Sunday, March 29, 2009

State Memories Project: Illinois

I’ve been to Illinois a fair number of times…my dad was raised there, and I’ve had relatives there my whole life, which has resulted in many trips there as both a child and an adult. I’ve probably had more years where I’ve been to Illinois than years where I haven’t. But the best memory, strangely, is one where I was alone.

In 1993, the summer between my Louisiana teaching years, I had my original baseball stadium tour. It was a life nadir for me…a major breakup had nixed my plans to live with my college girlfriend in Pennsylvania that summer. I decided to change plans by driving my 1987 Subaru GL to all the ballparks in the Midwest. After a Cardinals game, I slept in Vandalia, drove to Effingham (home of the Chasers Nite Spot…since I was in the Kenyon College Chasers, I was sure to stop there to purchase a sweatshirt), and then...

Well, I’d always wanted to go off the map.

My destination that day was Valparaiso, Indiana, where Jennifer, my HS friend and prom date, was going to kindly allow my to sleep on her couch. It would have been easy for me to zip straight up I-57 to get there...2.5 hours, if that. But instead, I made up some rules that would take me to places I wouldn’t otherwise go.

--I would leave the interstate.
--I would stay on pavement.
--But beyond that, I would simply turn north and then turn east at every opportunity and see where the road brought me. If I got to Indiana, I would end the adventure and go north. If I got to I-74, I would end the adventure and go east.

I wish I could remember whether I tried to pull in local radio or if I popped a tape in the boom box in the backseat (my Subaru’s tape deck was broken almost from the day I got it from my folks). I think I probably picked music, and the music was probably sappy love songs designed to make me feel more intensely like a lovelorn sensitive ‘90s man. But what I remember most is the corn. Tall, tall corn on either side of me, and farm houses not far from the tiny, lineless roads.

At one point, I entered a town on some tiny local road heading northbound. I was curious what town it was, hoping I could find it on the map. Strangely, the town’s name wasn’t on the water tower, and the road I entered the town on was so small it didn’t have a “welcome to ____” sign on it. I turned east at the next intersection, as the rules required, and slipped out of the town not long after I entered it. To this day, I do not know what town I was in.

I happened upon the Lincoln Log Cabin Historical Site, which I checked out, and where I called my friend to say I was running late. I then resumed the trip through nowhere, eventually crossing into Indiana just south of Danville, Illinois. I believe the whole off-the-map experience lasted nearly five hours.

I like traveling, getting a sense of “I am here. I was here. I have parted the air here. I existed here.” On that day, I was doing that…but nobody knew I was there, and I didn’t even know where it was I was existing. I lived somewhere on a line between alienating and exhilarating. I’m glad I did it. Won’t soon forget how it felt.


Anonymous said...

TRP's Dad was born and raised in Ill., went to undergraduate and medical school there, and met his wife there. So how do you narrow it down to just one memory? It has to be about my Dad. We lived on the edge of our small town and I loved the woods and river bottom that were just a few miles from our house. Every summer weekend I would ask my Dad to take me on a hike to the river. He worked all week in a factory standing on a cement floor and his idea of the perfect weekend did include more walking or standing. But he always said yes and we would head for the river. He had grown up just a block from where we lived and had roamed these same woods when he was a boy. He would tell me stories of his younger days in these same places that I loved. He taught me how to skip stones on the river and how to listen for trains by putting your ear on the track before crossing the trestle. My memories are of a strong sense of intimacy and joy when we were together at the river. He was far from a perfect man but he gave me the best that he had to give and really, you can't ask for more than that.

TeacherRefPoet said...

I thought of your dad today while I was hanging out with my son. I suspect that Grandpa would really like Hedgehog. In the first six weeks, Hedgehog is a man's man who likes things his way. I think he's got a lot of his great-grandpa in him...just 100 years and a month apart in age.