Chicago and other cities of America by Irene Butler
By Irene Butler
“You are going to Chicago, but you don’t know what you want to see there?” said the suspicious border guard as her colleague picked through our belongings. Quickly racking my brain for what I knew of Chicago, I only came up with Al Capone and Oprah, which I did not verbalize. Rick saved the day explaining, “We are travelling for several months and Chicago is only one of the many cities we’re going to visit. We investigate specifics on each city as we go along.” Her look told us not everyone travels like us, planning only a day at a time. After a snarly, but professional fifteen minute encounter, we were on our way down Route 52. Most past trips to the United States had been by air to a specific location. Nothing could blemish the excitement of leisurely motoring through our southern neighbour.
I have yet to address the underpinning of our CanAm Peregrinations. Last May we found ourselves without a fixed address, due to selling our condominium with an almost immediate possession date and purchasing another under construction with a completion date of November, or so we thought. “Change is good donkey” Rick appeased me with his favourite line from Shrek 2. Recently notified a month had been sliced off the finish date of our new home, we decided not to continue any further east at this time, but to drop down south and make our way slowly back to British Columbia.
Crookston, Illinois seemed like a good bivouac, conducive to our unhurried pace of 4 to 5 hours of driving a day. The next morning was glorious; scorching with a cloudless azure sky and rich golden wheat tassels swaying to a breezy rhythm. It was hard to believe the advanced growing season, compared to the green wheat crops we had just left behind north of the border. Field after field of corn took over. Every township has the population posted below its name, none too small to be counted. From our Bemidji coffee break, we sailed along Route 71 to Sauk Centre (note the spelling of centre) for the night. After 64 years of fighting with the U.S. Post Office who insisted “Center” was correct, the locals won out, though they do not relate the different spelling as having anything to do with Canada. The iron mining town of Hibbing, a little further west, is where Robert Zimmerman grew up, but never fit in. Changing his name to Bob Dylan in his teens, he did not acknowledge his home town, but claimed to be an orphan from Oklahoma when frequenting the coffee houses and jazz joints in Minneapolis, before hitting it big.
The Ding Dong café next to where the railway line once existed, is a local favourite for breakfast. Over our sausage, hash browns, eggs and numerous coffees, we joined the bantering about the weather, listened to discussions about taxes, and pretended to mind our own business as two fellows got each other’s goat by one using “George Dubbya”, and the other “Teresa’s husband” when describing the other’s favourite candidate.
Minneapolis, we kept our eyes peeled for lodgings as we sped along keeping up with the racing traffic. Before we knew it we had driven clean through the city to Minnihaha Park without seeing a single hotel or motel. A gas station attendant gave us directions to the Mall of America saying there were loads of accommodations surrounding it. Bypassing the Hilton, knowing it would be “Nordstom” pricing, we stopped to enquire at a few lesser hotels. Wohh..still “Bloomingdale” prices; well, what did we expect in close proximity to the largest mall on U.S. soil? Finally we found a “Macy” priced Inn, still a bit rich for our budget, but so be it, or so we thought. While stretching our legs with a walk that evening, we came upon our nitch, and made the switch the next day. The Travelodge on 1225 E. 78th Street has all the amenities for a bargain price; leaving some money left to spend at the mall. It took us two trips to mill around the five hundred and twenty specialty shops, plus four mega anchors, an endless food court, entertainment in the form of a gigantic underground aquarium, and a midway of 21 rides with thrill levels from kiddies to kamikaze. I got queasy just watching novices on an extreme trampoline doing double, triple and quadruple somersaults 22 feet in the air, and downright dizzy as the Mighty Axe spun head over heels, twisting, turning and flipping 10 stories off the ground. Our big purchase was a “Lonely Planet” so our entrance into the next major city would not be as blind.
Taking city transit to the Walker Art Center “uptown”, we found it closed for expansion. Hate when that happens. Walking through the nearby Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, after snapping a few shots of the giant cherry on a spoon, Rick plunked himself down on a bench facetiously telling me the excitement was too much for him, and since I was equally unimpressed, we hopped another bus to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, where ladies, I had to settle for pondering the many facets of Doryphoros; the perfectly proportioned Grecian man, sculpted by Polykleitus between 120-50 BC. I’d say old Polykleitus had a pretty good eye. The museum’s extensive Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan sections are also worth a look.
