“Let’s drive to Illinois (from South Carolina) and see all the people and places you remember from 50+ years ago.” That was what I suggested to my 80-year-old father once I decided to leave my job and would have some free time. As it became closer to reality, driving became flying and stopping along the way in Memphis to sample that “different” kind of BBQ changed to agreeing on a cheat day in Chicago for pizza. (Needing a cheat day is another story as who knew my dad would (religiously) be following the Atkins diet when we went on our trip?)
Only driving in one direction was my idea which had us flying into St. Louis and out of Chicago. This itinerary ended up giving us a good framework to set up our driving route and visits with specific people so it actually ended up working. Initially, Staying at Hampton Inns was my dad’s request based on he and my mom’s experience with the chain during their travels and how accommodating the rooms and staff are to wheelchair guests. Rather than argue, I acquiesced and booked as many Hampton Inn nights on booking.com as I could and, much to my surprise, I’m a convert and Hampton fan — all three locations we stayed at were great and the staff we’re especially nice.
Day One (Charleston to St. Louis)
It’s pretty awesome flying with my dad for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we get to board first– it’s been a long time since my kids qualified me to board after the “…anyone traveling with small children…” announcement. (My dad is completely self-sufficient and is really only limited by the fact that he can’t walk anymore due to a car accident 10 years ago.) His wheelchair qualified us for early boarding and we were whisked on board with the use of an aisle chair maneuvered by two muscular airline employees whose sense of humor and professionalism quickly erased our feelings of being a pain or hurdle for the other passengers.
Two Delta flights later and one broken wheelchair armrest, we made it to St. Louis. After reporting a claim to the very understanding Delta staff, we McGyvered the armrest with some duct tape and were off to claim our wheels for the next seven days. As I collected the rental car, my dad waited with the bags at the terminal where he struck up a conversation with a woman who, in one of those “it’s a very small world” moments, actually knew some of my dad’s relatives from his very small hometown in Illinois. That is definitely one characteristic I’ve inherited from both of my parents, the ability to strike up a conversation and make a connection with almost anyone. This has driven my kids crazy, but it’s also come in handy over the years as we’ve found out about a lot of cool places to visit and things to do from locals during our travels.
Dinner in Keokuk, IA
When in Keokuk, you must eat at the Hawkeye, or so we were told by Yelp and my dad’s cousin who was meeting us for dinner. Keokuk, Iowa is about a three-hour drive from St. Louis and seemed like a nice enough city, although we were only there for dinner and promptly left to drive to Quincy for our first Hampton Inn of the trip. Famous for all kinds of food that aren’t necessarily good for you, my dad stuck to his diet and ordered a salad (yep, I was very impressed!). My favorite part of the meal, other than spending time with my dad’s cousin who he hadn’t seen in at least 15 years (and me much longer), was knowing that we could place a take-home order for a propane tank with our meal!
My happiness with Hampton Inn was reinforced at the included all-you-can-eat breakfast bar on the first day when I saw a make-your-own waffle maker…how cool is that?!?
Day Two — Bowen, IL (Home of my dad’s parents and my summer vacations)
The next day we were on to Bowen, Illinois where I revisited summertime memories spent in a small town of 550 people with one four-way stop (no lights), wonderful grandparents and fun neighbors. It’s funny how revisiting a place you were at years ago can bubble up so many distinct memories. Mine included playing with amazingly beautiful piglets (yes, I was/am a big fan of Charlotte’s Web), staying up late, walking to the cafe for lunch (with my brother and NO adults!), reading for days, picking vegetables from the garden and eating them that night (especially pumpkin blossoms and wilted lettuce), playing ping pong for hours, smelling flowers and getting stung by bees, swimming at a community pool, excitedly going to church because the minister looked like Peter Frampton, eating popcorn for dinner, playing “Adam 12” with my brother, walking through corn fields…
On the Road to Savanna
Who knew there was a windmill along the Mississippi River in Illinois? Definitely not me, until my dad asked if I wanted to see one? So, of course we stopped in Fulton to see the authentic Dutch windmill and it was very cool. It’s actually used to ground various grains that they sell in their store across the street. The windmill was built and pre-assembled in the Netherlands and then shipped over, rebuilt and installed in 2000 by Dutch craftsmen. Now you know…
As we neared Savanna, we stopped into the memorable Poopy’s restaurant and bar for dinner. The menu says it all — “Serving The Best Shit Around.” It was actually a lot of fun and the burgers and fries were good, as promised. It’s a huge place and is a big draw for motorcycle enthusiasts with lots of live music and fun events as shown in the flyer.
