BADGER-HEADED CHEESE BUTT

The only thing I knew about Wisconsin I learned on our previous trip to the States. I saw a man sitting in a bar watching football with a hat on his head shaped like a badger and a ‘cover’ on his butt shaped like cheese. He was essentially a badger-headed cheese butt. Being late October at the time, I asked Hoff what Halloween costume he thought old mate was going for and Hoff simply says, “oh nah, he’s just from Wisconsin.”
Apparently, Green Bay Packers fans are sometimes called ‘cheeseheads’ and one of the college teams up there are the Badgers, so there you go. Looking at this odd dude with his badger hat and cheese butt, I knew Wisconsin was a place I’d need to visit one day.
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That day came on Sunday when we picked up a car and headed north, to Green Bay.
Whenever I plan a trip, I do the adult thing and select dates that work for everyone: children, employers, child-lookerafterers, it’s a rich tapestry. Whenever Hoff plans a trip, he looks at said dates and sniffs out any professional sport that may be being played in the vicinity. On this occasion, there just so happened to be a Green Bay Packers home game a mere 3.5 hours away. Apparently, this is a big deal. For Hoff, it was big enough to re-route our entire trip and devote two days (and a fair chunk of the trip budget) to the getting there.
So we hit the road for another stint in the car with my trusty itinerary for stop offs along the way.
Pleasant Prairie saw us tour the Jelly Belly Factory and get free jelly beans for our trouble – score. I also now know more about the manufacture of jelly beans than perhaps anyone outside the confectionery industry ever should. We got free hats too.
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Our next stop was the Mars Cheese Castle, so-called I guess because of the state’s infatuation with cheese and anything of the dairy-related nature. It was a cool place with heaps of great local groceries, beer and deli items. Plus now I know where old mate probably got his cheese butt. Blessed are the cheese-makers indeed.
Back in the car for a vastly more sensible stop – the Wind Point Lighthouse in Racine, which looks over Lake Michigan. Up until this point Hoff and I had been sniggering whenever locals referred to Lake Michigan’s shore as a ‘coast’. It’s a shore, not a coast. Chicago even has a neighbourhood called the Gold Coast, so named for its proximity to the shore of Lake Michigan and because of some convoluted story about how some rich dudes built their houses there. Unlike our Gold Coast which is presumably so named because it’s actually a coast and it’s kind of gold-looking. Anyway, the sniggering stopped when we saw how big Lake Michigan truly is. It might as well be the ocean, so ‘coast’ might be an apt descriptor after all.
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Our final stop of the day took some sleuthing. I’d read that in 1962 a bit of space junk crashed landed to earth outside an art gallery in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It later turned out to be a bit of the Russian’s Sputnik IV and the actual site is marked by a very nondescript brass ring embedded into the road, and a modest plaque on the nature strip. It took us four laps of the block before we spotted it.
Apart from being a quirky stop on my ‘itinerary of kitsch’, as Hoff has taken to calling it, the space junk site also proved to be a good excuse to visit the county that is infamous for being the setting of ‘Making a Murderer’. I have some moral reservations about sticky-beaking around sites that are related true crime because I know there are very real victims, but man is it hard to switch off your inner rubber-neck. So we may or may not have toured the justice-related sites of Manitowoc County, but we assuaged our guilt by winding down the windows and loudly debating the location of the space junk to anyone who may have been within earshot. That way they’d think we were space nerds and not true crime ghouls (which is only marginally preferable, probably).
My last job of the day was to steel myself for what was to be an onslaught of sport for the duration of our next stop – Green Bay. Hoff is a veritable encyclopaedia of international sports knowledge and American football is no exception. In fact it’s a specialty. We’ve been together for 15-odd years now and I’ve always prided myself on my authentic-seeming engagement with Hoff’s running commentary and rattling off of facts, which he does with increased speed and frequency, the more excited he gets. So excuse me while I nibble on some cheese and Google fan chants in our hotel room. Go, Pack, go.
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I LOVE POIDA

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved sketch comedy. Full Frontal was my favourite and I adored Eric Bana’s Poida. I might be the only woman alive who found Eric Bana more attractive before he was a big Hollywood star when he sported a blonde mullet on Australian television.

