Days 10 to 12 – Nashville, Tennesseee to Chicago, Illinois
Day 10 of my trip to the USA was most certainly a ‘van appreciation day’. We travelled 360 miles to our campground north of Indianapolis in Lafayette, Indiana. At the halfway point in our trip we needed to cover some serious ground and were on the road for about 12 hours (including stops!) to make it back north for our two night stop in Chicago the next day. It is nice to have time in the van, its good to be able to rest, catch up on sleep, and just chill. The wi-fi in the van means it’s also possible to chat with friends and family back home through the likes of Facebook.
The first stop of the day was actually not intentional, as we had pulled of the highway for gas and a rest stop, only to be told by a kind local that there had been an accident further along the road, advising us to take an alternative route. This happened to be a good shout, as we ended up taking a drive through small town Kentucky with serene rolling grassland and quintessential houses. Just like in the movies. The best part of this unexpected detour? Our impromptu detour led us to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. We ended up in the Lincoln Museum. This was a nice little unexpected stop, we didn’t have time to take the tour of the museum, but we did browse the gift shop for a while.
We continued on our journey through Kentucky and into Indiana. Our next stop on this day was in Indianapolis as we emerged from the country and into the bustling city. We stopped at the home of the Indianapolis Colts for a browse around the stadiums shop before heading to dinner.
Dinner was a lovely surprise stop at the American institution known as Cracker Barrel. I had heard good things about the place on YouTube in the past, and I was looking forward to sampling the wholesome country cooking! The first thing I noticed was the veranda lined with rocking chairs, along the front of the wood clad restaurant. The place really has an old town feel to it, almost like what I would expect to see in a film from the 50’s!
As you enter the restaurant you are greeted with the gift shop, which is packed full of country sweets and treats, candles, books and I’m assuming as these are mostly on intersections of the highway, lots of travel accessories. I actually picked up a little travel pillow for the last few days in the van, they really help when your trying to catch some sleep!
After a short wait we were called through to the dining room. Our server was cheerful and seemed to be genuinely interested in why a bunch of Europeans’, an Australian and two Americans’ were stopping at Cracker Barrel in the middle of Indiana – In her words, there’s nothing there.
It was soon time to order lunch and after browsing the menu, (and not really knowing exactly what most items were!) I chose the Sunday special – Homestyle Chicken. This was two chicken breasts covered in breadcrumbs and served with two vegetables. Then came the question – would I like cornbread or biscuits with me dinner?
For myself, and I think most of us from the UK, this was an unusual request! Why would I want biscuits with my dinner? It turns out biscuits are a type of savoury bread, made from flour, which can be eaten with a variety of toppings like butter or jam or on its own. It’s essentially a scone, for those of us from the UK. In America, biscuits are called cookies to save confusion! Cornbread in a sweeter alternative made from corn and is a staple across America.
I also have to question the fact that meals are served with ‘2 vegetables’. At least from a European/ British perspective, this is actually what we would call sides and the menu had things like macaroni cheese in this category – since when was macaroni cheese a vegetable? But I digress, this is a difference in terminology and local language which just takes a bit of adjusting!
After our lovely dinner and a browse of the gift shop we headed for the short drive to our campsite at Prophetstown State Park. This campsite was massive! It really felt unique in that it had lots of open spaces and was surrounded by the long grasses of the prairie. The campsite was a great place to watch the sunset and the location meant it was a great place to watch the stars.
The most unusual thing about the campsite? For sure, this has to be the fact that although there was plenty of grass around we had to pitch our tents on the hard ground! Does anyone know why this is? I was particularly pleased with my awesome decision to take the Vango Ultralite self inflating mat, having seen it recommended by The Travel Hack.
After a few drinks I hit the sack ready for an early rise. The campsite had nice showers just a short walk from our pitch which is something you really appreciate when your on the road. Its trips like this which really make you appreciate the smaller things in life which we all take for granted.
The next morning we were on the road again, this time heading to our two night stop in Chicago! I was looking forward to a whole host of things about our stop here, not least the fact that I would have a real bed for the next two nights.
Image sourced from Dollar Photo Club.
On route to Chicago we stopped a few miles short of Downtown at the deserted city of Gary. We had seen Gary on a map but none of us knew what was there, just that we wanted to try and get a picture with our van, which we had unashamedly named ‘Gary’ at the beginning of our trip! The city has been hit with the recession and was perhaps the most derelict place we seen on the tour. It was sad to see the state of some of the buildings. We later found out that the Jackson 5 were actually from Gary! After a very quick stop for some pictures, we were back on the road.
