The final installment in my all-American road trip trilogy is set in the Midwest. This particular trip was all about art, architecture and American history, and, like other road trips through the U.S., exposed me to a region about which I knew very little and enhanced my understanding of the country’s history.
The journey commenced in Springfield, Illinois, where the first stop was the Old State Capitol, a reconstruction of the original building that served as the seat of the Illinois government from 1839 to 1876. Completed in the 1960s, the structure comprises several government offices, meeting rooms, libraries and a supreme courtroom. Abraham Lincoln spent a lot of time here, especially in the years leading up to the Civil War. A tour of Lincoln’s humble family home, located fairly close by, provides visitors with a glimpse of the iconic President’s personal life. Lincoln’s legacy extends to the new State Capitol Building, where an enormous statue of the 16th President stands proudly as a monument to his impact on American politics and society. The final stop in Springfiled was Lincoln’s final resting place, Oak Ridge Cemetery.
From Springfield it was a relatively short drive to St. Louis, Missouri, where we were welcomed by the monumental Gateway Arch on the banks of the Mississippi River. The stainless steel Arch, built to celebrate the expansion of the United States into the west, is 192 metres (630 feet) high and holds the honour of being the world’s largest. Visitors can take a tram car – a very confined tram car holding a maximum of five or six people – to the enclosed lookout deck at the very top of the Arch, offering remarkable views of city hall and the Mississippi.
Another impressive building that any visitor to St. Louis must see is the Cathedral Basilica, also known as the Saint Louis Cathedral. Pope John Pall II declared the cathedral a basilica in 1997 and photographs of this historic event are on display, as well as the chair on which the Pope sat during that visit. One of the cathedral’s most famous features is its extensive mosaic installation. The final stop in St. Louis was the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, a homestead which commemorates the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States.
The following day started with a five-hour drive to Topeka, Kansas, home to the famous Brown vs Board of Education National Historic Site. As a teacher from South Africa, where the government denied many people equal education opportunities during apartheid, this site was of particular interest to me. It pays tribute to the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated education was in opposition to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, thereby paving the way for an end to racial segregation in US schools. Monroe Elementary School, which was formerly a segregated school in Topeka, is the centre of the significant site and offers visitors a historical timeline of racial segregation, and the end thereof, in the U.S.
After a restful evening in Topeka, we drove to Omaha, Nebraska, home to what used to be the lavish Union Station, an Art Deco building which now houses The Durham Museum. Union Station was one of the busiest and grandest railway stations at the height of the railroad boom in America. The museum now features exhibitions that highlight the history of the country’s railways (one can walk through some of the old train carriages) as well as the origins and development of Omaha and the surrounding area. A second must-see museum for visitors to Omaha is the Joslyn Art Museum, with an extensive collection of modern and contemporary pieces, along with a splendid sculpture garden.
The next stop on the itinerary was Des Moines, Iowa. Since we arrived on New Year’s Eve, which also fell on a Sunday, the city was rather subdued and many shops were closed. However, we did get to see the exterior of the magnificent gold-domed State Capitol Building, the only one of its kind in the country to have five domes. It’s located on a hill and therefore provides visitors with picturesque views of the city. In addition, we celebrated the advent of the new year at a fun downtown club (and scored $20 attached to one of the balloons that descended from the ceiling at midnight). One wouldn’t say it when driving through the quiet streets, but the people of Des Moines know how to have a good party.
We spent the first day of the new year driving to Chicago, popularly known as “The Windy City”. Our hotel was conveniently located within walking distance of one of the city’s greatest attractions, Millenium Park on Michigan Avenue. The park was developed from the old railway lines and parking lots that had created an eye-sore in the centre of the city. The park features inter alia the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Crown Fountain, the Harris Theatre, the McCormick Tribune Plaza and Ice Rink and the Millenium Monument – so there is something for visitors of all ages and interests to enjoy.
Cloud Gate was undoubtedly my favourite attraction at Millenium Park. This public sculpture, constructed from 168 stainless steel plates, is nicknamed “The Bean” because of its resemblance in shape to one. Its reflective surface, reminiscent of liquid mercury, combined with its size and form, is extremely captivating and had me taking several photographs from different angles. The Art Institute of Chicago is also located adjacent to the park. The Institute houses pottery and paintings, sketches and sculptures from around the globe, and from a span of historical periods. For me, the highlight of this museum was seeing Iowa artist Grant Wood’s iconic work, “American Gothic”.
After some exhausting shopping on Michigan Avenue, it was time to visit the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)—the defining feature of the Chicago skyline. On the 103rd floor, visitors can face their fear of heights by stepping onto The Ledge, a glass balcony that extends from the building, providing visitors with an unbeatable panorama of the city, Lake Michigan and up to four neighbouring States.
I left the Midwest with an assortment of photographs, souvenirs and memories to add to my existing collection (and five States closer to achieving my goal of visiting all fifty States!). This trip was also further proof that one can find knowledge and adventure in the least expected places.
Part 1. Sojourn in the South
Part 2. Into the West