Thursday, September 3, 2015

Best of 2015 Travel, Part 1: Spring Break in Starved Rock

This weekend we are headed to our last trip of the summer—Michigan.

And I have been remiss.

I now find myself having to quickly rewind and review for you the Travels of 2015. I could try to excuse myself or explain that summer went too fast, or that keeping up on blogs and having a kid home during the day don’t mix, or that I neglected to take any decent photographs, or that Facebook was a much more expedient version to use to “report back” on where we’d been…and all of that is true. But, at the heart of the matter is the fact that although I enjoyed our travels, I somehow believed that our little domestic trips this spring and summer were pale and anemic compared to 2013’s seven weeks in Europe, or 2014’s Costa Rica and New York City trips. Not blog-worthy. No one wants to hear about our trip to Starved Rock, a tiny park perched on the edge of the Illinois River. Right?

But, it suddenly dawned on me that, although the trips weren’t to exotic locales, the experiences we had were important, noteworthy, even. Starved Rock in mid-spring gave us a much-needed break and a glimpse of warmer weather after winter’s blahs. Little Columbus, Indiana was a surprise jewel, and afforded us a great opportunity to see how the dog travels. I attended my first Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City (see previous blog post). And after that, my son dipped his toes in the Atlantic (in Florida) and the Pacific (in Washington) in the same summer. How cool is that for a 12-year-old?

So, at the risk of underwhelming you with 2015’s travel so far, I bring you, in chronological order:

Best of 2015 Travel, Part 1: Spring Break in Starved Rock

Over spring break, we decided to take a few days and do something I’ve always wanted to do: stay at the Starved Rock Lodge. Starved Rock is the most visited state park in Illinois. According to Wikipedia, it is so named because “after the French had moved on, according to a local legend, a group of Native Americans of the Illinois Confederation (also called Illiniwek or Illini) pursued by the Ottawa and Potawatomi fled to the butte in the late 18th century. The Ottawa and Potawatomi besieged the butte until all of the Illiniwek had starved, and the butte became known as ‘Starved Rock’.” Of course, standing on the butte itself over the Illinois River, one has a hard time accepting the reality of this story, but it does make the experience of climbing to the lookout and gazing down over the river and surrounding landscape more thrilling. After checking into the lodge, a sprawling resort overlooking the river and hillsides, we took a long hike, first to the butte, then on to the other trails. The peak gave us a view of the dam and locks that now sit directly below.

The binoculars gave us a detailed view of all the garbage that people dump in the river, everything from thermoses to mattresses to construction materials. Depressing. Perhaps the most exciting part of the hike was watching thrill-seekers trying to climb the ice-covered waterfalls in the many canyons nature has wrought out of the limestone. (I was wondering how rescue vehicles would get there, not doubting that at least one or two of those climbers would slip on the melting ice and fall off the precipice.)

It was a gorgeous, warm day, and we started to shed our jackets as we climbed; the first swarms of little gnats signaled the new season.

Dinner was at the Lodge, and overpriced, of course. My son, ever in a growing period these days, ate an appetizer, an entrée, extra bread, and dessert. I sampled a local wine; it wasn’t terrible, but there’s a reason Illinois is not known for its wines. Later that evening my son was glued to the Cartoon Network (we generally don’t watch TV at home, so hotels are a cartoon-binge-watching opportunity for him), and my husband and I went for a stroll outside. We watched a raccoon boldly search for human throw-offs while guests taking a break from wedding festivities milled around on the patio. A young musician started chatting with my husband, and we were actually invited to the reception, or at least a drinking sing-along at a neighboring campsite after the reception died down. We respectfully declined.

The next day was sunny, but colder. After eating an overly greasy breakfast in a locally esteemed diner (named Joy and Ed’s, I believe; no relation), we drove a bit of the countryside, looking for fun and interesting antique stores. My husband bought a pair of Civil War-era eyeglasses. We ate ice cream for lunch, a sure sign that we felt we were on vacation. A longer drive to find another store (that was hardly worth the effort) was putting my son in a bad mood (ironically, he chose an antique-y looking sign at one of the stores for his trip souvenir which stated, “Attitude is Everything; Pick a Good One.”), so we headed back to the lodge to spend the rest of the afternoon in the pool. Not a big hiker nor antiquer, my son probably would recount the time in the pool (and his introduction to the sauna) as his favorite part of the vacation. 

That evening we drove around even more to find a good restaurant. OK, even a decent restaurant. The nearby towns of LaSalle, Peru, Ottawa, and North Utica were our best bet (and frankly hard to figure out which one you’re in, as they seem to run into each other). Eventually, after what seemed like ages to our empty stomachs, we found a pizza restaurant called La Grotto (which seemed more truck stop than cave) with a very full parking lot. Luckily, they were able to seat us right away. It wasn’t the best pizza, and the televisions were blaring, but we were less picky the hungrier we got.

We were to leave the next morning. We had been lucky with unseasonably warm weather. Our luck would change. We awoke to this outside our window.

Ah, March in Illinois. Ever a surprise. We spent the morning reading in front of the massive fireplace in the almost empty hall, sipping coffee. 

As luck would have it, friends I had not seen in almost 20 years (and my husband had never met) would be passing through Starved Rock the day we were planning to leave on their way from Arizona to a family wedding in Chicago. Scott and I used to work at the same café and drink at the same bars a lifetime ago, and have recently reconnected, to my delight. His wife Judy is a veterinarian, and they have a smart, sweet daughter a little younger than my son. We were planning to check out and leave that morning, but agreed to stay and have lunch together at the lodge. It was wonderful to catch up a bit, but way too short. Guess I’ll have to add Arizona to my places to visit!

Fortunately, the snow had mostly melted by the time we left, and we made great time getting back. We were anxious to rejoin our big ball of fluff, Persimmon, and relax a bit before returning to work and school the next day.

And, there you have it. The beginning of travel season. A beautiful hike, decent food, great weather, swimming, shopping, ice cream, meeting up with friends. What more could one ask for on such a short trip?

Part 2, coming soon.


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  2. I love your very descriptive, succinct, and blunt writing style. It's sad that lodges tend to charge too much and serve somewhat mediocre food offerings. Imagine what would happen if a good French chef were hired to work in these places, or even better, Egyptian, Andalusian, Moroccan, etc. Oops! I forget myself. We're in the Midwest. However, the fried chicken at Giant City Lodge is sacred.

    I was greatly saddened to read about the garbage. This is the case in too many beautiful spots in our state. I've not been to Starved Rock. Planning a getaway, but this is discouraging.

    I howled with laughter about Illinois wines not being the greatest. Truth. I feel like a traitor when I pass them up in Friar Tuck's, but so be it.

    Hope you had or are having a great time in Michigan. A friend from St. Louis whisked me away to Sleeping Bear Lake Dunes. Has a place there. Modest. We sat within 10 feet of Mario Batelli at a very blah folk concert. He's been sampling too much of his work. The smells emanating from silver dishes underneath his tables were tempting enough for us to briefly consider petty thievery. He and his posse were overwhelmingly pretentious. What did I expect from a world renowned chef who wears orange Crocs? :-)

    Have a glorious time! Happy writing!

    1. Ha ha! Have not heard of Mario Batelli, but I LOVE Sleeping Bear. That area and the Leelanau Peninsula is one of our favorite places to be in summer. And now my mouth is watering for fried chicken; I'll put the Giant City Lodge on my list.