Road Trip Diaries, Day 3: Route 66 Day 1- From Chicago to Raymond, IL

It was the dawn of a great day – our first day officially on Route 66! Although this day was mostly wonderful, it didn’t start out that way as the valet informed us our rental SUV had a flat tire. AAA and a friendly Chicago Firestone took care of the problem much quicker than either initially stated, but we were still behind. Eh well, the Firestone was in a shopping district area that seemed to have a mix of old and new businesses. There were a lot of great looking signs, and we really appreciated the opportunity to see more of the Second City! The Firestone folks were extremely friendly and they, too, got the new tire on much faster than they thought they could. However, after all that we were still in Chicago hours later in the morning than we planned, and we were also more than ready for a proper breakfast. I had said we were going to stop at Lou Mitchell’s restaurant come hell or high water, so off we went. As a bonus, we got to drive right by the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) – the line for the Skydeck was already going down the street and around the corner. But without further ado, here’s a mere smattering of great sites, web links, some photos, lessons learned, and other tips and random thoughts from Day 1 on the old route, in order that they were encountered:

  • Historic U.S. Route 66 BEGIN – The “official” BEGIN sign is at the intersection of Adams and Michigan. Eric patiently drove us all the way back to this intersection from the Firestone, but we were really hungry at this point and wasn’t about to make him stop the car just so I could get a picture. So, we only got a crappy photo from the road. According to many things I’ve read, although you’re on 66 at this point, Adams and Michigan was never the actual start of Route 66 (see the page I’ve linked to, above). I’ve since learned there is a newer, more colorful sign at Adams and Wabash, which I didn’t see, but I’m confused because I don’t think 66 ever started there either. (Note that there are also historic END signs nearby.)
  • Lou Mitchell’s is a Chicago institution that’s been around since 1923 and serves as the official breakfast starting point of many a 66 traveler. We were delighted to find that street parking on Jackson Street near the restaurant was very easy but then again, we were there well past rush hour time. You can’t miss the Lou Mitchell’s neon signage out front. There is both indoor and outdoor eating (and the latter is right next to another Historic U.S. 66 sign). Since it was so hot, we went indoors where we saw some other travelers hauling in their bags! Lou Mitchell’s is famous for handing out mini boxes of Milk Duds as a “starter”; that was the first thing the hostess grabbed from a big bin by the door. I was amused to see a sign over the bin asking customers to please not just snatch up the Milk Duds. Eric ordered the Norwegian salmon and onion omelet and I got the salmon eggs benedict, both with sides of delicious fresh sliced hash brown potatoes, as well as a Chicago chocolate egg cream. Each meal also came with a big slice of toast and a little fruit dish. Everything was absolutely delicious and filling. Since Lou Mitchell’s is famous for its bakery, we couldn’t leave without getting a slice of their marble pound cake (moist and gooooood) for the road, along with a Lou Mitchell’s Route 66 T-shirt. Lou Mitchell’s, you made my morning! And now I’m missing you.
The Lou Mitchell's neon sign

Start your trip off right with a classic 66 breakfast!

And what a great bakery they have!

…And what great baking it is!

  • Iconic and funky fresh signs – I had heard there wasn’t much to see on the first 20 miles or so of 66, but that wasn’t the case for us as we saw plenty. Among many cool signs, we passed the great old Cozy Dog sign with the giant hot dog and fries – “It’s a meal in itself!” along with some other 66 landmarks. There were quite a few I wasn’t expecting such as a hilarious Las Vegas knock-off sign proclaiming WELCOME TO FABULOUS MCCOOK (which is a suburb of Chicago). Eric and I also learned we are a better driving and navigation team than I had thought. Of course, it helped us both out that Illinois marks its old 66 routes very well with the historic brown signs! But because there are multiple different alignments in some areas, it’s a good idea to know exactly where your “must-sees” are.
  • Dell Rhea Fried Chicken is a famous old restaurant in Willowbrook with a great neon sign. The road dead-ends right past the restaurant, so we had to turn around and find our way back on another alignment at that point. We were full from our late breakfast so we didn’t eat at Dell Rhea, but snapped pictures and noted the windows were full of chicken teapots and other tchotchkes!
  • I think Bollingbrook might have been when we started to come across a particularly large number of industrial plants, warehouses and other such buildings. Seeing things like that reminds you of America’s once glorious industrial history and makes you feel like you’re looking at the heart of America … not to get too sappy about it, but it really does. It’s a cool feeling.
  • We passed the White Fence Farm and then the Stateville prison in Joliet. Joliet is definitely where things started to get especially interesting. We came across a giant spooky-themed mini-golf and “fun” complex called Haunted Trails, complete with Dracula and a giant spider on the roof!
  • Rich ‘n’ Creamy ice cream stand at the Route 66 Park –(Rick’s 66 Garage, with some memorable signage, is just across the street) – Elwood and Joliet Jake (otherwise known as the Blues Brothers) dance on the roof of this small shack, once known as the Kreamy Delite, next to a delightful “Kicks on 66” ice cream cone sign. We pulled in to get a treat and stroll through the park. It was there that something hilarious happened. The little stand has one of those small customer service windows that you slide up and down. As the staffer slid the window up to hand us our cones – a chocolate and vanilla twist in each hand – the window suddenly came sliding back down. The hand holding my cone was safely extended past the window, but the other hand was not – and the window sliced right through the middle of the dessert, coming to a stop right on top of the cone held in the man’s hand. I quickly grabbed my cone and then turned away as fast as I could because I was giggling and didn’t want to be rude. The man quickly got Eric a new cone and he rejoined me and we couldn’t help but have a good giggle. As for the ice cream, it tasted just like the stuff that comes out of those self-serve ice cream machines you see in dining halls and on cruise ships. Not really knocking it for that – on a boiling hot day in July, it’s refreshing.
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The Blues Brothers on the roof of Rich ‘n’ Creamy

