My assignment is late. I could say the dog ate my homework, because that’s very plausible around here. Fingers could be pointed in several directions as we are currently living with six dogs who are interested in eating everything from marshmallows to corn-on-the-cob. And, probably homework.
What We Did On Our Summer Vacation is drive the equivalent of across Canada and back in mileage. Instead, we drove to and fro to Prince Edward County looking for a house or a patch of land that never materialized. So, we widened our radius, and though we came closer to our ideals, we were even further from where we started. Perth, Jasper, South Frontenac, Westport, Sharbot Lake. Crotch Lake, Green Lake, Black Lake, Otty Lake, Mississippi River, Elbow Lake.
In the middle of August we pulled out the driveway of our 155-year-old stone cottage one last time. The Rogue was packed to the gills with the three awkward but happy plants, pantry leftovers, camping gear, stuff to take to China in November, a handful of books I had to review for the Vancouver Sun, Kim’s golf clubs and my favourite high tops.
In the days before we moved we were stuffing everything else into a storage pod that now sits in Ayr. We drank champagne on a daily basis and ate a lot of strange combinations, trying to unload our fridge of condiments.
We went to a funeral, a wedding, Prince Edward County, Walkerton and Uxbridge all in the same week. And packed and moved and landed at our friends’ farm weary but liberated. Untethered. We were free to a good home and they figured with six dogs, five cats, nine horses, a pig, 30-odd chickens and two bee hives—two more in the mix wouldn’t rock the boat. And, it is like being on a boat here. In particular, Noah’s Ark.
Anyway, life has shifted from stuffy shifts at the steel mill and the spa to becoming instant 4-H members, chicken coop painters and chief honey and rum cocktail makers. Perks: the resident bees kicked off their inaugural season by producing nearly 18-liters of spun gold and we get to do quality control of their Just Hitched Honey Co. We live in a fancy barn with wi-fi and Netflix and have more bonfires than the average caveman.
So, despite our carsickness from extreme real estating, we volunteered (or invited ourselves I think) to join one of Caberneigh Farm’s owners, PJ, on a road trip to Des Moines (Yes, we had to look it up to, and only recently have I been able to pronounce it correctly), Iowa to retrieve an Airstream that her late brother-in-law willed to her. PJ’s sisters, Christine and Colleen were already on the road days before us, hitting every national park and fall fair and kettle corn stand between California (their start point) and Des Moines.
In addition to earning her 4-H badge in feeding beet pulp to the horses and learning how to wrangle truly free range chickens, Kim had a crash (with no crash) course on Airstream parking and manoeuvering. However, her practice Airstream was PJ and Nicole’s cutesy 19-foot Bambi model (Bambi is Barbie-sized). We (Kim and PJ—I was the designated backseat driver and snack procurer) would be towing a 28-foot 1984 Sovereign Airstream back to Canada. In, like four days. PJ had work commitments so the 2,218 mile road trip would be a tasseled corn field blur.
But, of course we would make time for the odd American diner or two. The kind where road construction crews file in still wearing their neon vests first and eat pie with ice cream BEFORE they order lunch. Kim and I were quickly introduced to Americana courtesy of PJ, a Cali-bred expat. “What’s a wet burrito?” Basically a burrito buried in cheese sauce. (*need fork and knife). “What’s a patty melt?” Hamburger patty loaded with melted cheese and onions and sandwich-fied between slices of rye bread of all things.
At our first stop at Perry’s Village Corners in Lansing Michigan we had onion rings so greasy-good we didn’t need to apply lip balm for the rest of the day.
Nine hours after roaring out the farm driveway in Uxbridge in the Dodge Ram we left the keys with the valet driver and enveloped ourselves in the posh surrounds of the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. (EXTREME highlight: the bowls of hickory-smoked bacon in the VIP lounge at breakfast. Now we know why half the guests were padding their pockets with it).
The air was as thick as breathing cotton candy as storm clouds sat behind the Tribune building, Gotham City-style. This is how you do Chicago in sub-12 hours.
- Be sure to walk the perimeter of the Tribune and check out all the rocks that have been embedded in the walls from Antarctica to atolls in the Philippines.
- Go to Howell’s and Hood’s. Drink indie beers (they have over 100 drafts and crafts like Colorado’s silky amber Sawtooth. Order the hot pretzel bites dusted in cheese powder and served with a dangerous beer dip. They are the equivalent of Adult Timbits. The resto was named after the architects who won the 1920s ‘best office building’ design competition. You’ll see why, and you’ll also see why you’re happier to be drinking Sawtooths instead of working.
- Follow the crowds to see the city’s calling card at Millennium Park. The “Cloud’s Gate” silver jellybean is an Instagram magnet. If you have more than 100 Facebook friends, there’s a solid chance that you’ve seen someone’s selfie cartwheel in front of it. You can’t help but take over a dozen pics here. It’s like the Grand Canyon of city photo ops.
- Go marvel at the Harold Washington Library (named for the city’s first African-American mayor) on 400 South State Street, not too far of a stray from the Magnificent Mile. If you have time, you can scan and 3D print yourself. The imposing brick building is presided over by angels and menacing owls. Look up and out!
- PJ would insist that you go to Garrett Popcorn Shop. It’s the Chicago mix (sharp cheddar and molasses-swirled caramel popcorn) that leaves the uninitiated in a trance. Everyone glazes over upon entry, sucking in the sweet, buttery-infused air. We left with a 3.5 pound bucket of the coveted corn for PJ’s sisters, and take-home for Nicole.
