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Posts Tagged ‘Peoria’


Today was our last day on the road. We were due to return the hire car to Dollar at Midway International Airport, and able to check in at the house in Chicago by 4pm.

So there was no rush this morning, enabling us to look around the stores on the site before leaving at a quarter past eleven under grey skies and a chilly 41 degrees. But at least it was dry. We headed east initially on Interstate 74 towards Bloomington where we would turn northwards on the I-55 (Route 66)  in the direction of the Windy City.

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It may have been the absence of rain, or the fact that it was Saturday and there were less trucks in evidence, or maybe just a less populous area, but the roads were much quieter than they had been the previous day. As a result, we were soon approaching Pontiac, where the  the automobile brand of the same name was founded, in search of  our first meal of the day, and the last we would have on the road during the trip.

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Although we passed several McDonald’s on the journey, we were tempted by an Arby’s sign in the distance, so resolved to pull in and have lunch there. Like Cracker Barrel, where we had eaten between Nashville and St. Louis, we hadn’t eaten in an Arby’s since our early years of touring the country by coach.

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Whilst the photograph below might not do it justice, and that one Facebook friend subsequently questioned the company’s hygiene record, my three cheese beef sandwich was delicious. Janet’s turkey based creation was equally welcome. Twice the price of a McDonald’s, but hardly one to clean out our slowly diminishing cash balance.

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Shortly after resuming our journey, warning signs alerted us to the fact that there had been crashes on the I-155 on the approach to Chicago that would necessitate us being diverted. As it happened, the incidents were cleared in sufficient time to keep the delay to our journey to a minimum.

Indeed, the highlights of the remainder of the drive were those fascinating signs hung high above the road, especially in built-up areas. If someone would like to pay me to criss-cross the United States for a year, I am convinced that I would be able to produce a riveting tome containing some of the most outlandish signs.

Many of them provide a fascinating insight into American society and culture.

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For the first time on the trip, there were tell tale signs that we were entering a more heavily industrialised area.

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And constant reminders that we had rarely strayed from the Mother Road on our last two days.

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A condition of our car hire agreement was that we had to return the vehicle with a full tank of gas (the alternative would be to pay an astronomical additional amount at the end).

After driving around the area for about ten minutes in search of a suitable gas station, the deed was done and we set off for the Dollar car hire garage at Midway Airport.

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We handed over our Texas registered SUV with no issue before staggering (well, I was staggering as I had responsibility for the larger cases) over to the spot at the terminal where our Dollar representative had advised us we could pick up an Uber.

Not as simple as it sounds.

Firstly, Janet discovered that she had left her driving glasses in the car. When she returned to the garage, she was informed that it had already been transferred to valeting. Anyway, she managed to collect them eventually, only to be told by me that, in the meantime, I had realised that I had left my new phone charger in the car too!

No second expedition to locate the car again. The charger was somebody else’s property now.

Time to call the Uber. We were now in danger of checking in after our planned 4pm arrival time.

The first Uber driver, after appearing to get further away, rather than nearer, to where we were standing, then rejected the fare, leaving us to order another.

The second driver, Samson, then rang us to inform us that he was not allowed to enter the terminal without paying  to park (for all of a minute), meaning that we would have to walk (remember who had the heavy load, dear reader) several hundred yards to meet him outside the car park entrance.

After ten minutes and many expletives on my part, we connected up with Samson who then drove into the car park, sweet talked himself out of paying $2 for thirty seconds  “parking” and we were on our way.

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The decision not to drive once we had reached Chicago was immediately vindicated. The roads were frightening. But, aside from negotiating us through the horrendous traffic, Samson was a charming companion for the half an hour it took to deliver us to our home for the next four nights.

We met the agent, Jerry, who showed us round the property, including the extraordinary rooftop terrace which had good views of the downtown skyline………and an amazing church!

Shortly after we had settled in, and Janet had put the first load of washing in, our housemates for the next three nights, Jerry and Alicia, and their two sons, Aiden aged ten and Ely three, pulled up outside in their rental people carrier.

We had first met Jerry and Alicia four years before when we entered our favourite hippie store, Land of the Sun, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. We spent that evening in the Great American Music Hall eating fish and chips and watching Dark Star Orchestra reprise a legendary Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1969.

Since then, we have got together whenever we visited San Francisco, visiting their home in Petaluma, attending football and baseball games as well as other gigs, and even spending Halloween together last year. And in May, Alicia stayed with us in Folkestone.

We were all hungry, so made it a priority to find somewhere to eat. There were several restaurants within a few hundred yards of the house, and once we had eliminated those that had a BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze) notice on their window, we plumped for an excellent Thai restaurant.

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On our return to the house, Jerry and I wentto the local Kroger supermarket to purchase provisions for our stay. This went well apart from the moment when, pushing the trolley (which was clearly faulty), I careered into a display promoting red wine, smashing one bottle and spilling its contents over my new cowboy boots.

Even though I was excused payment I was distraught! Fortunately, there was no lasting damage.

Aiden and Ely in particular had made themselves at home, ransacking the boxes of toys, especially miniature cars, they had found in the play room and gleefully running around the rooftop terrace as the sun set.

The weather forecast for the next two days, which we were to share with our San Francisco family, was looking good.

And we had plans!

