The first and third place I stayed at in the eastern portion of Shawnee National Forest was Willowbrook Cabins, first in the Outdoorsman and then in the Hiker (separated by a night in Elizabethtown). I booked the Outdoorsman while at the Post Oak rest area. Planning is for other people!
My friend and I arrived after 10 p.m. and found ourselves in a pickle. The code for the door didn’t work, the owners preferred not to be called after 10, and I didn’t have AT&T service anyway. After we drove several miles away, I was able to get enough coverage to call and find out that we should have tried 0 to 9 for the last digit. The code we had was off by only one or two steps.
Both cabins were large, rustic, and basic, but had everything you could want for a few days in the forest — including a washer and dryer that came in handy.
With the decor, I could almost imagine myself in Minnesota . . . just needed more boreal trees and lakes.
As Star Trek: The Next Generation reminded us (quoting Chaucer), “All Good Things” must come to an end, including the week at Shawnee National Forest. Before leaving Hidden Lake Bed & Breakfast, we took some time to walk part of its wooded trail and by the lake. It was difficult to say goodbye. Although there was plenty of time in which to return to Chicago, it felt more urgent than it should have. It’s the anxiety of knowing that the time to leave the fantasy behind and to take the road to reality is nigh.
W could afford a few stops along the way, including Fern Clyffe State Park, where hoards of Southern Illinoisans had turned out for the traditional Memorial Day weekend family picnic. Our objective was the park’s waterfall, but first we stopped at the lake on the way in — for one thing, we had no idea how to find it.
Eventually we got directions we thought we could follow and after a few missteps finally stumbled onto the area. The falls are a short, easy walk on a wide woodland trail along a creek bed. As you can see, the water was missing from the waterfall, but it’s still a lovely spot, picnickers and all. Again, it was hard to tear ourselves away from both the lake and waterfall, but all good things . . .
Our next stop was Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. We had only a few moments at the visitor center before closing, and were told where to find bald eagles and a beaver family (“Cutest thing ever!”). Neither opportunity panned out, although a fisherman told us he’d seen the beavers. In one area we found a viewing platform from which we watched an egret, a raccoon, and a green heron go about their business. I loved how one road bisects a lake, similar to Tampier Lake south of Chicago. Crossing the lake at nearly lake level in the early evening seems dreamlike and magical. While we didn’t see much of Crab Orchard, which is in a busy area, it’s a reminder that not all National Wildlife Refuges are in remote forests and prairies.
After dinner at Sonic, we finally left the good stuff behind and set out north. About halfway up the state we stopped in Centralia, a mile or so off I57, for a fuel/potty break. This, too, was like stepping into another dimension. Half of the brightly lit building was a convenience store, while the rest was a bar/food joint with pool tables. I wish I could remember the name. The moment I stepped in, through the store end, a man astutely steered me to the restroom. It was when I came out that I noticed the varied purposes the building served, with no distinction in lighting or decor between the store and the bar/fast food seating area. I wondered if the same regulars are found there weekend after weekend and if they or someone like them had inspired any episodes of The Twilight Zone.
We made it to Effingham, with its giant steel cross, before calling it a night.
The next morning, Memorial Day, was long, spent mostly on driving, with no diversions to places like Arcola or Rend Lake. We did stop at Champaign, which looked almost like a ghost town and where it took some time and effort to find an open coffee shop. Finally we landed at Café Kopi, where the whole of Champaign seemed to have congregated, with many huddled over computers. When you’re as tired as we were, it’s nearly impossible to force yourself to leave such a charming, comfortable place.
This day had not dawned as beautifully as most of the others, and at a rest stop north of Champaign the storm we’d been hearing about on the radio appeared behind us and followed us the rest of the way, more threatening looking than it proved to be. It served as an anticlimactic ending to a picture perfect trip and a reminder that the real world of work and catchup lay ahead.
Later I could remind myself that even as I tried to make sense of the information on my computer screen tourists were drinking mini-Cokes in Arcola; the sun was shining on Rend Lake; folks were fishing at Tacumseh Lake; servers were chatting up customers at a restaurant floating on the Ohio River; someone was peering up at the light through the crack in Cave-in-Rock; families were snapping photos at Garden of the Gods; hikers were picking the day’s collection of ticks off each other; 2,000-year-old bald cypresses were presiding over great blue herons, owls, and otters; boys and girls were hurling themselves across a picturesque swimming hole straight out of The Andy Griffith Show; and somewhere west of Illinois a woman was continuing her bicycle journey west, having conquered the Shawnee Hills of southernmost Illinois.
