Thursday, March 16, 2006

Angkor Not
I'm on the road again. I greet you this morning from Joliet, home of the Blues Brothers and the Illinois State Penitentiary, at the ragged edge where "Chicago" meets "downstate Illinois." (For those of you out in the provinces, it's pronounced "joe-lee-ETT," and not "zwah-lee-AY," even if that's how the French Jesuit explorer Louis Joliet, for whom the place is named, might have pronounced it.) Taking a car ride from Madison to Joliet is nothing like hiking to Angkor Wat, but as I've written previously (here and here and here), only a failure of curiosity or imagination requires you to think of a trip as dull.

As you head down the interstate from Madison, you pass by Janesville and Beloit. Both of them are mostly shot-and-a-beer industrial towns, although like all shot-and-a-beer industrial towns, they've had to drink a little harder in the last 30 years as the economy has changed. Every time General Motors talks about closing plants, Janesville prepares to chug directly from the bottle, but as of now, its GM plant remains open. (Janesville may one day be much more famous, however--it's Russ Feingold's hometown.) Beloit, meanwhile, is Janesville without the cosmopolitan glamour--although it is the home of esteemed Beloit College, best known nationwide for its annual "mindset list".

At Beloit, you cross into Illinois and join the Illinois Tollway, which runs around and through the Chicago area. The next city you pass is Rockford, which often places at the bottom of various "most livable cities" lists. There are two different ways a city can take such an "honor." When The Mrs. and I lived in the Quad Cities and it made some magazine's Bottom 10, local people laughed it off. We knew what made the Quad Cities a good place to live, even if some magazine writers in New York didn't. Rockford, however, takes such disrespect personally--even the city's most important movers and shakers seem to have an inferiority complex.

Honesty compels me to report that there really isn't very much to see when you get south of Rockford on I-39. The land goes flat, and the only landmark you may notice is the towers of the nuclear plant near Byron. Turn east on I-88 and the view is the same. My destination yesterday was Plainfield, and to get there, you get off the interstate and turn south on Illinois 47.

Illinois 47 quickly drops you into the leading edge of the southwest suburban sprawl. Houses, condos, and retail developments are going up faster than roads are being built to accommodate them, so a two-lane state highway that two years ago carried mostly trucks and farm vehicles is now clogged with SUVs and luxury cars. The housing developments down here have a particular look--many are a few hundred yards back from the highway, presumably to allow future commercial development right along the highway. Lots of them contain maybe three different building designs repeated over and over, mile after mile of identical $300,000 homes laid out like a Malvina Reynolds memorial park, in developments with names like Lakewood Creek, even though any lakes, woods, and creeks nearby were obliterated to put up the development.

The newness of Plainfield has little to do with sprawl, however. In August 1990, one of the most powerful tornadoes ever to hit northern Illinois, category F5 with winds around 300MPH, roared through this part of the state. It killed 29 and injured 350 in Plainfield alone, leveling parts of the city, including the local high school. No sirens sounded and no funnel cloud was ever seen--and so there was controversy later about whether the National Weather Service had been asleep at the switch that day.

Two of America's most famous highways intersect in Plainfield--the old Route 66 (now Illinois 59) and U.S. 30. The story of Route 66 is fairly well-known. U.S. 30 isn't nearly as famous, but it too is a transcontinental route, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Astoria, Oregon. Out here, U.S. 30 was part of the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental route, commissioned in 1912, which was to run from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The Lincoln Highway ran along some of the most ancient routes in America, including Indian trails, roads laid out by Dutch colonists in New Jersey in the late 1600s and by the British during the French and Indian War, and the Mormon Trail. Today, Interstate 80 runs through the general corridor marked out by the original Lincoln Highway, but U.S. 30 soldiers on. Unlike Route 66, U.S. 30 was never decommissioned, and in many cities through which it passes, it's given the street name "Lincolnway."

(In 1919, a military convoy that included future general and president Dwight Eisenhower set out to travel the entire route of the Lincoln Highway, which was nowhere close to finished. The story of their adventure--for an adventure it truly was--is well-told in Pete Davies' American Road: The Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age.)

From Plainfield to the hotel in Joliet is a few miles along U.S. 30. It's a gray morning today with snow on the way tonight--a big snowstorm is headed for Wisconsin, and later on, so am I. Which means I'll be heading out on an adventure of my own.

Later today: the gloriously entertaining spectacle that is an Illinois governor's race.

Recommended Reading:
David Neiwart on the question of whether what we're seeing in America right now is really the rise of fascism, or not. As the best online journalist covering right-wing political movements, Neiwart knows what he's talking about--so go read, already.

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