My family is slightly nomadic. While growing up in Southern California, I attended seven different schools (1-8) in four separate towns. We lived in Anaheim the longest, but even there we bounced around from apartment to apartment. I’m not really sure why we moved so often. I chalk it up to a certain sense of wanderlust. This same wanderlust must have been one of the only things my parents had in common during their brief marriage. For despite having nothing nice to say about each other, they both share an unhealthy love for all things penguin as well as a desire to hit the open road for the quintescential American vacation: the road trip.
Each summer when school let out, one set of parents would pack us up and take us to visit some part of this great nation: DC, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and of course, my personal favorite vacation, Wisconsin.
When I was 10, my dad, step-mom, aunt, uncle, cousin and I set off in two vehicles to explore the great state of Wisconsin, or rather, about a 60 mile area of it. During this trip some amazing things happened. We discovered a McDonald’s that was part of the test market for McPizza. My father, who would eat either pizza or Triscuits and sharp cheddar for every meal, was thrilled. It turned out McPizza was really a tarted up English muffin, but the fact he could get pizza, no matter how bad, at McDonald’s, just seemed to tickle my dad. This patrons of this same McDonald’s had the honor of watching my uncle have a melt down in the parking lot that included more cursing than most R-rated movies and the hurling of a half-filled coffee mug when his car wouldn’t start. He ended up getting it towed, and since it was the first day of vacation, we had plenty of time to get it fixed. Unfortunately, that left six people to ride in my dad’s pick-up truck. My dad, uncle and three year old cousin rode up front. My aunt, step-mom and I rode in the back. This wouldn’t have been so bad, since it was a covered truck, except that my dad, a horrible pack-rat of a fireman decided to leave all his fire gear* in the bed of the truck, just in case, and so we were forced to sit Indian style right in a row the entire trip. Even at 10, my knees were touching the tailgate.
After the swearing stopped, we headed off to Circus World Museum in lovely Baraboo. I think it was originally the winter grounds for the Ringling Brothers’ Circus. Even as a kid this seemed dumb to me. Of all the places in this country to be in the winter, Wisconsin, which gets even more snow than Indiana seems a bad choice for people who don’t have permenant housing. I don’t remember much about the place except there were giant circus train cars like the ones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only minus the dangerous animals who once inhabited them. There were also circus acts under the brightly striped tent. Mostly human, but I have a hazy image of some elephants being paraded around.
We spent another day in the Dells. For a kid, this has some real entertainment potential. Even twenty years ago before the theme parks with ginormous Trojan horses sprung up and water parks littered every corner, there were all sorts of amusements only kids really enjoy. I, however, got to go to none of them. My dad and uncle wanted to go to the Ducks and only the Ducks. It was part of reliving their childhood. Now, the Ducks were cool. I mean we drove straight off the trail and into the water without a hitch, and the tour around the rock formations was interesting, but it was also long, with pretty much only rocks and trees to look at.
One of the highlights of the trip came near the end. We ventured out of the Dells area and headed for The House on the Rock. As a kid it both terrified and mesmerized me. I won’t go in to any lengthy description as you can read about entering the mouth of madness on two of my friends sites (http://ficklefoe.wordpress.com/2007/07/23/the-house-on-the-rock-and-my-roadside-religion/ or http://porch-dog.com/?p=102), but it left a lasting impression on me. So lasting, in fact, that when Nancee and I decided we wanted to take a tour of Americana last summer, it was one of the first places I suggested.
It was not, sadly, the first stop on our trip though. During our seven day tour of the Mid-West, Eee and I actually toured five states. Before we left we poured over travel books in the once cool Borders café**. We found tons that we really wanted to do, unfortunately, several great places like the Lizzy Borden bed and breakfast and the medical curiosities museum were rather far away and wouldn’t get us to a few key places we really wanted to go. So, with our itinerary set, all our destinations carefully Mapquested and a car full of snacks, we set off on July 5, 2006 for Chicago.
We both decided to keep travel journals, and it’s a good thing we did, as I’ll be drawing on mine to describe our first day on the road. The Illinois toll road was hell like usual, but once we hit Armitage Street, I was happy. Armitage is a great area to shop. It’s not as busy as Michigan Avenue, but the shops are unique and most importantly, they have a LUSH. They also have a kick-ass café about two doors down one of the side roads called the Alahmabra, or Aladdin or something else exotic sounding with an Al that has really good food and turns into a hookah bar at night. They also have a really neat chocolate shop that is far too pink for my taste that sells really good gourmet truffles and chocolates. Pricey, but tasty.
