Tuesday, July 05, 2016

COLUMN: Allerton

It's about time. Spring has sprung, and with it the whole world (or at least this particular hemisphere) comes to life. It's a magical time for the Quad Cities -- and an equally magical time to get in the car and leave them.

Nothing clears away winter blues quite like a spontaneous daytrip. I call it "aimless driving," and its amongst my favorite pursuits. Just get in the car, grab some friends, crank up the radio, and go. Just kick back and let the road take you where it wants. Quite often, it wants to take you absolutely nowhere, and that's fine by me. Aimless driving isn't about the destination, it's about the journey.

In college, aimless drives were spontaneous affairs that usually followed sentences like, "I'm bored. Wanna blow off class?" Not to say I was a poor student, but hey -- some days you're up for a lecture in Cultural Geography, and other times you learn far more about cultural geography by ending up at a roadside Denny's in rural Missouri.

Umpteen years later, aimless drives are just as fun, but not quite so spontaneous. You can't exactly call your buddies up and go, "I'm bored. Wanna blow off work and your wives and kids?" Being an adult is just SO overrated sometimes. But when you happen upon a combo of high temps AND a holiday weekend? Game on. Easter Eve was the perfect opportunity to get out of Dodge, so I called up my friend Jason and we hatched plans for an all-day excursion of adventure and exploration.

Living in the Midwest is great because we're so centrally located from all kinds of things to see or do. The problem is you have to drive at LEAST 3 hours in any given direction to get to them. Three hours east gets you big cities and great lakes. West gets you rolling hills and zombie burgers. North gets you trees and cheese. And three hours to the south? Well, that gets you about halfway to Kentucky. Can't win 'em all.

Unfortunately for us, Mother Nature was conspiring against us that Saturday. I woke up to a forecast of rain clouds in every direction... except south. Still, we wouldn't let a little thing like no-hope-of-finding-anything-interesting get in the way of the 2016 aimless driving kick-off, so we cranked up the stereo and headed south on the first back road that presented itself.

A couple hours of spelunking down country lanes and we found ourselves on the outskirts of Peoria. There's two important things of note that I can tell you about Peoria:
(1) Nothing in the town makes sense, and (2) I appear to be allergic to every aspect of it. We had barely entered civilization when my nose plugged up and I started a sneezing jag that didn't let up until we eventually found our way out of town. Getting through Peoria is tricky, because all of the main drags run at weird diagonals and twist and turn seemingly at random. At one point, we were downtown, found a main road to get us out of there, and five minutes later turned a corner and found ourselves back downtown again. I'm still not sure how we managed it, I was too busy sneezing at the time. If I had to offer a guess, I'd blame a rift in the space-time continuum.

One thing Peoria has going for it, though, is the existence of a Five Guys franchise, a burger joint MUCH needed in the Quad Cities. Except that it isn't, because I'm unhealthy enough as is, and that place may as well be renamed The Last Temptation of Shane. After unhinging my jaws to squeeze this monstrous burgery goodness into my gullet, we headed off for parts unknown -- except that THIS time, the parts were kinda known.

It hit me betwixt mouthfuls of fries: Allerton Park. One of the holy grails of aimless adventure, one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois according to our state tourism bureau, was within driving distance. I just had no clue how to get there -- so forgive me, Gods of Aimless Driving, but I plugged the address into the car's navigation system and gave our aimless drive clear aim.

My nav system, though, didn't let me cheat so easily. For several minutes, it led us down I-74 towards Bloomington-Normal and parts beyond. But then it ordered us to exit at the small town of Le Roy, where it then guided us to go one block, turn left, go one block, turn left, go one block, turn left, do the hokey-pokey, turn ourselves around, and re-enter the interstate. Either there's some sort of evil global conspiracy to bring the business of all Hyundai drivers to the Casey's General Store in Le Roy, or we just found yet another rift in the space-time continuum. It's the obvious answer, clearly, because Allerton Park is most definitely from a different dimension.

Once upon a time, there was a guy named Robert Allerton who had WAY more money than he knew what to do with. "I know," said Bob, "I'll find the absolute most boring part of Illinois and build a 1500-acre estate there." But Robert wasn't just a millionaire farmer; he was also a big art geek. That's why the estate is chock full of Greek and Oriental statues, European gardens, hedge mazes, reflecting pools, and vast greenhouses. It's an oddly beautiful culture clash and pretty much the closest thing we've got to our very own Downton Abbey. When he died, Allerton gave the estate to the University of Illinois, who now operate it as a public park and retreat center. It's amazing.

Or it WOULD have been amazing, had we visited in July. Note: If you want to visit a place known for its amazing gardens and flower displays, you probably shouldn't pick mid-March to check it out. I wanted elegance, and instead I got crazy statues surrounded by square patches of dirt that will probably look amazing two months from now. Still, we can officially cross Allerton Park off the ol' bucket list.

From there, it was just a matter of finding our way back. We ended up back in Peoria at dinnertime and used Tripadvisor to find a German place called Hofbrau, where I successfully clogged at least one or two important arteries with a giant plate of wienerschnitzel (aka two giant tenderloins covered in sausage gravy, but it sounds far less deadly in German.) The whole scandalous plate led to a most uncomfortable belt-loosened trip home, but if one voyage through the heart of Illinois results in two great meals, one bizarre park, multiple rifts in space and time, and a car full of laughs, I call it a win.

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