(click the links for pictures!)
In the ‘50s, you’d write about road trips taking place in a red convertible whizzing forty miles per hour faster than what’s legal. There’s always some kind of doo-wop music playing on the stereo, while free-thinking wind traipses through the locks of the passengers’ young, golden hair. Young gentlemen have cigarette packages rolled into their sleeves, and there are highly-attractive, well-endowed Betties nestled underneath their strong, masculine arms. Yes, it’s the open road—a place of spontaneous possibility and adventure.
A road trip 2006, however, is a little different than the description above, especially when it involves my brother and me, who have the combined muscular prowess of the Olsen Twins. For us, a road trip is more like this:
"There we were in our official road trip t-shirts, driving the speed limit in my four-door Honda Civic, air-conditioning sort of blowing back my hair a little bit maybe. Perhaps we shall be impulsive later when we stop at a Sonic between 4:00 and 4:20 in the afternoon, depending on whether or not we have sufficient time. Adventure is abound this afternoon; I can’t wait to see the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps."
Okay, so we might be significantly nerdier than our audacious predecessors, but our journey this summer was a riot. Just as we expected.
See, last year’s Midwest Road Fest was my first real road trip of any kind, and Kyle, Ed Harter, and I all will agree that it was one of the more entertaining weeks of our lives. This summer, Ed gets only one week off from medical school in the summer, so he couldn’t go. Kyle and I knew that the new road trip, affectionately named "Beer and Now: On the Road Again," would not be the same without Dr. Harter, but we found an excellent replacement in our mutual buddy (and former boss), Kevin Clark, who understood the point and purpose of this trip, and as a result fit right in.
The mission statement of "Beer and Now" was very similar to that of the Midwest Road Fest in that we hoped to see a lot of really cool stuff. There were, however, a few addendums: 1. The trip itself would be structured around major league baseball parks that none of us had previously visited, 2. The inclusion of alcoholic beverages would need to be consciously vamped, and 3. Instead of Ohio and Indiana, we headed to the west and the north, checking out Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
And that’s it. Our trip lasted six days in June of 2006, and these are the memoirs of that magnificent road excursion. Let’s hit the road, shall we?
Funks Grove Sirup Camp, Shirley, Illinois & Route 66 Hall of Fame, McLean, Illinois
Illinois is old hat. At least, that’s what we thought when the planning for the road trip went underway earlier this year. The idea was to drive straight down to St. Louis and start our day there. But, after doing a little bit of research on the stretch of highway between Bloomington and The Lou, we found that there were actually a few interesting things between here and there.
The Funks Grove Sirup Refinery (or factory, or hatchery, or whatever) in Shirley was one of those interesting things. The Route 66 Hall of Fame in McLean was not.
The Funk family has been making sirup (no, that’s not a typo—they’ve replaced the "y" with an "i" for seemingly artistic purposes) for 150 years in exactly the same location. Shirley is just south of Bloomington on Route 66 and is actually only a few miles outside of the Olympia school district.
The Sirup orchard was tucked away off the main road, and we were greeted in the gravel parking area by a very sweet old Funk woman who showed us around the machinery area while rattling off the sirup-making process like an auctioneer. None of us had any idea what the hell she was talking about, but we let her do her thing. One recurring theme on these types of expeditions is that the people running the roadside attractions are pretty obsessed with their trades, and usually it’s impossible to shut them up once they’ve gotten started.
But because she talked so fast, the lecture was over rather quickly, and upon our return to the main shop we received shots of maple sirup, which went down as smooth as Jaeger. It must be interesting for a palette tainted by processed foods and preservatives to sample something totally fresh and untainted. Yummy.
After some inappropriate tinkering with the Funks Grove sign, we hit the road once again, making an impromptu stop in McLean’s Dixie truck stop to visit what was advertised as "The Route 66 Hall of Fame," but which in reality was "The Route 66 Hall of Pamphlets and One Neon Sign." And yes, for those of you keeping score, this was the Shirley-McLean leg of our journey.
My students love the Dixie for its cheap, greasy breakfast dishes, but I’m guessing they don’t come for the Hall of Fame. The whole experience here lasted a grand total of 3 minutes and 18 seconds, which is twice as long as is humanly possible to enjoy one’s self in such a place.
But these first two stops were close to home. The real journey started a few hours south, as we took to the road to get things kicking in St. Louis and its surrounding areas.
World's Largest Bottle of Ketchup & Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Illinois
There’s actually a Ketchup Bottle Preservation Group in Collinsville that apparently works tirelessly to preserve the town’s gigantic water tower fashioned in the shape of the bottled condiment. I imagine that a typical meeting of the KBPG would go something like this:
Ketchup Fellow #1: "I think we should strive to keep the Ketchup Bottle."
Ketchup Fellow #2: "Agreed. All in favor of implementing a small militia of Ketchup Protectors, say ‘ay’."
KBPG, together: "Ay!"
Ketchup Fellow #2: "And all in favor of the Ketchup Protectors Militia wearing red uniforms with little hats that look like ketchup bottles, say ‘ay’."
Our journey into Collinsville, a small town in southern Illinois, was a bit misdirected at first. We got lost looking for the town’s bread-winning attraction, and had to ask a frightening man in a rusty El Camino for directions. He did get us there though, and as we pulled around that last hilly, tree-laden stretch of road, we saw it, in all its glory…
It was a water tower. That looked like a ketchup bottle.
But it was exciting to finally see some authentic roadside novelty. So, we took a few pictures and headed back the other way to check out the Cahokia Mounds, which are also in Collinsville.
I visited the mounds when I was in grade school at Montessori, but the memories from the field trip are fuzzy. Archaeologists don’t really know much about the origins of the mounds, other than they were some sort of religious Mecca for Mississippian Indians several hundred years ago. Monk’s Mound is the largest of all the site’s mounds, measuring over 100 feet tall, 1000 feet long, and 800 feet wide.
But to us, it was basically a butt-load of steps. Once we got to the top, however, the view was pretty nice. We could even see the St. Louis skyline from where we stood. There were a lot of other people up there with us—couples young and a old, a creepy bearded poet man, and small children on a field trip not unlike the one I took as a kid.
Also on "campus" (or whatever you’d call the collection of mounds) was Woodhenge, which is a shadow-based Native American calendar contraption that works in much the same manner as Stonehenge. I can’t imagine it was more awe-inspiring than its English granite counterpart; we didn’t even have to leave the car to snap a picture of it on the way out of town.
The whole place wasn’t a Disneyworld with flashing lights and beer fountains and naked women, but it did provide some old-fashioned appreciation for ancient American history.
Hometown of the World's Tallest Man, Alton, Illinois
Somewhere along the drive to Alton, Illinois, we realized that about an hour in the car could have been saved had we come here first instead of Collinsville. Oh well. Our fault.
But sometimes the outcomes of bigger mistakes can’t be controlled, like in the case of Alton’s "Gentle Giant," Robert Wadlow, whose major mistake was being entirely too tall. In case you’re wondering who in the name of Krishna this guy is, you’d need only turn to the "World’s Tallest" section of your nearest Guinness Book of World Records (which, by the way, was started by a couple of gentlemen at the Guinness brewery in the 1950s who couldn’t settle an argument over which species of European gamebird was the speediest. Hence, the book was started to answer that question and many others of equal ridiculousity. I swear I’m not making this up. Aside from the word "ridiculousity," which I did, in fact, make up).
Luckily for us road trippers, Alton is very close to St. Louis anyway, so we made the stop (even though there really wasn’t much to see there) and enjoyed our surroundings, which actually pitted us smack dab in the middle of the Southern Illinois University School of Dentistry. I’m not sure what the connection is between clean teeth and a very tall man, but I see no point in arguing the logic.
What the small town does have to commemorate Wadlow is a life-size bronze statue of the man, which stands 8 feet, 11 ½ inches tall. According to the Alton Museum’s website, Mr. Wadlow was 5’4" at age 5, 6’11" at age 12, and 7’10" by age 16. When he joined the Boy Scouts as a teenager, he became the tallest person to ever be part of the organization!
His condition was a result of growth hormone in his brain releasing too liberally into his body. Today there is better treatment to keep these kinds of issues under wraps, but back in the 1930s there was no cure, so our man just grew and grew and grew until he reached almost nine friggin’ feet!
Anyway, we snapped our photos at the little park where the statue was, and we also messed around with a life-size bronze statue of the chair Wadlow used to sit in (which was also ginormous—I felt like a toddler slumped down into the Blues Clues lazy boy). But, that was the extent of what Alton had to offer, so we left.
Bonus: Only a few miles out of town stood a Sonic (the first of three stops to the delicious drive-in over the next few days). So we pulled in and got Dream Shakes and Lime-Ades. They were scrumptious.
Next Installment, Coming Soon: The Rest of Day 1 in St. Louis...