Photos from our trip, as seen by Instagram, which we experimented with this weekend. I don’t have a way to post simultaneously to Instagram and this site, so I’ll just have to duplicate for now.
Ronald Reagan was the president of my childhood. I remember him mostly as an object of ridicule and fun, though his admirers have made him more of a caricature than any cartoonist by distorting his legacy and conveniently forgetting his more temperate actions.
After driving past Dixon, Illinois, his boyhood home, several times in the last couple of years, we found some time to visit the house on Hennepin Street where he lived during his preteen years. The house is owned an operated by a local private foundation. It’s in very good condition. There’s a short video in the visitor center about his childhood in Dixon and his return as president to visit the restored home.
The house is not large and tour was nice and short. Photographs are allowed (“Take all the photos you want,” one of the volunteers said with a wave of her hand). The Reagans were renters and the house on Hennepin Street was one of several they rented in Dixon.
Neither the video nor the tour related the house or Reagan’s childhood to his politics or his presidency, but an new statue on Dixon’s waterfront does. Titled Begins the Trail, it offers a twist on the horseback statue. Reagan was of course not a mounted general like Andrew Jackson, but he did once march in a local parade on his horse.
Reagan’s birthplace is in Tampico, not far from Dixon. We’ll go there another time.
Even more exciting than seeing American Gothic at the Art Institute of Chicago was waiting for lunch, which we took in the museum’s courtyard cafe. There was an empty blue glass bottles on each table to hold down the paper menus. On our bottle was a little green inchworm marching in circles along the rim of the bottle. Every couple of revolutions, it would venture down the threading, only to find smooth, unclimbable glass below. And so it would return to the rim and continue its circumambulation. It occurred to me that if the inchworm was nearsighted enough, it might never know it was moving in a circle and would be condemned to wandering around that bottle until it died from exhaustion. Even after I brought the bottle to a nearby yew to shake the caterpillar off it was still reluctant to let go, so I liberated the little booger-like creature with a flick of my finger.
We decided last minute to go to Chicago for the long weekend. The Chicago Jazz festival was underway our first night but we skipped that to frolic at the Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean). If you ever want to feel like a monkey amused by its reflection in something shiny, go see the Cloud Gate.
We spent the better part of the next day at the Art Institute of Chicago in the American Modern Art exhibit. As Iowans we were required by law to gaze at American Gothic by Grant Wood. We had company. Visiting American Gothic is a minor league version of Mona Lisa at The Louvre—in the sense that there’s a small crowd that makes it hard to stand and admire it. It was still fun to see in person.
Near the Art Institute is the Chicago Cultural Center, in the former Chicago Public Library building. This is truly a wonder, not just because you can go in for free and look at exhibits but because of the mind-blowing tile mosaics and dome ceilings. I’m starting to suspect Chicago has something of a second city inferiority complex because everything is so deliberately over the top.
In addition to artery-clogging Chicago art and architecture we ate some unhealthful Chicago food: Italian sausage sandwiches and deep dish pizza. Our pizza dinner was at Gino’s East in River North, a place huge and busy but not crowded inside. The interior was divided by graffiti-covered wooden booths and partitions that preserved some intimacy. We didn’t have a marker to add to the graffiti so I borrowed the waitress’s pen to write our names on the seat cushion.
We walked off the pizza at the Navy Pier, a schlocky Coney Island-like place but a good long walk. We got rained on pretty hard right at the end of the pier as we learned why Chicago is called the Windy City. It was a long wet walk back.
We visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park this morning. Lore is a big fan and I’ve always had a casual interest in his work.
The interior is a bit dark in places, as there is not a lot of direct sunlight, but it also has a warm, soft, greenness. There were lots of surprising views from one room to a next, as if no room was really separate. You could tell he was a bit persnickety about the design of his home. He paid a lot of attention to detail and designed his own furniture. He even paneled over a couple of windows to block the view of a house next door which he detested.
Because I couldn’t take pictures indoors, and because the midday sun was too bright, and because I can’t operate a camera very well, this building is ill-served by these photos.
We started our second day of exploration with a water taxi ride up the green Chicago River up to the Sears Tower, now known as Willis. The view from the 103rd floor was a bit hazy and the windows were a little dirty but we saw some great sights nonetheless. Against my better judgment, I walked out onto the glass-bottomed ledge for a look straight down.
We spent the afternoon shopping along the “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Avenue. We went to a Macy’s—not exactly a quintessential Chicago experience. I think they bought Marshall Field’s a while back because they occupy a couple of Marshall Field’s old buildings.