  • The Route 66 Park (formerly Broadway Greenway Park) surrounding Rich ‘n’ Creamy was great! There were informative plaques, restored vintage gas pumps, walking paths, two great pieces of public art, a playground, and an overlook where you could see the now-shuttered Collins Street Prison in the distance (way in the distance) where parts of The Blues Brothers was filmed.
  • Joliet Historical Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center is located in an old church building, which still has the beautiful stained glass windows in what was once the sanctuary. It’s hard to miss due to the great hanging neon sign right out front. There is also Along with a very friendly staff, there’s a ton of stuff about both Joliet and Route 66 crammed inside. The front of the museum has a large Route 66 exhibit with photo ops, vintage cars, a guest book, more Blues Brothers statues, maps, a great gift shop, guest book, electronic postcard station, and a “drive-in” with videos and recordings. To tour the museum itself, you’ll need to pay an admission fee ($7 person when we were there), which is worth the cost. Joliet is a city that’s obviously very proud of their history and of their Route 66 heritage and they have put a great deal of thought and work into their museum which covers the complete history of Joliet – including a space exhibit about NASA lunar space module innovator John Houbolt, who grew up in Joliet – and it is all extremely well done. (For even more, head into the basement to find loads of Route 66 information on the walls!) We liked it so much we stayed much later than we planned. Eric was particularly thrilled with the temporary  Space:  The Final Frontier exhibit, which featured many original works of art from science fiction novels and movies that he recognized. We also kept coming across random Star Wars figures inside some of the display cases! A staffer explained that these were from a recent Scavenger Hunt for kids and gave us a flyer from the event. How fun! Further proving that sometimes the best part of the old route is the people you meet, we also chatted with two older gentlemen at the museum who told us they were Amtrak train guides, and one of them very kindly gave us free 66 information to take with us! Outside the museum was another great piece of Joliet artwork, Route 66: The Mother Road that I absolutely loved and wish I had a miniature of.
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The Joliet Area Historical Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center is beckoning you! Stay in me for hours and hours!

  • A replica Bluesmobile on a stick (like the ones used for The Blues Brothers movie) can be found in a gas station parking lot as you head out of Joliet.
  • The Gemini Giant is a very famous figure on Route 66, and he’s still located outside the old Launching Pad restaurant as he has been since 1960. The Launching Pad restaurant closed over 3 years ago and hasn’t found a new owner yet, but the inside still looks good – as does the Giant, who posed for pictures with several tourists while we were there. (He is actually a repurposed Muffler Man, and quite tall.) The restaurant’s drive-thru menu in the back mentions some awfully tasty items, so I hope someone will be able to purchase and re-open soon!
  • Polk-a-Dot Drive-In has been on 66 in Braidwood, IL since 1956, as the rotating sign out front proudly proclaims. It’s hard to miss as it’s surrounded by statues of Elvis, Marilyn, and more (and yes, that includes more Blues Brothers!). Stopping for lunch here, we found vintage decorations, tabletop jukeboxes, and a real jukebox that still spins records in the corner. Eric had a cheeseburger and cole slaw and I had a shrimp basket. Everything was delicious – great road fuel! The only thing I didn’t like were the heavy bathroom doors that made me feel silly because I thought someone was in the bathroom when they weren’t and waited outside for at least 5 more minutes than I actually had to! So there’s a tip for you – yank that door HARD! (And there are more decorations behind it!)
  • Driving down the old Route 66 past somewhat heavier traffic on the neighboring Interstate is a fantastic feeling. You’ll love it. There are just a couple of times where you have no choice but to get on the Interstate to bypass a dead-end – often, a part where 66 literally lies under the superhighway.
  • In some areas you’ll find even older parts of the road on the other side of the 66 alignment on which you drive. Some are blocked off and completely undriveable, some dead-end, some stop at a cliff overlooking a lake. We found a particularly old segment in or near Gardner, Illinois, that is being removed; I believe it’s shown on page 197 of this report and if that’s it, the two old lanes were once southbound 66. The pavement is cracking and grass pokes through; faded paint lines can still be seen. In some places nothing remains but weed, green grass and the odd concrete crumble. But it’s in much better shape than other areas we saw! If you pass through Gardner on your way to Dwight, pull over and check this out before it’s gone. You can almost feel the days when 66 was jam-packed with people.
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Southbound lanes of the Mother Road, leading nowhere now.

