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Summer Road Trips: Pomona Natural Bridge in Southern Illinois

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Summer for us means escaping the city in search of trees, stars and family time. We have a lot of favorite destinations but few match the surreal beauty of Pomona Natural Bridge, located almost three-hundred-sixty miles directly south of Chicago.

I first started going to Pomona Natural Bridge a decade ago, right after getting married. Honeymooning in Southern Illinois is not everyone’s cup of tea, but we take a certain joy in discovering places off the beaten path. Pomona itself is a lovely, mostly forgotten place in an obscure corner of the Shawnee National Forest that stretches over most of Illinois’ most southern tip. A couple dozen vineyards and a whole lot more cabins dot the area, but most places have a remote, rustic feel and getting to the good points almost always involve a little gravel under the wheel. Read the rest of this entry »

Southern Illinois Superman: Can the Man of Steel Save the Illinois-Ohio River Valley?

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By David Witter

More than a century ago, towns like Metropolis, the “home” of  Superman, Elizabethtown and Cave-In-Rock were thriving agricultural hubs, buoyed by riverboats and barges, as well as fluorite from the nearby mines. So much so that Cave-In-Rock  had the dubious distinction as the capital of Illinois’ crime long before the gangsters arrived in Chicago, with river pirates and mass-murderers operating along the Illinois-Kentucky border.

But the demise of the riverboats and lower grain prices left parts of the region like much of the rest of the rural Midwest—depressed. There are nearby areas of great natural beauty, including Garden of the Gods and the ancient Cypress trees of the Cache River State Recreational Area. But driving along portions of the Ohio River Scenic Byway, you pass tattered houses with yards full of stripped cars and rusted washing machines, as well as shuttered businesses with signs that seem to have been fading for decades. Metropolis and “Superman” hope to change that. Read the rest of this entry »

Signs of Summer: Sleeping Under the Stars

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South Haven KOA

South Haven KOA

Summertime for us is all about sleeping under the stars. Here are our top five campgrounds, each less than a gas tank away.

South Haven KOA
Although not exactly in South Haven, or on the beach, this family-run campground has blueberries for the picking along with a very nice pool.  The tent area is set back in a small thicket of trees near a fishing pond far removed from the RVs. Nearby are excellent beaches along with busy South Haven and St. Joseph.  39397 M-140, Covert, Michigan, (269)764-0818,

Kettle Moraine Southern Unit
About two hours north of the city, near Whitewater, is the answer to your neighbor’s summer home in Lake Geneva. Besides fairly private camp sites, the state park offers a decent enough beach, boat rentals, nearby ski trails repurposed for mountain biking in the summer, and the thousand-mile-plus Ice Age National Scenic Trail.  While a summer home in Lake Geneva will set you back at least a couple hundred thousand dollars, camping (with firewood and marshmallows) is about $30 a night. S91 W39091 Highway 59, Eagle, Wisconsin, (262)594-6200, website for campground Read the rest of this entry »

Oz on the Vermilion: How the Illinois Prison Town of Pontiac Became an Arts Center

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57 Chev Route 66Editsmall

By David Witter

Walk through downtown Pontiac and you are greeted with the black-and-white of a terrier, tilting its head to hear the RCA Victor megaphone, the classic red of the Coca-Cola logo, a bright yellow ’57 Chevy pointed down Route 66, and a grey and blue shark bursting out of the sidewalk, all painted bigger than life on the sides of buildings.

Six years ago, the town may have suffered the same shuttered fate as many small industrial and farm towns. But instead of pinning all their economic hopes on the orange uniforms of the nearby Pontiac Correctional Center, or the rust on many factories, Pontiac was saved by a rainbow of colors from artists’ brushes. Read the rest of this entry »

Following the Gray Ghosts Trail Home: The Long Arm of Civil War in Central Missouri

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The Gray Ghosts Trail panel “Callaway County Men at War” was dedicated at the Callaway County Courthouse with the help of local law officers, firefighters and first responders on Sept. 11, 2012./Photo: Don Ernst

The Gray Ghosts Trail panel “Callaway County Men at War” was dedicated at the Callaway County Courthouse with the help of local law officers, firefighters and first responders on Sept. 11, 2012./Photo: Don Ernst

By Martin Northway

More than 150 of us are gathered in front of the Callaway County Courthouse in Fulton, Missouri, to share a community landmark: dedication of our eighth and final local interpretive panel on the Gray Ghosts Trail Civil War driving tour through central Missouri. It is warm and clear, and seating in the closed-off brick street fosters the atmosphere of a country wedding.

The theme of the panel is “Callaway County Men at War.” Its thumbnail biography features a local Civil War and Reconstruction hero, a county sheriff killed by vigilantes in whose honor three-dozen uniformed law officers and firefighters pass with muffled tread in front of Civil War re-enactors to open the ceremony.

This is a project that has occupied years of effort. I am surrounded by friends and even relatives, almost none of whom I knew when I returned to the ancestral home of my dad’s family a dozen years before. I could not then have predicted this result, but I had after all come here for connection, and I enjoy the jibes thrown my way by speakers who understand not only the event’s significance but its importance to me. It is like being alive at your own wake; it is not so bad.

I vividly recall wheeling my U-Haul truck west through St. Louis from Chicago, suddenly facing mounds of black clouds roiling from the southwest, threatening to muscle out the calm sky north of I-70. It was as if God himself was troweling the frescoed sky. I laughed at the unexpectedly familiar: the southern three-fourths of Missouri is the top of the South climatically, storms liking to ride the Gulf current from Texas and Oklahoma, while weather in the top tier of counties arrives on the prevailing northwest wind, as in the upper Midwest, or Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Snapshots of a State Fair: An Account of Carnies and Pig Shows

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Photo: Jenny Yoon

By Jenny Yoon

Saturday, August 18. Day One.

