Thursday, February 21, 2013

Road Trip (Day 2 of 4): Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska

The lack of available internet, let alone cell/data service on this trip, have made it pretty impossible for me to update this blog like I wanted to but don't worry, we made it! We were really lucky, actually, and completely missed Storm Q which is currently pummeling the Midwest. Had we left on Tuesday, like we had originally intended, we would have been stuck smack dab in the middle of Nebraska when it hit and likely been snowed in for several days. Instead, we barely hit any snow (more on that later) and made it safely to Oregon yesterday afternoon after almost 50 total hours of driving and traveling more than 3000 miles. We got tired, yes, but we rotated shifts and stopped frequently. Just getting to see so many different areas of the country was amazing. We definitely discovered our "favorites" (and those we have no desire to ever visit again), and have a new list of potential future vacation spots where we would like to spend more time. I'll post here in spurts to catch you up, day-by-day....

Day 2: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska

Monday morning we woke up before sunrise feeling rested and ready to go. It was blustery and chilly outside as a large cold front was making it's way across the upper northwest, but we decided to stop off at the Old Joliet Correctional Facility just down the street and walk around to check out the sights from this famous prison from the Blues Brothers movie. Apparently it was a working jail from 1858 to 2002 until the new Joliet Correctional Facility opened across town. Now it has fallen into disrepair but they're hoping to possibly turn it into a working museum which would be pretty cool.

Dan escaping from the Old Joliet Correctional Facility, Joliet, IL (a la Blues Brothers)
Slightly chilly outside the prison
After getting sufficiently frozen we hopped on Route 80 and cranked on the heat as we continued our journey west. It was torture being so close to Chicago, which I loved and where I lived for two years, without being able to stop in but we realized that there is no way to just "stop in" in Chicago, you need at least several days, so we will be back.

Neither of us had driven further than Chicago so this was completely new territory for us....and, honestly, pretty boring:
Typical Illinois/Iowa countryside...cows, cows and more cows

Areas not covered by cows were all farmland
We had researched a few things along the way that we could stop to see if we got bored but only decided to check out two of them once we actually got rolling. The Community of Flags in Brooklyn, Iowa was unique (a collection of all the flags of every state in the US and some from other countries) but definitely one of those places you stop, take a picture and then move on as there is nothing else to do in the tiny town.
Community of Flags, Brooklyn, IA
The Maytag Dairy Farms in Newton, Iowa was much more worthwhile. From online reviews they were reported to have the best blue cheese in the country, and even offered tours, so we decided it was worth the slight detour to check them out. Turns out it's this tiny old building well off the beaten path but when we walked inside the woman at the counter was one of the nicest people I'd ever met and offered us several samples while we chatted about our trip. I guess they don't get much traffic in the winter so there was no tour available but we did end up buying some Edam cheese (kind of like a creamier, smoother cheddar) and, of course, some blue cheese (yes, by far the most delicious blue cheese I've ever had).
Maytag Dairy Farms, Newton, IA
After that we had planned to visit another prison, known as the Squirrel Cage Jail because it was built around an inner rotating column of cells (so the jailer could keep an eye on everyone without having to make rounds). Unfortunately it was closed on Mondays :(

So westward we went. Really the only other cool thing from Iowa was their wind farms. Since it is so flat it is the ideal place to put up windmills to capture wind energy and so we'd be driving along Route 80 and come up over a hill to suddenly see dozens of gigantic windmills all over the horizon, gently spinning away like a herd of some sort of giant aliens. Very cool. Here are two pictures, the one shows just how big one of the arms on these things is, and a short video:
A rest stop showing just how big one of the arms is on these windmills
Wind Farm, Iowa

Once we hit Nebraska one of the first things we noticed was the smell; the air over the whole state seemed to permanently stink of manure and beef by-products, which makes sense since there were cows everywhere. Now, I'm used to the smell of farmland (coming from Lancaster County, PA originally) but this was different and not necessarily the most pleasant thing to smell for hours on end. We kept the car's air on recirculation and enjoyed the scenery without stepping outside to take pictures.