“Downtown” is the best part of “Minny”. The two-mile path along the banks of the Mississippi and St. Anthony’s Falls on the Stone Arch Bridge, constructed in 1882, past old flour mills from the time Minneapolis led the world in flour milling is an interesting rekindling of history.
St. Paul’s lengthy Summit Avenue is lined with 19th century Victorian mansions ending in the breathtaking St. Paul’s Cathedral, a scaled down version of St. Peter’s in Rome. F. Scott Fitzgerald, novelist, lived at 599 Summit. At the end of the street looms the mansion of James J. Hill, once penurious, he died in 1916 with an amassed wealth of 63 million dollars. Born in Ontario, Canada, he was hired on at age 17 as a clerk at the St. Paul levee, where he worked for 20 years, and sired 10 children with Mary Theresa, a waitress he met at his favourite supper spot. In 1878 he and several others bought the bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific Railway. For two decades he toiled to push the line north to Canada across the Great Plains and through the Rockies to the Pacific. He is known best for the renamed Great Northern Railway, but also dabbled in iron ore, coal, electric and water power and mills; an epitome of the American Dream.
Corn, Soya beans, and more corn span the horizon along Route 52 through Iowa. I did not need to be told, with the intermittent distinctive porcine barnyard odour, this is also the #1 hog producing state. Deciding to tackle the next major city tomorrow, we pulled into the fair city of Dubuque, Iowa with quaint streets of Victorian era houses, more manageable in size than those in the Twin Cities. A major attraction is a ride up and down the 4th Street Elevator, with a great view of the city from the top. More interesting than the elevator is the story behind it. In 1882 it was customary in Dubuque to take a 1½ hour lunch. J.K. Graves, former Mayor and State Senator, chose to build his home on top of a bluff overlooking the city, approximately two blocks from the bank where he worked. To his chagrin, he found his lunch time consumed by a ½ hour carriage ride up the hill, ½ hour back down, which did not give him time to chow down and also have his cherished ½ hour nap. He was granted approval by the city to build the trolley elevator to solve his lunch-time dilemma; how’s that for pull?
Disappointed to find the historic Julien Inn full, and shocked to find out so was every other hotel, our choices were to wait in Dubuque for an hour to see if any hotel had a cancellation or move onto Galena, Illinois just across the Mississippi River. We lunched at the Café Manna Java on sumptuous grill baked sandwiches made from scratch on artisan breads baked on the premises, and sipped chai tea until the hour passed. Hooray! A room is available at the Canfield Hotel. Hmmm.. musty and dusty, but we voted to stay the night. Mistake! The Karaoke bar started to zing about 11 p.m. Knowing they were not about to close down the bar because of a complaint, we decided to patiently wait out the head throbbing base and vocalizations loud enough to recognize familiar tunes. Finally I turned on the light to see what time it was. Three a.m.! I was on the phone. The desk clerk said the bar had closed at 2 a.m., and she could not leave the desk to find the source of the disturbance. Can you imagine me walking the halls in the dead of night trying to find the source? Discovering a radio on full blast in the room directly below us, the clerk promised she would take care of it immediately. Fifteen minutes later I had to call down again. Another fifteen minutes passed. Blissful silence at last. She called us this time, saying the fellow did not realize the music was too loud. I was testier than a disturbed hornets nest finding out the next morning the night clerk had lied, and the fellow now manning the desk was the one who took a key, and reached over the passed-out fellow turning off the radio when the night clerk finally chose to notify him an hour after my first call. I demanded to be reimbursed half a night’s room rate for half a night’s sleep, which of course, did not happen since the owner was absent.
As we passed through Galena the next morning, we regretted not trying it out, as there were ample lodgings. The community was built originally to service lead mills all around, and is the renowned home of nine Civil War generals, including 4-star General and 18th President of the United Stated, Ulysses S. Grant.
