Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COLUMN: Galena

Why is it that my best stories always have to start with an embarassing confession?

It only happened out of boredom, I swear. As much as I love my job, it had been one doozy of a workday. By the time I made it home, all I wanted to do was execute an awkward bellyflop and hand my brain over to the TV for a few hours. But what to watch? I was caught up on all the shows I cared about, and my Netflix queue didn't hold any allure that night. Then I noticed it.

Netflix had added a show I'd always been a little curious about but never seen. After all, I've got some stereotypes to live up to. I'm a guy, so I'm supposed to enjoy shows about cops and fights and car chases and action. I'm a nerd, so I'm supposed to enjoy shows about swords and aliens and outer space. I'm a writer, so I'm supposed to enjoy highbrow shows about zombie-hunting meth cooks who work at ad agencies in the Sixties.

I'm not supposed to like "Gilmore Girls."

Last week I decided to use up a few of my remaining vacation days of the year. I didn't expect to spend most of that vacation in the fictional town of Stars Hollow with my new friends Rory and Lorelai Gilmore. But after innocently clicking on the pilot episode, I proceeded to binge-watch the first five seasons of "Gilmore Girls." My only regret is knowing that I'm near the end.

"Gilmore Girls" was a flagship show of the former WB network and wove the tale of a single mother raising her teenage daughter in small town Connecticut. But if you ask me, the REAL star of "Gilmore Girls" was the fictional town of Stars Hollow itself, which the show never fails to present as anything less than the most idyllic place on Earth. With its small-town charm, quirky townsfolk, and welcoming atmosphere, I didn't feel too guilty about taking a week-long faux-cation to an entirely imaginary destination.

But by Friday, I wanted the real deal. The longer I sat in the front of the TV, the more jealous I became of fictional characters and their made-up, non-existant town. I wanted to feel the snow crunch under my feet as I walked through the Stars Hollow town square. I wanted to eat at Luke's Diner, wave to Miss Patty, and stay at the Dragonfly Inn. I needed small-town charm. There was only one option. I called a friend, and within minutes, we were on our way to Galena.

Tourism is a crucial source of income for towns up and down the Mississipppi, and no place takes more lucrative advantage of its small-town charm quite like our neighbors to the north in Galena, Illinois. Over the past 30 years, Galena has transformed itself from a shuttered mining town into one of the premiere tourist destinations of the Midwest. Nestled in the rolling hills and mounds of the northern Illinois river bluffs, Galena has something for everyone -- especially if everyone loves lead mines and Ulysses S. Grant, who called the place home for a spell. More than anything, Galena's known for its charming downtown of tourist shops and restaurants. It's the perfect daytrip getaway for anyone craving a small-town fix.

Or so I thought. Then I noticed a few crucial differences between Galena and Stars Hollow.

For one, winters are a lot less magical here. Almost every episode of "Gilmore Girls" has a scene where folks exchange witty banter while casually strolling down the snow-covered lanes of Stars Hollow. I wanted the same experience, so I leapt out of the car in downtown Galena ready for some primo repartee. Then the wind hit my face with an icy gusto and I could barely breathe, let alone banter. Someone clearly forgot to inform the townsfolk of Stars Hollow that winters are cold, or perhaps everyone on "Gilmore Girls" suffers from a tragic condition where they can't feel cold. I was in the epicenter of small-town charm and all I cared about was getting indoors as fast as I could.

Good thing, then, that Galena has no shortage of shops run by friendly folk who really want to sell you stuff. If "Gilmore Girls" is to be believed, every shop should be run by a colorful character full of quirky allure. The first place we entered fit the bill, as the shopkeeper immediately greeted us with an awkward invasion of our personal space and a measured cadence more suited for a funeral home.

"Have you ever tried flavored pasta?" he asked in a hushed monotone. "Go ahead, smell it through the bag."

"Interesting," I replied. "Is it th..."

But by the time I could get another word out, another customer had walked in and he was upon them, leaving us to fend for ourselves amongst the noodles. As we browsed, I realized not only was the shopkeeper hitting up every customer that walked in, but he was repeating the same thing on an infinite loop. "Have you ever tried flavored pasta? Go ahead, smell it through the bag." Was this a shopkeeper or a pasta-selling automaton? It was more down-home creepy than down-home quirky.

If there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's homemade sauces, jams, and jellies -- and Galena is in no short supply. But upon closer inspection, more often than not the fine print on the jars reads "made FOR Galena" instead of "made BY Galena." My guess is this means those sauces aren't made with love in Grandma Galena's kitchen as often as they're made in some faceless GramKitchCorp's industrial sauce-vat factory and merely packaged locally to look "homemade."

Maybe small-town charm can't be achieved through tourism. After all, I've yet to see an episode of "Gilmore Girls" that focuses on the tourists. They must be there -- someone's got to be staying at the Dragonfly Inn -- but you sure don't see them on the show. Maybe it's just tough to experience small-town charm unless you live in that small town. Or maybe real small towns don't provide a team of Hollywood screenwriters gifted at crafting charm.

It might not have been Stars Hollow, but our daytrip to Galena was amazing regardless. The robot pasta guy's pumpkin linguini is to die for. If you're a dedicated shopper, you can find the real homemade goodies -- and I don't care if a jar of sweet potato butter is made in someone's kitchen or someone's factory as long as it's yummy. Plus it was just a short drive from Galena to Breitbach's in Balltown, IA,  where we closed out the night with ham steaks cut larger than the plates they're served on, and that's all the small-town charm my stomach needs.

If anyone needs me, I'll be in Stars Hollow for the next fifty or so episodes.

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