 

 

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Within five minutes of the aforementioned photoshoot on the staircase at Magretta and Chuck’s Forget-Me-Knot bed and breakfast in St. Louis, Missouri, we were back on the road in a light drizzle that evolved quickly into driving rain. With a cool, strong breeze blowing too, it was undeniable that we weren’t in Louisiana anymore.

The dramatic temperature change even prompted us to ditch the car’s air conditioning for the heating!

We were both a little weary and lethargic this morning, a not uncommon feeling at this three-quarter point in a month long vacation. But spending a few days with our San Francisco friends and their two sons, who were joining us in Chicago, would no doubt re-energise us.

It was still the tail end of the rush hour, so driving was more challenging than it had been for the southern leg of the trip.

Another phenomenon that we had not experienced before – roadworks – slowed us down still further on I-55 (also Route 66), though we never reached the type of standstill that is a daily occurrence on the major motorways of the U.K.

At Litchfield we filled up on gas, the penultimate time we would need to do this before returning the car at Midway Airport in Chicago tomorrow.

Endless fields of corn and barns dominated the landscape.

I had remarked in a previous chapter that, even when the scenery might be bland for hundreds of miles, the directional and promotional signs that dot the highways of the United States are always a good read.

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Our history professor at the breakfast table earlier had self-disparagingly claimed his home state had little to commend it other than its connection to Abraham Lincoln.

And we were reminded of that on a number of occasions on the roadside.

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We had set out with the intention of visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, but the dismal weather, and relatively slow progress, prompted us to decide to drive on to our destination, with only a brief stop near Chatham where we had McMuffins (for the last time) and coffee for the ludicrously low price of $7.49.

Arriving a little earlier in Peoria would also enable us to rearrange the suitcases as it would be the last opportunity to do so before our next flight (from Chicago to New York).

And for me to catch up on the blog!

We arrived at our Motel 6 (the cheapest accommodation of the whole trip at only $60 (£46) for the night), as the rain finally relented.

It was located in a typically American roadside complex of gas stations, a variety of stores and a handful of modest eating places, one of which, amidst the fast food outlets, was the fantastic Biaggi’s.

We had been disappointed on our last evening in St. Louis that we could not have the classy Italian we had craved, so to discover such an elegant establishment in such an unexpected place was a delight.

Our only reservation was having to endure the barman ‘s pretentious descriptions  of the dozens of exotic craft beers he was willing to dispense. It almost made me pine for  the days when all you could get was a Bud or Coors!

Tomorrow would be the last day on the road.

And, as if to complete the set of different types of accommodation we had stayed at, we would have a whole three bedroomed house at our disposal!

Folkestone meets San Francisco in Chicago!

 

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Our last breakfast in St. Louis and Chuck surpassed himself, with a divine Eggs Benedict following a sweet, refreshing bowl of strawberries.

But there was a difference at the table this morning. We were joined – after ten minutes – by the two couples that had checked in the night before, rendering the bed and breakfast fully booked.

Jim and his wife from Mobile, Alabama and a younger couple from upstate Illinois introduced themselves, though it is only Jim’s name that I now recall as you will learn the reason for shortly.

The Illinois couple, who had been to a music event in the city the night before, were professors of history and an artist respectively.  Although they listened intently to the story of our road trip, they were not so forthcoming about their own lives, seeming eager to hit the road.

But Jim was another “personality” altogether. A retired stockbroker who had made his money, and now an avid golfer, he was far more forthcoming about his accomplishments  and, more alarmingly, his political views.

Now, we had scrupulously avoided being dragged into any intense debates about the state of American politics and society on the trip, though, to be fair, we had only really met people who were of a liberal persuasion, and embarrassed about the current state of their country. In fact, our fellow shuttle bus passenger in Newark at the start of the tour personally apologised to us for her president.

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But Jim, as authentic a ‘good ol’ Southern boy” as I had ever met, came right out with it.

“So, what are your politics , right or left?”.

Fortunately, he levelled his question at our history professor, casting no more than a cursory glance in our direction. I think he had already resolved that we were pagan, socialised medicine loving, immigrant embracing, gun hating reprobates and beyond redemption.

Clearly discomfited by the direct, almost aggressive nature of the question, the history man replied, with an unnecessarily apologetic tone in his voice.

“Well, we are liberals”.

Presumably thinking he would sound tolerant and fair minded Jim rejoined:

“I told my friends when Obama became president, that you had to accept it whether you liked it or not”.

Awkward silence.

And the inducement for the younger couple to announce their intentions to leave the table.

To her credit, Jim’s wife did attempt to lighten the atmosphere, making excuses for his manner on a couple of occasions.

My attempt at injecting some screamed for humour into the moment came with stating that the only thing I knew about Mobile, Alabama, was the Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. 

Stifling a knowing chuckle, our Illinois diners wished us good luck for the remainder of our trip as we both rose from the table.

Jim?

He just looked baffled and not a little flustered at the reference alone to another spawn of the devil.

But, in the admirable spirit of fairness and cooperation so often preached by his president, Jim enthusiastically took the two photographs seen here with Magretta, Chuck, Spike and Haley.

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St. Louis had been a revelation, and somewhere we are keen to return to in the near future. It had also been a joy to share Magretta and Chuck’s home for the past three nights.

The weather gods had been kind to us too, even to the extent of postponing the rain until this morning.

But it would be a wet ride to our final overnight stay in Peoria!

 

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The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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