Pomona Natural Bridge, Little Grand Canyon, Lower Cache by canoe
May 25, 2013
Another glorious day dawned in the Shawnee National Forest, and after an amazing three-course breakfast we headed for what I think is the only natural bridge in Illinois — Pomona Natural Bridge. My memory has dulled since May, but it may not have been as easy to find as I had expected. By the time we arrived, and even more so when we left, I needed a rest stop. Someone told us there used to be at least a portable john by the parking lot, but no more. For the next couple of hours I paid dearly for all that good breakfast coffee and juice.
Pomona Natural Bridge is a short distance down a slope from the parking lot. After the sucking mud of Lusk Creek Canyon Wilderness, it was a quick, easy stroll. If I’d been in better shape, we could have taken the loop around and gone below. Thanks to me (again), however, we didn’t get the full experience.
What we did see was lovely and, like so much in Shawnee, unusual for Illinois. If you’re braver and less stiff than I — most likely you are — you can walk across the bridge. I contented myself with watching some couples and families cross. Now, months and seasons later, I wonder that I didn’t try (and that I wouldn’t let J.). Step ups and other things that come so easily to others have become nearly impossible for me. Even from our limited vantage point, though, it’s a peaceful, densely green area in mid-spring, a beautiful way to start a long day.
There’s a price for the idyllic greenery. When we returned to the parking lot, I noticed a tick crawling up my arm. After a search, I found another in my hair. J. discovered a couple of his own and did a dance among the cars in his efforts to crush the tiny buggers. No need to wait for an end-of-day tick check — if you spend any time outdoors in Shawnee, you will acquire your own personal tick collection. On the plus side, Illinois isn’t a hotbed of Lyme disease like Pennsylvania, Connecticut and some other states.
By now, a rest stop was becoming a painfully urgent need. That didn’t stop J. from stopping at a picturesque general store, complete with gas pumps that once dispensed leaded gasoline for unwitting customers, like Fred Flintstone (remember “Ethel”?).
All that driving gave us a good overview of the Shawnee Wine Trail, at it was at Von Jakob Vineyard that at last I found relief. Ahhh. This is a lovely upscale winery with an extensive veranda overlooking vineyards.
Our next stop was Little Grand Canyon. With our 4:30 appointment with Mark Denzer at White Crane Canoe Rentals, we didn’t have much time left to explore, and of course I asked someone unfamiliar with the area which trail to take. I knew we were in trouble when a younger, fit couple came back looking exhausted, and the woman kept saying she had problems. I made it at least a mile, while J. soldiered on. I’m not sure what he saw before he returned, but I had a good walk in the woods, which dropped off enough to let me know I wasn’t in Chicago anymore.
Leaving Little Grand Canyon, we found ourselves approaching a large turtle parked in the middle of the road. Judging from a farm pond below and his muddy tracks, it looked like he was headed toward the opposite side. But he wasn’t moving very fast if at all, and we didn’t want him killed. I was going to try to pick him up, keeping away from the head (as I’d learned during zoo docent training), but I soon learned that turtles can spin. Fast. No matter how I approached, he spun to face me. And then he snapped. A snapping turtle. A good-sized, hot, unhappy snapping turtle. We used trekking poles and one of our shoe boxes from Gander Mountain to push him toward the pond side (it was closer, although he’d been headed the other way), accidentally flipping him a couple times. I’ll never know if we did more harm than good, but we tried. The people driving past undoubtedly thought we were nuts.
Fortunately, Mark of White Crane was late, too, as a friend told us when we arrived. At last he returned and we pushed off, after I’d carefully leveraged myself into the canoe by using the back strut (for a moment, Mark feared I was going to try to sit on the strut). Meanwhile, J. had carefully brought his camera and telephoto only to realize later that he couldn’t switch lenses while paddling anyway. I just sat in the bottom, trying not to move too much, grateful that sciatica seemed to be in check.
What a tour. We didn’t see much wildlife, just a great blue heron or two flapping along on a parallel course near the shore. Mark told us that one photographer gave him a giant tip when they managed to spot a river otter. We could hear birds, including owls. We may not have seen many animals, but we did get a great feel for the Lower Cache and its unique ecosystem, as well as a bottoms up view of the state champion bald cypress and a many-kneed companion. It’s much easier to feel an intimacy with the trees and their home from the bottom of a canoe compared to the detached viewpoint from the dock overlook the day before.
As the sun was heading toward the horizon, changing the light and shadows among the trees and on the river, I couldn’t help being sorry that all good and great things must end, including magic.
After dropping Mark off at his friend’s house and deciding to skip Wildcat Bluff (lateness of the hour, approaching dark, tiredness, mosquitoes, or all of the above), J. spotted an Amish couple packing up their buggy next to the road. They had a few items left over for sale, including one of my Pennsylvania favorites — a pumpkin roll. By the time we left, they had even less to cart home.
