Carefree highway: Day 1

Carefree highway: Day 1

Storm clouds can be positively ominous on a two-lane road.

Wind farms are eerie, especially on both sides of the road and in the haze before a summer storm.

Blog PhotoPortable toilets look hilarious in a cornfield.

Google Navigation is pretty dependable, even if you tell it to avoid highways.

These are the things I learned from my first day of a trip with no Interstates.

I am not far over the Illinois line, in our neighbor to the north for the night. Clouds obscured the sunset, until the last moment when a brilliant orb dropped out from behind them for a few moments, spreading red across the horizon.

I got a late start this morning. I often get a late start. It didn’t matter much. I had imposed the departure time on myself. Who am I going to complain to?

My first road was U.S. 150, west to Mahomet, where I picked up Illinois 47.

I haven’t driven much on Route 47 for a long time. If I was in a hurry, I’d have hated the drive. A sea of green on both sides, off nearly to infinity. But when you’re not going at Interstate speeds, you can observe a little more of your surroundings – although a two-lane road also demands more of your attention than an Interstate does.Blog Photo

So I looked at the abandoned farm buildings, one out in the middle of a field, others near the road where the house is gone and only a small out-building remains. I saw one barn that had collapsed upon itself, so the roof was on the ground, mostly intact. You also get a feel for farmsteads that are doing well right now – lawns cropped to golf-course precision, leading away to stately homes set well back from the road.

You don’t see the farm implement dealerships from the Interstates, modern cabs atop massive machinery all lined up, ready to go, the minute you write the six-figure check. The grain augers to me look like brontosauruses – brontosauri?

And you definitely don’t see a portable toilet sitting in a corn field.

I started looking for a place to turn around so I could grab a photo when (cue John Madden) boom! There was another one just ahead.  I passed two or three more, and I think I know why: there are signs warning of road construction that hasn’t begun yet.

Blog PhotoStill. Incongruity like that will make you smile.

And then the storm came.

A thick line of gray stretched across the sky, coming at me from the north and west. The benefit: My car’s thermometer told me the outside temperature dipped down to 71. It was 88 when I left Champaign.

So I drove through the rain. It’s not one of my favorite things, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed this on the Interstate, either. Maybe less, with the trucks spewing water behind them as they passed me or I them. And there’s less traffic to begin with, so while it slowed me down, it could have been worse.

But it did slow me down. I had to reschedule the one stop I had planned for today, but that went off without a hitch. And I abandoned my original route and used Google Navigation to lead me for the final leg of the trip, which brought me to Oak Park.

I pulled into a shaded parking spot on Chicago Avenue and picked up my ticket to tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio. It’s been more than 30 years since I took the tour and back then, I had a Pentax with one roll of black and white film.

One of the excellent things about the Wright home is that if you come across with an extra five bucks, you can take photos inside as the tour progresses.

This is not universal in Wright buildings. At Taliesin in southwestern Wisconsin, for instance, you cannot take pictures indoors at all. Or at the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield. (Fallingwater is a glorious exception; I used up a brand-new set of batteries on that tour.)

One thing all the tours have in common is excellent guides, who make it seem as though they’re telling the stories for the first time.Blog Photo

Wright’s Oak Park home was his first. He lived and worked here in the early part of the 20th century, before building Taliesin. He had to borrow some of the money to build the Oak Park home from his boss, Louis Sullivan. One of the provisions of the loan was that Wright do no outside architectural work for anyone else. Care to guess whether he kept that bargain?

You don’t spend much time outside the home (although you can, before or after your tour ). But the inside is a wonderful insight into how Wright developed. He used the home, as the guide will tell you, as a laboratory, trying different room designs, adding on, taking away.

Nearly everything is original, including what must be the most uncomfortable furniture ever.

One of my favorite things about Wright’s work is how he plays tricks on the eye, and he does that in several places in the home. The best example is a hallway on the second floor, narrow with a short curved ceiling that explodes into the playroom – an expansive room with a barrel ceiling, fireplace at one end and seats for an audience at the other. Even there, the fun continues: There is what looks like a spinet piano in the room. It actually is a baby grand, with most of it hidden behind a wall, visible as you descend a staircase. Vents above the piano could open to prevent muffling its sound.

There are more Wright homes in Oak Park than any other city in the world. At the studio, you can rent audio players and take a walking tour of 

Blog Photo20 homes he built with descriptions of each home – when I did this tour many years ago, there was audio of Wright discussing the homes included. I passed on that today because I wanted to get back on the road and get out of the city.

I left Oak Park at 3:30 and hit no real traffic jams, though I didn’t set any speed records either.

My route took me along Cook County Forest Preserve property for a long way, which offset the strip malls on the other side of the road. For a long stretch, I was primarily involved in watching the traffic ahead of me. It was Friday afternoon, after all. But in Lake County, the scenery becomes very much like central Illinois, and then you hit the Wisconsin border.

Here’s my riddle: On Saturday, I plan to see two Wright structures, neither of them homes, and  he didn’t build one of them. Any idea where I’m going?


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