Monday, May 31, 2010

Voyage to Volo Bog



Perhaps appropriately on a day set aside to see the only quaking bog in Illinois with an open center, the day dawned gloomy. It wasn’t wet or especially chilly, just overcast and gray.

After a late breakfast at Bonjour and some plant and compost shopping at the neighborhood’s annual garden fair, we set out. I didn’t have much hope that we’d arrive before the visitor center, housed in an old barn, closed at 3:00 p.m., and any hope I may have had faded quickly as we came up on the congealed traffic on the Kennedy Expressway (an oxymoron). There’s a traffic sprite that senses when you especially need traffic to flow smoothly and consequently snarls traffic and your plans. After more than an hour of crawling, traffic eased, yet at no point could I see any reason for the holdup other than the usual construction signs, barriers, and equipment. No workers present, at least that I could see. The point at which traffic speeded up appeared to be no different than any of the billions of other points along the way. That accursed sprite.

Finally, but too late, we were north of Lake-Cook Road in less crowded country. Further north, we came upon four enormous greenhouses, fronted by sculptured shrubs, a place called Atrium Garden Center. As we continued, we saw numerous garden centers, nurseries, and landscapers, including one “wholesale to the public.” People in McHenry and environs must take gardening very seriously.

The country closer to Volo Bog retains some of its rural charm, and not far away a sign at the end of a driveway leading to an older farmhouse advertises “farm fresh eggs.” A temptation if I had had room in my refrigerator. Sigh.

At last we arrived, nearly two hours after setting out. The visitor center was closed, but I picked up information outside the entrance, and so we set off on the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail.

This trail, which I had covered in the mid-90s with a group of volunteers from Lincoln Park Zoo, begins on a boardwalk over the surface of the bog. I remembered what to expect, but behind me I heard J say, “Whoa!” as the walk listed a bit to one side. Ahead of us a couple in late middle age were taking it very slowly. J and I discussed how deep the water might be. We suspect that you’d just get wet if you fell in, although it would be hard to haul yourself out if the bottom sucks as hard as saturated forest mud can (I’ve had athletic shoes sucked off). J marveled at the hinged construction, while I thought the boardwalk is looking worse for wear than I remembered. At one point further into the vegetation I think it morphed into recycled plastic. Across the open water we spotted large white wading birds, and along the walk we found curly-leafed plants, some mushrooms, and a type of flower with one white petal shading prominent sex organs. These aren’t the kind of plants you’re going to find in any garden center.

At the end, a yellow warbler called, his red-streaked breast visible through binoculars. ON the ground below, a Canada goose family blocked the path, while a second family obstructed the way to a viewing platform. We didn’t go to the platform, but as we drew closer one parent, then each of six goslings, then the other parent methodically and unhurriedly dropped into the water as though their movements had nothing to do with our approach; they had been planning a swim anyway, their attitude conveyed. It was a brief foray; they circled the little pond and came back out on the other side of the deck. See how casual that was?

We crossed over to the longer Tamarack Trail, which is supposed to be a 2.75-mile loop. The entire area is hopping with bird life; I spotted a flicker a few minutes into the trail, and then a bird I still haven’t been able to identify (I’m not a good birder). We spent a lot of time listening to and photographing it. In this area and a little further down, we got a good look at the white wading birds, one or two of which obliged us by flying. Black legs, yellow bills—I’d guess snowy egrets.

Past here, the trail veered a little away from the water, and we started to feel like we’d walked a fair distance. It was about then that we came upon a half-mile marker. .5 mile; that’s all we had walked. So far, this had been an easy walk, but I’d felt every inch of it.

In these tamarack woods bursting with birds and other life, we heard a lot of odd sounds, clicking, whirring, chirping, creaking, and the like. I thought I heard an odd sound now. Then, to the right, we saw a pair of sandhill cranes slowly and gracefully fade from view into the vegetation before J could dig out his camera. Here, birds don’t seem to flee in a panic—they just move slowly away, not wasting energy.

The trail continued through open and wooded areas, usually somewhat close to the water. By the time we came to a plastic boardwalk across the bog, which I thought must signal the beginning of the end (but didn’t), I was dragging.

This boardwalk was a bit of a challenge. For one thing, as the signs warned and as I immediately experienced, it’s slippery. I cut back on my speed, not wanting to do a split across it. This walk is also warped, whether from heat or other causes, so it twists a little like something in an Escher painting, with one side higher than the other in several places. It wasn’t a long walk across, but a tiring one between the small steps and the constant adjustments in balance (whether truly needed or not).

At some point we saw a 1.0 mi. marker. Unreal! At Starved Rock, we would have earned a view of the river or a canyon by now.

So far we’d met only one group, an extended family that had backtracked and ran into us not far from the trail head. Now we heard a huffing and puffing behind us, and a middle-aged endomorphic jogger passed us. He wasn’t in either bad or great shape, but we were surprised when he passed us again what seemed to be a short time later. We speculated about where he must have parked his motorcycle.

