Saturday, October 31, 2009

Day 34: Bloody Williamson

Cedar Grove to near Bunscombe, Illinois. 20.7 miles/527 total

Saturday, October 31, 2009

It's cool and breezy this morning and quite sunny, as I leave from the construction company parking lot in Cedar Grove, heading down through Marion and down to just north of the little town of Buncombe.

Very shortly after I begin the walk I enter Marion, population 16,000. Marion was founded in 1839 and named after the old Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, after whom Marion County also was named. Just a word about Francis Marion. He was considered a hero by the Americans in the first few decades of the 19th century, as having fought tenaciously and well against the British in his native South Carolina, where he was known to employ tactics that resembled modern guerrilla warfare. He was the model, loosely, for the Mel Gibson character in the movie The Patriot. Back in the 50s Walt Disney resurrected the Swamp Fox’s legend and created a television series that ran for eight episodes from 1959 to 1961. It starred Leslie Nielsen as the Swamp Fox, which seems a little bizarre, considering how much Nielsen is associated today with the farcical comedies of the Zucker Brothers, like Airplane.

Marion is a thriving city, although the old downtown is a bit empty. But hell, who really cares any more about these old downtowns? The only reason they ever thrived was because they were where the roads converged. Yet people keep wringing their hands and wondering how they can revive city centers, long after their relevance has disappeared. Most of Marion's commercial activity takes place out by the intersection of Illinois Route 13 and I-57, including a mall, many large stores and tons of restaurants and fast food places. It’s not too pedestrian friendly out there, but who really walks these days anyway?

North of the city proper, I come to an embarrassment of cemetery riches. Large cemeteries on both sides of the street. One is the Oddfellows Cemetery. Here lie the odd fellows. That was always a strange name for a group, I thought. It puts me in mind of a poem by Greg Farnum, which goes like this:

Our lodge is much renowned for its good works.
We call ourselves Asshole Bastards of the World
So as not to seem immodest.

Right next to the Oddfellows Cemetery is Rose Hill Cemetery, and on the other side of the street, another large cemetery. In the latter is the Goddard Memorial Chapel, erected in 1918 and dedicated the next year. Donated by Leroy A. Goddard. Handsome little building. Next to the chapel lie J.W. Pillow and his wife Myrtie. I take a shortcut through this thriving necropolis over to Route 13, and east a few blocks to Market Street, so I can walk through the old town center, as irrelevant as it may be.

I’m traveling south on Market Street. Ahead of me looms a tall tower in the town square of Marion, where, it seems to me, the courthouse ought to be. Maybe they moved it. In the middle of the town square stands the Tornado Memorial, a tower some 60 or 80 feet high, that commemorates a tornado that struck the town on May 29, 1982. On a stone in front are listed the names of the ten people who died in that tornado. Seems like it's tempting fate a little to build a tall tower to commemorate a tornado. On the southeast corner of the town square is Marion's spiffy new civic center, which has won an architectural award.

South of the town square Market Street is still made of brick, and it's lined with the large houses of the early prominent citizens of Marion. Here’s an Italianate house from about the 1840s. Most of the rest of the houses date from the first two decades of the twentieth century. And, just so you don’t think you’re in some hoity toity place that puts on airs, cheek by jowl with these stately homes and neat bungalows is a single wide trailer with an huge pile of unsplit wood in the front yard, along with a wrecked school bus and a couple of trucks and a few mangy dogs barking out back. So much for zoning.

Pulling out of Marion, back on Route 37, I’m looking at ten miles of hills until I come to the next community of any size. About nine miles south of the city center, three miles west of Route 37, lies the United States Penitentiary at Marion, which today houses about 900 inmates. It was built in 1963, to replace Alcatraz. For some time it housed a unit where inmates were kept in solitary confinement for most of the time. John Gotti spend the last years of his life there, and other gangsters did time there, too, including Nicodemo Scarfo from Philadelphia, James Coonan of the Westies of Hell’s Kitchen, and Nicky Barnes, the Harlem drug boss. And Pete Rose spent a few months here, back in 1990-91. Today there are a number of Arabs being held in Marion.

Several miles south of Marion I come to a graveyard with a really perfect name—Freedom Cemetery. If there’s one thing that can be said of the people who lie here, it’s that they are completely free. Free from pain and suffering, free from disease and addiction, free from debt and worry. I know the cemetery probably was named for the nearby Freedom Baptist Church, or maybe this little area was once called Freedom, but that doesn’t matter. The name is appropriate. Here are the tombstones of the Courtneys, the Wrights, the Kelleys—including Rev. Otis Kelley—and one of the Fisher parents, whose little boy Johnnie Lamar Fisher was born and died on the same day, August 6, 1961. I sit atop the Fisher stone, whose rough cut marble top is still a little damp from two days of rain, and look around me at the peace, the quiet, and the freedom.

This is Williamson County, which was named for a county in Tennessee. It was once known as Bloody Williamson, due to several outbreaks of violence—the Bloody Vendetta of Southern Illinois in 1876 (the subject of a 2006 book by Milo Erwin and John Musgrave); the Carterville Massacre in 1899 (involving the killing of blacks by whites); a coal strike in 1906; and the Herrin Massacre in 1922 (involving the gruesome killing of a number of scabs by local striking coal miners), to name just a few. Lots of action here in Williamson County over the years.

Down by the sign for a recreation area called the Lake of Egypt, I go into a place called King Tut’s Restaurant and Lounge, which includes a gas station and convenience store. Soon afterwards I enter a spot on the road called Pulley’s Mill, which might have had a little activity once, but now consists only of a couple of closed businesses and the Pulley’s Mill United Pentecostal Church, with Pastor Jerry D. Huckleberry.

I leave Williamson County and enter Johnson County. Small world: according to the internet, this county was named in 1812 for Richard Mentor Johnson, then a U.S. Congressman from Kentucky. The next year Johnson served under Gen. William Henry Harrison in the Battle of the Thames, in Ontario, where he claimed to have killed the Indian chief Tecumseh in hand-to-had combat. Richard Mentor Johnson went on to be vice president under Martin Van Buren.

The sign says Welcome to Goreville, home of the Blackcats. It’s a village of about 1000. The streets of Goreville have little cat’s paws on the signs. I stop in at an antique mall and buy a straight razor. A couple in the store had seen me on the road up by Marion, and I tell them what I'm doing. They advise me to go to Metropolis, Illinois, where there's a gigantic statue of Superman, and a gambling boat on the Ohio River.

At just under 19 miles I come to a historical marker. It says that Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark and his troop of 170 volunteers passed near this spot, called Buffalo Gap, in July of 1778, on their way to capture the British post in Kaskaskia. This attack, and a later one in Vincennes, Indiana, prevented the British from invading Kentucky, and secured the Illinois territory for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. This was quite some time before Clark's brother William joined Lewis for their expedition out west. Next to the sign is an older stone marker placed in 1913 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. I sit on this one to eat a snack. Turning my rear end to the D.A.R. is a way of honoring my mother, who always said that she could have joined, but decided not to in order to follow the example of Eleanor Roosevelt, who in 1936 resigned from the D.A.R. in protest when they wouldn’t let the black singer Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall. My mom (who, by the way, was Eleanor Roosevelt’s seventh cousin) figured that was as good a reason as any not to bother joining the D.A.R.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Progress report: Benton in the rain

Friday, October 30, 2009
Raining again, since the middle of last night. Time for an off day anyway. Some time next week I should be out of Illinois and into Missouri and then Arkansas. The next big mark to reach after that will be Memphis, Tennessee.
Today is for filling up the propane tank in the motor home and moving down to the next Wal-Mart, in Marion, Illinois. I'm watching the rain fall and maybe the gasoline prices, too. Around here gas shot up to $2.74 a gallon, but today I see that it's twenty cents less. Good trend. As long as I'm sucking up gas the way I am it might as well be cheap. This trip is going to leave a carbon footprint so big that Al Gore will be able to see it from cyberspace.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day 33: Pennies from heaven

Outside Whittington to Cedar Grove. 20.7 miles/506.3 total

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm leaving from that state-owned land near old Dewey Ray Wilkins's place, heading into the cities of Benton, West Frankfort, and Johnston City, to the village of Cedar Grove.

It’s cloudy and windy this morning, and I won’t be surprised if it starts to rain before I’m finished. This is my most ambitious walk to date, at 20.7 miles. As overcast as it is, I’ll be getting down to the destination just before dark, and that’s cutting it a little close. I have to start getting up earlier, and spending less time puttering around before I start walking. After that time change, I'll have to get up even earlier.

