On the way home from the Write-to-Publish writer’s conference in Chicago last week, I decided to skip the toll roads in favor of the backroads, at least for the first hundred miles.
As I headed west on Illinois State Highway 30 (a two-lane highway), I went through a small town called Hinkley where I saw a sign for a city called Sandwich that was nine miles off the beaten path. According to the city’s website, “Sandwich is proud to be the home of the Sandwich Fair. Held every year since 1889, it is the oldest continuing county fair in the State of Illinois!” These people are serious about sandwiches. It sort of made me hungry, even though it was only 10:00 a.m.
While in Hinkley, I spotted a place called Dairy Joy—a drive-in. If you click on their website and view the gallery, you’ll see all sorts of photos that will make you wish you could visit: smiling kids with messy faces, smiling adults and shots of the surrounding area that include the main street that has been decorated with American flags.
As I continued west, the railroad had stacked ties next to the set of train tracks that ran parallel to the highway. Apparently, they were planning to replace some rotting ties so trains could continue to run through the area for many years to come. That’s not a sight I would’ve seen if I’d taken the toll road.
Waterman, Illinois was next. It, too, welcomed me with American flags hanging proudly on light poles that hung out over the highway. I passed Houlahan’s Tavern & Grill. I love the fact that we live in the age when places like Dairy Joy and Houlahan’s have websites that allow us to learn more about them, even if we don’t stop.
A quick look at Houlahan’s website (after I arrived home safely, of course) reveals that they are hiring a bartender, a part-time cook and a server. The site also has a customer gallery showing an elderly man signing karaoke, a golf foursome with gigantic eyeglasses and clown noses, a man all decked out in Chicago Bears gear and lots of people laughing.
As I approached Shabonna, Illinois (population 950), it was hard to miss the cell towers. They felt so out of place between the small towns and so much farmland. But the more I thought about it, the more it felt like the perfect balance. It was quiet out there. Peaceful. But the cell towers allow those who choose to live in such an environment to stay in touch. The older I get, the more I crave living near such a place.
A Wisted’s Supermarket appeared. Its Facebook page shows a photo of a piece of cake described this way: “Mom just Made her Apple Walnut Cake and she chose to frost it with a Caramel Cream Cheese Buttercreme - Yummmmy! Stop by and pick up several for dessert.” If the description doesn’t make your mouth water, I don’t know what will. And the picture might just make you jump in the car and make the trip yourself.
I almost missed a little pizza place call Chumly’s. It resembles a house. According to Yelp, it’s a favorite among campers who frequent the area. One camper vowed to make it his Friday night dinner stop every time he was in the area. Another woman said she and her husband order pizza every Friday they camp in the area, noting that they deliver to the campsite.
As I was between towns on this lonesome highway, sometimes without a car in sight, it brought a sense of peace to my soul, giving me time to think.
I passed a couple of small cemeteries – one of which probably had a hundred or fewer graves – and I wondered about all of the stories that were buried there. How did all of these people end up in this area? What had they committed their lives to? What sort of secrets did they take to their graves? How often do loved ones visit?
A small cutout appeared on my right, leading to a rest stop that only contained a couple of picnic tables, reminding me of my youth when my grandparents used to take my sister and me to Arkansas using two-lane highways rather than interstates. Grandma used to pack lunches and we’d stop at places just like this one to enjoy them. At that moment, I wished she were still alive so she could see that places like this still exist.
You forget about such things when you’re always in a hurry to get everywhere. Slowing down to observe for a while brings it all back. Of course, not everything is worthy of sentiment. I passed one place that appeared to be a candy store that I later found out was a strip club.
As I drew closer to Interstate 88 – maybe twenty miles away – a small stretch of rundown businesses appeared. In fact, they looked like they had been closed for some time. I envisioned the business owners turning off the lights and padlocking the doors on their final day. And then walking in solitude to their vehicle without a single person even noticing that their hearts were breaking, or that their minds were clouded with grief. So many dreams die in silence.
An older man to my left stood outside his red pickup truck with his arms draped over a small bridge as he stared down into what I assumed to be a small stream. Was he one of those business owners?
I passed a man on a riding lawnmower. His long flowing hair was graying, and he was sporting the torso of Hercules. He couldn’t have been tanner if he’d tried.
Garmina – the name I’ve assigned to my GPS – alerted me that I-88 was near. I was both happy and sad. Happy because I could get home sooner. Sad because I’d be leaving it all behind.