  • Odell is a small town with a big heart, as its Burma-shave style signs proudly proclaim! (Don’t know what Burma-Shave signs are? Click here. They’re fun – you read each line of a rhyme as you drive along!) There’s a lot to see there, but we were trying to make up for some time, so we just drove through. We did catch sight of a beautifully restored old gas station. I look forward to spending more time here next trip.
  • Meramec Caverns barns can be spotted along the route and there’s a particularly good example in Cayuga, IL with a turnout (overlook) so you can pull in to snap a picture. What’s a Meramec Caverns barn? Meramec Caverns is a Missouri tourist attraction (some say tourist trap), still in existence and very popular today. In the days of 66, farmers along the route were often paid to have an ad for it painted on their Route 66-facing barns. The end result was many, many miles of roads dotted with “barn ads” (much like one might find endless South of the Border ads on the way to Myrtle Beach today). The “barn ad program” was eventually taken out of existence by some lawmaker who found it a nuisance (what does he think about billboards today, I wonder)? and launched a campaign, but many Meramec barns still remain. The Cayuga one is in a good shape.
  • Pontiac is another great small town, well-known for its many beautiful murals. We had a bit of a time getting in and out of Pontiac due to some construction roadblocks. It’s home to the famed Old Log Cabin Inn restaurant, which we somehow completely missed seeing what with all the turning around we were doing.
  • The Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum is an absolute must-see in Pontiac! I wanted to see it so bad that we are lucky we did not get a speeding ticket trying to beat the clock as closing time was near. We made it with less than 10 minutes to spare and the friendly museum staffer was happy to see us. This museum is PACKED inside and out with history, murals, displays, salvaged pieces of red brick road, and saved items from demolished beloved Route 66 sites, such as the Wishing Well Motel wishing well and sign out back! It also has the “Road Yacht” of 66 Hall of Famer, John Steinbeck Award-winner, traveling artist, 66 preservationist, Cars movie inspiration, and vegetarian, the well-loved Bob Waldmire. (We picked up some Bob Waldmire-illustrated postcards at the Joliet Museum gift shop – they’re beautifully done!)
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    One of many great relics behind the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac … and that’s just outside the building.

  • Memory Lane in Lexington and Route 66 Park in nearby Towanda are two attractions that have turned parts of the old road into biking and/or walking paths. You can find informational signs, billboards, and Burma-Shave signs along the way. Many of the Burma-Shave signs are readable if you’re driving on the open alignment of 66 as well. Eric and I delighted in reading these aloud to each other as we passed, with Eric always enthusiastically stating “BURMA-SHAVE!” in an commercial announcer’s voice at the end.
  • Funks Grove Maple Sirup (yes, that’s an intentional typo) has been offering 100% maple syrup – a treat the Funk family has been tapping themselves since at least the 1820s. We passed a billboard for it, but unfortunately were too late to stop in and buy any …
  • Atlanta, IL is home of the Bunyon Man, another Muffler Man statue (like the Gemini Giant), holding a hot dog this time. Right across the street is the historic Palms Grill – we planned to eat dinner there, but at an hour before the closing time I found online, it was shut up tight. We weren’t all that hungry yet, so we decided to just move on, eat the last of our beef jerky, and pull over at the next Route 66 place we found. Sadly, the 66 Arcade Museum next door was also closed!
  • If you’re thinking “I’m noticing a ‘we didn’t have time for …’ theme here”, you’re absolutely correct! The first day was just too jam-packed with activities for two novice 66ers to see it all before closing time. That is one reason I had planned for us to get up and head out to Lou Mitchell’s around 6 AM. We left a tad later than that as I’m never quick to drag my butt out of bed, but we were still in good shape until the tire incident … and the numerous turnarounds, endless roadblocks, and the extra time we found ourselves spending at several sites. Lesson learned so that you don’t have to: Assume Murphy’s Law about starting your day out and leave way more time than you think you need, because sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry! Thankfully, I had planned much lighter days for the rest of the journey. The first day really has way too much good stuff for you to see – and if it’s your first time on the route, you’ll be far more enraptured than you thought (and my excitement level was already high).
  • The aforementioned roadblocks were especially bad in some areas. The road can go for many miles without an easy way to get back to the Interstate if you need it, so that’s another reason you need that extra time. In one of those “all you can do is laugh” moments, Eric and I drove down a long, long stretch of route right alongside I-55 only to find a big fat roadblock waiting for us, and no way around it. We figured out how to go back in the opposite direction to rejoin I-55 and bypass it only to reach THAT end to find … another roadblock! I could almost hear the Mother Road laughing, “Oh, you THINK you’re going to get on the Interstate that ended me!” (The second roadblock was just a hair away from the exit we needed, so Eric just drove around that one.) Anyway – be prepared for situations like this, because that’s one thing I really was not counting on encountering to the level that we did.
  • The Auburn Brick Road is a 1.53 mile stretch of red brick road -yes, real red brick – from 1932 that is still driveable today. This was a must-see for me, but the directions I had made it sound like we would just come across it while passing through Auburn. If you are reading this, know that is not the case and click the link I’ve posted above to see the simple directions to use. We were past Auburn when I realized we hadn’t seen it. My wonderful husband turned around and drove all the way back and we spent a long time going through the cornfields only to never reach it. Eric was obviously miserable from hunger and he hadn’t packed enough road food for himself. (Another lesson learned – don’t skimp on your filling snacks if you eat as much as my hubs does, or really at all.) So after what seemed like a long, long time of fruitless searching, I told him we should get back to I-55, find a late dinner (we never really ate much after the Palms was closed), and take it the rest of the way to our hotel in Raymond (which was still quite a ways away).
  • The Nilwood Turkey Tracks is another thing we had to miss. Nilwood is not far from Auburn, so if you’re traveling the same alignment, you’ll see both.
  • Let me tell you, there is nothing like speeding through miles and miles of cornfields listening to the sound of bug after bug splattering against your windshield. It sounds like big drops of rain falling fast … splat … splat … splat. I grew up in the country with plenty of corn, and I have never seen or heard a dead bug musical quite like that in my whole life.
  • Dinner was at a Hardee’s drive-thru off 66. Not the supper I envisioned for us, but Tendercrisp chicken sandwiches taste pretty damn good when you feel famished. Lesson learned: Never, ever, ever put off eating dinner when you’re “not that hungry.” We should’ve made finding dinner a priority after we found the Palms closed back in Atlanta … and if we couldn’t find a 66 hot spot nearby, well, tough luck. Your car isn’t the only thing that needs fuel for the road, you know.
  • At long last, we made it to our hotel, the Magnuson Grand Hotel and Conference Center, on a very isolated, pitch black stretch of Route 66 in Raymond, IL. (Some sites list this as Carlinville, but others say Raymond, and Raymond is where it is on the map.) I’ll write more about it in my next Route 66 post.) It was quiet, save for some noisy cicadas in the surrounding woods, with a few welcoming lights in the dark. The staff inside was friendly, the indoors was decorated with a delightful nautical theme, and the shower was hot and refreshing. The mattress was comfier than any we’ve slept on in a long time and felt like heaven. The day might not have gone 100% perfectly, but the hotel was perfect, and the next day would be wonderful.