Since Mt. Vernon the terrain has been noticeably more hilly, and very little land along the road is under cultivation. Back where I came in to Illinois, near Terre Haute, there was nothing but corn and soybeans. I think this is coal mining country down here.

They’re having elections here in Little Egypt next week, local ones, and I think maybe a special election for governor after Rod Blagojevich got bounced out earlier in the year. What surprises me is that there are quite a few Democrats running for sheriff in these counties. The reason that’s surprising is that most of the white southern Democrats switched over to the Republican Party starting in ’64, leaving the Democratic Party to African Americans and a tiny minority of white liberals. By 1980 white southern Democrats were as scarce as hen’s teeth. I’m going to speculate that here in Copperhead country they vote Democratic at the local level, out of habit and tradition, but they vote Republican in the bigger races--governor, senator, and the presidential elections. Anyway, these guys who are running for sheriff down here all have these southern-sounding names, like J.T. Moore and D.L. Richardson.

The modern Democratic Party still likes to trace its roots back to Jefferson and Jackson, and the populist, anti-Federalist, anti-banking, anti-big business issues. The party of the little guy. But until well after World War Two they were pretty much just for the little white guy. Today the Democrats have more in common with the progressive wing of the old Republican Party, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, than with their own populist tradition. As for the Democratic Party before and after the Civil War, they made a lot of noise about decentralization and state’s rights, but that was code for racism and the right of southern states to continue to have slavery. Northern Democrats of the same era had a little more claim to being pro-labor and opposed to business conglomerates, but they always had to accommodate the southern faction of the party, which was their little deal with the devil they couldn’t get out of until about a century after the Civil War.

A couple of miles into the walk I enter Benton, population 7200. Just a little inside the city limits I pass the office of the United Mine Workers of America, District 12. So I know there's still some mining going on. This is probably where all that coal I saw in the freight trains a few days ago was coming from. Benton was organized in 1841, and named after Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. The internet says that George Harrison visited his sister here in 1963, and also visited the nearby town of Eldorado. His sister’s house is now the Hard Day’s Nite Bed and Breakfast. But the coolest thing I’ve been able to find out about Benton is that it's the home town of the actor John Malkovich. Remember him as the Russian guy Teddy KGB in that movie Rounders, breaking apart those Oreo cookies while he was playing poker? His accent was a little over the top, but the part was good.

In the middle of Benton I arrive at the Franklin County Courthouse, which is surrounded by a large town square in the downtown business district. The building was completed in 1875, but has had some rather ugly expansion to the ground floor since then. Because cell phones aren’t allowed in the building, I decide not to go in. In some places you can take them in, or leave them with the sheriff at the metal detector. I can’t think where I’d leave my phone, and from a peek in the front door it doesn’t look like I’m missing much. All around the square there are antique malls, about four or five of them. After spending time in two of them, I have to walk on out of town before I spend too much time and money. But I do get some good bargains, and come away with four pocket knives and a straight razor. Among the knives is a genuine Walt Disney Davy Crockett knife, with a picture of Fess Parker as Davy Crockett on the handle.

Benton has a warm feel to it. It’s old, and making no serious attempt to look new. So the trees are large and mature, and the church buildings are from a century or more ago. There’s still a train depot standing, now used as a food pantry. Down past one of the few new buildings, the public library, I stop to wait for a Union Pacific freight train that is crossing Route 37. On the other side of the tracks I pass under a graceful old gingko tree, its fan-shaped leaves a bright yellow trimmed with green.

The sign in front of the New Life Apostolic Pentecostal Church says, “Look up, your redemption draweth nigh.” Involuntarily I raise my eyes to the sky. I wonder what form my redemption will take today?

Next up is the City of West Frankfort, population 8500. I assume it got its name because folks from Kentucky came here and named it after the capital of their state. (Later I find out it was named after a fort built by a guy named Francis Jordan, which became known as Frank’s Fort. The fort was for protection against the Indians in the early 1800s. The original settlement was to the east, and later there was another settlement west of that, which became this city.)

Between Benton and West Frankfort it started to rain, and it looks like the rain has settled in for the day. My pants are wet up to my thighs and my feet are soaked. But the good news is that it’s fairly warm—somewhere in the low 60s—and I can’t get any wetter, so all I have to do is get used to it. I’m going to breeze on through West Frankfort without getting too familiar with it. It’s raining like crazy and I want to keep moving.

I spend the next five miles, from West Frankfort to Johnston City, slogging through the rain, entertaining myself by singing “Desolation Row” and other Bob Dylan songs.

Suddenly money seems to start falling from the sky along with the raindrops. First I find a quarter on the roadside, then three pennies in quick succession. Then over the next few miles another penny, and another. It makes me think of what Shakespeare said, in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The coins I'm finding are like that. My blessing goes out to those who dropped them. Pennies from heaven. What a beautiful thing.

I enter Johnston City, population 3600. Route 37 takes me down the west side of the city, and whatever earthly delights the city center holds for a weary wanderer, I will not partake of them today. Gotta keep moving. Johnston City’s main claim to fame is that for many years it hosted an annual pool tournament, attracting hustlers from all over the country, including frequent visits by Minnesota Fats, who lived in nearby Dowell, Illinois.

At just under 19 miles, I enter the village of Whiteash. (It's not on the sign, but the internet tells me the population in the last census was 268.) Quite a bit of commercial activity for such a small place. There’s a junk store called The Yard Sale Shoppe, and Whisker Willy’s Bar and Grille, and a package store and an army surplus store. Not to mention a couple of big churches—the All Nations Church of Whiteash and the Whiteash Freewill Baptist Church.

This has truly been a fat day for change found by the roadside. Altogether since it started raining I have found two quarters, ten pennies, and two nickels, for a total of 70 cents. That’s the biggest single haul since that day in Indiana when I picked up over a dollar, including a Kennedy half dollar. It could be because the rain has washed the dirt off these coins, making it easier for me to see them, or that I'm just looking more carefully. But I don’t think so. I’ve always got my eye on the road for coins and other things, and I’ve walked in the rain a number of times. I think there might be something bigger going on here. Suddenly I get a thought. At those antique malls in Benton they were playing oldies from the big band era. Is it possible that one of the songs I heard might have been Bing Crosby singing “Pennies from Heaven”? Nah, who would believe that?

Less than half a mile after I leave Whiteash I come to another little village called Cedar Grove. This one isn’t even on my map, which is so detailed that it has just about every road in the State of Illinois. Yet here it is, with its own green and white sign.

Cedar Grove is where I parked the motor home, in the large parking lot of a construction company, just across the street from the world headquarters of the TCT Television Network. Probably one of those religious outfits. (It is indeed. Turns out TCT stands for Tri-State Christian Television. Part of the vast right-wing conspiracy to turn our brains to mush with a continuous barrage of mumbo jumbo.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Day 32: Little Egypt

Mt. Vernon to near Whittington. 19.7 miles/485.6 total

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Let's see. . . . where was I? Oh, yes. In Mt. Vernon, Illinois, heading south. Going through the rest of town.

I didn’t even bother to attempt to hitchhike today, because on the way down I went past a prison, and there were signs saying not to pick up hitchhikers. So much for that.

Beginning my excursion in earnest into the region known as Little Egypt. I didn’t need Wikipedia to tell me that the sensibilities of the people in Little Egypt are closer to those of Kentuckians and people from southern Missouri than to the rest of Illinois, but it did say that. Perhaps influenced by reading that, I'm beginning to sense that I'm drawing closer to the south.

Here’s a bit of local color. I found a place to park the motor home for the day, and just for good measure I went to the house next door to check if it was okay. The guy who lived there was a friendly older guy, who was about to say something to me, then he suddenly got a call on his cell phone, and interrupted himself. Here’s his side of the phone conversation:

Hello. Yep. Yep. What? His name is Dewey Ray Wilkins. Lives over by the tar [tower]. I don’t know what kind a tar. Cell phone, mebby. One road goes to the tar, and the other goes to Dewey’s. Yep. Yep. No, it’s not unoccupied. The roof fell in on the one building, but Dewey lives in the other one, the north one. Yep. Yep. Well, I got a feller here. Gotta go.

After he hung up, he looked at with a smile and said, "Buddy, you can park over there as long as you want. See that stake out there?" He was pointing at an iron pin in the ground near his mailbox. "Well, that’s my property line. That over there’s state property." So I guess I got permission from one of the people of Illinois to park on Illinois property.

The northern part of Mt. Vernon is distinctly nicer looking than the southern part. Shady older residential neighborhoods with mature trees and good-sized lawns. All kinds of houses, but all neat and well-kept. This is where the better-off folks of the city live. It’s not as if you can go out to the suburbs around here—there are no suburbs outside the city limits.

