Hit the road Jack: Glass takes a road trip through Illinois

ROUTE 66 is the road trip of a lifetime. Known as the mother road, people take its path to discover America’s vast culture with each state offering its own experiences and quirks. With the route starting in Illinois, there’s an eagerness to set off onto the open road, however in doing so they are arguably missing out on one of America’s most culturally rich states. In order to discover the overlooked wonders of the midwest, I embarked on a road trip around Illinois.

The tranquil gardens

A Frank Lloyd Wright house

Starting my journey in Rockford, I’m struck by the overflowing nature in their Anderson Japanese Garden. Taking a morning stroll around the serene 12-acre garden is a calming start to my journey as views of colourful koi filled ponds and wooden structures is a spiritual experience displaying Japanese landscape. Illinois is home to many beautiful structures and it soon becomes evident that architecture is a noteworthy characteristic of the state. Before leaving Rockford, I stopped for a tour of the intricately designed Laurent House which is one of the many houses in the Illinois created by the widely celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The famous red trolley in Galena

Car travel in America is swift, and the road from Rockford to Galena is spectacularly hilly much like the British countryside. After a short journey I’m utterly fascinated by the change of setting as we drive into Galena. The town is quaint and gives the impression you’ve accidentally driven into a weird and wonderful film set. I experience a sense of familiarity as it feels like something out of a tv show with the picturesque high street which features shops selling everything from ornaments to novelty hats.

 

Part of the famous route 66

As I browse a shop named Grammy’s Antiques I get talking to the shopkeeper who marvels at my British accent before selling me a hat that apparently once belonged to a famous actress. I’m not sure how true this was but nevertheless I left with a fantastic story and a smile on my face. Everything about Galena has a charm whether it’s riding in the retro bright red trolleys that tour the town’s 19th century buildings or a meal at Fried Green Tomatoes where the owner might came to check whether you tried their famous fried green tomatoes. Leaving the idyllic town was hard but before I knew it I was back on the road for my next chapter of Illinois.

State Capitol in Springfield

Driving down the long open highway, the music on the stereo suddenly made sense. Proceeding through album after album, the time on the road seemed to slip away into the scenery along with the voices of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young who sing to me about what it means to free in America. Taking a break from the road, I embark into a classic roadside spot called Poopy’s diner for a light lunch which turns out to be enough food to feed an army.

The Old State Capitol

Entering the capital of Illinois it’s evident the city’s undeniable history seeps out of every corner. The old and new state capitols stand majestically in  Springfield’s centre surrounded by independent coffee shops, restaurants and bars. The history of President Lincoln really came alive when I visited his house and the Lincoln museum which gives a backstory to his upbringing and living conditions when he was serving as president. I visited his tomb and attended a flag lowering ceremony where the public gather to commemorate Lincoln and the atmosphere is patriotic and proud. The devotion to Lincoln is strong in Springfield as his presence surrounds the city in the form of statues and plaques. I made sure to rub his nose a few times for good luck.

The Lincoln museum

In the evening, I participate in an another activity so uniquely American that I feel like I’m in a film myself. Pulling into the route 66 drive in, I see cars with their roofs off and people sitting in and around their vehicles armed with snacks in anticipation for the film. There’s no better way to end a long day on the road than enjoying a classic film with the evening breeze accompanying the experience.

On the way to Chicago I’m told we get to visit Joliet prison which is famously featured in the Blues Brothers and Prison Break. Walking around it’s a truly chilling experience as the atmosphere is dense but very much still alive. Abandoned cells tell the story of past inmates and when I get back into the car I can’t stop thinking about what it might have been like to be a prisoner there.

The river taxi

Approaching my final stop, it’s almost hard to digest the whopping Chicago skyline after coming from the smaller cities and towns of Illinois. Buildings like the Willis Tower and Tribune Tower are iconic landmarks and it’s a real thrill to be swallowed by these looming structures. Bidding farewell to the car, I used city’s canal and river routes to enjoy the architecture before heading down to Navy Pier for my dinner destination. As I board the Odyssey cruise ship it dawns on me it’s my last night in Illinois. I look onto the pier and see people dining along the strip of restaurants. Chicago is surreal and buzzing. The cruise sets sail and we drift slowly away from the energy of the city but enjoy its carefully crafted skyline.

Each part of Illinois felt like new territory, and it dawned on me that I could have completed a third of route 66 in the time I was in just the one state. The variation of laid back towns and busy cities made the time fly by. Illinois is massively underrated and perhaps that’s what makes it so special. It opens its arms to those who are willing to discover it.

by Katrina Mirpuri

For more information please visit the Illinois Office of Tourism website

Images courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism.