Tag: Illinois (Page 2 of 3)

Exploring The Great River Road Part I: Maevas Coffee, Alton, Illinois

Driving to new places alone still fills me with anxiety. The payoff, though, is those moments where I find myself standing in the midst of something beautiful or staring at a landscape that fills me with wonder. Something inside of me feels like it grows a little bit bigger or something. I can’t quantify this feeling or put a monetary value on it, but it’s so worth chasing.

This weekend, I cruised down the Great River Road to Alton, Illinois and then to Grafton. Driving the Great River Road felt wild. Towering limestone bluffs lined one side of the road, while the wide river flowed along the other. The road was smooth and wide and the river curved and glittered. I felt like I was transported somewhere far, far away.

Motorcycles and fancy little sports cars passed me on the left. Soon enough I’d catch up with them around the next bend when I found them pulling off from the side of the road to take a photo or pause for a view of the river. We all had the same idea.

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Two Places To Walk For Pancakes From The Hotel Lincoln

We stayed at the Hotel Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago the weekend before Christmas and walked for pancakes.

For breakfast and brunch, the hotel’s dining options cover both ends of the spectrum: A coffee cafe and a high-end restaurant. What we were searching each weekend morning was an affordable, hearty pancake breakfast to fill us up for much of the day. Elly’s Pancake House and The Original Pancake House are located equal distances away from The Hotel Lincoln on opposite sides of Clark Street. A 5-10 minute walk will take you to both.

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A Highway Runs Through The Cahokia Mounds

I visited the Cahokia Mounds and now I can’t stop talking or thinking about the Cahokia Mounds.

Sure, St. Louis is home to the majestic Gateway Arch and the most amazing [free] zoo. People talk about the Botanical Gardens and the Budweiser horses, but can we just take a moment to freak out about the fact that the remains of the largest pre-Columbian Native civilization north of Mexico rest less than 10-minutes from downtown St. Louis?

As you drive along the highway into Collinsville, Illinois, it’s like you are staring at cheesy billboards and industrial facilities one minute and then boom; there are the mounds. To reach Monks Mound on foot from the visitor’s center, one must waltz along a worn, dirt footpath across a grassy field punctuated by mounds and old trees before scampering across a four-lane highway. Motorcycles and semi trucks whiz behind you as you begin climbing the great pyramid.

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It’s strange and sad and beautiful.

Cahokia Mounds is one of only eight World Heritage sites in the United States and home to Monks Mound, the “largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas” (UNESCO). At its peak, the city of Cahokia was home to about 10-20,000 people in 1050-1200 AD and by the late 1300’s, it was vacant.

No one knows exactly what caused Cahokia’s demise, but researchers suggest many theories. The park’s brochure hypothesizes a combination of climate change, disease, overpopulation, depletion of resources, social unrest, and outside threats. While the stockade that used to encircle the city is no longer visible, archeologists discovered that residents moved and rebuilt the stockade several times during its final years. New clues about the city’s demise surfaced this past May when University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers examined Horseshoe Lake and found evidence that a large flood occurred around 1200 when “the Mississippi river rose more than 33 (10 meters) feet.”

When you visit the Cahokia Mounds, the visitor’s center is a good place to start.

Visitor's center outside

Park volunteers greeted us warmly without being overbearing. They directed us to the completed wetlands exhibit and newly acquired 700-year old canoe with genuine enthusiasm. We wandered through life-size dioramas and displays of artifacts like arrowheads and pieces from a game called Chunkey in which players threw spears at a stone disc.

When you are walking amongst the mounds within eyeshot of a highway and asphalt plant, it’s impossible to tell how expansive the city really was. I liked how this display provides a bird’s-eye view.

inside visitor's center

Visitors can explore the park by follow a paved walking trail that meanders around the mounds. A worn dirt path veers more directly towards Monks Mound.

jake walking mounds

There’s no shade on Monk’s Mound. By the time we reached the top, we were so hot we stumbled.

Monks Mound was literally built by people carrying baskets of dirty and clay. The city’s principal chief ruled and conducted ceremonies from a structure that used to sit at the top. Official park literature clarifies that the name Monks Mound actually refers to Trappist monks who farmed its terraces and lived on an adjacent mound between 1809-1813.

better photo jake walking mound

Halfway to the top of Monks Mound, walking across the first terrace. There is a parking lot on this side of the highway.