Today was the day. We were going to the place that had inspired my interest in Shawnee and southernmost Illinois — the Cache River. Home to bald cypress, tupelo, and buttonbush, the Cache is the conjunction of north and south, east and west. Years ago I’d seen photos of the Cache taken by reptile keeper whose passion was photography and wanted to see what he’d seen. I may never make it to the Great Swamp (the Okefenokee) brought so vividly to life by author Marjorie Zapf, but here was my chance to experience something a little like, but now within my reach.
When the Ohio River adopted its present course, it left the Cache River to meander across rich and vast wetlands. Among the outstanding natural features found within the area today are massive cypress trees whose flared bases, called buttresses, exceed 40 feet circumference. Many are more than 1,000 years old, including one that has earned the title of state champion bald cypress because of its huge trunk girth, towering height and heavily branched canopy . . . the Cache River Valley contains four distinct ecological regions. Its hodgepodge of ecological factors has resulted in a collage of natural communities, each with its own unique assemblage of physical attributes, plants and animals.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
How could a place like that not be a lot more magical than anything conceived by Disney?
First, though, it was time to fuel in Hidden Lake Bed and Breakfast’s spacious breakfast room, which overlooks prettily landscaped grounds (although not the lake, because Hidden Lake really is hidden from the house) and a variety of bird feeders that attracted a variety of birds — flickers, indigo buntings, finches, hummingbirds, and even a hopeful hawk. Mary Jo, a former CFO, loves to cook, and it shows — three breakfast courses, all amazing. I’m so fond of that kind of comfort that I could have sat in that room for hours, just enjoying coffee and bird watching. We did linger for a while, but the Cache kept calling.
It may have called, but it didn’t tell me how to find it. I wasn’t thinking, and I didn’t spend the time to figure out what and where the best access points were. That’s how we ended up at Snakehole in the Little Black Slough Hunting Area, where hunters can sign in and out. As you can see, it was a perfect day and the area was amazing, but it didn’t fit my mental picture of a bald cypress-tupelo ecosystem. It turns out Google Maps just sent us to what was probably the closest access point to the Cache River State Natural Area. After walking around and seeing the sights, we headed down Old Cypress Road and got lost and lost again until we finally found our way out of the maze of scenic country roads.
It turns out our first stop should have been the Cache River Wetlands Center further south. Here you can get all kinds of information and souvenirs, then take a walk along a couple of trails. The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a great way to see the sights from a bicycle, while pedestrians have a choice of trails along and over the water. I’ve never seen so many fish in a river before, many of them needle-nosed gar. I suspect that this part of the Cache is a fisherman’s dream. Again, it was a gorgeous place, and I could have stayed there the rest of the day if pain allowed, but it still didn’t quite look like what I had expected. We decided to seek out the state champion bald cypress, indicated on the map we’d picked up.
On the way out, J. was distracted by a flock of snowy egrets across the road, and we went back and forth a few times while he tried to get a good photo or two.
Next, we found the area where you can view the state champion bald cypress, although at first we couldn’t tell which way to go. Most of the few people returning to the parking lot on the one path didn’t seem to know what we were talking about. We decided to go that way and see what happened.
Not far down (close enough for me and my fading energy), we found a viewing platform and a sign pointing to the state champ. We spent at least an hour taking photos, admiring the knees of the bald cypresses, and debating exactly which tree the sign was indicating — depending on your angle to the sign, the arrow seemed to indicate a few different trees, none of them the twin of the pictured tree. By the end, we thought we had it pinned down, and it turns out that we were right.
While standing on the viewing deck facing the water, the champion bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) can be seen slightly to the left (about 11 o’clock). This tree stands 73 feet tall, has a trunk circumference at 4.5 feet height from river bottom of 34 feet 3 inches, and boasts a crown spread of 35 feet. The Citizens Committee to Save the Cache and Jack White submitted these measurements to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forest Resources in th early 1990’s. Only native Illinois trees are considered for a Big Tree designation. Points are assigned based on a tree’s measurements: one point for each inch in circumference; one point for each foot in height; and, one point for one-fourth the crown spread. This tree earned a score of 492.75, and was recognized as the State Champion Bald Cypress in 1992.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources fact sheet
We wanted to see some of the 10 other state champion trees in the Cache River area, especially the water tupelo and cherrybark, but for some reason I had one of my rare bad days as a navigator and couldn’t seem to find my way anywhere. On the plus side, we’d finally found an abundance of bald cypress. On the down side, I now realize we really should have made an effort to find Heron Pond, where you can immerse yourself in the Cache.
