Our 2009 Road Trip, Part 5: Harry Potter and the Magic of Science

Trek medical!

Sure, you could curate an exhibit on spaceflight and only include nonfictional space travel outfits…but why?

Once upon a time in 2007, I chaperoned a field trip to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Thanks to terrible traffic, we had exactly one (1) hour to see as much of the museum as we could before we had to board the bus and get the kids all the way back to their parents in Indianapolis. My small group, all boys, walked as briskly as they could without getting yelled at by docents, zipping from one exhibit to the next, which I’d chosen from the museum map in a series of deft but hasty hunches. It was a fun hour, but we saw less than 10% of the total museum.

Two years later, it was time for an encore. Same museum. Slightly more time to spare. Much, much worse traffic.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

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. 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. 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.

From the Field Museum we had intended to take the bus to our next stop, but country-music boy-toy Kenny Chesney was scheduled to perform a concert later that day to hundreds of billions of Chicagoans. Thanks to his astounding popularity among the sophisticated big-city folk, a bus that was crucial to our itinerary had been rerouted to places unknown. We never would’ve even known if some helpful city employee hadn’t been tasked with taping 8½-x-11 paper notices on all the bus stops, which the day’s sporadic rainfall hadn’t quite dissolved all the way yet.

Anne and I were distressed because the city buses back home are never rerouted. Their schedule differs on weekends and holidays, but it’s all set in stone in their schedule pamphlets. They may run late more often than not, but their paths are immutable. As with our intro to cabs earlier that day, rerouted buses were also a new concept to us. Even worse, we had nonrefundable timed tickets for the main attraction at our next stop.

Once again the day was saved…thanks to a cab! Some nice eastern-European college-age girl was nice enough to stop for us. She took us down the coast of Lake Michigan and probably through four or five more detours, and dropped us off at the Museum of Science and Industry with one or two minutes to spare. She was more expensive than the bus, but our alternatives were nil. Already at the MSI was our friend Garrison — like Mindy, a member of the same online community we’ve been frequenting for years — who’d arrived an hour earlier at the MSI but was kind enough to wait for us. Unfortunately there’s no way he could have picked us up and gotten there in time, thanks to all the traffic logjams caused by the Nation of Kenny Chesney.

Once the five of us passed through the lengthy Will Call serpentine line and secured our entrance, we met Garrison at the top of the escalators and joined the line for the day’s feature presentation: a temporary, traveling Harry Potter exhibit. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed. Of all the unpleasant signs we encounter on our road trips — “ROAD CLOSED”, “ROAD CONSTRUCTION NEXT 20 MILES”, “X-RATED TRUCKER VIDEO STORE”, “SUBWAY SUBS, NEXT 6 EXITS” — the absolutely worst of them all is “NO PHOTOS”.

Potter Books!

Please enjoy this look at all seven Harry Potter books on our shelf at home in lieu of fascinating museum scenery.

That means we can’t regale you with the Yule Ball food or snacks from Honeydukes or any of the other incredibly cool props and costumes they had. We can tell you that the tour began with the Sorting Hat distributing a few kids into their destined Hogwarts houses. With the kind of luck that eludes even the greatest poker players, every last kid was directed to Gryffindor. What were the odds? Meanwhile, somewhere in space-time, Helga Hufflepuff wept.

There was Lockhart’s portrait and prop “nonfiction” books, Professor Umbridge’s collection of pretty-kitty crap, the actual Hufflepuff robe and Quidditch uniform worn by America’s heartthrob Robert Pattinson in Goblet of Fire, and an interactive display where you could uproot an artificial mandrake and listen to its obnoxious shrieking.

It was immense fun to hang out in a massive crowd of fans going “ooh!” and “ahh!” all around us. We were all amazed at how much of it was the actual movie props, not replicas like the movie props. Harry’s glasses, everyone’s outfits (casual, school, Quiddich, ball gowns), the sets and the wands and the Marauder’s Map and the beds and the pictures in the hallways — oh, and the decrees! And the candy shop candy, and some of the food! And Dobby! And Hagrid’s giant-sized clothes! And a dragon head!

