In early May, Best Fest Buddy Tom, his brother Mark and I hit the highway for a trip to Carbondale. We headed downstate to help one of Mark’s sons celebrate his 30th birthday.
Our drive from the Chicago suburbs was not long after a terrible multi-vehicle accident along I-55 near Springfield caused by a dust storm killed seven people and injured numerous others.
So when we heard Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” on the radio, along I-57 somewhere north of Champaign, we decided to pull over at a truck stop to get our composure. I just lied. We didn’t hear that old song. We had to pee, at a gas station that held a Burger King, no less.
I tried to order lunch, too. The young man behind the counter couldn’t quite figure out how to put what I saw on the menu board into the computer system. So, when I huffed, fine, just give me a large ice tea, something about the way I said it led him to give me the cup for free.
I don’t think I’m scary. If I had any of the facial hair or haircuts on the other folks waiting for their orders, maybe.
Besides, I had shaved and showered for the occasion. Either way, free stuff is always appreciated.
The drive was otherwise uneventful, but for spotting the HUGE “Cross at the Crossroads.” It’s near Effingham, a town name which I think was a working title for Shakespeare’s play. The cross is just shy of 200 feet tall . At one time this was the world’s largest structure of its kind.
Given dust storms and the location, I wondered how the cross would do against a tornado. How many times has it been hit by lightning? Had it been used to kill the world’s largest vampire? Truly, what have been the miracles of the cross at the crossroads!
The cross is not far from the TA truck stop that was one of the cleanest truck stops I’ve ever seen. It even had a food court like you used to find at an indoor mall, replete with Popeye’s, Dunkin and a Sbarro.
Sbarro was charging $12.99 for two slices of pizza and a soft drink. Who could pass that up? Me.
I opted for a TA fountain drink and a bag of Cheez-It Puff’d snack “food.” The Cheez-It website says they have “a light, puffy and airy texture, creating a delicious melt-in-your-mouth cheesiness unlike any other.” The things food scientists can do these days!
That held me over until the greater Carbondale area. We dined at a barbecue joint, which shall remain nameless. It was fine and the help was nice, but the place used to offer a sample platter. Not anymore. And all sides are now a la carte. It’s like the world wants me to be on a diet!
Past the meal, soon it was bedtime. Nothing says May is a lusty month like a hotel room where three not-yet-ready-for-Medicare guys are wearing CPAP equipment to sleep.
The next day provided a taste of the college side of Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University.
First stop was the Carbondale Walmart Supercenter, which I must say was one of the nicest Walmarts I have ever visited. Wide aisles. Clean. Well-lighted. A seemingly bigger selection of goods than the two not far from my home. Plus, it was early, so it wasn’t busy.
I bought an SIU hat, to blend in, and a pastel plaid short sleeved shirt, because it went well with the hat and my short pants. Plus, the shirt covered the top of my pants. As an overweight guy, between sizes, even with a belt, my pants have a tendency to slide down past my pasty ass. Nobody needs to see that. And this decade pretty much nobody has.
Next it was time for a drive-through tour of the college campus and breakfast at a nice old school diner, Mary Lou’s Grill.
It was the weekend before final exams, so I suppose everybody could have been holed up studying. Still, I was surprised by how few students and other college types I was seeing so far.
After all, once upon a time Carbondale was known for its crazy Halloween parties.
The college vibe did come through when we visited the Neighborhood Co-op Grocery, where Tom bought organic dates. Make your own joke about him having to buy dates, organic or otherwise. He planted his dates upon returning home. I’ve notified the police.
Near the co-op was an outdoor farmers market. What I assume was a college kid was playing her violin.
Produce-wise, I was impressed by the variety of mushrooms of the non-psychedelic type available from Flyway Family Farm. I asked the vendor about the elusive, mysterious morel variety, which even has Facebook groups devoted to it.
She told me they can’t/don’t sell them because morels grow wild. However, a friend of hers had found and picked a flatbed truck’s worth of them in recent weeks.
Her story differed from the clerk at the co-op who said morels had been scarce this spring. Stories about fungus tend to be that way.
Either way, talking about mushrooms felt very collegiate. And I recalled a college radio type band from long ago named The Morrells. Yeah. I’m old.
Playing disc golf on the campus-based course should have added to that Bonzo feeling I had. Alas, there was scant human activity to be found. We might have seen more squirrels than people.
Speaking of squirrels, Tom claimed a chunk of hail hit him in the nuts when we returned the following morning to play the course a final time before heading home. I was running for shelter and to go to the bathroom when the storm hit when I heard Tom groan. I am still not quite sure how hail hits someone in such a specific, tiny space, but I will take his word for it.
Back to the chronology.
