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Bumpy Road

August 4, 2016


Four years ago today, on our first cross-country road trip, The Hamster and I were passengers in a dune buggy that sped up and down massive sand hills in Oregon. It was and absolutely thrilling adrenaline rush, and one of the top highlights of the trip.

Purely by coincidence, we marked the anniversary today by doing an even better version of the same thing. On the outskirts of Attica, Indiana–a Western Indiana town so small that our GPS thinks its streets are private property–lies Badlands Off-Road Park, one of the most fun places I’ve ever visited and absolutely something we can’t do at home. It’s an 800-acre playground for ATVs, with sand dunes, wooded areas, rocky moguls, a stream, steel tunnels–pretty much every terrain you can imagine, with hundreds of paths intersecting through it all like spiderwebs on crack.



We woke up very early so we could be there when the park opened. We rented a two-seater and a couple of helmets, got a quick tutorial that included instructions on how to make sure your thumbs don’t get ripped off (I swear I’m not making that up), and off we went,climbing through twisting, rutted pathways, flying over dunes, and  splashing through puddles. It was terrifying, it was muddy beyond anything I had imagined, and it was SO MUCH FUN!

As long as your thumbs don’t get ripped off,  pretty much anything goes within the park. No section is off-limits, and everything is multidirectional. I asked if there were any speed limits, and the answer was, “There are a few signs posted in the park, but they’re just suggestions. You can go whatever speed you’re comfortable with.”

At first I took it very slow as I got used to the machine and the terrain. Slowly Sam and I both started getting a little more confident and adventurous. By 10 a.m. we were zipping up and down terrifyingly steep dunes at 30 mph, splashing back and forth across a shallow stream, and trying out more and more challenging paths.

Eventually our confidence got the better of us. We were speed across dunes at one point when we came upon a section of moguls. I didn’t slow down. In seconds we were being bounced so violently that I was sure the vehicle would flip over. I hit the brakes, relieved that we didn’t flip, but we got bounced around so badly that Sam was in a lot of pain. We’re not sure if his back slammed against something hard in the vehicle or if it just hurt from all the bouncing, but he was in tears. He calmed down pretty quickly, got out and stretched, and slowly started to feel better. But we were a lot more tentative and careful for the rest of our time there.

We could have stayed all day–most people do, and the counter staff looked pretty surprised when we returned the helmets and vehicle at around noon. But we had a busy day ahead of us, and I had a lot of normal, paved driving to do.

On the way to our next stop we crossed over into the Central Time Zone and thus gained an hour, which was good because we had an absolutely packed day planned, and also because we reversed our maturity by several years simply by where we chose to go next: Kickapoo State Park.

We didn’t even want to do anything in the park. We just wanted to kick a poo. Or at least go somewhere that instructs all visitors to do so. Yes, it’s stupid and childish, but let me remind you that Sam spent half of yesterday giggling about the name Dick Butkus. You have to know your audience.



When we left Kickapoo we put the top down so we could enjoy the beautiful weather. The drive to our next destination was about 40 minutes, and about halfway there our hunger got the best of us and Sam turned around to grab some snacks from the back seat. That was when he screamed, “Dad! The cooler! The top is gone!”

I took a glance behind me and saw our cooler with its lid off. It took a second to dawn on me that the lid was not just open, but completely gone. I pulled onto the shoulder and stopped the car, not knowing what to do next. The first thing we did was to check the contents of the cooler, which were thankfully all still there. We quickly realized that the wind must have somehow opened the cooler and then yanked the lid completely off and out of the car. We guessed that it happened about 15 miles or so earlier,  when the wind picked up just as we got onto the Interstate. But we had no way of knowing whether we were right, and whether the lid had already been crushed to bits by a passing truck. And no way to keep our food cold. On the bright side, our cooler was now qualified to work at the topless club that was next to our motel the previous night. But we had a serious problem to solve.