I wasn’t feeling any perkier, and we weren’t even at the 2.0 mi. mark.

A sign by a side trail promised a viewing platform, I couldn’t see it from partway along, and J, who went further but not far enough, didn’t find it, either. At one or two vantage points, a crude bench offered a good place to rest and take in the scenery. Ahhh.

Close to the en, perhaps even past the 2.5 mi. mark, a series of benches in a V shape seemed to form a mysterious theater under the dense canopy of the trees. I’d like to find out if they’re used for presentations or the like. Perhaps they’re part of a forgotten druid ritual. We sat briefly in the dappled shade looking out at the trees and grasses glowing in the low rays of the western sun.

Regretfully passing the farm-fresh eggs, we sought out Wauconda and Lakeside Inn. Downtown Wauconda is centered on Bangs Lake, which looked lovely against the setting sun, even captured by my iPhone camera. Small towns everywhere might benefit from having a similar feature that draws people and encourages a sense of community and well being.

Dinner consisted of fattening comfort food and fascinating conversation at the next table. Three women and two men carried on a lengthy discussion about the weather, the rain, and the horrors of flooding. From the little I know of this area, this didn’t surprise me.

Meanwhile, the live entertainment had arrived, two musicians, one of them blind. The servers and his performing partner steered him through several doorways as they brought in their gear. They started to sing shortly before we finished our meal.

By now, the people at the next table had exhausted the weather as a topic. Someone said, “Is that the black guy?”

“No, he’s a blind guy.”

“I thought the black guy was playing tonight.”

“No, this guy’s a blind guy.”

“He’s not the black guy?”

“He’s a blind guy.”

(Doubtfully): “He’s not a black guy who’s blind?”

And so on, like a Danny Kaye routine minus the snap and humor. I wondered if black musicians are so rare in these parts that “the black guy” is enough to identify a specific individual.

Toto, we’re not in Chicago anymore.

15 May 2010

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spring at Starved Rock State Park



The canyons and waterfalls of Starved Rock have been calling to J., while coincidentally an opportunity for a one-night stay at Starved Rock Lodge presented itself. So off we went after meeting in Homewood and spending most of the day running errands and shopping. The economy must be picking up because traffic was backed up through a half dozen lights, and the malls and stores were packed. Dick’s Sporting Goods, where I wanted to pick up trekking poles, was a little quieter—perhaps it’s not a hot spot for Mother’s Day gifts.

At last we left the southwest suburbs behind in the late afternoon. On the way to the Lodge, J had a hankering to stop at Mix’s Trading Post, a weathered wooden building with a false front situated between Utica’s downtown and the bridge over the Illinois River. From outside, it doesn’t look like more than a small shop, but, like the Tardis, inside it’s enormous. Overstuffed, but big. One room is full of a brand of moccasins and other footwear; Mix’s carries another brand of boots and shoes as well. I was sorely tempted. Biker gear and clothes filled a back room, and in between was a room with a display of carved marble creatures. Here, a ray called to me, but I ignored it. J. bought gifts and a some tinted vintage postcards of Starved Rock and a couple of churches in Ottawa and Streator. I suspect we’ll find our way to Mix’s again.

We arrived at the Lodge in time to go out for a little exploring before dinner. After checking in, we set off to see what we could see. In a field close to the road, we encountered a flock of four turkeys. J. parked in a convenient driveway across the way and got out to dig around in his camera bag in the trunk. Like their predecessors a few months ago, the turkeys weren’t have any of it. Slowly, discreetly, they began to make their way back to the tree line. Just as he was ready to snap a shot, the last one took cover. Later, we found he’d managed to get one shot with his digital camera. At least now he can say he’s seen wild turkeys.

In a quest to find Council Overhang, we parked and walked down a waterlogged trail, at the end of which we found . . . a parking lot. It turns out that the trail head for Council Overhang is at the other end of the first parking lot. We’d gone the wrong way. Taking a trail into the woods toward Illinois Canyon, we found a sign warning us that many deaths had occurred in this area and listed forbidden activities, such as rappelling. Here at the trail head the terrain seemed safe enough. . . .

Not far into the trees we came upon a sheer bluff that must attract climbers. Like the rest of Starved Rock’s features, it’s not high compared to something you’d find out west. But it’s close and enough of a challenge to draw local climbers—and steep and high enough to be dangerous. In the dim, strange light of a cold, gray late afternoon in the thick of the woods, it loomed over us, remind me of how these cliffs and canyons, relatively shallow though they be, seem to contain their own weird, magical little worlds that seem slightly out of time and sync with the world up there or beyond the woods.

Reluctantly, we left to dress for dinner, this time walking along the road to the first parking lot, with J waving to any drivers who passed to thank them for not hitting and killing us on the narrow shoulder. The world outside the cliffs and canyons has its dangers, too.

After dinner at a table by the fire, we found out the pool is open until 11:00 p.m. on Saturdays. I didn’t have a bathing suit, plus I did have an unexpected, unwelcome visitor, so he swam laps and then soaked in the whirlpool while I observed an obese middle-aged man with his chubby pre-teen son following him, looking just like a shorter, younger version of his dad. I could picture the boy in 35 or 40 years, and the picture wasn’t attractive.