Each day the trees grow more colorful, and the leaves are beginning to pile up on the sidewalks and lawns. The sweet gums are everywhere, all red and yellow. I walk through piles of rustling slippery leaves. Their smell is invigorating, reminding me that I like this time of year best of all. I’ve been fortunate that by walking south I’ve been able to prolong the fall.

Over on 9th street, a block east of Route 37, is the handsome art deco façade of the old Granada Theater, which is featuring a Halloween Gala this evening. Just down from the theater, on Main in the block between 9th and 10th, stands the Jefferson County Courthouse, built in 1939. Effigies of Jefferson and Lincoln are chiseled into the marble above the doors. I go inside. It’s nothing fancy, but in the lobby there’s a series of murals telling a bit of the Mt. Vernon story: Zadok Casey blazing a trail through what is now downtown; the first courthouse being erected in 1819 on this site; the second courthouse in 1829, poorly constructed, that only stood briefly; the next courthouse, mid-Victorian in style, destroyed by the great cyclone of February 19, 1888. They kept my camera when I came in, so I can’t photograph the murals.

The south end of town is old and worn out. Closed up motels. Large empty parking lots. Used car lots, which seem to flourish, like weeds, wherever there’s space. One story storefronts, a few occupied. A rescue mission. Housing projects, dilapidated houses. The very antithesis of the north half of town, full of promise and industry and tidiness and domestic warmth. Here it’s all second chances, last chances, and no chances. Destitution. Over it all the leaves are falling, on the just and the unjust, floating in the grey mud puddles and clinging to the bases of rusty sign posts.

I pass a place called Mom’s Tattoos. What an odd juxtaposition of words for those of us old enough to remember when the only women who wore tattoos worked for the circus, and our mothers would have fainted dead away at the very idea of putting ink into their skins.

At a little over eight miles I enter the village of Bonnie, population 450. I couldn't find out anything about the origin of the name, but I’ll bet Bonnie and Ina (the name of the next town) were daughters of some railroad guy. The former Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad runs right alongside. Today the tracks are used by the Union Pacific and others. One thing the internet did say is that the Bonnie Interdenominational Holiness Camp meets ten days each summer, and has been a continuous summer camp for over 130 years.

Bonnie is modest but very neat. No junk or wrecked cars in peoples’ front yards. Laid out pretty evenly on both sides of the tracks. There are towns where you can tell at once that people care about how the place looks. This is one of those. Bonnie may have little else to boast of, but that’s quite a bit.

Another explanation for how Little Egypt got its name is based on the Old Testament. The story goes that there were times of famine or poor crops when folks outside this area would have to come to Little Egypt to obtain grain for feed. Just like when the Israelites had to go to Egypt because they were starving (only to find their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, in charge of the food distribution).

At the Kirk Cemetery, just across the railroad tracks from Route 37, the sign says, “Your loved ones are dependent on your contributions for maintenance here.” Well, I beg to differ. I think the loved ones are beyond being dependent on anyone for anything. They’re pretty much without a care at this point. The oldest stones have the names Farthing, Kirk, Dunbar, Booher. I sit down to rest for a few moments on the tombstone of Esther Williams, whose husband Claud died just last year. Esther’s still with us, but her stone is ready for when she comes to join Claud. All the stones face the setting sun, over the tracks and across the road, where there are a couple of shacks and a fifth wheel for sale, and a backhoe by a pole barn, waiting to dig the next hole in the cemetery.

Nothing surpasses the peace of a country cemetery. The collective slumber of thousands of those who have gone before. The quiet of nothing but earth, bones, and stones. There’s no hurry here. The dead can wait. You can join them tomorrow, or many years from now. They'll be here.

At twelve and a half miles I enter Ina, population 2500. Obviously there’s more to this place than meets the eye, but still it has nothing to offer the wayfarer along Route 37, and I don’t want to add another mile to this walk by going over by the expressway, so I will forgo the second drink I had hoped to buy. Back around 1840 Ina had a number of Cherokee Indian settlers probably refugees from the Trail of Tears. During the 1800s it was sometimes referred to as the Cherokee Reservation.

About a mile south of Ina is the Big Muddy River Correctional Center. It’s not too large, but it looks like it means business, with plenty of barbed wire and fences and guard towers. And tiny windows covered with bars. Again Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol comes to mind:

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!

I am now approaching Rend Lake, which is a huge reservoir and recreation area, created by the damming of some river. I am on a causeway about a mile and a half long across a branch of Rend Lake. Whenever I use the word causeway I always think about The Godfather and the great scene where Tom Hagen tells Vito Corleone, “They shot Sonny on the causeway. He’s dead.” They should have paid Robert Duvall what he was asking to be in The Godfather Part 3. It would have been well worth the money.

Because I haven’t seen a single store since I left Mt. Vernon, I finally stop at a little café on the edge of the recreation area, and have a drink and spend a few minutes talking to the waitress about her troubles with her cholesterol medication. It's nice to have the human contact. The pause that refreshes.

I pass the Whittington water tower, and the other tower next to it, which is as close to Whittington as I’m going to get. And I pass old Dewey Ray Wilkins’s place, just as the guy had described, with the one building with the caved in roof and the other one where Dewey lives. And in a few more minutes the truckster comes into sight.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Day 31: In dubious battle

Salem to Mt. Vernon. 20.1 miles/465.9 total

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I walk out of the parking lot of the semi-abandoned strip mall at the south edge of Salem, headed for Mt. Vernon. Distance today is 20.1 miles, my first twenty mile day. When I first started thinking about walking, I figured twenty miles a day would be a good pace, not to mention that it makes it fairly easy to calculate miles per week in your head, and figure where you’re likely to be when. It’s a psychological mark more than anything, since it’s less than half a mile more than I walked on Sunday. It’s taken me thirty days of walking to get to this benchmark. The victory I will have achieved today is that I need no longer increase my distance, and I can begin to get comfortable with twenty miles. Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” The same can be said for walking.

It’s been raining steadily since before I awoke, and the forecast is for nonstop rain today and into the evening. I’m layered up under the poncho.

Before I leave Salem altogether, I should mention that, in addition to being the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, Salem claims to be the birthplace of Miracle Whip salad dressing. The story is that it was invented here at Max Crosset’s Café, and the recipe was sold to Kraft for $300 in 1931. However, Kraft says it invented Miracle Whip in-house. In any event, it premiered at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

A couple of miles into the walk I pass something you rarely see any more. An actual working drive-in movie. It doesn’t seem to have a name, just a portable sign out front, but the movies are current—Zombieland is one of them--and the screen and grounds appear to be in good shape.

I tried hitchhiking again this morning, but after ten or fifteen minutes I had no luck so I went back to the motor home and took the car. The stars were not aligned right today, but I still hold out hope for hitchhiking.

The signs on Route 37 say that it is the Lincoln Heritage Trail. They have a picture of a beardless Lincoln. So I guess he must have traveled along here at some point.

At about six miles I reach the intersection of Route 37 and Route 161. There isn’t much to say about the spot, except that nine miles to the west, on 161, is the city of Centralia, which I visited yesterday on my off day. It sits in three different counties, and was named after the Illinois Central Railroad, because two of its branches intersect there. It's the home of the winningest high school basketball team in the nation.

In the other direction from Centralia, about 20 miles to the east, is Cisne, a little town I also visited yesterday, where my great grandfather, John Ray, was born. I found a few relatives in the local graveyard—probably a brother of my great grandfather, and maybe some cousins, I’m not sure. Then I went down to the library in Fairfield, the seat of Wayne County, and did a little genealogical research, without much success, while doing laundry at the local laudromat. Man, what a depressing place that laundromat was. This was the first time I've had to do laundry on the road, and I'm tempted to just buy new socks and underwear at Wal-Mart until I can go back home. It wasn't the process of doing the laundry, it was the environment. Hot and humid and full of people who have a sort of hard and beleaguered edge. The women looked old, but most of them were probably younger than me. Ordinarily walking around cemeteries cheers me up--next time I'll do the laundry first and then go to the graveyard.

And speaking of cemeteries, just past Zion Grove Cemetery I enter Jefferson County. No need to speculate about who this county was named after.

Halfway through the walk I enter the village of Dix, population 500. It was founded by two brothers from Rome, New York, in 1830, and was originally called Rome. Later, the name was changed because there was another town in Illinois called Rome. There is still a school in Dix called Rome Grade School. The story is that it was renamed after Union General John Adams Dix, who sent a telegram to his agents in New Orleans at the outbreak of the Civil War, stating, “If any man pulls down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” The telegram was intercepted by Confederates and never got to New Orleans, but Dix became a hero when the story was published in northern newspapers.

