The Illinois-Missouri Derby

By David Himmel

"Specks of Cows" by Katie Himmel

"Specks of Cows" by Katie Himmel

I could have made the drive inside of two days had I been alone. But I had the wife and the dog, and when you’re driving the 1,164 miles between Chicago and Austin, Texas with souls on board other than your own, it’s best to make pit stops along the way.

Springfield. Kate was unimpressed with Lincoln’s home. “It looks too nice for being that old,” she said.

“You would have been even more unimpressed if they’d just let nature take its course for these past 152 years,” I told her.

But the neighborhood was cute. We had our fun taking in the history. The dog, Eddie, seemed to enjoy it as much as the troop of girl scouts getting a proper guided tour. The last time I was in Springfield and walked those streets, Rollerblades were cool and Bubba Clinton was getting handjobs in Lincoln’s bedroom. In Sperry boat shoes, this time on the gravel streets and wooden plank sidewalks was more enjoyable. No, that's not entirely true. It was just easier to get around.

At the Lincoln Tomb, we rubbed the bronze nose, as is American Tradition. Katie snapped a photo of the imposing structure that holds the remains, and the remains of the family, of the second greatest president of the United States—James Garfield being the first, duh. She posted the photo to Instagram: “When presidents were cool.” She was right.

We spent the night in Columbia, Missouri, arriving 428 miles after leaving home earlier that day and 27 miles after pushing the parched gas tank to the brink. This caused a point of contention. She’s never run out of gas before. I’ve done it three, maybe five times. But I know my car and I am comfortable with the prospect of pushing the limit. By pulling into the station and up to the pump—lucky #4—I made a strong case for my abilities as the captain of the vehicle and the benefits of a manual transmission. She’s sweet. My wife worries about the things I don’t and is mellow when I’m a basket full of balled up nerves. Here, we highlighted the balance within our marriage.

La Quinta Inn. I have an aunt and uncle who met in this college town. I almost transferred here from Las Vegas during my spring semester freshman year. I took a refreshing hot shower behind a Hookless™ curtain. The kind of shower curtain that would put Del Griffith out of business. It made me feel terrible.

That terrible feeling could have also been the Original Choco Taco we split a few hours earlier when we were still several miles inside Illinois. I should have taken a Lactaid pill—I forgot. It could have been the Paul Bunyan-size thermos of coffee I drank. My guts are sensitive.

The following morning, renewed and thrilled that Illinois was behind us, we set course for lunch with a friend in Lawrence, Kansas, and take another shower and nighttime nap at another La Quinta Inn In Oklahoma City. They’re a dog-friendly chain of hotels, cheap as you can get for the quality and found at seemingly every other exit with any sort of services off the interstate.

I have a goal to visit every presidential museum/birthplace/grave—whatever the best is for whichever president. History fascinates me, and I have found that you can get a solid understanding of this wonky country of ours by educating yourself on the presidency. Each man’s administration says a great deal about where this country and its people were, where they were headed and why what happened, happened when it did, the way it did. This is important. If we can fully understand our history perhaps we can do a better job with our future. A good place to start is the American President.

It’s difficult for me to travel the Union without making a plan to visit a site. I’ll see LBJ’s Library & Museum then drive out to his grave when we’re in Austin. Katie will do her own thing. She appreciates it all but I go full geek and need to spend almost the entire day’s operating hours to take in what I want to take in in order to feel like I’ve done my job.

We passed Harry Truman on I-70 approaching Kansas City. A litter farther on the same road and out of our way deeper in Kansas and we could have seen Dwight Eisenhower.

“I’ll be quick,” I told my wife.

“This isn’t sex,” she joked—I think.

I knew Truman would take me longer than most of the others. Of the modern presidents, he’s the one I know the least about, yet I dislike him the most because in my light opinion, which is populated by a few hard facts, he’s the dickweed that is most responsible for the Cold War and all of its subsequent problems.

I’ll get to Truman soon enough. We were hungry, looking more forward to seeing our friend in Lawrence.

When we arrived, Katie cracked open Eddie’s Tupperware of water and dog food. She accidentally spilled both in my car. If you haven’t had to smell the pungent horror that is hot dog food, consider yourself one of God’s spared children.  

I could drive like this for days on end—without the stench of hot dog food, of course. After sailing, I find navigating America’s roads to be the most relaxing thing and rejuvenating thing I can do. But I wonder when my wife will learn to drive stick with the same kind of confidence Del Griffith had. Because the only thing better than driving through this country is napping in the passenger seat, dreaming of it all while it passes me by.