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.