We did do the next best thing, however. While at the Wetlands Center, we’d found out that guided and self-guided canoe trips on the Lower Cache were available and decided that was an option. (When I talked to the owner and told him I would have trouble getting into and out of a canoe, he said we would “manage it”). To me, the rate for a two-hour guided tour seemed reasonable — how can you put a price on such a great experience? By the next day, we’d decided definitely to do it.
We passed the Wetlands Center on the way back so J. could again try to take more photos of the snowy egrets. This time, we noticed many dead and dying turtles on the road near the center. I’d seen a sign earlier that warned this was their season to be on the move. Poor critters never knew what hit them . . .
And so back to town to do laundry and to dine at El Jalapeño in Anna. And then back to the B&B to find a note from the housekeeper saying she’d been in and a second note from Mary Jo saying she’d left something in the refrigerator — which turned out to be chocolate-covered strawberries. Mmmm.
Lusk Creek Wilderness Area (Indian Kitchen), Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area
May 23, 2013
There’s a point in any trip when I start to feel like the greater part is behind me, and that all too soon I’ll be returning to the everyday world in which every day is more of the same, and there’s little to look forward to — no bends in the road, as Anne of Green Gables might say. Thursday, May 27, I began to look more behind than ahead so that I regretted what was past instead of anticipating what was to come. At least when we said good-bye for the final time to Willowbrook Cabins, Sheriff “Bob” (as I’d dubbed him) wasn’t on the road, ready to cut off unsuspecting tourists.
Our objective was Lusk Creek Wilderness Area, which wasn’t as easy to find as you’d think. As we drove in what we thought seemed a likely direction, we spotted a woman riding up and down the rolling hills on a bike. We saw her a couple more times as we went back and forth trying to find the road to Lusk Creek Canyon. By the time of the third sighting, she was walking the bike. We wondered where she was going and how many times more we would see her toiling over the hills.
Google Maps kept steering me toward what appeared to be a decent red dirt road with the promising name of Ragan Road. Not all dirt roads are created equal, and this one didn’t look bad at first. Soon, though, it began to throw an alarming number of rocks at the car. Then the mud and ruts began, and the Corolla’s two-wheel drive kicked in as J. struggled to keep it from getting stuck and I struggled to understand the map. The woman on the bike would have had a better chance of getting through than us.
After a half hour or more and a particularly difficult stretch of rocks, mud, and ruts, we stopped about 100 feet short of a low spot covered by water. I didn’t want to risk it, nor did he, and it wasn’t hard to figure out that this may not have been the right way. As we sat talking about the options, he glanced in the rearview mirror and exclaimed, “Darn it! Now I’ll have to move.” I asked why. “Look behind us.” Two men in Western gear sat astride two patient horses, and J. clearly thought we were in their way. We both got out, and J. tried to reassure them he would move it as quickly as possible.
“You’re fine,” one of the riders said. “We can go around. Do you need help?”
They explained that they’d been following us for a while and had been wondering where we thought we were going and how we thought we were going to get there in a Toyota Corolla. We told them we were looking for Lusk Creek Canyon, but we had started to figure out this wasn’t the best route, if it was a route at all. While praising J.’s driving skills in getting us this far on that road in that type of car, they told him they would guide him as he turned the car around. As J. maneuvered the car, the two men rode back and forth across the road, letting him know when he was getting too close to the edge.
“Do you hear what they’re saying when they want you to stop?” I asked, laughing.
“Not really. What?”
“WHOA! Just like he would say to his horse!”
With their guidance, we were able to get out. They couldn’t get us clear driving directions to Lusk Creek Canyon — they knew how to get there on horseback.
After driving a bit more, we found ourselves at Shawnee Mart in Eddyville, which seemed like a good place to stop, pick up cold drinks and snacks, and ask directions. By then it was midday, and the parking lot was nearly empty. As we pulled in, though, who should appear but the bicyclist, walking her wheels toward the store. We met her outside the entrance, and J. couldn’t resist asking if he could take a photo. He thought she sounded Australian, but I guessed (correctly) that her accent came from the south of England, although she originated in Scotland. She was riding (and walking) from Washington, D.C. to Oregon, if I remember right. I told the trail takes her conveniently through the only truly hilly part of the state. As I write this three months later, I wonder if or when she made it — and, of course, how she was able to do it at all. Carefree spirit or a fortunate soul with a trust fund? I’l never know.
The cashier at Shawnee Mart figured out what we were looking for. “You mean Indian Kitchen?” We’d seen signs for it several times over several days, but hadn’t known what it was. Not only is Indian Kitchen (aka Lusk Creek Canyon Nature Preserve) the scenic highlight of Lusk Creek Wilderness, but it’s not that far from Shawnee Mart. We’d spent the morning looking for something that was in front of us, if we’d only known (thank you, Google Maps). Then, when we went down the correct roads (the second called Indian Kitchen Road), we overshot it by a mile or two. There’s a good-sized, tree-shaded parking lot on the west side of the road, but we missed it, along with the trailhead sign.
