The plan was to travel to the southern tip of Illinois and report back. The plan was also to take our sweet time getting there, because actually the plan was not so much to see the bottom of Illinois as to travel as much of Illinois as possible in a week, zigzagging across the state on our way south from Chicago, sticking to back roads and small towns, avoiding interstates and chain hotels, hitting random roadside attractions. A road trip. A highly subjective State of the State. Our final stop: a tiny unincorporated community called America. The destination was arbitrary, of course, picked for its name and convenient location at the far extremity of the state, but maybe it would acquire meaning down the road—after all, Lucy (the photographer) and I (the writer) were embarking on a journey deep into the American heartland in search of all the things that make a Midwestern road trip great: pretty river towns, quaint main streets, mom-and-pop restaurants, wide-open vistas, and all manner of unexpected curiosities and finds.
At first, I thought I might not be qualified for this. I have only lived in Chicago a few years, am not even American, and am actually Parisian to the point that I didn’t have a driver’s license until a week before this assignment. Who was I to write about Illinois? I didn’t even know there was a forest downstate, and hills, and people who made wine on them. But then a quick survey of my born-and-raised Chicago friends revealed that they hadn’t known about the forest, either, or the archaeological site on the Mississippi, or the many-million-year-old sandstone formations shaped like camels. When shown a picture of those formations (Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest), they all said, “Wow! That’s Illinois?”
Simply wanting to make sure I had the demonym right, that an Illinoisan was indeed called an Illinoisan, I asked one of those friends, a lifelong Illinoisan, for confirmation. He thought about it a second. “I guess so,” he said. I had to turn to the web for certainty. Maybe I was qualified for this trip after all.
Day 1: Chicago to Sheffield
Lucy’s Honda Fit refuses to start on the Monday morning of our scheduled departure. She seems unfazed and makes a decisive move on the spot: renting a Jeep Renegade for the week. All I knew about Lucy before this point was that she is a photographer and shares a birthday with my husband. I now add “good in a crisis” to my list.
A couple of hours southwest of Chicago, driving through Troy Grove (avoiding major highways—you can set your GPS to do that—mostly means that you’ll drive along the main street of every small town on the way), we come across Chubby’s, a family restaurant that claims to serve the world’s largest ham sandwich. Largest in weight? Height? Girth? Amount of ham enclosed? It will remain a mystery. Closed Mondays. There’s a part of me, the French part, the one I’ll be trying to suppress on this trip, that is glad about the “Closed” sign. After all, they claim it is the largest, not the best.
We stop in Princeton for lunch at Spoons, a “fresh, friendly, foodie-approved” restaurant and bar, where pretty much everything is spoon-themed, from the art on the walls to the salt-and-pepper holder made of bent spoons. I order the soup of the day (Greek egg-lemon) and the “chef’s favorite” (a Moroccan stew). Such a random combination of international cuisines in northern Illinois gives pause but turns out to be excellent.
Reading about the history of the place on the menu, I learn that Spoons is purported to be haunted by the ghosts of all the men who used to drink and play pool here back in the day. Even though the pool tables are long gone, it isn’t unusual, apparently, to hear the sound of balls being racked up now and again. I tell Lucy about it, and about the number of ghost stories I came across while doing research for our trip. Many Midwestern states have guides to haunted locales—Haunted Missouri, Ghostly Tales of Iowa, Wisconsin’s Most Haunted—but I doubt they take their ghosts as seriously as Illinois does. There’s a real obsession with haunting here. I read about haunted schools, haunted mansions, haunted hotels where it isn’t rare to hear laughter and water splashing and to see quickly evaporating footprints at the edge of empty-for-decades swimming pools. Lucy turns a shade paler. Shocked that I’ve brought up haunting unprompted, she tells me about her own ghost, which turns the lights on at night in her Logan Square apartment.
We stop in Sheffield (population 926) for the night. We’re staying at the Chestnut Street Inn, a bed and breakfast whose lobby I pause to study: Moroccan rugs, a black-and-white picture of Céline Dion, some full-color pictures of Céline Dion, a Star Trek still, and, next to that, a framed letter signed by Julia Child thanking its recipient, a Ms. Rosenkoetter, for sharing her method for hard-boiling eggs.
