Tolkien wrote: “not all those who wander are lost.” Ed and Rachel Barnhart are this sentiment sprung to vivid life. When they retired in 2004, the intrepid RVers hooked up their Alfa Gold fifth wheel on a mission to see all that God created and man constructed…and find the best pizza in the USA. From the beaches of Seattle, Ed and Rachel set their sights on Maine. From there they would turn south toward the sunshine, only to be greeted by the worst Mother Nature had unleashed in decades. Undaunted, the Barnharts headed off into the sunset, through the southwest and across the Rio Grande to the shores of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. From sea to shining sea and back again, all in one trip around the sun. In Chapter 5 Ed and Rachel renew their search for the best pizza in the USA by sampling the best pies the Windy City has to offer. Before we left Milwaukee for Chicago, we had one very important stop to make. We had to see the Miller Brewing Company. Founded in 1855 by German immigrant Frederick Miller (Müeller), it grew to be the largest brewer in the United States. Today, Miller Valley, the complex where Miller crafts its famous line of brews such as High Life and Genuine Draft, is massive. Raw materials come from all over the United States including grains from the Midwest and hops from Washington’s Yakima Valley. While brewing is no longer Milwaukee’s primary industry, this enormous facility dominates a huge swath of downtown Milwaukee.
Miller Brewing Company
After leaving Wisconsin, we settled in the town of Tinley Park at a campsite about 25 miles southwest of Chicago. From there we steeled ourselves to accomplish two things that were, up to this point, outside of our comfort zone. The first was to take our beloved 13-year-old Schnauzer, Hansel, to a vet we did not know. Anyone who has traveled with a pet can relate. You “know” you aren’t taking your family vet with you when you hitch up and head out, but the reality of trusting your furry friends to a stranger is much harder to face than the abstract idea of it. Before beginning our trip, we had learned that Hansel had a corneal ulcer. On the advice that if we treated it with medicated drops it would heal on its own, we had set out on our adventure. His eye was still bothering him after we arrived in Tinley Park, so we asked the campground folks to recommend a vet. Jeffrey Valenti, DVM turned out to be a kind and highly competent doctor. He assured us that the eye was healing fine and proscribed additional drops to help with the draining. What a relief!
The next day we tackled the second task: brave the streets of downtown Chicago behind the wheel of the dually. Because, in our quest to find the country’s best pizza we were committed to sampling Chicago’s famed pie at the source, a drive into the city was obligatory. We made an attempt to mitigate our traffic trepidation by timing our trip after rush
hour. We soon learned the hard way that rush hour never ends in the Windy City. Everyone has somewhere to be, and they need to be there RIGHT NOW! But our initial reticence faded as we began to take in our surroundings and embrace Chicago’s energy. The Windy City is truly beautiful at night. We especially enjoyed seeing the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building, looming, illuminated above the horizon.
That evening we decided to try Lou Malnati’s pizzeria. Malnati’s boasts that they are as “rich in history as their pizza is in flavor.” This is no idle talk. The Malnati family have been in the pizza business for decades, beginning in the 1940’s, when Lou worked alongside his father, Rudy, in “Chicago’s first pizzeria.” From there, Lou and wife, Jean, opened the first Lou Malnati’s in Lincolnwood in March, 1971. When Lou died of cancer in 1978, his sons, Marc and Rick, took up the gauntlet of making what they bill as: “absolutely the greatest pizza on the planet.” The history was indeed rich; all that remained was to see if Lou’s flavor lived up to the hype. We chose the “Lou” pizza and we both agreed it passed our taste test with flying colors. On a scale of 1 to 10, we gave it a strong 9. Considering this auspicious start, our first foray into the world of the incredible Chicago pie would certainly not be the last!
Two days later we drove back into Chicago to explore the wonderful, lakefront Museum of Science and Industry. We loved the exhibits and were thrilled by the powerful Omnimax films: “Forces of Nature” and “Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West.” The first was poignant because we have been in close proximity to several tornadoes since leaving the Northwest. The second portrayed the hardships endured by the Corps of Discovery between 1804-06, reminding us who we had to thank for the route we had taken east to this point.
The Museum of Science and Industry
The exhibits were just as compelling. They included the Pioneer Zephyr, a passenger train that, in 1934, made the normally 26-hour trip from Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours. Another 3,500 square foot model railroad depicted the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route from Chicago to Seattle. It included over 1,400 feet of track and over 500 buildings with
faithful reproductions of many Seattle and Chicago buildings. The Sears Tower model is over 14 feet tall!
We also toured a genetics display area, admired vintage fire engines and locomotives and marveled at silent film star, Colleen Moore’s, Fairy Castle. This is a one-inch to one-foot scale fully furnished medieval castle covering over 100 square feet. Incredible in scope and detail! Our tour finished with a look at a very authentic-feeling Illinois Coal Mine.
Our trip to the museum helped us work up quite an appetite; so, of course, we hunted down some more pizza pie. We hit the jackpot at Gino’s East. The story behind this joint is pure Chicago. Two taxi drivers, frustrated with downtown traffic, decided to open a pizzeria instead. Another friend pitched in to help, and soon Gino’s East became legendary with locals, national celebrities and tourists from around the world. In an effort to leave a piece of themselves, customers began scribbling on the walls inside the restaurant. Gino’s pizza offers plenty to “write home about” so, as you may imagine, the bricks are covered with accolades from appreciative diners and expressions of love from starry-eyed patrons. And the pizza is amazing! Gino’s vaulted into a close second for our favorite pizza. So, in order, here’s the best we’ve had (so far):
1. Greek Pizza at Pegasus Pizza, on Alki Point in Seattle
2. Gino’s East Supreme Chicago Pizza with tomatoes added, at Gino’s East in Chicago
3. Village Special, at Village Pizzeria in Langley, Washington on Whidbey Island
4. The Lou (with added sausage and onions), at Lou Malnati’s in Chicago
Every last one of these was amazing and it’s getting harder and harder to decide. Oh, we had a pizza in Butte, Montana, too…but the pork chop sandwich we ate there later made up for it.
One of our favorite aspects of RVing so far has been all the interesting folks we have met at the parks and camps. Great people from all walks of life, each with his or her own story to tell. One of these folks we met at the park near Chicago was author, Sam Penny. Sam wrote Memphis 7.9, a compelling book about what would happen “the next time the fault line near Memphis, Tennessee, slips.” According to Penny: though that quake was stronger than a San Francisco earthquake a few years prior, because the area was relatively uninhabited not much was made of the Memphis quake. Today, with millions of people living along the New Madrid Fault – which stretches into Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky – the effects of an earthquake would be catastrophic, even to the extent of temporarily causing the Mississippi River to flow the opposite direction.
Sam’s autograph in the copy of the book he gave us is foreboding: “Ed and Rachel, enjoy Memphis if you get the chance, but don’t stay too long.” I read the book cover to cover and strongly recommend it to anyone living east of the Mississippi. Research is still coming in on this very interesting subject; and, had we not met Sam at the camp, we never would have been introduced to it.
Well, our tour of the Windy City and all the science, sites and culinary delights it offers has come to an end. Now we’re off to Michigan. Wonder who we’ll meet along the way?
Read previous chapters by selecting one of the links below.
Chapter 4 - Touring the Twin Cities
Chapter 3 - Discovering Middle America
Chapter 2 - A Trip Around the Sun
Chapter 1 - Pacific in the Rearview, We Wave Goodbye
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