Thursday, September 29, 2011

American Gods and Roadside Attractions Tour: For the Love of Chocolate

Having experienced it, I have to say that stretch of I-80 east from the Nebraska border to Williamsburg, Iowa in the middle of the night, is one of the coolest runs in the dark ever.

The road stays interesting in its twists and turns, ups and downs, and I had the sense that there was something awesome out there to look at...something that might be looking back at me...something simultaneously spooky and fabulous. The modern windmills peppering the highway and stretching for miles that look like this during the day...

Iowa windmill farm

Are silently eerie with steady, staring, red eyes at night. It gave my imagination fodder to run far away with itself...into a world of science fiction, UFO's, fantasy.


We began, in earnest, to look for a beacon of motel hospitality - our next diamond in the rough - around midnight that night. Acr0nym, my hero, was nearly spent by then but never once asked me to drive (whether he thought to or not is unknown by me). He did, however, speak up when he was ready.

Jane Motel Radar was subsequently deployed and within an hour we'd find our sanctuary at the Crest Motel in the little hamlet of Williamsburg, IA.

Once again, we were forced to ring the night service bell. Unfortunately, this time, they weren't expecting us. Fortunately, while a mite grumped that he was called out of comfort to let us in, he still let us a room. And a delightful room it was (comparatively speaking)!

A large, smoking, two-bed room awaited our weary heads. It also had a refrigerator to accommodate a wine kidney (because that's what boxed wine is once removed from its cardboard shell) and also wi-fi and a table and chairs to accommodate two laptops and two internet junkies. WOO HOO! We'd hit the motherlode.

For the first time in what felt like a week in liminal time (but was, in reality, less than 36 hours) I had easy access to the internet...and the same time.

Acr0, who, I'm convinced, is prepared for all occasions including the zombie apocalypse just with the contents of the Intrepid alone, had brought along a fancy-schmancy Melitta 12-cup coffee maker, to brew the Coda coffee I'd seen fit to bring, to ease our journey significantly (we certainly weren't going to trust the in-room 4-cup coffee makers *cough* you-know-who-you-are *cough*). It was that night we would set our routine for the rest of our trip.

Coffee pot was set for our designated wakey wake up time - that was enough of an alarm for both of us. In the morning, I'd shower while he surfed the net, then he'd shower as I surfed the net and beautified myself for the day...all while drinking tasty, scrumptious caffeinated goodness. We'd fill our generously-sized cups a second time just before the start of our driving day as we would ready to load out.

As our first of two mornings in Iowa dawned, we'd head, once again, along I-80. We were in a hurry to get to Milwaukee so state roads and US highways were out of the question.

Now, you may be asking yourself, why were we in a hurry to get to Milwaukee - our ultimate turnaround place - when the goal of this roadtrip seemed to be a slow meander through space and time? Because. Northern Chocolate Co, home of the Chocolate Nazi, closed at 4 that day...Saturday...and he didn't have store hours on Sunday.

This mission had become vitally important.

So...we headed out east in a hurry toward Lake Michigan...toward a lot of unexpected things...that morning.

Our first stop, of course, had to be Iowa 80 - the World's Largest Truck Stop - an hour's drive from where we'd stayed the night. It was perfect timing, all told, for the first morning coffee bladder drain and an opportunity to fill up our road cups with cold, caffeinated goodness.

Hans Gothwökkit gets excited at the shopping prospects at the World's Largest Truck Stop

The awesome tile work inside the World's Largest Truck Stop
Seriously. This place? Is like a freaking mall for bikers and truckers and tourists just like us. Not only can you get a chiropractic adjustment, a massage, and a tooth extraction in this joint, but you can also feast your eyes on multiple classic cars suspended from the ceiling, feed yourself at the various selections of chain restaurants in the food court, buy artsy trinkets, bumper stickers, patches, and pins, childrens' toys, and gum, while purchase movies and books and cheesy truck stop knives (oh yes, knives to cut you with, Peej hee hee) and new cargo pants.

Glorious, I tell you! Glorious! This? This is AMERICA. At its *ahem* finest. Lebanon, KS's mini Wal-Mart had nothing on this place. We wandered about some, loaded up on goodies, and then hit the road.

We wouldn't really stop again beyond pit stops to gas up, pee, and top off our drink cups until we arrived in Milwaukee.

We crossed the Mississippi River just after 11 listening to...

as we crossed over from Iowa into Illinois.

A couple of notes...

1) I'd created an American (songs about America, places in America, or by bands with names of places in America) roadtrip playlist before we left. Unintentionally, it contained an awful lot of music from the 70's. It also contained an awful lot of prog rock. Acr0nym, in an attempt to fulfill my music requests, downloaded several collections of "Top" music...the 500 Best Rock Songs, the Top 100 Billboard Hits from 1970-1979, and something called "Girls Night Out". As a consequence, we listened to an onslaught of fantastically awesome 70's prog rock interspersed with my favorite funk songs during the course of our trip. It was, somehow, fitting to blare Kansas and Boston and Talking Heads and even Styx (There. I said it, Acr0nym. You happy?) across the Heartland.