In my room, a thick binder awaits, presenting the innkeepers (Jeff and Monika Sudakov, husband and wife), their house, every object in it. Leafing through the binder, I find out that Monika’s nickname is Mini Julia, because of her love for Julia Child (“juliachild” is the B&B’s Wi-Fi password). I find out that I can pick from a catalog of over 1,200 movies in both VHS and DVD formats. I find out, going over the list, that Jeff and Monika’s taste in film is quite eclectic (ranging from The Deer Hunter to Mrs. Doubtfire, two movies I happen to love in very different ways). I find out a framed Céline Dion autograph comes with a story, one involving a fortuitous encounter at a pro golf tournament. I find out that Jeff studied musical theater, performed on cruises for a time, and cross-stitches. That Monika has a bachelor’s in French, a master’s in cultural anthropology. That her thesis was on tea rituals in Morocco. That she authored two cookbooks. I find out she was also a ballet dancer for 14 years in Southern California. I find out a million other things, but listing them would turn this into an article about Jeff and Monika. There probably is material for a whole book, in fact, though Jeff and Monika sort of defy the rules of character coherence I live by as a fiction writer. That is, they wouldn’t be believable if put in a novel. They did too much. Luckily, they are real people. As such, they don’t have to make a choice between being hardcore Céline Dion fans and having read all of Claude Lévi-Strauss.
At dinner, I ask to borrow a copy of Monika’s thesis to read that night. She’s a little surprised at the request but obliges. I keep it by my side as Jeff serves us dinner on the sun porch. The meal is stellar: potato-leek soup, a filet mignon cooked to perfection, a crème brûlée Monika is apparently (and justifiably) famous for. Did I mention that the Chestnut Street Inn has been recognized by BedandBreakfast.com as one of the top 10 bed and breakfasts in the world for food? Of course it has.
I ask our innkeepers about their travels. Monika would like to go back to Morocco one day, sure, but there are other places she’d like to see first. And traveling abroad gets hard sometimes because “Céline gets in the way,” as she puts it. Monika tries to see Céline Dion in Las Vegas at least every couple of years. Later, back in my room, I start reading Monika’s thesis. I’m not surprised that it is good. At this point, I can’t imagine Monika doing anything badly.
Once I turn all the lights off for the night, I remember what silence is. The last time I heard a similar degree of it was years ago, at my grandparents’ home in rural France. A silence so deep you know you’re going to start having auditory hallucinations sooner or later. A silence that reminds you of the difference between quiet and peaceful, of how a city silence can be the opposite of peaceful, actually, merely a wait for the drunken argument to come, the siren in the distance.
I fall asleep immediately, but I wake up at exactly 4 a.m., thinking about Lucy’s ghost.
Day 2: Sheffield to Pittsfield
Tuesday is mostly spent driving past silos and churches and roadside cemeteries on Illinois Route 40. At first, we slow down as we pass the cemeteries, and sometimes Lucy stops to take pictures. We think the preponderance of cemeteries is unusual, but after a couple of days on the road, it will become clear that the roadside is just where people are buried in Illinois.
As the crow flies, we’re only about a hundred miles from Chicago, but I couldn’t feel any farther from home. All that vacant space, the farms, the painted barns. Every time I see a barn, I think of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and its “most photographed barn in America.” That’s what happens when you’re a bookworm who doesn’t travel much: Your brain finds fictional references to the actual places you’re seeing. Because I love movies as well, David Lynch’s The Straight Story comes to mind. The endless cornfields, the creeks, the cute little bridges. Every small town a weird oasis. Every car that passes you, an event.
As the designated navigator on this trip, I’m painfully aware of all the towns we don’t get to drive through, towns whose names are full of promise. We will not drive through Time, Magnet, Etna, Paradise, Alhambra, or Eldorado. We’ll see Funkhouser, though, and Marblehead, and Equality. I have to come to terms with the fact that one can’t see them all.
Though our plan is to avoid cities, we still end up briefly in Springfield for a bite to eat and a look at the capitol. It seems important to stop there somehow, even just for an hour, to see if we can gather important information about the state Springfield is supposed to represent. Every person we meet there, though, is confused by our project. “There’s not much to see around here,” I’m told. “Have you considered doing the same road-trip thing, but, like, in another state?”
