Updated: Oct 24
Welcome to week 4 of our 8-week trip through America, starting in Atlanta and ending in Dallas in November. I want to write this weekly blog to keep people up to date on what we've been up to and share some thoughts and reflections on America. Happy reading y'all!
Day 20 - Sunday 1 October - Sturgis to Chicago
We had heard mixed things about Chicago. Thomas, a friend of ours, was not such a big fan. Markus, another friend, was here in the 90s and said it was great. However, he was about 16, so not to be trusted. Nicole (see week 3) loves Chicago and gave us lots of tips. I was excited to find out for myself.
With "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens blaring through the car stereo, I drove into the city expecting a similar traffic nightmare to Atlanta. But no - easy roads, with Lake Michigan to our right. And what a lake it is! It is about the same size as Croatia and very much feels like a sea rather than a lake. The sun was shining, people were rollerskating, just living their American dream. Not bad so far.
We arrived at our first hostel of the trip and were not disappointed - it was located close to some of the big sights such as Lincoln Park in a very nice, leafy little neighbourhood. We had a room with a bunk bed that swayed with every tiny movement (I was on top, feeling seasick) but I was sure I could get through it.
Ralf needed to record a podcast episode so we parted ways, and I took a trip on the famous "L" train through Chicago to the river. My cousin Z recommended the architecture river tour and so I thought I would give it a go, despite my seasickness. Also, he promised a bar on the boat.
Turns out it was a great shout! The volunteer from the architecture centre was an excellent guide and explained some of the crazy stories behind both the architecture and the river. For example, in the late 1800's, the people of Chicago decided that their river of shit flowing into their drinking water of Lake Michigan was not so great for their health. Possible solutions: 1) stop throwing shit into the river; 2) raise the entire city by a few feet so they could build sewers under the city; or 3) reverse the entire direction of flow of the river so the shit goes towards the Mississippi river and the city of St Louis.
They did both 2) and 3). They had to be quick though - St Louis was not so happy about Chicago's shit flowing to them, and so decided to sue the city. Before the case could get to the supreme court, Chicago managed to do it and broke the final dam in 1900 to send the river flowing the other way. Sorry St Louis, shit happens.
I took a lot of pictures, here is a small selection.
Ralf and I agreed to re-convene at "The Art of Pizza" to try a piece of Chicago's famous stuffed, deep dish good stuff. We both went with the pepperoni, and Ralf got 2 slices, a decision he would come to regret. It was incredibly good.
All that pizza got us thirsty and we walked to the first bar we could find, a legitimate dive bar, cash only. It had some kind of weird German theme and it was incredibly dark. We stayed for a beer and left pretty hastily before the weird people started talking to us.
Onwards we went, heading towards a bar we had heard had live music on a Sunday night. However, we were halted dead in our tracks by a sign we could not ignore. PROST bar!
This German themed bar had everything we could ever want: Overpriced German/Austrian beers (shout out to Hirter!), a pub quiz, a "German" band called the Deutschmeisters and a whole box of stickers.
We did, however, have some complaints. The Deutschmeisters sang all of their songs in English, for example. Something told me that these guys might not be German at all. I thought I would check. I asked the guy who played clarinet/flute (who was dressed in full lederhosen) whether he had been to Austria or Germany before. He told me he had never been. In fact, he had never left America.
To their credit, they did play "Ein Prosit" a couple of times, which we (too) enthusiastically joined in with. We had some nice conversations with the bartenders and they gave us free shots. Luckily, our hostel was but a short stumble away, and I was rocked to sleep by the swaying of my bunk bed.
Day 21 - Monday 2 October - Chicago to Milwaukee
Ralf woke up feeling a little worse for wear after his 2 pizza slices. I, on the other hand, was feeling spritely and ready for a day of driving and drinking.
Monday is famously our "working" day and I wrote last week's blog in the lounge of the hostel. Around lunchtime, we took the short drive north to Milwaukee.
