Heading into Illinois, we follow William Least-Heat Moon and Ghost Dancing as they continue their 13,000 mile trek around America. As always, Littourati, your comments are welcome! Click the map to check our progress - we've got a long way to go!
"In the approaching car beams, raindrops spattering the road became little beacons. I bent over the wheel to steer along divider stripes. A frog, long-leggedy and green, belly flopped across the road to the side where the puddles would be better. The land, still cold and wintery, was alive with creatures that trusted in the coming of spring.
"On through Lebanon, a brick-street village where Charles Dickens spent a night in the Mermaid Inn; on down the Illinois roads - roads that leave you ill and annoyed, the joke went - all the way dodging chuckholes that Time magazine said Americans would spend 626 million dollars in extra fuel swerving around."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 4
When I was young, some of my most vivid memories occurred when we had to drive on rainy nights. I grew up on the North Coast of California, and rainy nights were always very wet, very aromatic of the redwoods, firs and pines of the area, and particularly on a stretch of Pudding Creek Road which headed toward my house, full of frogs.
On rainy nights, there were hundreds of them, jumping across the road to get from one side to the other. There wasn't a lot of traffic on Pudding Creek Road, but the occasional car would cause a veritable frog massacre. The next morning, all kinds of crushed frogs lay bloody and eviscerated on the road. It looked pretty cool when I was a kid, but now as an older and environmentally conscious and conscientious adult, I hate to think how much we contributed to the planet's steadily eroding population of frogs and other amphibians by driving over so many of them.
Least-Heat Moon's (LHM) vivid picture of the frog really brings that memory back to me, along with his description of the raindrops on the road. In really hard rains, the raindrops splashed on the road and at night, in the car headlights, it is a virtual explosion of light on the dark surface. When the rain was coming down hard, and I've had more than a few experiences of these kinds, I've had to bend my body into all kinds of contortions to be able to see center divider stripes, or side stripes marking the blacktop boundary of the road, to be able to steer effectively.
I also remember riding over roads that would put LHM's saying about Illinois roads to shame. In our car, every time we went on a trip we had to take "the can." The can was dreaded by all of us. If we could get through a trip without having to resort to the can, we were all happy. The can was basically a Folgers or some other coffee can, lined with a plastic baggy and covered with a plastic lid, which sat at the ready. The roads out of my town were all windy, twisty, up and down affairs. The can was for us kids, who got carsick a lot. One of us might get carsick and vomit in the bag in the can, and then the plastic lid would cover it and it would stay in the car for the rest of the ride until we got where we were going and the gastric contents could be put in the trash or dumped in the toilet. Usually our car had a nasty, vomity smell in it for a while when we were on these trips. If someone else got sick, then the can would be used again...in which case the newly sick person would be staring into and getting a whiff of the previous sick person's puke. Needless to say, that usually helped the newly sick person let loose his or her own load of puke. I don't know why we just couldn't pull over and let people puke on the side of the road, like everyone else. What can I say? Our trips were kind of disgusting at times. One issue for my youngest sister in her therapy as an adult revolved around traveling on windy roads precisely for this reason, and both she and I have not vomited in decades because of our disgust of it.
Enough about puke. I'd like to know how the Mermaid Inn in Lebanon became so called, because it is nowhere near a body of water where a mermaid might be. Charles Dickens did stay there a night and used the opportunity to visit the Looking Glass Prairie, and legend has it he might have based A Christmas Carol on his stay, though I would find that hard to believe given that to me, A Christmas Carol is decidedly English. If he based it on an American stay, wouldn't he have set the story in the United States? He did have his character Martin Chuzzlewit from the novel of the same name come to America, so he did use material in America for his novels, but I just can't see it in The Christmas Carol. I hope in his carriage and wagon rides through the United States, he brought a can for the twisty sections of the trail.
If you want to learn more about Lebanon
Chamber of Commerce: Lebanon
Language of Landscape: Looking Glass Prairie
McKendree University (oldest university in Illinois)
Mermaid House Hotel
Next up: Grayville, Illinois