Sixty-eight miles west, in Pittsfield, we check into the William Watson Hotel, and I take about 40 brochures to peruse in my room. I knew that “Land of Lincoln” is the state slogan, but I hadn’t grasped just how serious the whole thing is. Back in Princeton, I grabbed a brochure about the Ronald Reagan Trail, but that only listed three major stops, while the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area spans 42 counties and offers quite a few more activities, from Civil War reenactments to a visit to the very hotel we’re staying at. Lincoln, it seems, used to try cases across the street in the Pike County Courthouse and would come hang out in the lobby to wait for a verdict, pacing the same hardwood floors I’ve just walked on. Actually, I don’t know why I’m imagining him pacing nervously—I figure he was a rather confident type of man.
The brochure for the hotel itself contains lots of information about the area, though it lists more places of worship than restaurants. We arrived in Pittsfield so late (past 8 p.m.) that there’s only one dining option left, the Dome on Madison, and we end up the only customers there. The first thing we notice (the first thing any sighted person notices, I assume) upon entering the restaurant is the group of life-size mannequins in shiny apparel. We’re told by our waitress, Andrea, that the owner of the place likes to dress them differently according to the season. “Some people don’t like them,” she confesses, and we pretend to be surprised. Andrea’s reaction on learning of our road trip couldn’t be more different from the Springfield shrug we got earlier. “You’re living my dream!” she says, and is full of recommendations about where to go and what to see. She tells us that there is a line out the door for the restaurant during hunting season, that everyone hunts around here. “Everyone,” she insists. She also tells Lucy what to take pictures of.
Day 3: Pittsfield to Charleston
In the morning, I go on the historical house tour everyone in Pittsfield has told me about. It comprises 15 sites that boast a connection to Abraham Lincoln. Free Press, the coffee shop where I was served a perfect café au lait earlier, isn’t part of the tour, but the building that once housed the eponymous Pike County Free Press, is. Its editor, John Nicolay, would become Lincoln’s private secretary during his presidency.
Other than that, the tour ends up being mostly about what Lincoln ate (or didn’t). At the site of the now-gone Penny Heck’s Bakery: “Lincoln drank cider and ate gingerbread here.” At the Shastid House: “John Greene Shastid and his family entertained Lincoln on his numerous visits to Pittsfield, including one time when Lincoln ate all the pigeons.” In front of the Scanland House: “Mrs. Scanland prepared an elaborate turkey dinner for Lincoln and her husband’s political friends, but they did not return home from a local drugstore where Lincoln was telling stories for a crowd of men. The dinner was cold when they finally got there, and Mrs. Scanland called Lincoln ‘the laziest man there ever was. Good for nothing except to tell stories.’ ”
While finding out about Lincoln’s taste for pigeon and Mrs. Scanland’s shitty powers of foresight, I do not forget to talk to the actual living and breathing citizens of Pittsfield. Donnie owns an antiques shop on Madison Street. As I make the decision to buy from him a collection of 65 marbles in a glass jar, I ask what brought him to antiquing. “I had a bad deal 20 years ago,” he explains, “hurt my back real bad. Couldn’t fish, couldn’t hunt anymore. So I took up coin collecting.” I kind of want to hug Donnie. I don’t usually want to hug people (again: French), but the way he sums up his life for me I find deeply moving. You get the impression that the jump from hunting to coin collecting was not a smooth one. The marbles are on my desk back in Chicago as I write this, and I just realized that my favorite of the bunch, a green one with white specks, the one that may have persuaded me to buy the whole jar, is in fact an old M&M. All 64 of the other, real marbles are still beautiful, though, and I don’t regret my purchase for a second.
I walk by the Zoe, a movie theater that looks as if it’s been closed for decades (a faded sign in the window advertises the cost of a ticket as 65 cents). The gorgeous façade is unlike any I’ve seen before: cream, orange, and red tiles arranged to create a slightly psychedelic effect—“late streamline moderne,” I’ll later read it’s called. I’ll also learn that the theater has been closed for as long as I’ve been alive (it shut down in 1987) and used to offer a “cry room.” I’ve never heard of a cry room before. The definition proves disappointing, and altogether more practical than what I had in mind. It’s a soundproof enclosure where you can take your crying baby and still continue watching (or at least hearing) the show you paid to see. I thought it was a place adults could go to hide their tears.
