The annual summer vacation trip to the south of Illinois. Featuring a road trip playlist and a photo gallery of the sights. This year’s trip includes a virgin visit to the Illinois State Fair.
By Andrew Whorehall
Every year I venture the roads 3-5 hours south from Rockford, IL to a place I call a poor man’s paradise. Southern Illinois. It’s affordable and the sights are glorious between northern, central and southern IL. Stop by Peoria, IL, for a buffet meal at Big Al’s, located downtown. Don’t stay too long, you’ll contract something & end up with a drawl somehow. Journeying through Illinois listening to dialects is a national past time for me like fishing is for others. Where some people prefer to catch a fish and practically choke it to death as they pose for a picture to then throw it back, I prefer to take in the sounds that humans make when they talk. Illinois has the best dialects of everywhere. You’ll ask yourself, Where am I again? How did this happen? Accents, drawls and twangs, are developed naturally and then exported to places like Mississippi and Texas for ‘Made in America’ authenticity. Some of these traits show up in every small town in America but the special twangs are created from the middle of everywhere & nowhere known as Illinois. My twang? Made in Illinois, Exported to America.
Once you’ve had enough of Peoria’s hedonistic pleasures; strip bars, the gambling boat, great eateries, you’ll realize that downtown Peoria could have been a model for Rockford, IL, to follow decades ago to save itself from economic despair, oh well. Onwards, as far south as we will go and then head north, summer vacation, 2010.
Have you ever felt goosebumps approaching St. Louis from the distance? It’s magical and free. Seeing the St. Louis arch from the distance reminds me that there is a God that has a sense of humor. For miles and hours you’re surrounded by nothing but gas stations and a slightly tan-brown/sometimes green earth begging for rain. Out of nowhere there’s this giant piece of steel called art, plopped down in the middle of nowhere announcing you are arriving to the middle of nowhere. It’s best appreciated from afar. Reggie Railroad Reynolds, my childhood friend, says to our other friend, Ray, Look Rayray, there’s half of Ray Kroc’s dream. Once you make it to downtown St. Louis, venture towards the Mississipp River and stand under the Arch. Remind yourself you’re looking up at ‘art.’ They call that art, half of Ray Kroc’s dream.
Once you’re there I suggest making some swift decisions; choose the Missouri side of St. Louis. The beaches along the mighty Ole Miss’ are best taken in around dawn, when soft scents from the west meet the stench from the south. Survive the beaches along the Mississippi River for a night and head back into town for a night of rap-country music. It’s one of the few cities in America that can lay claim to ghetto-billie music where gangster rap and pop country hook up for hits. One of St. Louis’s finest ghetto-billie rappers is Nelly. He claims to be a St. Louis native but he was actually born in Austin, Texas. He dueted with Tim McGraw once on a hit song called, Over & Over. If you stay a night or two in St. Louis, you begin to understand how these sorts of awful creations end up becoming hits throughout the country.
We hit the road, there’s no point in going any more south from St. Louis unless you’re looking for the Gulf. We (Reggie, Ray, Sheila-Shantina & I) head back north through the shores of Southern Illinois to Farmerville, IL. We stopped there to take a jog around the town, pay our dues to old memories. One weekend in 1993, I slow danced for the first and last time to Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight. My bird at the time was the reigning Montgomery County Queen winner, who by default, had to be there. She ended up sleeping with a minor league baseball coach from Springfield, IL that summer and told me weeks after the county fair I drove 4 hours to attend. We didn’t last beyond school starting up again but luckily, Wonderful Tonight was still very wonderful. She has been divorced 3 times since. Southern girls got nothing to lose, Sheila wakes to sing to us from the backseat while I recount my time in Farmersville with the guys, heading to the finest early lunch joint in town, Subway.
After enjoying Farmersville, IL’s finest sandwich and chips shop, a foot-long Italian sub with Doritoes, we make the trek to Springfield, IL, the state’s capital. This is our first trip to what we find out by locals downtown is the first capital city that had a house the governor didn’t live in. No matter where you go in Illinois, there appears to be a feeling that none of us belong where we’re at. Some blame Rod Blagojevich, others blame ‘Maw & Paws egg-anne-sparm.’
