The Gemini Giant: Wilmington, IL

UPDATED: I first visited here in August of 2018, came back again two months later:
The Gemini Giant is 28 feet tall fiberglass “bit Thing” named after the Gemini space program of the 1960’s, located on Historic Route 66, (it was one of the very first major highways in America, was built in the 1920’s … and is also known as the Will Roger’s Highway, the Main Street of America, or the Mother Road). 
 This roadside attraction was built during the very beginning of the space race as a way to lure travelers off the road with a photo opportunity, in the hope that they’d stay long enough to buy a hotdog or a drink.

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The statue stands directly adjacent to Route 66 (yes, really, it’s the nondescript two lane road in the picture)

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and is in the parking lot of the Launching Pad restaurant (which was once a drive-in)

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The restaurant was built in 1956 at which point it was a 600 square-foot shack…they actually hired Hopalong Cassidy (well, the actor who in the 1950’s played the character in a series of sixty-six movie serials based on the character, William Boyd) to come and cut the opening ribbon (Boyd is the one in the cowboy hat)

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(According to the owner of the Launching Pad, who was thrilled to share the places history with me, after the show ended Boyd had gone to the studio and bought the licensing rights to the name Hopalong Cassidy for $450,000, a lot of money in those days… and in a few short years turned it around into $5 million by putting his picture and name on lunch boxes. I will note that Wikipedia disputes some of this but hey…)IMG_2160.JPG The new owner went on to tell me that the same family owned it for the next 50 odd years, passing it through the generations (and it was always wildly successful that whole time, open from around 7am to midnight — at least I think that’s what he said — with a staff of 20, and always doing good business) until 2010 at which point they sold it to somebody outside of the family who ran the business into the ground in the course of two short years (by buying cheaper ingredients, refusing to run the air conditioning, etc, all in an attempt to increase his profit margins I assume). As such, this Route 66 landmark business quickly went broke as its bread and butter local customers abandoned it, and has stood empty until this new owner bought it in 2017. The new owner is financing it solely from his own pocket and with any money he’s made by merchandising the image on T-shirts and bumper stickers and what not.

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Note the high quality Route 66 paraphernalia, MOST of which name the store or have the image of their iconic rocket man

He told me he has licensed the image of the giant (something the previous owners never bothered to do), so that nobody else can replicate it and he has tracked down all the old recipes for their dishes and intends to have the kitchen up and running in about two months. Till then, he’s filled the restaurant with a random collection of memorabilia intended to keep visitors happy. IMG_2164.JPG

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Even without the restaurant up and running, he told me that nn a slow day he says an average of about 200 people showing up in the store/resturant, while on a fast day it’s 500 to 800 people coming in from all over the world because they’ve heard about this place. Just during the time I was there, for about half an hour at about 2:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, I saw a Chinese guy and a French couple stop in to check the place out, all of whom were folks that were road-tripping Route 66 on motorcycles.

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Return 2 months later:

Full circle achieved. Stopped here the first time while driving from Pennsylvania (Pennsic) to San Francisco via I-80, and came back two months later while doing Route 66 in Atlanta, IL, where I came across this sign about an hour down south of here.

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Had a nice long talk with the wife…. last time I met the husband… and bought two T-shirts from they. While these guys have a lot of the same Route 66 stuff other people do, the wife has also put in the effort to have a whole SLEW of T-shirts made up that commemorate THEIR store, the Giant out front and route 66 all at the same time. (My major complaint with businesses/cities along the route is that most are just lazy and order stuff that I could easily and cheaper buy from Amazon).

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She apparently recognized me (although we had not met) which makes me think they saw this blog post…. and talked with me about the renovations that they’re doing. One of the things I noticed immediately was that the front rooms, which on my last visit were CRAMMED with stuff so that the tables rather than being available for customers were instead covered in collectable chachkies that were NOT for sale… which included a whole collection of expensive guitars and Blues Brothers dolls had now been cleared out… (see images from my first visit). I asked her what had become of them, “didn’t these tables used to be covered in stuff? Where did it all go?” and she took me into a back where they are creating a dedicated museum space in the back of the restaurant… which was not there last time I came.

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I remembered see almost ALL of this stuff crowded into the front room my last visit

Then she talk with me about what they’re doing redoing the plumbing and the timetables for that, and how they didn’t did not want to get funding from the 66 foundation in order to be able to pay for it, and why… but would rather do it out of pocket and owe no one. That said, she said that had done a REALLY good business this season in the T-shirts and collectables.