If you visit Quincy, a gorgeous river town north of St. Louis, stop by the visitor center, not only because it is located in the Villa Kathrine (built for a wealthy eccentric named George Metz, who after a trip to Morocco decided he really wanted a Moorish-style palace along the Mississippi), but also because you might be lucky enough to chat with Holly Cain, who works there and will tell you everything there is to know about the area. There’s the architecture, of course, including rows of impressive Victorian houses (I can’t recommend a walk up Maine Street highly enough), but Holly informs us that if we have a lot of money, there’s the possibility to stay at the nearby Hoffman Mansion, where Justin Bieber is said to have spent one night and left a pair of underwear. When I ask her to point us to an attraction more in our price range, she suggests Maid-Rite, a diner that’s been in Quincy for 90 years, serves an excellent Sloppy Joe–like specialty called a loose-meat sandwich, and aggressively bans tipping. She hands us a dining guide containing 69 other eateries in and around Quincy, but we’re sold on Maid-Rite already.
“You’ll see,” Holly says. “It’s a hoot.”
Holly has to go pick up her daughter from school, and we’re ready to follow her out, but she encourages us to stay and look around. “I trust you,” she says. “Just lock the door on your way out.” And so for the next little while, Lucy and I have the Moorish castle on the Mississippi to ourselves.
At Maid-Rite, I, for the first time ever, dip a french fry in a chocolate milkshake. I finally understand what the fuss is about. Lucy takes a portrait of three teenagers sitting in the booth behind ours, and when she asks for their email addresses so she can send them the photo, one of them tells her, “I never did too good in school, so I never really needed one.” He doesn’t have Facebook, either, “or any of that.” He’s the first millennial I’ve met without a social media account, I think, then realize he’s far too young to be a millennial, that he’s the generation after, the one for which there’s still no agreed-upon name. For a minute, I see the future. And yet that future looks a lot like what I imagine to be America’s past: teens in ironed T-shirts and baseball caps, happy to shoot the breeze over milk shakes in an old-timey diner.
That night in Charleston, reached after a long drive east across the state’s wide midriff, a young lady at our inn tells us she’s been blessed, while a young man, whose identity shall remain secret, confesses that “there’s nothing much to do around here except take acid and look at the bed.” I have no acid on me, but just looking at the bed and its surroundings at the McGrady Inn, the B&B where we’re spending the night, is pure joy. The place, a repurposed church, is all dark wood and stained glass. A new silence to get used to.
Day 4: Charleston to Grafton
We zag west again, back toward the river. Lucy and I remain intensely focused on the theme of our journey. As we drive through Mattoon, just out of Charleston, we listen to a podcast about an incident from the 1940s in which the townspeople claimed to have been terrorized by an unseen anesthetist they called the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. It was a case study in mass hysteria and sensationalist journalism (the Mad Gasser affair, not the podcast). The rest of the time, we listen to Sufjan Stevens’s album Illinois or to talk shows on local radio stations that ask such pressing questions as “Can an undercover CIA agent still serve God?” (The answer: maybe.)
In Effingham, we pull over to take a picture of America’s largest cross, at the junction of Interstates 57 and 70. Standing beneath the cross, looking at all the cars zipping by, I feel sad for interstate travelers. There’s nothing to see from an interstate, except, I suppose, the occasional cross.
In Livingston, I take about 30 photos of the Pink Elephant Antique Mall. Complete with a life-size pink fiberglass elephant and an ice-cream-cone-shaped ice cream stand, it’s exactly the kind of place a French person travels through America for.
Our destination for the night, the Ruebel Hotel, is, according to its website, the “most famous haunted site” in Grafton. I don’t know who ranks haunted places, or what the methodology is, but this haunting seems to center on guests’ encounters with the ghost of a little girl named Abigail. Some have even managed to capture her “orb” (whatever that is) on camera. “There’s a challenge for you,” I tell Lucy. She doesn’t seem amused.
At 6:20 p.m. on a Thursday, the hotel is empty. No one is here to greet us. No note. Just a pair of room keys left for us on the counter, along with a receipt for our prepaid reservations. We’re the only guests. That’s not the way to welcome people to a haunted hotel, I think. But maybe it is, actually. Maybe it’s exactly the way. We walk up a poorly lit staircase to our rooms. On the walls, strange paintings of crying little girls.
