Once upon a time, a Reptile House keeper at Lincoln Park Zoo who was a budding professional photographer spoke to a group of docents, telling us about the many wonders of Shawnee National Forest, including a bald cypress wetlands as well as copperheads, cottonmouths, and timber rattlesnakes (he had the photos to prove it). Since then, I’ve dreamed of going to Shawnee and seeing all these things for myself. And now, thanks to J., I have.
Shawnee National Forest/Cache River road trip: Day 1
May 18, 2013
Shortly after midnight on Saturday, May 18, we set out for what I’ve learned is branded as “Southernmost Illinois.” We didn’t get far — only to Gilman, about an hour’s drive from our starting point. If I’d been driving (which I can’t), we wouldn’t have made it that far.
After breakfast at Denny’s, we tooled down a side road to Onarga, looking for Cornerstone Café & Gallery, which, as implied by the name, combines coffee and other beverages with art in one convenient place. It turns out that it’s part of a vocational program for young men with emotional and behavioral disorders. J. spent a long time browsing the goods, and I apologize to the young men manning the store for my obvious impatience — by then, I wasn’t feeling too well. If you’re in the Onarga area, Cornerstone is well worth a visit.
While we passed a few opportunities for more side trips (thanks to this cranky old woman), J. couldn’t resist Arcola, an Amish community with a museum and Rockome Gardens. On the way, we passed numerous buggies and a few beardless young men riding recumbent bicycles.
Normally I would love a visit to an Amish community, but the worse I felt, the more fixated I became on reaching the end of the journey and the more expressive I was about my displeasure at the prolonged stop. It’s unfortunate because it’s a lovely place, and I did pick up gifts in the museum shop and goodies at the grocery, where we also ordered sandwiches and mini diet Cokes. Arcola seems to be the perfect place for the Amish; the farmland is good (and flat), and the location is unlikely to draw hordes of casual tourists, but just enough traffic from I57 (like us) to bring in money — someone has to pay for the recumbent bicycles. It may be a tourist trap, but it helps to break up the blandness of central Illinois. I’d stop again if I could — I hope in a perkier, more adventurous, and more appreciative mood.
J. wanted to stop at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, but we compromised with a detour to Rend Lake, which proved to be a great spot for sunset. At this point and at many others during the next eight days, it struck me how different life is for so many people and how easy it is to forget all the activities, human and other, that are going on all the time outside our field of vision and awareness.
We entered Shawnee through Harrisburg, known as “Gateway to Shawnee National Forest,” where we asked dining advice of a young cashier at Walgreens. He said he’d been in the area only a year, since leaving California. It’s up to you, dear reader, to parse why a young man departs California for a small city in southern Illinois to work as a cashier at a chain store.
After eating at Hardee’s (which is a first for me, I think), we made the final push. I’d picked Willowbrook Cabins as a place near the attractions I wanted to see. The idea was not to call the owners after 10 p.m. if possible. Big if.
On the way from Harrisburg, we passed a few lit areas, a few houses, and a few businesses, but most of the time it felt like we were on a narrow strip of road between dense, dark stands of trees. Never would I have guessed what any of this looked like during the day.
We found the road to turn off and then the cabins, where a couple of groups were gathered around fires burning near their respective cabins. We located the Outdoorsman, but the combination didn’t work for J. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for a man from one of the groups. I’d read that cell signals are unreliable in Shawnee; in this case, “No Service” had appeared on my phone for several miles. We drove for 20 minutes or more to call the owner and get a different combination, which, hallelujah, worked, because by the time we returned and tried the door again, I was exhausted. Tired as I was, that didn’t stop me from taking a few minutes to stare at the moon through the treetops and to appreciate the quiet that comes when a car or two pass by only intermittently.