There’s No Place Like Macomb

In the middle of nowhere Illinois lives a place. A place that holds scattered roads and a population that wouldn’t fill the lower deck of a baseball stadium. A place whose downtown is smaller than some people’s backyards. A place where traffic is defined as “waiting behind 2 cars at a stop sign” and the closest Starbucks isn’t around the corner, it’s in Chicago.  

It’s a small place. A very small place. But it’s a place that’s a big part of my life.

Before I was a Dad, I spent many summers in Macomb, Illinois, home of the Western Illinois University Leathernecks, Candy Lane and, most important, actor John Mahoney (you know, the dad from “Frasier”). Also, my aunt and uncle live there. We took family vacations to Macomb all the time—mostly because we loved spending time with family, but also because Disney World doesn’t let you sleep on it’s couch for free.

We played games, watched movies, had dessert after every meal. We swam in a round, over-sized horse trough that had been spending its twilight years moonlighting as a pool. We read books and shared stories—and I had extra time to bond with my cousin Carl, the only boy cousin in my life.

So I suggested to my wife that when our daughters were old enough to handle the long car ride (which means putting up with me singing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” for 6 hours straight until I’ve reached vocal perfection), we’d take a vacation to visit Macomb. I told her, “Don’t worry, it’ll be relaxing.”

She laughed.

With three kids under the age of 6, nothing is relaxing—not vacation, not car rides, not even going to the bathroom. In fact, going to the bathroom may be the most stressful time of all. If you let the kids in, they sit on your lap and poke you in the face and, eventually, run off with the toilet paper. If you lock them out, you are safely protected by the door but you are also subjected to stressful screams, tears and noises that can only be described as “things shattering.” Relaxation isn’t in the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary for Parents.

Her laughter left me paranoid. What if it wasn't as amazing as I remembered it to be? What if the relaxing days of my youth in Macomb were actually stress-filled days for my parents (a club that now had me as member)? What if my kids were disappointed by the lack of Disney Princesses (I guess my uncle could have dressed up, but I think they would have his beard under the tiara.) What if the whole trip was a letdown? Thankfully, it wasn’t.

From the moment we arrived, we were greeted with helping hands and fancy cappuccino drinks.  We enjoyed free use of all the hammock swings, strategically placed to be shaded by trees for optimal book reading (which is vacation code for “napping”). Fresh fruit lined the kitchen counter while a hidden stash of liquor lined the “After The Kids Are In Bed” table. My wife got to sleep in each morning and I continually sneaked out for 4-mile runs. We watched movies and played music. We sang songs. We splashed around in our swimsuits and caught summer fireworks under a beautifully clear Macomb sky. It wasn’t just the kind of vacation I had hoped for; it was better. It was also one vacation my girls still talk about today.

This got me thinking: We get too caught up in fancy (expensive) vacations like Disney, trying to give our kids great memories that we think they want. But the truth is that great vacation memories can be created anywhere. Sometimes, in fact, the more relaxing ones—filled with water balloon fights and Chinese Checkers and bedtime stories read by vacation aunts and uncles—are the ones your kids will look back on and enjoy most. Heck, that’s what happened to me. And, hopefully, that’s what’s happening to my kids too.

There are thousands of Macombs out there—places where vacations are cheap but memories are plentiful. Could be visiting a family member who’s kind enough to let you stay at his or her house. Could be a campground that’s a short drive away. Could be a pitched tent in your backyard. It’s just a place where you spend time with the people you love just enjoying each other’s company.

And when it comes to the best vacation memories to me, there’s no place like Macomb.

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