American Sabbatical 013: 9/13/96
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 Bobs Steakhouse.
It took us two passes down Main Street before we spotted it, and
it didnt look promising. A rundown storefront ,with a glass door
and a faded sign of a bullshead that said Bobs. 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, wed 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 didnt 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 thats 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 youre
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 (Peggys 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. Thats 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 theyll squeeze you to death, but its still hard to be distrusted on your face. Pretty soon we were face down and it didnt matter.
9/13.. Friday the Thirteenth..
Anvil Rock (Bryce)
and were 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. Peggys
eye is going bad from the brightness, and Im wearing thin, so
were 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. Theres still plenty of
level corn and soy, along with other crops we cant 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
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. Were 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 Mainers 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 Ill let this log lie for now. When
we find a plug-in and local AOL access next is anybodys guess.
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 thats the word these days), squads
of teens, twenty-something ma and pa with babes-in-arms. Maybe
its 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.
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 Gods 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, and...no go. We had puted the DC right flat (which I hope Im 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 aint so pert as shes 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? Its a hick thing. We have yet to pass through a boonie that doesnt 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.
But we found the confluence, what we figured was the low down on the Bottom. Wed 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. Wed 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. Its remarkable how few vibrant burgs weve 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 1500s. 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.
Started looking for an inn, but the airfreshened joints advertising beds by the hour didnt 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.
(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.)