Springfield appears at first to be a fine, functioning, city with a surviving downtown, supported by government employees and independent businesses, but it is just another city abused by federal government, often controlled by Chicago styled politics. The streets are as bad as Rockford, IL’s. (Large unexplained potholes and half foot like cracks in the streets everywhere.) The recession & an ex-governor’s trail of questionable legislation seems to have affected the Springfield’s 120K population’s psyche more so than the overall unemployment rate, which is much lower than a larger city near Chicago, like Rockford; 8.2% vs. the generous reported rate of 14.8%. Being this is our first trip to the nation’s capital we decide to focus on new experiences since it appears the downtown is a pretty busy place unlike other downtowns left to hang in Illinois.
This trip has goals besides enjoying the sounds and scents that only come from a place like Southern Illinois in the summer. We’re here for our first horseshoe meal and a VIP visit to the State Fair. The ‘horseshoe’ we find easily- they’re everywhere in Springfield, IL but word is, they’re not always authentic. We find an a great menu at Darcy’s that serves many variations of horseshoes. I enjoy a plate that is layered from the bottom up with texas toast, roast beef, fries piled on top and a delicious homemmade cheese sauce covering the whole thing. Word is the buffalo chicken horseshoe that the other 3 ate was to die for. The special cheese sauce came with part ranch dressing and part bleu cheese mixed in with something unknown on top of the texas toast and fries, and chicken. Instant nap or heart attack- whichever your body can handle you will have to decide for yourself.
The first night in Springfield is spent getting drunk at an art show downtown conveniently located above a bar named NorbAndy’s. We eventually move over to a local bar, Brewhaus, for an amazing beer list and free popcorn. Earlier in the night we end up buying a $10 print of aliens destroying Chicago that is currently sitting on the dresser in the house of friends we crashed at. We were the only bad vibes delivered from the northern IL area that night.
It’s so nice to go somewhere where no one knows who you are and you can get drunk and pretend your name is Jim, Rodger (Roger, or Radjhah) with fake accents that oppose or match the locals’ drawls and twangs. Reggie decides he’s going to be an asian ad firm owning mob boss named Mister Meerasaki. We laugh, Reggie is obviously not Asian, nor does he own an ad firm. So we drink, eat free popcorn, enjoy a late night meal at La Bambas and pass out. Springfield is heaven on Earth!
Day two in Springfield, IL is the highlight of the year as well as the peak- conclusion to our Southern IL Summer Vacation, 2010. The four of us take it easy til early afternoon nursing a hangover and prepping our first State Fair visit. After all the phones were charged and batteries loaded into our cameras, we hit the State Fair grounds. There’s lots of walking to begin and many people do look at you as if you are from another planet. Eventually when you find the hot spots (food stands & barn stalls), you’ll notice nothing but children screaming or begging for attention in all directions from their parents to go on rides, milk a cow, play a game, eat ice cream. Springfield may be heaven so far but the Illinois State Fair is hell. I felt like I belonged there with the animals, caged or tied in their stalls, facing directions opposite that of the humans staring at them. My northern accent felt alone next to everyone else’s. My friends tend to blend in easier, speaking with their fake accents for kicks. I felt horrible for the animals, I hope they felt bad for me.
We lived our whole year for this Summer Vacation moment, the Illinois State Fair. It surpassed any premeditated visions or assumptions I may have made about what it could be like at the State Fair amongst the state of Illinois’s finest humans and animals in one spot. Words can not do justice for what we saw and what we ate. The food was amazing… the animals were depressed… and the humans there were were out of this world. Few pictures survived because Sheila lost her camera, Ray lost his wallet and Reggie lost his mind.
Neither of us made more than a few words worth remembering on our drive home to Rockford, IL, until Reggie, gazing out the window towards a field of wind powered turbines, quietly muttered, This must be what it feels like to be a Rockford Refugee.
Southern Illinois, thank you, we will see you again next summer.
aW | andywhorehall.com
Andy & his friends’ road trip to Southern Illinois and back involved music. Probably the most important aspect of a road trip besides keeping a driver awake is picking good music to last for hours, sequenced just right. The trip to, through and back from the south of Illinois was made manageable by these audio selections, in order:
Neil Young After the Goldrush
Son Volt Trace
Rod Stewart Every Picture Tells a Story
Rod Stewart Never a Dull Moment
Sam Cooke Keep Movin’ On
The Handsome Family Through The Trees
Spoon Girls Can Tell
Lou Reed Coney Island Baby
The Replacements Tim
Chris Mills The Wall to Wall Sessions
Jay Farrar’s live band version of Like a Hurricane off of Stone, Steel & Bright Lights ended the trip entering Rockford, IL, Route 2.