Normal, IL – Just a Normal Town in the Midwest
Going on this trip was really exciting for me. I had not traveled in over 4 months and was starting to feel antsy; I had not attended the Higher Education Data Warehousing (HEDW) conference (THE conference for the work I do in my field in Higher Ed) in 3 years; and I had not been to Chicago yet – a gaping hole in my travel experience that became more evident to me as just about every single one of my close friends (and lots of my FB friends) chimed in with recommendations of things to see and places to eat in the Windy City.
I departed LA on a sunny afternoon this past Sunday, April 19th. My flight on Virgin America was pleasant enough, and time quickly passed with Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook” in my hands. Gloomy skies and sprinkles greeted me upon arrival, and as I headed South from O’Hare towards Normal, IL, where my conference would be for the next 3 days, the sprinkles turned into steady rain. The drive took a couple of hours but because of the weather, I wasn’t able to really get a feel for my surroundings, other than the fact that the area around me was really, really flat. I passed a sign for Pontiac, IL, on the way, which reminded me of my very first car. I am still not sure if the two are related. 🙂
As I entered the city of Normal – a college town with a population of just over 50,000, a very familiar feeling washed over me. The lack of people on the streets (and the lack of sidewalks, too), the few cars on the road, the general slower pace of life that I could feel even just driving through were great reminders of my own college town, Danville, VA. I hadn’t been back this far east since I moved to LA in 2009 and I knew I was in the Midwest but this all seemed very, very East-coast-like to me. A wave of homesickness came over me – not that I would ever want to go back to Danville, VA, but to this day it remains the city (and state) I consider my American home. The black and white state route signs, the signs on the highway listing upcoming gas stations, restaurants and places to rest for the night, the big sky that surrounded you on all sides… all of this reminded me of a life I had lived so long ago, it seemed, that I wasn’t even sure I was the one who’d lived it. It’s a strange feeling, re-encountering parts of your past this way.
With this strange feeling still haunting me, I finally got the my conference hotel, checked in and headed up for the opening reception, which had already been going for about on hour.
I made a beeline to Martha – my old boss at LMU who’d ventured back East to head up the Business Intelligence program at the New School in NYC. We’d kept in touch over the years and I’d visited her in NYC, but I was amazed to think back that the last time I’d seen her was about this time in 2013. How time flies! We chit-chatted a bit at the reception, then sat down at the hotel restaurant for a quick bite and catch-up. It was great to have a familiar face and a good friend here since I was the only one traveling from LMU.
Monday came and went with conference presentations. I found myself with a bit of free time just after 4 pm and before dinner, so I decided to drive a couple of miles to downtown Bloomington, a town of 70,000. I saw a Kroger on the way – another East Coast thing that made me smile. As far as downtown Bloomington is concerned, I am not sure exactly what I was expecting but what I found was definitely not what I had in mind. I think for sure I’ve lived in LA for too long, because I remember living in Danville and not feeling like it was quite as desolate as this entire metro area is. Aside from a CVS that was housed in a historic building you could learn more about by scanning the QR code at the front, there were barely any signs of life. The McLean County Museum of History across the street was closed, and the rest of the little square also seemed just about abandoned aside from a few cars lazily passing by. Seriously, it was kind of creepy.
Dinner lightened my mood and made me feel like there is hope for Normal to be normal, as Destihl Restaurant and Brewery topped my expectations by a mile. Everything on the menu looked delicious, and after a beer and some beer-battered bacon, I felt like this place wasn’t so bad after all.
I had good company in the face of another conference attendee from the University of Michigan, whose friendly banter was more than the rest of the conference peeps at our table seemed to want to volunteer – perhaps they were tired from the long day, I don’t know, but they didn’t say much. When my Thai fried chicken and coconut rice arrived, I was in heaven, and the banana cream pie at the end made me completely forget where I am. Well, almost – the abnormally cold weather and windy conditions were never too far to remind me. 🙂
Tuesday followed Monday’s schedule during the day. In the evening, however, the conference chair had organized the Second Annual HEDW fun run/walk. That sounded great, as I had run on the treadmill, I mean, the dreadmill the day before and I was not looking forward to repeating that again (I bow down to all people who can train on a treadmill exclusively or almost exclusively – you have more discipline than I ever will). Luckily for us, Constitution Trail was just around the corner from the hotel. It occupies an abandoned Illinois Central Gulf Railroad and runs through both Normal and Bloomington.
It was a beautiful evening with temps in the upper 50s although it felt markedly colder because of the wind (I do feel like a spoiled Californian here as I keep complaining about how cold it is, while everyone around here is just happy it’s not like -14). I went for an easy 4 miler, and it felt good to burn some calories and get my runner’s high back. Martha did the walk and we managed to take our one and only picture on this trip at the end.
After the run/walk, Martha and I went for dinner at Epiphany Farms Restaurant. Martha, a foodie in her own right, had researched Normal (as I had hoped she would have, since I didn’t have time) and this was one of the places on her list. As the name suggests, the restaurant has its own organic farm that supplies it with meat, dairy and corn. I had a delicious cauliflower soup, which I followed with the Pastured Chicken Roulade – chicken that was first cooked sous vide (a technique I’d only seen on cooking shows), then gently fried, resulting in a soft, moist center and crispy outside. It was absolutely delicious and probably one of the best preparations of chicken I’d ever had. The local saison I had with it was really good, too.
The conference wrapped up on Wednesday, and it was time for me to head back up past Chicago to one of its Northern suburbs, Skokie, where I was staying with a family friend until the end of the week. This time I had a gorgeous sunny day with just enough clouds in the sky for my drive, and the classic Midwestern scenery sprawled all around me before I got on the highway – miles and miles of farmland and the occasional barn or industrial building jutting up to the sky. I made my way back North on Highway 55, which in this part of the state has replaced the iconic Route 66.
I hit a bit of traffic in Chicago as I got there right in the middle of rush hour, but it was nothing compared to some of the LA traffic I had encountered over the years.
Once at my friend Kristina’s house in Skokie, I had a wonderful time with her, her husband, her two kids (all of whom I’d only now met) and her mom, who’s been best friends with my mom for over 40 years.
No matter where I go and what I see, nothing fills my heart more than catching up with dear friends (almost family) whom I hadn’t seen in ages. Well, that and the steam sauna in the basement. 🙂