Across Nebraska the land gets very flat and for the most part you are traveling completely straight on Route 80 at 75mph with nothing on either side. The distance goes quickly at this rate, but the state is wide and exits are scarce so we were glad that the highway commission was good about putting decent rest stops at least every 100 miles to let us take a break.

We had a few other things we had intended to see before stopping for the night but since we had added the Joliet Prison at the last minute that morning and took our time stopping at the cheese factory, by the time we reached the Fort Cody Trading Post, for example, the sun had set and the fort was closed.
Buffalo Bill Cody's Fort and Trading Post

We also had seen a sign on the highway advertising a preserved Pony Express Station so of course I wanted to stop! Once again, by the time we got there it was closed and we were the creepers who loitered and took pictures in the dark. Oh well, I still enjoyed it. 
Pony Express, 1860-1861
Anyone home?
Before bunking for the night we had one more destination we'd heard was worth a stop: Ole's Big Game Steakhouse in Paxton, NE. Pulling off the highway, we felt we had stepped back in time to the kind of one-street town Bonnie and Clyde might have frequented. The steakhouse appeared to be the only real restaurant amidst a few small businesses. Talk about old west! This particular restaurant had started as a bar/pub run by a local guy with a hunting hobby who would hang the deer heads over the bar. Eventually his hobby turned into big game hunting and in the 50s and 60s he traveled the world bagging animals as exotic as elephants, lions, giraffes and even a polar bear! Now the restaurant had evolved almost into a museum tribute to this man's travels and hunting success, and it is covered wall-to-wall with several hundred different stuffed animals and heads. I admit, it was a little weird to eat in the shadow of a giant elephant head, but it was a pretty unique experience and the food was actually really good, especially after such a long day of driving.

Much bigger in person than they look in pictures
This picture doesn't do justice to the massiveness of this animal
I didn't realize they had giraffes in Nebraska!
Our end destination for Day 2 just down the road in Ogallala, NE. Each day we had a general goal to make it across one time zone, but we didn't have any predetermined stops for the night. Instead we decided a few hours prior to each stop how far we felt we could travel and then used Priceline and other online sites to find last minute hotel deals. Dan's cousin was a huge help in this area, not only because of her prior experience using Priceline's "name your price" feature but also because our cell/data service was patchy so scheduling something while on the road wasn't always possible.

Unfortunately, we quickly found out that big cities were the only ones that had a decent variety of ok hotels for good prices and those cities are few and far between. Once you get out in the boonies it is pretty slim pickings. None of our hotels were bad or dirty, just bare bones and outdated and honestly a big overpriced for what you get since they know they're all that's around. Apparently, though, these little places are very proud of their limited ameneties: when we checked in to our place in Ogallala it was about 9:45pm and I'm sure we looked exhausted but the hostess at the front desk made sure to mention the indoor heated pool was open for use until 10:00...ok, thanks lol.


  1. Sounds like an exciting adventure!! I'd love to travel the country, seeing the country side. And I can definitely relate to the reaction to the wind turbines; I was enamored by them when I went to Wisconsin last year and saw them for the first time. Here's my blog post with a bunch of pictures of them (I hope that's ok to share on your blog, I'm fairly new to blogging etiquette.). And that restaurant with the elephant and giraffe! That's just wild! I'm also sensing a pattern in visiting jails ;-) Can't wait to see the next installment of your travels across country, the photos and descriptions are fantastic!

    1. Hi Jennifer! Sorry I didn't reply to your post until now but I did check out your blog and all your pics of the wind turbines. They really are something else! I'd seen a few but here on the east coast they really don't pop up very often and the ones out west were so HUGE. Definitely a new and cool thing for me to see :)

  2. Replies
    1. He was so cool, and big! He was standing next to a baby seal, though, kinda sad :(

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