Despite the modern and industrial development surrounding the mounds, the site felt peaceful. The wind gently whistled through the grasses and grasshoppers leapt around each step. We wandered amongst joggers and people on their afternoon walks.

top of mound

At the top of Monks Mound.

Monks Mound supported a palace or temple of sorts while other mounds served as burial grounds. University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers began excavating one of six ridgetop mounds in 1967 and found two rulers laid to rest “on top of a platform of approximately 20,000 marine shell beads” organized in the shape of a bird. Researchers also found the remains of four men missing their heads and hands with their arms interlocked, and 53 females.

Another group of 39 people were found in Mound 72. Evidence suggests they experienced violent deaths that differed from the individuals who were buried earlier. Some postulated that the second grave contained captives or tributes from other communities, but new research demonstrates they were, in fact, from Cahokia. Were they political opponents or participants in a rebellion? We may never know. The realty is that less than one percent of this ancient city has been excavated and its residents did not utilize a written language. More clues raise more questions.

I have a difficult wrapping my mind around human sacrifice, but like how O’Hehir weaves in a quote from Timothy Pauketat’s book Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City On The Mississippi to interpret the discovery as evidence of a metropolitan society whose residents experienced “‘inequality, power struggles and social complexity.’ These people were neither half-feral savages nor eco-Edenic villagers; they had lived and died in a violent and sophisticated society with its own well-defined view of the universe.”

Down the highway from Monks Mound is Woodhenge III, one of five the Mississipians constructed as sun calendars, each in a different size with different numbers of wooden poles. Woodhenge III is reconstructed in its original location, based upon where archeologists found pits laced with red cedar. You can’t miss Maclair Asphalt’s gravel mounds. They border the far half of the woodhenge, making only 40/48 of the original posts reconstructable.

woodhenge sign
According to the mounds’ website, researchers hypothesize these woodhenges functioned as ceremony locations or tools to predict eclipses and align mounds. The park holds sunrise equinox observances at the woodhenge where, “it looks as though Monks Mound gives birth to the sun.”


The Cahokia Mounds is the most fascinating place I’ve visited since moving to St. Louis. We left wondering why we’d never heard of Cahokia before. In his piece “The Sacrifices They Made,” Christopher Orlet describes how field trips to the mounds during grade school were countless and frequent. When something’s in your own backyard, I suppose it’s rather normal, even if it’s the remains of one of the greatest cities in the world.

May we always remain curious.

Travel Tips: There is no admission fee, but suggested donations. Proceeds given to the Land Acquisition Fund help the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society purchase land that is not currently protected. There is no shade around many of the mounds, most particularly at Monks Mound, so if the weather is hot, consider bringing sunscreen, shades, or a hat if you can’t visit in the morning or evening. Bring your own water bottle or change for vending machines inside the visitor’s center. At the time we visited, the cafe was not operating. Respect the mounds by remaining on trails and paths and remember you’re walking through sacred burial grounds.

Interesting Reads:

Five More Reasons To Visit Springfield, Illinois

The third Springfield post’s a charm.

A couple of weeks ago, Sara of Travel with Sara invited me to join her on a road trip to Springfield, Illinois, the land of Lincoln. The Springfield Convention and Visitor’s Bureau had graciously invited her to visit and arranged all of our lodging, dining and activities. When she said she had room for one more, I jumped at the opportunity to join her.

Learn about why the Lincoln Ghost Walk was my most memorable experience and what Springfield foods we ate.

This third and final Springfield post will focus on the stuff between. We experienced as much of Springfield as possible within our 36 hours. Here are five more reasons to visit Springfield:

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum
I confess I haven’t visited many museums, post-college, except for the occasional art museum. When I grew up, my folks took my brother and I to museums during every vacation and I know we’re all the better for it.

I hope you’ll believe me when I say that the Lincoln Museum is worth a visit.

Musum Exterior.jpg

A museum employee will greet you upon entering and offer a minute-long guide to exploring the museum. Our guide highly recommended that, if nothing else, we attend the museum’s two videos presentations Ghosts of the Library and Lincoln’s Eyes. I was not sure what to expect, but found them both engaging.

This replica of the Lincoln family is located in the lobby entrance.


A figure of John Wilks Booth lurks around the corner and I can only imagine what would happen if like Night at a Museum occurred here after dark. Fortunately, I think the Lincoln family mannequins far outnumber those of Booth.

