Tuesday, August 19, 2003

what we did on our holidays 2: deep in the tacky heart of america

Bloomington-Normal/McLean/Springfield, IL/Cahokia/St. Louis/I-44/Bourbon/Meramec Caverns/Rolla/St. Robert/Lebanon/Springfield, MO

Began the day with the first of several hotel breakfasts in a row where make-your-own waffles was among the options. Couldn't resist a tiny taste of the other soon-to-be-staple, sausage gravy and biscuits, a dish definitely not found on this side of the border. It looks like somebody's healthy sneeze, and old folks love shovelling it away.

We finally drove onto an old stretch of 66 at the south end of Bloomington-Normal. The Illinois portion of the old highway is one of the least exciting, hugging I-55 close as it passes cornfield after cornfield. The odd town and attraction pop up, such as the much-written about Dixie Trucker's Stop in McLean. It was under renovation, but we caught a look at the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame. Snapped shots in other towns, but didn't take a lengthy stop until we hit Springfield.

Springfield, IL is full of sites devoted to its most famous son, Abraham Lincoln. The only one we visited was his tomb, which dominated an attractive cemetery. All of the trappings made it difficult to suppress wisecracks, mostly stemming from the horror his party has evolved into (there was a time where "Republican" wasn't a word to be instantly mocked on the left side of the slant). Might have been all the signs requesting total silence while in the tomb room. But hey, it's Lincoln we're talking here. If it had been, say, Millard Fillmore's tomb with the same requests, the story would be different.

We got lost south of Springfield but found the freeway and 66. A brief side trip to a well-marked covered bridge didn't turn out to be much (you couldn't drive across it), other than seeing teenagers petrified by snakes underneath.

Cahokia Mounds

Next stop was Cahokia Mounds, outside St. Louis. The interpretive centre was closed, but we walked around the grounds. I don't think the mounds thrilled Amy, who wasn't going to walk up any of them. After a quick walk down one trail, we hopped back in the car and drove across the Mississippi into St. Louis.

Ted Drewes Custard

All of the books and tourist guides I read urged any travellers to stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a 66 landmark for ages. Their claim to fame is the "concrete", an ancestor of the Dairy Queen Blizzard which is served upside down to prove its thickness. On the way, we passed this building...

Bradburn's Parent Teacher Stores

We turned around and stopped by. It was a branch of a small chain of educational supply stores, like Scholar's Choice. We couldn't stop laughing at the irony (my sister's a teacher, as was my father...I'm the only family member not employed by a school board).

Ted Drewes proved worthy of the hype. Each of our hefty concretes (I had roasted pistachio, she had Heath Bar) vanished quickly.

Outside of St. Louis, the onslaught of billboards for Missouri's tourist traps began in earnest. Ozarkland. Branson. Meramec Caverns. Especially Meramec Caverns , Stanton, MO. In the old days, barns for hundreds of miles either side of it were painted with signs for this cold, natural but highly commercialized wonder. Today, it's billboards like this one...

Meramec Caverns (1)

We couldn't resist driving by. We might have gone in if i hadn't been for a hefty admission fee. Still, on trips like these you have to see what all the hubub is about.

If Missouri billboards aren't out to capture your wallet, they're on a quest for your soul. Have never seen so many biblical signs. Believers in other faiths need not apply around there. The funniest were the inevitable ones beside adult video stores, battling for onlookers eyes with the pleasures of the flesh.

Once beyond the reach of Meramec, the signs were mostly for walnut bowls. See if you can figure out why these need so much hype (at least 100 miles either side of Lebanon).

We alternated between 66 and I-44, with the old road in patchy shape most of the way. While I had been a speed demon through Illinois, I wasn't straying far from the limit here, lest we miss another cheesy sign or trap. We had just passed through the unremarkable town of Bourbon when I saw lights flashing in the rearview.

I switched into panic/heart attack mode as Amy tried to calm me down. The officer pulled up and gave me a short history of 66 through the area, then noted this was a stretch notorious for fatalities where the speed limit had recently been dropped from 50 MPH to 40. He kept apologizing for having to write me a ticket, but he was instructed to target everyone by his superiors. Took my license, then walked back to his car for an eternity.

I didn't remember seeing any reduced speed signs, or anything marking a speed change as new. It also seemed strange that he didn't take my insurance number down. There were all of the apologies. I was feeling like no matter what I'd done, I would have been trapped one way or another.

He came back to the car and handed me a summons for a court date in late August. However, I could mail in the fine, which left me $83 US poorer. More apologies, then I was allowed to go. Still couldn't shake the feeling this was more a donation than violation.

Our opinion of the state didn't improve in Rolla. We tried looking for someplace to have dinner, but everything was closed. Power outage. Not that there was much to choose from even if the juice was flowing - looked like a depressing place. Instead, we wound up at a small BBQ pit in St. Robert, the Sweetwater. Now this was the type of dining experience we were looking for. A small place whose cooking area was larger than the seating area. Could have eaten outside by the smoker, but rain threatened. We loaded up on the standards - Amy had big meaty ribs, while I had a combo of pulled pork, brisket and smoked turkey. All delicious...

Drove a bit further, past more signs for walnut bowls. We drove by the place, but it was closed for the day. We carried on until we reached Springfield...

Wrong one again. We passed a strip of seedy-looking hotels that had been advertised for miles on the freeway, before settling on a Clarion at the south end of town. All we knew was the sooner we were out of Missouri, the happier we'd be.

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