Midwest family road trips sure have changed since the era of wood-paneled station wagons, optional seat belts and fold-up maps.
These days, good luck getting the kids to take out their ear buds, drop their smartphones and look out the window on your way to the Wisconsin Dells, Michigan’s Harbor Country, the Indiana Dunes (our newest national park) or wherever your brood is headed.
The journey and destinations have changed over the years, but the Midwest family road trip remains a cherished tradition. It’s also the subject of an upcoming public television special, “Chicago on Vacation With Geoffrey Baer.” The show premieres at 7:30 p.m. March 5 on WTTW-Ch. 11 and online at wttw.com/vacation, where a companion website will be stocked with extra videos and resources to plan your next getaway.
“For me, this is a nostalgia show … nostalgia for the road trip,” said Baer, who spent many a childhood summer in the Lake Geneva area. The popular Wisconsin resort town is one of more than two dozen destinations featured in the 90-minute documentary that mixes history and humor with a truckload of vacation inspiration.
Baer and his frequent collaborator, producer Eddie Griffin, racked up 7,000-plus miles over eight months of filming, which wrapped as recently as January in the snowy Northwoods of Wisconsin.
“It’s by far the most difficult program I’ve ever worked on, but in a good kind of challenging way,” Griffin said.
The following is a Q&A with Baer and Griffin, edited for space and clarity.
Q: Your shows usually focus on Chicago or the surrounding area. What made you branch out well beyond the city’s borders?
Baer: These places are an extension of Chicago. There’s an emotional connection that I thought would really resonate. I’ve been doing these shows now for 25 years, and I’ve never heard or felt this kind of buzz — people coming up to me on the street after seeing the promo on TV, saying, ‘Hey, did you go to this place or that place?’
Q: How did you pick the destinations?
Griffin: There were ones that jumped out right away: Lake Geneva, Door County. You might go there, and maybe the majority of people you’re going to run into are Chicagoans on vacation. Then there are the shorter drives, like the Indiana Dunes. We wanted to make sure we picked places near Chicago and some exotic places, Mackinac Island and Charlevoix, Mich. We wanted to show you some places that don’t feel like the Midwest.
Q: What makes “Chicago on Vacation” different than your typical travel show?
Baer: I would go so far as to say it’s not a travel show. There is no travel advice: where to stay, here’s a great restaurant, etc. It’s not that kind of show. It’s not Rick Steves.
A lot of this show is the history you didn’t know. You might have heard Lake Geneva was a hideaway for the super rich, but we really talk about how that happened. Or the Dells. Depending on what generation you’re from, you either think about the Duck boats or Tommy Bartlett or water slides. I didn’t know the Dells had this history of reinventing itself every 20 years. And all the history in Galena? There is nothing in Chicago earlier than about 1833. You go to Galena, and you see these stone buildings that you would think you’d only find in New England. There’s this preserved history that happened through benign neglect.
There’s just a lot of surprising, ‘I never knew that’ kind of history that’s really different than what a lot of travel shows try to do. It’s the real story, as best as we can research it, which immediately sets it outside of some of these cable travel shows, where it’s this sort of frothy passing along of “fakelore.”
Q: What were the biggest challenges during filming?
Griffin: The weather. Normally when we’re doing a show in Chicago, if it rains, we cancel, and we book a shoot two days later, and everything’s fine. But we’re not coming back to these locations. We have to film in the rain. We have no other option. We have to get it while we’re there.
Baer: I have a reputation for, ‘OK, I’ll do anything’ on these shows. But this was outdoorsy stuff: snowmobiling, skiing, ice fishing, water skiing. I’d water-skied about 40 years ago, and it didn’t seem too difficult, so I thought it would be fine. Well, we filmed this whole disaster of me trying to get up on water skis. By the third try, I felt some muscle pull. I won’t tell you which one. I was like, ‘That’s it, we’re done.’ That was months ago, and I still have some shoulder issues.
I hadn’t (snow) skied in 30 years. I went skiing. I’d been on a snowmobile exactly once in my life, and then we’re out there with these snowmobile guys who were like, “We’ll only take it up to 70 or 80 miles an hour.”
And the water slides ... I love water slides with the big floatie thing. But Eddie just wants me to do the ones where I’m dropping straight down. Water went up my nose. My back got all scratched up.
Q: Any place you wanted to include in the show but couldn’t?
Griffin: I wanted to film stargazing in the middle of the night in an International Dark Sky Park. We tried to make it happen in Door County, but the weather would not cooperate. There’s another dark sky park in northern Michigan. We tried to make that work on our Charlevoix trip, and again, the weather didn’t cooperate. And the hot air balloon in Galena; we tried to make that happen three times. But if the wind is like 2 miles an hour, they cancel it for safety reasons. We couldn’t do it.
Q: Where was a place you went for the first time, and did it surprise you?
Griffin: Sleeping Bear Dunes. It’s turquoise blue water over giant sand dunes — as high as 450 feet. Lake Michigan looks like a sea. You can’t see anything on the horizon except for blue water. It doesn’t feel like the Midwest.
Baer: The only place on this whole journey that I’d never been was the Dells. I’m not sure I would say I discovered the place of my dreams — it’s been called the Las Vegas Strip for tweens. But I liked it way more than I imagined I would. The Duck ride didn’t do that much for me. I really liked the scenery but the Duck itself, it’s so slow going through the water. But the water parks, particularly this one place called Kalahari, I was really impressed.
I would also say — and I’ve been there before — but those canyons in Starved Rock; they’re mind-blowing. It’s unbelievable we have this kind of terrain in Illinois. And I’d never actually been inside the Illinois State Capitol. I couldn’t believe the elaborate ornament. It’s been beautifully restored, I’m sure at enormous taxpayer expense. It’s a pretty jaw-dropping place.
Q. Where’s your next Midwest vacation?
Baer: We always go to the same place in Michigan, about halfway up the coast. It’s on a little inland lake. Right over the dune is Lake Michigan, so you can either go to the big lake or the little lake. It’s pretty remote, so you don’t see a lot of people.
(And you won’t see it on the show.)
Baer: The joke is that you don’t tell anyone about this place because it will get ruined.