The overpriced gift shop was interesting for browsing, less so for overspending. $399 for a Nimbus2000 broomstick, anyone? Or the Firebolt, for the discerning upscale Quidditch player at $499. I came away with an official licensed Harry Potter Exhibit acceptably priced extra-large coffee mug, so I was fine. The museum’s basic, non-Potter gift shop didn’t have much more noteworthy beyond a stool sample collection kit for scatologists in training.

Then we hit the rest of the Museum of Science and Industry, but we were pretty much dead on our feet by then — eyes glazed, limping with fatigue. We made it to the Innovation Expo and saw some neat subjects — robots you can talk to, vertical farming, shadow-driven computers –and a coffee table where you move the coasters around to make different music that was really cool. Maybe everyone will want some once the price comes down.

The “World of Tomorrow” exhibit introduced some new ideas to the budding futurists of today. The only ones I wrote down were the Laws of Peter Diamandis, private-spaceflight benefactor, and The Seven Deadly Things that must be solved in order to cure the aging process according to Dr. Aubrey DeGrey, certified Alan Moore lookalike. There was a promising computer display labeled “Forward to the Future” that was malfunctioning due to the Microsoft Windows of today.

Also: the Space Exploration room.

Mercury Capsule!

We got claustrophobia peering into this Mercury splashdown capsule.


An Apollo lunar landing module.

Mars Rover!

A miniature remote-control Mars lander under my son’s control, driving around a replica planet.

Trek uniforms!

Star Trek uniforms were part of an all-star salute to fictional spaceflight inspired by actual astronauts.

Make a Shadow and Hold Still!

…I have no idea what we’re doing here.

We didn’t get a chance to land the Space Shuttle because that simulator was mobbed by kids. We watched a video about all the near-catastrophes that occurred during the first moon landing, and how close it came to being a disaster. We also learned way more than we needed to know about toileting issues in space. I noticed in their spaceflight chronology display that the Space Shuttle timeline was labeled “1981-2010”, which read less like a preview of flights to come and more like a death sentence.

Beyond that…well, we’ve seen space stuff before, and all the other MSI exhibits were, like, waaaaaay over in other rooms. We decided we’d seen our money’s worth and retreated.

Garrison had toured one less museum than the rest of us and was therefore coherent enough to chauffeur us all to dinner at Giordano’s Pizza, where carbo-loading and caffeine revived us. We ate fantastic Chicago-style goods, toasted the tenth anniversary of our li’l online community that could, and in the true spirit of message boards we discussed all the other users who weren’t in the room. For good measure we also talked all that geek stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t quite understand sometimes the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the two Star Wars Celebration conventions we’d attended, Harry Potter beyond the movies, sci-fi movies in general, Explaining Internet Friends to the Clueless, and all the other subjects that have consumed our internet leisure time over the years. We found chatting aloud with each other had its advantages over typing at each other. Between the food and the company, it was a great time.

…once we eventually got to Giordano’s, anyway. Garrison’s GPS was apparently trying, for ulterior motives unknown to us, to misdirect us to Uganda and tacked on countless minutes to the already lengthy travel time. But common sense prevailed, and a grand evening was had by all.


Message Board Users: We’re Just Like You!

From there, ’twas a quick drive to drop Mindy off at her place, take turns using the bathroom, meet her precious dogs, and pick up our vehicle for the drive back to the hotel. Garrison was on his own from there to retrace his steps out of Riverside, just him and his possessed GPS. We wished him best of luck with that and never saw him again for the next several years.

We wish we could’ve spent more time in Chicago, but we weren’t sure whether or not Mindy’s employer would allow us to keep her as tour guide for longer and we didn’t have time to try navigating the city without her. Even now we’d be wandering somewhere around Aurora at the mercies of Wayne and Garth if she hadn’t been there to direct and conduct.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. Fun continuity note: after years of back-and-forth with Garrison, the next time we saw him was last December, where we three and another friend of his took second place in a Star Wars trivia contest.

2. That message board is still around today and will celebrate its twentieth anniversary in June 2019, Lord willing. Anne is still there regularly; I check in when time permits between MCC entries, and when they’re discussing anything besides politics.

3. It’s amusing to remember a time when Chicago intimidated us. Nowadays we’re up there at least twice a year. But our affinity for it had to start somewhere.

4. Musical coasters in 2018: still not a thing.]

* * * * *

[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!]

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