Here’s to Day 2 on the Route … and a return trip next year, to see all we missed! (Let’s be realistic … you can’t see it all in one trip anyway unless you’re out there for months …) Pro tip: Have a traveling partner who can go with the flow and is patient, helpful, resourceful, and a great car buddy. It helps if he/she also has a great sense of humor and can laugh at the little mishaps!

(Sorry, Eric is already taken.)

Road Trip Diaries, Day 2: Where Route 66 Begins – Chicago

Chicago – the Windy City, America’s original Hollywood, and where old Route 66 began for those heading east to west! Yet today, I found out online that, sometimes, folks planning their own first-time Route 66 trip look to skip Chicago and start farther south in its suburbs. I urge you not to do this – you’ll miss some wonderful sights, as well as lose out on the “real feel” of this historic route!

In fact, Day 2 of our road trip was the only day that we did not have to get on the road and go anywhere, because we had planned an extra day in Chicago just to tour the enormous Field Museum of Natural History.

To start off our morning, we exited the hotel, made a right on E. Upper Wacker, and then continued down N. Michigan till we hit E. Randolph. There were multiple towering beautiful buildings greeting us along the way, many with plaques explaining their history. I absolutely love Chicago’s dedication to its architectural past! We started our day with breakfast at the popular Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe, then walked all the way through Grant Park to its end at the Museum Campus. Here are some pictures and highlights of our day.

I love this photo of Eric wandering outside of our hotel!

I love this photo of Eric wandering outside of our hotel!

  • The residential towers pictured below were right across the Chicago River from our hotel – and that’s not very far at all. These towers have been at their current site since 1964 and are part of the larger Marina City complex. The “corncobs” have marinas at their bottoms where they meet the river. The complex originally contained other buildings including offices, a theater, a skating rink, and a concert hall. House of Blues is now in the old movie theater, which has a unique saddle shape (though it’s also known as “the Armadillo”). While we didn’t get a chance to look at this complex up close, we could see activity in the form of cars parking in the lower-level garage floors. It was a little surreal watching cars backing right up to the edge … it looked like a few more feet and they’d go right in the river! Of course, that’s a scenario that has played out in reality in some Hollywood films and TV commercials!
Marina City towers

Marina City towers (note the cars parked in the lower half of the left tower)

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This Ghostbusters trash compactor was spotted on Michigan Avenue.

  • Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe is a very popular eatery in Chicago, as we discovered when we showed up relatively early and found a large crowd already waiting for tables to open. The Randolph Street location of this small Illinois chain is located right across the street from the northern end of Millennium Park. These eateries are well-known for their giant pancakes and massive omelets. Eric and I each had the Napa Valley Fig omelet, which is made with figs, scallions, applewood bacon, and Havarti cheese. He got the fruit for a side, I got the hash browns, and each of us a pancake side (his were the signature buttermilk, mine were fig and walnut multi-grain). The omelet was bigger than a Chipotle burrito and too much for me to finish; it was quite good, but I wished there was more filling to go with all that egg. My pancakes were very tasty, especially with syrup and butter; Eric found he preferred his buttermilk flapjacks (which he wolfed down before I could try them). Too full to walk so much as waddle, we had a long walk ahead of us with more than enough energy to burn off on the way!
  • The 24.5-acre Millennium Park, finished in 2004 and part of the much larger Grant Park, is a convenient walk across the street from Wildberry Pancakes. We entered through Wrigley Square, which has a magnificent fountain (though certainly not the most impressive you’ll see in the Windy City). A short stroll away is the crowd-pleasing Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as “The Bean.” This reflective artwork by Anish Kapoor is a huge crowd favorite, as evidenced by the number of people taking pics in front of it (myself included – can you spot the reflection of Eric snapping the photo)?
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Cloud Gate, better known as The Bean, in Millennium Park