Following the grim, chill Saturday, Sunday dawned sunny and crisp. After breakfast at the same table—no fire because the staff was setting up the Mother’s Day buffet—we walked around the bar’s deck and found a long staircase into the ravine. We went perhaps halfway down and returned; there is no shortage of steps in Starved Rock. As I took them down slowly and cautiously, two young girls with a family behind us bounded past us effortlessly. Count that among the things that make me feel my age and more.

It was time to head out. This time we drove toward Owl Canyon, which was an easy walk from the parking lot, and, ironically, perhaps missed Hidden Canyon in the same area—I didn’t see its sign. We went down a series of steps, at one point drawn by glimpses of water through the trees. At the bottom of this trail, an old bench with a narrow seat overlooks the Illinois River and a rust bucket of an overturned boat. Swallows flitted over the water, then took their ease for few moments at a time in some overhanging snags.

By now it was clear that this was going to be the perfect day to spend in Starved Rock. Spring sunshine, clear skies, comfortable temperature in the low to mid 60s—it couldn’t be any finer for hiking.

We continued along the river, eventually running into a family peering down at something they found fascinating, so we looked, too—and witnessed a pair of snakes in the act of mating. As more people came along, and naturally as J fiddled with his camera to capture them, the pair retreated a little further into the wood, weeds, and rocks by the water until they had mostly disappeared. We left them for good—we thought.

This trail proved to be long and, although not especially difficult, more of a challenge than my mind was prepared for. In a couple of places, narrow bridges without handrails crossed chasms, which disturbed me only after I was over them. They disturbed J not at all, as he set his trekking pole and tripod down and stepped back and forth to take photos. I pictured him taking one step too many and tumbling into the depths, which aren’t that deep but are deep enough. Further along, bridges over shallower areas come equipped with handrails. Someone had a sense of humor.

The trail began to run along a cliff, which bothered me only in the spots where I had to get around rocks or roots, or where it tilted down toward the canyon. If I can work my way around quickly, I’m all right, but if I have even a moment to think, I doubt and panic. Strangely, I went past one area easily enough getting into the canyon, but on the way out had to scoot over it with my butt out of fear, even as I told those behind me to go around if they could.

Once down in the canyon, I stopped short of going into the waterfall’s basin because the downward slant of the rocks perturbed the unthinking part of my brain—or perhaps the part that remembers a fall on a slope or some misstep? Everyone else clambered easily down, and J tried to cajole me, which only upset me, enough to make me cry. If once I’ve hesitated, then I need to talk myself into making the next move in my own time. I was also starting to worry about whether I could make it back, and if I could manage my biological urges ‘til then. I never felt so restrained and anxious when I was young—or did I?

The canyon is gorgeous, worth the sweat, anxiety, and tears. I’ve always wanted to stand behind a waterfall. While this was hardly the torrent of Last of the Mohicans (the waterfall was the only part of the movie I liked), it felt like magic to stand under the overhang and the drips that seep through and to see the water from that unusual, sheltered perspective. Judging from the traffic in the basin, I’m not the only one with that particular fantasy. Meanwhile, kids from 7 to 17 were climbing fearlessly on the narrow tilted ledges in a way I envied. But I was never like that, even as a kid.

Before we’d left for the lodge, J’s digital camera had started to give him a “lens error”—possibly he’d bumped it on the zebra finch cage in the lobby. Now when I tried to take a photo of him at the waterfall, his film camera died abruptly, mid-snap. He’d been remarking about the play of light along the top edge of the water as it fell, and now we wondered if that roll of film were going to be salvageable. After all that walking and putting up with my angst, the photography hobbyist was down to a partly functional digital camera and my iPhone camera.

Unduly worried about the trek back (which included going up all those steps at the end), I nagged him to leave. Partway down the trail, and after my panic, to his horror he noticed that he’d left his camera backpack behind. Yikes. I found a spot to sit and wait while he retrieved it—I hoped.

While I waited, people came and went. After a few minutes, a large dog that didn’t seem to have sensed me came around a bend and spotted me. Startled, he lunged at me and almost pulled the young woman at the other end of the leash over. Even as they passed, he kept leaping toward me. Methinks that puppy could use a lesson in trail manners and safety.

After about 15 or so minutes J returned with his backpack. Back at the river’s edge, we encountered another family fixated the/a pair of mating snakes; I couldn’t remember if they were in the same spot as before, but they were now on top of a wood pile rather than under it. An older boy with the family said that he was going to “get them” when they were done, so I stayed until they left, which gave J the opportunity to take photos with his disabled digital. After we reached the woods, we ran into him again, this time alone, and I mentioned my concerns to J. He thought it was just a pose, something an older teenager says to appear important or tough. Because some boys act on their posturing, I was still afraid for the snakes. I can only hope that if he did try to “get them,” they managed to slither off into the pile or the water. J also pointed out that they were in a place that would be difficult for anyone to reach. I hope he’s right.