Ghosts of the Library utilized holograms that explained the museum and library’s mission to preserve Lincoln-era memorabilia and educate the public about this period of history. The museum continually receives historical items people randomly find or donate. Lincoln’s Eyes explains how the presidency affected Lincoln and his family on a personal level. People who are easily startled should know the seats shake during parts of the presentation.

The museum features many life-sized displays depicting different parts of Lincoln’s life, but my favorite corner was the Treasures Gallery displaying items like the Lincoln family’s letters and clothing. You can find more original pieces in the Lincoln home.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site
In 1887, Lincoln’s son Robert donated the family home to the National Park service as long as they maintained it and allowed the public to visit free of charge. The home is located on a four block stretch that the park service has renovated as closely to Lincoln’s time as possible. It’s the only national parkland in the state.


Park rangers lead small groups on tours through the home. Reserve a free ticket at the main park building. If the site is busy, you may have to wait for a tour which leaves an opportunity to explore the rest of the historic site. Several of the restored homes are open for viewing.

One employee facilitated an interactive demonstration on how women in Lincoln’s time washed clothes. She invited the children to participate and we, adults, were more than happy to oblige as they eagerly volunteered.

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When it was time for our tour, the park ranger advised us to hold our bags closely so they didn’t scrape the home. We viewed some of the Lincolns’ original belongings including a horsehair furniture set, Mary’s cake stand, and stove. We also got to use their original stair railing, which the ranger called “shaking hands with Lincoln.”

Mary's Room

Mary and Abraham slept in separate, connected bedrooms. This was Mary’s.

The house is also decorated with items from the Lincoln era or replicas based on photos, such as Mary’s wallpaper. I especially loved wandering the neighborhood at night when it felt like I was stepping back in time, but don’t miss the opportunity to visit the site during the day when it’s staffed by knowledgable rangers.

Washington Park Botanical Gardens
We caught a moment of serenity as we wandered through Washington Park and its botanical gardens.

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Sara walks up the hill towards the Thomas Reese Memorial Carillon.

The rose garden reminded me of the Lyndale Park Rose Garden by Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, MN. We arrived at the botanical gardens just in time to take a peek before closing.

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We were mesmerized by all of the flowers and the singing birds.

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There are 150 species of plants growing just within this conservatory. Admission is free.

Lincoln Tomb
The Lincoln Tomb is located in the Oak Ridge Cemetary and is open to visitors free of charge.

Vertical Monument

Abraham, Mary and their three sons Edward, Willie, and Tad rest in this tomb. One of my readers shared that it’s tradition to rub Lincoln’s nose for “luck” while visiting the tomb. Of course, we had to participate. The statue is elevated and I saw adults hoisting up their family members just for this opportunity.

LIncoln Nose

Korean War, Vietnam War, and Word War II memorials are also located at the cemetery.

Phil Kadner explains why people should visit Lincoln’s tomb in his Post Tribune article, though, I would broaden his plea to the entire city when he says:

“It is difficult, even now, despite the books about his life and the movie, to comprehend just how beloved and reviled Lincoln was at the time of his death. Many schoolchildren will likely be forced to see “Lincoln,” through school outings or by well-intentioned parents. Do them a favor and take a trip down to Springfield. Take them to the tomb. 

At Oak Ridge Cemetery, you can feel the meaning behind the words.”

Route 66 Drive In
We ended our road trip on a lighthearted note, by going to the Route 66 Drive In. The Drive In is located next to Knight’s Action Park, so we mini-golfed while we waited for dusk.

Goft Collage

This drive in features two movie screens on opposite sides of the sprawling parking lot that show a pair of movies, back-to-back. The employee listed our film choices of cars, robots and apes so we chose apes, of course! We brought plenty of treats including Del’s popcorn the Chamber had left in our hotel room and Beth’s addictive Fish Snack Mix.

People trickled in as it got darker and darker.

Sara fully expected to dislike Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but ended up getting a kick out of the film as the plot thickened. I never expected that apes would make me feel so emotional. “Oh no,” I kept thinking, these battling monkeys are going to make me cry and that’s how I’m going to leave Springfield.” Plus, Sara might laugh.

Drive In Movie

In the end, all was well. The apes did not make me cry and so Sara did not have to laugh (at me, at least).

Springfield surprised me. I expected to have fun exploring a new place, but I didn’t expect the city to move me so profoundly. If you pursue the loves of food and history, you’ll want to experience this city for yourself.

Springfield, Illinois Road Trip: Food Edition

We ate well in Springfield.