We stayed at the HI Chicago hostel. This was my first ever experience of hosteling, and I was quite impressed! Our group had two dormitories to ourselves. The beds were decent (at least after camping for so long!) and the shower was hot and powerful – what more do you need! We were centrally located and after dropping of our bags we all went out for lunch and to see some of the sights.
Mary Rae took us to Pastoral – an artisan, cheese, bread and wine shop for delicious sandwiches. I opted for the ‘Southern’ sandwich which was filled with milano salami, housemade pimento cheese, red onions, celery and cornichons (gherkins). I also picked up a can of refreshing San Pellegrino Blood Orange juice. We ate our lunch at Millennium Park, an awesome park in the city centre filled with brilliant art installations, including The Bean, which I was excited to photograph! The park was bustling and had a really amazing atmosphere.
Our next stop of the day was an optional activity everyone was excited to do – we visited the Willis Tower and had tickets to go up to the Skydeck on the 103rd floor, 1,353 feet above the ground for spectacular views of the city and Lake Michigan, one of the five great lakes. The Willis Tower was the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere until the construction of the new One World Trade Centre in New York, which thanks to its 400ft spire, overtakes the Willis Tower to the honour.
The views were stunning. Lake Michigan is beautiful and I love the contrast of the lake (which is so huge, it could be the Mediterranean Sea!) to the backdrop of some of the worlds tallest skyscrapers. We took up the challenge of walking out onto ‘The Ledge’, a four foot glass balcony over the edge of the tower. This is a fantastic experience and not for those with a fear of heights! It really is the best view in the city though, with unobstructed views for miles around.
After we had finished taking in the views we all headed back to the hostel. I took the chance to do some laundry and repack my bag, which was in need of some organising. I also managed to get all my devices on charge, thanks to the really handy power sockets next to my bed.
That evening we all went out to sample a Chicago staple – the famous Chicago deep dish pizza. We got taxis and headed to Ginos East. The restaurant claims to be the home of the original deep dish pizza and it didn’t disappoint! We had several varieties including cheese and sausage – my favourite. Each pizza was really massive and if you could handle more than a couple of slices you were doing well! Each slice was thick and loaded with ingredients – delicious! The interior of the restaurant was unique and grungy with graffiti on the walls and pictures of all the celebrities who had eaten there, including President Obama and Simon Cowell!
After our delicious dinner we headed to Bobby’s bike and Hike for an included bike tour around Chicago. The weather unfortunately turned for the worst and just as we were beginning our tour the sky’s opened in an almighty thunder and lightning storm, cancelling our tour. This was a real shame as the tour was meant to be really good. Most of the group rebooked for the following morning though. Myself, Jay and Portia decided to spend the day exploring the city on our own.
We headed to the Navy Pier and after a look round the shops and grabbing a coffee, went out on the lake on a cruise with fantastic views of the city skyline. I really do love Chicago. Its a beautiful city. The Navy Pier and harbour with the Chicago Harbour Lighthouse is so beautiful – it really could be the Mediterranean.
After the cruise back on dry land we jumped in a taxi to North Michigan Avenue and browsed around the shops. We also had a look around the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church on the Magnificent Mile. The thing I really loved about this was the stark contrast between the gothic style of the church and the modern sharp lines of the surrounding sky scrapers.
Later in the day we split up and I opted to go for a browse around The Art Institute of Chicago, which had some nice displays open. After a quick visit I headed for coffee and lunch before getting a taxi back to the hostel.
That night we took the subway to the U.S. Cellular Field to watch the Chicago White Sox go head to head with the LA Angels. The group had asked Mary Rae if we could see a game and she happily organised it for us. We were all stoked to see our first baseball game! Admittedly I and most of the others weren’t really following the game, I think we watched about six innings before heading back to the hostel. I think most of us wanted to go to sample the atmosphere, which was awesome, and to try some yummy authentic hot dogs, which were delicious!
Chicago was one of my favourite stops on the trip and a city I would love to explore more of in the future. It’s a beautiful city with so much to see and do! These past few days were a feast for the taste buds in America’s midwest, in two days we sampled some of Americas great culinary experiences including the authentic country cooking of Cracker Barrel to delicious artisan sandwiches and authentic, original Chicago pizza. What’s your favourite American food? Join the conversation in the comments!