Soon we decided it was wise to have bought waterproof hiking shoes because the trail was very muddy — the kind of mud that grabs your foot each time you set it down and, if you let it, sucks your tightly laced shoes right off your feet. It was the kind of mud that makes even a short walk exhausting. Judging from the water-logged ruts and holes, the trail is very popular with horse riders, too, as our friends on Ragan Road had hinted.
The skies turned cloudy as we walked, and we saw only a few people, mostly returning. Although someone told us Indian Kitchen wasn’t much further and that it was worth it (something said of nearly everything in Shawnee), by the time we reached the Indian Kitchen sign, I didn’t have much left — perhaps just enough for the muddy trip back to the car. I had to turn back. J. went a little further but not enough to get to Indian Kitchen. From the photos I’ve seen, we missed out on another beautiful spot.
Earlier in the day, I’d reserved space at Frog Holler Bed and Breakfast in Jonesboro, so that’s where we headed. Along the way, we came across Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area. One of the many marvelous things about the Shawnee National Forest/Cache River/southernmost Illinois region is that there’s not only hiking and horse trails, and fishing and swimming holes — there’s also history galore, from Indian cities and mounds to the Trail of Tears. Having stopped, though, we didn’t make it to the top of the bluff because it was getting dark, the mosquitoes were swarming (on me, mostly) and I was still in pain from the earlier exertion.
After four wonderful days in the eastern, less developed part of Shawnee, we crossed over to the western part in search of Frog Holler Lodge, which we found eventually. The man who came out seemed surprised to see us, and I was equally surprised when he said all their guests had arrived, and that I hadn’t made a reservation there. As we drove off, I went back to the guide I’d called them from, looked at the number I called on my iPhone — and realized I’d called the number below, which was the nearby Hidden Lake Bed & Breakfast. I had jumped down a line while trying to read across.
The bad news was that it’s more expensive, although not prohibitively so. The good news was that it’s a beautiful property with a truly hidden lake (down the hill from the buildings), the rooms are large and have a lot of features (many even have a Jacuzzi, which is just what my aching bones and muscles needed), the location is on a side road that leads into downtown Jonesboro, and the owners are charming. I’ve had mistakes turn out a lot worse than this!
We had to get dinner, so we were referred to Brick House Grill in Anna, where the service was slow but the food was good after another day of Shawnee adventures.
Golconda, Burden Falls, Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area
May 22, 2013
Although I don’t always appreciate the forced sociability that comes with staying at a bed and breakfast, I do like getting an earlier start without having to go out in search of food. We had another opportunity to admire the view from the River Rose Inn in Elizabethtown and the old magnolia for which the Magnolia Cottage is named, although the male proprietor called it the “garbage tree” because of all the leaves it had dropped.
We drove through Golconda, which has a scenic overlook on the shores of the Ohio, an old-style pharmacy focused on health care, a grocery, an ice cream joint, and a couple of historic buildings that we would drive past later, including Riverview Mansion Hotel.
Burden Falls and Bell Smith Springs are on the list of things you should see in Shawnee. Even with the rain, I knew that Burden Falls wasn’t likely to be running, but it sounded scenic. Like Whoopie Cat and Tacumseh Lakes, it’s several miles down country roads — so far down that you wonder if you missed it.
We did find it eventually. While the waterfall was dry, several baby waterfalls trickled over the rocks near the parking lot. It is a beautiful area, with a few but not many people around. We went only as far as the falls, a short distance, although the trail continues. As with many spots in Shawnee, you can escape from the ubiquitous sound of car and truck traffic that permeates our lives.
There was more there we could have explored, but this kind of trip is like a tasting — you can try a little of many things without savoring one for more than a few moments.
Our next stop, Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area, is “always changing,” according to the graphic at the parking lot. I’m not savvy about topography, so I figured we’d follow the trail and see what there is to see. We spent a couple of hours here and saw only a fraction of the area. According to the U.S. Forest Service:
Bell Smith Springs is one of the most beautiful recreation areas the Shawnee National Forest has to offer. It contains a series of clear, rocky streams and scenic canyons bordered by high sandstone cliffs and an abundance of vegetation unique to Illinois. The trail system consists of eight miles of interconnected trails featuring strange and wonderful rock formations, such as Devil’s Backbone, Boulder Falls and a natural rock bridge. Hiking this system of trails is a favorite activity because of the rock features, scenic overlooks, hidden springs and lush flora and fauna.
From the little we saw, it is all that. The trail features steps carved into the rock by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. They’re so well crafted that they don’t disrupt the surroundings, yet they’re easy to go up and down.
