were excellent), and the DELIVERY was spectacular. You see, the food comes out on a train! It travels right to your spot at the table and stops. It was excellent, despite the two maddeningly-annoying birthday songs that were blared over the speakers. I’d go back, and I recommend the place to anyone planning on stopping by the area. It totally justified us driving the extra time to visit the McSucko’s museum.
Kyle’s Apartment, Chicago, Illinois
After dinner, we definitely had to endure some rush hour traffic, but we persevered and finally made it back to Kyle’s temporarily air conditioned apartment on the north side of the Chi. We discussed the first day of our trip, drank a few beers, and enjoyed the premier of “So You Think You Can Dance,” which of course proved entertaining. Everything was going well until we entertained a visit from Kyle’s landlord…
Apparently, the busted-ass air conditioner in his place was leaking water onto the floor and thereby causing ceiling collapse in the apartment directly below. Because of this little problem, the landlord totally cut off the AC in the whole apartment to prevent this from further damaging his building. It sent us all into desert-heat hallucinations, and my comfort was further squalored by the LEATHER couch I was left to sleep upon. It was an uneasy slumber for me that night, if one can even call it that, but we survived and got enough sleep for the next day’s worth of activities. With all the crazy places on tomorrow’s menu, we were going to need the rest.