Earlier this week, I spent a couple of days in southern Illinois, mostly in the Shawnee National Forest.
I live in southern Illinois, but not in the way-down south of southern Illinois. Those lower counties are where the outstretched farmlands of my area give way to a beautiful topography of tree-covered hills and vales, interspersed with small farms. The hills eventually become the forested, rocky, rolling elevations that some Illinoisans consider the foothills of the Ozarks – the mountain range that covers portions of Missouri and Arkansas – but some say that's not accurate. Ozark foothills or not, the wooded uplands and bluffs in and around the Shawnee National Forest, from the Mighty Mississippi to
the Ohio River, are alluring. Southern Illinois is beautiful country.
I visited the southernmost lands of my native state this week to photograph some of the places I explored with my parents when I was a young boy. I wanted to revisit Giant City State Park, Cave-in-Rock and Garden of the Gods, all three of which are within the boundaries of the Shawnee. My guide was Mike Ward. Mike and I served together in the Vietnam War many moons ago, when we were Marine Corps reconnaissance scouts.
My fellow gyrene and I started out Monday morning on the trails at Giant City, named for the giant rocks, boulders and sandstone bluffs there. The rocks and the stone formations are surrounded by a lush forest of native trees, ferns, may-apple plants, flowering mints, abundant mosses, wild flowers and wildlife. The morning was overcast, slightly cool and damp. The last time Mike and I were on a trail together in a thick and damp forest, we were on patrol in the highlands of Vietnam. On Monday morning – for a few moments, several times – the sounds and smells of the forest and the sight of Mike on the trail took me back to those recon patrols so long ago. It was a little eerie, but pretty cool.
We're no longer young, and I'm no longer so quick and agile. So, before noon, my aging and clumsy body tripped me up, sending me tumbling over some boulders. My right hand had a firm grip on my camera, and I raised up my right arm to keep the camera from striking the big rocks. My brain told me that I must sacrifice my body; just don't let the Nikon strike the boulders. The camera survived unscathed, but I did not. I got up and limped away from the boulders with a smashed big toe and a skinned up right knee.
Nothing soothes the body and soul like some good chow. The perfect place for that, fortunately, was close by – the Giant City Lodge, home of some famous fried chicken. The majestic lodge, constructed of stone and timber, was built in the 1930s, and the cooks started frying crazy-good chicken by at least the 1950s, I know, because I ate the delicious stuff there when I was a kid. On Monday, I was a kid again.
"Hi, I'm Alice, and I'll be serving you today. Would you fellas like some more time to look at the menu, while I get you your drinks?" (Her name wasn't really Alice.)
"Heck no. We'll both take the all-you-can-eat fried chicken family style dinner luncheon special and hold the commas and hyphens." (I'm thinking about food, not grammar.)
"Sounds good. I'll be right back with your drinks."
After bringing us our water and tea, Alice went to get us our platter of fried chicken, along with bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, dumplings, coleslaw, corn and green beans. Oh, and a basket of biscuits. The darn place has not changed a bit in a half-century, and the grub is as good as ever. I fueled up for an afternoon on the trails by consuming a giant, juicy, crispy chicken breast, plus two legs and a wing, accompanied by plenty of sides. And I rehydrated by drinking plenty of ice water with lemon.
Recharged with some rest, food and water, I was ready to hit the trails again. We ventured up and down two trails, one of which meandered to the site of an old American Indian settlement. Still standing in the forest there is a stone wall that had been constructed between the years 400 and 800. The village site is positioned on a high vantage point that was inaccessible on one side because of the tall bluffs – imposing,
100- to 200-foot, sandstone cliffs formed thousands of years ago. The other approach
featured the stone wall. Walking through the site, I could almost envision the activities that took place there centuries ago. Call me daffy, if you must, when I tell you that it was a special place, for I seemed to feel the collective spirit of the people who once lived there. I enjoyed my visit in that ancient site.
Tuesday began by driving to Cave-in-Rock, Ill., to see – you might guess this – a famous cave in a rock bluff overlooking the Ohio River. How famous is it? Jimmy Stewart played Linus Rawlings there in a scene from "How the West Was Won," and Fess Parker filmed there in Walt Disney's "The Adventures of Davy Crockett." And I was there when I was a nonfamous little boy, before I became a nonfamous older dude.
Images of Cave-in-Rock have remained vivid in my memory all the years since I was there as a kid, so I was anxious to revisit the 55-foot-wide cavern. I was glad to finally
be there again, but I gasped when I saw the graffiti. What? Graffiti? On the way to
Cave-in-Rock, Mike and I had passed a state prison work camp. I'm definitely going to tell some elected officials about the graffiti-removal work I want to see done by some of those work-camp inmates.
By the time noon arrived, the chowhound in me was barking, and Mike knew where to go to shut it up, with some Ohio River catfish. He was talking about fresh-caught river catfish, he told me, coated with some fine and tasty cornmeal and fried perfectly. We drove the fairly short distance to Elizabethtown, Ill., and the E-Town River Restaurant, which floats on the Illinois side of the Ohio River, across from Kentucky. Of course, it's tied up securely to the river bank, but it floats there on the Ohio, which is the source of the fresh fish.
Our cheerful, helpful waitress took our orders. Mine was simple: River catfish, hush puppies and coleslaw. And, once again, I rehydrated with ice water and lemon. In a restaurant review, I would have to give my E-Town experience two thumbs-up or five forks or whatever indicates damn good chow and service. As for ambiance, picture this: an eatery that's a houseboat; a houseboat on the flowing Ohio River; scrumptious grub served on paper plates with plastic utensils; icy, lemony water in a heavy glass made of thick, heavy glass; homemade tarter sauce in a clean, plastic, squirty bottle; most of the chairs at most of the tables occupied by real down-home folks, who appreciate outstanding catfish; and a guy on the backside of the houseboat-restaurant, catching the catfish. The E-Town proprietors are serious about their claim: "Fresh Fish Daily."
Before I leave this segment, I must tell you that the E-town catfish was just about
the best I've ever eaten, and mind you, I've eaten a lot of catfish. Not only was the fish very fresh and clean-tasting, but the frying method – I forgot to ask how they did
it – produced unbelievable culinary results. The fish reached our plates without a trace
of oil or grease; it was perfect on the outside, perfect on the inside. See what I'm sayin'? I'm talkin' about catfish-frying perfection.
Mike and I ended my two-day trip in the Shawnee by exploring a little bit of the 3,300 acres that make up the Garden of the Gods wilderness area of the forest. It encompasses fantastic rock formations amid the fauna and flora of southern Illinois. The place is captivating and awe-inspiring. It took a long time to get that way, as wind and rain started carving out the formations more than 320 million years ago. Those millions of years of nature's elements sculpting the sedimentary rock produced today's impressive sandstone columns, bluffs, stairs and many other formations. At times during Tuesday afternoon, I thought I was back in rocky California, but I saw no Coulter pines and incense cedars and California black oaks. The bluffs and sandstone sculptures in the Garden of the Gods were surrounded by white pines and red cedars and pin oaks and probably 70 other tree species.
The Shawnee National Forest is large, so I have much more of it to visit or revisit. I'm sure, too, that there's some more great places to eat down there. And people who know me, know that I'll likely find most of them.