As I mentioned in my last post about chasing the Lincoln ghosts, I had the opportunity to join Sara of Travel With Sara on a road trip to Springfield, Illinois last week. The Springfield Illinois Convention and Visitors Bureau graciously invited Sara to visit and provided our lodging, activities, and restaurants.

This was our first time in Springfield, so we left the restaurant choices in the bureau’s hands.

Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery
This microbrewery and restaurant is located in renovated homes from Lincoln’s era. The original home owners were actually the Lincolns’ close friends.

The inside of the restaurant features elegant rooms decorated in various themes. It’s almost like Jay Gatsby opened a restaurant inside his mansion and charged affordable prices.

We saw people enjoying the outdoor seating whenever we passed by the brewery. There’s something about watching people enjoy food and libations al fresco that always makes me feel cheery.

Obed Collage.jpgFish and chips is one of my favorite treat meals. I ordered the single portion which included a decently-sized fillet on top of a big pile of battered fries. The fish was coated in a shatteringly-crisp beer batter that wasn’t too greasy. I doused everything in lots of malt vinegar. The side salad with balsamic dressing helped cut the fried foods.

For dessert, Sara shared her bread pudding with me. I lean towards salty flavors, so one bite of a dessert is typically enough, but I found myself finishing everything she left on her plate.

Cafe Moxo
Cafe Moxo is a popular downtown lunch spot. The line was long but moved quickly. If you arrive during a weekday lunch rush, try to decide what you want to order before you get in line. The line really does move that quickly! I didn’t want to hold up the line so I ended up blurting out Light As A Feather Heather, the first sandwich that came to mind.

“What kind of sandwich is that?” Sara asked.

“I have no idea,” I replied, and I really didn’t.

We easily found a table in the back room and it was peaceful in contrast to the busy front counter. The cafe must do a brisk take-out business for downtown employees. Our food quickly arrived quickly. We both chose the bag lunch option for $10 that included a whole sandwich, chips or pasta salad, beverage, and cookie.

Cafe Moxo

My sandwich was composed of salad greens, cucumber, tomato, shaved red onion, brie cheese, and creamy dill spread. I liked that the cheese and spread provided satisfying richness. The pasta salad was so light and refreshing that we schemed about how we could recreate it at home throughout the entire trip.

Cozy Dog Drive In
Sara and I got our kicks on Route 66 in the form of Cozy Dogs.

I’ve seen the western portion of Route 66 featured on many blogs and television shows, but did not know it began in Illinois. This drive in’s claims to fame are that it’s located on Route 66 and invented the corn dog. Cozy Dogs first appeared at the Illinois State Fair in 1946, and the Drive In was relocated to its current location in 1996. The interior looks like an old-fashioned diner, featuring festive, pink tabletops and memorabilia.

Sara and I ordered two Cozy Dogs, two small orders of fries, cheese sticks and a soda and were surprised when our order did not top $10.

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The server explained that their burgers are made from local beef and their fries are cut in-house each day.

Our freshly-dipped and fried corn dogs were a treat. The batter had an interesting seasoning that I couldn’t put my finger on. Too bad I was too full to go back for seconds.

Mary Todd Lincoln Loved Food
One my favorite pieces of knowledge I gleaned in Springfield was from a National Park Ranger at the Lincoln House who said, “Mary Lincoln thought of cooking as a hobby, not a chore.” She added that Mary was known for starting as a terrible cook but kept practicing until her skills became a source of pride.

Right before the Lincoln family moved to Washington upon Abraham’s inauguration, Mary had bought a new stove which is still displayed in their home. This model was the hottest model back in Mary’s time and our tour guide said she was sad to leave it behind.

Mary Kitchen Collage.jpg

The photo to the upper right shows Mary’s original cake platter. She often baked cakes for family and visitors and is especially known for her white cake made with ground, blanched almonds and egg whites.

I found this Mary Lincoln tea towel in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum & Library gift shop. If I hadn’t visited Springfield, I would never have known Mary Lincoln tea towels were a thing, nor how badly I needed one.

The only thing I regret about our Springfield food adventures in not having enough time to try more restaurants. We fit in as much as possible within 36 hours.

There’s so much to eat in Springfield. Next time I’ll try an iconic Horse Shoe Sandwich or pop into a chili parlor. For now, I’ll settle for baking Mary Lincoln’s cake and plotting my return.

Thanks again Springfield Illinois Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting us!

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