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She said that their timetable currently is to be serving food by March, but it will be simpler stuff like hot dogs and ice cream and things of that sort, while they continue to renovate the kitchens… and that they hope to be back to full diner status maybe by November of 2019. Since that’s the end of the tourist season, they’ll be able to start up slowly, serving the local community, and then be “ready” when the tourist season begins the following spring.

The transformation of the city of Pontiac, Illinois

Located about an hour and a half southwest of Chicago is the small city of Pontiac Illinois. To be honest, the only mentions of this place that I ever heard growing up referred to the state prison located at the south end of town. In recent years however the city has made a concerted to transform itself into a tourism destination, and in my opinion is well on its way.

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Firstly, in the center of town is a very attractive turn of the century styled Town Hall.

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Until I approached it I hadn’t known that this was one of the towns included in the National Park Service’s Looking for Lincoln Trek.

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I also found it was quite attractive on the inside as well, although not quite as nice as on the outside (they need to work on that). It’s a bit too spartan (other than the floors) and why is Lincoln looking at the ground?IMG_0286.JPGAlso, one does not expect with a population of just shy of 12K people to have four museums (I went to two of them, the Auto museum and the Gilding arts one, and they were both worth the visit). In addition, the city has been embracing the tourism tactic of hiring artists to pain murals around the downtown area to beautify itIMG_0284.JPGAnd another very cute thing that they’ve done is to scatter these cars for kids on street corners around townIMG_0287

I really have to give my props to the Mayor and city consul of Pontiac Illinois for transforming their little town from a town whose major employer was a state prison into something worthy of extended visits from those doing the route 66 trek, as well day trips for people living in the Chicagoland area.

The Iconic Berghoff Resturant in Downtown Chicago, Illinois

The Berghoff Restaurant is a MUST visit traditional German restaurant in downtown Chicago, which is also one of the city’s landmarks. First opened in 1898 by Herman Joseph Berghoff, a recent immigrant from Germany, this restaurant has been run by successive generations of the founding family until it first closed 2006. Unrecognized by the family, the restaurant was so iconic to Chicago residents that its closing created something of major scandal, with outcries of horror and loss so resounding and vociferous that one of the great-grandchildren of the founders, who had not wanted to run it, changed her mind and reopened it shortly there after.

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In 2016 that same great-granddaughter (who REALLY had not wanted to run) sold it to her brother, but other than laying off the entire staff and only rehiring the ones who were NOT cantankerous old farts (I will say service has improved MARKEDLY since they did it) nothing has really changed.

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They have essentially kept the menu full of its old artery clogging classics, but have added some new newer, healthier options (when people ask me what German food is like I describe it thus, “meat, meat, meat… more meat, a bit more meat… and something white on the side.”). So if you look at the images below it is photos from two different visits one in 2013, with a friend visiting from China, and the other with a one I’ve known my whole life (I actually just went to the Shiva for her mother in law last night) where we got healthy food.

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Eating at the Berghoffs with friends: 2013 left, when we got a corned beef sandwich… and the difference in 2017, a healthy plate of grilled fish and veggies with very little oil, on the right

I remember the first time my mom took me here, I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. If you look at the very first image of this post (see above), and look down the street between the tall building you’ll see the roof of what is the Art Institute of Chicago, which is not only one of the FINEST art museums in the world, it’s also my Alma Mater. Every time my mom took me there, that visit was almost always followed up by a meal the Berghoff.

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This time, like EVERY other, I got a mug of their Root-beer. I LOVE their root beer, it has a licorice taste to it which you don’t normally find in root beers. That said, during this last visit I noted they were installing a microbrewery INSIDE the restaurant. This place has ALWAYS had their own brew, but I guess having the huge brewing vat sitting in your place makes you a bit trendier (and hopefully more profitable) … but again, no substantial changes.

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All through the restaurant are murals and photographs of the Chicago world’s fair, including this one bottom left of the ORIGINAL Ferris Wheel (sometimes referred to as the Chicago Wheel), which served as an attraction back in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, i.e., the White City, i.e., the Chicago world’s fair, which was held along the lake on Chicago South’s side. In its honor Chicago has opened up one on Navy Pier by the lake, which offers some great views of the city

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One thing that I had never realized and this is one of my favorite places to go to where I have eaten at my whole life… is that the Adams street, where the Berghoff is located, is also one of the end points for Route 66… who knew?