  • I couldn’t help but be amused by the corporate names of the various plazas and promenades in Millennium Park etched in the stone alongside names of human donors – for example, AT&T Plaza, BP Bridge, and Chase Promenade. I wondered what happens when companies inevitably change names or merge with another. As it turns out, it’s happened several times already and they just change the name of the related structure … e.g., Chase Promenade was once Bank One Promenade. I think I’m more old school than I would like to admit, because that’s just weird to me. Of course, I also still find it incredibly odd that we name stadiums and football bowl games after corporate sponsors, too. I know, I know, welcome to the 21st century! By the way, the funniest corporate-named entity in the entire park is easily “McDonald’s Cycle Center”!
  • I’d feel weird if I didn’t mention the popular Crown Fountain at all, which is literally right next to Cloud Gate on the map, but we somehow completely missed it. There were some large events being set up in the park that day so it might’ve been covered up with a tent or something!
  • The Jay Pritzker Pavilion is the park’s famous bandshell which was more impressive up close than I thought it would be. The huge open green space underneath was wildly inviting.
Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Jay Pritzker Pavilion

  • We walked up Nicholas Bridgeway, a lengthy pedestrian bridge that gave us a nice view of the Lurie Gardens and revealed a little courtyard where bees are kept. The bridge ends at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • The aforementioned Lurie Gardens are beautiful – you can find many bees and butterflies buzzing around the various flower plots, as well as humans resting their feet in the cool fountains on a scorching summer’s day.
  • Keep on strolling south out of Millennium Park and into the rest of Grant Park, and you’ll come to Buckingham Fountain, built in 1927, at its spot overlooking Lake Michigan. On our way past it, I worried to Eric that we might miss it. Moments later, it was right there and I realized what a funny thing this was to worry about – this fountain is massive. The cool spraying water beckons one to frolic, but a steel fence around the perimeter keeps would-be bathers out. During certain times of day, the fountain shoots water 150 feet into the air, well above the surrounding treeline. And if you’re planning to visit the fountain on your own Route 66 trip, you might be interested to know that this fountain is widely thought of as the terminus of the old route (although technically, it is not). At the fountain, you’re actually roughly a block away from the real terminus which was at Jackson and Michigan (later Jackson and Lake Shore).
Love and marriage, love and marriage ... glorious Buckingham Fountain

Love and marriage, love and marriage … glorious Buckingham Fountain

The Congress Hotel, built in 1893, has a great view of the Buckingham Fountain.

The Congress Hotel, built in 1893, has a great view of the Buckingham Fountain.

We enjoyed our walk, the terminus of which was to be the Museum Campus, especially since there were plenty of trees to give us shade as the day heated up. Event staff were already in place preparing for the Lollapalooza music festival the following weekend; we watched a young staffer liberally douse his head with a bottle of water. At last, we reached the air conditioned sanctuary …. *drumroll*

  • The Field Museum of Natural History! Part of Grant Park’s Museum Campus, which also includes the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium, this museum opened in 1921 and is known as one of the largest (and most fantastic) natural history museums in the world. Its reputation is well-deserved – it is a national treasure that everyone should visit at least once. To quote a favorite Saturday Night Live character, “This place has everything.” It has so much stuff that there is no way one could possibly see everything in one mere day, even with the “basic” general admission ticket, which is the option Eric and I chose. (The theme music from one of Eric’s favorite YouTube shows, the museum’s The Brain Scoop, seemed to be stuck on replay in our heads throughout the day. :)) Here are a just a mere few examples of the many, many things you can see with the most basic ticket at this museum:
    • SUE – the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered! She’s world-famous, and she’s right there in the atrium (with a replica skull – her real, 600-pound skull is upstairs in the balcony in a display case). SUE is named for the paleontologist who discovered her in South Dakota, Sue Hendrickson.
    • Inside Ancient Egypt – a two-story exhibit full of ancient artifacts, including over 20 mummies. Standing by one of the mummies, I had to giggle when I heard a small boy tell a wide-eyed young companion, “It’s going to come get you while you sleep.”
    • Evolving Planet – an incredible exhibit that takes you through the story of evolution with more fossils than I’ve ever seen in one spot – including some you’re likely not expecting to see, like a giant ground sloth! The exhibit’s amazing dinosaur hall will stun you with the sheer size of some of these things. Even better? Evolving Planet is illustrated with a collection of huge original paintings by Charles Knight.
    • The Gidwitz Hall of Birds seemed to stretch on forever with endless dioramas and displays about just about every bird you can possibly imagine.
    • Wildlife dioramas (along with plenty of others) aplenty, the Grainger Hall of Gems, and the Hall of Jades are just a few others that we (barely) had time for – there were plenty of things we didn’t!
    • When we were there we also found a special temporary exhibit about lichens at the top of a staircase on the upper level!

The front entrance to the Field Museum, which faces Lake Michigan. (Note: The Terracotta Warriors exhibit advertised here is not covered by the cost of your general admission.)

Meet SUE the T. Rex! You won't find anything like her anywhere else in the world.

Meet SUE the T. Rex! You won’t find anything like her anywhere else in the world.

