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Vacation: The Review

After five days of driving, visiting, eating and farting in our van, Susan, the kids and I have returned to the land of Oklahoma. I had intended for this summary to be brief, but it is not. It is long.


Monday, we left for St. Louis (~515 miles) with plans of visiting the St. Louis Arch later that afternoon. I’ve driven past the St. Louis Arch probably fifty times in my life on my way to and from Chicago, but never stopped. Unfortunately due to a late start we weren’t going to make it to the Arch before it closed, so instead we stopped at Meramec Caverns — another place I’ve driven past dozens of times, but never stopped at.

I’ve visited Carlsbad Caverns twice, the last time in 1994. Compared to the caverns in Carlsbad, Meramec Caverns was much more compact. At 6’0″, more than once I found myself walking with my head cocked to one side to avoid banging it on the ceiling. And while there’s a concrete walkway and handrails throughout the entire mile-and-a-half walking tour, visiting one room (the “Wine Table”) required climbing 60 steps. I shot and could post a hundred pictures from inside the caverns, but none of them do the formations justice. Standing and looking at a rock formation that took “longer to form than the Grand Canyon” is a bit humbling.

Once we arrived in St. Louis, we visited Crown Candy Kitchen. For those of you who watch Man vs. Food, it’s where Adam took the 5 Milkshake Challenge (spoiler: he failed). After ordering four milkshakes to go, we left to find our hotel and some dinner.


Tuesday morning, we found the hotel had an indoor/outdoor pool, so Susan and the kids swam as I took a shower and brought up the rear.

Next to the pool was a small arcade game room with six dedicated arcade machines and one 60-in-1 tabletop machine. All of the machines were free to play for hotel guests. As the kids swam I set high scores on most of the machines (still got it, baby). Eventually Susan went back to the room to re-pack our suitcases while the kids joined me for a few rounds of Frogger, Mortal Kombat, and Super Mario Bros. After grabbing some breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and headed over to see the St. Louis Arch. The bridges and trains surrounding the arch are covered in beautiful graffiti, which I always try to photograph when I can.

Susan and the kids opted to go up to the top of the Arch while I opted not to. That meant a long wait for a 5 minute ride to the top of the tallest man-made monument in the United States, and a two-hour solo wait for me. I spent most of my time in the museum under the arch which, somehow, I went through backwards. By going through the museum “right-to-left”, I got to see the arch being disassembled, Louisiana being sold by the United States, and eventually, Indians and bison moving into the Great Plains. While I was doing that, the kids were at the top of the Arch looking out through tiny windows.

Lunch was at a not-particularly-great White Castle in St. Louis. Dinner was at Uncle Joe’s in Chicago.

(That’s Mason’s cousin Patty on the left with Mason. Related?)

After a quick stop to see Grandma O, Uncle Buddy and Aunt Linda, we checked into another hotel.


Wednesday morning we stashed our luggage in Grandma’s garage, parked our van in front of the American Legion, and hopped a train to downtown Chicago. Thank God we didn’t look like tourists on the train!

After dropping our bags off at the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown Chicago, we met my Aunt Linda at a small hot dog joint not too far from our hotel. From there, we walked across the Chicago Riverwalk and caught a cab down to Navy Pier.

Morgan immediately spotted the Ferris Wheel, which she and Susan quickly boarded. Mason and I wanted to play mini-golf, but it wasn’t open yet. Some of the restaurants on Navy Pier include Bubba Gump’s Shrimp, Harry Caray’s Tavern, a Billy Goat Tavern (“Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger!”) and McDonald’s of the Future, where we ate. For what it’s worth, McDonald’s of the Future is a lot like McDonald’s of today, except bigger and more expensive. Inside upstairs is a really nice garden area with lots of trees and ponds and (yes!) benches to rest on.

After another cab ride and a long nap, we had dinner at Giordano’s, a famous Chicago pizzeria that serves Chicago-style stuffed crust pizza. There was a thirty-minute wait to get in, but the time passed quickly and you can order before you get in so the wait for your pizza is not that long. The “appetizer combo” consists of fried mushrooms, friend zucchini, and cheese sticks, and is highly recommended! The pizza is so filling that we could each only eat one slice!


Thursday began with a cab ride over to the Adler Planetarium. I remember the planetarium being a fairly boring place as a kid, but they’ve added lots and lots of kid-friendly interactive exhibits since the last time we’ve been there (probably 20 years ago). Other than one particularly rude lady who talked to her kid throughout our entire planetarium movie, it was a blast. The kids really had a great time.

From there, we hopped a city bus back to the hotel, and a train back to Homewood. We did some shopping with Grandma O and some visiting with Uncle Joe and Aunt Debbie before we had dinner at Uncle Joe’s. Being St. Patrick’s Day and all, there was a lot of corn beef and cabbage, and a lot of O’Haras there wearing lots of green to gobble it up!

Corn Beef and Cabbage for all.

The next generation. I really like this picture.

O’Haras Gone Wild.


On Friday, we were supposed to head south to Memphis to visit Graceland. After loading up the van and saying our goodbyes, we made it two blocks before taking a family vote and deciding to stay in Chicago one more day. We turned the van around and went right back to my Grandma’s house. Graceland can wait — plus, Susan and I have already been there. We spent Friday hanging out and visiting with family. It was probably the most relaxing day of our entire vacation. We squeezed in a trip to the South Side Irish Store and picked up some souvenirs. Susan had the idea of getting photo prints made of the family photo I took at Joe’s house, so we did that too. Later that evening, Aunt Linda and Uncle Buddy cooked up some Shrimp Alfredo for dinner, which was delicious!

The kids with Grandma O.


After saying our goodbyes (again), the four of us piled into the minivan one last time and made the 800 mile journey back home. The kids did great in the car, thanks to two Nintendo DSIs, an iPod, an iPad, and a DVD player with 30 or so movies.

Thanks to all our family in Chicago who always go out of their way to be great hosts, and thanks to our niece Jessica who house-sat for us!

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