I take a shower and catch myself looking over my shoulder and in the mirror for the ghost of Abigail. Later, as Lucy and I devise dinner plans in the hallway, we hear rapid footsteps below us. Mo Khamee, the hotel’s co-owner, seems surprised by our presence. He explains that his employee had to leave, he was “very ill,” and that’s why no one was there to receive us. When we ask him if there is a lock to unlock, or some kind of code to punch in when we come back from dinner, he tells us the front door is always open. “This is a hotel, not a prison,” he says, carefully enunciating every syllable.
“Of course,” I say. “Of course.”
Mo doesn’t mention the possibility of breakfast—as if the promise of a tomorrow can’t be guaranteed. He offers to call his wife, though, so she can tell us all about the history of the place, and minutes later Karen makes her entrance. She is wrapped in a fur coat that covers her from chin to toe. (This would be an appropriate moment for a brief disclosure: Though the article you’re reading was published in spring, our journey took place in February. Hence the fur coat and a rather conspicuous reference to ice later on.) Looking weary, she asks us what we want to know about the hotel. Her tone suggests she might be tired of telling the story.
“We read it was haunted,” I say.
“Yes,” Karen says. “But they’re friendly ghosts.”
Karen insists the ghosts never do anything too awful, but when she recounts a few stories (knives thrown to the ground, faucets left running, flooding the floors below), I think that it sounds pretty bad. Karen proceeds to tell us about ghost saliva: “It shines, it sparkles, and then you step on it and it dissipates immediately.” I take that to be a good thing.
The more Karen talks, the more convinced I become that she is in fact a ghost herself—the coat covering her entire body, and a horseback-riding accident she makes cryptic reference to, strike me as signs—and that her husband is, too, and that there’s no ill employee, no employee at all, except for a ghost one maybe, and that the whole town might be dead. As if picking up on my ruminations, Karen tells us of all the people who have expired in the hotel, mostly settlers from over a century ago on their way west who’d fallen sick and stayed behind, hoping to recover, never recovering.
Visibly eager to change the subject, Lucy asks Karen for a dinner recommendation, but our host insists that everything will be closed. It’s already past 7, she points out. There’s no explanation as to why the restaurant attached to the Ruebel, which according to the website is supposed to be open on Thursday nights, isn’t. I mention that we were considering going to Alton, a bigger town nearby, but Karen says there won’t be anything open there, either. She seems to not want us to leave but offers nothing to make us want to stay.
“I think we’ll take our chances,” I say. “Alton is only 15 minutes away.”
“It’s not 15 minutes,” Karen corrects me. “It’s 22 minutes.”
Lucy and I pretend to deliberate for a few seconds, and then Lucy says, “Well, we’ll give it a shot anyway.” “OK,” Karen says with an air of resignation. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then, maybe.”
The “maybe” sends shivers across my shoulder blades.
Have I mentioned that Lucy tried to call her boyfriend earlier from her room, and there was no cellular service?
In Alton, without any difficulty, we find an open restaurant, and a lively one at that. At the bar, our neighbor, Mikey, 26, at first damns his hometown with faint praise. “I’ve traveled all over,” he tells us, “but I always come back here.” He pauses, perhaps for deadpan effect, and then concludes: “It’s cheap.”
And yet Mikey proves to be inexhaustible on the topic of Alton, seems to know everything about it, from how to spot bald eagles to where to get the best coffee, suggesting an affection for the town that goes beyond housing prices. His friendliness is almost enough to make us forget that we have to go back to Grafton for the night. We decide we need to steel ourselves with a couple of beers before bed, and so we stop by the bar next to the hotel. In an appropriately macabre spirit, it’s called the Bloody Bucket.
Lucy and I agree that the atmosphere in the Bloody Bucket is too friendly to be trusted. Surely, the laughing customers playing darts are ghosts as well, intent on trapping us in their undead world. After a beer and while standing outside smoking a cigarette, I gather the courage to ask another smoking customer if he’s a ghost. He assures me he isn’t (we agree that my pinching his arm would be proof of that) and mentions that he used to work at the Ruebel, did so for 11 years, under the previous ownership. “No ghosts there,” he says. “Just an old building. If you open a window here, a door will slam up there, that’s it.”
