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Too Cool for Normal in Illinois
Story and Photos by Gillian Kendall



Traveling through the heartland of America, a coastal snob loses her mind...and a few preconceptions.


Normal, Illinois

Sitting up high in the front of the big Trailways coach, right behind the driver, I was not just physically raised above the flat landscape of Illinois, but also feeling smug and superior to all around me.

My chatty, blonde neighbor across the aisle had struck up a conversation that had turned to monologue. Having regaled me with the details of her stepdaughter's wedding in Chicago, and her subsequent move to Galesburg, Illinois sixteen years previously, my new bestie had moved on to listing all the "weird town names" in Illinois, all of which I'd heard before.

"'Normal'!" she was cackling. "Can you imagine a town called 'Normal'?"

I had some time earlier stopped responding to her rhetorical questions and was by then avoiding eye contact.

"And there was a headline once, about sports, some sports teams I guess it was, maybe high school teams, or, I don't know, maybe not, but anyway, it was 'Normal Girls Beat Oblong Girls.' Isn't that a hoot?" She whacked her knee. She cracked herself up.

Tight-lipped, bored, I wondered if I should say I was going to take a nap. She had been talking since Champaign, and then we were then seeing signs for Peoria, a town I had heard of only in the clichéd question about Broadway musicals: Will it play in Peoria? The question meant: would the [theatrical work] be appreciated by the dullest, least sophisticated people in the country?

As the coach heaved through the low, red-brick buildings of downtown Peoria, my Midwestern companion went on and on about 'Boody' and 'Golf.' "And then there's 'Assumption,'" she continued, merrily. "'Assumption' is the name of a town!"

"I don't mean to sound unfriendly," I said, sounding decidedly unfriendly. "But I'm going to look at the scenery now." I said this as if it were impossible for her to continue talking at me if I were not facing her, as if no one had ever carried on a conversation while watching out the window.

She looked nonplussed, maybe even slightly hurt, but politely made the best of my rudeness. "Well," she said cheerfully. "You're here to see small-town America."

No, I am not! I thought, craning my neck to my left. I was not there to see small-town America. I was on the Amtrak connection coach to be taken to a rail station where I could get the train to northern California. I would be taking the train because it was more fun than flying, and I would enjoy seeing sparkling rivers and snowmelt in Colorado, to see herds of antelope and the unearthly red-rock shapes in Utah. But I certainly I had not, like all the people in the Simon & Garfunkel song, "gone to look for America."

Illinois amtrak station

How to Spend Six Hours in Peoria and Podunk

Everything I needed to know about Peoria I could discern from the coach. But we had a long break there, so I got out and walked around the bus-station block, looking for anything of interest. I was disappointed and disdainful, but I did notice that someone paused to hold a door open for me. And I had to admit that the bus station, though devoid of original art or interesting reading material or even a coffee bar, was clean. It offered free, functional Wi-Fi that you didn't even need a lending librarypassword for. Well, good for the Peorians, I thought. Back in my elevated coach seat, I texted the cool California friend I was going to visit: "In Peoria. So grateful I don't live here."

A little later, as our bus pulled into the Amtrak station, the blonde lady made one last overture. "Would you like to join me for a while? We've got five hours here before the train. I'm going to get some ice cream!"

Hell. I hadn't realized that I'd be stuck for the whole afternoon in this Podunk place. The thought of spending five hours trailing around dingy little Galesburg with this energetic lady made me want to throw myself under the tracks. "I guess I'll just hang out alone," I mumbled, avoiding her open, friendly gaze.

I trundled my roll-on bag into the station, which was, in truth, not the worst place in the world to wait. High-ceilinged, with long, clean, empty benches and long, clean, shining panels of woodwork, the station seemed more like a modest church than a hub of public transport. And, okay, there was a charming free library/book exchange. And, okay, it was a sunny, mild day, and people smiled at me as I rolled my case around judging everything.

I paid $10 to stash my suitcase in the Amtrak office until the train came, and set out gloomily to explore Galesburg. I was not hoping for much, but a few steps out of the station I came across a neat little "railroad museum" and then, on the street, saw a promising day spa. Perfect! I thought. I could kill a few hours by getting a massage...

Only, the pretty young receptionist told me apologetically, they were all booked up. It was a Friday afternoon, and they had only one massage therapist. "But," she added, brightening, "I can take your number and call you if we get an opening. Maybe we will."

That was remarkably considerate of her, I allowed. The customer service in Galesburg was, admittedly, better than I'd expected.

The Artisans of Galesburg

Across Seminary Street was a shop front boasting, "Contemporary Art." I went in, expecting no art but lots and lots of "Crafts," possibly featuring big-eyed kittens and puppies and maybe, who knew, even horrifying papier mâché geese dressed in little Amish hats and aprons. But immediately inside the door, hung at pleasing eye level, was an arresting wooden wall sculpture, a burled, hand-carved map of the USA that was both identifiable and mysterious. I wanted it, though the price tag made me back off.

I browsed with increasing surprise: instead of fruit-scented candles and calico cats, there was actually pretty cool gear. When I asked the young woman behind the counter if she had art supplies, she said no with what seemed like sincere regret, but volunteered that I was only a short Uber ride away from the outlet of Blick's, a famous supplier. I'd bought from Blick's online but had no idea there was an actual brick-and-mortar version a person could go to and revel in.

Illinois art station

Realizing that she was an artist, and the owner of the gallery-shop, I asked if most of the work was by local artists. "No," she said. "Only about twenty-five of them." I blinked. There were two dozen artists in the area making interesting stuff, in pokey, flat little Galesburg?

I liked it all: I picked up a pair of socks, a non-matched pair with electric guitars on one foot and acoustic on the other (perfect for my hostess in cool California, who played rock-and-roll on her wooden Fender). And I took the store's card, in case I changed my mind about the wooden USA map, which, the owner told me represented the major highways across the country. Shyly, she showed me other work of her own design: wooden and leather pieces in the shape of Illinois, engraved with tiny railroad tracks crisscrossing the state, with a little heart representing the intersection of Galesburg.

We chatted while she rang up the socks for me, and I got a lunch recommendation for the pizza place next door. But when I went to pay, I couldn't find my credit card.

The credit card—my only credit card—is kept in the inside cover of my phone case, along with my driver's license, health-care card, and cash, all of which together were everything of importance that I was carrying on the trip. All of which I had neatly, properly, and above all safely stowed with my single most important item, my phone, my NEW phone, my first iPhone ever, all of which were not there. Not. There.

I slapped my pockets and rooted through my shoulder bag in the manner of a middle-aged woman suddenly embarrassed and about to freak out. I emptied everything from my cool, Swiss-Army-issue shoulder bag onto the counter. I swore first under my breath and then much too loudly as I found brush and lipstick and pen and Amtrak baggage claim ticket and no effing phone.

"Damn!" I said, along with other words. "I must have left it in the station!" When I'd put my luggage in the holding room, I must have tucked my phone into one of the pockets. Well, I was annoyed but not defeated. I still had about a million hours before my train was due, so I asked Art-Lady to hold onto the socks while I retrieved my card, and trotted back the way I'd come. The day was getting hotter.



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Read this article online at: https://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0819/usa.html

Copyright © Perceptive Travel 2019. All rights reserved.


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Something to Declare

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