From Chicago we headed southwest toward Kansas City to visit more friends of mine. We avoided interstates because the scenery is monotonous and opted instead for small state routes. Driving through Illinois was enlightening for me.
I read a lot about food production, in particular about the benefits of crop diversity and rotation over monocultures. But most of the farms that I have seen have been diversified vegetables farms. I knew, of course, that a lot of the midwestern plain states are miles and miles of cornfields. Everyone who has ever driving through corn country tells you that. But hearing and reading that is different than seeing it first hand, driving hours through cornfield after cornfield. The land is extremely flat so you can see miles around, but for hours on end all we could see were a vast monoculture of corn, and all I could think about is what an ecological disaster that is.
Wind can really pick up speed over the plains with no hills or forests to slow it down. Since we were in full on driving mode, we spent nights in Walmart parking lots along our route, rather than searching for campgrounds to stay in. Our van shook with the strong gusts in the wide open parking lot. Thankfully, our trek through the state was a couple days before devastating tornados hit the area.
One benefit to the flat landscape is the sky view. When John and I were in Washington DC last December, we visited the Christmas Pathway of Peace, comprised of a tree for each state displaying ornaments created by residents of the represented state. The ornaments on the North Dakota tree all stated “If you’re not from North Dakota…you don’t know the sky”. I did not understand what it meant to “know the sky” until watching the sunset in Illinois. With nothing to hinder the view, the horizon line is as far out as if you are on the sea, and the view is full of sky. Driving southwest, we were literally driving into the sunset, and the sky lit up with amazing, lingering colors.
Once dark set in, I noticed hundreds of red lights in a row, flashing on and off. It turns out that they are wind turbines, which can synchronize their flashing over miles. It was a fascinating sight, to see so many lights over such a long distance flashing in sync.
Our second day driving through the state we decided to take a break. First stop was a skate park in Macomb. John keeps a skateboard in the van, but has had little opportunity to use it at a bonafide skate park.
After the skate park we stopped by Argyle Lake State Park. I was really curious what an Illinois State Park would be like. There were actually hills in the park! There used to be coal mines boring through the hills – one remains as an example; it is just a small, fenced off hole in the hill with an informational sign nearby. The center of the park is a “nature preserve”. The space is only 16 acres, but a sign states: “This natural area has been formally dedicated as a sanctuary for native vegetation and wildlife. It is maintained in its natural condition so that present and future generations can see the Illinois landscape as it appeared to the pioneers. This living example of our natural heritage is also valuable for scientific studies in ecology, geology, soil science and natural history and may provide habitat for rare plants and animals.” This is a depressingly small preserve in the midst of millions of acres of monoculture farming.
While hunting is prohibited in the small nature preserve, it is allowed on the other side of the street. Being the middle of the week, with very few other visitors to the park, I didn’t think much about it. I cycled around the park road, stopping to walk on a few trails. I made sure to walk the self-guided interpretive trails – I always read the informative plaques telling me about the flora and fauna; occasionally I learn something interesting. I was walking along this trail, thinking about how I was alone, that no one else was around. Then I noticed a movement in the tree, and looked up. Staring at the tree for a few moments, the amazing ability of the human visual system to recognize patterns finally kicked in, and a human figure in camouflage resolved in the tree. A hunter was sitting up in the tree, casually holding a crossbow aimed right at me. The only reason I saw him is that he waved at me. I was frightened and ready to move on.
From the beginning of this road trip, John has wanted to visit roadside attractions. On this leg of the trip, we started looking for them. RoadsideAmerica.com has a database of roadside attractions, loosely defined. We found a couple on our route – a “Fighter Jet on a Pole” and the “Home of Sliced Bread”, both in Chillicothe, MO. Neither attraction was super exciting, but Chillicothe is a quaint town full of large murals.