The Fair
The day is impossibly nice: a boundless blue sky, warm in that skin-shivering way, and a breeze with a cool bite to waft the smell of fried dough blows through the air.

It’s Park District Conservation Day at the Illinois State Fair, and my friends and I have yet to see a tent dedicated to the cause. We’re greeted, instead, by a massive wooden statue of a young Abe Lincoln brandishing an axe, flanked by a bed of flowers. From somewhere in the distance, we hear the buzz of racecar drivers circling in front of a rapt audience in the grandstand.

We wander, bug-eyed and slack-jawed at the sight: hordes of people (some of whom are airborne on a ski lift), food carts that line the pavement, the tram led by a John Deere tractor that parts the crowd as it makes its sputtering way through the fairgrounds. A man dressed as Honest Abe saunters past. We stop in shrill indignation at a gate emblazoned with the label “Ethnic Village.” In the village, one can find authentic fare such as “Dracula’s Feast” in Romania, gummy falafel from Persia and turkey legs from “Cajun.” Read the rest of this entry »

On Saying Yes to Michigan: A Story of a Vacation, Redefined

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By Jenny Yoon

Family vacations in the Yoon household ceased shortly before I started high school. Now, I’m about to enter my last year of college, and my parents and I haven’t crossed state lines together since. My father was never one to warm to the idea of travel. I think emigrating from Korea was about as much as he could handle. Whenever I brought up a destination to my mother, she just smiled and said, “maybe,” in that frustratingly flippant way of hers.
I learned not to miss our annual vacations, not that they were anything extravagant: they were road trips to New York City, to visit my grandmother. Those trips consisted of the same fare every year: eating out at Korean restaurants, my father and uncles’ cigarette smoke billowing in the wind and boldly jaywalking across busy intersections in Midtown to my parent’s dismay. Read the rest of this entry »

Schooling with Shakespeare: Summers in Spring Green, Wisconsin

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Photo: Erin Kelsey

By Erin Kelsey

Summer 2012 begins in an unusual manner for me. Three weeks from now, I will walk across a stage on the main quad of the University of Chicago to receive my diploma. From then on, I will be expected to take my degree, my student loans and my internship experience and find some way to keep afloat. The beginning of the summer marks a dramatic change for graduates.

One week later, my family embarks on the vacation that has been the highlight of every summer since I was seven: a trip to Spring Green, Wisconsin. A few hours’ drive outside of Chicago, Spring Green is a tiny town with a surprising number of reasons to visit. The area is full of opportunities to camp, hike and kayak. Frank Lloyd Wright built extensively there, including Taliesin. The reason my family found Spring Green, though, was American Players Theatre, affectionately known as APT.  Read the rest of this entry »

Beer, Bikes and Brats: Up the Mississippi and across the Badger State without a car

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By John Greenfield

If you’re a car-free Chicagoan, you don’t have to hit up Hertz to take a kick-ass road trip this summer. Here in the nation’s railroad hub, bicycle plus train is a powerful combo, not just for getting around the metro area but the entire Midwest.

Case in point is the beer-soaked bike camping trip my buddies and I took earlier this month along the Mississippi River, across Wisconsin and back using Amtrak and Metra. It was our annual Men’s Trip, a chance for the married guys to take a break from family obligations, and since most of the guys are serious beer snobs we planned our itinerary around brewpub visits. Late spring wind and rain made this tour a bit of a death march for us, but if you’d like to try the route ( it’d be a blast to ride in July sunshine.

On a Wednesday evening we loaded our touring bikes with tents and sleeping bags and hauled them aboard Amtrak’s Carl Sandburg line to Kewanee, Illinois, near the shoulder of the state. Soon we’re flying west across the prairie past dozens of white modern windmills tinted pink by the setting sun.

When we pull into Kewanee, a sign says we’re in the “Hog Capital of the World,” so down the street at the Pioneer Club I tackle a breaded pork tenderloin horseshoe sandwich. The horseshoe is a downstate Illinois specialty often called “a heart attack on a plate”—white bread, fries and a protein, drowned in cheese sauce.

We camp up the road at a park donated to the city by Fred Francis, an oddball inventor, artist, poet and nudist. In the morning I tour Woodland Palace, the futuristic dream home Francis built on the site in 1890, featuring wind-powered heating and cooling systems, automatic doors and many other clever gadgets. I’m most excited to see his bicycle, with a seat installed over the front wheel so he could carry his wife Jeanne to church. Read the rest of this entry »

This Particular Patch: Nelson Algren’s Indiana getaway

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algren-houseBy David Witter

Nelson Algren bought his beach cottage in Miller, Indiana in 1950, partially from the proceeds from the film rights to “The Man with a Golden Arm.” I was born on Juniper Street, across the Calumet Lagoon from his cottage a few years after Algren had left. However, tales of the man whom many consider to be Chicago’s greatest writer have echoed through my family gatherings ever since.

In a way, a lot has changed in Miller since Algren and Simone de Beauvoir drank, swam, hiked, made love, wrote and enjoyed the dunes area just east of Gary only forty-five minutes from downtown Chicago. Yet a lot has stayed the same, and it is not hard for Chicagoans to spend a summer afternoon retracing the steps of Algren in Miller. Read the rest of this entry »