We began this plucky busy day leaving the Mark Twain Hotel, which we enjoyed despite somewhat hard beds and thin walls; the employees were all sweet and efficient and the top to bottom renovations from pedestrian to boutique charm and impress. As we drove out of Peoria we thought again, as we did so many times during last year's trip, "Nice town, wish we had a chance to see it." Ah well, we have long since accepted that Plucky Survivors is about the journey, not the destination.
In Bloomington, we made our road trip cred solid by picking up a portion of the classic Route 66. We traveled about 30 miles on the two lane blacktop, enjoying a mix CD Rick made of groups ranging from the Yardbirds to Depeche Mode to Sammy Davis Jr all crooning the delights of traveling to St. Louis precisely as we were doing.
It was fascinating, because we could see how the original road twisted and turned, and at certain points in its history was bypassed for straighter shots that ran alongside the original, only to have the upgrade bypassed in favor of a multilane highway. But if you stick to the original route - which is very well marked if you pay attention - you get to experience the charms of adorable, faded small towns, like the melodiously named Funk's Grove.
No more than pop. 50 at its peak, the population is now negative, because there are more people (most of them named Funk) in the cemetery in the woods than in the town itself. The drive through the forest was unexpectedly beautiful, and demonstrated how much land must have been cleared to make room over the decades for those endless cornfields.
We were disappointed to find the Funk's Grove Maple Sirup (sic) store closed but that wound up being a theme for the day so we should've just gotten used to it right up front.
Next up was Atlanta, a veritable teeming metropolis compared to Funk, home to a giant former Paul Bunyon muffler man who now holds something more appealing to us, as you can see from the photo. Atlanta is a fine example of the kind of small town the Pixar flick "Cars" was so sentimental about; once it was obviously a place where one would stop on one's motor trip west to have a "cuppa joe" or a sandwich or even more, but now it's a shadow of its former self, though better preserved than might have been feared.
The first town named for President Lincoln while he was still alive (he christened it himself with watermelon juice) still looks like a thriving place, but we weren't there for the sights. We were there for locally famous Mel-O-Cream donuts. Oh, my. Admire that oozing bismark in the photo. It goes up there with the HOG FEST sandwiches as memorable road trip food.
We nearly bypassed the former Pig Hip restaurant, now a museum to Route 66, because if it no longer serves its famous pig sandwiches, what's the point? Even worse, when we did turn up, we noticed something was missing: the entire museum.
A bronze plaque on a rock explained that just six months ago, the thing burned down, right around the time of the proprietor's 90th birthday. Dismayed, we went into the former office and found the man himself, Mr. Ernie, self-proclaimed "The Old Coot of 66" still holding court along with much accommodating wife Frances. The time we spent with them made the stop entirely worthwhile.
We heard the thrilling story of the fire-it happened while they were out getting some medication for Miz Frances, and they returned home to find their place in flames. An electrical fire, said the authorities, and probably started by a squirrel chewing on the lines. Mr. Ernie said, not without a certain glee, that they found the body of the culprit, with a blackened mouth, nearby.
At first, he was despondent, because his life's work, chronicling the highway that's the best and that brought him considerable business over 50 years of serving pig hip sandwiches (at his peak he went through a 20 pound ham a day!), was gone. But now he's decided there is something poetic about losing it all near the likely end of his life.
His nine children-all of whom have graduate degrees of some sort, he said with justifiable pride-don't want their parents' small house ("They all live in mansions!" he exclaimed) and there was no one to really take on his collection when he passes away. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, it seems. But we hope he's around to tell his stories for a long time. Take that drive and go say hi, why don't you?
Because we spent the extra time visiting with Ernie and Frances, we used the freeway-darned modern conveniences-to catch up on our schedule because we had a date with Mr. Lincoln at his library and museum in Springfield. Funny thing about that town; apparently, no one eats out on Sunday. Everywhere, including Cozy Dog, the inventor (they say) of the corn dog (but don't call it that - a sore point, apparently), was shut tight. So we were fueled on Mel-O-Creams (several more opportunities in Springfield, but each was closed because they sell out early, especially on Sundays when there may be nothing else to eat in the whole city) as we entered the relatively new fancy Lincoln Museum.
Now, we have mixed feelings about this place. It is state of the art, for sure, as it traces the life of possibly the greatest-certainly most interesting-President. And between the museum and the library, it deserves much more time than we had to spend on it, probably most of an entire day.
