American Sabbatical 013: 9/13/96


9/13...To Shawnee.

We flatfooted out of Lincolntown into the road squint. Dry air, dancing cumulus, and relieving breezes made the little towns pleasant stops, but the glittering asphalt, shining whites and silvers of the roadside world, and the relentless ultraviolet was starting to wear the eye bones. I complained of a headache, and Peggy insisted we EAT. So was asked around the next town, Pana, for a good place, and everyone said “Bob’s Steakhouse.”

It took us two passes down Main Street before we spotted it, and it didn’t look promising. A rundown storefront ,with a glass door and a faded sign of a bullshead that said “Bob’s.” Inside the smell of Virginia tobacco mingled with old cooking, and a trio of worn looking characters were puffing away in the back booth. But it was time to EAT, so we tucked in. I went for the catfish while Peggy stuck to grilled chicken. The service was attentive and friendly, but some slow. Well, we’d sworn off fast food.

Puting in the Festiva

By the time the entrees came we were all alone in the place. Bob, the cook and owner, and the waitress came out and sat at the counter across from us, and we chatted through the meal. Pana (Paynah) was a dying town, Bob said. The coal mine had closed, the local industries had moved, and the rose nurseries had lost out in the competition with South American flower growers. Pana had once been the rose capital of America, honored in the Rose Bowl, and sniffed over all over. The wealthy growers had kept new industries from the area, because they didn’t want competition to drive up their low wage rates, and now look. Upstate there are new Mitsubishi plants and the like, but Pana is withering away.

Garden of the Gods
“Of course, I have my people,” Bob said. “They come in here and I cook every meal that’s served. We stick together.” We could taste why. The food was great. Catfish has a slightly swampy undercurrent that I found delicious, and the chicken was perfect. If you’re ever in Pana, Illinois...

It was getting down in the sun, so we wheeled out of Pana in search of a flat spot to pitch our tent. We found an Illinois state park in Ramsey (Peggy’s middle name) which had to be nice, and it was. Arching white oaks, chestnuts, and hickories alongside a manmade lake (the valley used to be good foxhunting, the ranger told me). South of Springfield we are into the Great American Hardwood Kingdom. The soil changes from the rich black alluvium of the archaic sea into the peripheral outwash clays, and sandstone and limestone upheavals. That’s to say, from bigbucks real estate to turf that can afford to be woods. And the accent changes from broad, flat Midwestern to hillcountry twang. Folks started calling us Yankees, and there was a bit of hostility in the calling. Well, us Mainiacs know about holding the flatlanders at arms length for fear they’ll squeeze you to death, but it’s still hard to be distrusted on your face. Pretty soon we were face down and it didn’t matter.

9/13.. Friday the Thirteenth..

Anvil Rock (Bryce)
and we’re headed for the hills (or gullies, whatever is up and down). All the ju-ju in these flatlands is down in the cracks where the waters run. Peggy’s eye is going bad from the brightness, and I’m wearing thin, so we’re headed to the Shawnee National Forest which Seth uses as his regular R&R between here and there. What better recommendation? It still takes us half a day of driving to get to the end of Illinois. We find 3 hours on the road enough, 4 is pushing it.

The twang and the cold shoulder get stronger as we go south into poorer country, but the hills ease all. There’s still plenty of level corn and soy, along with other crops we can’t identify. A cat-tail looking thing with heavy clustered seedheads. The corn is in all stages of development, short green to tall and brown. Between floods and droughts some of these farmers are on their third plantings, while others have already harvested for the year. The quiltwork pattern of greens, yellow and browns is more apparent, as we find the more frequent rise to go over. And the trees are immense, you forget how big a fullgrown oak in a sunny land can be.

Bryce's Rocks

Peggy drawing Bryce drawing rocks
Finally we are driving down shady byways with no centerlane and no powerlines, then uphill into the pines and the spectacular sandstone bluffs of the Shawnee. We’re going to rest here for a few days, let our mail (and car registration) find its way to Hannibal. (We called the town office at home, and were told that another Mainer’s car had been impounded out of state for being unregistered, but they let Seth sign the necessary docs and forward the papers to Hannibal.) So I’ll let this log lie for now. When we find a plug-in and local AOL access next is anybody’s guess.

9/14...Shawnee Forest.

Our day off in the Pharaoh campground at the Garden of the Gods was a welcome respite. Both of us suffering from eyestrain and other mal de hiways. Sick of being folded like old wallets half the day. The Shawnee is a young people place. Full of courting couples (if that’s the word these days), squads of teens, twenty-something ma and pa with babes-in-arms. Maybe it’s the combination of romantic overlooks with the vertiginous, the lovers’ leap effect. Whatever reason, the overhanging knobs and eruptions of sandstone have youth perched on high each sunset, and the place pulses with tumescence.