For a couple of hours, we soaked in the rich color and intricate patterns of the sandstone, the lush spring green of the trees, and the screams of delight coming from the unseen watering hole below. Bell Smith Springs would be lovely in any season, even winter.
Calling it an early day, we passed through Golconda again, picking up some groceries and driving through the Golconda Historic District, which includes Buel House, “preserved as an example of a working-class home’s 146-year occupation by one family.”
And so off to the Hiker cabin, leftovers, and laundry.
After packing our gear and bidding farewell to the Outdoorsman cabin, we pulled out onto the road, only to find the lane blocked by a sheriff’s car that had come out of nowhere and cut us off in the blink of an eye. There he isn’t, there he is. J. said, “What? Am I in the wrong lane?” and started to pose the same question to the sheriff when he ambled over. He asked if we had been staying at Willowbrook Cabins. “I saw you pulling out and wanted to check,” he said affably. “I like to keep an eye on the place.”
Seeing the look on our faces and the bags piled on the bag seat, he assured us we hadn’t done anything wrong, returned to his car, and took off. The owner of Willowbrook Cabins can rest easy, knowing that the sheriff is Johnny on the spot when the unsuspecting tourists leave.
After eating breakfast in Elizabethtown at Ma and Pa’s restaurant and picking up the key to the Magnolia Cottage at the River Rose Inn, we returned to Golconda, where there is both a local grocery and pharmacy, as well as more river views. The weather had turned overcast and iffy, which made it a good day for a more urban adventure.
Thanks to Google Maps (accessible from Golconda), we ended up on Homberg Road, a winding country road with charm and character. It’s part of the Trail of Tears, down which the Cherokee were drive westward to Oklahoma, with thousands suffering and dying along the way. Although I’ve read about the Trail of Tears, until I saw the signs I’d had no idea (or had forgotten) that part of the trail passed through Illinois. There’s even a Trail of Tears State Park near the Mississippi. It’s a very long way around to get to Oklahoma.
A little way down Homberg Road, a big black dog ran out from a yard, planted himself in front of the car (stopped to avoid hitting him), and expressed intentions that didn’t seem welcoming. J. was afraid he’d stand on his hind legs and scratch the car, but he contented himself with circling in a menacing manner. Finally he ran back into his yard (perhaps someone had called him) and let us pass, although he didn’t seem happy about it.
Most of the drive on Homberg was partly sunny, which made it easier to spot a male indigo bunting flitting among the roadside brush. This is their favorite type of habitat, and over the next few days we found out that they’re not an uncommon sight in southernmost Illinois — although less common than the turkey and black vultures that seemed to wheel above us everywhere.
By the time we reached Metropolis around 3 p.m., the skies had clouded over with periods of drizzle. We entertained ourselves by posing with the giant Superman statue and cutouts in the center of town, then shopped for Superman T shirts, magnets, and other souvenirs. When we emerged, the skies had burst, which seemed like a good excuse to duck into Dippin Dots and celebrate our day’s lack of physical exertion by consuming lots of deliciously empty calories.
The weather wasn’t getting any less dark and wet, and Cairo was still a two-hour round trip. Again we compromised by agreeing to cross the Ohio to Paducah, Kentucky.
After a little discussion, we stopped at Fort Massac State Park, the oldest (1908) in Illinois. Located strategically on the Ohio, the site features a replica fort, including two barracks, three block houses, officers’ quarters, well, stockade, and fraise fence, as well as an outline of the 1757 French fort. I’d like to say how much I appreciated the history and the fort, but I was all too conscious of the rain beating on my borrowed poncho and of the mosquito hordes drilling into me. I can imagine how the common soldier felt on a warm, overcast summer’s day at Fort Massac. I still prefer Old Fort Niagara, where I heard mention of a dungeon.
It continued to pour as we crossed into Kentucky. At the exit, I noticed a Gander Mountain store. Still unhappy that, thanks to developing foot deformities I can no longer wear the great hiking shoes I’d worn only once or twice, I had J. pull into the mall. An hour or so later, we both emerged with waterproof hiking shoes, which we were going to need sooner than I expected.
Our last stop for the day was for a retro dinner at Parker’s Drive-In, where you can eat in your car as the rain pounds your car or in the large dining room.
And so back in the damp darkness to Elizabethtown and the Magnolia Cottage.
Again we set out for Cave-in-Rock for breakfast (and because the state park was on my must see list), and again we didn’t make it. While passing through Elizabethtown, west of Cave-in-Rock, J. spotted a short street leading to a big gazebo overlooking the Ohio River. At the end we found two impressive bed and breakfasts — the historic Rose Hotel (1812) to the east and the River Rose Inn (1914) to the west. Nearby the E-Town River Restaurant floats atop the river, connected to land by a gangplank.
