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USA Road Trip: Illinois to Oklahoma

USA Road Trip: Illinois to Oklahoma

I drove across the country by myself in the Spring of 2019. I started in Illinois and drove to California. This is my thoughts and pictures from the first leg of the trip, from Illinois to Oklahoma.


Day 1: Springfield, Illinois

Palatine, IL to Springfield, IL
Driving Time: 3 hours
Distance: 206 miles
Listened to: Road Trip playlist
Stay: La Quinta Hotel (rating: 1.5 stars – never again)
Eat: Grapes, hummus and carrots, a home-made salami sandwich

The first day was pretty mellow. I had lunch with my brother and his kiddies, and then had a dramatic parking lot goodbye hug with my sissy where she informed me that WOW! Airlines suddenly went out of business and we were both thankful we took that trip to Iceland last year.

I took the drive to Springfield nice and slow, easing into the road trip lifestyle. I stopped like 3 times and did not rush at all.

I arrived at the La Quinta in Springfield, which shared a parking lot with a Walmart, so very American. I had work to do and it was uneventful.

The next morning I went to the Lincoln Memorial Gardens since I’d already seen the big Springfield sites during a 5th-grade class field trip. Even though it was a gray sky, there were nice walking trails at the Gardens along a lake. I spotted a Swan hanging out with two ducks which felt like seeing The Ugly Duckling in real life. After a quick stroll, I drove to St. Louis.

Day 2: St. Louis, Missouri

Springfield, IL to St. Louis, MO
Driving Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Distance: 97 miles
Listened to: the same playlist
Stay: Home 2 Suites (rating: 5 stars – amazing!)
Eat: Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant (divine) + The Taco and Ice Cream Joint (also divine)

St. Louis was a real treat after Springfield for so many reasons, but mainly: 1. I was finally able to visit my cousin who lives there! 2. The hotel I was staying at was a major upgrade from the La Quinta and 3. I’d never been to STL so I was pumped to see what it’s all about. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I really loved it! Immediately upon arrival, I went straight to the Arch where I made my pup pose for the first of many cross-country road trip shots.

I learned that the Arch is a marker for the Gateway to the West—and it’s basically where white people finalized the “relocation” of all the Native Americans. I got a little lost on my way to the hotel, so I got to see the Anheuser Busch factory and can now vouch that it exists. The Home 2 Suites was a MAJOR upgrade and I am a big fan. They have little kitchens and everything is nice and clean—highly recommend!!

I got in an Uber (a White Hummer) to meet my cousin Haley at her office. Nothing like getting dropped off at a nonprofit community center in a fancy tank!

Haley took me for a quick walk around the block by her office, which is on Delmar Blvd, also known as the Delmar Divide because it has the most acute racial divide in any city. Like North of this divide is 98% Black with 80% vacancy and South is mostly white and I definitely saw a Lululemon store nearby. I honestly thought Chicago was the most segregated city until I got to see this with my own two eyes. I sneakily took this picture of one of the vacant homes and I could tell my cousin was thinking: This is not a tourist attraction! She was really an amazing tour guide!!

Next, I got to see her place (super cute!) and we went out to eat for Ethiopian food—and then we took a walk towards Cherokee Street and got ice cream from the Taco and Ice Cream Joint (super yummy!) My cousin described the neighborhood as a mix of anarchist hipsters and antique shops, so I felt right at home. It was so nice to walk the streets of St. Louis with my cuz and catch up on life and see her life.

The next morning I met her at the Catholic Worker house she volunteers at. I read Dorothy Day’s autobiography (The Long Loneliness) and became pretty obsessed with who she was, as a person and an activist. Catholic Worker houses are part of her legacy and it was so cool that: a. my cousin volunteers at one and b. she gave me the full tour and even let me take some copies of their magazine, The RoundTable. The house is a woman’s shelter in an old convent and it’s really relaxed and open and it’s all about respect, dignity, and love. A perfect way to end my visit to St. Louis!

Day 3: Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas

St. Louis, MO to Kansas City, MO/KS
Driving Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
Distance: 248 miles
Listened to: Tim Storey on Super Soul Sunday (so inspiring!)
Stay: Residence Inn by Marriott (rating: 4 stars for actual hotel – rooms were huge! But -1 star for the location)
Eat: Jack in the Box (in honor of my sister) + oatmeal with blueberries

The drive from St. Louis to Kansas City was…not pleasant! I experienced a trifecta of sleet, rain and snow. Real cute! Because of the weather, I was a little behind in getting to KC, so when I came in hot to the Jones Sisters BBQ (from Queer Eye), they were already closed up for the day. I did meet one of the sisters outside when I asked: “Are you closed?” and she replied: “Yup, all done for the day. Shoulda come earlier.” So that was a minor brush with Netflix fame.

I went to check-in at my hotel which I found was situated in the middle of my absolute worst nightmare: between the Kansas City Speedway (used for car racing) and the Legends Shopping Mall, which featured huge statues of Native Americans outside a Banana Republic and a Tex Mex restaurant, plus loads of pedestrians and local drivers who lay on the horn when you aren’t driving fast enough into the pedestrians. It felt very…American. Of course, during this day of delights, my room wasn’t ready so I got some curly fries from Jack in the Box and decided to go to the Kansas City Library, which really lifted my mood.