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A stegosaurus fossil poses by the Charles Knight painting, perhaps remembering his youthful glory days …

Other tips, tricks and secrets of the Field Museum:

  • You’ll find plenty of great wildlife dioramas all over the three levels of the museum, but don’t overlook the Sea Mammals exhibits hidden in the basement – check them out on the map you’ll receive with your admission. The rooms with these dioramas are relatively small and filled with cafeteria-style tables, and so they can be easy to walk past on your way to the bigger exhibits.
  • Want to see a once-popular precursor to 3-D printing? You can find at least four vintage-style Mold-A-Rama machines in this museum that will make you your very own plastic dinosaur while you watch, for $2 (at this writing). This type of machine was once exhibited at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, and the idea of creating your own plastic mold was very popular for a time. However outdated the concept may seem to one today, the long lines of kids and families who found these machines in the basement were super excited. Want to make your own Field Museum-stamped green apatosaurus, based on the design originally modeled after the Sinclair Oil mascot at the World’s Fair? Look around the museum basement. (That’s the one I made … heh. Oh come on, you know I wasn’t going to leave without grabbing one.) Just be careful – your new figure will come out a bit hot.
  • You can’t have Chicago without a Chicago-style hot dog! If you get hungry during the day, your museum tickets allow for re-entry – so make sure to check out the Kim and Carlo’s hot dog cart out in front of the museum. You can eat while sitting by Lake Michigan and taking in the breathtaking view of the sail boats on the sparkling water (and the sight of Buckingham Fountain’s water shooting up over the trees, if it’s time for the fountain show). You can even see Chicago’s Navy Pier Ferris Wheel in the distance. Chicago-style hot dogs are served in a fluffy poppy seed bun with yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt. Kim and Carlo’s also serve a vegan version, so non-meat eaters can also enjoy!
  • After a long day spent browsing the museum, head back to Buckingham Fountain and you can grab a cold beer, water or soft drink and some food from outdoor eatery Buck’s Four Star Grill. The brats we ordered were nice and juicy, as were the pretzel buns they came in, but the toppings glopped on them were a bit much for me personally so I’ll get something else next time. The beer we had was A-1, though. It’s a good place to chill while you wait for the fountain show to start or just take a break from the summer heat (or try to).

The next day would find us up and on the road super early for our jam-packed first day of Route 66 … or at least that was our plan! As you’ll see in my next post, it didn’t quite work out that way …

Road Trip Diaries, Day 1: On the Way to Chicago, and Staying in an Inverted Spyglass

Welcome to our road trip diary! This first entry will just cover our drive from Arlington, VA to Chicago; later entries will cover our journey on old Route 66.

Saturday, July 23 – Day 1 of our big road trip found us up early to hit the road for an 11+ hour drive from Arlington to Chicago. We had rented our car the day before. Enterprise didn’t have a standard available, so they upgraded us to an SUV for free – a silver Toyota RAV4. It was comfy enough, roomy, and promised to be able to handle the rough roads of old Route 66 well. The sound system left something to be desired. Oh well, we had a ride! On Saturday morning, after a breakfast of McDonald’s, we were off! I love the first few moments when you hit the road for a vacation and the anticipation is at its height.

Our travels took us through Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana – a new state for me, but not Eric – before finally reaching Illinois and Chicago. Eric is a pro at long drives (literally), and I had done all of the research and planning for the vacation, so that set us up as driver and navigator, respectively. I figured we’d switch at some point, but we never did!

We racked up plenty of tolls along the way as we took the fastest route of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes, and the Indiana Toll Road. I had been down the PA Turnpike several times before and enjoyed seeing the cows, pastures, and mountains once again. At one point we could see a big herd of cows laying in a grove of trees to stay cool. At another, we saw a Pokemon Go player shuffling creepily through a wide open field, smartphone in hand … or maybe it was a zombie. We drove past the wind turbines of Johnstown. But my favorite part of the PA Turnpike is probably going through the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel.image

The Turnpike travel plazas are great, as you don’t have to exit and pay the toll just to get gas or use the restroom. The one we stopped at (North Somerset) was crowded – though not all that bad for a summer Saturday. I was expecting it to be way worse than it was. We picked up pretzel dogs from Auntie Anne’s and a couple of drinks and moved on.

The Ohio Turnpike’s travel plazas were much bigger and nicer (sorry PA) although the scenery was mostly just mile after mile of flat land and farmland. At Erie Islands plaza, we picked up Einstein Bagels for an early dinner, and then Eric found a crane game with an orange dino skeleton that would pick up your prizes for you. I won two things – a goofy wind-up turtle, and a triceratops figure with bright red painted eyes that looked kind of demonic. Eric left the former on the machine for a lucky child to find, and I kept the latter for myself … he was too creepy not to take home for future Halloween decorations.

By the time we reached Indiana, I was getting really punchy and doing this thing I do where I crack up for no reason. We saw more cows and calves running around. We started getting pelted with rain. It was mile after mile of cornfields until we got to the Gary area, but it was very pretty. Originally a country girl myself, I found it relaxing. Also, by this point we’d seen a couple of other interesting vehicles on the road – a car with a Route 66 license plate, plus these guys …

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This antique car first popped up as early as PA … by Indiana we were still driving alongside it at times!

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Check out this awesome Mayberry Sheriff’s Car! Look in the window and you’ll see it’s Barney Fife’s …I loved The Andy Griffith Show as a kid.

At long last, we reached Chicago! The traffic heading into the city was very slow, but no worse than DC’s. The skyline was gorgeous and made the long drive much easier. The sight of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) looming over everything is especially stunning. There was no way to really capture how incredible it was with my camera. We soon learned from walking around the city that Chicagoans are very proud of their architecture, and they have every reason to be. Unique, well-preserved historic buildings are everywhere and they are beautiful.