2) Apparently, as it'd never needed to come up before, I'd failed to mention to Acr0nym my extreme bridge phobia or gephyrophobia. It did not occur to me to mention it to him until we were just about to hit the bridge spanning the Mississippi (relatively narrow at this northern point)...just as he was digging out his cell phone to take a picture of the signs indicating we were crossing the Mississippi River into he was driving. I was a little sharp in my tone when I told him to PLEASE! STOP! Just drive! Don't distract!

Clearly we made it over without falling over. Still...Ohmymutherfuckinggawd I hate bridges. That's one thing in the last 25 years that's not changed...since the days of having to stop, hyper-ventilate, and calm the fuck down before driving across said river on I-70 in St. Louis. Acr0nym, in his defense, put his phone and camera away. Bless you, Acr0. Thank you. Just in case I didn't say it then. I'm a crazy loon but you love me all the same.

Hence, no pictures from the jog across the United States' most famous least, not yet.

Eventually, we'd find ourselves on a toll road...I-88 maybe to I-90...and then onto I-39 before hitting I-43 which would take us into Milwaukee. We'd see signs for both Naperville and Rockford, IL along the way - two places Dr. J and Math-Matty had lived (cause to miss desperately my sister) - places I'd known about intellectually but had never considered, on their parts, emotionally. I couldn't reconcile myself to the thought that the two of them had ever lived in this place. It just didn't fit. I suppose there's a reason they'd skidaddle to Seattle after 2 years there.

It was along this stretch...I don't know which interstate...we'd spot our first nuclear power plant just west of Rockford. It was, as far as we could ascertain, the Byron Nuclear of 6 nuclear plants in Illinois. While I knew - intellectually - nuclear power plants existed in this country (hello! I totally have watched The Simpsons! and even suggested to Acr0nym that we were near Springfield, hee hee), it was the first time I'd ever been confronted with the reality of it - and by reality I mean two ginormous stacks with steam plumes shooting a mile (at least) into the sky - visible from 20 (at least) miles away. While I don't disagree with the pragmatic approach to nuclear energy, it still caused somewhat of a WTF response in me - the me that grew up amongst coal, wind, and natural gas processing energy plants. The me who doesn't think much about where my energy comes from.

I am, frankly, glad there were no earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, or tornadoes as we traveled past. I know, I know! Irrational. Have I mentioned that, occasionally, I'm an irrational loon?

Anyway! Moving on.

We drove into Wisconsin, not stopping, just looking around at what we could see from the road and moving car. We were cutting it close and we knew it. We hadn't eaten anything besides nuts we'd brought from home but there wasn't any time to lose in stopping for a bite. We had to get to Northern Chocolate Co! We had to! Jim was expecting us.

You see, Jim is a friend of Acr0nym's mother. But don't let that fool you. Acr0's mom is just as likely to say "No soup for you!" to her own children as Jim is to say "No chocolate for you!" to what amounts to perfect strangers. But the more I heard about him, the more convinced I became that I was getting ready to meet something akin to the heart of Milwaukee. I would not be disappointed.

We pulled up outside the tiny - blink and you'll miss it (we know, because we did the first time past) - two-story store front. The street was deserted. Few cars were driving along it and literally no pedestrians walked its sidewalks. The autumn sun was shining down in that distinctly golden, fall glimmer. When we spoke to each other as we got out of the car, it was in hushed tones. Reverence? Nay. Nervousness, more like. Jim is known for his uneven temperament, after all, and neither of us wanted to waste 1,100 miles to get there by stepping on any of his toes. All this BEFORE we'd even rung the bell to gain entrance into the store.

Northern Chocolate Co.
As we approached the door, I read the sign displayed directing us to ring the bell. It also directed us not to bring in cell phones and, under no circumstances, to try to come in wearing fur. We both turned our phone ringers to silent. Clearly, we were a bit cowed.

But, Readers? Jim is awesome! Yes, he's brusque and loud. He's opinionated and clearly very well-read. People try his nerves but ultimately? He's a social creature with a wicked sense of humor and kept us, his audience, captivated for well over an hour with story after story after story.

He doesn't allow photographs to be taken in his store - I don't remember why - so I can't show you what this amazing place looked like on the inside. But suffice it to say that it was a chocolate lover's dream house and the smell of his world famous mint meltaways was so tantalizing, I salivated for much of our time there.

I'd tell you all about him, about what we talked about, about who he is...but it would take an extraordinary amount of my time to write and your time to read and, frankly? I can't do any better at capturing Jim's spirit than was done in this article from the Inside Milwaukee magazine.

He was, in a word, lovely. I liked him very much. And he liked us very much.

He asked us what we intended to do in and around Milwaukee. We told him we were headed down to the lake to see the water - because why drive all that way and NOT see a Great Lake - and then spend the evening at the local goth club, Club ?, before heading down to Kenosha the next day.

His response?

Kenosha? Why are you going to that shithole? *laugh*

We had our reasons, Jim. Trust us, we had very good reasons.

His parting instruction to us, as we were headed out the door, were driving directions to the lake and insistence that we MUST go see the Calatrava...whatever that meant. He said we couldn't miss it and that we'd know it when we saw it.

He was right.

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