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Afton Station’s classic Packards, Afton, OK

Located directly on Route 66, The Afton Station Packard Museum, is yet another historic Gas station and mechanics shop that has been repurposed into a museum. This one is dedicated to the Packard and other classic cars — but I can’t tell you much as it was closed-up by the time I got there (4:30 ish on Sunday).

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That said, the town it is in is DEAD… to the point of scary; I’d say a good 80% of the businesses on this street are closed up and the few people that I saw (were more stumbling than) walking around all looked suspiciously like meth users.

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So between that and the weather, I was pretty motivated to not stay here too long. I did however peer through the windows, and from the look of it,

IMG_1127.JPGA very large gift shop that once again is mostly filled with EXACTLY the same merchandise I’ve seen elsewhere. IMG_1126.JPGAnd a collection that consists of seven cars shoved into the garage, with very little to no explanations. IMG_1129IMG_1128

Chandler Oklahoma’s Route 66 interpretive center

Located in Chandler Oklahoma on Route 66 in a beautiful building that once served as their national guard armory, is a museum dedicated to the Route 66 experience. Smartly, its designer looked at the other museums dedicated to 66 (the good and the not so good) and opted to compliment them rather than to repeat them … So, this exhibit is about the experience of some of the local high-points, rather than the road itself — for the low price of $5

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I have got to admit, this is one of the better local attempts at a museum I’ve seen.

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It has a docent, who, as soon as you walk in…. gives you a little tour of the place. First she talks a bit about the history of the building and it’s construction

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Picture of workers mining and working the stone that makes up the walls

Then she showed us the drill hall which has now been repurposed by the community for things like a wedding venue

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and finally she took us into the exhibit hall and explained how the interpretive center works. She told us (me, and two women I had run into previously at Pops), about how they had hired a curator to design the space, and I could have told her that just based on layout. (As you guys all know nothing pisses me off more than museums that don’t even TRY to curate themselves). Less is more people, less is more…

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The suggested way to start the exhibit, is a 20 minute movie (assuming you have the time) about a man originally from IL who made about his first trip on 66 in his 20s (in 1939 going road-tripping with a buddy to their university in Arizona). On that trip he had written letters to parents at every top along the way, and had taken photographs. Years later, when it was time to move his mom into managed care, upon clearing out the family home he found his mother had kept all the letters and post cards… and this stimulated in him a desire to do the trip a 2nd time, in 2000, now that he was retired. He did so, making a point of trying to stop at all the same motels (or finding out what had happened to them) and focusing on the differences between the two trips. With the help of a friend, a documentary was created which is being shown only in this museum (I looked for it on-line and couldn’t find it, other than references saying it was showing at the museum.

Then you move into a section where you can lie on beds (as though you were staying at one of the Route 66 motor homes), or sit in chairs (which were pulled from classic cars), And watch from a large selection of shorts (about 5 minutes or so each) on a variety of different topics

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This one showed either a movie about renovating the Round Barn, that I had visited earlier that day, or a movie about the former icons that are no more — and the changing awareness of local communities and the government that these road side attractions actually need preserving as they are part of our history.

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A VERY big historic gas pump: Sapulpa, Oklahoma

Located directly in front of the Heart of Route 66 Auto Museum, is a VERY big gas pump, but of the sorts that used to be used back when Route 66 was a thing.

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The gas pump stands along side car museum. I found the juxtaposition of the very OLD fashioned gas pump with the Tesla charging stations amusing.

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Unfortunately the places closes at 4pm and I got there at around 6pm… At first I thought it was open because so many cars were the parking lot and people were standing around, but it turned out to be a high-school reunion for the class of 1968 from the local high school

Grand Canyon, South Rim, Arizona

It’s the Grand Canyon, South Rim… it’s a classic! Rather than drive here, however, I took the train ride from Williams, AZ (on Route 66) where I was spending the night.

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To be honest, the three hours the Train service allowed me was ENOUGH, in large part because my pinky toe on my right foot was seriously unhappy with me (I had sprained it and rather than let it rest and keeping it elevated, I had been driving cross-country and doing a load of walking.) As such, rather than walk I first took the shuttle bus for invalids (organized by the train company) from the train to

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I LOVE the fact that an old-fashioned station wagon drove up just then, haven’t seen one of those since the 1970’s

El Tovar.. in order to get some lunch, and to see it because … HARVEY HOUSE!!!

