Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.
2008 was by far our least favorite road trip to date, and still holds the ignominious title as of 2018. Driving out to Virginia Beach to see the ocean seemed like a good idea at the time. We weren’t prepared for the medical issues that plagued me all week long. We were disappointed with the beachfront tourist-trap economy. Worst of all, we learned the hard way that we’re simply not beach people. Our next vacation had to be better. Step one was plain enough: we looked at Anne’s brainstorming list of future road trips and chose the one that screamed “dream vacation”.
That’s what led to our long, long drive out to the farthest reaches of South Dakota and beyond. If you know anything about American tourism, you know some of the most iconic landmarks and attractions located way out there. South Dakota would be our most ambitious trip yet. At nine days it was the longest we’ve ever taken. The farthest point of 1,180 miles made it the longest drive of our lives. It would be the farthest west we’d ever been up to that time. It was also our first vacation using exclusively digital cameras to record the experience, leaving behind the 35mm film of our childhoods forever. They weren’t expensive cameras for their kind, certainly not the most advanced as of 2009, but we did what we could with the resources and the amateur skill sets available to us.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
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DAY ONE: Friday, June 12th.
The morning was spent dropping off the dog at the kennel, picking up the rental car and packing it up. After a couple of rough starts (I insisted on going back for an umbrella and some traveling CDs), we inched through a local McDonald’s drive-thru for lunch and ate on the road. At first I kept the CDs in the back and settled for commercial radio throughout the Purdue University area, but repeated omens like Drivin-n-Cryin’ and AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” kept trying to haunt the first leg of our trip with pessimistic foreshadowing. I had to put that to a stop.
Unlike our other trips, this one would start with something completely different: a friendly tour guide. Mindy is a Chicago native we knew from one of our longtime internet communities, who was also among the dozens we previously met in person at the Star Wars Celebrations in 2002 and 2005. For our first two days, we’d made plans with Mindy to check out Chicago in general and one special event in particular.
I’d only been to the Chicagoland area twice before: once in 1993 when a coworker and I drove up for a day, walked up and down the Magnificent Mile, spent very little, and took no photos. In 1999 Anne and I tried our first Wizard World Chicago up in Rosemont, which was a groundbreaking experience for us but had allowed zero minutes for any other Chicago-related activities. Mindy offered to take us on our first real Chicago walkthrough.
Several hours into the long day, we arrived in the Chicago suburb where our hotel was and where we had arranged to pick up Mindy from work. Anne went inside and tried not to feel like an out-of-place tourist, but all went well. Mindy directed us to her neck of the woods where she gave us a driving tour of the scenic suburb of Riverside, IL. In our opinion their best attraction is closed to the public: Mindy’s own expansive garden, which was beautiful enough that it was featured in a photo spread in the June 2008 issue of Better Homes & Gardens. On our scorecard, magazine-famous beats internet-famous.
Then she taught us how to use the train. We don’t have a real train in Indianapolis so this was a new, fun, scary thing for us. A real live train where we could sit — or, in our case, stand — that went fast and had bathrooms and everything. We owe special thanks to the conductors for failing to ask for our tickets that we hadn’t bought.
We chatted on the way to downtown Chicago and made the appropriate out-of-towner rubbernecked gawking as soon as we hit the pavement. For maximum Chicago ambiance and character, Mindy guided us around several blocks’ worth of the Loop, a bit more “real” than the Magnificent Mile, using terms relatable to me. The Loop is older, darker, and grungier, standing as it does in the shadows of so many skyscrapers. I was fascinated.
We walked all the way from Union Station to Millennium Park, not a short stroll. At least two of us didn’t mind. Among other impressive fixtures, we spent a while watching the Crown Fountain, a reflecting pool with a pair of five-story black towers fronted by LED displays that rotate digital photo-art of the faces of assorted Chicago citizens.
Nearby, an entire orchestra played a free concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater encased in an extravagant metal shell. We hung out for a number or two. The description of that gig at the time: “Bernstein’s celebration of urban waterfronts is paired with Shostakovich’s monumental hymn to Russian forests in a tour-de-force of music evoking nature.”
We continued wandering downtown, looking at sculptures and architecture while Mindy played tour guide — identifying buildings, telling us about the city, and pointing out the Dunkin Donuts franchises on every other corner. Chicago was a city of many corners — some were unique, but many others repeated the same businesses over and over like a Hanna-Barbera background.
We also stopped at two captivating sights that will receive their own chapters shortly. We ate dinner at a place called Potbelly Sandwich Works, a sub shop with olde-tyme rustic big-city ambiance. I really liked it, but I was sad when we walked past two more just like it later that night.
It was 9 p.m. by the time we wrapped up. We hung out in the nigh-deserted Union Station until a late-late train came to our rescue and returned us to Riverside. We parted ways with Mindy for the time being and returned to our hotel up in Oak Brook’s fancy business district, where somehow my AAA membership had gotten us a steal of a hotel deal. The place was so posh and fawning that I had to wonder what they did wrong to merit a mere three-diamond rating.
To be continued!
1. Our “farthest west” travel record was later conceded to our 2012 and 2015 trips to Colorado. More specifically, the mountainside town of Woodland Park, CO, is my westernmost life experience to date. Until and unless we ever save up enough vacation time and airfare to hit that Pacific west coast. Someday. This we swear.
2. Potbelly finally came to Indianapolis a few years ago. My last sandwich from them, part of a large group order, was topped with warmed-up lettuce and tomato, reminding me of what McDonald’s sandwiches tasted like if you left them in the heating bins for more than twenty minutes. My pleasant memory of our initial encounter has been tainted ever since.
3. In 2013 we made time during a weekend shopping trip to visit the Gene Siskel Film Center and catch an obscure documentary. One of the more apropos offerings, really.
4. After this inside look at Chicago, we would later add twice-yearly visits to the Windy City to our list of traditions, with our future excursions to Wizard World Chicago and C2E2. Our 2009 walkabout went a long way toward expanding our comfort level with this city that mightily dwarfs our not-so-small hometown.]
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[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]