Friday, May 4, 2012

A most perfect detour

May 1-4, Newton, Illinois
Our plan from Memphis had been to make St. Louis our next stop en route to South Dakota.  Well, one of the best parts of this lifestyle is having the freedom to change plans—stay longer when we like it somewhere, leave sooner than intended, or veer off the beaten path.  This time we chose to veer off in a northeastern direction to accept an invitation to visit Mike and BJ, friends we originally made at a campground in Sault St. Marie, Michigan, then met up with again in Florida and Alabama, and now would see in their stick home in Newton, Illinois—population 3000.  Where is Newton, you ask?  Mike’s typical answer is halfway between St. Louis and Terre Haute.  Even though I grew up in Northern Illinois, I rarely travelled south of Chicago as I went to college in Montana and my family later moved to Northern Michigan. So this foray would be to new territory for both Vic and me. 
The drive from Memphis to Newton was about six hours through mostly farmland and rural locales. The most familiar city I recognized along the way were signs for Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, which was about 15 miles west of I-57, the route we were traveling. We arrived in a late afternoon downpour with Mike standing in the front yard holding a large umbrella overhead. They live on seventeen acres with a charming country home, large fishing pond, swimming pool, hot tub, and three huge storage barns (one holds two 40” motorhomes). Mike had a spot all ready for us with full hook-ups: 50 amp power, water, and sewer. Gotta love that.

Southern hospitality—we’ve all heard this expression yet you might not think people from Newton, Illinois, are southerners, but Southern culture seems to dominate the lifestyle here.  I learned quickly that Illinois Yankees, from the Southern Illinois perspective, are those who are damned to be associated with the urban lifestyle of Chicago as opposed to the farm communities here. In spite of their place on the map, people here act and sound Southern and Mike and BJ are no exception.  They grow rotating crops of soybeans and corn, butcher their own meat, put up shelves of vegetables from their own garden, and open their home to anyone at a moment’s notice. Our first meal at their table consisted of chicken fried steak with white gravy, hand-cut corn from last year’s crop, and asparagus freshly picked from a bed in the backyard. After dinner, we drove forty miles (things are far apart here) for a surprise visit to other friends we met, Steve and Diane, who warmly greeted us with the same hospitality. We sat and visited in their turn of the century restored home eating popcorn (always hand-popped, never microwave)and sharing travel stories from the time since we had all been together in February at Seminole Campground in North Ft. Myers.
Our second day in Newton included a trip to a local winery, Tuscan Hills, in Effingham—yes, winery. Apparently, growing grapes is not limited to the West Coast—some of the grapes were actually from Illinois and Indiana, but many were California imports. We all seemed to like a local red wine called Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid which apparently grows well in these parts. One of the winery’s slogans was“The best effing winery,” yet, I think it was the only winery in Effingham. . . . From here we toured all around the county with Mike pointing out various landmarks highlighted by stories of boom and bust farming legacies. This landscape is one where you can see for miles, incredibly flat fields of crops punctuated by silo bins, farm implements, hog houses, occasional oil wells, and one mug tree. 
A tree stump decorated with coffee mugs out in the middle of nowhere
 A quick phone call to another couple we met in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and it’s dinner at their home in Dietrich, about ten miles from Newton (another example of this Southern hospitality).  Moving from the mid-West to the Northwest, I often commented on how I missed the open door, just drop-in lifestyle that seemed to be absent in the West—until I met my special friends in Corvallis—but, for the most part, my experience in Oregon was people don’t just drop in unexpected.
On day three in Newton, the sun came out which meant we were going for lunch to the Moonshine Store, a gathering place where farmers have come to stock up on groceries and have a sandwich since 1889. We traveled several back country roads for about a half hour to get to the place which is as Bill Geist, in a segment on the CBS Morning Show described it, “Way off the Road.” The store, in Moonshine—population 2—still looks like a country store with the original shelves on the wall and benches in the middle where you can eat your lunch on your lap or, do the more popular thing, take a hamburger with all the fixins outside to eat at a picnic table. The place is so popular that they once served 2068 sandwiches in one day even when they close the grill at 12:30 SHARP.

Vic signing the store's registry

After a filling lunch at Moonshine Store, we went to Sam Parr State Park, only a few miles from their home, to do some kayaking—well, actually for the “boys” to do some kayaking. Mike was eager to try it and the lake at the park was a perfect place to practice.  BJ and I had a nice walk around the park, checked out the campsites, returned to the lake and watched the guys disappear from inlet to inlet.  I think Mikey liked it. . . .
Unloading the kayaks at Sam Parr State Park

Our last meal at the Schafer’s had to be pork burgers, a Southern Illinois favorite influenced by the prevalence of hog farms, I think.  I am told they are made by grinding a whole pig—so they are not easy to come by outside of hog country.  Steve and Diane, friends who were also with us in Ft. Myers, joined in for the barbeque and we finished off the evening with a campfire—something we often did together in Florida.  Somehow the complexities of the world seem much less prevalent around a campfire with friends out on a farm in a little town built around a courthouse square.
Our last day at the Schafer's we visited with Mike's charming ninety-year-old mother who lives only two miles away, gave the dogs baths after letting them swim in the pool, took a ride to the booming town of Oblong (population 1, 513) to Floyd's Bar for taco night, paid a visit to their son's house out in the country about thirty miles from Newton, and stopped at the MVP River Bar to quench a powerful thirst on the way home. I am not quite sure how to describe this place, but perhaps a photo of their pot-bellied pig that was belching outside on their "patio" would suffice? Let's just say it was a colorful stop, and that I regretted not being able to try out the trampoline out back.

On Friday morning our plan was to leave for St. Louis to see the Arch and tour the Anheuser-Busch Brewery.  BJ and Mike decided to join us for a little mini-vacation and so we were about to experience our first caravan. (Does two a caravan make?) We pulled out of Newton in a morning thunderstorm and headed for the gateway to the West.


  1. tell Mike and BJ and Steve and Diane hello from us...

  2. Sounds like so much fun! I really enjoy keeping up with ya'll! Keep writing!

  3. May I post your picture of the mug tree on another site with a link to your site please?


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