One of the keys to a successful road trip is flexibility and problem solving, because there are always things that don’t go according to plan and there are always problems that arise along the way. We’ve gotten very good as solving them, whether it’s finding supplies we suddenly need or reworking our itinerary to fit in fewer or more activities as necessary. And that’s good, because a lot of little things have gone stupidly wrong for us on this trip already, and it’s only been a few days.

On day two, for example, the cigarette lighter in our car stopped working, which means we can’t charge our phones while we drive. So we use portable chargers as needed, and charge everything overnight in our motel room. But then on day three I left my phone charger in our motel room. So I Frankensteined a new charger out of an iPhone wall cube and the cable from the car charger I can’t use. Problem solved.

Back to the topless cooler. As we closed the roof, we took a moment to mourn the cooler that had been with us on every road trip, and we started trying to figure out how to get a new cooler right away.

Wal-Mart to the rescue. Sam checked on his phone and found a Wal-Mart in the same town we were headed. We went straight there, and managed to solve a few nagging problems all at once. We found a cooler roughly the same size and shape as the old one, and we also picked up a few other important item’s we’ve been missing. I had realized day earlier that I had forgotten to pack our hot plate, which is an essential tool if you need to heat up food in a hotel room on the Sabbath. Not worry–we bought a new one at Wal-Mart. And we also realized on our first day that we forgot to bring stamps, which are essential if you plan to mail your daughter a postcard every day. They sell those at Wal-Mart, too, so Sam’s sister is going to be getting a serious stack of postcards very soon.

In the parking lot I quickly got to work transferring all our food from the old, topless cooler to the new one.I left the old cooler in the parking lot next to a garbage can. It looked so sad as we drove away, but it’s somehow fitting that our road trip cooler ends up at the Wal-Mart in Rantoul, Illinois. He died the way he lived.

In a few minutes we were on our way, problems solved and ready for more fun.

Fun is exactly what we got. Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch is really in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farmland for miles in every direction. And after seeing nothing but cornfields for a while, it was an oasis of eclectic kitch and wacky fun. The reindeer are only one of the attractions at Hardy’s. There’s also a massive corn maze, a pumpkin patch, a small playground, and the most fun bathroom I’ve ever seen.



The reindeer were incredibly friendly, and in a few moments Sam had them literally eating out of his hand.



Their antlers are covered with fur at the moment, but Hardy told us that they’ll rub the fur off by rubbing against tree limbs when the weather gets cooler. We also learned that reindeer make a clicking sound when they walk (even on grass), and that their docile behavior is pretty similar to that of cow, even though they’re more closely related to deer. These particular reindeer are originally from Alaska (or at least their grandparents were), but they have clearly acclimated well to Illinois.

In the souvenir shop, we bought a postcard for Abby, which we can now mail.

Our next stop was even more fun: a museum of classic arcade games and pinball machines from the 80s and 90s.


It’s cool to see the games, but what really makes the place worthy of inclusion on our trip is that you can play every game in there, and they all cost the same quarter per game that they cost when I was a kid.

I put a $20 in the change machine and I figured we’d spend a half hour there, maybe an hour. But we both got wrapped up and were having so much fun that we completely lost track of time. I played several rounds of Tapper, the game where you control an old-timey bartender who has to serve mugs of beer to a bunch of customers at once. Then I hit Burger Time, one of my childhood favorites. A bunch of quarters later, I had made it onto the high score board, in the number 4 spot.



I also spent some time on Donkey Kong, which was much harder than I remember it being, and Galaga, which I still don’t know how to pronounce. On that one I was more successful, setting a new high score for the machine.



Meanwhile, Sam tried his hand at a bunch of slightly more modern games before settling down at The Simpsons, where he, too, set the new high score.

Bored with his own mastery, he checked out the Wurlitzer jukebox and dropped a quarter in.



When I heard the machine whirring and dropping the tiny record into place I wondered what song he possibly could have picked. The answer: “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles. I laughed. He laughed. He didn’t pick the song because he likes it, he picked it to be ironic. But since we were the only people in there at the time, we both sang along.

