Prairie Notes

The echoing silence of the plains

The wind is soft and cool, the twilight sky banded in pinks and yellows and blues. Frogs sing in the culvert in front of me, a killdeer plucks unlucky beetles and flies from the grass. Fields of green seedlings I don’t recognize stretch in every direction and there is little else, save a distant clump of trees and power lines strung along the horizon.

I love the plains. There’s hardly any prairie left out here, but even as farmland there is something about the middle of America that I love. It’s as if you can still hear the echo of the prairie — this vast, open space with a kind of silence you don’t find other places.

This, perhaps more than any other landscape, feels foreign to me. I have spent time in the mountains, the deserts, the sea. I know forests and rivers and beaches. But I know next to nothing about farms. It’s a kind of endless mystery to me. What lives in these culverts between fields? What are these frogs I hear? What else is out there? What’s it like to grow up here? What’s it like to live here? This vast open sky. What is the character of the land?

I like it. We never stay long, but I am endlessly fascinated by this ecosystem.

When we left Georgia early in the morning several days ago we had no intention of coming here to central Illinois. The first day’s drive was hot and brutal. The alternator was overcharging again, which added to the stress of the heat. Then the engine started vapor locking. In its defense the temperature was over 100 plus humidity. When we planned our way through the south we weren’t counting on a heat wave, but these things happen. That first night out we punted, it was just too hot to cool the bus down by the kids bedtime so we checked into a hotel.

The next day we hit the road early again. We hadn’t gone more than a hour when we realized the rear hatch door was gone. Corrinne and the kids drove back to see if they could find it. I moved everything from the hatch into the bus (somehow we lost nothing out of the hatch), and hit the road again. They never found the hatch door, but by the end of the day we’d passed through four states into Illinois where it was at least a bit cooler.

We camped at Fort Massac State Park, which backs up to the Ohio River, adjacent the town of Metropolis, Illinois. Once upon a time, in about 1995, on my very first extended drive around the United States, my friend Mike and I came upon the giant statue of Superman in Metropolis in the wee hours of the morning and… I remember nothing else about that day, just peering up in the darkness at this huge statue.

I took the kids over to see the Superman statue while we were there, but the more memorable statue this trip was Big John, who presided over a store of the same name. The park also had a statue of William Clark, which felt curiously lonely — where was Lewis?

statue at the big john grocery store photographed by luxagraf kids standing beneath a statue of william clark photographed by luxagraf walking around fort massac state park's replica fort photographed by luxagraf
strange sign in the fort massac bathroom photographed by luxagraf
This sign seems totally ordinary until you get to the surprise ending.

We had reserved two nights at Fort Massac to avoid getting to St. Louis on the weekend, which turned out to be handy because I spent the extra day making a new hatch for the back of the bus out of plywood. At some point I’ll probably give it a coat of resin and some paint, but for now the wood at least gets us down the road again. I’ll miss that original hatch.

Unfortunately the heat wave would not let up. The forecast for St. Louis was in the triple digits and we decided we’d rather get north to some cooler temps. We changed plans and headed straight up Illinois, landing here, in farm country for the night.

In some ways I wish we’d had an extra day out here, but we were off again the next morning, bound for the cool waters of Lake Michigan.


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