For a long mile after I enter Dix, I think I might have gone out the other side. The farm houses are few and far between. Then I realize the center of town is yet to come. For a village with such a small population, Dix has quite a bit of land.

I am suddenly aware today that the vegetation is beginning to change to species more native to the south. There are quite a few sweet gum trees, with five-pointed star-shaped leaves, turning red and orange and looking a lot like maples. There are plenty of maples and oaks, too, as in Michigan, and some sycamores and various nut trees. But another southern tree I’m seeing today for the first time is the bald cypress, a coniferous tree that loses its needles in the fall. So I think I’m entering a different climate zone.

Dix has a tidy little downtown, with a post office and a funeral home. I stop in to an antique store that used to be a church, but don’t find anything.

Dix was pretty much it between Salem and Mt. Vernon. There’s nothing now until Mt. Vernon, in eight miles. Just me and the road and the dead animals and an increasing amount of truck traffic. There’s some serious construction on I-57 southbound around the Mt Vernon exit, and the trucks have gotten off at the Dix exit to take Route 37 through town.

I see a sign that reminds me that this part of Illinois is known as Little Egypt. The region south of Effingham, going down to Cairo, at the southern tip of Illinois, was settled by people from Kentucky, Missouri, and southern Indiana, and had strong ties to and sympathy with the south before and even during the Civil War. It was full of those Copperhead Democrats. There were even a few slave owners down here, despite the fact that slavery was illegal in Illinois. They had owned their slaves before they moved into this region or from before Illinois became a state, and were allowed to keep them.

There are several versions of where the name “Little Egypt” originated. Some say it was because the region was fertile where the Ohio River and Mississippi River come together, like the Nile delta, and because the town at that point is named Cairo.

At nineteen miles I enter Mt. Vernon, population 16,300. That’s huge for around here, even larger than Effingham. Like Effingham, it’s where two interstates intersect, so there’s lots of stuff going on out by the expressways. I won’t be walking in Mt. Vernon long today, but I’ll be going through the middle of downtown tomorrow, so I’ll be able to say more about it then. I know it’s the county seat of Jefferson County, and that it was founded in 1817 by a guy named Zadok Casey, and it was named for George Washington’s home in Virginia. For some time the Illinois Supreme Court sat in Mt. Vernon, and Lincoln and other lawyers argued cases here.

The First Baptist Church and the Wesley United Methodist Church, both large buildings with wide lawns, sit across the street from one another, ready to duke it out on Sunday morning for the souls of the Mt. Vernonites. Dunkers versus sprinklers. “In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven,” as Milton said.

Route 37 is called Salem Street in Mt. Vernon. As I roll in to my destination next to Casey’s General Store gas station, it occurs to me that this is not only the first day I’ve walked twenty miles, but the first time I’ve had the poncho on the entire day without a letup in the rain. My feet are wet, and my pants soaked up to the knees, but the rest of me is dry.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Day 30: Cross of gold

Farina to Salem. 19.7 miles/445.8 total

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I’m leaving from a parking full of miscellaneous old trucking equipment at the south edge of Farina, heading for Salem, going through small towns on the way.

Today’s walk will be 19.7 miles, the longest I’ve walked so far. I have been increasing the length of the walks since I came back from my three-day respite last week. I hope to start averaging 20 miles a day and get comfortable with that daily distance. (Comfortable isn’t really the word, but you get the idea.)

Shortly after leaving Farina I leave Fayette County and enter Marion County. Salem is the county seat of Marion County. I won’t know for sure until later, but I’m betting Marion County was named for Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, hero of the Revolutionary War from South Carolina.

This spacing of 5 to 8 miles between towns is familiar from Indiana. It was a pattern with the railroads to have stopping places spaced at these intervals, to take on water and coal or wood for the steam engines, and for convenient station points for the passengers and transporters of freight. Today, the Amtrak passenger train that flies through here every day is the famous City of New Orleans.

As I talk about the railroad, a freight train goes by, with 161 cars pulled by four Canadian National engines. This is part of the CN line now, and the CN and Union Pacific intersect in Kinmundy, just down the road.

I'm struck by the relative efficiency of pulling 161 freight cars with four engines, compared to hauling all that stuff by trucks. Of course we need semis for short haul purposes, but I’ll bet a lot of people are looking to beef up the capacity of the railroads these days. But many spurs and short lines have been eliminated over the years, so it would be difficult to recreate the level of rail transport this country had even 50 years ago. In that same time the country has been busy developing a very extensive, high-quality road system. And the interstates really are a great set of roads, not equaled anywhere else in the world. But those truck drivers. Why are so many of them recruited from the most rural and right-wing parts of the country, north and south? Even when the Teamsters Union was alive and well, it had a reactionary character to it that set it apart from many of the more progressive industrial unions.

Maybe there’s something about driving around the country by yourself all the time, and being inside your own head, that fosters right wing thoughts. Maybe it’s that non-stop Republican propaganda on the radio with absolutely nothing from the left to counter it. Then the truckers congregate at truck stops and talk on the radio and listen to country music and feed into each others’ redneck ideas.

But the trucks are what the interstate system is designed to carry these days. Individual mini-trains, consuming many times the fuel of a train, plying the highways, stopping at truck stop restaurants, truck stop churches, truck stop whorehouses, and truck stop porn shops.

Well, walking all day tends to solidify one’s views, too, just like being on the open road in a big truck does. You’re just lucky you’re receiving the benefit of a progressive perspective on things, instead of what some Rush Limbaugh-listening dude might give you. Politically, we’re all products of our environment, of course. Most of us have the politics of our parents. Some of us shift a little more to the right or left, but very few make a clean break with their fathers' ideas. Those who do renounce the conservatism of their parents and move to the left are the true heroes, in my book.

I have encountered some truly decent human beings of all political stripes—people who are willing to help others in the small ways that are available to all of us. As long as there is such generosity of spirit in people, there is hope for this country, in spite of the relentless right-wing propaganda machine that urges us to compartmentalize our decency, channel it only in the direction of those closest to us, and deny it to those we are taught to identify as The Other.

At about five miles into the walk I enter Kinmundy, population 900, incorporated 1857. The name is supposed to have come from a lake in Scotland. It’s the only place in the U.S. with this name, for what that’s worth. Kinmundy was a railroad junction, as I mentioned, and it was once larger and more prosperous than it is today, with a population that topped out at 1,500 in the early twentieth century. It had an opera house. A couple of major fires devastated the town, and probably hampered its continued growth. There's a recreated log cabin village outside town, but I won't be getting over there.

What I do have a chance to see is the old 100,000 gallon cypress water tower that was used by the railroad to service its steam engines from 1885 until 1953. After that the town of Kinmundy bought it from the railroad and used it for municipal water until 2000. One of the few remaining wooden water towers in the country. The plaque with all this on it was donated by the Woodmen of the World. Woodmen of the world, unite!

About ten miles into the walk I enter Alma, population 400. Most of Alma lies to the west, I think. Here on Railroad Street, which is what they call Route 37, the grain elevators sit next to the tracks, chutes hovering like the necks of giraffes, waiting for cars to fill. I could go into town to check it out, but I can safely predict what will be there, and I have no reason to think there are any secrets to be discovered: a mixture of older houses and prefabricated newer ones; a park with a covered pavilion; a war memorial of some kind; two or three churches, at least one of which is a dyed-in-the-wool independent fundamentalist bible-beating southern kind of church; a school; and probably a grocery store.

The internet says that Alma was previously known as Mound City, and also as Rantoul. Both these names now belong to other villages in Illinois.

The grocery store, Billy Jo’s General Store, is right here at the corner of Seventh Street. I go in and spend a little time talking to the young woman at the cash register, whose name is LaKrista (spelling approximate). I tell her about the walk, and she's kind of interested. She says she thought at first that I was a coon hunter. Apparently there’s a huge gathering of coon hunters down in Salem. That might explain why there haven’t been many raccoons on the road lately—they’re hiding or they’ve been killed by hunters. Anyway, Billy Jo’s is selling beer on Sunday, as one of the only places in Marion County that has a license to do so. I guess when you’re huntin’ coons you need to drink a lot of beer. Salem got special permission to open the bars on Sunday because of the coon hunters. I ask LaKrista if there is anything interesting I should know about Alma, and she can't think of anything. However, she does set me straight on one thing. Farina, where I started today, is pronounced Far-EYE-na. I guess that figures.

I stop at the Alma Cemetery. The surnames on the stones are all English—Smith, Johnson, Hinkley, Aldrich, Mayberry, Hutchinson. One of the grave markers is a bench made of shiny black marble. It’s a Smith. I take advantage of it to sit down and rest and gaze out at the soybean fields and the horizon with the brown and orange and yellow leaves on the trees. It’s a beautiful day here in southern Illinois, out on the prairie, where all the women have tattoos, a few of the men are good looking, and all the children are average to below average.