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Eric Bana as ‘Poida’, c. 1995

When I was in high school my friend Loz and I made our own sketch comedy show. My favourite sketch was when Loz interviewed me as Dr Miriam Stoppard, who was the author of a sex education book Santa had pointedly given me that year. We filmed it sitting fully clothed in an empty bath with stockings on our heads and we thought we were hilarious. That’s probably why we called it The Funny Show.

After The Funny Show went into permanent hiatus, I moved on to watching Saturday Night Live, devouring anything any SNL alumni went on to make and reading memoirs of all my favourite performers. And time and time again this same place kept popping up as a training and breeding ground for almost anybody who’s ever said anything funny: The Second City in Chicago. It’s been a dream of mine to see something there ever since. So here we are.

And did I mention there’s also a touring Saturday Night Live exhibition that just happens to be here right now as well? I love my life.

But first!

We started our stay in the Windy City with a food tour.  I learned was that Chicago is known as the Second City because it burned to the ground in 1871 and was completely rebuilt, not because it’s second to New York City, which is absolutely what I assumed. Apparently they get a little tetchy about that common misconception too. It’s their koala bear, evidently. Whoops.

And then onto Saturday Night Live: The Experience. Honestly, if there were a Make a Wish Foundation for adults in full health, it’d be my wish to spend a week at 30 Rock seeing how SNL is put together, which is exactly what the exhibition was. It was split into days and detailed outlines of what takes place on each day and it was absolutely incredible.

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This epic day was capped off with a visit to Jack’s Pumpkin Pop-Up which was essentially one giant, orange Instagram opportunity but super-fun, whatever the case. (Sidenote: do Americans have a problem with obesity because they see vegetables as decorations? Hmmm. Food for thought. Get it?)

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Friday saw us split up for the day because honestly, it’s been a long time since we’ve spent an extended amount of time together so we are pacing ourselves. I did a tour of the iconic Chicago Theatre and Hoff went to this sports museum where they something, something, home run, something, something hall of fame, something, something, World Series. I swear I was listening.

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We reconnected in the late afternoon for a Prohibition Bar Tour, which was great because if you can’t find a tour where you get to eat and learn about a city, surely a tour where you get to drink and learn about a city is the next best thing, if not better.

I’ve recently discovered that I have Scotch whisky distillers in my family tree and not so recently discovered that I really like alcohol so I’m always interested to learn more about its role throughout history. Predictably I learned much more in the first few stops of the tour than the last few. The basic take away was that Prohibition was doomed to failure from the outset and the whole thing was an exercise in futility but now we have themed speakeasy bars so it’s not all bad.

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And then finally, on to Second City which did not disappoint. We saw the 107th Revue on the Mainstage with a cast of six pretty great comedic performers and if one or two of them aren’t famous sometime in the next decade, I’ll be very surprised. Hoff and I laughed our heads off and it wasn’t just because of all the cocktails we’d had at Club Lucky before we arrived.

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The last few days in Chicago saw us live out a few more of our Windy City goals – I did a deep dish pizza making class and Hoff spent college football Saturday sitting in a bar with about 63 televisions watching half a dozen different football games, drinking beer and eating BBQ chicken wings.

We also spent a second night at Second City seeing a completely improvised musical based on an audience suggestion, which happened to be “Flying Covered Wagons”. It was one of the cleverest things I’ve ever seen on stage. I tried to hide in a broom closet in the Second City training centre at the end of the night so I could sneak into some classes come Monday but Hoff found me and made me come back to the hotel. We’re off to Green Bay next to see the Packers play Monday night football and apparently he’s not keen on missing it.

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In the meantime, thanks for the memories Chicago. We had a ball.

 

THE SUM OF ITS PARTS

On Wednesday morning we bade farewell to St Louis and drove to Chicago.

