There is an ad campaign, the posters for which are easy to find in Chicago, called Mile after Magnificent Mile, which is meant to entice visitors to venture beyond the friendly confines of the city into the Illinois hinterlands. The ads are, as far as I can tell, completely and unequivocally ignored. No one from Chicago, and I mean no one, burns vacation time in downstate Illinois – Wisconsin and Michigan are the destinations of choice. Despite this, I have always thought that there has to be some hidden downstate gem, and when I find it, given the lack of attention the area gets from Chicago, there won’t be any crowds.
We’ve gone looking for adventure south of I-80 several times, and we have been rewarded with the odd (a pumpkin festival with no pumpkins), the incongruous (a luxurious wine-tasting room at the end of a dirt road in a corn field), and the surreal (watching an Amish guy try to pick up my wife in a bar). But we haven’t yet found the thing we’re supposed to find, the thing we can recommend to the next group of travelers. Our camping trip to Cave-in-Rock State Park was another attempt to set that straight.
Strangers in a Strange Land
My wife and I were trying to prepare the kids and set the expectations for a long drive. My five-year-old daughter asked, “Do they speak English where we’re going?” OK, we’re not going that far. Cave-in-Rock (both the town and the state park) sits on the bank of the Ohio River, 340 miles south of Chicago. It is flat farmland for most of the drive, but the last 30 miles are wooded and hilly. During the last ice age the glaciers scoured most of Illinois to the pancake level of flatness we see today, but they didn’t make it all the way to the southern end of the state and the hills there lived to see another day.
We arrived early on the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend. I went to check in with the campground host. He was friendly enough, but I had trouble understanding him through his accent. It was half rural-midwest and half southern (that bottom piece of Illinois is closer to Mississippi than to Chicago). A long projectile of burgundy saliva made me realize he also had a cheek full of tobacco. It was difficult to tell where the accent ended and the tobacco began, but it was clear I needed to take my daughter’s language questions more seriously. While registering our car the host saw my drivers license and said. “Wow, you’re a, ptttthhhbb, long way from Chicago.” I agreed.
The Whole Hole
The next morning it was time to see what the park had to offer. The campground host had given me a bunch of brochures for attractions in the area, but nothing about the park. Turns out it’s a small park.
As could be guessed from the name, there is a cave in the park. It sits in a tall bluff on the bank of the river with the entrance just above the water line. A long stone staircase leads down from the road to a short boardwalk at the river, which meanders past a couple small sandy beaches to the cave entrance. Once at the cave, it takes just two minutes to see the whole thing – and it is possible to actually see the whole thing because there is a skylight in the back that lets in just enough light to illuminate the surroundings without ruining the cave’s caviness.
There was some graffiti around the entrance, but the cave is famous for its role in the 1800’s as a hideout for criminals and river pirates; a little contemporary miscreance seemed in keeping with the spirit of the place.
The sandstone that makes up the rock part of Cave-in-Rock has lots of small golf ball-sized pockmarks which have been commandeered by a large flock of sparrows. The birds were constantly flying in and out of their holes. The rest of the park harbored a fair number of mosquitos, but I didn’t see a single one near the cave, perhaps thanks to the vigilance of the sparrows.
We sat down and let our kids play in the sand and splash in the shallows, but it was really just a cover for the real entertainment, which was watching the other visitors come and go. We had seen (and heard) a lot of Harley Davidson motorcycles in the park, and on the roads in the area. A good number of them also stopped by to see the cave. It was a warm and humid day, but every single one walked down the hill in full leather.
Everybody, Harley-riders and civilians alike, spelunked for their two allotted minutes, exchanged banalities with me and my wife about the kids and the weather, and took a deep breath before heading back up the granite steps. Eventually, or perhaps, inevitably, our three-year-old son fell into the river, so we wrapped it up and trudged up the steps too.
Beyond the cave, the park does not have many diversions. There is a mile-long nature trail which might be interesting to all the visiting dendrologists specializing in deciduous hardwoods of the Ohio River Valley – to everyone else it’s just a buggy, muddy path through the trees.
Our next stop in the park was a playground. I am a little embarrassed to admit that we drove six hours to go to a playground, but this playground was on a high bluff with a magnificent view of the water. Occasionally a large cargo barge slowly rounded the bend in the river. Our kids would freeze in mid-activity, captivated by the sight of freight being transported, resuming play only once the boat had passed out of view.
That afternoon we packed the kids into the car to see what lay further afield. The town of Cave-in-Rock is small, but feels reasonably alive. The big difference I noticed between this and other waterfront towns I’ve been to is that the houses within the first couple blocks of the river are very small and cheap; they look almost disposable. It’s not until beyond the first hill from the river that I found the expected prim brick homes lined with begonias. The residents obviously have calculated that the Ohio River has not flooded for the last time.
The Book was Better than the Reality
Across the river from Cave-in-Rock lies Kentucky. There is no bridge, but there is a ferry. I knew there was a ferry before we arrived; it’s one of the reasons I chose Cave-in-Rock. I think I was laboring under a spell of nostalgia for Jim and Huck Finn’s river adventures that I had read as a child, creating some unreasonably high expectations.
It turns out that my expectations weren’t high, so much as dead wrong. I could have guessed that the ferry wasn’t going to be a paddleboat piloted by someone with a handlebar mustache, but I still had a boat in mind. It wasn’t a boat; it was a flat barge. It had room for 15 cars and a handful of Harleys. My imagination had failed to take into account that there would be zero reasons why someone would want to cross the river and not have their car with them, so the barge was an efficient means to that end. Well, not exactly. A bridge would have been efficient; as it was, we had to wait in line for 45 minutes before we got carried across.
The Kentucky side of the river is home to a comparatively large Amish community, with a well-advertised Amish restaurant. But we took a pass – I’ve been to enough Amish restaurants to know that the cuisine is bereft of any spices, unless you count salt, in which case it is very spicy.
Zeus’s Green Thumb
On our way home on Sunday morning, we stopped at Garden of the Gods, a group of large, exposed sandstone outcroppings overlooking the Shawnee National Forest. It lies just south of the southern extent of the glaciers, that is, it’s hilly, but has an expansive view to the north, where it’s flat for the next 1,000 miles.
It’s a beautiful and well-kept park, but we spent only half of the morning there – mostly because we wanted to get home, but also because it had what I will call an Executive Summary walking path, which crammed all the good stuff into one short mile-and-a-half. The trail wound around a plateau with views of the surrounding lowland forests. There were wild rock formations with lots of opportunities for bouldering. We explored, and bouldered, and forced the children to pose for photographs at the edges of cliffs. Two action-packed hours later we were in the car and headed home, another downstate Illinois vacation in the history books.
But were we successful? Did we discover the rural Illinois thing worthy of a page in the guidebook? Garden of the Gods was a find, and Cave-in-Rock was an enjoyable, if understated, park. What makes me shy away from a full-throated Eureka is that it didn’t feel like Illinois. Once the soybean plantations disappeared and we hit the hills with the horse farms, and we heard the accents, it felt like we were in a different state. And it doesn’t matter; downstate has suffered so many disparaging remarks from haughty Chicagoans for so long that nothing I could write would change a single mind.