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On the train I had asked the girl to suggest which of the restaurants had the best food, and she said the main restaurant at the El Tovar for sure… but I had done so much snacking on the way over that, while looking over their lunch menu, I found I wasn’t actually all that hungry, so I opted for the Onion Soup

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It was VERY good (definitely a cut above the average), and every person I spoke to at the surrounding tables was also extremely happy with their food. Let’s face it, you don’t expect food at restaurants like this actually be good, especially when the food prices are relatively reasonable. (You’re paying for the location, ambiance and view).IMG_0588

That said, the room is also quite spectacular…. both its interior and decorations,

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And of course if you’re very lucky (I wasn’t) you’ll be placed next to a widow with an amazing view.

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The bottom right image was from my table… I was WAY in the back but that said, ….Heh, my table was RIGHT next to the electric plug and my iPhone’s battery was down to 20% after the train ride.

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A bar, that also has a wonderful view

I wandered around the building a bit afterwards, cause it was gorgeous (and a Hardy House that had been kept authentic over time)… ‘

IMG_0597Directly adjacent to the El Tovar is Hopi House, which is also a historic landmark, that is used as store for mostly high-end Native American goods. It was designed by Mary Colter, the same woman who designed almost all of the Harvey Houses. IMG_0598IMG_8096IMG_0601After checking it out, I went to look at the rim…. pictures don’t do it justice, there’s something unreal about it.IMG_8107.jpgThat said, I was in AWE of how clear the view was. I kept saying to people, “do you realize that a few years ago you wouldn’t have seen this? That there was a horrible haze mucking it up? That its only because of the Clean air act, and the recent closing of some near by coal-burning power stations that you can see this so clearly” Apparently nobody did… Not only that but some Trump supporters actually started yelling at me (I’m shitting you not.)IMG_0602IMG_8114.jpg

IMG_8119.jpgMy weather karma is continuing— like I said it was supposed to be raining today…

IMG_8129IMG_0606IMG_0605IMG_8216At the other end of the part of the southern rim that I had walked along, is the Bright Angel Lodge which was also designed by Mary Colter, and this one has a very famous fireplace (that the one behind me in the images below)…. which again has amazing views at its restaurant… only the girl on the train told me the food isn’t quite as good.

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Adjacent to it is an ice-cream place that also serves sandwiches, and pretzels and snacks (all the food you’d eat while standing outside)… although while I was there mostly all people were buying was the ice cream.

IMG_0604 As they warned us on the train, there’s a HUGE fine, like $500 if they catch you feeding a squirrel… and that they will try to steal your food if you don’t watch out… what they neglected to mention is the little buggers bite, and will infect you with the plague!!!!

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After this I took an un-scenic shortcut back to the train station, because it was about time to go back to Williams, and if you miss the train you’re kind of screwed.

Roger “King of the Road” Miller Museum, in Erick, Oklahoma

The king of the road Is no more….‘tis sad. NONE of the web sites that I looked at told me this, heck even GOOGLE… which knows all… didn’t tell me this (when I was charting the trip… between then and now someone informed them, so this closure must be pretty recent) … So when I got there I was pretty nonplussed to discover an empty building with blocked out windows, and when I peaked in all I saw was an empty room.

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you can sort of see where they have scrapped the name off the glass

That said, I was going to seriously cheat on this one anyway. My mom used to bake, that was until she discovered the Sarah Lee factory that was about a 15 minute drive from our house that had an ACTUAL outlet store that sold items that had failed their “perfection” tests… so like the icing was lopsided or the crust was not perfectly flat, etc., which they then sold at a deep discount. From then on, she just bought their stuff and presented it as her own work. That said…

Think of it as a memory of things passed … (pun intended)

The Helium Time Monument in Amarillo Texas

Why yes, I’m a geek. What’s your point? It’s a statue of the Helium molecule that’s located next to a Don Harrington discovery center that was closed by the time I got there. (It closes at 4:30, on a Saturday!!!?????? This is a Science museum in a major city… WTF?)

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It’s a sun-dial, but it was rainy, windy and overcast

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By visiting it I learned something I had not known, Amarillo is the Helium capital of the world… who knew?

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