The Midwest Tour Begins

Stage 1: St. Louis to Chicago

“Do they happen to have one of those little cart things you can use to load up your stuff around here?” Carl asked. I scanned the horizon of Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Ariz. to see what I could find. “Yup, they’ve got one right over there,” I say while pointing, and soon we’re loading up the largest Pelican photography equipment case I’ve ever seen onto what looked like a flattened shopping cart so we could check in to our first flight.

The plan was simple. Carl and I would fly to St. Louis, Mo., rent a car (one large enough to hold that mammoth Pelican case) and head out towards Minnesota by way of Chicago and Madison. Along the way we’d take pictures, perform interviews and do some road touring through the midwest. We’d be spending a lot of time together in a small space.

“Yeah, it looks like that case is over 50 pounds,” the attendant for US Airways says to Carl, who then shrugs and looks at me. The attendant continued, “… and this one does, too.”

It was day one of our 1,000-plus mile trip over the course of five days. I was ready to go.

A Little Backstory

It all started at Wing Ding 35 in Greenville, S.C. I was there as a staff photographer for Wing World, and I wanted to take some time talking to Members to find out what they liked and didn’t like about the magazine. After trying to just walk up and talk to people randomly (and rather unsuccessfully), I realized that it was probably best to hang out in the Official Products Booth where Members would come up to me. That’s when I met Bob Phelps and Bruce Beeman.

Over the course of an hour or so, we talked about bikes, cars, road trips, life experiences and GWRRA. And by the time I left, I was positive that Bruce lived in Minnesota and Bob was in Wisconsin. A few weeks later, I called Bruce to see if he’d be interested in doing a Members Only profile, and he agreed. My follow up call to Bob went something like this:

“Hey Bob, it’s Kevin Whipps from Wing World magazine. We met at Wing Ding. Would you be interested in doing a Members Only profile?”

“Sure, no problem. I’d love to have you out here.”

“OK, great. And you’re in the Madison area, right?”

“Not unless St. Louis is in Wisconsin.”

And that’s about the time when I decided that my road trip needed to go a bit different path than I had previously projected.

WELCOME TO THE STL

After arriving at the airport, we went to pick up our first rental car, a Nissan Rogue, which is a small SUV designed for teenage boys who like the sound of a revvy exhaust and don’t understand how a transmission works. After loading up that gigantic Pelican case and a few other items, we were off to our first destination, the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch.

We chose this particular hotel for three reasons. First, it was close to the Gateway Arch, a sight neither Carl nor I had seen before. Second, it was affordable, and three, it had lots of dining options nearby. We were only going for the night (as would be the case for all of our destinations), so I wasn’t too concerned about everything else.

One thing I hadn’t considered was parking. Finding a parking space in any downtown area can be rough, but there was no nearby outlet for the Hyatt Regency. The closest place was a parking garage about two blocks away that was packed to the gills. Valet was an option, sure, but were I riding a GL1800, I don’t think I’dwant to let some guy ride off on my bike. There was no long-term parking solution on the street that I could see, unfortunately.

After parking the Rogue and hoofing it a few blocks to the room, we went upstairs to see what we could see — and it was awesome. The famous Gateway Arch was framed perfectly outside of our windows, and with the sun setting behind it, the view was amazing. The rooms, not so much. I’d say they were tiny, but that would be flattering. I had to shimmy in and out of the bed, as clearance on both sides was rather tight. But that was OK, again, we weren’t going to be there for long.

For dinner, we ate at Brewhouse Historical Sports Bar, located conveniently down in the lobby. Neither myself nor Carl drink, but we did want some legendary BBQ and that’s exactly what we had. Carl, being on some kind of weird diet thing that would follow us throughout the trip, was eating healthy and had a chicken plate that he enjoyed. Me? I was all about the pulled pork sandwich, and we also chose to split a hot pretzel since neither of us had lunch. The pork was succulent, with a nice sauce that had a touch more honey than I was expecting — but it was still amazing. We watched the Cardinals play a game that night, then headed up to the rooms to retire.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take in the Gateway Arch because our schedule simply wouldn’t allow it. What we discovered by talking to the locals and doing a bit of research online is that you can travel to the top of the structure if you’re feeling daring. To do so, you fit into this tiny elevator that can make you feel a bit claustrophobic (or so claimed our hotel’s concierge). That container jogs up, sideways and at angles to get you to the peak, where you can see up to 30 miles on a clear day. The Arch does sway a bit as well, so keep that in mind. Me, well I’m deathly afraid of heights, so none of that seemed very appealing.

After loading up the Rogue, we headed off to interview Bob and Diane Phelps. A few hours later, it was off to Peoria, Ill., our next destination. But first, we would take the roads less travelled.

THE ULTIMATE SCENIC RIVERS ROUTE

Like many of you, I’ve been to Motorcycleroads.com. It’s a great place to f ind roads and paths that you might not have taken otherwise and use them to get to your destination. That website was one of my key pieces of research for this trip, and it’s why we decided on Peoria, Ill. for our destination, which, in hindsight, was probably not the best idea — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We decided to take the Illinois Ultimate Scenic Rivers Route, which is 140 miles along Illinois Route 100. To start, we had to leave the Phelps’ house by way of the 67, then, once we’d crossed the Illinois border, continue on the 67 until we hit the 16, then jog around a few times until it turned into Route 100. Although the trip does turn and have lots of movement, long story short, you want to stay on Route 100 and head north.

Shortly after our trip began, we found ourselves behind a gentleman on a yellow GL1800 with a Lehman trike conversion and Illinois plates. We were behind him for most of the drive, which further cemented our decision that this was a good place to be. If he liked it — and he certainly appeared to — then so would we, and that we did. Although there aren’t a lot of places to stop and do things, the scenery does live up to its reputation. There’s lots of rivers that pop in and out of view, and between the cliffs, rolling hills and wildlife, it’s pretty spectacular to see.