But the museum starts with (admittedly superbly constructed) wax figures posed in recreations of Lincoln's family's one room log cabin and other early Lincoln locales, as one travels through various rooms and displays. Graphics, though interesting and well written, were small which made it hard to read if more than a couple of people were also trying to do so. Rooms with multimedia displays were often over crowded and it didn't help that one was forced into going through the history of Lincoln in chronological order, basically forcing visitors into a slow moving line. Adding in the minor Labor Day weekend mob and it felt too theme park, too plastic, for such a moving and complicated life. When even the slave handcuffs on display are marked "reproduction," you know something is a little off. (Given the enormous amount of artifacts owned by the organization, it makes little sense to have a replica of something so basic.)
But there were moments; a room full of reproductions of various (largely negative) political cartoons about the physically easy to lampoon politician, all skewed at angles to make a visual pun on the weird perspective politics gives historical events. A scene showing President and Mrs. Lincoln leaving an expensive White House ball to check on their dying son Willie, with merry ballroom music playing from down below. A figure of Mrs. Lincoln, after her son's death, in deep morning, in a room where rain is pouring down a window, reflecting on her stunned face, so that it appeared tears were pouring down her cheeks. A multimedia graphic showing the divisions between the South and the North, and how they changed during the course of the war, with a clock ticking off the days and the number of casualties, as the borders dissolved, Sherman marched, the numbers grew tragically high and then the whole thing comes to a sudden halt.
By the time we got to a recreation of Ford's Theater, with the dialogue from "Our American Cousin" playing in the background, and we thought about how this tired man just wanted a night to laugh, and how it all came to a bloody end right then, we were deeply moved. For Mary, the best exhibit was two bronze models of life casts of Lincoln's face, which visitors were allowed to touch. Run your hands over his skull, cradle that head in your hands, feel the difference between the younger self and the one with the gaunt hollows in his cheeks in the last years of his life, as he oversaw the near destruction of the country he loved. It was bronze, and yet it was the man.
So we had to go say thank you to the man himself, which took us to the nearby Oak Ridge Cemetery. But first, a stop at the Museum of Funeral Customs right outside the gates. Exhibits on the history of embalming! Cases of mourning jewelry and clothes! The difference between caskets and coffins! Even a display about the Lincoln funeral train and a life size reproduction of his casket! For death buffs like Mary, there never was a better museum. It's a wonder she stopped herself from buying every book on display. But we wish we had eaten those coffin-shaped chocolates (complete with detachable lid and body inside) before they melted in the hot car.
After that, it was hard to get back into a reverent mood for the Lincoln tomb, a noble edifice that probably would have embarrassed the man himself. There is something about the whole of Lincoln's life that is peculiarly American-not just the myth-making one room log cabin self educated beginnings, or the noble vision, or the difficult, sometimes extraordinary sometimes disastrous choices, or the complicated relationship with God, or the violent end, but even the weirdness that lead to the one time near-theft of his body, which was later exhumed no less than five times. It's weird, wonderful and endlessly fascinating, and if there's one thing Plucky Survivors are learning about America as we see it, it's that very thing. And we made sure to say thank you to Honest Abe.
Readers of this site know we haven't done well in Missouri with directions and that is the only explanation for why Rick's usual superb mapping job failed for the first time on the trip and we had the entirely wrong address for the American Kennel Club's Museum of the Dog. We never did find it.
But we did brave the crowds at the unexpectedly jam packed St. Louis blues festival. Well, unexpected by us; you'd think the Ritz concierge would have warned us, having had some experience with local events.
Held on the streets near the (once again!) well renovated and historical riverfront called Laclede's Landing, it's a lively crowd of fans and bands, though not enough street food.
We also took a stroll through the Arch park, and Mary now has a mad crush on the arch itself. Is it possible to love a structure? She thinks so. She admits she's probably the last person to figure this out, but it's so beautiful and graceful, lean, curvaceous and sinuous, different from this angle and different again from that one, reflecting light and holding the warmth from day's sun. Wow.
Tomorrow, by the way, is Rick's birthday and he's being very brave about it. Write and wish him a good one, will you?
Speaking of writing, our internet troubles continue and while we think we have them solved, please be again warned our updates may suddenly stop if our backup backup plan also fails. We promise to get all updates on the site by Sept 9 if we can't do them daily. And for those who have written, thank you so much and we will respond personally when internet access permits.