After another five miles I see a sign that says “The Churches of Salem Welcome You. Come, Let Us Worship the Lord.” Tingling with anticipation at the prospect of worshipping with the Salemites, I enter the City of Salem, population 8000. Although I have passed the city limits, I still have an hour or more of walking to reach my destination on the far south side.

I come to a delightful little place called Moonlight Park that has several hundred car bumpers buried halfway in the ground, an old Volkswagen up on stilts, and a small airplane posed with its nose buried in the ground and a mock skeleton in the cockpit. This park appears to be private, the creation of the Pollards, owners of a used car lot. They’ve taken some of the old cars and things they’ve collected over the years and made a tourist spot out of them. An unexpected pleasure.

Salem Community High School is a very large affair, with great art deco touches on its façade.

As I round a curve I get another surprise. There’s a municipal park with a statue of William Jennings Bryan. There’s a plaque in front. Bryan was born in Salem in 1860 and lived here until 1875. After his “Cross of Gold” speech made him famous in 1896, he was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908, and served as Secretary of State from 1913 to 1915. He died in 1925 after the Scopes trial.

Yes he did. So Bryan lived here as a boy. The great populist Democrat from the heartland. In his “Cross of Gold” speech, he used religious imagery to rail against some kind of monetary policy, saying, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The competition between advocates of the silver and gold standards was big back then, although now it seems pretty silly. And speaking of silly, in later life Bryan acted as a special prosecutor in the Dayton, Tennessee trial of John Scopes, who was arrested for teaching evolution in high school. (The teaching, arrest, and trial were a put-up job, in order to challenge the law in Tennessee.) So Bryan didn’t believe in evolution, and was defending the literal six-day version of creation in Genesis. A few days after the trial he croaked.

If you want a good look into the soul of the Democratic Party prior to World War Two, consider William Jennings Bryan’s infamous remark about Haiti, while serving as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State: “Imagine! Niggers speaking French!” It took two presidents from former slave states, Truman and Johnson, to begin to exorcise the demons of hatred from the Democratic Party and send them to the Republicans, where they belong.

The Marion County Courthouse occupies the block on Broadway between Schwartz and Main Streets. Of course it’s closed on Sundays. The building is made of fat white blocks, and looks like a lot of government buildings in Washington D.C. It was built in 1910. A plaque on the front steps confirms my earlier supposition about the naming of Marion County. It honors the Revolutionary War soldiers who were later buried in Marion County. Eight of them. And the plaque was placed by the General Francis Marion chapter of the Children of the American Revolution.

There's a nice little park on another corner of Broadway and Main, called the Sweeney Corner. It has a small, four-tiered fountain and some flowers, and a sign promises a mural on one of the walls, for which they are raising money.

I pass the offices of the local newspaper, the Salem Times-Commoner. That’s a reference to William Jennings Bryan’s nickname--The Great Commoner. A couple of blocks down Broadway I come to Bryan’s birthplace. It’s a two-story white house dating from about the middle of the 19th century. A sign on the front says to ring the bell for a tour, which I do. But no answer. So I don't get a tour of the birthplace of the great blowhard orator.

On down Broadway a sign in front of the county fairgrounds says “Welcome PKC 2009 World Coon Hunt.” In the distance I can hear the obnoxious baying of hunting dogs. So I guess the coon hunters are whooping it up at the fairgrounds, swapping stories. I could join them with coon stories from the road. “Yeah, well, I didn’t kill it, but I saw it dead on the road, guts hanging out of its mouth. Sucker must have weighed twenty pounds.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Day 29: Thumbs down

Watson to Farina. 18.6 miles/426.1 total

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Leaving from the Watson Civic Center at 10:30 in the morning, down Illinois Route 37 through a succession of very small towns, heading for one called Farina. It’ll be all country today, with relatively few trucks, partly because it’s the weekend, and mostly because this road runs parallel to the interstate.

I tried an experiment today, but it didn’t work. I had one of those light bulb over the head moments yesterday. I had two thoughts. The first was that I could hitchhike from the motor home to the starting point, eliminating the need to go back and get the car (or bike) at the end of the walk, thus saving lots of gas money; the second was, why the hell didn’t I think of this earlier? (This is why I’m always open to suggestions from the peanut gallery.) Maybe I thought of it early on and just eliminated the possibility of hitchhiking. But this time I figured that since these Illinois folks have been so generous with their ride offers, it would be a cinch to get a ride.

So I tried it. I parked the motor home and car in a parking lot by the railroad tracks in Farina, my point B for the day, and went out onto the road. Almost immediately I got a ride from a farmer in a pickup truck, just as I had expected to. But the ride was like that one Steve Martin got in the movie The Jerk, when he started out from home to make his fortune--from one end of his front yard to the other. Well, I got a ride, literally, from one end of Farina to the other, about six blocks. I don’t even know why the guy picked me up. Then I stood for about 20 minutes at an intersection, getting no rides at all. Finally I figured out that since Route 37 is right by the interstate, no one is going very far on it. They’re going from one end of town to the other, or maybe to the next farm up the road, but not eighteen or twenty miles on this dinky rural road. If they want to go any distance, like to Effingham, they’ll hop on the expressway. If I was lucky I might have gotten rides from one little town to the next, with some waiting in between.

I figure I should have hitchhiked back when I was on U.S. 421 and 231 in Indiana, where the road had no interstate counterpart and many people were going long distances. Well, I’ll get another chance to use my thumb before this thing is over.

So I ended up having to walk about a half mile back to the motor home, get the car, and drive it up to Watson.

It’s cold and sunny, in the mid-40s. It’s three miles into the walk, and since so little is happening today, I’ll tell you that I’m crossing the Little Wabash River. The Little Wabash is a tributary of the Wabash, which in turn empties into the Ohio River, which empties into the Mississippi. Today it’s swollen to about 30 feet across from the recent rains.

It’s two hours into the walk and there’s nothing to report except that I found a nickel, always a good thing. But now I’m entering Mason, population 400. Just after the sign I spy a marble monument with a brass plaque on it. It reads, “Dedicated to the memory of Roswell B. Mason, 1805-1892, builder of the charter lines of the Illinois Central Railroad. Erected September 27, 1956, on the one hundredth anniversary of the completion of construction at this place, which was thereupon named in his honor.”

Route 37, is, for now, running along the Illinois Central tracks, and these little towns are railroad towns, just like the ones up in Indiana. With this information in mind I could speculate that Watson was a railroad guy, too.

I take the spur off 37 into the center of the village of Mason, mostly because I’m looking to buy a drink of some kind to carry as an extra, since I don’t know which, if any, of these towns have stores. The only thing in Mason that resembles a commercial establishment is a laundromat, with four washing machines (two of them out of order) and two dryers (one of which might work) Outside is a pop machine that's several years from being in working order. They’re having a blood drive over at the Mason Christian Church and Academy, but that’s a rather excessive way to get some juice and cookies, considering that I still have over twelve miles to walk today.

The next little place I come to is Edgewood. It has its own exit from I-57, and there’s a Marathon station about a half mile off Route 37, but I really don’t feel like walking an extra mile round trip to get a drink. I try another soda machine, in front of the ice cream place, which is closed for the season. This machine works, but won’t accept either of my dollar bills. Denied again.

Just inside Edgewood is the American Legion, with a couple of heavy artillery guns trained toward the west, just in case Missouri decides to attack Illinois, I guess.

The water tower says Edgewood was established in 1857. So it’s another railroad town, and I'm seeing a pattern. I stop at a craft store and ask if there’s some place to get a drink in this town, and sure enough, there’s a grocery store a block of so off Route 37. Good news, and I get my extra water.

Edgewood comes and goes. A little outside of Edgewood I leave Effingham County and enter Clay County. This one was also named for the Great Scary-Looking Compromiser from Kentucky. Clay was in fact an unsuccessful candidate for president in 1824, the year the county was formed.

At about 13 miles, I enter Fayette County, which was named for our old friend the Marquis de LaFayette, after he visited Illinois on his grand tour of the United States in 1824-25. Hmmm. Maybe they’ll name something after me after I finish my grand tour.

Shortly thereafter I enter LaClede. LaClede doesn’t even rate a population on its sign. Probably because it’s under 100, from the looks of it. Someone is burning garbage in a fifty-gallon drum in their front yard, up by the road. Three boys are riding quads up and down the roadside. A chained-up Doberman barks at me. As near as I can tell, there isn’t a single stick built house in LaClede. They’re mostly single-wide trailers, and a few prefab modular ones. And each trailer is trashier than the last. The whole place is like a nasty, spread-out trailer park. Even the LaClede Church of the Nazarene is a double wide, with a steeple stuck on top.