One thing to note here, is that I was born in Montréal, Quebec, Canada, raised in Boston, Mass. (Go Sox!), and have spent most of my adult life in the Phoenix, Ariz. area. So although I’ve spent a lot of time riding down roads that have farms and trees on the side, it’s been a long time since that happened. Carl, on the other hand, is a Phoenix native. He’s travelled of course, but neither of us had ever seen such large expanses of corn and soy as we would on this trip. To those of you in the midwest, this might seem boring because it’s all you see whenever you hop on and ride. But for Carl and myself it was fascinating, and all the old barns and silos just made the trip that much more interesting. It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose.

After a few hours of winding around Route 100, we found ourselves on the 136 East, then 97 North to the 24/78 towards Peoria. Shortly thereafter, in the early afternoon, we got to our hotel, a Staybridge Suites at Peoria, Downtown. That’s when things got interesting.

PEORIA, PEORIA, PEORIA.

Neither Carl nor I had ever been to Peoria, but our GPS was telling us that we had to go through the industrial district to get to our hotel. In the process, we saw burned-down cars, lots of construction and more than a few shady characters. This wasn’t looking good.

The immediate area of our hotel wasn’t bad, and the rooms were great. This would be the one spot on the trip where Carl and I would share a space together, and in this case it was a two-room suite that also happened to be ridiculously cheap. Carl and I would share a common area with a kitchen, and then get our own rooms and showers.

But at this point, we had a few unexpected problems. Carl had already taken several gigabytes worth of pictures, and we needed a backup hard drive to get that covered. I, meanwhile, was hating the Rogue. The transmission was all over the place and it rode like it was on wagon wheels. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and head to the airport to trade in the Rogue, then head to pick up a hard drive and dinner on the way back.

After driving through a ridiculously bad area guided by our GPS, we found ourselves at the airport. I parked the Rogue, let Carl wait with the car (with some of our stuff) and went inside to swap out the vehicle. The lady behind the counter was very nice and helped me get into a Ford Escape, which should’ve been just a footnote in the story. But five minutes down the freeway later, with squeaky brakes and a transmission that wouldn’t shift into fourth, we turned around and swapped out the vehicle again. This is when I found out more about Peoria than I expected.

Once I worked out the exchange, I asked the girl behind the counter where my friend and I could get something good to eat. “Where are you staying?” she asked. When I responded that we were downtown, she turned white and her eyes got quite large. Apparently, we did not pick the best area to stay.

She pulled out a map of the area. “See this area here?” she says as she circles our hotel. “You DON’T want to be there,” as she looks up at me from behind her glasses. “You want to be here,” and she circles an area across the river labelled East Peoria. “That’s where the new restaurants and stuff are. That’s what you want — trust me.” And with the map in hand, Carl and I loaded up our new Ford C-MAX and headed off towards the other side of the river.

A side note about the Ford C-MAX: I’ve never owned a hybrid vehicle before, and my only experience with one prior was an article I wrote about the 2009 Prius where I drove it up to Flagstaff, Ariz. for the day. Although the C-MAX is a smaller vehicle and it was a bit difficult to squeeze in all of our stuff, it was overall an amazing ride. It has a mammoth glass roof that can be covered by a cloth interior cover, which we often kept open. There were leather seats, Bluetooth and all sorts of other appointments that kept us comfortable for the remainder of our 800+ miles on the road — and the 45 MPG that we got the rest of the trip didn’t hurt, either. Overall, a fun car.

After crossing the bridge to East Peoria, we were confronted with a gorgeous area full of new hotels, restaurants and shopping. It was the perfect area for a stop, and that’s exactly what we did — it was dinner at a chain restaurant, then later we’d come back and get that hard drive at a Target that was so new that I saw drywall dust on the floor. Point is, if you’re going to Peoria anytime soon, take a look at East Peoria, as there’s some nice options over there. I’m sure there are some great people on the west side of town that we didn’t meet, but our particular experience told us that we were in the wrong place.

I KNEW I SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THAT LEFT TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE

The next morning, after a quick drivethru breakfast, Carl and I hit the road again, this time using the 74 to get to the 55 towards Chicago. We would stop at Route 66 along the way, take some pics of the legendary road, then get to Chicago before lunchtime. The plans were set.

This is where things went wonky. We had a GPS unit from Budget Rent-A-Car, but we also had our smartphones as guides just in case. I had meticulously planned out the trip using Google Maps, but since I just referenced hyperlinks instead of printouts for our route, I had to follow things manually while driving or have Carl do it for me. Somewhere along the way, I leaned on the GPS instead of the Google Maps directions and found that we had completely passed Route 66, and now, even though we were riding parallel to the Mother Road, we weren’t on it. I pulled us over to get directions.

We were right on the 55, just south of the 116, and it looked like if we just pointed the car east towards Pontiac that we’d be on course. We zigged and zagged the Ford through town, and then found ourselves in downtown Pontiac, right next to the Route 66 museum. Two turns later and we realized that we stumbled upon a spectacular little slice of small-town life. But more on that later this issue.

With our time in Pontiac complete, it was back on the freeway towards Chicago. In our case, we wanted to get there as fast as possible, so it was the 55 all the way into town. But for those of you who want to take the less travelled route, the 53 runs through Joliet, Ill., then the 171 goes further north as well to the 34 that rolls right into Ogden Ave. and Chicago proper. Our trip involved lots of traffic and more rivers and cool bridges, but we got to our hotel in Downtown Chicago with time to spare. After all, I had a game to catch — but that will have to wait until next time.

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