As a reminder, we decided to head to Milwaukee after some random guy in a random brewery in Atlanta told us that it is "good for beer" (see week 1). 800 miles or 1.300km later, here we were! Honestly, we were a little nervous. Was our entire trip in vain? Would Milwaukee let us down like so many of our friends? Should we turn around and head to the Ark Experience after all? As a reminder, here is an image from the Ark Experience:
It was helpful that the weather was gorgeous, which is not a certainty this time of year and this far north. We drove straight to a cafe to finish our work day, before I went for a massage to try and release the tension of spending so much time with Ralf. It didn't work, but the massage was good!
I booked Ralf and me a brewery tour with Paul, who runs Fun Beer Tours Milwaukee. Milwaukee has a great history of brewing, and we were both keen to learn more. The tour was outstanding, and we were joined by Randy and Lisa. Randy works at another local brewery, and he invited us to join him the next day for some beers there. How could we resist? Highlights of the tour included the beer incubator that rents out their space to start-up brewers, and a visit to the old Pabst brewery which has partially be converted into a beautiful hotel.
We enjoyed all the beers we tried, and I got a sticker everywhere I went. We played some weird Milwaukee gambling game and won a dollar, so that doubled our budget for the night. We treated ourselves to food and drinks before heading back to our accommodation.
This was the first time we were couchsurfing on this trip, and we stayed with Melissa and her 3 bulldogs in a house which, from the outside, looked like just a tiny bit like a murder scene as it was being renovated and was covered in plastic. From the inside, it was thankfully less murdery, and we enjoyed a solid night's sleep. Melissa is a pro couchsurfer who has been hosting for over 10 years, and is great at making people feel at home. Her dogs barked like mad when we arrived as they hate being in their pen, but as soon as Melissa released the hounds, they were the friendliest dogs ever. If you're ever in the area, she's a great person to meet.
After a long day, we drifted off into a grateful sleep, satisfied with our decision to be ridiculous all those days ago in Atlanta.
Day 22 - Tuesday 3 October - Milwaukee
Ralf and I decided that we liked Milwaukee so much that we should stay another night. Melissa was kind enough to host us once more. I somehow persuaded Ralf to come with me on a run in the morning along the lake and then we decided to make slightly separate plans for the day.
Ralf had his eye on the Black Holocaust Museum. I had my eye on the famous markets of Milwaukee. We agreed to meet at the Lion's Tail Brewery, which is where Randy (see previous day) worked every Tuesday. We had high hopes for free beer.
I had a pleasant stroll along the river towards my first stop, the 3rd Street Market. Paul had recommended the City Fountain there, and I was excited - who doesn't love a good fountain? Some strong neo-gothic architecture, water spraying all over the place, and the chance to throw spare change in there to make all my wishes come true.
Of course, this is Milwaukee. The City Fountain was in fact 24 Wisconsin-brewed beers that you could pour yourself. You just needed to get a card, tap it against the correct beer tap and pour away. You pay by the ounce (yep, that's how liquid is measured here, Europeans). It had only been open for 2 weeks and seemed to be pretty popular on this Tuesday lunchtime.
I noticed a lonely man eating his lunch, and being a similarly lonely man eating my lunch, I decided to risk a conversation. Turns out, he is a personal injury attorney who comes from St Luis, one of our next destinations. He warned me about going to basically all of St Louis, I asked him about his work and whether he had a billboard I could see, as I reckon 80% of all billboards you see here are for lawyers. He said his firm did have one - just look out for "One Call - That's All!".
Before I knew it, it was time to jump in my Uber and head to the Lion's Tail to meet Randy, Lisa and Ralf. Randy was happy to see us and enthusiastically described the different types of beer they had. The beer is actually brewed around 90 minutes away but they have big plans to move at least some of the production to their Milwaukee site. For anybody heading to Milwaukee (which you should) - highly recommended!