The other purpose LaClede serves, besides being home to a few dozen extremely poor people, is as a dumping ground for the railroad. All along the tracks are thousands of used railroad ties, piled high. LaClede’s the kind of place where no one would object to that. Hell, they probably take the ties and burn them in the winter. And piles of old railroad ties look better than the houses around here, seriously.

LaClede gets my vote as the crummiest place I’ve seen in Illinois so far. Even the name sounds degenerate. “Yeah, those are the LaClede boys, Larry and Darryl and his other brother Darryl. And their sister Carla. Or is she their mother? Maybe both.”

The stretch from LaClede to Farina, as the sun begins to sink in the sky, is a tedious one. The gigantic grain elevators of Farina come into view about five miles before I get there, and grow by small degrees as the time goes by.

At last, nearing the end of my journey, I enter Farina, population 600. One can only speculate that the town got its name from being a grain collection and milling site. I take a little trip off Route 37 into the center of the town, but there’s very little else to see. I walk by the U.C.C. church and the First Southern Baptist Church, which is the first Southern Baptist church I’ve seen, at least called by that name. Maybe this is an indication that I am closing in on the south.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Day 28: The Teutonic plague

Montrose to Watson. 18.5 miles/407.5 total

Friday, October 23, 2009

I leave the grain co-op in Montrose, Illinois, heading through Teutopolis and Effingham, down to the little community of Watson.

One of the things the internet said to see in Montrose was the stately home of a prominent early citizen by the name of Wiwi. I guess this is it here in the middle of town, at the main intersection. A two-story brick house painted white, dating from about the middle of the 19th century. It’s not really much to look at, but I’ll take a picture anyway.

It rained for about 36 hours before this morning, and although it’s not raining now, the skies are the color of lead in front of me and the ditches along the road next to the fields are full and flowing fast. The wind is blowing right at me from the west, at about 20 mph. The skies ahead do look a little lighter, though. Maybe we’ll even have a little sunshine by afternoon.

On the roadway I see something that looks like a particularly badly massacred animal—nothing but pink and white flesh. But on closer examination I see that it’s a pound of sliced bacon that has fallen out of someone’s car. I guess I can’t count that as road kill.

No sooner had I said the word sunshine than it started to rain. Five soggy miles later it has finally stopped again, as I enter Teutopolis, population 1600. Ahead in the distance is the tall slim steeple of the church of St. Francis of Assisi. Teutopolis was settled in 1839 by some Germans who came out here from Cincinnati. Apparently they were Roman Catholics. As I get closer to the center of the village I can hear the bell in the church tower chiming out the quarter hour. By the way, the church is lit up brilliantly at night.

German names are everywhere here, in the fifth or sixth generation after the original settlers. Weber’s Hardware, Wessel’s gas station, Schmid Auction and Real Estate, Habing Furniture, Probst Auto Body, Siemer Milling Company, Feusting’s Garage. Blue-clad Madonnas decorate front lawns.

The tower of St. Francis dominates the town in a way that churches dominate little places in Europe and French Canada, but much less so in the mainly Protestant Midwest. I approach the handsome red brick structure and read the cornerstone. It says the church was established in 1851 as St. Peter’s, but dedicated in 1860 to St. Francis of Assisi. And, just as if I were in a European country, I can’t resist going in and taking a few photographs. It has a magnificent gilded altar, and a number of stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life (and afterlife) of St. Francis. There’s another intriguing window, depicting Father Junipera Sera converting Indians in California. Down in the bottom corners of the window is some text, and a rendition of a photograph of an Indian by the name of Gabriel Tualamo, chief of the Tualamo Indians, father Sera’s first convert, whom he baptized in Soledad, California. “Now [meaning 1889, when the window was begun] he is in the poorhouse in Salinas, California, and supposed to be between 132 and 142 years old.” Then it says that old Gabriel died in 1890 in the Monterey Hospital at the reputed age of 150 years. Something tells me this guy didn't have a birth certificate.

In spite of the beauty and old world charm of this church the maintenance men inside talk with a twang that brings me back to reality.

As I pass Wessel’s Fast Stop filling station, I can’t help but whistle the Horst Wessel song, from the days of Nazi Germany. It’s really a nice tune, all schmaltzy and Germanic, that makes you think of boat excursions down the Rhine. In fact the tune was well-known when Horst Wessel, a low-level Nazi, put words to it in 1929 or so. Wessel was subsequently killed by an unnamed Communist hero, and the Nazi party made a martyr of him, and an anthem of his song. Today the song and its tune are banned in Germany and Austria. So it’s a little like whistling Dixie, I guess, except that we didn’t have the courage to ban that one.

This makes me wonder to what lengths the folks of Teutopolis must have had to go to prove their patriotism during the two world wars, especially the first one, when anti-German jingoism rode high. Out at the edge of town there’s a fairly new war memorial, on which the names of the two dozen war dead of Teutopolis, as well as those who served and lived, are chiseled. This is probably a good way to see if Teutopolitans are still as German as they once were. Sure enough, the surnames, from the time of the Civil War to the present, are 80 to 90 percent German.

But here’s something odd. The name of their school team is the Wooden Shoes. You’d think their name would be the Teutonic Knights, or something, and indeed that might have been the case once. Here’s how I think they got stuck with this ridiculous name. People from outside the town knew them as “Deutsch,” or German, and that got rounded off to “Dutch” (just like the Pennsylvania Dutch). Then in the 20th century, in an attempt to be as non-German and inoffensive as they could be, they went ahead and adopted one of the trite symbols of the actual Dutch people. “Hey, everybody, look at us. We’re Dutch. We’re harmless!” This is so weird and typically American, and so, well, stupid, that it just has to be the explanation.

Teutopolis is, in any event, a very tidy town, which bespeaks both German and Dutch sensibilities. And it’s probably more German, to this day, than Holland and Zeeland, up in Michigan, are Dutch.

At 7.5 miles I enter the City of Effingham, population 12,400, which is pretty huge for this part of the state. Effingham, the city and the county, are named for Edward Effingham, a British general who resigned his commission rather than fight against the Americans. So he gets points for that, and gets a place named after him.

Effingham calls itself “The Crossroads of Opportunity.” I’m not sure what that means, except that the name Crossroads of America was already taken. It is indeed a crossroads. It’s where Interstates 70 and 57 intersect, one going east-west and the other north-south, each having superseded earlier highways, U.S. 40 and 45. Also, it is, or was, where the Illinois Central and Pennsylvania Railroads cross. And I guess it’s where opportunity intersects with opportunity. I know that up where the interstates meet, north of town, there is opportunity galore for fast food joints, hotels, strip malls, and truck stops.

Well within the city limits but still on the outskirts of the real city, I pass Oakridge, a municipal cemetery. The names on the tombstones, recent and old, are mostly English—Smith, Hickman, Adams, Cooley, Holmes, Hickok, Webb. So it looks as if Effingham resisted the Teutonic plague pretty well.

Two beautiful angels kneel atop the pillars on either side of the main gate to the cemetery. And when I say beautiful, I mean just that. You don’t usually get this level of reality in a stone sculpture in a graveyard. They manage to look gorgeous, sad, and asexual, all at the same time.

So far, the courthouses of Illinois have been less grand and ostentatious than those of Indiana. The Effingham County Courthouse stands at Jefferson between Third and Fourth Streets. It's a three-story Victorian job, built in 1872, faced with dark red brick and trimmed with coin courses, rounded lintels, cornices, and modest columns, all painted the color of butter. The mansard roof is shingled with wood, and atop that there’s a shingled tower, trimmed in the same butter-beige, topped with a clock. Up close it’s just a trifle dingy.

To my disappointment, when I get up the steps a sign on the door says it’s closed, and that the courthouse has moved to a new location, a block west on Jefferson. I check several doors, but the building is locked. I proceed down Jefferson and come to the new county courthouse. It’s just past the jail, and connected to it. It’s an indescribable modern thing, with big gun metal columns. Probably built during this decade. Although it lacks the charm of the old one, I’ll bet the regular users—judges, lawyers, clerks—appreciate it. No doubt the old courthouse’s interior was getting decrepit and cramped. One can only imagine the bathrooms.

The rest of the downtown of Effingham doesn’t look too bad, as small American city downtowns go. A few vacant buildings, of course—that can hardly be avoided. There’s a large baseball card and sports memorabilia store at one corner. I go in and emerge ten minutes later with an Al Kaline card from 1973, his penultimate year.