That’s me—maternal and protective toward fornicating reptiles.

Our next objective was to try to find a battery for J’s film camera in the hope that that would revive it. First, we tried the Starved Rock Visitor Center. No batteries, but he did buy a book on 60 places to hike within 60 miles of Chicago. That should give us ideas for a while. On the way back to the car, a man told us that we’d just missed a boat ride but could catch the next. “Free today for mothers,” he said helpfully to me. “Well,” I said doubtfully, “I have a cat.” “Ah.” Even if we had had time, I’m guessing I didn’t qualify for the free ride. As for batteries, we had no better luck in Utica, where the grocery store was closed—possibly earlier than usual because of Mother’s Day.

It was about the time I’d wanted to leave for home, but we headed toward Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons in the hope we could see something interesting, like more waterfalls. A man returning up the trail told us that the canyons were probably a quarter of a mile or so away and were “well worth the walk.” This sounded promising, as did his reassurance that it was a relatively easy walk. “At Kaskaskia Canyon, if you take the lower trail your feet will get a little wet.” This sounded endurable.

For the most part, he was right. The trail to Ottawa Canyon is uphill, but neither steep nor precarious, and it seemed like a pretty easy walk compared to our previous endeavor.

Unfortunately, getting to Kaskaskia Canyon required a little more effort at the same time I was growing increasingly tired and cranky. I don’t think we found the upper trail the man had mentioned, and we did get our feet wet crossing the stream several times as solid ground ran out or barriers arose. As we scouted for the narrowest or most shallow places to cross, I was ready to give up. Where went my spirit of fun and adventure?

As the man said, Kaskaskia Canyon is worth the wet feet. In the late afternoon light, with fallen trees leaning against the waterfall, it looked especially remote and wild. A few people lingered, including a no-nonsense photographer with a tripod for whom descents, rocks, roots, water, and other obstacles presented no barriers. Something else for me to envy—that confidence and ease with one’s own body and its abilities.

At last we really had to leave. On the shoulder of the road I spotted large birds that, when we stopped, awkwardly took off and flew to the lowest branches of the nearest tree. I had thought “turkeys”—I must have had turkey on the brain—but then we noticed a carcass on the shoulder. We’d interrupted turkey vultures at table. By the time J had dug out his partially disabled digital camera, they had evaporated into the dimness of the tree’s shadows. Of course.

The Nodding Onion was closed, so off we went to Chicago and dinner at Bar Louie—from rural pine lodge to urban chain sports bar in only a couple of hours.

It’s not New York, but I could get used to Illinois.

8 and 9 May 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dream: In which Lovecraft haunts me

I was in a strange house, where a girl or young woman showed me a room that looked like a semi-aquatic exhibit at a zoo. The back half was filled with murky water, and the effect of the house and the room was to fill me a sense of horror and foreboding. The word "Cthulhul" kept appearing in my mind, and for what seemed like hours I spelled it over and over again, obsessively, stopping only when I woke up.

I have never read Lovecraft.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The lusty month of May at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie



During one of our return trips from Starved Rock State Park, I’d noticed something new to me—Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. We couldn’t find a convenient entrance, so we made a mental note to check it out on another day. This was the day.

For me, May 1 began with breakfast at Bonjour, while J had the less pleasant task of going to a dentist’s appointment. We met at the Homewood train station, made the obligatory trip to Caribou, and stopped at Walgreens (I had a premonition that wet wipes would come in handy). At last we set off down I-80.

I wasn’t sure the welcome center would be open as I didn’t know how they define “summer,” but it was, and was worth the stop. Graphics showed the history of the area, how the prairie was formed, and how it shrank to less than .1 percent of its former extent. The graphics alluded to the Black Hawk War, for which, we had learned the previous week, Abraham Lincoln had signed up, and the forced removal of the Potawatomi from Illinois. J picked up some goodies, and I bought an anthology of Chicago nature essays. We collected a number of guides (to birds, spiders, etc.), then took off for the trails.

On the way to the first trail head, we pulled up next to a sign with a list of emergency radio stations. Immediately I thought of tornadoes—it’s the perfect area for them, flat and open. Much later, I realized we were in the vicinity of the Braidwood and Dresden power plants. If there’s an alarm, it’s not a tornado but something potentially more far reaching and deadly.

The first trail was an interim one along a stream and wetland. At first I had gone the wrong way and missed the trail head, but at least we saw this fellow (fortunately, I spotted him before I put my foot down). J took this photo, but I must have leaned in too close too suddenly because abruptly he flew into action and whipped off, disappearing into the layers of grasses. Shame on me—I should know better than to frighten off the wildlife, especially snakes.

We followed the temporary mowed trail until our shoes were soaked, at which point I finally looked at a map and realized the trail didn’t loop. We turned back at the limit of my endurance, and his, too, because he lagged behind me as though he’d run out of steam.