We sailed straight down Route 20 into Niles, a suburb of Chicago, and set up house in the Econolodge on Touhy. We thought we were seeing things as a slanted structure appeared out of our vehicle window further down the street; the Leaning Tower of the YWCA Hotel, a replica of the tower in Pisa Italy. Leaving our car parked for our four day stay, we hopped city transit to get everywhere we wanted to go. Downtown Chicago was alive and chaotic, even with the coldest temperature on record for this day. Sitting at an outdoor café ·arming our hands on a hot cup of coffee, the “El” for “elevated” train zinged above our heads. The massive sculptures of Illinois Center beckoned us. In particular, a mammoth glistening metal sausage-shaped sculpture reflects the city skyline on the outer side and people walking through the bend in the centre creates a human kaleidoscope. The modern lines of the Sears and J. Hancock Towers, the intricately lacy design of the Wrigley Building, the gothic Chicago Tribune, and the “Magnificent Mile” of shopping are all within a two hour tour. If intrigued by Chicago’s gangster past, you will have to look underground for information, or refer to Lonely Planet, as the city is trying to bury this slice of history. On two separate occasions goons hunted down Capone double-crossers in front of the Holy Name Cathedral. A no-longer-existing garage wall at 2122 Clark Street was the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where several of Bugsy Morgan’s boys were gunned down by Al’s thugs.
After another two cold, windy, overcast days, the heavy black clouds began to spill their contents. Wrigley Field was out; the Woodfield Mall was in. A good time to replace Rick’s sandals that had snapped a strap and to splurge on several birthday tops for me, regarding which, Rick resisted mentioning our “one-in, one-out” rule, which was our agreement enabling us to lug our packs in and out of motels in one trip.
Heavy rain still followed us as we exited Illinois down Interstate 65, speeding past the Indianapolis Speedway and on into Kentucky, known as the Bluegrass state from the grasses that produce a bluish bud each spring. Yet more corn, and the first tobacco crops we have seen to date. Elaborate purebred horse ranches are frequent sights, turning out Kentucky Derby winners. Two of our favourite actors were born and bred here, Johnny Depp and George Clooney. Hunger pangs forced us to veer off at Clarksville. All the vehicles in town seemed to be parked outside a non-descript grey bungalow with “Clarksville Seafood” above the door. Most of the people in the large line-up were ordering “take-out”, with us filling the last “eat-in” table in the back. A carb delight of Boston Scrod, French fries, onion rings deep fried just-right, with a heaping helping of creamy caraway coleslaw. We now had the strength to go the last few miles into Looeyville or Louahvul; formally Louisville, for the night. Mentioning the unusually chilly weather since we arrived in the States, the desk clerk matter-of-factly said, “It is in the Book of Revelations, you’ll not be able to distinguish the seasons”; a reminder we were in the Bible belt. All was right with the world as we lounged in the first sun we had seen in days beside the hotel pool sipping a Mint Julep; Kentucky’s best bourbon, sweetened with sugar syrup and flavoured with crushed mint.
Having had enough of the Interstate the day before, we caught Route 61, then 31, stopping outside of Hodgenville at Sinking Springs Farm; the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. A granite memorial building contains a replica of the one-room, dirt floor cabin where this great man was born on February 12, 1809. The springs sunk below a knoll, for which the farm was named, still runs clear.
“How ya’all doing this mornin?” is a warm southern greeting at breakfast no matter where we stop. When asked over and over if we could, “Kind’ly say tha’ agin.” We figured our accents were as thick as Mississippi mud to the locals.
Donning our finest attire, we waited by the door of the Fiddler’s Inn in Nashville for our coach to arrive (Grey Line, that is) to be whisked away to the Grand Ole Opry. The grounds in front of the Opry house were ablaze with lights and lively music resounding from an outdoor stage. People lounged on the ample seating or milled around the convenient drink and food stalls being entertained while waiting for the doors to open. Ushered in to the seating of padded church pews, the stage screen rolled out facts on the history of country music. The lights dimmed. The crowd hushed as the heavy velvet red curtain was drawn up, and the deep voice of the announcer of this, America’s longest running live radio broadcast boomed, “Welcome to the Grand Ole Opry.” Fine fiddling, banjo and guitar strumming, exceptional vocals, roof-raising yodelling, gut-busting comedians, and glitzy rhinestone duds mesmerized us for 5 non-stop sessions featuring a different MC every half hour, introducing a variety of Bluegrass, Cajun and Honky-Tonk artists. Everything was animated, including the commercials promoting the Opry sponsors, and the backstage antics happened, not out of sight, but out in the open around the center stage. Every country singer aspires to someday perform on this very stage. When the Opry relocated in 1974 from the Ryman Auditorium to its present location, a large circle of the floor cut out from the Ryman was installed in the new complex, so performers would continue to stand on the same piece of stage as the greats before them, such as, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and George Jones. Rick and I are not well versed in country music, but we both agreed that it was a fantastic evening and can readily see why the Grand Ole Opry is an American icon of entertainment.