Don't jump


Peggy's Anvil Rock

We lolled under the sun-dappled pines, drew the fanciful sandstone outcrops, and went for a short stroll. Only it turned into a long hike. Somewhere we missed the turn and ended up walking in a big circle around the bluffs. The woods were dry as toast, yellow dust rising ankle-deep, and the white oaks turning from lack of moisture. The maples, chestnuts, and hickories seemed to be faring better, and the tall conical red cedars added their dramatic punctuation to the scene. Eventually we huffed and puffed back to our refuge, and fell out for the night... except there was a Christian youth group from Tennessee enveloping our camp site (absolutely no sense of personal space), so we got to listen in to their discussions of the nature of God, how long one of God’s days was (talking about fundamentalist geological time), and hear their choral hymns. Well, it IS an uplifting place.

We arose with the birds, put on our Festiva, go. We had puted the DC right flat (which I hope I’m not doing again right now). I enticed a trio of bikers camped across the way into showing their muscles. They pushed us to the brink, and.. YAHOO.. we were off downhill in search of the American Bottom. We pointed her south for the Ohio river, hoping to see some of the beauty its name is supposed to mean, and then follow it to the Mississippi.

We found the Ohio all right, in fact we kept ending up at the end of back roads nose up to the levee, in towns like Rosie Claire and Brockport. No, she ain’t so pert as she’s told. Just another mudbanked thing sliding by, with a patient towboat and barges inching along it. Kind of a sleepy old slosh on a Sunday morning.

Down by the banks...

There are a lot of dead and dying towns in southern Illinois, but one industry is thriving. Lawn Ornaments. Who says ornamentation is only a Maine thing? It’s a hick thing. We have yet to pass through a boonie that doesn’t have brake-stomping yard art. When shadowman first appeared in Maine a few years back, we naturally assumed it was a local invention. Hah. The volume and variety of shadow figures increases from eastern New York to the Big Muddy. Shadow conestogas with cowboys and campfires, shadow children playing, shadow sweethearts, shadow animal families, shadow you-named-it, are down every back road. And there are local varieties of painted signboard figures, too. The mushroom ladies in So. Ill. look more like polyp ladies, you might like to know. And Joe D was right, one of the decorative motifs of the Southern uplands is the stuffed sofa on the front porch, but he was wrong about the distribution. We found soggy sofas on the porches of mud-chinked log cabins right there in Rosie Claire.

So we kept sliding along the lower O until Cairo hove over the horizon. Cairo is the capital of down and out, at the bitter end of down state (the biggest industry downstate in Ill. is “corrections”). Rural rundown in the Midwest has a deadly expansiveness. Long views of brokedown and boarded up instead of the familiar clustered milltown jumble of junk.

Cairo Bridge

But we found the confluence, what we figured was the low down on the Bottom. We’d expected two vast waters roiling together, but the prospect was less grand, just ordinary-river-sized sheets of gray joining under grayness. I went down to the junction and spat in the stream. Peggy recorded the ritual. In the park at the confluence we saw our first bald cypress trees, very exotic for us Northrons.

We ate lunch (black waitress, white management, the usual pattern in Ill.) at the restaurant between the bridges to Missouri and Kentucky, then headed upstream on the east bank. Cranked up the FM to a local sta. (90.9 out of Cape Giradeau), and swung with Dixieland up the musical trail. By then it was raining steady, and we were dreaming of motel sheets, hot water, modem connections, bliss. But we had miles to go.

There is a thing about comicbook towns in Illinois. We’d already seen the giant statue of SUPERMAN that rules in Metropolis. When we got to Chester it was Popeye and Oliveoil who are the patron saints. And Chester is a real live town. Two VFW posts. In fact Illinois comes back to life as you head north along the river. Back into the rich farmland, but with the smell of river in the air. A dank and dusky presence lying between the bluffs. It’s remarkable how few vibrant burgs we’ve encountered in the Midwest, beyond the exurb, so the birthplace of Popeye seemed jumping by comparison.

Just north of Chester, on a bluff over the Mississip are the remains of Fort Kaskaskia, looking down on the drowned site of the old French village, started by the black robes in the 1500’s. We did drawings in the rain of the big bend and waters winding away into the mist. Sounds better than the drawings.. water is tough, and rocks, and... Towboats were shoving long trains of barges alongside our road, making slow progress against the stream. Kindred spirits. The pace quickened as we approached East St. Louis, and suddenly we were back in the urban fug, the jam and jumble, the bright lights and the freeway traffic: America.

Peggy's Kaskaskia

Started looking for an inn, but the airfreshened joints advertising beds by the hour didn’t really turn us on, despite the innuendo. We were trying to come to harbor near the Kahokia Mounds, and suddenly the Interstate sped right through them. Holymoly, it was like flying a spaceship though an alien civilization. We hit the exit ramp and kept circling round like a bird with a clipped wing until we lit at a chain motel, where we stumbled in bugeyed. And that moreorless covers what the laptop ate.

Bryce's Kaskaskia
(The trails and tribs of e-publishing on the road included quests for modem sockets, losing entries to laptop glitches, and the other newby nuisances, which we tended to recount in the private attachments we sent out. In this case Bryce lost a couple of day's logging, and had to recapitulate. He was also keeping an illustrated handwritten day journal, but finally gave that up as excessive on the West Coast. Nuf is e-nuf.)

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