- Visit any downtown convenience store. America is light years beyond Canada in the snack department. We’re talking birthday cake ring donuts, cherry-flavoured turkey jerky, Payday and Heath bars (previously only witnessed on The Price is Right where contestants had to guess the price of random grocery items). They have suckers called Dum-Dums that come in flavours like banana split, s’mores and root beer). Whoppers (malt balls) are still a big thing and speaking of Whoppers, Burger King is also marketing Whopperitos (a burger-burrito marriage).
- Go to Billy Goat’s Tavern for a pint. It’s the parking lot tavern made famous by Saturday Night Live (that “cheezborger no cheese” skit). Here you can order three pints for $10.25. That’s the price of one beer at Howells and Hoods. The secret beer cafeteria is day-glo and still serves up liver and onions or steak and eggs for locked in ‘70s prices.
- It’s a hot topic—Chicago loves their deep dish but we are thin crusters and were politely directed to Bar Toma by the Renaissance hotel’s “Navigator” (concierge). It’s a tourist draw but for good reason. As a total abomination of traditional Chicago-style pizza we had prosciutto and fig thin crust with Patio Crusher wheat beer. Take that. But, we would go back and work our way through the shortlist of local faves: Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Connie’s Pizza.
- Drive past Wrigley Field (despite construction). Home of the Chicago Cubs it was built in 1914 and is as classic Americana as pancake houses, Dunkin’ Donuts, Red Roof Inns, Cracker Barrels and Bob Evans.
Chicago to Des Moines
After sleeping like rockstars at the Renaissance, we had to get back to the task at hand. Tally ho to Iowa. Down the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway to Indiana. Past the 1-844.getsnip billboards for no-snip vasectomies. Or, “If you die tonite will it be Heaven or Hell? Dial 1-888-the-TRUTH.
It was corn for the next 600 miles. Field of Dreams was filmed here for a reason. We only stopped to gas up and look at the shelves and shelves of pork rinds, jalapeno-infused beer, 7 layer-dip Combos (those delicious baby pretzel-stuffed things) and 30-packs of Old Milwaukee for $13 (though Kim is still suspicious of her deal on beer. For 43 cents a can, could it really be real beer or near beer?). For the same $13 you could buy an ENTIRE sheet of Rice Krispie squares.
We also made time to stop at Trader Joe’s as I see a steady stream from friends in Nashville and California who brag about it. It’s a gourmand grocery store—like Whole Foods, but, smaller, with carefully curated good things. For example: peanut butter and jelly YOGURT. They sell apple and chardonnay sausage. Moose Drool beer. Specula Cookie Butter (like peanut butter, but crushed and whipped ginger specula cookies instead).
We crossed the Mississippi River (which I can spell properly thanks to a recess rope-skipping song I think) and somewhere between there and the Hilton we ruptured the oil line to the turbo booster and were bleeding oil. (Crisis averted and semi-resolved at Firestone, but, the truck stayed in the bay overnight and we nervously contemplated how we might tow the Airstream back without a truck).
The Airstream exchange between the sisters was emotional and a little bit magic. The Airstream that Christine and Kenny had pulled around North America since 1984 would keep on spinning its wheels in new directions. Starting with us, back to Uxbridge. Back through the Bridges of Madison County. The Fields of Dreams. Homeland of Cloris Leachman and John Wayne. The state where you can find brownie batter milkshakes and hot pickles in a bag. And elementary schools that boast “drug-free school zone.” I should hope so.
Now, with 28 feet behind us, there were no random stops. We were long-haul truckers. We had to eat at places like Thirsty on 80 Grub and Pub in West Branch, Iowa, because they had 50 feet for us to park. It’s the kind of grub and pub with day drinkers, darts and deep fried everything (corn dogs, chicken fingers and frozen pizzas). They curiously also offered crab Rangoon, whatever that is.
Through Plain View and Normal we went. Past Starved Rock National Park, across Skunk River. Past the World’s Largest Truck Stop on the I-80. We were following the eyelash of the storm through Indiana as wicked apocalyptic clouds swirled and whorled.
After pulling off in a dodgy neighbourhood thanks to the Wayz app where souped-up cars with spiked rims and giant spoilers cruised. We found amazing Baracoa burritos (not wet) at Chilangos and hoped that we would return to find the Airstream still parked there—not fashioned into a dozen spoilers for whatever mafia ruled the roost.
We gassed up in Ronald Reagan’s birthplace (much to PJ’s chagrin) and kept laser-like focus on our only destination: Indiana Dunes State Park. It rained CNN special-weather-report announcement amounts. And, I would later learn (thanks to my mother, aspiring CNN meteorologist) that tornadoes were ripping through the area.
Arriving in 100% darkness (perfect conditions to back-up the 28-foot Airstream for the first time, into a narrow campground slot), Kim seamlessly slid it in like a seasoned camper. PJ apologized to the entire campsite for the idling diesel truck. I begged nearby campers for rations of firewood as the camp store was closed.
When we finally had set up base camp (complete with roaring, borrowed fire), we laughed at our grand entrance to the state park. The park warden asked how we were. PJ admitted to being nervous—after all, it would be our first time backing the Airstream up. The warden actually said, “Do you have a man in there to help you?”
PJ calmly and confidently replied, “No, but I have two very capable women with me.”
And, when we finally sat down with glasses of Scotch (Kenny’s favourite brand), we toasted him and committed to always chasing adventure. We planned to come back to the Indiana State Dunes Park one day, because we didn’t see the dunes or much of anything beyond our bonfire pit. But sometimes it’s not about what you see, it’s what you do. Or didn’t plan to do. And how you feel. And, we felt pretty cool cruising across the border with our California Dreamin’ Airstream.