After another round or two, I’m convinced the patrons of the Bloody Bucket are living human beings, and I feel ready (and drunk enough) to return to the Ruebel. Still, back in my room, I cover the mirror with a bath towel, just in case. For some reason, I feel more ready to deal with Abigail’s actual ghost than its reflection.
Day 5: Grafton to Alto Pass
I wake up with deep red scratches on both my hands. They were made in my sleep, by either Abigail or myself. Who cares? I’m alive. I text Lucy, who replies instantly: alive as well.
I take a stroll behind the hotel to gaze at the Mississippi or, more precisely, at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. It’s still early, there’s pink in the sky, seagulls are cruising above drifting sheets of ice. Now I marvel at not only the silence but the curious noises breaking it: dry little cracking and popping sounds emanating from the ice, like those my jaw makes when I’m grinding my teeth. Mikey told me yesterday that on this part of the river at this time of year, all you have to do to see a bald eagle is look up or look down, and he’s right on both counts. One eagle in the sky, another perched on the ice. Its landing caused the seagulls to fly away. Earlier on the trip, I saw deer, a red fox, flocks of cardinals. I have a conflicted relationship with nature. I love it, but at a distance. Or rather, I love it up close if someone who understands it can show me where to look, how to be in it. I have the same relationship to poetry, actually.
Before heading away from the river toward Illinois’s funnel-like tip, Lucy and I explore Cahokia Mounds, the remnants of an ancient city that thrived hundreds of years before European contact. Atop Monks Mound, I rapidly shift between amazement—you can see downtown St. Louis from up here!—and puzzlement, specifically at the fact that a road was allowed to be built through the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage site, and also that dogs are allowed to shit on said site freely. I again try to suppress the French person in me. We don’t let dogs shit on our historical sites, though it must be said that we let them shit pretty much everywhere else.
Lucy and I push south. In Collinsville, we take pictures of the world’s largest ketchup bottle. At a restaurant in Belleville, the couple at the table closest to us talk to another couple about the trip they just took to the Creation Museum. I didn’t know such a thing existed and want to go immediately. Unfortunately, the museum turns out to be over the border in Kentucky.
Somewhere after Belleville, during a stop for gas, we notice something. People are pronouncing “I” as “ah,” and “drive” as “drahv.” It appears we have crossed the invisible border into the zone of the “pin-pen merger.” This, at least according to a Wikipedia entry I happened upon, is the term linguists use to describe a shift in vowel sounds particular to the American South: specifically, the point at which the word “pen” starts to sound exactly like the word “pin.” The Wikipedia article is accompanied by a map of the United States on which the zone is shaded in purple. Sure enough, the southern third of Illinois is as purple as it gets.
By the time we reach Alto Pass, which stands at the edge of the Shawnee National Forest, the terrain is deeply hilly. We drive up and down slowly, in case deer want to cross the road stupidly, which they tend to want to do, but slowly is how you want to drive through this landscape anyway. It gives you a chance to feel swallowed by the woods.
Alto Pass also happens to sit astride the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a 50-mile swath of hilly country dotted with vineyards and wineries. One of them, the Von Jakob Winery & Brewery, also happens to be our B&B for the night. Lucy and I buy a bottle of one of their reds and take it to my room. The wine is dry and drinkable. (Though French, I know nothing about wine, so that description will have to do.) I notice there’s a whirlpool in my room, so I do what I’ve only ever seen done in movies: drink wine in a Jacuzzi.
Day 6: Alto Pass to Timber Ridge Outpost
The next day is the part of our trip where I discover Jimmy Buffett. Lucy plays me his greatest hits on the drive to Makanda, and as I hear him rationalize daytime drinking by concluding “It’s only half past 12 / But I don’t care / It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,” I can’t help noting that if it’s 12:30 where Jimmy Buffett is, it simply can’t be 5 o’clock anywhere, as time zones don’t work in half hours. (I later learn that in Afghanistan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and several other countries, they actually do, but I doubt that Jimmy Buffet was thinking of those places when he wrote his song.)
