Jun. 13th, 2009

occultatio: (Default)
Time on road: 9 hours
Distance covered: 485 miles

Total driving time: 24.5 hours
Total distance: 1259 miles

This was a big driving day, as the numbers indicate: our goal was to power through as much of the boring parts of the trip as possible in a single go, giving us more time for the fun stuff in Wisconsin. We drove from Erie to Cleveland first thing in the morning, arriving at about 10:30 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Tickets were expensive at $22 each, and they slowed down the line by making everybody pose for photos with an electric guitar before buying them, but the museum itself was pretty neat. There were a whole lot of "famous outfits used on stage" by big stars, and a metric ton of neat memorabilia. Probably the coolest single item was Billy Joel's notebook in which he composed "We Didn't Start the Fire," from which I learned that the lyrics are actually divided into different years at regular intervals, and not just a random collection of historical name-dropping moving generally forward in time.

The museum was also advertising a special exhibit on Bruce Springsteen, which confused me inasmuch as his whole image is as the anti-rock-star, a songwriter in a t-shirt and blue jeans, and I had no idea what would be on display. Turns out: not that much. A bunch of pages from his journals, a bunch of concert posters, and, like, a totally ordinary chair and desk "at which many of his songs were written."

Afterwards, we attempted to find lunch in downtown Cleveland, which involved on the whole far too much walking through downtown Cleveland until we found a little noodle place billing itself as one of those "healthy lunch" alternatives for corporate shirts. It probably was healthy, really, but the ambiance was thrown completely off by their use of heavy styrofoam cups for all their drinks. Still: rice noodles in peanut sauce with a glass (/styrofoam) of limeade = a much better lunch than we expected to find in Cleveland.

(Checklist, for those playing along at home: we saw the poor people all wait for buses, a guy with at least two DUIs and the thing they think is art. We did not see, despite keeping an avid eye out the window, the river that catches on fire or a statue of Moses Cleveland (the guy who invented Cleveland). It was also gray and rainy, as promised. We noticed the irony, as we were leaving, that those videos had actually served as genuine tourism videos in the end.)

Next came the marathon drive to Chicago. Armed with the address of a pizza place/gelateria highly recommended on Yelp, we set out at about 1:30, Eastern time, and arrived just before 7 PM, Central time, after 6 1/2 hours on the road, the last hour of which was spent traversing the last 15 or so miles from the highway to the restaurant. What the Yelp page didn't mention, or at least mention where I had seen it, was that the restaurant (which turned out to actually be a small Italian grocery store) closed at 7, a fact we discovered ourselves when the owner locked the door behind us as we entered, so that nobody else could come in.

Thus, we ended up eating at another Italian restaurant that Alexa had spotted a half mile away, which had an ambiance I can only describe as "like one of those places your grandparents took you when you were younger." It was called, for instance, "Al's." The lack of a double possessive was refreshing, the portions were huge and the quality was totally fine, especially the melted mozzarella which was basically troweled on top of my chicken parmesan. We ate until we were full, and then Alexa observed that we both desperately needed fruit, inasmuch as she felt totally stuffed but was still attempting to eat her tomato sauce.

This was accomplished by finding what turned out to be a Mexican supermarket a few blocks away, where we got a whole bunch of very cheap and not very good plums, along with a 12-pack of Pineapple Crush soda, because wtf. (The rationale was actually: "If it sucks, we can save it and drag it out at parties and make people drink it!") Finally, we found a Motel 6 a few miles away from the city center, and stopped for the night
occultatio: (Default)
Time on road: 7.5 hours
Distance covered: 330 miles

Total driving time: 32 hours
Total distance: 1589 miles

Another bright and early start found us trying to get to Millenium Park at about 8:30 in the morning, right during rush hour traffic. We had some extensive disagreements with our GPS, which insisted that it would be faster to take a side road than sit on the slow-moving highway but later proved to be completely incapable of taking delays on such side roads into account. Delays like, for instance, traffic lights.

So at about 9:15 we finally got there, and then spent another quarter hour searching for parking that cost under $19 (the official Millenium Garage had a reasonable half-hour rate, but an 8-hour minimum). We were told to look for metered parking on Columbus Ave, but this was tricky inasmuch as several blocks of this street were closed off for the Chicago Blues Festival, starting that afternoon. We both agreed that the festival looked cool, but insufficiently so for us to change our travel plans, and so we settled with parking a ten-minute walk away from Millenium Park and hiking it.

Once there, we saw everything that we had been instructed to not miss, including the fountains with the faces and the giant chrome jelly bean, which was in fact amazingly trippy (when you stand directly underneath it and look straight up, you see your reflection through what looks like a tall tunnel, only it's not mirror-reversed.) We were duly appreciative, and then hustled back to the car before the meter ran out of time.

Next: back onto I-90! What followed was either the worst or the second-worst driving conditions on the trip to date; I'm still not sure. For about twenty miles, we were stuck in slow-moving traffic, with trucks instructed to use the left lane, slow idiots not realizing that they should also, therefore, be in the left lane, our car keeping pace with a convoy of about three trucks which took turns passing us, narrow shoulders and an enormous, dusty construction zone along the right side of the highway. For TWENTY MILES.

Oh, also, Illinois's approach to a "toll road" turns out to be having everybody pay a tiny, incremental toll every 30 miles or so. Cars paying cash, over to the far right side, please.

