Welcome to my third annual Roger Ebert entry!
On the occasion of the noted film critic’s passing on April 4, 2013, I wrote at length about the impact he and his partner/rival/dear friend Gene Siskel had on me at an impressionable age. In 2014 I wrote about Steve James’ documentary Life Itself, which unexpectedly became a chronicle of Ebert’s final days as cancer took its toll. (We’ve also visited the Chicago theater named after Siskel, but that doesn’t count. Wrong guy.)
Here we are again with another Ebert tribute after a brief stopover in his hometown. We weren’t even supposed to be there that day.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Each year from 2003 to 2013 my wife, my son, and your humble writer headed out on a long road trip to anywhere but here. Our 2014 road trip represented a milestone of sorts: our first vacation in over a decade without my son tagging along for the ride. At my wife’s prodding, I examined our vacation options and decided we ought to make this year a milestone in another way — our first sequel vacation. This year’s objective, then: a return to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In my mind, our 2006 road trip was a good start, but in some ways a surface-skimming of what each state has to offer. I wanted a do-over.
We started Day Seven in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, grabbing a convenient chain-restaurant breakfast before hitting the road. The closer we come to the end of every road trip, the more our craving for new experiences recedes and we’re once again drawn toward cheaper, more utilitarian meals as part of the transition back to mundane, everyday living.
Sometimes surprises interrupt the transition when we least expect it. Consider, if you will, Pinkie the Pink Elephant. We stopped for gas at a random station in DeForest, WI, and there she stood. She has her very own entry on Roadside Attractions, which my wife and I consult regularly when planning every vacation. We had no idea, never knew she was a thing. We came for the pumps, we stayed for the pachyderm.
(That page link includes a touching note from the station’s current owners about their story and why they renamed the station.)
Our only planned stop for the day was Historic Auto Attractions. We assumed lunch afterward would be fast food, but I was feeling restless and brave. We exited I-39 near Rockville, IL, and ventured a few miles into town to scope out our choices. After several unimpressed minutes I was this close to surrendering and swerving into a Taco Bell when I spotted a restaurant-shaped building down the way called GreenFire.
We walked inside to dense, wooden decor and several TVs around the dining room showing episodes of Chopped. Anyone who knows us well should know that really spoke to us. We tried to stick to the less expensive items, with mixed results, budgetarily speaking. Of the food quality itself, we quite approved.
While we ate, I double-checked the last leg of our route on my phone and found sources telling me I-65 from Chicago to Indianapolis was apparently one long, unusable DMZ because of summer road construction and thousands of typical Friday rat-race escapees from each city traveling to the other and clogging up its inadequate lanes. Every mapping app kept telling me to avoid I-65 if I valued my gas and my calm.
Thankfully I found a way to circumnavigate not only the I-65 gridlock but all of Chicago itself. It’s a fantastic city if you’re stopping for a visit, but driving through Chicago just to get through Chicago is a tedious chore of the worst road construction in all the Midwest, lots of repetitive stopping and starting, and roving packs of wild drivers slightly more aggressive than I am. Stopping in Chicago makes the driving worth it. Not-stopping in Chicago is pain. Enormous pain.
My wife waited with the patience of a saint while I did some searching, scribbled some notes in my handy spiral notepad, and set a new course for our next 180 miles via I-39, which would take us due south through Illinois to I-74, in turn taking us east and all the way home. As luck would have it, this backup path took us through the city of Champaign, which I knew was Roger Ebert’s childhood home and had recently added a new roadside attraction.
The official Roger Ebert statue was dedicated April 2014 at EbertFest, the annual film festival Ebert himself spearheaded but which has continued in equally capable hands since his passing. Three months after its debut, our first trip to Champaign, albeit improvised, gave me an excuse to see it for myself.
Today, downtown Champaign seems small, decidedly urban, modest, maybe a bit cramped. This past winter I read Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself (the book that in turn spurred James’ film), which includes essays reprinted from his blog, a blow-by-blow recount of his cancer years, stories from his assorted Hollywood encounters, and tales of his formative years on the Chicago journalism scene bumping elbows with the likes of Mike Royko and Ann Landers. Before all that, Ebert waxed eloquent about his Champaign/Urbana upbringing, the good and the bad, including warm memories of going to the theater with his father — not only the occasional film, but good ol’ vaudeville, which was still a widespread thing at the time. Among the institutions favored with a mention, the Virginia Theatre is where Ebert’s statue now sits as a reminder of his legacy, and as a nod to future moviegoers entering the Virginia for their own entertainment, to create their own memories.
About his book, I wrote in altered form for online friends after I finished:
“Ebert was my all-time favorite film critic, even when I disagreed with him, even when his thoughts on religion drove me up a wall. I read it slowly over six weeks’ worth of lunch breaks and kept emailing quotes and highlights to my wife daily because I wanted to keep savoring moments of it whether she cared or not. Ebert lived life the way a seasoned critic ought to: got bitten by the writing bug while young, got out of the house, got an education, became a certified journalist, spent years establishing his career, traveled worldwide, made lots of poor life choices, cleaned himself up, and then started reviewing movies, but only because someone assigned the duty to him and not because he was dying for a job that let him sit around, watch stuff, scribble adjectives on Post-Its, and get paid. Millions of wannabes have taken what they perceive as the road more easily traveled, but that’s not the route Ebert took at all.”
I wish we could’ve done more while we were in town, but we’d driven over 400 miles since morning and had another 100 miles to go before we could sleep. I pinned a mental note to revisit Champaign properly on some as-yet-unplanned future road trip. We grabbed snacks and more gas before passing the city limits, and cruised the rest of the way back to Indianapolis as one long, uninterrupted tracking shot.
My dinner that evening was a couple of microwaved hot dogs. To me, they were exactly what they needed to be.
To be continued. Coming soon: outtakes!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]