Ralf and I had scheduled this afternoon to do our "RADAR" meeting, which is our monthly catch-up on how we're doing. After travelling together for 3 weeks, we obviously knew a lot about what had been going on for each other, but travelling can also throw up some interesting challenges (mostly regular neck pain from terrible pillows and driving every day). It is important for us to make sure that we keep our friendship healthy whilst spending 24/7 together for 8 weeks, and checking in on a regular basis is the best way to do that for us.
However, nobody wants to do that on an empty stomach. We bid Randy and Lisa adieu and went to Lakefront brewery (which annoyed me, as it was on the river). Lakefront brewery is one of the older craft breweries and also one of the biggest. It was there that we were reunited with an old friend. One we had missed ever since week 1. One that we hope to bring back to Vienna with us. Yes sir - we found deep fried pickles once again! Oh how we had missed them.
Feeling finally whole again, we walked the short distance back to our house to rest our weary necks in preparation for a big day of driving tomorrow.
Day 23 - Wednesday 4 October - Milwaukee to Davenport
Today, for the first time in a while, we took a look at the map. How had we ended up here?! America is so deceptively big that it is quite easy for us stupid Europeans to misjudge distances (I blame the metric system). We realised that it would take us a little longer than planned to get to Memphis if we wanted to avoid driving for 5+ hours a day.
To make the journey more bearable, we decided to stop off in a couple of random places on the way, all along the Mississippi river. Going to the Mississippi has been kind of a dream of mine ever since I was small, watching cartoons of those huge steamboats going down the river. I was curious to see how it measured up to my childhood.
But first, we had to make a little pilgrimage. Quick backstory – Ralf and I also write country music as part of our band, Brothers Bait (@brothers_bait). The life of a country music band in Austria is not easy. We have to spend hours scouring Google Maps for inspiration for our songs, desperately searching for an American dirt road to write about.
It was during one of these searches that we stumbled across Iowa 80, the largest truck stop in the world. For those of you who don't know, trucks are a key theme of country songs (along with love, heartbreak, drinking and roads). What better place to write a country song about? And we were now a mere 200 miles away, in real life. There was no way we weren't going.
Fun fact - on the way to Iowa 80, my eyes were drawn momentarily from the road to a giant billboard as I left Milwaukee ... "One Call, that's All!"
3 hours later, we made it – the largest truck stop in the world, and the first place in America we visited which we have also written a song about. Turns out, Iowa 80 is basically a poor man's Buc-ees. Sure – it is big. Sure – it has a movie theatre, barber and chiropractor (I was tempted). But it simply doesn't have the charm of good old Buc-ees. We grabbed some food and briefly visited the truck museum. There were just too many trucks, and after 5 minutes they all just kind of blurred into one, large, old truck. It was impressive though, and free!
I bought a sticker.
On we rode to a place called Davenport, which we had decided to visit simply because it had a cheap hotel and was near Iowa 80.
Turns out, we had stumbled across a little bit of German history!
Day 24 - Thursday 5 October - Davenport to Elsberry
You may remember from Cincinnati and Milwaukee that German immigrants had a big impact on the area in the 1800s as they left Germany for the promised land. Many landed in New York, New Orleans etc. and headed inland, including to Davenport. The town had so many German immigrants that the German American Heritage Center is based here, and we were curious to learn more.
Museums are often hit or miss in America, and after the truck museum, I was just hoping for fewer cars. Turns out, the German American Heritage Center is an outstanding museum, with a total of zero cars. It is located in a renovated guest house that used to house German immigrants arriving in the town, and the exhibits were excellent. We were surprised to learn that more Germans immigrated to the United States than people from any other country between 1820 and 1996, and we had accidentally visited the areas that the majority migrated to.
The staff were very friendly and even gave me a free sticker.
