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Illinois’ I-55 may be a daunting, fast-paced freeway, but along the way there’s plenty of places to pull off and enjoy a little slower pace. Even though I-55 replaced Route 66 as the preferred thoroughfare from Chicago to St. Louis, the remains of the famed “Mother Road” are still there, parallel to the modern interstate highway, waiting to be explored.
Start your I-55 trip at Springfield, Illinois, the state capital, which carries with it the hospitality and warmth of a southern city. In Springfield, of course, you’ll discover the legacy of it’s favorite son, Abraham Lincoln, the state’s most famous resident (yes, even more famous than Oprah!). Today, Springfield provides a variety of terrific Lincoln-themed sights. Start off your tour modestly at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, where the family lived from 1844 to 1861. The Lincoln Depot on Monroe Street is a restored 19th-century train depot where Honest Abe gave his farewell address to his fellow Illinoisans before heading to Washington, D.C in 1861. (The rest, as they say, is history).
Other Springfield destination gems include the Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center, the Old State Capital State Historic Site, and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site. Of course, you could just take a crash-course about the former president at the newly unveiled Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. And if you happen to be in the area in September, head up the road a few miles to the wonderfully quaint town of Lincoln (how appropriately named) to experience some real nostalgia, the Abraham Lincoln National Railsplitting Contest and Craft Fair.
While heading north, you’ll soon come upon the town of Atlanta (pop 1,650). Okay, so it doesn’t have many of the features of the bigger namesake city in Georgia. What Atlanta, Illinois does have is several quirky roadside attractions and fabulous stick-to-the-ribs-style eateries keeping with the tradition of fabled Route 66, including the obligatory 19-foot statue of a guy holding a hot dog! Quick, somebody get the camera.
Afterwards, keep heading up the road till you reach the Bloomington-Normal area, home of both Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University, these twin cities have all the trappings of buzzing college towns. Be sure to stop by the Constitution Trail, a favorite local destination boasting miles of recreation trails winding through the most scenic areas of the city.
Pontiac is another town that provides a nice respite from the highway. And what better way to shake off those freeway blues than a visit to the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, located downtown. There are even three historic swinging bridges that span the Vermillion River. And you won’t just find your mother’s version of “antiquing” here any more. These days, the good folks running the famous Old City Shoppes even have their own blog on the web (www.oldcityhallshoppes.blogspot.com) to bring you up to date on their antiques and collectable wares.
Soon you’ll be entering the greater Chicagoland area where navigating your rig might get tricky. So ease into it with a visit to the suburbs. Naperville is one of Chicago’s finest little ‘burbs, about 45 minutes west of the city. With a great downtown district for shopping and eating, this fast-growing city features many of the city charms yet retains much of the warmth of its once small-town history.
Heading east, your next stop should be the historic town of Oak Park, which is a stone’s throw from the Chicago city limits. The legacies of both Ernest Hemingway (born here) and Frank Lloyd Wright (lived and worked here) still loom and their historic ties to the area can be explored at the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio respectively.
Finally, the Windy City: Chicago. You made it. So take a load off by parking your rig and taking advantage of public transportation. Trust me on this one. Besides, Chicago’s train line is a destination in and of itself. Pick up the train in the Loop (Chicago’s downtown area) and enjoy the ride above the city streets as it snakes its way across town. Take it north to Wrigleyville, home of the Chicago Cubs, and a national shrine of daylight-only baseball.