I found myself at Starved Rock, about two hours east of Chicago.
This spot in the Illinois Valley was carved out by a catastrophic glacial flood when the last Ice Age ended. An enormous glacial lake– geologists know not exactly where or when– was breached and all the water was unleashed at once right into the valley. It stripped the valley to the bedrock, and then stripped the bedrock.
When Robert de la Salle discovered the Valley, he thought it was near paradise. But I arrived in the Valley at night, off Interstate 80, and did not see any of this at first. So my first impression was rather poor. The hotel was in Peru (that’s Peru, Illinois), and when you get off the highway you’re immediately in one of those “off-ramp towns”, with big box stores, hotels, and cheesy restaurants.
The first remarkable thing I noticed about the Illinois Valley was the water. It was foul. It tasted something like stagnant pool water poured from a rusty bucket. It had a lingering, virulent smell. That night, I was thirsty, and coming home from a local bar I drank a lot of that horrible substance before heading to sleep. I woke up a few hours later feeling very ill. I could still smell the water, the way you can still smell the tequila as you suffer a massive hangover. The next morning, the lingering smell from the shower made me feel sick all over again.
Even the local Starbucks offered no respite, the terrible taste infecting even the coffee. If, as the crazy general in “Dr. Strangelove” thought, the Commies are out to poison our water and impurify our precious bodily fluids, the Illinois Valley must be their pilot run.
The people there are extremely polite and nice, further evidence of Commie vitality-sapping.
The next morning I made the drive out to Starved Rock. Driving through the Valley during the daytime was a totally different experience. Rolling ridges, beautiful bridges, curving highways. I was only able to get a shapshot where the trails cross one of the straighter roads:
The trees are all kinds of colors. Some of the trees are deep yellow and red, in the fall spirit. Other stragglers are still green or barely faded, not having got the message. In some spots, you can see where the trees exposed to the elements and the trees shielded from them disagree on what season it is. A path might have green trees on one side and orange trees on the other. You can see the microclimates in the colors of the leaves.
The whole place is, to paraphrase a great philosopher, really really ridiculously good looking.
If you want to camp out at Starved Rock, be advised it’s 25 bucks a night. 25 bucks! Most of the people at the campgrounds were in giant American trucks with trailer homes. The campgrounds had water and electricity so that’s probably what they were paying for. There were a few RVs as well. They all were probably wondering why some dude in a sedan was paying 25 bucks to pitch tent. I was wondering the same thing.
But I wasn’t too bothered.
This is a place that changes with the seasons. The most beautiful seasons are said to be the fall and the winter. I could believe that, or at least half of that.
But to paraphrase that same philosopher, there’s more to life than things that are really really ridiculously good looking; so after a few days there, I began to head east…