It’s not the first time Hoff and I have hit the two-lane blacktop in the States. In 2011 we spent about three weeks driving from Dallas to Los Angeles via Amarillo, Albuquerque, Monument Valley and Arizona. It gave us a taste for seeing the US by road and now we love it.

This country was made for driving. Wide roads, lots of lanes and in our experience, no slowing for road works every 20km (I’m looking at you, Queensland). Plus the billboards alone are enough to amuse you for the vast majority of the trip.

It was amazing how quickly we fell back into our old driving routine of 7 years ago. We have a very clear division of responsibilities.

My responsibilities are:

  • Plotting the route
  • Finding cool/interesting/wacky/weird stuff to see along the way
  • Taking photos of said cool/interesting/wacky/weird stuff seen along the way
  • Administering drinks and snacks
  • Music selection and volume control
  • Climate control
  • Manager, coach and captain of Team Hoff for the License Plate Game

As driver, Hoff’s responsibilities include:

  • Staying on the right side of the road and trying not to endanger our lives.

So the License Plate Game. This started back in 2011 and on that trip we managed to see license plates from 44 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, and we are determined to go one better this time. I don’t remember how it started that trip but I do know that for a while I thought I invented the game. I’ve since learned that I didn’t, and in fact, I probably heard about it at some point in my childhood when I read Babysitters Club Books exclusively to the exclusion of any other written material. I’m quite sure some of those girls’ shenanigans have fused with my childhood memories in more ways than one.

Hoff gets quite into it and at more than one point I’ve been concerned that his competitive nature in license plate spotting is encroaching on his ability to do his one job: get us where we’re going safely and in one piece.

Our first stop for the day was the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge and vantage point for the St Louis Arch down the Mississippi, which turned out not to be a stop at all because we missed a turn. Not to worry though, we drove parallel with the bridge for a good few hundred metres, which was the next best thing.

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Our disappointment at missing the bridge was somewhat assuaged, however, by our next stop: the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois. I love giant roadside architecture (their words, not mine). This particular piece was saved from demolition by a preservation group back in 1995 and subsequently restored to its former glory and I just love the idea of a group of people getting behind something simply because they know it’ll make people smile.

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Next stop was Springfield Illinois and the Cozy Dog Drive In, apparently the home of the hotdog on a stick and definitely an enduring landmark of the Old Route 66. We stopped here for some soup and not surprisingly, a hot dog and then headed over to Abraham Lincoln’s home and neighbourhood. The whole town really hangs their hat on being Abraham Lincoln’s home, which is not surprising really because it seems to me like there are about 45,000 towns called Springfield across the US (plus one notable fictional one), so the place needs to distinguish itself from the crowd somehow.

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Post-Springfield we hit a bit of a quiet patch so we amused ourselves by marveling at the flatness of the terrain, commenting on how eerily the distant weather patterns looked a lot like those in Twister, trying not to become too concerned that said weather patterns did look a lot like Twister and spotting each town’s water tower marker.

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I really feel like this town has something to hide…

Eventually, we pulled off the highway at Gardner, Illinois next to see a preserved two-cell jail, which is another classic Route 66 pit stop. Apparently it was more often used for drifters, to give them a roof over their heads, not hardened criminals, but Hoff and I just used it to get some super-cool photos.

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Finally, we stopped in Wilmington at the Gemini Giant, which is essentially a giant robot statue outside a diner that may or may not be open anymore. I’ve actually walked past the place and it’s still not clear. But it’s a giant Gemini statue, so, you know.

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And it was after this stop that Hoff said to me for possibly the fifth time that day, “so, what is this, again?”

*Frustrated sigh*

It’s a giant robot, Hoff. It’s a tiny two-cell jail. It’s a 170-foot catsup bottle. It’s the home of the hot dog on the stick. Each and every thing in and of itself is a little nutty and certainly not a reason to re-route your entire trip, for example. But on the whole, it’s a pretty fun day. It’s the sum of its parts. It’s weird, kitchy and iconic. You’re welcome.