Before we knew it, two hours had passed. And we still had quarters! We still had several stops to make, so we left, driving for just 10 minutes this time to nearby Atlanta, Illinois to see our old friend Paul Bunyan.



We’ve seen a few Paul Bunyans on our road trips, and we’re going to see at least one more before we’re back home. But the hot dog makes this one stand out. If his hands look a bit odd, it’s because the original statue was made to hold an ax. This particular one was bought by a restaurant owner, who decided that Paul was hungry. Even more interesting was that, when we got there, we realized that the statue is on Route 66, which cuts through Atlanta.



I spent the next half hour or so trying to figure out how we missed this one when we drove Route 66 two years ago. But we didn’t stay long, because a giant rooster was waiting for us in Peoria.

After spending most of the day driving past cornfield after cornfield in the most picturesque farmland, it was kind of nice to finally see an actual city. But we soon discovered that the word “city” grossly overstates Peoria’s geopolitical status. It’s basically just a large collection of churches and urban blight. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many churches in one place. And in one of the many run-down neighborhoods we drove through, a drunk guy on the porch of his dilapidated house yelled at me for making a K turn so that I could pull into the $3 car wash across the street. On the plus side, we got a car wash for $3.

The most popular attraction in Peoria is the Visitors Center at the headquarters of Caterpillar, the construction equipment company. But there’s no factory tour there, just a bunch of Caterpillar vehicles on display. So we decided to skip the big name attraction in favor of more oddities. First up was a giant rooster wearing a top hat.



The rooster is there to call attention to Carl’s Bakery, which appears to be significantly less formal that its inexplicably dapper mascot.

After the rooster we headed to another of Peoria’s top attractions, a really big oak tree. Seriously. That’s a thing. In fairness to Peoria, the tree is truly hunormous.



But still, it’s an oak tree. And it’s in a park named … wait for it … Giant Oak Park.

When we returned to the car from looking at an oak tree, I notice the newest problem on our trip: our front license plate was half off, being held on by only one screw. We immediately surmised that it must have been knocked loose during the $3 car wash. I started to worry about the one remaining screw giving way once we got back on the Interstate, and thought about taking it off entirely if only to avoid losing it forever. But upon closer inspection I was relieved to see that the missing screw was not missing at all–the plate had just slipped off of it somehow. This was about the time I started patting myself on the back for keeping a mini-screwdriver on my key ring. All I had to do was take out the screw, put the plate back in place, and put the screw back in–nice and tight this time. Another problem, another solution.

We also found a solution for our distaste for Peoria: the perfectly named Grandview Ave, a street that meanders through an extremely posh neighborhood, giving joggers, dog walkers, and drivers like us stunning views of the Illinois River on one side, and almost-as-stunning views of several beautiful mansions on the other side.



Better yet, instead of park benches scattered along the river side, there are picnic tables, giving us a perfect place to have dinner. The view from our dinner table was a whole lot nicer than the trucks in the background at most rest stops.



Dinner, by the way, was another triumph. Our food stayed cold all day in the new cooler, and along with our grilled burgers, we had fresh corn that I had bought at a little farm stand we passed while on our way from the arcade museum and the Paul Bunyan statue.



We left Peoria on a good note and headed for Iowa. The plan was to find a place to stay in Quad Cities, four small cities right on the border (two in Illinois and two in Iowa). Shocking both of us, this turned out to be a huge win, as the Econo Lodge in Bettendorf, Iowa is far nicer than any Econo Lodge has a right to be–especially for $63 a night. The woman at the front desk, Katie, is my new best friend, and gave me some great advice on what to do while we’re in town. And there’s an elevator! The funniest part is that, in addition to an indoor pool, there’s also a game room with a pool table and several arcade games, including Ms. Pac-Man. Sam and I were tempted, but we got pretty spoiled paying 25 cents per game in McLean, so we decided to just stay in our room and get some sleep. Despite the near-disasters, the day was perfect as is.


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