Days 64-67/ May 1st-4th – Lawrenceville, IL to Salem, IL: Smallville

You can tell when you’re approaching a small town in southern Illinois.  Above the featureless, fly-blown fields and beyond the rickety line of telegraph poles vanishing into the rain (it’s more or less always raining) you spot a vertical white line on the horizon, which, as you walk closer, resolves itself into a three-legged water tower emblazoned with the name of the town.  They sit embedded in the landscape like push-pins left by a vengeful Old Testament God who needs to be able to find Lawrenceville or Olney or Clay City or Iuka next time he’s minded to send them a tornado or a flood.

Water-tower in Olney, Illinois

Water towers - handy points of reference for hikers and deities

These towns have a lot in common beyond their ubiquitous water-towers (the larger towns have several, like an invading Martian tripod army).  They seem obsessed with their youth: a banner across State Street in Lawrenceville read ‘Good Luck LHS Juniors on the PSAE Exam’, while in nearby Bridgeport, the water-tower bore not the name of the town but ‘Red Hill Salukis’, the nickname of its school sports team.  The local newspapers – the Olney Daily Mail, the Sumner Press, the Clay County Advocate-Press – are filled with school sports results and of interviews with graduating high-school seniors about their future plans.  The economy is bad, and so many are bound for the military.

On the west side of the towns is a thin stretch of suburbia, where roughly one house in fifty sports a poster in its front yard bearing an image of a yellow ribbon and the name of the son or husband who is away at war (‘Dave Cooper: US Navy – Bring Them Safely Home’).  In Carlyle, one of the smarter little towns we passed through, there was a poster like this, each for a different man, on every single telegraph pole along a mile-long stretch of the main drag.  These are the towns that supply the troops that no superpower can manage without.  In Lawrenceville, outside the courthouse, next to the carving of the Ten Commandments, there still stood a billboard, now twenty years old, listing the names of the 70 men of Lawrence County who had fought in Desert Storm.  Beside it, a memorial commemorated the 1,000 men who had fought in World War 2.  Lawrence County, it should be pointed out, has a population of barely 15,000 people even today.

For when the American dream turns sour, there’s usually at least one seedy bar at the end of Main Street (the first building we encountered in Illinois, in fact, was a bar), with tinted windows and a neon Budweiser or Miller Lite logo burning palely in the gloom, next to a sign soliciting participants for the summer bowling league.  Next to them is often a Mexican restaurant, testament to the main source of immigration to America in the 21st century (Mexico sends six times as many immigrants to the US each year as the next largest country), and always promising ‘authentic Mexican food’.

Bank sign in Flora, Illinois

Fascinating, but nonethless an odd choice of information for bank customers

It can be hard to tell these towns apart, even harder to remember them a few days after we’ve passed through them, and we’ve found ourselves seizing on small details as a sort of shorthand for each of them.  Olney was inordinately proud of its population of genetically freakish white squirrels; the Olney Daily Mail – incidentally, the first newspaper to endorse Lincoln for President – was filled with ads for squirrel memorabilia (and gun shops, although shooting the squirrels carried a heavy fine).  At Iuka, a tiny cluster of houses in Marion County, a sign behind the cash register in the General Store read ‘No Checks: Nathan Jean, Nick Halfacre, Darren and Amy Smith’.

White squirrel in Olney, Illinois

The white squirrels of Olney: delicious in a honey glaze

Clay City was memorable for the circumstances of its foundation.  John McCawley was travelling west from Vincennes in 1810 when his horse dropped dead under him.  Despite what some might have construed as an ill omen, he decided to build a stage-coach stop at the spot, and was vindicated more than a century later when oil was discovered there in the Thirties.  There are tiny wells all over this region, nodding donkeys emitting a regular mechanical creak and wafting an oily stench across the fields.

Nodding donkey in Illinois

The Illinois oil industry: who knew?

We’ll remember Flora, in the same county, as a town of evil smells.  As we came into town along Main Street past The Beer Bucket and under a banner announcing ‘Welcome Coon Hunters’, the air was filled with the stench of burning plastic, which we eventually traced to a garden fire burning behind a trailer further down the street.  During the evening, the smell of skunk began pouring into our room through the air-conditioning vent, and by the time we worked out how to turn it off, the air was saturated with it, forcing us to sleep in a miasma of skunk.  It was only drowned out the next morning by the stench of sewage from the flooded, backed-up drains on either side of the highway as we left town.

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