Our 2006 Road Trip, Part 2: This is Our Hill and These Are Our Beans

[The very special miniseries continues! See Part One for the official intro and context.]

Day 1: Saturday, July 22nd

We packed quickly, then hit the open road after a quick stop to air up the tires — all four of which were low — and shut off that dashboard light at last. The first few hours from Indianapolis to Chicago were mostly uneventful, unless you count my hairbreadth near-miss of an interstate exit sign I’d been seeking in Chicago. To steer clear of the wrong turnoff and avoid the line of cars steamrolling past us in the proper lane, I had to drive up onto the raised median between the forks in the road. I could blame the rampant Chicago interstate construction, or I could blame my proclivity for occasional concentrated daydreaming at inopportune moments. Or I could take the easy, responsibility-free way out and blame society. Either way, no way could I have pulled that move in my own car, a ’96 Cavalier, without sailing right off both axles. For once, the day was saved, thanks to…the SUV!

Once we were well past the heavy reconstruction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, we stopped briefly in Lake Forest for gas, then motored out of Illinois, into Wisconsin, and on to the pretty, pretty town of Pleasant Prairie, where the local botanists worked overtime to make a good first impression on travelers. A few miles east of the exit was our first tourist attraction of the trip, the Jelly Belly Factory, proud makers of jellybeans and jellybean accessories.

Jelly Belly Beetle!

I hear this car’s engine ran on jellybeans instead of gas, but then GM bought it and dropped it into the Mariana Trench.

The factory offers free tours to any and all comers, and already had a line when we arrived. Our trip began just inside the warehouse, where we boarded a shuttle bus parked next to a selection of artwork made entirely out of jellybeans. Jellybean portraits of the Statue of Liberty, the elder George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan in a parodic Superman costume warn visitors that the Jelly Belly folks are more than a little enamored of their product and its uses.

Paper hat.

Not the last time I’d don a paper hat on this vacation.

As a Board of Health condition, all of us were required to wear paper hats. We quashed my son’s attempt to refuse the hat…although maybe I shouldn’t’ve told him how, when I was a McDonald’s manager years ago, we used to punish people who forgot to bring their uniform caps to work by forcing them wear hats as goofy and as flimsy as these. He remained irked at his hat the whole time, but my nostalgia and shamelessness made me a much better sport.

The shuttle bus drove us through a thirty-minute presentation about Where Jellybeans Come From (including a momentary digression on taffy creation), combining the driver’s narration, wall-monitor footage, and occasional exhibits of jellybean-manufacturing equipment past and present. Special attention was paid to new posters and ceiling hangers boasting of the forthcoming release of The Ant Bully, in which Jelly Belly products would be product-placed as major MacGuffins. We were told photos were forbidden throughout the tour due to copyright concerns…because we certainly wouldn’t want the M&M/Mars Company using their more chocolatey products to plagiarize their paintings, not even the all-jellybean picture of the Art Institute of Chicago we saw later in the tour, or the long kickline of dancing jellybean statues, or the enormous Jelly Belly logo comprised entirely of five-pound bags of sugar.

After the tour we were herded into the Jelly Belly gift shop, where you could have free samples of various flavors and varieties. I loved my cappucino jellybean; my wife dug her chocolate-covered macadamia nut; my son was not remotely thrilled with his sample Gummi, which was fish-shaped and, according to his accusation, fish-flavored. I was overjoyed to pick up some sugar-free jellybeans in popcorn and pineapple flavors, while my son took advantage of the numerous bulk bins and grabbed himself a handful of a dozen-plus different flavors of jellybeans. With all of us caught up in the moment — our first true moment of hardcore tourism on this trip — we failed to track just how many jellybeans he’d grabbed until his accumulated bulk-bag weighed in at just over two pounds. At eight bucks a pound, my wife and I agreed his snack budget for the entire vacation just waved bye-bye. It’s not as though we could just put them back one by one.

To offset the incident budgetarily, our lunch plan was downgraded from the Culver’s by the nearest interstate exit to the McDonald’s next door.

Jelly Belly Hop!

Even the Jelly Belly mascot observes the mandatory hat laws. And wants to hug you THIIIIS much.

(In a desperate attempt to abide by my body’s usual intake limits, I confined myself to the sugar-free section, which I didn’t expect to exist in the first place. The popcorn and pineapple flavors were on-target, but the texture on their sugar-free candies is unpleasant all around, with one exception: their sugar-free fudge toffee. Those worked for me.

In thinking back, I think my son tried more on the order of two dozen flavors, rather than the single dozen cited above. Jelly Belly also makes the Harry Potter “Bertie Bott’s Beans”, only a few varieties of which were available that day. I’m pretty sure he avoided the ear-wax flavor this time, which he’s encountered before. I seem to recall him specifically complimenting the root beer and green apple flavors. Any sour-fruit flavor is aces in his book.

I was surprised to see they offered a Dr. Pepper flavor, too. You might like the margarita, pina colada, or strawberry daquiri flavors.)

From there it was a block over to the Wisconsin Welcome Center for much-needed leg-stretching, admiring of scenery, and quick photography. My wife likes having pictures of the welcome signs of the states we visit. So far, Wisconsin wins our award for Best State Welcome-Sign Design:

Welcome to Wisconsin!

Our first foray into scenic Wisconsin, land of cheese, Brewers, and Packers.

Most states slap three colors of paint on a square of sheet metal, bolt it onto a post, and call it a welcome sign. Wisconsin cared enough to put money, effort, flags, and extra-credit topiary flourishes into theirs. Kudos.

(On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Unwelcome Raspberry Award still goes to Oklahoma, which in 2005 had not one single welcome sign to confirm that we ever crossed its border. Either Oklahoma was too rude to welcome us, or it was trying to lie low because some other state wanted to beat it up and take its lunch money.)

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. The ’96 Chevy Cavalier mentioned in the first paragraph lasted me from 1998 to 2011, my longest-lived car to date. I spent five years paying on it and eight years living a joyous life without car payments.

2. Jelly Belly still offers free factory tours, including the same old indoor train, along with a look at some new product called a Belly Flop, which sounds like something you’d find in the Clearance section because it got mangled on the assembly line.

3. Tourist attractions that won’t let you take photos inside are MEAN.]

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]

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