We decided to take the back roads today, rather than the quicker but far more boring interstates. We had a Bill Bryson audiobook ready to go, and the open roads ahead of us. It is much more fun driving on the quieter back roads, and there is a lot more to see. Ok - in Iowa maybe not so much, still just lots of corn. As Bill Bryson puts it, you can stand on two phone books and get a good view, the land is so flat and boring.
However, the back roads can lead you to unexpected places. I was half-asleep at the wheel when Ralf woke me with a shriek. A cry of delight. There, just a little way away, a mere 10 minute detour, was ... Danville, Iowa! The City of Danville, nonetheless! I swerved off the highway and approached Danville with a sense of anticipation and excitement (see week 1 for Danville the first).
Well, it seems like America has a different idea of what a city is than I do. The City of Danville has a population of 927 people. It has a park, a gas station, and a water tower. It used to have a train station, but all that's left is a lonely train carriage with nowhere to go. Look at my happy face:
I would have loved to stay longer, but we had to press on because we still had a way to go and Ralf was hangry. Our destination was a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Missouri. Again, chosen for its cheap AirBnB accommodation, and conveniently located along our route down towards St Louis. It also seemed to have a dive bar.
After arriving at our AirBnB (a large house with a funny smell and no wifi, goddamit) we took a quick walk about the city (yes, this place is also a city – a true metropolis with 1,927 people). Of course, we ended up at the dive bar for dinner, drinks and a chat with the locals as usual. I must say, it is nice to be heading back down south again, the people get even friendlier and the accents get better.
We made a plan for the next day, and decided to stay in another random ... city? Cape Girardeau, in a camper van with no toilet. Oh god.
Day 25 - Friday 6 September - Elsberry to Cape Girardeau
We headed off bright and early for St Louis, of Chicago-shit fame. St Louis is also known for a few more things beside that: it's huge arch, known as the "gateway to the West", and for it's ridiculously high crime rate. One's chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime here is 1 in 14. We thought we'd add some adrenalin to our trip and take our chances, I liked those odds.
Honestly, every single person we spoke to about St Louis warned us that we should be VERY careful, and that was enough for us to decide to skip central St Louis and just look at the arch from a safe distance ... across the river ...
As you can see, there were not many visitors (or all their cars had been stolen, and ours was the only one left, because it is really not worth stealing). It was a cool view, and a very nice arch, but we didn't hang around for obvious reasons (mostly, we could smell Chicago).
We checked into our "accommodation" in Cape Girardeau and it was basic, some would say rustic. I would say bad. No running water, no toilet (that was in the local gas station) and we'd have to pay $7 for a shower in the local sports centre. Despite all of this, it actually had quite a homely feel and I had a nasty suspicion that I would sleep pretty well here.
We drove to the Trail of Tears park so we could take a look at the place where the Cherokee tribe had to cross the river on the way to Oklahoma. If you speak German, check out Ralf's podcast, Déjà-vu Geschichte, where you will be able to hear some very special episodes about this and other topics based on our American travels. It was a cool view, as you can see. Not a steamboat in sight, which made me sad.
Cape Girardeau itself is a lovely little place, right on the river. It has a beautiful downtown, some cool artwork and nice restaurants etc. We stumbled into the local dive bar in search of drinks and conversation, and we certainly found it!
Ralf's Buc-ees hoodie tends to draw attention and, as usual, this sparked a conversation with 2 gentlemen sat at the bar with us. They both worked in a tire shop, moving tires for 12 hours a day, so I don't blame them for drinking heavily in the evening. We chatted about geography (I had to let them know that the United Nations is not the same thing as the United Kingdom, but I get the confusion). We also chatted about gun rights, where some opinions differed, and how one of them couldn't get a passport because he was born with one surname, then removed from his family and given another name, and his birth certificate was never changed. This means he can never leave America. Land of the free, right?
We went to bed knowing that, no matter what happened, tomorrow was going to be a day of stories.