For the evening, we walked through the Loop and down to Millennium Park, which is more of an architectural and cultural park than a typical city park. Frank Gehry designed the band shell at the outdoor concert pavilion. At first we thought, “oh, another lopsided Gehry building” but we had to admit it was pretty cool after checking it out up close. Gehry also designed the adjacent meandering bridge from which the brilliant skyline can be seen. The most intriguing part of Millennium Park is the Cloud Gate, which I can only describe as a gargantuan stainless steel kidney bean. You can walk under the concave part and look at your many distorted reflections. My camera battery crapped out halfway through our tour of Millennium Park. I’m thankful for that because it reminded me to look at the city around me as it lit up after sunset.
Our dinner at the Green Door Tavern was as good as the half-pound hot dog on my plate was heavy.
Chicago is only four hours away and now I’m wondering why we haven’t gone before. We’re staying in the Near North neighborhood at the Ohio House Motel. It looks a little outdated from the outside but it is clean and in a good location for walking or catching a train around the city.
Lore is blown away by the variety and quality of Chicago’s architecture. The broad streets and sidewalks, along with the open space along the lakefront make it easier to admire the buildings than in New York, where you really have to look straight up much of the time.
Our first order of business was the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), which had an exhibit of sculptures by Alexander Calder. They didn’t let us take pictures of that exhibit but we saw many of his delicately balanced mobiles. There were some other exhibits, but not many, including works by sculptors influenced by Calder.
In the afternoon we took a train (underground, not elevated) to the Field Museum of Natural History for my dinosaur fix. I love dinosaurs and always have ever since I was a kid. The dinosaurs are among the many fossils in the Evolving Planet exhibit. I suppose we could have skipped the exhibits on cyanobacteria and synapsids but I happen to like learning about evolution. Some of the videos weren’t working, which is one of the pitfalls of high-tech multimedia museum displays. The exhibit’s emphasis on biodiversity and extinction ended with a rather simple but stunning mosaic of our planet’s many beautiful life forms.
We walked from the Museum Campus back to the Near North for a dinner of deep dish stuffed pizza from Giordano’s. It was good, not great, pizza—a little lacking in garlic and onion for my tastes—but the crust was really soft and delicious. Our small pie was still massive and probably good for about four meals.
My move to Iowa was my first foray into the Midwest. While I’ve seen quite of bit of eastern Iowa and have traveled to Missouri and Nebraska, I still haven’t been to the industrial heartland around the Great Lakes. This week’s training course brought me to Ohio for the first time. On the drive back, I got to see a little more of Indiana and Illinois.
From time to time I’ve heard it said that Ohio is not in the Midwest, but the Northeast. Garrison Keillor might agree. What’s not urban and sprawling is either eastern deciduous forest or small farms. There is definitely more New York and Pennsylvania in the land than Iowa and Kansas.
After class let out we took a short jaunt to James A. Garfield National Historic Site in nearby Mentor. Garfield’s house, like his biography, is much distorted by his assassination. Substantial donations to his widow expanded the already large Victorian farm mansion. The addition is mostly a spacious library for the late president’s book collection. Garfield himself slouched over a small armchair–custom designed for hanging his legs over one of the arms–in his study on the other side of the house.
We stayed Friday night in Indiana and dropped in on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which abuts the grungy industrial city of Gary. Having lived and worked along Atlantic and Gulf coasts, I am not easily impressed with beaches. The lake beaches lack something that the ocean beaches have even in the dead of winter. Maybe it’s the crashing waves and the salt air.
We went to Mount Baldy, a massive dune bare of vegetation that is an environmental disaster: thousands of people climbing it and trampling its plants have turned the dune into a roving blob of sand. Driven by the lake wind, it is creeping at a glacial rate southward. In my imagination it will slowly roll across Indiana, devouring everything in its path. In fact it is so gradual that right now it only threatens to bury the parking lot behind it. The park is trying to stabilize it by planting dune grasses, but this effort appears puny. Beware!
From there we drove back to Iowa via Chicago. The corridor along Lake Michigan between Gary and Chicago is the landscape of industrial might. People sneer at Gary as a living museum of urban blight, but they at least they make useful things. Ought the gleaming financial centers that produce nothing but worthless paperwork assets be the new objects of disgust?
Speaking of gleaming financial centers, we made a quick detour along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. From the impressive museum campus, I snapped some photos of the city’s office towers. The Sears Tower, now known as Willis, appears undiminished by the renaming.
A couple of weeks ago (Jan. 22-25) I was in Springfield, Illinois for training. I forgot my digital camera, so I bought a disposable and I just this evening got the photos back. Here they are.