In Makanda, a tiny hippie town in the woods, we visit Dave Dardis, a.k.a. the Rainmaker. Dave is a sculptor, and his studio, right on the town’s main drag, is open to the public seven days a week. I’d like to ask him about his work, but upon entering his studio, a work of art in itself, I’m immediately taken aside by a friend of his who offers me a hit of his joint and wants to show me a picture on the wall, see if I recognize the two men posing in it. The picture is very small and very faded, but I distinctly make out Fidel Castro on the left. “I don’t know who’s on the right, though,” I tell my new friend, John.
He seems surprised. “Well, that’s Paul Simon!”
I look again. This doesn’t look at all like Paul Simon to me, but I don’t say so.
“That’s very weird,” John says. “People usually recognize Paul Simon and not Castro.” He then points at the ceiling, where a guy who looks similar to the one in the picture is painted life-size on a dark blue background. “That’s Paul Simon, too!” John says.
I nod. I’ll only find out hours later, talking on the phone with my husband, that the Paul Simon whom John was referring to was not the songwriter but the late U.S. senator from Illinois (who, it turns out, fought hard to restore economic and diplomatic relations with Cuba, hence the Castro photo). Once again, I’m ashamed of my ignorance (though do people really not know what Castro looked like?). If I’d known what John had meant, I would’ve asked, “Why is this square meter of the art studio a shrine to Senator Paul Simon?” I guess I could write the Rainmaker an email and ask, but that seems like cheating. It will be for the next traveler to find out.
Later, after a stop at the Red Onion in Equality for perfect steak kebabs (the restaurant completely lives up to its motto: “Yes! It’s worth the drive!”), we head deeper into the Shawnee National Forest’s 289,000 acres of protected wilderness. We pass thousands of pines and oaks. Of the latter, the forest is home to many kinds—post, blackjack, northern red, scarlet, and white—though the differences between them are more salient in autumn, I’m told. I mostly see just oaks.
Elizabeth Canfarelli, the co-owner of Timber Ridge Outpost & Cabins—a collection of buildings deep in the woods that’s surrounded by a few sparely furnished (and fully heated) treehouses she rents out to tourists such as us—tells us about all the hiking trails around. The areas known as Cave-in-Rock (which features exactly that) and Garden of the Gods are the most popular, but Rim Rock Trail seems to be the locals’ favorite. Her general store, the Garden of the Gods Outpost, is about the only business in a 20-mile radius. It sells soup and chili, souvenirs, and books about the history of the region, including one on the topic of yet another thing I’d never heard of: the Reverse Underground Railroad. “It’s exactly what it sounds like,” a young employee of the store tells us. Seems this part of Illinois was a way station for free Northern blacks being forcibly returned to slavery in the South. “Today, this is about the best place to live, but it does have a dark, dark history.” She pauses. “Very dark,” she adds, in case she hasn’t been clear. I make a note to read up on the subject later.
It rains all afternoon and night, and in a way, I’m glad for it. I would’ve loved to hike, sure, but sipping coffee, then wine, in a beautiful treehouse, looking at the rain pound on the leaves, my copy of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day open in front of me, well, that’s pretty damn nice, too.
Day 7: Timber Ridge Outpost to America
Today is the day we see America. It’s also our last day on the road. Lucy and I have to resume our Chicago lives tomorrow, and so, after reaching our destination, we will point our Jeep toward the nearest I-57 on-ramp. The interstate is a great way to travel and see precisely nothing, but that’s what we’ll have to do. Seven days and a thousand miles to get to America, five hours and 365 miles to get home.
But before speeding north, we must first meander just a little farther south, almost as far as you can go before Illinois spits you out into Missouri. As we drive along the most deserted road we’ve been on all week, I ponder the possible reasons America, Illinois, is called that. As far as I know, Amerigo Vespucci didn’t map it. Had he, though, it would’ve taken him about six minutes. As far as I can tell, there’s almost nothing here, mostly silos and fields, and the Ohio River just beyond, to the east.
No one is out. It’s still early on a Sunday, and maybe everyone’s still sleeping, as they should be. Lucy and I get out, and she takes a picture of the sign for the town, which is basically just 15 or so houses and farms strung along a dead-end road. In the spirit of hopefulness, I decide to believe that this is the opposite of a good metaphor for the country America was named after.