So next, on to Chicago. Can’t wait to toddle around there.

WE WENT TO ST LOUIS, TOGETHER

When I was a kid, my grandma introduced me to the 1944 musical, Meet Me in St Louis. She had a copy on VHS, which was one of a grand total of about four videos available for rotation at grandma’s house. Pre-Netflix, obviously.

Meet Me in St Louis poster

It would eventually become one of my favourites. It is a visually stunning film and stars Judy Garland who was a visually stunning person. It’s got a killer soundtrack including the title track and “The Trolley Song” which is essentially a love song about public transport. If you have a spare hour and fifty-three minutes (plus maybe a penchant for 1940s Hollywood cinema), I highly recommend it.

Judy Garland

Hoff took me up on my recommendation once. Or at least, I badgered him until he watched it with me (potato/potahto). He was not a fan. He couldn’t believe that one of the central conflicts is that Judy Garland’s love interest misses the big fancy ball because he forgets to pick his suit up from the tailor before it closes so has nothing to wear (spoiler alert).

But this simplicity is my favourite part. I love that old mate missing the ball is akin to a disaster. It makes a nice change of pace from the barrage of modern-day films that are about actual disasters.

Anyway, when we originally planned this trip, we intended to start with five days in Chicago. Then at some point I was left unsupervised with a map and I noticed that my beloved films namesake, St Louis, was only a relatively short drive from Chicago. So even though I couldn’t convince Hoff to love the film in the way that I do, I did convince him to start our journey there instead.

(Actually, my original proposal was that I go there, and he go somewhere else nearby so that I could ring him and warble “Meet me in St Louis” down the phone in a context that would make sense. Denied.)

I should be clear though: virtually the whole film was shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles. There is very little in present-day St Louis that harks back to the film. Even the beloved trolley is currently out of commission, which I think came as a relief to Hoff because I fully intended to re-enact “The Trolley Song” complete with a giant hat, had it been possible.

The Trolley Song

This came as no surprise though; I had done my research. The point is, I knew that even if it turned out to be a dodgy place, I could always say I’d been there. Kind of like a little in-joke with myself.

In fact, it wasn’t at all dodgy.

We arrived after the obligatory long haul flight (damn you Australia and your epic isolation) and headed straight to Ballpark Village. St Louisans are pretty wild about their baseball, as evidenced by the giant precinct in honour of it.

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Home of the famous toasted ravioli, oops I mean St Louis Cardinals

It was here that we tried toasted ravioli, apparently a St Louis specialty. Who knew pasta could get any better? Well-played, St Louis, well-played.

Toasted Ravioli
Toasted Ravioli

Post-Ballpark Village we headed to dinner at Blueberry Hill, which is a St Louis institution and boasts some of the creepiest restaurant décor I’ve ever seen. More toasted ravioli too. I’m not even sorry.

Blueberry Hill

Unfortunately though, not long after round two of toasted ravioli, the dreaded jetlag set in and we had to haul ass to bed. We would’ve liked to take more advantage of St Louis by night in all her neon glory but it we had a big day of driving ahead of us so had to do the grown up sensible thing and stop for an ice cream sandwich before heading back to the hotel to hit the hay.

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It was an almost insultingly short amount of time to spend in such a charming city but I’m so glad we did. Even though my beloved film really just provided a jumping off point for our overall itinerary, I’ll always feel pretty chuffed that I actually go to go there. Plus I can always recreate “The Trolley Song” on the 109 tram when I get back to Melbourne.

2011 ME WAS THE WORST

It’s 5.49am and our then four-year-old has crept out of bed, paused in our doorway to pass wind, and is making his way into our bed to commence the daily process of demanding we start our collective day. His little sister won’t be far behind him.

Hoff rolls over and instead of my usual sleepy cuddle, I get this:

“Remember all those times before we had kids and I wanted to sleep in and you were all like, no, get up, we should do something?”

Me: Loaded, suspicious pause.

