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Exploring the Heel of Illinois, or I Don’t Even Know Where I Am

Exploring the Heel of Illinois or I Don’t Even Know Where I Am We had a destination when we started. It was the blue grass festival in Bean Blossom Indiana. This year was special because it celebrated the 100th birthday of the father of blue grass, Bill Monroe. We had attended once before but never camped so we picked a large open field hoping for some peace and quiet. This property used to be Bill Monroe’s home and farm where he lived and enjoyed making music with friends and fox hunting. We followed the bright sound of strumming banjos and guitars to the stage. Soon we were taping our toes and reminiscing about the songs our grand daddies sang even though we grew up in Indianapolis far from the hills of southern Indiana. Dr. Ralph Stanley topped off the evening with his rendition of “Oh Death, Won’t You Spare Me Over for Another Year,” made famous in the movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? We made our way to our tent at about ten o’clock and lay down for a peaceful sleep. Unfortunately the kids on golf carts had other ideas. They were still racing around the field, revving their engines and shining their headlights into our tent when I finally looked at my watch. It read a shocking 2:30 a.m., and we pulled up our tent stakes and headed for Nashville, Indiana and a Comfort Inn were they were doing an audit and couldn’t access the computer. We finally got to sleep around three in the morning.

The next day we were on our way to New Harmony a place where the Rappites and Owens had tried to establish Utopian societies in the 19th century, to visit my friend, an artist who paints subjects from the nineteen fifties and architecture along old highways like US 40 and Route 66. Serendipitously she found an old drive-in restaurant on state road 66 and converted it into a studio. We enjoyed seeing pictures of James Dean, Hank Williams, women in full skirts and high heels ironing with their new Steam-o-matic’s or admiring their snow white electric washing machines or ranges. One couple danced around the kitchen in front of their new refrigerator looking like they had just returned from the prom. Giant ice cream cones atop tiny restaurants promised relief from the summer heat with no worries about fat or calories. No worries about Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes either. No worries period. Just the promise of suburban bliss or Utopia 50’s style.

It is then that we strayed from the beaten path by crossing the toll bridge just a block from my friend’s studio across the Wabash into southern Illinois. Here was a different world which we had unsuspectingly entered into the previous evening when we went to hear a folksinger in Grayville. Everything seemed fine if a bit surreal. He sang of a minor league baseball player who spent time in Lynchburg and ended up with a pinched nerve. A few songs later he launched into “South of Solitude” about entering into the labyrinthine roads of southern Illinois and getting lost resulting in the lyrics, “I don’t even know where I am,” and ending with the lyrics, “I don’t even know who I am.” We didn’t know it then, but we would soon live the song. There were a grand total of nine or ten people in attendance, four of whom were some young German guys not paying too much attention to the singer. We weren’t too surprised to see them as southern Indiana abounds in descendents of German settlers and German restaurants. Travelers are never too far from a good sausage and sauerkraut dinner. But here in Grayville the waitresses seemed quite surprised and happy to see them as they actually spoke German and were young and not too hard on the eyes. We found out that they were in town to work in the coal mine for eight days and were enjoying some Grayville nightlife. The singer ended with some Dylan songs and his friend accompanied him on the harmonica. “That’s what you get for Loving Me” seemed appropriate to end the set, and the German guys smiled and said goodbye in English.

The next day, at the suggestion of my friend, we ventured across the bridge again following a vintage Airstream travel trailer, which again lent an air of the fifty’s, into surreal southern Illinois again to see the Garden of the Gods. We had seen the one of the same name in Colorado Springs and were not expecting much by comparison. But we were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful and strange looking rock formations in the Shawnee National Forest. The wilderness area is over three hundred and twenty million years old and includes over 3,300 acres of beautiful old growth forest. The sediment rock in this area is over four miles deep and the fractured bedrock has created some interesting rock formations that represent various objects like anvils, camels, and mushrooms. Next we traveled south to the Ohio River and saw Pirates’ Cave at Cave in the Rock. Two riverboats had been built and had burned here, but now there was only the ferry taking cars and trucks across the river at no charge. As we reached the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, a truck with an oversize load in the form of an earth mover was waiting to board the ferry. We were glad we had crossed in the company of small cars.