On the way out along the stream we’d seen and heard three frogs hopping away from us into the dense vegetation. We’d also heard what seemed to be the constant pop of guns in the distance, and I wondered if wee should have picked up the mesh hunter orange vests at the welcome center. Later we learned that it’s turkey season, with hunting allowed in the morning. We didn’t see any turkeys, and, judging from the near-constant pop-pop-pop for a while, there seemed to be 50 to 100 shots for every turkey that could possibly be in the area. Or there’s a shooting club nearby.

The return trip was quieter, with only a few birds, mostly grackles and red-winged blackbirds, breaking the peace. Mosquito season must have begun already because I caught one taking a chunk out of my hand.

For a while we drove down the road through the prairie land, discovering, among other things, a Dresden cooling lake (my first clue as to our proximity to the power plants) and the Des Plaines Fish & Wildlife Area. We stopped at the lake and at a few points along the mighty Kankakee River, which from certain viewpoints could look almost unsettled—until boats and jet skis roar past. I imagine some of Chicago’s affluent citizens have vacation homes in the area. I might if I could, although I also think that if I could afford to live anywhere, it would not be Chicago!

By now, it was getting late in the day, so we headed toward the Iron Bridge trail head. These trails wind through areas that could someday resemble a prairie, and a sign informs you of the efforts to restore and overseed the land formerly used for agriculture. Another sign warns you of turkey hunting season and times, and suggests that it would help to wear hunter orange at all times. Fortunately for us (and the turkeys), officially the shooting was over for the day.

While drier, the trail wasn’t as interesting to me and probably won’t be until it starts to look like a tallgrass prairie, which could take many years. Wildflowers added color to some of the fields, but the area seemed to be relatively featureless—until we came upon bunkers with grass growing on them. I don’t know exactly what they are, or indeed if I want to know. I’d guess they’re holdovers from the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant/Arsenal. I wonder if the public is allowed inside them and what can be found there.

Finally, overcome by hunger and other human urges, not to mention muscle fatigue, I turned us around so we could to Hayden’s Crossing in Wilmington, a small Route 66 town whose downtown seems to be dominated by a biker bar blaring music. Later in Utica, Illinois (population 1,000), I noticed a prominent biker culture. I suppose I’d forgotten this aspect of small-town America.

Hayden’s Crossing is a popular spot, with a Saturday evening 30-minute wait for a table under its rustic wood beams. As we delved into very good comfort food, we watched the babies at neighboring tables coo, smile, and slap their way to the servers’ hearts.

Ah, I couldn’t help thinking—there goes the next generation of bikers.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mattoon, Lake Shelbyville, Springfield, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum



J’s wanted to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum for years, but in the past few months I’ve put him off with concerns about the weather, not feeling well, and other objections (all genuine). So he came up with Plan B. He lured me with a proposed trip to the Mattoon Herb Festival followed by a visit to Lake Shelbyville, with state parks and wildlife areas. I’m game! Then, almost as an afterthought, he threw in, “Springfield isn’t that much farther. Hey, we could go to the Lincoln Museum!”

Hook, line, and sinker.

We set out on Saturday, April 24, after a 7:30 a.m. breakfast of filled croissants at Bonjour—too early for the full breakfast. It turned out that this would have to carry us 179 miles and until mid-afternoon.

Mattoon is a straight shot from Chicago via I-57, which means poor J, who said he’d never gone to bed Friday, had to backtrack 26 miles—which he would have to do again at the end of the trip.

We stopped at Paxton, where we found Just Hamburgers and Country Thyme Tea Room & Catering closed at 10:30 a.m. A woman from Country Thyme kindly poured coffee into J’s cup to keep him fueled. Down the road in Paxton, I rejected a country restaurant (Country Gardens Restaurant & Pancake House) when a man who looked like Hee-Haw’s Junior Samples came out.

J had overshot a rest stop before this, and the next one, which proved to be many miles off, was closed. Of course, because by now I was starting to feel very uncomfortable. I blame PMS. I didn’t like McDonald’s as an option (although he assured me their restrooms are famously clean), so when we spotted a Tanger Outlet Center in the Amish town of Tuscola, we figured this was as good an opportunity for relief as any. Ahhh. It also gave an opportunity to pick up chocolate at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

By the time we rolled into Mattoon, the weather was starting to look less unpromising and more threatening. At the first stall, J bought plants for 50 percent off because the sellers had heard a storm was moving in from St. Louis. He bought many plants at several stall, including the bee and lemon balm I suggested and many of the herbs I shoved under his nose that he couldn’t smell. I returned to the car for a brief nap, promptly interrupted by the dry, itchy cough that’s been dogging me for weeks. I emerged so we could check out the Picket Fence, host of the festival. When I passed him on the sidewalk, he was chatting with tourists from a town he’d visited in Germany. Somehow they’d found the Mattoon Herb Festival, which covered perhaps 1.5 square blocks.

After leaving the Germans, J returned to the car and said he had to pick up something, which proved to be wooden planters painted white with green plastic insets. He told me they were made of wood, which I had not failed to notice. Did he mention they’re wood?