The birthday party involved boarding a small bus, like the ones you see unloading bachelorette parties along Broadway in Nashville – minus all the phallic accessories you see the guests parading about with for those occasions.
Our first stop was Feather Hills Vineyard and Winery. We were a few minutes early. They weren’t quite ready for our group of about two dozen people. So a few of us helped arrange some tables on an outdoor patio.
Some Feather Hills wine bottles labels feature a saluki, the mascot of SIU Carbondale. Hair of the dog, I guess.
It was a beautiful May day, with a view of rolling hills, sans feathers. When we left, a group of high school kids showed up. They didn’t drink. They were taking prom pictures.
I guess that’s a Carbondale thing. I wonder if that happens in Napa Valley, too? Or maybe Bordeaux?
The drive to Blue Sky Vineyard, the next winery, reminded me of Ireland. That’s to say, the roads went from two-lane paved, to one-lane, to sort-of paved, to bumpy and back again. There were few, if any, sheep to be seen, though.
This place and its scenic grounds were crowded. There seemed to be more of the Carbondale prom picture crowd, too, or maybe wedding parties killing that lag time between the service and the celebration.
Blue Sky had an extensive souvenir shop, just like a Cooper’s Hawk, the “wine-driven lifestyle brand” that began in Orland Park, of all places. Blue Sky’s merchandise already included t-shirts and other items for the April 2024 solar eclipse.
We visited one of the Carbondale area wineries during the last eclipse. So apparently that makes Tom, Mark and me trendsetters.
At Blue Sky, we learned a bit about capuchin monkeys. One of the guys with the birthday party had spent time as a research assistant down in Costa Rica with a program run by the University of Michigan.
I thought this might hit close to home for me, since I often help Tom watch three human toddlers. However, I learned that capuchin monkeys can be cannibals, though, and they have been observed eating their young.
The things you can find out if you just take the time to strike up conversations with people you’ve just met! I’ve thought about telling the trio of toddlers in Tom’s charge this when they misbehave. For educational purposes only, of course.
I should have asked the clerk who was leaving to pursue her career in dental hygiene for teeth-cleaning tips, too. Instead I wished her well on getting her associate’s degree and paid the bill accordingly.
Anyway, our final tour stop was Havisham Bourbon Bar in Alto Pass, just in time to watch the Kentucky Derby on TV.
Given the bar’s name I expected to see something Dickensian, perhaps a woman who had been left waiting at the altar, or an orphan at least. Those were my expectations.
Given the occasion, there were people there in funny hats pretending they were at the horse race in Louisville. The tattooed bartenders looked like any number of crews you might see at places on the north side of Chicago. And the decor was maybe sort of David Copperfield (the book AND the magician) meets livery stable in New Orleans and hangs some interesting stuff on the walls.
That made Havisham’s as fine a place as any to watch the race.
Soon it was time to board the bus one final time to head back to our starting point.
It was a pleasant afternoon. Everybody behaved themselves, myself included.
Our final stop of the day was for dinner at the Global Gourmet in Carbondale. It’s an English pub of sorts where the decor includes Union Jacks and a police box. The waitress reminded me of a young Cameron Diaz.
I recommend the duck.
Good meal aside, Carbondale seemed dead for a Saturday night, especially by the version of college towns I have in my brain. If not studying, with one week to go, maybe all the kids were broke for the semester. Maybe they even maxed out their credit cards or had emptied their Venmo or whatever it is kids do these days.
Either way, there was nary a Belushi to be seen. That’s not such a bad thing, but slow is slow. Which is not to say I didn’t like Carbondale. I would like to go back someday, if just to visit Shawnee National Forest, not to mention the next solar eclipse.
Besides, how can you not like a place with a gas station that’s been converted to sell Krispy Krunchy Chicken, Cajun style fish, pizza, falafel and gyros? How can you not like a part of the world where a guy stole a backhoe to get to the airport?
Anyway, Sunday, our final morning in the Carbondale area, consisted of the aforementioned nutty round of disc golf, followed not by a stop at the chicken shack but breakfast at quite possibly the saddest Hardee’s I have ever visited.
We arrived there just before they stopped taking orders for breakfast. That was a good thing for me, as I waited and ordered lunch, because I am not a fan of Hardee’s breakfast. This one was out of large cups. If memory serves, they were also out of napkins and out of french fries.
Mark and Tom like Hardee’s. It’s nostalgic eating for them. Me, I’m more of a Wendy’s guy. Or an Egg McMuffin man – both of which I am trying to give up for the Lent that is old age.
This travelog is getting longer than it took to get to Carbondale. By the way, at about 370 miles, this was the farthest I’ve journeyed away from home in almost four years.
I need to get out more often. This was a good start.