Wednesday, April 20, 2011

i've come to love illinois in spite of the absolute turbulence of its weather and some of its more stifling aspects which include long summers, lack of anything to see, and general isolation and backwaterishness which is of course alleviated by the computer and getting out of here regularly. i live in a kind of way-southern part of the state, old hilly coal-mining country, the earliest part of the state to be settled but one that has no more, and basically no different, settlers than it originally had, old mountain people come up from kentucky because they could finally stick a shovel in slightly looser clay.

a little ways over to the east is interstate 57, a road that runs the length of the state until it gets to the 95th street bus station terminus in the busy south side and gets sucked into the dan ryan and the city's massive interstate system; from chicago, it starts with a 'memphis' sign that made me call it 'memphis road' for a while, and heads south through kankakee, champaign and effingham following roughly the path of the 'city of new orleans' train. illinois gets steadily more rural, more southern, more hilly, more wooded as you go, until deep in the south, six hours from the city, you cut off and head over to our house. the first time i did it, i was shocked that there was so much of the state that i'd never heard of; i'd never even heard of effingham or mt. vernon, let alone the smaller ones like salem, peota or benton. now i feel kind of like a farmer though in that i know the route well enough to begin seeing new things on it along with the usual, or noticing the slight changes in season due to southward movement...in other words what was once an incredibly boring trip through flat nowheresville cornfields has now begun to have detail, and history, and landmarks at every curve. one time we stopped at a tiny place called 'leverett' that was basically an enormous seven-silo structure and an old brick grocery store, separated by a huge train that wouldn't move in the hot hot summer sun; we peered through its cars but decided not to climb through them because that would be dangerous...this place, as it turns out, is important in the train world, because, being near champaign and all, it's where a big east-west line hits the city of new orleans line and some trains get stranded a bit while they shift cars, or move them around, or whatever. for us it's kind of like a halfway point, champaign itself is, and is also a place we look up to as a slightly larger, busier, hipper, version of our own nowheresville college town, but leverett, the town itself, is but an intersection with a train stuck in it, way out there in the land of the endless horizon, with champaign only slightly beyond that horizon.

storms passed through last night and the family spent a while in a tiny storm shelter out behind our house; when the warning was over we put the kids to bed but another warning followed and out we went. we were all a little ragged in the morning and i couldn't even see the tree damage as we drove around town because i was busy grading midterms in the car; i had to do this because i hadn't done it at night. as it is, one lives for the day when the route to school is slightly different from yesterday; a fallen tree here, a branch there, some big old stick in the road or huge puddle. apparently a brand new police building got its roof blown off but that was the big news; aside from a few houses or trailers most people came out all right. a few days back we had a concert/benefit and it was windy and cool, as it often is this time of year, but we were lucky, because if it was the day before, it would have been tornadoing, or if it were last night, for example. it's a gamble, this time of year, because any given day can be tornadoish or at least a storm passing through to spank you.

down in the shelter the boys play their video games tucked into a sleeping bag, both on my lap, while my wife operates the weather radio which is full of geographical names of rural illinois; i know most of these and interpret the chances of the center of a storm smacking us. the point is, when the siren goes off, we go down there, just in case; storms have been getting bigger, worse, and more southernly as time goes by, hitting places like north carolina more, and nebraska for example less. my poor students are scared out of their bloody wits. but they were happy that i graded their midterms in a hurry, and was generous.

reason i mention this is, more storm are coming tomorrow, or so they say. but tomorrow is a special day. a traveler on the path, sees this country, this countryside, people scraping to get by, digging in the clay or bringing forth some kind of tomato in the sandy river-bottom silt; it's a pretty country, but lots of trees are down and the grass is growing now like there's no tomorrow, flying from the gate and daring the old mower-boys to come 'round and keep up with it. all the ketchup bottles at the concert, mustard and relish too, had on their white tops a fifty-seven etched white on white; this i pointed out, was in commemoration, like the signs up and down the memphis-chicago road; tomorrow is my birthday. i'll be fifty-seven.

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