Along the way, we’d noticed what appeared to be a regional pizza chain, and in Mattoon there was one across the way from the Picket Fence. Both of us were in the mood for something more adventurous, so, with the help of Yelp for iPhone, we found Common Grounds, a sweet coffee shop whose motto is: A cup of courage, kindness, comfort or just some . . . Common Grounds. Good coffee, sandwiches, and pastries, plus an ambiance like you might find in a college town. And Wi-Fi, which makes J happy. For later, I bought a cinnamon roll and a bag of Death by Chocolate coffee. My gall bladder is not thanking me.

Reluctantly dragging our tired selves from Common Grounds, we set off for Wolf Creek State Park on the shores of Lake Shelbyville, whose shape reminds me of a portion of small intestine. We walked around a campground even as the weather grew darker and windier. As we passed people camped in tents among trees under the lowering skies and then J made his way down a bank to take photos of the water, I could easily imagine the inspiration for many a horror movie in this place.

Near another campground (closed), we spied a large bird that I assumed to be a hawk. We pulled over to get photos of it, and J found a path to a wetlands overlook. There must be something around every bend.

Leaving the campgrounds behind, we came across the Red Fox hiking trail, marked as “moderate” in difficulty. It was still gloomy and damp, and not that far along we found low spots filled with water that were passable, but struggling with mud and getting our feet even wetter didn’t appeal to us, so we turned back.

J’s interest lay in getting to the water’s edge, so the boat launch area seemed promising. In the meantime, we’d seen more of the large birds, sometimes as many as five together. Probably not hawks. Vultures, possibly turkey vultures, ever vigilant for death and decay. They must find a way to survive, but I wonder how much sustenance there is in such a place and how large their range is.

The boat launch fascinated me, because the ramp to it seemed so steep. As someone who doesn’t drive, I couldn’t imagine backing down it. As if to underscore my silliness, a man who’d been out in a boat backed his boat trailer into the water with his pickup, drove the good-sized motorboat onto it and hitched it, then drove off. He must have collected his black dog, which had been careening around the parking lot, although I didn’t see him stop. All of this took fewer than five minutes. He was there, then he wasn’t.

Happy, J took photos of a strangely shaped island across from the launch and of the vultures, which seemed to float lower to ground and closer to us here.

Next stop: Eagle Creek State Park on the opposite shore.

By now, it was getting late in the day, the clouds had gathered into a threatening mass, and the wind had picked up. At Eagle Creek’s boat launch,we flushed a pair of blue herons thew flew inland (thwarting J’s effort to get a photo). Where the sky wasn’t solid dark grey-green with lightning flashes, it was forming interesting funnel-shaped clouds. According to Weather Channel for iPhone, a tornado watch was in effect. J, loathe to leave, took video of the oncoming storm, with a visible sheet of rain advancing as I screeched at him to get into the car. Finally, he did, after the sheet had hit. Common sense is not in his vocabulary.

Now we were off to Springfield on unfamiliar, unlit roads. At one point on a divided highway we spotted a gas station only to pass the entrance in the dark and rain, so we circled back even as the car’s gas gauge was creeping to “E.” Finally, we hit I-55—and the worst of the downpour. Despite the sheets of hard rain, the spray of water everywhere, the darkness, and the lack of visibility, impatient SUV drivers sped past us at 65+ mph. Places to go, people to see . . .

At last we arrived at Rippon Kinsella House around 9:15 p.m. The proprietors seemed skeptical that we could find a place open that late for dinner and directed us to the Sunset Café. Here, the last employee out was sweeping the floor. She sent J to the Barrel Head, which we aren’t sure we found but which I thought I’d seen out of the corner of my right eye and which looked to be more pub than grill. Down the road we found a shopping center with a restaurant called Osaka—more restaurant than bar, and open until 11:00 p.m. I ordered from the Thai page, we both ate plenty had a lot left over, and J discovered a Japanese melon drink that comes in a novelty bottle. Opening it without assistance from the server (who would have found a bottle of wine easier to crack) became a point of failed pride. After our server finally opened it for him, the floating ball that had sealed it fascinated J. He ordered two to go. Boys will be boys, even when they are close to 50.

After an excellent breakfast with fellow travelers, including a couple from Minnesota, we set out for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, with a brief detour to Springfield’s visitor center, a grand Union Station complete with baggage room and nurse’s station. Outside at the intersection of beam and wall a pair of mourning doves indiscreetly kept watch over their nest (the male’s behavior made us look up, the silly).

At breakfast our fellows had told us that the museum would require several hours, and that we’d be impressed. It did, and we were. Later, a friend mentioned that she had heard it’s more Disneyfied than dignified, which I suppose is somewhat true—although it could be countered that the serious history is still available in parts of the museum and at the connected presidential library across the street (closed Sundays). The presentation of Lincoln, which ostensibly focused on peeling away the layers of myth, remained more wide than deep. A museum’s probably not the best place to penetrate into the heart’s secrets. A few things I didn’t care for were the re-creations of Willie’s sickbed the night of a White House ball or Lincoln’s casket lying in state; the points could have been made in less space more tastefully, although honestly I found the sickbed re-creation moving, while J liked the casket room (which did not move me). The display of gowns behind the White House facade to the right doesn’t seem the best use of the space, although it does tell the story of how out of place the Lincolns, especially Mary Todd, were.