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The Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge

We noticed a super skinny skyscraper as we headed into the heart of Chicago’s Loop area, and it turned out that was our hotel, the River Hotel. We  dropped off the car with the friendly and extremely helpful valet (and left him a good tip). The price to park valet seems extremely high in Chicago, but the alternative was for us to fumble around in a cramped parking garage ourselves and then haul all our bags … and the garage by itself, no valet, was still very expensive. We checked in at the front desk so late that they actually didn’t have any rooms left in the River Hotel itself, so we got upgraded to the Club Quarters hotel in the same building – and grabbed the very last room. They had oversold and that meant everyone after us would have to be walked over to neighboring hotels.

If you’re wondering how two hotels share the same building, it’s kind of a unique story (at least, it’s the first time I’ve ever encountered this). Our hotel is part of a building known to Chicagoans as “The Inverted Spyglass” – a nickname for the historic Mather Tower (later known as Lincoln Tower). The building was nearly torn down a few decades ago, and in fact, the original four-story cupola was removed. (It’s since been replaced with a new one.) The River Hotel has the rooms all the way up to Floor 10. Club Quarters, which provides hotel rooms for corporate members, has rooms in the octagonal part of the tower starting at floor 11. We were on floor 23. The octagonal tower is very skinny, so our room was small, but very nice for what it was. At the rate we were paying – a downright bargain in the heart of Chicago, right on the River and easy walking distance from Millennium Park – we were not complaining. Our bed wasn’t super comfortable, but it was good enough. The bathroom was tiny, but everything worked, the shower was deliciously hot, the amenities were nice, and most importantly, it was very clean. The room came with a small stash of library books, and there were reusable water bottles out in the hallway with a chilled water station. (I’m also remembering now that they offer free aromatherapy sleep kits and I meant to request one and completely forgot!) The view out of our window faced some great looking skyscrapers. Finally, the downstairs lobby was beautiful. Great attention to detail was paid when renovating this building – it was clear there were originally six elevators, now reduced to four, but the two old elevator spaces in the lobby were cleverly re-purposed as a brochure cabinet and a business center. The gorgeous old elevator dials were left alone even though they no longer worked! A warm and inviting lounge was around the corner with water, coffee, and comfortable chairs. There was also an Italian restaurant downstairs. For Day 2 we had plans to get up early, and we were exhausted from our drive, so instead of eating there, we pretty much just took a shower and crashed.

Day 1 Linkage: 

The view from our hotel window

The view from our hotel window

MapChick Maps: Don’t be a literal mapless traveler on Isla Mujeres!

I went on an unintentional hiatus with this blog right before taking two especially amazing tropical vacations in 2015, including one to the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres (literally “women island”). As a result, I’ve posted little to nothing about either trip, which is a shame as both were wonderful. They also took a lot of planning to make them so great – especially Isla Mujeres.  I couldn’t seem to find any good maps or travel guides to help me out – everything I found was either quite outdated, or was a small part of a much larger travel guide for the Yucatán Peninsula. I had started to just print off whatever decent-looking maps I found on tourism websites online. Then, days before we left, I stumbled across the MapChick set of maps/travel guides for Isla Mujeres. They sounded like exactly what I needed, and I liked that the company is run by a couple who travel frequently to the island, so I took a chance and rush ordered their 4-map set so it would get to us in time! And I am so, so glad I did this, because it made our trip a thousand times easier, and here’s why:

  1. These maps are beautifully illustrated and easy-to-read with clear, large print.
  2. Although the Isla Mujeres maps come in a “4 map set”, you actually get 8 maps divided among 4 brochures!
  3. Each map also functions as a full travel guide, as it has call-out boxes with tips, suggestions, insider info and warnings, and insight, along with showing you where everything is! There is even a suggested self-guided snorkeling tour around the “Secret Beach” which Eric and I tried out and really enjoyed. It added a great deal to our trip!
  4. The set includes a main map that helps you “get to know” the island, while the other maps cover specifics on hotels/rentals, downtown attractions, downtown restaurants, island restaurants, island attractions, and two different self-guided golf cart tours! The golf cart maps were the only ones we never used as we didn’t end up renting a golf cart. It never felt like we were carrying too many maps around as we were able to easily pick and choose the ones we’d like to use at any given moment. The main map also did a great job in getting us acclimated with the entire island.
  5. Considering all that you get and the effort that obviously went into making these, I found the price very reasonable.
  6. There had been a couple of updates since the map set I ordered went to press, so the MapChick team included a handy slip indicating those changes with my order. It was the same size as the folded maps so it was easy to bring along with me as a reminder. I found that to be a very helpful and thoughtful touch that I doubt you will encounter with larger companies.
  7. In addition, if you check the proper box when checking out, you’ll get a great two-sided map of the Cancun airport added to your order, for FREE! (I took this option and was very happy with it!)

If you’re looking for a great map and/or travel guide to Isla Mujeres, I don’t think you can do any better than MapChick. They also carry maps for other areas of the Yucatan Peninsula, and provide helpful information and a digital vacation planner and fish identification guide right on their website! It’s so much fun to browse around. Check it all out at the MapChick website right here.