Hoff: “NOW WE HAVE TO DO THINGS ALL THE TIME AND WE NEVER GET TO DO NOTHING AND WE SHOULD’VE BEEN DOING NOTHING THAT WHOLE TIME AND WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”

He’s right. We should’ve been doing nothing. What a joyous privilege I was naively taking for granted.

I was reminded of this sentiment recently while re-reading a post of our last trip around the US, which was eighteen months before our son Zach was born.

Reading back over our antics I was struck by how good we had it. Don’t get me wrong, [INSERT OBLIGATORY BUT UNNECESSARY CAVEAT LIKE “I LOVE MY KIDS” OR SIMILAR HERE], but those kids are intense. Most days I feel like they’ve nominated me as the activities director for the world’s most deranged cruise line, the job description of which involves a constant program of suitable entertainment daily from 6am to 7pm, 365 days per year with no public holidays, annual leave or lunch breaks.

So in honour of my infuriating pre-parenthood innocence, I’ve decided to re-write parts of a previous post, which was entitled: “A perpetual state of wonder”. I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the 2018 additions. Enjoy.

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A PERTUAL STATE OF WONDER 2.0

I am mildly concerned that I am suffering ‘scenery fatigue’.

As opposed to the bone-permeating actual fatigue that I have been unable to escape since the day five and a half years ago when a doctor sliced my guts open and pulled a giant baby out.

In the last week or so we have seen so much natural beauty that I am concerned that my threshold for what constitutes natural beauty has been raised and I risk being very hard to please in the future. And I haven’t seen Uluru yet.

(Still haven’t seen Uluru. Because even though holidays are meant to be restful and soul-renewing, travelling with two preschoolers is actually harder than living with two preschoolers, so all non-essential travel is limited to visiting interstate family and destinations where we can engage their ‘spirited’ minds with trademarked children’s television characters. Oh and chips. There has to be chips.)

The point is, the most recent part of our journey has had me in a perpetual state of wonder, which I was allowed to feel because I travelled with another adult-type human being who is occasionally quiet. Not two children who essentially spend their days concurrently talking at me, the content usually consisting of: a) telling jokes that are not funny or involve macabre animal deaths, b) recounting the plot line of the previous afternoon’s television viewing, or c) asking life’s real questions, like “Mum, why is it Thursday?” (not rhetorical).

Tuesday saw us catch the Grand Canyon Railway to the Southern Rim, and I willingly chose to undertake this activity because unlike my current travelling party size/situation, being in an enclosed space with other unsuspecting travellers DOESN’T fill me with the sense of dread that I usually reserve for a pap smear. Evidently I could actually be around other people for extended periods without ultimately screaming like a banshee at my children to SIT DOWN, STOP POKING THAT LADY AND WHERE IN GOD’S NAME DID YOU GET THE IDEA THAT IT’S OKAY TO SCREAM AND SHOUT IN PUBLIC?

So we arrived at the Grand Canyon and we immediately decided that it is absolutely a canyon worthy of the adjective ‘grand’. And we felt quite chuffed that we got to see it under clear skies with a smattering of snow about the place.

We should’ve also been quite chuffed that we were able to stand there and appreciate it in relative peace without doing the mental arithmetic of how fast can my kid run and if I triangulate the distance between them, me and the edge of the canyon, am I close/fast enough to intercept them should they inexplicably make a bolt for the rim? I probably also didn’t end up anxiety induced IBS at the end of this day either. Huh. 

So now we find ourselves in Phoenix. We are feeling warm and very excited to be here, surrounded by cacti. Hoff is watching Virginia Tech v Georgia Tech on the telly and I was probably sitting on the hotel bed, completely oblivious to the unbridled joy of being in a hotel room without having to build an ipad-watching fort under some blankets in darkness, lest I interrupt the requisite nap schedule that waits for no man, not even in over-crowded hotel rooms in the middle of the day. Bless my ignorant heart.

*****

Honestly. 2018 me is going to appreciate the crap out of this trip.