The highlights, however, compensated for the shortcomings. A few of my favorites:
  • The “Ask Mr. Lincoln” room, where visitors can choose from various categories of questions, then go into a small theater to hear and read the answer in Lincoln’s words. J. noted how craftily Lincoln evaded the question about atheism, and I pondered how he seemed to have interpreted “all men are created equal” in the way Jefferson had intended—even if the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t come about until 1964. The exhibit pointed out that Lincoln’s response, racist by our standards, was liberal for his day. We can’t judge the past or its people by standards we have learned since then.

  • An extensive gallery of vitriolic anti-Lincoln political cartoons that make today’s seem tame, even civil. Lincoln is portrayed as an ape, a black man, a black ape, Satan, a black Satan—you get the idea. While you walk through this dark, twisted gallery, you hear voices spew despicable lies about Lincoln. It’s hard to conceive of so much hatred for one man in defense of the indefensible—slavery.

  • Two theaters, the Union Theater (“Lincoln’s Eyes)” and the Holavision Theater (“Ghosts of the Library”). In the first, an artist who painted Lincoln’s portrait talks about Lincoln’s apparent lazy eye, perhaps the result of a childhood incident in which a horse kicked him in the head, and his expressions, as well as how his face changed as his presidency and the war (illustrated with explosions that rattle you in your seat, flashes, and smoke) progressed. Outside the theater, a portrait from each year shows a man aging at least three years or more for each one that passed. By the last portrait, he looks strikingly corpse-like. I’ve sometimes thought Lincoln may have been suffering from a wasting disease. There’s no mention of this, so it’s only my speculation. Lincoln certainly suffered as a leader and as a parent. “Ghosts of the Library,” the Holavision presentation, “capture[s] the exciting sense of discovery that scholars and curators feel as they approach a great research collection.” I think my eyes watered in both theaters.

  • Before he died, Tim Russert recorded a news program showcasing the views and TV commercials of the four candidates while you watch from the perspective of a newsroom, a bank of TVs in front of you. The political commercials were brilliant, especially the one for pro-slavery Southerner John C. Breckinridge. While he looks tough, the voice-over intones how they want to take away your rights, your property, your very way of life. Change costumes and a few details, and it could be 2008 all over again. I, along with most attendees, came away with a pretty clear if simplified idea of how each of the candidates had positioned himself in the four-way battle and an understanding that Lincoln was not the popular choice. It was genius to show the campaign in terms and via a medium that we understand today. Once again we discover that the politics of the past was not a gentleman’s sport.

  • In the War Gallery Scrapbook room hangs scores of framed photos, some of which I recognized. When you touch an image of the photo on one of the touch screens below, you can read the story behind it, whether it’s a photo of a famous officer or an emaciated prisoner of war. So many people, so many stories, so much loss. I still blame the Founding Fathers for not finding a way to prevent or at least mitigate this horror, because in some significant ways the Civil War still haunts us in 2010.

  • In the first part of the War Gallery with the beginnings of the stories of eight soldiers (the stories are completed in the War Gallery Scrapbook room), an animation shows the Civil War in four minutes, with one second equal to one week. Cannon fire captioned with names represents battles, and the North-South battle lines are shown moving over time, with the most significant changes starting in 1863. In the lower right-hand area, a counter shows northern and southern casualties as they are racked up, which even in raw numbers alone, with no imagery, are appalling. So much death and maiming and destruction in so short a time. This condensation of the war into battle names, the changing battle lines, and casualty tally was powerful and moving in its simplicity.
I didn’t check out the Illinois room as thoroughly as J. did, but I can tell you this—you’ll come away remembering that John Deere originated in Moline.

After we pressed numerous Lincoln pennies (I can attest that hand cranking is more fun) and J had explored the gift shop twice, we headed for Springfield’s nearly empty streets, where he was able to slow the car repeatedly to take photos of the state capitol. He did get out for the governor’s mansion (quickly so as not to look suspect), which we happened upon in the course of travel, and Lincoln’s home, which I skipped—I had no energy left even for a brief excursion.

On Yelp, I was surprised to see virtually no results for restaurants under the “open” filter. I thought this might mean the business hadn’t entered its hours. At the place I’d hoped to go to, the door was open, but the young man cleaning said, “Closed.” And so was the cute coffee shop down the street, and the nearby restaurant with tablecloths. In fact, everything was closed except a lone Jimmy John’s, where we settled in. Not exactly the dining adventure we were hoping for, but this did explain the lack of traffic—nowhere to go. On Yelp, even all the nearby Starbucks were shown as closed. Remarkable.

