Getting My Griswold On – Day 7: Bloomington, IL

Miles traveled today: 454.1
Total miles traveled: 2737.0

One Hail of a Storm

Before I forget, here’s video of the hailstorm that forced me to pull to the side of the interstate in Wall, SD on Sunday.


I’m telling you, it’s amazing my windshield wasn’t cracked. You can hear how hard it was coming down…I had to shout above the noise. My poor car!

The Day The Music Died

When I was going over my travel route and realized I’d be passing through Clear Lake, Iowa, I knew I had to make a side trip. I’m a huge rock ‘n roll fan, and I’ve watched La Bamba enough times to know that Clear Lake is where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper lost their lives in a plane crash on a snowy February night in 1959. This was the basis for Don McLean’s hit song, “American Pie.”

I googled Clear Lake, and discovered that the Surf Ballroom – the location where Buddy Holly and the others performed their last concert on February 2nd, hours before chartering a small plane that crashed into a soybean field shortly after takeoff, killing all three – had been fully restored to what it looked like in the 1950s, and was now a museum (and also still a functioning nightclub, where many artists perform concerts to this day). I also had directions to the crash site, and about 40 minutes after leaving Austin, Minnesota this morning, I exited the freeway to Clear Lake. I turned down Buddy Holly Place (cool) and found the ballroom. Talk about a relic out of the 1950s! I walked inside and, past the ticket stand with billboards announcing the Winter Dance Party of 1959, walked onto the dance floor. It was dimly lit, with 50s classics playing over a hidden stereo system. There was a wooden dance floor with a giant mirror ball, surrounded by 50s-era wooden booths, a stage, and cheesy-looking but era-appropriate palm tree decorations (it is the “Surf Ballroom,” after all). I climbed onto the stage and got chills, thinking that 52 years ago Buddy Holly had been standing in that exact spot, playing to an appreciative crowd just hours before he died. I imagined the audience dancing and having a great time, while outside the wind howled and snow piled up on the ground. I had the entire place to myself, which was great. I took my time exploring the various memorabilia, including an electric guitar signed by Ritchie Valens. They even have the dressing room right offstage preserved the way it looked that night, and performers like Loverboy and Little River Band have scribbled their names in ink all over the walls.

I left the Surf Ballroom and headed next to the crash site. It was 5 miles down a paved road north of town that turned to gravel and winded through farmland. The directions said to “look for the grain silos on the left and then walk 1/4-mile down the fence line on the right” or something similarly obscure, but I had no doubt that I’d found the right place when I spotted Buddy Holly’s signature horn-rimmed glasses next to an otherwise unassuming soybean field. I trekked down a muddy path and came upon the spot, marked with a simple stainless steel memorial crafted by a local resident about ten years ago. I got goosebumps standing there, realizing three rock legends died in that exact place. What a lonely spot to perish, I thought. After reflecting for several long moments, I returned to my car, sweat dripping down the back of my neck even though it was barely 10 AM. This humidity takes some getting used to.

How Corny is That?

Iowa certainly lives up to its reputation for cornfields. I spent about four hours traversing the state, and the entire time – no exaggeration – I was surrounded by corn. And when I crossed the Mississippi RIver into Illinois, the corn didn’t just magically stop at the border. It followed me the rest of the way. My motel room, in fact, is right next to a cornfield. I can take twenty steps across the parking lot and be surrounded by corn. I am looking at it from outside the window. Most of it is about 18″ tall, so it’s all got some growing to do, but I tell you, I am craving corn on the cob in a bad way now.

What strikes me about this trip is just how much farmland this country has. I would say 90% of my journey thus far has been through fields and prairies and farms. You always hear about how the farming way of life is disappearing, and the doomsayers are predicting we’ll run out of room for all the people in the U.S. and we won’t be able to feed them, but I’m calling bullshit on that, because I gotta tell you – there are millions of acres of farmland out there that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We have more than enough room, too. This country is vast and huge swaths are sparsely populated. I’d probably gain a different perspective if I were traveling through the northeast though, I’m sure.

The Motel Experience

One thing I haven’t really talked about has been the motels I’ve stayed in.

By and large, they have been unexceptional – and also, remarkably similar. They’ve all got a bed (or two), a TV, a desk, some sort of chair for relaxing in (or throwing your clothes onto), a hair dryer on a wall-mounted stand, and a tissue dispenser built into the wall. I’m trying to hole up for the night as cheaply as possible, and before setting out envisioned a series of Motel 6’s along the way, figuring on maybe spending $50/night. I have been surprised to find very few Motel 6’s, however. They used to be all over the place, but nowadays, Super 8 seems to have the monopoly on the budget motel market. My rooms have averaged $65 a night, but have been as high as $99 in Billings (ouch). Finally, tonight, in Bloomington, I found a killer deal. $39 for the night – now we’re talking! It’s a crummy old EconoLodge with strips of paint peeling from the walls and a door that sticks, but I don’t care – it’s just a place to bed down for the night. And the cornfield gives it character.

The funkiest room on my trip so far was also my “home” for three days – the Super 8 in Rapid City. The decor was “bold” and dated, which led to its charm. The bed was oddly low to the ground, and it lacked a mini fridge like the other places I’ve stayed in, but what I liked best about it was the desk facing the window. This was a three-story motel and I was on the second floor; we were on the side of a hill and even though my room faced north and had a partial view of the parking lot, I could also see the lights of Rapid City twinkling in the distance and the gentle slope of the prairie. It was the perfect spot to watch the thunderstorms that rolled through every evening while I was there. Here’s a shot of the room.