Our next stop was the Leaning Tower of Niles. It has a much larger cousin over in Italy you may have heard of. It’s either a 1/12 or a 1/16 scale model of it. It sits right next to the Boys’ and Girls’ club in the middle of a town, but it was actually pretty cool. It was peaceful to sit near the bubbling water pool and look at the tower. Surprisingly serene considering all the traffic on the road.
We wanted to go to a mortuary that also has a death-themed mini-golf course, but apparently you have to make reservations months in advance. The travel book said nothing about this, so instead we stopped at a roadside farm. Eee was foolish enough to try to feed the goats, but I knew better. As predicted, they tried to climb her for her tiny pellets. I warned her, I did. I know the viscousness of goats, but she was deaf to my pleas.
After a long day of driving and odd sight seeing, we were ready to settle in to our hotel. When picking hotels, we specifically looked for hotels with little quirks. The Adventure Inn, located in Gurnee, was definitely quirky. It was also dirty, smoky, dark, creepy, dangerous and possibly contaminated. The pictures do not do this place justice. It was foul. Both Eee and I were afraid to get under the covers. I was positive I was going to move the mattress to find a dead hooker hidden in the box springs. Or at least some unidentifiable stains on the sheets. I’m sure someone could have had a field day in there with one of those black lights, expect the whole thing was lit with black lights, so they probably wouldn’t have been able to distinguish one horrible item from the next. We both slept fully clothed and wrapped in the covers we brought from home to avoid actual contact with the bed. Neither of us took our socks off the entire stay because the carpet was spongy. Not the good kind of spongy you get with expensive plush carpeting. The bad kind of spongy that is more akin to movie theater floors. I was pretty sure if my bare feet touched it I would instantly contract seven different types of fungus. The room smelled a bit like urine to me, but that could have been some strange construction smell drifting in from the work that was still being done at 10:30 on a Wednesday night. There was no window that actually opened***, so we couldn’t yell out it to them to knock it off. Not that we would have. I think we might have been the only guests since the whole place seemed to be undergoing a major overhaul. I’m sure no one would have noticed our bodies for months.
To escape the layer of smoke that permeated the room, we took a detour to the mall. We thought we might find something decent to eat at the food court, but the healthiest I could find was a hot dog and some bland overcooked veggies at the Panda Wok Giant Eggroll Express (or some such nonsense). We saw The Devil Wears Prada at the theater in the mall, but were so depressed at how dirty and run down the mall seemed, that the knowledge we would have to go back to our darker, even grimier room dampened our enjoyment a bit.
When we returned, we briefly considered going for a dip in the pool until we saw the oily sheen on top of it. The sign that advised us not to swim if we had open sores or wounds hastened our retreat. There was a hot tub in our room and while we photographed ourselves sitting on the edge of it (on top of the towels), neither of us actually got in it for fear of hepatitis. Our room, like all the rooms was themed. We went for the Gotham City room. The overall ickyness of the place killed most of our joy of finding this place online. You can check out any of the rooms at (www.adventureinn.com )****. They are actually referred to as “fantasy suites,” although I can’t believe anyone would find the place romantic. The abundance of black lights alone should cause sterility. The thought of people actually choosing the place for anything other than cheesy bragging rights is amazing. The work in the hallway didn’t stop until at least 11:30, but by that point we were laughing too hard at the situation and the Spanish soap opera on TV called Infarto.
All in all, an interesting start to one of the best road trips in my life. I did put an important note in my journal that I think everyone should take to heart: Never come to Gurnee again.
*Interestingly, there was a drowning and since my dad is a certified diver, he actually was asked to help while we were there, so all the gear was put to use.
**Borders used to have an independent café with yummy honey vanilla chai. Now that have a sucky Seattle’s Best stand with nothing tasty.
***We later found out there was a window, but the plastic Gotham skyline had been placed over it.
****Take the time, click the link, I swear it is worth it. The rooms are amazing to look at. We saw several of them open while we were packing up the next morning. I’m not sure why as no cleaning appeared to have taken place in our room. I can only guess they were being let by the hour for hookers or drug dealers. Note the plastic Gotham landscape not far from the TV, this should have been our window.