I-57 road trips lead to decades of adventures

In more than 30 years of trips up and down the length of Interstate 57, there have been some memorable rides.

There was the time the windshield on our 1995 Chevy Cavalier started flapping like an old cellar door with the approach of a dust bowl tornado. Nothing a bunch of duct tape couldn’t handle.

On another journey in 2005 we passed several convoys of firetrucks and utility vehicles heading down to New Orleans to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Crowds of people had gathered on many central Illinois overpasses, hanging flags and cheering the helpers. We weren’t going to New Orleans, but our hearts were warmed by both the convoys and their fans alike.

Once, a radio station in the Effingham area programmed Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” on repeat, and we listened to it over and over until the station’s signal faded to static, hoping for an explanation while testing the limits of our ear endurance. We never learned why they did it, but we still recall that surreal hour on the road every time we hear that song.

Another trip came amid wintertime weather so treacherous that we started counting all the vehicles that had slid off the roadway, a number that climbed well into double digits. That journey took a while.

Along the way, there has been plenty of terrible fast food and a few surprisingly good pit stop dining experiences.

My earliest I-57 excursions involved cramped compact cars filled with cigarette smoke and college kids making our way back and forth from the Chicago area to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. That’s where I met my wife, Tonya, who grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, and whose family visits keep putting us back on that road.

We’ve traveled the long length of Illinois often enough to have memorized the exit signs, gaging our progress by how quickly we’ve sped by overpasses connecting Onarga and Roberts, for example, or Gilman and Chatsworth. We have our favorite gas stations and rest areas (southbound Rend Lake Rest Area is always a highlight).

The huge swath of Illinois flatland that decorates the bulk of any trip up and down I-57 is often decried as boring. But especially in winter after the vast cornfields have been harvested, observant motorists are treated to vistas miles long, landscape views so sweeping that freight trains chugging along in the distance can be seen in their entirety.

Interstate 57, which starts in the Southland, travels the length of Illinois, traversing a mostly flat landscape until hitting the rolling hills of the Shawnee National Forest at the southern end of the state.

Even so, farmland scenery can get monotonous, which has led us to jump off the highway at times when provoked by brown signage indicating points of interest. One side jaunt led us to a pleasant December encounter with reindeer at Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch near Rantoul.

A year or two later we stopped at a state park with our young son and had a run-in with some ornery rams that wander around an old farmstead near Charleston once owned and operated by the father and stepmother of Abraham Lincoln that’s now known as Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site. Sheep with menacing horns, the rams didn’t seem to take kindly to our intrusion, though maybe my disconcertion came more from my role as protective dad than any aggression on their part.

Last summer we discovered the birthplace of Raggedy Ann and Andy, though I mean discovered in the Christopher Columbus sense — finding something a bunch of people already knew about. When I first started traveling I-57, a billboard touted the town of Arcola as “Amazing,” a claim my college friends and I scoffed at. That marketing campaign has since been abandoned, and when my family and I side tripped into town, we found a pleasant place with nice people and interesting stories, including that of Raggedy Ann toy creator Johnny Gruelle and a large public art installation called the “Hippy Memorial.”

Another exit sign that always caught the attention of my college-age friends and I points to the small Jefferson County village of Dix. According to that village’s website, the town was founded as Rome, named after the Rome in New York, and was called that until they found out there already was a Rome in Illinois north of Peoria. So somebody decided to rename the town after Civil War general John Adams Dix. Why not?

An sign along Interstate 57 notes the exit for the village of Dix in southern Illinois, where a farm stand offers tasty seasonal produce.

After years of driving by the Dix sign, perhaps prompted by road construction we decided to hop off the interstate at that exit during a late spring journey. That led us to a farm stand where we tasted strawberries so delicious that we still refer to them years later as the best we’ve ever had. Now we often stop there for seasonal produce, including autumn apple doughnuts that are a real treat.

Driving up and down I-57 for decades, the highway has illustrated for us some societal changes, such as the rise and fall of outlet malls. Once the large shopping center alongside I-57 in Tuscola was a bustling center of commerce but has since seemingly fallen on hard times, with lots of empty storefronts and plenty of empty parking spots.

Change is inevitable, and plenty has happened along the route closer to home as well as giant, monolithic warehouses have sprouted like weeds in former farm fields near Monee, creating almost a tunnel effect for those speeding through in between. The Tuscola and Monee developments are a graphic example of the wider consumer shift from shopping to shipping.

One landmark we look for is a former private playground erected beside one of the small, triangular lakes that periodically appear every few miles, remnants of dirt extractions for fill needed to make the expressway level when it was created.

At some of these little ponds, landowners have parked old campers and sometimes we see a rickety rowboat pulled up on the bank. But one at the Pesotum exit was the subject of what appears to be an ambitious recreation plan involving a three-story wooden tower that at one time provided access to a giant waterslide descending to the lake below. We saw it go up, thinking even when it was new decades ago that it looked dangerous. It was only viable for a few years and now that it’s been rotting away for years I’m sure it’s a genuine hazard. Like looking at a slow-moving disaster, it’s been interesting to watch its gradual deterioration.

A public <a href=art installation depicting George Harrison popped up along Interstate 57 a few years ago near Benton, commemorating the Beatle’s visit to southern Illinois just before his band became a worldwide sensation.” src=”https://www.chicagotribune.com/resizer/tW7oOPX5eLWvseeI_mEEkBElibk=/1440×0/filters:format(jpg):quality(70)/cloudfront-us-east-1.images.arcpublishing.com/tronc/COFL4ORJIVFSTLNNKZ74M5DH3A.jpg” width=”1440″ height=”0″ loading=”lazy”/>

Other landmarks have popped up along the way as well, such as a tribute to Beatles member George Harrison near Benton, which commemorates the first visit by a Beatle to America, when George came across the pond to visit his sister in southern Illinois and, as legend has it, jammed with some area rockers at the local VFW, and in Mount Vernon purchased the guitar he would use to record “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

After all this time driving the same road, up and down the state, it would be easy to approach the next journey with dread, anticipating another boring stretch of boring ol’ Illinois. That’s not how we do it, though. It’s way more fun to treat each one as an adventure, learning more, seeing more, experiencing more of our surroundings.

Soon, we’ll be heading down to see Tonya’s folks again for a delayed holiday gathering. It will be fun, but so will getting there and back because we choose to treat it that way.

As we get ready to journey into a new year, it’s a tactic I hope to apply to all my prospective journeys, short and long, routine or special, literal or figurative.

That’s one of the great things about the New Year’s holiday. It can be a meaningless mark on a paper calendar, but it also can signify an open path to adventures ahead.

See you on the road!

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at [email protected].

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