As insane as former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich seems to me, now I understand his preference for living in Chicago (ostensibly because of his children’s school). He would have driven himself even more nuts imagining Mayor Richard J. Daley at his Red Light power dinners while he, Rod, would be lucky to find a Jimmy John’s open. Now I wonder if other state capitals are nearly as sleepy. J was taken aback, too.

Under dreary skies, we made an uneventful trip down (up?) I-55. Poor J fell asleep in his condo parking lot. And so on to Monday and a full week in the not-so-great indoors.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Get your peanuts here!

Some might think it would take a 3 mile pencil to write one of my longer blog posts. Meanwhile, the peanut erasers turned up tonight in a search of my stash.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mosè in Egitto at Chicago Opera Theater

JT took me to another opera, the April 21st performance of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto at Chicago Opera Theater.

Altogether, this was quite a different experience from that at Chicago Lyric. Harris Theater is nestled in the bowels of the earth at Millennium Park. Attendees cram onto one relatively small elevator, which fits the parking garage aesthetic of the entry and other public areas. It’s more than just stark and cold, or minimalist. It’s aggressively industrial, the kind of place where you’d expect the scent of leaked oil, disintegrating rubber, and pervasive dampness. Not a place where you’d expect an art like opera to grow and thrive. JT said her husband hates Harris Theater; it’s easy to see why.

Off the elevator and in the theater we descended steep gray steps made of a hard material that suited the garage theme and flanked in spots by flimsy handrails. As the average age here doesn’t seem to be any younger than at Lyric, the purpose of the design seems to be to facilitate vertigo followed by a fall—fortunately, not mine this time. As I looked around, I half expected Blue Man Group to appear.

Baritone-bass Tom Corbeil (Faraone), who is very tall and looked to me to be very young, couldn’t project beyond the first few rows—that’s where we were, and we could hear only just barely. In addition to a weak voice and unvarying volume, Corbeil’s performance suffered from awkward staging exacerbated by his idea that a pharaoh should be stiff, down to his rigid fingers. As his wife Amaltea, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis overcame the silliness of the padded gold lamé gown/shroud she’d been stuffed into, to put on a passionate show as the voice of womanly care and reason. Baritone-bass Andrea Concetti (Mosè) and tenor Jorge Prego (Aronne) sang and acted capably, although Prego’s expressions at time reminded me of a young Brent Spiner. To me this seemed a difficult role because it’s superfluous to the plot; he’s overshadowed by the two couples and Mosè. Second banana, fifth wheel—never easy, and the role of Aronne adds little.

The real show stoppers are tenor Taylor Stayton as the Pharoah’s son, Osiride, and soprano (and flaming redhead) Siân Davies as his Israelite lover Elcia. The plot is thin and straightforward, so they end up singing about the same things over and over. Fortunately, both have the vocal power and acting range to stretch the material.

The set, dominated by a slanted glass pyramid sheet, and the costumes lacked flair or imagination, even on a budget, and the staging detracted from the interrelated dramas—Pharoah vs. the God of the Israelites, and the son and his lover vs. his father and her God. Too much was performed straight on or at 180 degrees to the audience (not unlike a first-grade play), random movements were substituted for action, and the ensemble (serving as both Egyptians and Israelites) was too small to project either an Egyptian force or an Israelite throng, making the plot’s very large sticking point (emigration) seem very small. At times, the combined staging and lighting reminded me of Catholic mass—surely not the desired effect. Worse, the staging of the piece’s deaths and the parting of the Red Sea was clumsy, confusing, and on the border of laughable—also surely not the desired effect given the human and personal drama that has gone before.

I couldn’t help noticing one of the ensemble members, partly because he is very tall—as tall as Corbeil—and because, sporting a beard, he’s very handsome. I liked him, too, because he seemed comfortable in his own skin, fluid in his movements, and, despite his height, never calling attention to himself to the detriment of the principals. Through clues in the program and on the Chicago Opera Theater Web site, and my intuition, I figured out he’s baritone-bass Benjamin LeClair. JT looked at his history and declared it impressive for an ensemble member. She speculated that he simply wished to appear in this rare production, even if only as an ensemble member. He also served as cover for Moses. I’d like to hear his voice, especially if he can project better than Corbeil. I’d love to see him again, even if not on stage!

And so, with the deaths duly died and the Israelites on the other side of the Red Sea, we departed, and I was able to get home early enough not to suffer the next day at work—at least I was alert enough to discover the tall and handsome (and too young) Benjamin LeClair.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Dream: Star banger

I was in a futuristic city high rise when suddenly a giant star like a cookie cutter banged against one of the full-sized glass windows in front of me. It came back and banged again. Clearly, it was up to something bad as it tried to to break through.

Finally it did, but then it left. I raised my hand in salute, which made it return and crash against the glass that was still there. Every time I made a gesture of thanks, it returned and banged again.

I couldn’t stop myself.

Live from Illinois

The Des Plaines Dolomite Prairies Land and Water Reserve.

How quickly the skies turn cloudy

It never ceases to amaze me.

My favorite tree

It lost its nearly perfect shape a few years ago when wind ripped off some branches, but it's still a gorgeous horse chestnut.