Days Three & Four — Savanna, Illinois ( My dad’s childhood hometown)
They always say you can never go back, but in this case, we did go back, way back. Savanna is a small town (a lot bigger than Bowen, but still not very big). In fact, here are the facts from Wikipedia: Savanna is a city in Carroll County, Illinois, United States. The population was 2,945 at the 2010 census, down from 3,542 in 2000. Savanna is located along the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Plum River.
We walked the downtown area and saw some of my dad’s old haunts including the bakery he worked at in high school that is now an optometrist’s office. We also stopped into the Savanna Museum and Cultural Center which has a model train “recreation” of old Savanna. It was fun for my dad whose own father spent 50 years working on the railroad to see some of the old buildings and train lines some of which now only exist in the diorama.
Later that day, we drove a bit out of the downtown area to a couple of areas where my dad spent time as a teen a la Stand By Me (without the dead body.) We drove to Lookout Point in Palisades State Park where I took this panoramic picture of the great Mississippi River. On the far left, you can see a bridge that connects Savanna with Iowa’s only island city of Sabula. The bridge, named the Dale Gardner Veterans Memorial Bridge in honor of Dale Gardner, a Savanna-born NASA astronaut, opened in 2018 and replaced the original 1932 bridge. At the opening of the park there’s a fresh water spring where my dad and his friends used to drink from on hot days, not sure I’d do that today… Along that same road, we stopped at a multi-purpose park where my dad and gang used to spend a lot of time. It had a carousel, ball games, snack bar and a pavilion where thy used to run under in the rain. Today, it’s a multi-purpose park with ball fields and lots of grassy areas for kids to play.
We took a break from nostalgia and made a detour to a wonderful town called Galena. It has a great downtown shopping and restaurant district and a very pretty riverfront area. It’s actually not that far from Chicago (just under three hours), perfect for a weekend. It has an interesting flood control system that is basically a big gate that closes in heavy rains and protects the town, it’s like something out of The Walking Dead (sorry, I didn’t get a picture, but you can see it here). Galena is also the former home of Ulysses S. Grant, civil war general and our 18th president.
Our step back in history included a visit to the much-touted Manny’s, the pizza place of my dad’s youth. I think we both felt that the memories of the pizza may have been better than the actual pizza, but it was a fun night and we polished off a large thin crust so all was good! Our second meal in Savanna was at a relatively new place called Ca. 1888 which was wonderful and comparable to really good meals I’ve had in much bigger cities.
This is the house my dad grew up in, but as a young husband and new dad, it was also the home his wife and children visited until his parents moved back to Bowen, their own childhood hometown. My dad’s memories were of his parents and long-time friends and many an adventure in this Mayberry-esque town while I remembered the seemingly endless stairway to the front door and growing up with wonderful parents and grandparents and not having a worry in the world. The house was actually for sale when we drove by last summer, but it needs lots of work and, although it looks like a nice small cottage (maybe for a weekend getaway?), you have to remind yourself that it get bitterly cold with lots of snow. Oh, and there’s no Starbucks nearby! 🙂
Day Five: Chicago
No trip to Illinois is complete without a slice of deep dish pizza. We went to Giordano’s, but I know those are fighting words to pizza fans as everyone has their favorite place that serves the best pie. Suffice it to say, our slices were wonderful!
Five quick days and we were off to O’Hare to catch a plane home…until the next epic road trip, aloha!