Shoe String Travel

by Neil Cogbill

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"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Travels With a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1878. Stevenson (1850-1894), the Scottish adventurer and writer, may have suffered from wanderlust, but along the way, he saw and wrote about some pretty exciting things.

In the spirit of Stevenson and legions of other wanderers, Alan Barney and I have been making day and weekend trips throughout the Chicago region (150-200 miles) to a variety of interesting and enjoyable destinations for the past three years. Avoiding raging rivers, malarial swamps and venomous snakes (21st century TSA personnel too), we have had a blast on a shoe string. Prior to starting our journeys, we had traveled far and wide without giving much thought to the practical possibilities in our own backyards.

Like it or not, the United States is largely an urban-suburban society with diversions galore (the Chicago region being no exception), but in between its population centers, vast stretches of little known or forgotten landscape begs to be explored at modest cost in time and expense. Too often, Americans armed with credit cards take off from A, B or C and land in X, Y and Z without knowing or thinking about what lies below, only to confront a giant credit card balance later. Undeniably national and international vacation destinations are fun, but trying economic times (or not), there are places to go and things to see without breaking the bank. Alan and I have made a virtue of doing so on a shoe string.

A budget conscience starting line is not unique. All urban-suburban U.S. areas offer a multitude of inexpensive travel opportunities. East and West, North and South, America is bursting with under appreciated and under utilized frugal destinations that celebrate the American experience and are not hard to find or get to. From community, county and state historical societies bulging with artifacts of local interest to historic house museums with period furnishings and art work, a great deal can be seen and learned while staying close to home. For those of us on a reduced budget, medium size art, history and science museums offer a respite from daily concerns at a reasonable price or oft-times free. Whether an automobile or railroad museum, a botanic garden or arboretum, a state park built by the Civilian Conservation Corps with bike trails and camping or an historic farm, frugal day trips can be exciting. If art, science and history are not a family's cup of tea, nature holds something for everyone. A person and his or her family do not have to be botanists to derive pleasure and peace of mind from nature. Nature is non-judgmental!

Nurtured on television and flagrant commercialism, kids will automatically protest not going to Disneyland, Disney World or NASA Space Camp, but in adversity lessons can be learned and new values established, providing there is parental backbone and honest dialogue. No parent enjoys the consequences of the "no" word, but there is some consolation in knowing that not many generations ago during the Great Depression "no" was often heard and nobody had to be committed to an asylum.

In the Chicago region, Alan and I have discovered an odd-ball and half abandoned community (Bishop Hill, Illinois) founded by misguided religious adherents as well as a town (Dwight, Illinois) whose fortunes were tied to curing alcoholism. We have toured a famous theater couple's summer residence (Ten Chimneys in Genensee Depot, Wisconsin) that defies gravity as well as numerous other funny oddities, all without ruinous debt.

Using road maps, a plethora of available Internet information and a determination to see and save, almost everyone can find rewarding and exciting places to go not too far from home. Because conventional headings such as "travel" and "weekend" or "getaway" often produce advertisements for the type of places a frugal traveler is trying to avoid, searching via the Internet can be frustrating. The use of "historic" usually produces more finite results. Not surprisingly, asking friends and colleagues can produce results too. Guide books to everywhere exist in abundance, but a little known series of travel guides published in the late 1930's by the Works Progress Administration has been reprinted in recent years. Much of the information is dated, but still relevant in starting a search for unusual places to see and experience. They are fascinating to read without going anywhere, too!

Rarely have Alan and I spent much money while exploring. Day trips are the least expensive, but weekend escapes can be frugal adventures if "touristy" destinations are avoided. In hard times, there is an urge to hunker down, but getting away is vital and part of the fun is the challenge of discovering unusual places and things on a budget. In touring our Chicago region, we have enjoyed ourselves immensely and learned a lot we never knew before. We have had so much fun that we started a website called where we share with other adventurers our discoveries.

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