Route 66: A Success

We are back from our road trip, which included the first third (or so) of old Route 66 here in the good old USA! I am pleased to report it was a success, although we do have some lessons learned and tips to share with you. I will be sharing all of those in the days ahead as I will make posts for each day to share our daily trip diary, including sights seen, recommendations, pitfalls, opinions, and much more. Happy travels! And if you’re planning a Route 66 trip of your own, let me say now that yes … it’s worth it! In addition to the fun you’ll have, it will give you a major shot of confidence after you’ve pulled it off!

Let’s hit the road! Planning for Route 66

My husband Eric, always game (to date) for every travel adventure I’ve pulled him into, and I are about to start out on our next “big” vacation – a road trip that includes most of the first half of old Route 66. We’ll start in Chicago and stop at Oklahoma City for the historic part of the trip, hopefully returning next year to finish OKC all the way to L.A. and the Santa Monica pier. Given that the “Mother Road” was decommissioned from the 1970s through the 1980s and technically no longer exists, it’s not surprising that planning this trip has been an adventure all its own. Here’s a few things I have learned:

  1. …That folks around the metropolitan DC area, where I live and work, confuse old Route 66 with Interstate 66 all the time. I can’t blame them, but the sad fact is that it’s the interstate highway system that “killed off” Route 66 and other roads like it. I-66 has the number 66 because that number was up for grabs once the old route was decommissioned.
  2. …People wonder how on earth I’ll drive on a road that doesn’t exist anymore. Once again, I can’t blame them for asking, because I worried about this myself. The route isn’t in your average map, atlas, or GPS. But my second lesson learned is that there is a TON of great information out there including enthusiastic travel guides, turn-by-turn directions, and painstakingly hand-drawn and illustrated maps. Which brings me to my third lesson …
  3. …People LOVE America’s “Mother Road”! It’s not just something that seems kind of neat to learn about if you’ve read The Grapes of Wrath or On the Road or watched the movie Cars or heard the famous song about “getting your kicks”. There is an entire community of roadies devoted to this road, there are clubs and organizations dedicated to its preservation, and there are authors who eagerly pen their own travel guides and publish gorgeous books full of pictures and memories. Folks run websites and blogs and fundraisers, and they eagerly get the word out about all the mom-and-pop businesses that have survived the years, as well as the new ones that have arrived more recently. Visitors from around the world ask “old-timers” on the forums what to plan, where to stay, and how to rent cars and buy gas/petrol in the U.S. Every year, there are travelers coming from all over the world to tour Route 66 and see our big beautiful America this way – it’s a legendary bucket list trip for many. Isn’t that amazing? You could say the road technically breathed its last breath back in 1985, but it’s for sure not dead!

For more information on the old route, check out the following for starters:

You know South Carolina’s Grand Strand. Now what’s the Hammock Coast?

If you’re a South Carolina beach lover like my family, then you of course adore the famous Grand Strand – that gorgeous 60+ miles of sand that includes the wildly popular Myrtle Beach. But you might not have heard of the part of it that has recently become known as the “Hammock Coast“.

Back in 2010, the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce voted on a new name to use in branding efforts for Georgetown’s beaches and other visit-worthy areas. The discussion came down to two names: Hammock Coast and Chicora Coast. Georgetown includes Pawleys Island, which is the birthplace of the cotton hammock, while Chicora name comes from the Chicora Native Americans. (The Pawleys Island area is also reportedly known as Chicora.) In the end,  Hammock Coast won and the marketing efforts  began.

The Hammock Coast area of the Grand Strand includes the following areas:

  • Georgetown
    • This is the city within the County and the County Seat, which has a great harbor, boardwalk, restaurants, and shops and plenty of history. My family and I visited this city in 2014 and loved it. The historic downtown area suffered a devastating fire in 2013, so I would encourage you to pay a visit yourself and lend your support to the many small businesses that remain.
  • Garden City
    • We stay in Garden City for a week at the end of summer each year and it is a wonderful place to be. Garden City straddles the line between Horry and Georgetown Counties. It’s well known for its small “downtown” area near the beach, which includes a little amusement park, delicious Sam’s Corner diner, Pavilion arcade, Painter’s ice cream, the famous Garden City Pier, and a plethora of other shops.
  • Murrells Inlet
    • This town is directly south of Garden City; you can actually see the titular inlet from many of the houses on the main drag of Garden City. We visit the inlet quite frequently for kayaking, eating, and just plain strolling around.
  • Pawleys Island
    • This is a little town that we may visit this summer.
  • Litchfield Beach
    • This is an unincorporated area north of Pawleys that sounds like a quieter community.
  • Andrews
    • This is a small town that is located in both Georgetown and Williamsburg counties.

So far the marketing efforts for Hammock Coast seem to be pretty low-key. Although at one point there were plans to include a pop-up ad with a “vacation interruptor” figure that implored visitors not to visit, thankfully that gimmick seems to have been dropped as best I can tell.

I didn’t even realize there was a branded name for our part of “the Strand” until I saw the name in a guide last year! Frankly, I appreciate that. I absolutely love the name and think it neatly combines the history of the area with the true relaxed vibe of the county. However, part of the appeal of the area is that it feels like a nice low-key little beach town, and a more in-your-face marketing campaign would belie that. After all, if we wanted to go really commercial, we’d just head back up north to Myrtle Beach!

You can visit the official Hammock Coast website here.