Friday, September 23, 2011

Great Western Adventure: Days 1-4

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Day 1: Drive from Newtown, PA to Chicago, IL via PA Route 6 and the PA Grand Canyon

We had quite the lengthy drive scheduled for our first day, so we thought we should add in some attractions along the way to break it up.  I drove to the end of the PA Northeast Extension for the first time, en route to Wellsboro and the home of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, the first of three “grand canyons” that we were to see during our trip.  When we arrived in Wellsboro, we stopped at the Wellsboro Diner, an adorable diner in an old train car, for a quick lunch. 

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While waiting for our food, I glanced up and noticed this sign above the doorway.  I wonder what it originally said instead of “sure.”

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After lunching on my first of many grilled cheeses, we headed 10 miles out of town to the PA Grand Canyon.  I thought it was a little underwhelming.

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Then we got back on the road and drove Route 6 across Pennsylvania.  It’s a fun drive, but pretty slow going due to the 25 mph speed limit in all of the small towns that you pass through.  It was neat seeing a lot of the old steel towns, even if some of them are pretty sad and rundown.  One of the towns was hosting a Swedish Festival and we drove through right before the parade started.  Since Nick is super Swedish, I considered us the pre-parade. 

As much as I enjoyed the scenic Route 6, I was happy to finally get on a highway once we reached I-90 and were able to get through Ohio and Indiana pretty quickly.  We arrived at the Palmer House in Chicago at 2am and I was borderline delirious from being in the car since 8am.  Needless to say, we went straight to bed.

Day 2: Chicago

We woke up early and grabbed a quick breakfast at Corner Bakery before powerwalking to our architecture boat tour with Wendella Boat Tours.  Our tour guide was slightly cranky and it was raining for the first half of our tour, but we enjoyed it anyway.  We chose the tour that did a small loop on the Chicago River before venturing out onto Lake Michigan.  This tour was a little less detailed than their strictly river tour, but we wanted to get out on the lake and see the Chicago skyline, so we opted for the river and lake combined.  When we visit again (and I’m sure we will), we can take the river tour.  It all works out!

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The tour was littered with hilarious superlatives about the city’s architecture, like, the tallest building in the US that was built by a woman who owns her own firm (the curvy building shown below) or the tallest building to have 2 clock faces above a certain height.  Really guys?

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We did learn some interesting things about Chicago, like how in 1900 they reversed the flow of the Chicago River because everyone was throwing their trash into the river and it was getting into Lake Michigan and just causing a giant mess.  Apparently it’s pretty easy to reverse the flow of a river!  All bodies of water flow to the largest body of water that they have access to, so all the engineers needed to do was build a canal that allowed the Chicago River to eventually empty into the Mississippi, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean.  This is craziness to me, but apparently it’s simple science.  What’s hilarious about this entire thing is that the other states bordering Lake Michigan were worried that the reversal was going to empty out Lake Michigan.  All 1,180 cubic miles of it!  They filed a lawsuit against Chicago which lasted 38 years!  Eventually they all agreed on a lock system, which we got to go through when entering and exiting the lake.  Pretty awesome!

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After our tour, we headed to meet Nick’s cousin (who lives in Chicago) at Lou Malnati’s for some deep dish pizza, but when we arrived we discovered that they were closed that day for a company event.  Good thing we had a Chicago native with us, because he took us to Gioridano’s, which he thinks is better than Lou Malniti’s anyway.  Man that place was crowded!  The pizzas take so long to bake that you order yours before you are even seated.  On a normal day, the pizzas would be ready for you by the time you sit down, but we ended up having to wait a bit longer after we were seated for ours.  And we ordered WAY too much pizza.  It was delicious though! 

Once sufficiently stuffed (with stuffed pizza!), we headed over to the Art Institute for some more culture.  Nick had a list of things he wanted to see (most inspired by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), including Nighthawks, American Gothic, and a Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  We never knew that the woman in American Gothic was the man’s daughter!  She always looked so old to us, but sure enough, the placard confirmed that she is not his wife.  Next to American Gothic was this painting, titled Bucks County Barn.  What a coincidence (we live in Bucks County)!

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We also perused a folk art exhibit and saw this awesome quilt.  Nick loved it too and wants me to recreate it for our wall.

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There is an entire wing devoted to miniature rooms.  I couldn’t believe the detail that went into these displays, which were essentially very ornate dollhouse rooms.  This exhibit was probably my favorite thing that we saw at the Art Institute.  They were hard to photograph since they were encased in glass, but here is a shot of one from the Art Institute’s website.

We also came across these small busts that were displayed in a hallway.  They are sculpted from political cartoons by Honore Daumier depicting "French notables from the 1830s."  They were hilarious!

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We had to force ourselves to leave the Art Institute so we could venture over to Millennium Park and check out the famous Bean, but we could have easily spent an entire day in there.  I kind of feel bad for the Bean’s sculptor, because I’m sure almost no one knows that “The Bean” is not the sculpture’s name.  It is actually called Cloud Gate, but everyone calls it the bean because it looks like a bean.  The deal with the Bean is that it’s made of seamless stainless steel and while standing in front of it you can see yourself with varying views of the Chicago skyline behind you, depending on where you’re standing.  Let me tell you, everyone LOVES the Bean.  There were loads of people there just snapping away at different angles.

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There we are in the bottom right corner!  I'm wearing one of my Gingers!
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We also got a nice closer up view of the skyline.  There are some really beautiful buildings.

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Next to the Bean is this quiet enclosed garden, where I met this lovely bunny. 

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After taking about 50 shots of her eating the same plant (I spared you from having to view all of them), I wandered around and admired the beautiful flowers.

