I took off for Atkinson, Illinois at 10:30 a.m. President Obama was to visit this village of 1100 people at 11:30 a.m. After 2 presidential campaigns, where the time of arrival is usually off by at least a half hour (His 3:30 stop in Alpha, for instance, did not occur until 5:00 p.m.) I was pretty sure that I’d beat the President to the flag-draped town 8 miles east of Geneseo.
I drove past Geneseo on Interstate 80, an approximate 30 to 40 minute drive, in the Grasshopper (my 2005 green Prius) and, at each overpass, I noticed police with police and highway patrol cars above me. At each turnaround there was a large orange piece of heavy duty equipment that would prevent anyone from doing a “turnaround”—even if turnarounds were not specifically prohibited by signage.
So, picture me humming “dum de dum dum” (although I was actually listening to the late, great Amy Winehouse sing “no, no, no” to the idea of going to rehab. )Up came the exit for Atkinson (pop. 1100) and I exited. I made the turn onto the overpass to the left only to have a highway patrolman frantically wave at me to “go back.”
Initially, I began back-pedaling like a kid stung by a wasp, but then I thought, “Wait a minute. How am I going to get into Atkinson if this is the exit and this guy won’t let me use the road?” (At that point, I had not yet thought of back roads.) I put the Grasshopper into Drive and slowly and cautiously inched forward to ask the nice highway patrolman where he suggested I should go. he didn’t say, “To hell,” but he might as well have, given the level of hysteria he projected.
“You’re on the entrance ramp!” he screamed, quite unnecessarily. “You’re just ahead of the motorcade!”
This was exactly as I had hoped would be the case: me waiting for a brief time, rather than spending my whole morning standing around in the hot sun waiting for a large black bus to breeze by me. One man I spoke to later said he had been outside since 8:00 a.m.
I finally backed up and took the ramp heading east towards Chicago, not quite sure what my next move should be. As I was speeding along on Interstate 80 to the east, I saw one of the turn-arounds that had, for some inexplicable reason, not been barricaded by large orange trucks. Despite signs suggesting that I not make a turn-around, I was headed in the wrong direction and getting nowhere fast, so I chanced it. Now I was, at least, heading back toward the overpass I was not being allowed to use to enter Atkinson. Since the first Smokey (yes, they were wearing those peaked hats) had been quite set against allowing me access to the delights of the village of Atkinson, I needed to figure out how I was going to access the town. I didn’t expect to be among the 300 people crowded into the Wyffel’s Seed Facility: those seats went fast and people got in line as early as 2:00 a.m. and still got shut out. I just planned to wander around in town and see what the mood of the populace was.
Would there be demonstrators, for or against the president’s visit? Would there be unpleasantness of the sort I had recently been subjected to, where a know-nothing graduate of Jefferson High School (in Independence, Iowa), a Bible-thumping seller of reverse mortgage programs who was “so proud” to be in the industry had called me both “stupid” and “godless” because I was not down with the Republican presidential candidates. I could envision some of these reverse mortgage engineers (think Fred Thompson), driving trucks with gun racks, getting in my face (or someone else’s face who had actually managed to gain admission to the tiny town) and being unpleasant. This was what I hoped to find out: just how unpleasant or pleasant would the populace be? What would the mood be “on the ground.”
I began heading back towards the overpass. It occurred to me that, since the first Smokey the Bear policeman had told me that the motorcade was right behind me, I could perhaps get a snapshot of the motorcade on its way across that very ramp, heading into town (something I was not having much luck doing.)
I drove as slowly as I could drive while on an Interstate and, about a mile from the overpass, while braking sharply, 2 cameras 2 maps, 2 notebooks and my purse all fell off the passenger’s side seat and fell to the floor. Turning on my signal, I pulled over to the shoulder of I-80 to pick up my camera equipment, et. al. By the time my head came up from under the dashboard, I was greeted by the sight of yet another Smokey the Bear look-alike burning rubber while accelerating his highway patrol car in reverse, heading towards the Grasshopper at warp speed.
“MA’AM! WE CAN’T HAVE THIS!”
“I know. My cheap Canon fell on top of my expensive Nikon!” (me)
(Smokey) “NO! I MEAN WE CAN’T HAVE YOU HERE!”
(Me) “But I AM here. I’m just waiting till the motorcade goes by so I can get into town.”
(Me) “Can I just pop out and take a picture of the overpass as the motorcade drives into town?”
(Smokey) Dumfounded. Incredulous look.
So, I once again drove down Interstate 80, this time driving back to the west, towards Geneseo. Since I was still laboring under the misconception that Obama had spent the night at the Blackhawk Hotel in downtown Davenport and, therefore, would be coming from the west, I briefly considered staying in the parking lot of the convenience store at the intersection and taking a photo from that vantage point.
Then I remembered that there was a back road to access Geneseo. I reasoned there must be a back highway to access Atkinson and I plugged in the Atkinson Town Hall as my destination of choice. Sure enough, Highway 6 would take me to Atkinson, and I began following the nice lady’s voice to drive town the flag-lined road and roam the small village.
As I drove aimlessly about in Atkinson, I was struck by the small-town look and feel of the boulevard-like main street, which, I noticed, had a corner tap that was open for business. I parked my car and strolled in to order a Diet Coke and test the waters.
“My grandfather came through here on the train when he arrived from Holland. He got off the train at this very bar, which has been open since the 1800’s, and had his first beer in America and he just decided to stay.” So, if he had bought his first beer in New Mexico, Mr. VanOpdorp might have been living in a much warmer climate.
Without asking anyone’s political designation, I asked Mr. and Mrs. VanOpDorp and others seated near me in the bar who they liked in the 2012 presidential race. “Do you think the Republicans will nominate Romney to run against Obama?” I asked, as the two plasma TV sets behind the bar showed President Obama’s remarks, live, on KWQC Channel 6.
“Naaah. The Republicans don’t have a dog in the fight, so far,” said Mr. VanOpdorp.
“You don’t think the Republicans have any good candidates?”
“What about Governor Perry of Texas?”
Apparently, the crowd inside the Corner Tap in Atkinson was either firmly Democratic or simply disinterested in the outcome of the election, but everyone in the bar was very interested in what President Barack had to say this day. All were listening intently and respectfully.
Later, on the streets of Atkinson, fathers held their young children on their shoulders to catch a glimpse of the President of the United States as he drove out of town in his big black bus, waving to all of us standing on the sidewalks waiting to catch a glimpse of him.