The Country Music Hall of Fame was a fine way to follow-up the Opry; bringing to light the evolution and diversity of country music from folk, blues, gospel, bluegrass, pop and rockabilly.
A trip to Centennial Park was our last day’s venture. The city’s foremost art museum is housed in The Nashville Parthenon, the only full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon in existence. Inside is the re-creation of the 42-foot statue of Athena. The permanent focus of the museum is paintings of 19th and 20th century American artists.
Elvis is in the building! almost – impersonator John Beardsley belted out tunes in Nashville’s “A tribute to The King”; a good primer as we would be leaving for Memphis the next day.
I’ll never forget my first sighting of Elvis. In a darkened movie theatre in 1957, as part of a friend’s birthday party, I was among a bunch of 13 year olds being treated to “Jailhouse Rock”. A poke from the birthday girl next to me telling me to “get with it” made me realize I had been transfixed, hardly breathing as I watched this “Elvis fellow” gyrate around the cell-block with his voice sending goose bumps down my spine, while the other kids were snapping their fingers and jumping around in their seats. Rick’s first encounter was on the Ed Sullivan show where Elvis was only shown from the waist-up, as word was out that his antics had a demoralizing effect on youth. Whether an Elvis fan or not, Graceland is a moving experience. The 500 acre farm is by no means ostentatious, but is eccentric. The home remains decorated in the 70’s tackiness of green and gold shag carpets, mirrors and fake fur. The surrounding buildings include an office, a $200,000 splurge on a racket ball court, and a trophy edifice giving testimony to the over one billion records sold. Further back are stables, with horses still grazing in the fields. Beside the ordinary sized pool are the graves of his mother, father and grandmother, and “The King” himself. The Elvis-mobile collection and his airplanes are housed in separate museums across the street, and of course, memorabilia shops abound. Elvis, the non-conformist to expressing his creativity, got caught up in the fun money can bring and the popular pharmaceutical escapes of the 70’s, ending for him in an ultimate escape. Big-screen T.V.’s everywhere bring back to life his dynamic style, charismatic personality, and incredible voice; his music is his legacy.
The National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the turquoise coloured Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a compelling and factual chronicling of key events in the long, slow fight of the Civil Rights Movement.
Blues tunes wafted out onto the sidewalks from the shops and bars on Beale Street. Ahhh, at last the temperature was a typical 40 degree Celsius day. Keeping an eye out for a later supper spot, it was narrowed down to “The Pig on Beale” advertising slow smoked BBQ pork with an attitude, or B.B. King’s Blues Club, for southern delights and live music. Seeing a line-up of police hoisting big bags from the take-out window of B.B. Kings clinched the decision, as police and truck drivers always know the best eateries. Making it over to the Peabody Hotel before 5:00 p.m. we settled in to wait for the novel parade of ducks, waddling to background music, from the central fountain, and down the red carpet to the elevator that whisks them away to their Penthouse Palace on the roof for the night. Every morning at ll:00 a.m. sharp the ducks return on the same red carpet to cavort in the fountain for the day. Though the ducks are changed every three months, this quirky tradition has been going on since the 1930’s. B.B.’s here we come. Our planned light supper morphed into a feast once we saw the menu. Catfish deep-fried to perfection, collard greens with pork rind, hot corn cakes smothered in butter, crispy slivered onion rings, and a slab of melt-in-your-mouth BBQ ribs with an outstanding secret sauce; each forkful accompanied by the strains of an acoustic guitar and soulful blues lyrics. We were the ones waddling now, as we left with our B.B. King keepsake beer glasses tucked under our arm. B.B’s is our choice with a whopping 9 out of 10 in our “Hobbit-Worthy 1-10 Restaurant Rating System”.
There are some distinct differences as we travel further south. Since Kentucky, we are seeing more areas of poor housing and business areas struggling to survive. Elvis Presley Boulevard is just one such example; shabby with lots of boarded up buildings. But the air is fresher, the sun is hotter, and the mode of living is more relaxed. Our love of “the south” just grows and grows.
Hope yer day is a goin great!
Irene & Rick