After downtown I turn south on Raney Avenue, and head through the Effingham business and industrial park. Over by I-57, greeting motorists coming up from the Bible Belt, is an enormous cross, probably over 150 feet high. I don’t know who built it, but somewhere I read that it's there to remind people of the Christian heritage of the city. Right. Like people are going to think, “Gee, I wonder what religion they practice here? Is this a Muslim city? Or maybe it’s full of Zoroastrians.” I just hope the city didn’t have anything to do with it. That would be an egregious violation of the first amendment. (You know it’s a lawyer talking when you see the word “egregious.” We’re about the only ones who say that.)

From the bridge over the railroad tracks and the old National Road, I get a good view of the cross, all white and geometric against the grey sky off to the west, above the warehouses and machine shops and places that ship and receive, but don’t give you any indication of what they do. The cross looks like the Washington Monument with stubby outstretched arms.

At the end of Raney Avenue and the business park, the road narrows to a strip of asphalt-covered gravel, with no trucks, running through fields once again. This isn’t part of the business park, but in a way it should be, because no matter how much other business Effingham does, this right here is its real business—corn and soybeans.

Suddenly I’m in the country, and I can walk down the middle of the lane, as the howl of truck tires on concrete fades away. It’s so bucolic and almost timeless, that with the exception of the occasional passing vehicle and the utility poles, I could imagine myself walking here a 150 years ago, and even with the poles, maybe 60 or 70 years ago. The fields themselves would be the same, just less densely and efficiently planted. And the trees—maybe not these trees, but a previous generation of trees just like them, would line the borders between fields.

At last I see some patches of blue in the sky, as the sun goes in and out of view. After about five miles of walking on this country road I arrive at the city limits of Watson. For Watson to call itself a city seems grandiose. It has about 700 inhabitants. Teutopolis, with 1600, in only a village, which I think is appropriate. I don’t know what you have to do to become a city in Illinois. In some states you have to petition the state legislature for a charter. Maybe here in Illinois all you have to have is the consent of the governed and no objection from anyone else. Well, I’m in the city now, although nothing much changed after I passed the sign.

There’s nothing much to say about Watson. It has a post office. It has a Fast Stop gas station. It has a water tower. Most of the houses are trailers. It does have a nice civic center—a large pole barn, and an outdoor pavilion and ball parks and a playground. That's where I parked the motor home.

I stopped at the cross on my way back in the motor home. It’s about a half mile off Raney Avenue, hard by the expressway. It’s 198 feet high, and 15.5 feet square, made of a structural steel skeleton built in Indianapolis, trucked here in pieces and assembled, then sheathed with vertical sheets of white steel siding. It sits on a round concrete base about fifty feet in diameter. Around the circular base are black granite stones with each of the ten commandments on them, with buttons you can push at the commandments to get a series of 30-second homilies on each one. There’s a visitor’s center where you can watch a short video on the construction, which took place in 2001.

The official name of this cross is The Cross at the Crossroads, and it was built by a private nondenominational group in 2001. You can purchase a brick with your name on it, as a donor, for a hundred dollars. A bit I saw on the internet compared it to a cross in Groom, Texas, and said it might be the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere. The article used the phrase “tacky majesty” with reference to the Texas cross. That fits.

On that somewhat bizarre note, I end my day.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Progress report: Effingham in the rain

Thursday, October 22, 2009
It's been raining all day in Effingham, Illinois, where I'm holed up in the motor home. Earlier in the day I went to Flying J to fill up the water tank and empty the other ones. They let you do it for free, which came as a pleasant surprise. I'm learning these little things as I go along.
The Wal-Mart parking lot is filling up with RVs, come to sit out the rain. It's a little too wet to do any serious sightseeing in Effingham, not that there's much to see. Anyway, I'll be walking through the city tomorrow, rain or shine. From here I start traveling more or less straight south again, all the way to New Orleans. I'll pass the 400 mile mark tomorrow, and I'm well over a third of the way there.
It'll be the Yankees on the radio tonight, as they try to sew up the American League pennant. The TV available here with my antenna doesn't include whichever network is broadcasting the games (Fox, I think). But there's something reassuring about a baseball game on the radio. It's a sound from childhood--from hot Saturday afternoons with the sound of lawnmowers in the distance. If I'm really lucky Joe Morgan will have laryngitis, or better yet, I'll be able to get the Yankee broadcasters, which happened last week when I was in Indiana.

Day 27: The persistence of ladybugs

Union Center to Montrose. 18 miles/389 total

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Day 27. Wednesday, October 21, 2009.

This morning as I was driving back from Terre Haute with my computer (for the last time, I hope), I saw a sign when I got off the interstate at the Casey exit. It said that Casey (through which I walked yesterday) is the hometown of David Hanners, 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner. All I can find out about him is that he is a journalist who won the prize while working for the Dallas Morning Star. Maybe someone out there in blog-land knows more.

It’s 11:40 a.m. I'm departing from the parking lot of the Pleasant Valley Methodist Church, in or near Union Center. It's a late start, and I'll be lucky to get to my destination by sunset. Increasingly, that's going to be a consideration. In a couple of weeks the clocks will go back, and it'll be getting dark by about 5:00 p.m. around here. So no more leisurely mornings in the motor home. All business. The business of walking.

By far the preponderance of road kill in Illinois has been snakes, and not just the little ones. Looks like St. Patrick didn't get here in time. I guess they’re heading for their hibernation grounds, or something, and are determined to cross the road, for better or worse. Running second so far are possums. Very few raccoons.

Here’s an abandoned motel for sale, along with a small house and some acreage. It’s a foreclosure sale. Looks a little like the Bates Motel. Same story, what with the interstate going in. Lonely place along a lonely road. Well, a boy's best friend is his mother.

As I did yesterday, I am walking on a piece of the abandoned version of U.S. 40, about 50 feet from the main road, with grass and weeds and even some small bushes growing up through the fissures in the concrete, creating a patchwork effect. But it’s still great for walking, and a relief from having to watch the approaching cars and constantly look over my shoulder to see if any cars are coming from behind me, or if the oncoming cars can move over a little when they pass, or if I have to get off the shoulder and onto the gravel or the grass.

Walking on this ruined road reminds me of that TV show “Life After Humans.” This is about what all roads would look like 20 or so years after humans disappeared from the earth. I know that I’m taking myself away from the road kill action here, but it’s well worth it. If I saw a dead animal on this piece of road, I’d have serious doubts about the mental capacity of the wildlife around here.

About an hour and a half into the walk I enter the town of Greenup, population 1600. Here in Illinois they give you the population in nice round numbers, knowing it’ll be ten years before they update them. The water tower says, “Historic Greenup, Established 1834.” The town is named after William C. Greenup, a surveyor of the National Road, who plotted the town in 1834. It was the Cumberland County seat, but only for a few years in the 1850s.

Like Casey, the smaller Greenup has a nice clean bunch of houses leading into the downtown from the east. Mostly post war houses. It looks as if someone came through and offered everyone free aluminum or vinyl siding. They are all remarkably clean and newly sided.

At a corner, there’s a sign for the Independent Bible Believers Church, down a side street. There’s a lot of emphasis in conservative Protestantism on independent study of the bible. I guess it comes from the strain of pietism that emphasizes scripture study and the Calvinistic idea of the priesthood of all believers. They’re saying, in effect, “We don’t need no stinkin’ organized church to tell us what the bible means.” Having sown those seeds, the Calvinists and Baptists and other larger denominations effectively deprived themselves of quite a few adherents.

The old downtown has two-story porches on most of its storefronts. I read yesterday in the Casey library that Greenup restored these porches to their former glory just a few years ago. It’s a good idea generally, because it covers up the otherwise drab old storefronts, and gives the town something to hang its hat on. Now they call it The Town With the Porches. About half the stores are empty, anyway. Down the street they’ve spiffed up the old train depot and made it into a museum. Next door is another old building, also a museum. They're both closed now, I guess for the season.

A stone says that the Barbour Inn was here on the old National Trail in 1831, and that the town was established in 1836 by William Greenup. The water tower says 1834, so there’s a discrepancy.

The Greenuppians have been doing their best to enhance whatever historical value the town might have. But what Greenup might have to offer the visitor by way of historic blandishments isn’t enough to make the town dazzle. Still, you have to give them a B+ for effort.

Past the modest fairgrounds to the west is a covered bridge, which, if you're a covered bridge fan, is enough to bring you to Greenup, even absent any assurance that Lincoln peed off the bridge, or whatever. The bridge goes over the Embarras River, which is a tributary of the Wabash. The name comes from the early French explorers, who used the term embarras for obstacles in a river, such as logjams. In spite of the much-vaunted covered bridge festival in Indiana, I didn’t cross one until I got to Illinois. Now I’ve been over two of them in as many days.

