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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010 01:02 am

Our Illinois road trip to Springfield

Affordable family fun. Like many American families in this economy, that’s what we were looking for this summer. Little did I expect that our journey would begin in our 9-year-old son’s classroom. This spring, third graders at West School in Glencoe took an “Illinois Road Trip” as part of their social studies curriculum. Without leaving the school building, students explored historic Illinois points of interest and mapped routes along the connecting highways. Sitting around the dinner table, Jackson would regale us with stories of what he learned in school that day about the Shawnee National Forest, the Cahokia Mounds, Rock Island or Springfield.

“Can we take an Illinois road trip?” Jackson often asked us. After seeing the kids’ presentations for parents at the end of their Illinois unit, we answered, “Yes!” My husband, Mark, and I wanted to indulge our son’s buoyant curiosity and enthusiasm – as well as our own interest, which Jackson had sparked. With our 16-year-old getting a jump on her junior year with summer school and our 13-year-old occupied with camp, a trip to Springfield and the surrounding area was a rare and welcome opportunity for an affordable getaway with Jackson.

On a steamy Wednesday evening in July, Jackson and I took the Metra train from Glencoe to downtown Chicago where Mark picked us up in the family van after work. We made it out of the city in time to see the glowing orange sun set over the cornfields, painting the sky shades of pink and violet in its descent. “Wow!” Jackson marveled – and he was right, the sunset doesn’t look like that in the suburbs of Chicago.

Thursday we set out for the Old State Capitol Plaza. At the Lincoln Presidential Museum we enjoyed the exhibits chronicling Lincoln’s early years and his time in the White House. We perused the period artifacts at the Illinois State Museum and toured the magnificent Illinois State Capitol building – no admission fees at either site. We had appreciated a quick, affordable lunch of Subway sandwiches at the Lincoln Museum. And with a heat index hovering above 90 degrees that day, we appreciated the air conditioning in these indoor Springfield spaces!

That night we took Jackson to his first drive-in movie at the Rt. 66 Drive-In Theatre. We watched Toy Story 3 beneath a starry sky with hints of lightning that kindly didn’t materialize into the predicted storm. We don’t have drive-in theaters in Glencoe – and we don’t have as many stars either.

The temperature and humidity on Friday were slightly more merciful than they’d been on Thursday. Enough so that Mark and Jackson could climb Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville, from which they “could see the St. Louis Arch,” Jackson told me excitedly, returning to our air-conditioned van where I waited for my pioneering boys.

On our way back to Chicago, we stopped at the restored pioneer village of New Salem. Having arrived after 5 p.m., we took our own tour by reading the informational plaques. Even without rangers to guide us, we found our way among blooming wildflowers, a grazing horse and log cabins, as Illinois history came to life for us.

So what was best about traveling just outside our own backyard? That our 9-year-old son explained the landmarks and their history to us grownups, instead of the other way around. And that without exception the folks we met along our journey through central Illinois were helpful, unhurried and welcoming.

Arlyn Miller is a writer and teaches poetry to young people and their teachers and leaders through Poetic License, Inc. She lives in Glencoe with her humorous husband and three inspiring children. She lived in central Illinois for three years while attending law school at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
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