Day 26 - Saturday 7 October - Cape Girardeau to Memphis
We left Cape Girardeau freshly un-showered and made our way straight towards Memphis. We had heard mixed things about it - mostly that Beale Street was cool and that we shouldn't really stray too far from there. Time to find out for ourselves.
I was really excited about our first stop. In week 1, we saw the home of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, and then Montgomery, the city of the bus protests and MLK's church. Now we were going to see the place where he was shot, and which has now been turned into the National Civil Right's Museum. The Lorraine Motel has been faithfully preserved, to the extent that you can literally see the room that he stayed in the day that he was murdered.
All I can say is that the museum is outstanding, and I learnt even more about the civil rights movement, a topic tragically missing from my school education. Ralf and I spent a few hours there and we left feeling very emotional, almost speechless.
Before heading out for a night on the town, we had to check in to our accommodation. Fair to say, this was one was even more unusual than the one before. A bit of back story:
Do you remember our original plan? We sure don't. But we think it involved travelling directly from Nashville to Memphis. Back then, when we were but young, naive little travellers, I reached out to somebody on Couchsurfing called Keith who offered to host us. Of course, our plans changed, but I reached out again this time round and he was more than happy to host the two of us. Perfect.
Keith leads a particular kind of lifestyle. I'll just come right out with it. He is a nudist. He doesn't insist, but he appreciates it if his guests (and he has had over 900 in a few years) also embrace his nudist way of life. Having spent nearly 4 weeks together on the road, I think it is fair to say that Ralf and I are feeling fairly comfortable with each other. So we went for it. Don't worry, I will spare you all the photos apart from one:
Keith lives about 30 minutes outside of downtown Memphis, and he greeted us, fully clothed and with a warm smile. We got settled in and he offered us some of his leftover shepherd's pie. For those of you who know me well, you will know that this is one of my favourite foods in the world, so I got a little nostalgic as I gratefully tucked into my reheated food, complete with real-life salad! Ralf and I devoured it, desperately grateful to eat something close to real food off of real plates with real cutlery, rather than our usual pile of grease in a box.
And yes, we were all naked, and still managed to keep all of our food down. But alas, it was time to check out the famous Beale Street, so we reluctantly got dressed (we are slowly running out of clean clothes again, pray for a laundromat soon) and jumped back in the car to a parking lot called, and this is no joke, "Parking Can Be Fun".
Beale Street is one of the most iconic streets in America. It reminded us quite a lot of Broadway in Nashville, just much more quiet. It was a Saturday night, and we were a little surprised that more people weren't vomiting on the street.
The sound of good music dragged us into our first bar, which was an Irish pub. The band was good, playing a mixture of funk and soul/pop. I was quickly distracted by the fact that the pub also had a goat – see if you can spot it. Inside, we saw our first "duelling pianos". I had no clue what this would be, but I hoped for something similar to the rap battles of 8 Mile. To my disappointment, they were just 2 very good piano players who took requests and often soloed one after the other.
On we went, hoping to hear some true blues. We were swiftly dragged into the next bar by a band playing RnB, and which didn't charge a thing to get in. I was driving so had to stomach a Bud Lite, but the band made the experience much more enjoyable, and we even had a bit of a dance. Sure, this wasn't the blues we were expecting, but at least this felt genuine. Having seen the museum earlier in the day, the fact that people of all races were here dancing and making music together was all the more poignant.
We wandered up and down Beale Street, trying our best to find another free bar with music but they had all started charging at least $5 to get in and we were far too cheap for that. We still had a great time, and left with the realisation that yes: parking can be fun.
Keith was still up when we got back and we all decided to enjoy a soak with a couple of beers in his hot tub. We chatted for a long while about anything and everything, and I was simply glad to have running water again.
I went to bed more relaxed that I had been for a while, and excited for the next great leg of the journey.
Thanks for reading, y'all! We are now heading down the Mississippi river, all the way to New Orleans. Chances of weird stories: 100%.