Today this covered bridge is covered with ladybugs. Thousands and thousands of ladybugs, which from a distance I thought were worm holes in the wooden structure. They're swarming, and I now have ladybugs all over me--in my jacket, on my pants, on my shoes, on the back of my neck. You may not know this, but they sometimes bite. Not a fierce venomous bite, to be sure, but a pinch nevertheless. This is the time of year they like to come inside, and do whatever they do. I have a few in the motor home.

I already know something of the persistence of ladybugs. When I worked in Hartford, on the 19th floor of a building overlooking the city, they would gather on the outside of the sliding glass door on the little balcony I had outside my office. They would work their way inside through the tiny spaces in the tracks of the doors until they got inside. Then they would just hang out on the walls, waiting to die, I guess. Obviously there are some gaps in my knowledge here.

As I walk through these towns along the old National Road, I can’t help thinking that this is where a few of my ancestors on my maternal grandmother's side might have traveled. They came out from the east in covered wagons, into Indiana, where they stayed for a time, then over into Illinois, and down south of here to Cisne, Illinois.

I pass a ruined farm. Two old unpainted barns, a falling down garage, and a late 19th century brick house, hip-roofed, whose lintels are sagging. There’s a door on the second floor, intended to let out onto a roof over the main door, now long gone. This would have been a handsome place in its time. A little later I pass another abandoned building which I discover was a schoolhouse, from 1902. Someone was in the process of converting it into a residence, finishing out the inside with framing and drywall, before they abandoned that project and left the whole thing to rot. It’s appropriate that both these places are on a piece of the abandoned road.

I take a little detour south of U.S. 40 into the village of Jewett, population 250. In the middle of Jewett, in what was once a store, is Grandpa’s Place, an antique store, which is locked, with no indication of when it might ever be open. As far as I can tell, this is the only commercial establishment in town. There ought to be a sign outside the town that says “Welcome to Jewett. It ain’t much, but it’s all we’ve got.” Then again, that sign would suffice for quite a few places I’ve been through.

On the main street, someone is attempting to take down the remnants of a telephone pole, about ten feet high, by burning it. They have a little hole burned at the base, and the whole pole is blackened, but still standing. The fire smolders as I pass by. I guess they’re in this project for the long haul.

At the western edge of Jewett is the cemetery, where it occurs to me that there are a lot more dead people that there are living ones in the town. The places where the dead reside are far neater, on the whole, than the homes of the Jewett living. The surnames on the stones are mostly English, with a smattering of Dutch ones.

At 13 miles I pass a sign on the road that says Woodbury. The alleged Woodbury isn’t anywhere that I can see. But I guess all it takes is a couple of houses. I am glad for what little diversion I can find from the monotony of the country road, with its nonstop corn and soybean fields.

A freight train just passed, coming from the west, carrying 145 cars full of coal. I saw one yesterday just like it. Wonder where the coal came from?

With just a mile to go to the motor home, I say goodbye to Cumberland County and enter Effingham County. At twilight I enter Montrose, population 300. All I know about Montrose so far is that it was founded in 1870. I'll try to find out a bit more, although the internet details about these little places are usually sparse. The best thing is to stop in to the local library and rummage through the stuff they have, usually in their genealogy sections. But that's hit or miss, too, and a town of this size is lucky to have a library.

It's 5:53 p.m. when I get to the motor home, parked in a vacant lot by the railroad tracks, next to a grain elevator. This is about as late in the evening as I would like to be walking, but considering the late start I got, it’s not bad. Eighteen miles in just a few minutes over 6 hours, including a rest stops and going in to two antique stores in Greenup. Think I'm finally hitting my stride.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Day 26: The slaughter of the snakes

Clark Center to Union Center. 17.8 miles/371 total

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Before the walk, I'll check out the cemetery here in Clark Center, which is called Auburn Cemetery, after the township where it's located. Some of the earlier graves date from the 1860s. Beabout, Freudenberger, Norris, and someone named Squire Mundy. Maybe he had a daughter named Gloria. The old clapboard church next to the cemetery is no longer in use, from the look of it.

The rest of the village of Clark Center consists of a factory called Yargus Manufacturing, maker of Layco Material Handling Systems, whatever the hell that is. I think it's stuff for moving and storing grain in those big co-ops they have in just about every farming town. Besides the factory, there are a couple of really dilapidated houses, one of which is not inhabited, or at least I hope it isn’t.

Another spectacular cloudless fall day, with the sun making its arc lower in the sky with each passing day, shining hard on left side of my face as I head west. Just west of Clark Center is a covered bridge, the cover portion of which is fairly new, probably not more than 20 years old.

This stretch of U.S. 40 runs parallel in Interstate 70, so the majority of the truck traffic runs on the interstate, sparing me the incessant passing of semis I experienced on the other highways I’ve been on.

What strikes me as I watch people pass me is that about half of them seem to be talking on their cell phones. I do the same when I drive. I wonder how long it will be before every state bans the use of cell phones while driving. It’s going to be one of those things like seatbelts, that takes some states longer than others. But one thing I learned from many years of working for state government is that states love to imitate one another. They jump on whatever bandwagon seems to be riding along. Like the term limit fad of a decade or two ago. Lots of states jumped on that and are now regretting it because they realize that, at least with respect to the legislative branch, the lack of long term experience is depriving legislators of institutional memory and experience. There might be an argument to limit terms in the executive branch, but state executive power is highly diluted to begin with, with the executive functions often divided among several different elected offices that in the federal government would all be within the president's prerogative. In most states the attorney general and secretary of state are elected separately, and in some states the treasurer and comptroller, too. So already a governor has less power than a president does. I don’t know if limiting the governor’s term in office is really necessary, either. If a governor is inclined to abuse his power, like the former governor of this fair state, Rod Blagojevich, he’s probably going to abuse it from the beginning, not wait until his third or fourth term. As Ted Kennedy said, "We already have term limits. They're called elections."

The CSX rail line is running alongside U.S. 40, and a succession of long freight trains passes throughout the day. This is a very busy train line. For the past mile or so I’ve been walking on an old abandoned road that runs about 50 feet from U.S. 40. I think it’s only used by farmers to get to their fields now. I feel like I’m walking on the Appian Way, or something. The Via Antiqua of Illinois.

The sign welcoming me to Martinsville says it has a population of 1300, and that it is the home of Dan Baird, most winning thoroughbred trainer, with 9445 wins. "Martinsville—It’s Small, It’s Friendly, It’s Home. Established 1833. Home of the Blue Streaks." I don’t know if Lincoln did anything here in Martinsville. Farted, maybe. There’s a factory, Rowe Foundary, in the middle of town, that smells like burning brakes. Martinsville--It's Small, It's Inconsequential.

Today I’m noticing countless little snakes on the road, about the size of nightcrawlers. I hesitate to count them as road kill because they’re so small and there are so many of them. I think I’ll establish a rule—no snakes counted as road kill unless they’re at least as long as my shoe, which is about a foot long. In any event, the snakes are doing the same thing as their fellow reptiles, the turtles, did back in Indiana. They’re trying to cross the road en masse, with disastrous results. The little guys are getting slaughtered. And some of the bigger ones, too.

I come up along side a facility of some kind, consisting of a number of 20 foot high cylinders, probably about 60 feet wide, some with domes on top,. There are signs saying no one is allowed to trespass, and that you can’t even take photographs of the place! This is a free country. I take a few photos, just for the hell of it, although I’m still not quite sure what it is. Then I see a sign on a gate—it’s a Marathon Oil tank farm. Everything is a farm out here in the country, I guess. So this collection of petroleum tanks is a tank farm. Okay.

I see a dead vulture. That’s the first one of them I’ve seen. Now he's food for the other vultures.

Casey is a city of 3000, which is pretty large for around here. Couldn't find out anything about the history of the place. Casey’s outskirts leading up to the city center contain a number of attractive craftsman style brick bungalows and two story houses, and some frame houses with decorative brick porches. Very nice.

I notice that the Bank of Casey has a sign featuring old fashioned baseball players at bat, which makes me wonder if there's any connection with Earnest Thayer's great baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat.”

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has struck out.

At the west end of town there’s a huge lumber yard, and on the other side of the street a fertilizer factory. Just past the city limits of Casey I enter Cumberland County.

I see another dead vulture. Must be something in the water.

In the distance looms the green and white sign for Union Center, the place where my motor home is parked, in the tiny parking lot of the tiny Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church, established 1881. There is no evidence, either on the map or visible to the eye, of any such thing as Union Center, save this sign.