The restaurant was to open at 11 a.m., so we took photos and checked out the gift shop at the Rose Hotel, which is operated by the State of Illinois. Photos in the gift shop show flood waters creeping up the lawn and up the side of their smaller gazebo, as well as a great blue heron taking advantage of the bountiful fishing opportunities.
At the E-Town River Restaurant, which sways gently back and forth with the water’s flow and the passing of boats, the server and I talked J. into ordering river catfish vs. pond catfish. The place and the fare aren’t fancy, but I’m told the fresh river catch is excellent if you like that sort of thing, the people are friendly, the experience is unique, and the views are marvelous — it proved to be one of those unplanned delights that help to make a trip extraordinary. Afterward, J. decided he wanted to stay at the River Rose Inn on Wednesday night, even though by then its far eastern location would be out of the way.
Ever since hearing its name, J. had had a burning desire to visit Whoopie Cat Lake (named for its former owner, Ernst “Whoopie Cat” Ralph). Miles down country and gravel roads, Whoopie Cat Lake is remote — in fact, it’s so remote that we never made it there, although I didn’t figure that out for another week or two. We found a sparkling blue lake surrounded by woods where two women were fishing — you would expect to come across Andy and Opie on its banks, whistling. Sure that we had found Whoopie Cat (we’d followed the signs), we took photos and savored the idyllic scene even as one of the women warned about ticks and Lyme disease. Later I found out we had stopped at Whoopie Cat’s sister lake, Tacumseh. The real Whoopie Cat is about a quarter mile away, reachable only by a foot path. On a map, its shape resembles that of a fish.
Our next stop was at Tower Rock Recreational Area, where we had difficulty finding the trailhead until a ranger who was about to leave pointed it out. It’s only one-eighth of a mile, overgrown and mostly uphill. At the top is another Ohio River vantage point from which we watched one of the longest barges I’ve ever seen.
Continuing east, finally we arrived at Cave-in-Rock and Cave-in-Rock State Park, also on the Ohio River, which served as a vantage point and base of operations for several gangs of murderers and thieves. Don’t expect a deep cave suitable for spelunking — it’s a hole in the rock with a good-sized fissure in the rock above that lets in daylight. I started to wonder what would happen to the cave if the New Madrid fault let rip — and glad I wasn’t going to be in the cave.
While walking up the wooden steps near the water, I spotted one of my favorite little critters — an anole, this one brown to match the wood. While anoles are common in places like Texas, they’re another sign that you’re not in a typical Illinois habitat anymore.
We tried the park’s lodge for dinner, but the restaurant is open only on weekends, which seems to be a recurring theme. We ended up at Rose’s Kountry Kitchen, where J. ordered fish (bluegill, I think). He’d decided that, when you’re so near the river that used to be their home, fresh fish has to be the order of the day every day.
Before leaving Cave-in-Rock, we considered taking the ferry to Kentucky, but, yes, I was the killjoy who nixed the idea (or voice of reason, depending on your point of view).
The compromise was to check out the Illinois Iron Furnace Historic Site, the only iron furnace structure in the state. Like Tacumseh and Whoopie Cat Lakes, the furnace doesn’t pull in out-of-towners. It’s a tall stone structure with furnaces on both sides, a little like a through-the-looking-glass effect. We were the only people there to take photos and to stoop into where the fires must have burned brightly and constantly. According to this, “it took forty men working in two shifts to keep the furnace in full blast.”
Across the road several families had gathered at a swimming hole, complete with ropes for swinging into the water — another place you might find Andy and Opie. While the children splashed happily, their parents stood around drinking beer and smoking as though high school were more than a recent memory.
If there’s one reason people visit Shawnee National Forest, it’s mostly likely to experience the Garden of the Gods. These sandstone formations are as impressive as they are unexpected, especially when you’ve just passed through hundreds of miles of flat Illinois farmland interrupted only by the occasional stand of trees and manmade horrors like the soulless giant cross at Effingham. According to the National Forest Service:
The Shawnee Hills took millions of years to form. The rock formations and cliffs at Garden of the Gods are made of sandstone and are about 320 million years old. Long ago most of Illinois, western Indiana and western Kentucky were covered by a giant inland sea. For millions of years great rivers carried sand and mud to the sea, where it settled along the shoreline. Over time, the weight of the sediments turned them into layers of rock thousands of feet thick. At Garden of the Gods the sediment layers were over 20,000 feet thick or about 4 miles deep. Eventually, a great uplift occurred, raising the inland sea above sea level causing it to fill in with sand and mud. The uplift also fractured the bedrock exposing it to nature’s erosive forces. Since that time, windblown sand, rain and freezing and thawing actions have worn down the layers of sediment, creating the beautiful rock formations at Garden of the Gods.