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Then I made my way back to see what bunny was up to just in time for some other people to scare her away.  Isn’t she adorable scampering away?

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We had dinner reservations so we had to leave the pretty garden and clean up before catching a cab to Bonsoiree, which is apparently so exclusive that they don’t even have a sign outside to tell you that you are at the correct address.  (Full disclosure: we are not even close to being that fancy.  Nick found them online.)  We were there for No Menu Sundays, which is basically a tasting menu of the chef’s choosing.  We had seven delicious courses made with ingredients from the Green City and Logan Square Farmer’s Markets, including a very fresh non-fishy fish, garlic zucchini soup, wagyu beef, frozen grapefruit, and cheesecake.  Since I am allergic to shellfish, they subbed out ingredients on my plates, so Nick was able to taste some dishes done two ways.  One of the substitutions for crab that I got was a fried cauliflower.  WOW.  I have never really been a fan of cauliflower, but this one tasted exactly like an eggroll.  I have no idea how they did it, but it was amazing.

After dinner we took a cab to Navy Pier for a nice after-dinner walk.  We walked all of the way to the end of the pier and then back again, catching a magic show along the way.  Before we left, we took a ride on the 150-foot high Ferris Wheel and I nearly had a heart attack. 

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When we got back to the hotel we took a few minutes to admire the detailing at the Palmer House, which was rebuilt in 1875 after the original burned down in the Great Chicago Fire.  The famous peacock doors are no longer used, but I’m glad we were able to get a close-up look at them.  They are gorgeous.

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The lounge is impressive.  With the murals on the ceilings to the ornate candelabras all over the place, this is probably the prettiest hotel we have ever stayed in.

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Day 3: Drive from Chicago, IL to Moline, IL

I don’t have any pictures from this day, but we drove from Chicago to Moline, which is about 3 hours outside of Chicago, to stay with Nick’s grandmother for the night.  On the way we stopped to have brunch with Nick’s uncle.  In Moline we visited the John Deere showroom and saw the mighty Mississippi.  I can’t believe how huge and expensive that farm equipment is!  Then we had a delicious home cooked meal before turning in early for the night.

Day 4: Drive from Moline, IL to Rapid City, SD

After eating breakfast and saying goodbye to Nick’s grandmother, we hit the road again for one of our lengthiest drives.  We drove through Iowa and Minnesota before entering South Dakota, where we would have two stops before arriving in Rapid City for the night.  The first stop was the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD.  They really like to emphasize World’s Only!  It’s a multi-use center, where they host anything from local basketball games to small concerts.  But the main attraction is that the entire outside of the building is decorated with murals made of corn husks. 

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It was pretty hilarious, but I was impressed with the detail that they were able to convey with the corn.

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A little before we arrived at the Corn Palace, we started seeing signs for Wall Drug, some 300 miles away, and we continued to see Wall Drug signs every few miles for the entire drive.  Back in 1936, the owner decided it was a good marketing plan to offer a free glass of ice water to anyone who dropped by.  Seventy five years later, they still give you a free glass of ice water. I'm going to apologize now for any taken-from-the-car photos that are a bit blurry.

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The Wall Drug signs are pretty inventive and kept the drive interesting.  We also saw tons of farms, including sunflower farms, which I didn’t even know existed. 

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We also saw a few sculptures randomly placed in fields along the road.  I’ll take it!

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Just before sunset, we arrived at the Badlands.  We couldn’t have timed it better!  The setting sun created shadows along the rocks that made the place spooky and beautiful at the same time.

This lovely guy was waiting to greet us at the Badlands entrance and got me excited at the possibility of seeing my favorite animal, the lovely prairie dog.

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  Nick and I both took a million pictures there, but pictures didn’t seem to do the colors and scene justice.

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It was so bizarre that this landscape was in the middle of prairie lands.  The park system built a road that weaves through the whole park.  Once it was dark, we headed out of the park and over to the famed Wall Drug. 

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We arrived minutes before they closed and were served the very last free glasses of ice water for the day.

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With all of the hype built up from the signs, I was expecting something awesome at Wall Drug, but it was essentially a drug store with a giant gift store attached—a bit of a bummer.  We were very glad we didn’t rush through the Badlands to get to Wall Drug!  After drinking our water, we made the very dark drive from Wall, SD to Rapid City, where we ate a very disgusting dinner at a family restaurant before checking into our first Hampton Inn for the trip.  Here’s a tip if you plan on going on a trip where you’ll have to stay at multiple hotels: find a hotel chain that offers rewards.  We signed up for the Hilton Rewards program and since we stayed at all Hilton hotels except for when we stayed in the national parks, we got points for every stay (the Palmer House and Hampton Inn are owned by Hilton).  I’m not sure how many points we saved up, but I’m sure we’re close to at least a free night’s stay.

On a gross but related note, I insisted on checking each bed for bed bugs before any of our belongings were placed on the floor or any furniture in the room.  Nick thought this was nuts, but bed bugs are becoming a huge problem out East and they are insanely hard and expensive to get rid of.  Good Housekeeping has a good article on how to check for bed bugs while traveling.

So I don’t end on a gross note, here’s a sneak peak at what we did next!

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  1. Oh wow, looks like so much fun. I've never seen the PA grand canyon, but I've heard underwhelming from other people too. Kind like most of PA (said as a lifelong resident)! LOL
    You better get working on your pinwheels if you are going to recreate that quilt! That's A LOT of little pinwheels.

  2. Yay! So fun! I grew up outside Chicago, and Palmer House is one of my favorite spots! I spent many happy days in the Art Institute-- so glad you got to see it!


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