Downtown KC is truly adorable. My cousin had lived in Kansas City before so she gave me a list of things to see and it did not disappoint. I went to the cutest store in the world, because of her, called RayGun. I got some trinkets and postcards —and then happened to spot the Queer Eye LOFT while I was walking around. I drove to the Art Museum, which was closed but cute, and I really fell in love with Kansas City, like a lot. It’s a funky little town and I’d definitely come back. Also, the sunset was marvelous and my dog was really starting to adapt nicely to hotel life.

Day 4: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Kansas City, MO/KS to Tulsa, OK
Driving Time: 4 hours
Distance: 271 miles
Listened to: White noise – service was not the best
Stay: Hyatt Regency Hotel (rating: 4 stars – very good location!)
Eat: Johnny’s Bar-B-Q pulled pork sandwich and room-service salmon + rice

Everyone I talked to in Kansas City said I had to try BBQ so I stopped at Johnny’s BBQ on my way to Oklahoma. It was on that show Drive-in’s, Diner’s and Dumps or something—and it was seriously AMAZING. Tula was crying for scraps in the car, it smelled so good. I was kind and shared with her. There was a bit of a detour on the drive through Kansas and into Oklahoma and I’m pretty sure it had to do with this massive fire:

The picture really does not do it justice at all. I tried to send my brother a pic via text because he’s a firefighter. But I guess the pic did not go through at first, so instead, he got a random text from me just saying: I think there’s a fire. Whoops!

The detour was good in many ways because I stumbled upon a Dairy Queen which was a nice treat and I also got to really get a good glimpse of lots of different small towns throughout Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as noticing the very clear difference when you start driving on Indian Reservation land. Like the second you cross into a Reservation, it just feels way quieter. There are no billboards anymore (except for casinos) and I only saw other cars passing through on the Interstate, nothing happening other than that.

In most of the small towns on U.S. soil, there were empty factories and lots of vacant businesses and homes, and then, either a Burger King or a Wendy’s and always a Walmart and lots of pharmaceutical billboards. I drove through a lot of this:

And it made me feel like I’d entered a new country. I’m so used to having a million businesses around and being able to buy La Croix, anywhere. My aunt texted me and said: One of the best ways to see how other people live is by traveling. She was so right! Especially with how divided our country has been the past few years, I could literally see why. We’re living in two separate worlds, one that’s pretty spoiled and one that is struggling.

After 4 hours that felt like 17 hours, I arrived in Tulsa—and it was beautiful and sunny! I took Tula to a park right away and she was so happy to be out of the car and really excited to be a model again:

I headed over to the Phillbrook Museum of Art, which is in the historic home of Waite and Genevieve Phillips (a petroleum businessman), and has these huge, gorgeous gardens. It was so zen and beautiful—and such a contrast to small-town life.

Because I felt like I hadn’t done enough in those 4 days, I decided to make plans that night—but it was 1000% the best Sunday night plans I’ve ever made. I’ve been a huge fan of the Robcast since it started in 2015. I listen to it every Monday when I go on a walk and it just always inspires me or makes me think about my life. Rob Bell is really smart and really wise, so I was BEYOND excited when I was listening to his podcast two weeks before I left on this trip and he said: “Oh, and if anyone will be passing through Tulsa, Oklahoma at the end of March, I’ll be there for one night.” I remember being like “Wait a minute…I will be..in Oklahoma…then” – a thought I never thought I’d actually have! So I got tickets to see him live for his An Introduction to Joy tour while I was in Tulsa.

I could write a lengthy essay on everything I loved about it. If you ever have the chance to see Rob Bell live, GO! His stuff is life-changing and seeing him in person was one of the coolest, most inspirational experiences of my life. My favorite points from his presentation were:

  • Joy is choosing to ENJOY life, even though we all know it can be unfair and can change at any minute and oh yeah, we’re all gonna die one day, so might as well enjoy it now, while we can.
  • The way to live a full life is to find joy, which means: Ask for more. Believe it can be better. Have fun. Enjoy. Drink the wine now. Everything is a gift.
  • The biggest takeaway for me was when he talked about our approach to life: whether we wake up and think: “I get to” vs. “Do I gotta?” It’s reminding yourself that: I get to do this.
  • This all could not have come at a better time because I was deliriously tired and felt like how the f am I gonna keep driving across the country at this rate. But Rob Bell reminded me that it’s something I GET to do, which was the perfect perspective check I needed.

Day 5: Elk City, Oklahoma

Tulsa, OK to Elk City, OK
Driving Time: 3 hours, 11 minutes
Distance: 217.5 miles
Listened to: Back to the playlist
Stay: Sleep Inn & Suites (rating: 2 stars – it kept me safe)
Eat: Wendy’s + Taco Bell

After the high of Tulsa and the best motivational talk ever, I was feeling very jazzed about life. The drive through Oklahoma was uneventful. It was sunny, not too many cars on the road. Elk City was basically a stopping point I chose because my driving limit is 4 hours per day, mainly because I still have to get work done.

I felt like staying in Elk City was an immersive experience in the middle America way of life—and honestly, I did not fit in at all. The town itself had lots of vacant buildings along with the token Walmart (and Hobby Lobby!). There was an actual oil rig in the town center and a Family Video that’s still very much in use. I saw a statue of a white man and an American Indian shaking hands with the words “Binding Contract” written underneath. Everyone called me ma’am, almost aggressively. And the whole place just felt kinda abandoned. I felt like a foreigner because of my accent and my license plate. After a lovely evening at the Sleep Inn, I woke up at dawn, ready to drive to New Mexico (via Texas). One last haul through the country until I was back amongst diversity.

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