Before heading to Shawnee’s most noted wonder, we had to find a place for breakfast — not an easy feat when you’re in a strange, sparsely populated area with only intermittent access to a cellular network. According to the guide book I’d found in the cabin, Cave-in-Rock seemed to have some restaurants, so we headed in what we thought was that direction. Before we went very far, however, I spotted a sign for Bear Branch Horse Resort and Restaurant. This proved to be a charming place up a hill where people park their trailers (human and horse), then set out on their mounts to explore Lusk Creek Wilderness and other places. The restaurant is open only on weekends, and we had the place to ourselves. Outside, a tied-up dog fussed while a tied-up horse underwent his morning grooming. Horse campers — another American subculture unknown to most of us.
After eating a basic, satisfying breakfast and buying a detailed area map (with horse highlines noted), we found the Garden easily. At the vault toilet by the parking lot, a man whose wife had just walked off tried to talk a little girl into using it, but she had retreated into the stubborn refusal mode every parent knows. A few minutes later, his wife reappeared and asked what was going on. When he explained, she said curtly, “I’ll handle this.” He demurred, which made his wife explode. “She’s my daughter, and I will deal with this.” Chastised, the husband (but perhaps not the father?) slunk off sheepishly, while the mother’s methods proved to be a little more direct and a lot more effective.
I didn’t know what to expect, but this turned out to be the easiest trail we’d attempt during the week. Even the “narrow passage” marked on the sign was not too narrow to accommodate my wide load.
Garden of the Gods is lovely and spectacular, and photos can’t quite capture it. As a friend from the UK said, “That’s the quintessential American landscape, isn’t it?” Indeed, it looks like something you might see in a John Ford film or an episode of Bonanza — and nothing like the rest of Illinois. It calls for a panoramic shot — but by someone more skilled than I.
As at Starved Rock State Park, I was surprised (shocked) by how many parents let their children clamber up and down slippery rocks or walk out onto ledges. One young woman, barefoot, nimbly hopped across a narrow gap between rocks, which likely was not as dangerous as I thought for someone who’s not as stiff as I am, but probably not perfectly safe, either. I cringed even more when I saw the infant strapped to her chest.
We came across a temporary sign notifying the many visitors that rappelling is not permitted and that a search and rescue practice was in session. Further down we encountered four men with rappelling gear, two on the path with two split off to go around some plants. One of the men on the trail snapped, “You’re not supposed to do that!” Along the ways signs ask visitors to stay on the path to help protect the restoration of plants and the delicate ecosystem underway.
Although the main loop is not long, we spent about three hours taking photos, watching the circling vultures, and soaking in the scenery and rolling hills. As J. said, if he did nothing else but see Garden of the Gods, the trip would be worthwhile.
We left at about 3 o’clock and looked for a late lunch, but the first place we came to was closed — possibly permanently; it was hard to tell. It must have been camping day, because we found ourselves at the Double M Campground, another establishment catering to the horse crowd with a restaurant that’s also open only on weekends and holidays — until 4 p.m.
After a long trip to CVS and Walgreens in Harrisburg (which, we discovered later, was unnecessary — there were local marts closer to us), we headed in the direction of Rim Rock. We made a couple of stops along the way, the first at what appeared to be a working phone booth in the grass between a house and an abandoned building, the second at a tiny roadside cemetery. If you look at a detailed map of Shawnee, you’ll see that the area is dotted with an amazing number of little cemeteries. The oldest graves in this seemed to date to the late 1800s, although the stones were too worn to be legible.
The Rim Rock trail was an impulse stop, and the light was starting to fade when we started out from the trailhead. The part we took was not difficult, but there are warnings about not getting too close to the edge. With the trees in full leaf, it was hard to figure out the topography or to get a panoramic view. I did notice how stunted and gnarly some of the trees are, somewhat like those you might see on the Northern California coast. We also saw steps below us that, in the dimming light, seemed inaccessible (I think they lead to a cave). It’s the sort of surreal sight that inspires some of my strangest dreams.
The second part of the trail we took is an uphill climb, and by then I was tired, achy, and a little concerned about much further there was to go and the increasing darkness. Soon, though, we came to the ancient remnants of a wall constructed by Indians that happens to be close to the parking lot. By then it felt like the longest 8/10 of a mile I’d ever walked. And that’s without going down toward the cave or anywhere else — the trail is 2.5 miles long and best undertaken before 7:30 p.m.
After all that, a full day, we’d scratched only the surface of Garden of the Gods Wilderness and the Rim Rock/Pounds Hollow area. If I’d grown up here, I might appreciate Illinois more. And I might be in fantastic shape!
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.
Onarga, Arcola, Rend Lake, Willowbrook Cabins
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.