So anyway we spied an outlet mall by the side of the road and, reasoning that where there are outlet malls, there is food, we pulled off. We bought some swimsuits for the Dells later on, and got lunch in the food court. I was sad about effectively breaking my "no chain restaurants" streak, but the stall I went up to was at least a chain I had never heard of before -- it appeared to be a Vienna Sausage branded hot dog stand. The guy behind the counter was really friendly, and tried to shame me into having my hot dog "Chicago style" (which includes mustard, relish, onion, tomato, pickle and like five other things of which plain old ketchup is not one). I eventually persuaded him into giving me a dog with ketchup by agreeing to also take it with tomatos and keep the pickle on the side, and in the final preparation he insisted on adding a sprinkling of celery salt. Somewhere during these negotiations, I asked whether this was, in fact, a chain, and he proudly responded that it was no such thing, just his own little restaurant. So: the streak is still alive! The hot dogs were pretty good, too.

Afterwards, we had clear sailing to the House on the Rock, our next stop of the day. The House on the Rock turns out to be literally an hour away from ANYWHERE else in Wisconsin. This means that it takes a while to get to, but fortunately the roads on the way there are absolutely beautiful. We passed through twenty miles of farm country amidst rolling green hills, and it was the perfect antidote to the cramped conditions earlier.

The House itself actually proved to be exactly as crazy and awesome as advertised, beginning with the 10-foot tall giant copper urns covered with dozens of flower boxes and enormous copper lizards which lined the entry drive. The House has three segments, and we only did the first of them, taking us through the Gatehouse, the Original House and the Infinity Room. The two former locations are... I really have no idea how to describe them. Imagine a house built by tunnelling wombats and decorated by an insane Japanese emperor stuck in a time warp to the 60s, and you might have some idea. It was dark, cramped, lit by crazy blue lights from behind intricate carved wooden screens, carpeted on all surfaces including the ceiling and filled with uncountable numbers of Tiffany lamps, statues and busts of the Buddha, lacquered cabinets and mechanical orchestras playing jaunty tunes to visitors.

Alexa has pictures -- this is one of those places that words simply cannot do justice to. For instance, there's the Infinity Room, a long, windowed corridor jutting out 50 feet into empty space, where the end of the corridor narrows to a point in such a precise way as to give the illusion that it goes on forever. There's also a window in the floor at the far end, through which you can look down and see the treetops many meters below. I lasted until we started hearing the wood creak, at which point vertigo kicked in.

We stopped at this point, saving the other two parts of the tour for the next day, and headed off towards Wisconsin Dells, the Waterpark Capital of the World. They have something like 22 different water parks, many of them indoors so that tourism can continue through the winter. We were headed to the Kalahari, on the theory that it was open later than anything else and also had a special evening-only rate. We stopped just outside House on the Rock to secure a motel room for the night, and then proceeded to utterly fail to find the goddamn resort.

There were billboards for it, with no address or instructions. It was not on either of the two main roads through town. When we stopped briefly to pick up the official Wisconsin Dells tourism magazine, we discovered that its full page advertisement contained no useful information. When we called the toll-free reservations number listed in that ad, the lady gave us the wrong address. We called Alexa's dad, who was pretty sure that you could see the resort from the interstate that ran outside town, and so we spent fifteen minutes driving up and down, and failed to see it.

At long last, at about the point where I was starting to be rude to people on the phone out of frustration, we officially gave up and decided to just park in downtown Wisconsin Dells and walk around the main street. The main street was functionally identical to five hundred other tourist towns -- fudge shops, t-shirt shops, ice cream parlors, souvenier shops, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum -- but the weather was gorgeous and we were able to relax and decompress. It took until the fourth fudge shop for Alexa to find a place that would sell her only a quarter pound, and I got some fairly disappointing soft-serve, but by the time we got back to the car an hour later we were both in much better moods.

(As an aside: the one unusual type of store in Wis Dells was for moccasins, of which there were about six. Is this some Thing of which I was unaware, that Wisconsin is famous for moccasins, or is it utterly random? It made me wonder whether the Chamber of Commerce didn't just get together one day and decide, okay, the new thing is moccasins. We will open up seven million shops advertising moccassns, and all the tourists will assume that, when one goes to Wisconsin Dells, one purchases moccasins.)

(Also: how can a quarter-mile strip of land support four different "old-timey photographs of yourself" stores?)

Once filled up with the Dells, we drove back to our motel, passing OF COURSE the goddamn Kalahari resort within, literally, five minutes.

Actually, wait: here is the thing you need to know about our GPS. Our GPS is a Garmin Nuvi, a birthday gift from my parents. It operates by a simple algorithm, in which it lays out a straight line from your current location to your destination, and then finds the best fit along streets, regardless of highway/road division or any sort of efficiency. For instance, on the way up from Chicago it had us get in an exit lane from the highway, and then keep left to get right back on the highway 300 feet later, because the exit lane was straight while the highway curved in a gentle arc.

The next thing you need to know is that Spring Green, where the House on the Rock and our motel were, is IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE.

The last thing you need to know is that, about ten minutes after we left Wisconsin Dells, it began to rain hard.

Result: driving down obscure, twisty country back roads, in pitch black save for our headlights, while our wipers made a mess of the windshield. Every ten minutes or so, a car would pass us going the other way, and the glare from their lights would be so bad that we would have to slow down to basically nothing until they passed and we could see again. Also, at some particularly privileged spots along State Route 60, the road would be slightly warmer, and so mist would be hovering in solid-looking wisps about five feet above the surface until we drove through them and they bent around our car EXACTLY like mournful ghosts. It was the sort of drive where, being a young couple, if we had pulled over we would have been killed by an ax murderer. Alexa confessed some surprise, afterwards, that we didn't see a hitchhiker. It sucked, in other words, but after about an hour we finally made it back to the motel and turned in for the night.


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