My home base for 3 days in Rapid City. I loved sitting at the desk watching the lightning every night.

Another thing that interests me are the regional gas stations around the country. I’m used to Chevron, Shell and Texaco back home. Once I reached eastern Washington I started seeing Conoco stations pop up everywhere, and that was a novelty to me. Then came Sinclair stations with their green dinosaur. (Talk about truth in advertising – gas being derived from “fossil fuels” and all). Now, I’ve run into a chain called Kum & Go. Maybe it’s the adolescent in me, but I can’t help snickering every time I see one of those stations. And I can’t help but wonder if people from other parts of the country visiting my town tell their friends when they return home, “They had this funny chain of gas stations out there called Chevron – and there’s truth in advertising, because their symbol is a chevron!” Or is Chevron nationwide? I don’t think I’ve seen any since leaving Oregon.

Of course, the same is true with food. I’ve already mentioned how Perkins is big out here, while we’ve got Denny’s back home. What’s also funny is that our Carl’s Jr. is your Hardee’s. Same colors, same logo, owned by the same company – just a different name. It’s similar to how Dreyer’s ice cream out west is called Edy’s east of the Rocky Mountains. Up until a few years ago we didn’t have any Krispy Kremes, but now they’re everywhere. Still can’t find a Dunkin’ Donuts, though. All of this regional diversity is appealing to me. If the whole United States was nothing but wall-to-wall Chevron stations and Carl’s Jr. fast-food restaurants, there’d be no need to travel, would there? Err…except to see all that natural beauty, of course.

My trip is officially halfway over, and tomorrow, I reach my final destination, as far east as I will travel: Dayton, Ohio. I’m pretty excited about that. It’s only 266 miles away, which translates to an easy five-hour drive, so I can take my time in the morning.

A nice little tribute to a rock 'n roll legend.
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Site of the 1959 Winter Dance Party.
Clear Lake, Iowa
The stage where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper performed for the last time.
View from the stage of the Surf Ballroom.
I snapped this shot from the stage of the Surf Ballroom. I was standing in the very spot where Buddy Holly & the others performed their last-ever show, hours before dying in a plane crash.
Ritchie Valens's autographed guitar.
Something tells me this marks the path to the crash site...
Clear Lake, Iowa
The exact spot where Buddy Holly's plane crashed in 1959.
Memorial to three rock 'n roll legends.
Just another Iowa cornfield.
Only in Iowa...
The Mighty Mississippi. The Old Miss. The Old Man. Deep river...
The state may have changed, but the view's the same. Cornfield next to my motel room in Illinois.

Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

21 thoughts on “Getting My Griswold On – Day 7: Bloomington, IL

  1. Try spotting a tornado while the hail is pouring… AND the national weather service issues a tornado warning for your location… talk about heart pounding FUN!!!! πŸ˜€


  2. All I can say is Wow!! Loved this entry and loved looking at the pictures. Sunoco is a chain of gas stations too but I think they may be farther east. Hellmann’s is our Best Foods and I believe it even says it on the label. Not sure when you get into the W’s instead of the K’s on radio stations but something to keep an ear out for I guess.

    Once again Mark, thanks for the journey. I particularly loved reading about Clear Lake…even though it happened a year before I was born, it’s always been something I grew up hearing about…so thank you! Stay safe and stay out of the corn…we don’t need you getting lost in it or having some kind of freaky kids come after you. *Insert eerie music now*


    1. I’m a decade removed from it, but I still appreciate the amazing music the trio made. It was an honor to go pay my respects to them, and if I had never planned this trip, I don’t think I ever would have even THOUGHT to go hunt down this stuff.


    1. Buddy. Barry. Barry. Buddy. Hmm…I think somebody was emulating somebody else! Guess this is one of those “chicken or the egg” questions we’ll never know the answer to.


  3. Damn–I lost my last comment! Let’s see if I can recreate it—

    The design world would call the decor in that hotel room “retro” rather than “dated”–really cool, actually–love the lamps!

    (I’m pretty sure we have some Chevrons here in Kentucky–though I can’t think of any exact locations in Lexington.)

    Speaking of Lexington–if you come anywhere near us, let me know. Lexington has great bourbon, horse farms, the home of Henry Clay, and a lot of great Haitian art at our house.

    We may be a little too far south for you, though–don’t know.

    Stay safe and watch out for those hail storms!



  4. Well, I gotta say….the photos of the ballroom gave me chills; thinking of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens playing there. I could actually HEAR them performing!

    OMG…that video of the hail storm reminded me of the storms we’d get in Florida sometimes. And yes, I had my car severly damage in one of them.

    Sinclair…..holy cow, I haven’t seen one of those gas stations in ages!

    Great photographs, Mark. Keep ’em coming!


    1. The Sinclair’s have already gone the way of the dinosaur here in Ohio…replaced by Sunoco stations. It’s so weird how many different regional gas chains there are. Who knew?


  5. Driving during a torrential hail storm, and you think the best idea is film it while you’re driving and can barely see?! Who’ve you been hanging out with? Me?!

    Seeing as you’re in the midwest now, beware the bat man and werewolves. You don’t know what’s in them cornfields…Muahahahaha!


    1. Don’t worry, we were all pulled over to the side of the road to wait that storm out. It occurred to me (later, of course…grr) that I should have rolled down the window and filmed the hail outside, too!


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