Quote of the Day:
” Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” Jor-El, father of Superman
This past weekend, TB had occasion to travel to Southern Illinois, as the title above seems to suggest. The Rambler, along with 6 others, was entered in the River to River Relay Race that takes place each year. Eight man teams, with each runner taking three legs of just over 3 miles per leg, cover 81 miles in the rolling hills between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, finishing in the charming village of Golconda. The Rambler et al were on a team aptly named “Two good legs and you’re hired.” If you do solve the math problem hidden above, you will see that hiring in the relay race biz was weak. TB for the record, did not meet the qualifications for the job, nor do I have the two good lungs that were equally important for team members.
So while the runners were, I guess, running all day, I went explorin’ the land between the rivers, following the Ohio River Scenic Byway. What I found first was the incredibly sad town of Cairo, Illinois. Once a bustling center of river commerce, the town is now quite possibly the most pathetic place I have ever been, and believe me, I’ve been. I didn’t count, but if there were 100 commercial buildings in town, 70 were derelict, 20 were operating, but in disrepair, and ten were government related. It was so bad I felt guilty about stopping and taking a photo, so I didn’t. I just hoped it would get better as I cruised the river road. And it did, somewhat.
The main thing that struck me on this drive is how rural and remote this section of Illinois is. As a Mississippian, I often assume the places I know in the Delta or North Mississippi are about as far backwoods as one can go. But the truth is, as my travels constantly remind me, this nation is still mostly rural, measured by area. What is sad is that so few places in the backcountry can support a livelihood any more. One town I passed through was still functional, but it looked to me like they were in the “hail Mary” stage of the game. First, they’ve turned to Harrah’s. They have one of those sorry little riverboat style casinos that uses all the leftover gear from more modern gambling halls and they target the locals and their gub-ment checks. But the real evidence of what this little town is up against was illustrated by its adopted hometown hero. They put a sign up touting him as one of their own and then they put up a badass statue for explorers like me to photograph by itself and for midwestern divorcees and their teenage daughters to stand beneath and fondle for the camera. On the courthouse lawn. And they renamed the square for him. Seriously.
I saw a lot on Saturday and I won’t bore you with a long description of all of it though there were plenty of blank stares to share. But the short version is: Giant City State Park, a deer, three turkeys, a dead skunk, which Huck Finn would’ve really appreciated, a country general store with an almost legendary name, a classic midwestern water tower, a coon trespassing over a set of Indian burial mounds which would’ve blown Huck’s mind, and a soundtrack courtesy of Hillbilly Jim including John Prine’s “Standing By Peaceful Waters”, Jerry Jeff Walker’s version of “L.A. Freeway” and Bobby Bare’s “Tequila Sheila.” Oh, and I saw the end of the race in Golconda.
Here’s the photographic evidence. Sadly, that dead skunk was a little too fresh to approach.
The bottom line on Southern Illinois? It’s a nice place, prettier than you might think and interesting if you’ve a mind to look around. If you ever happen to be there, you oughta do just that. If you are planning a vacation this summer and you want somewhere beautiful and fun and unique and interesting, I recommend Oregon or Maine.