Illinois Improbable: A Story of Upending Expectations

06/11/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

When I was a high-school student in Bethesda, Maryland, and beginning to think about college, my parents sat me down and set a parameter: they would only allow a school within 1000 miles of our home, with the idea that I would be more likely to visit over holidays if within that range. My elder sister had already picked a school, Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and now it was my turn. I pulled out a map, cut a string keyed to 1000 miles, and swept the radius. Boston and New York were too close. Denver, Minneapolis too far. But Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois, was just right.

So, that's where I went.

Unfortunately, I rarely left campus when studying there, and never got to know the state that hosted my formative years. I often flew over Illinois in my professional animations, but never really gave it much thought. Then a few years ago I was invited back to Northwestern to give a speech. It was spring, and as I drove from O'Hare to Evanston I was struck by the beauty; of the blossoms, the psychic valence of the architecture, the light off the lake. What had I missed on my first tour through this middle earth?

So, I decided to return, and take a deeper look. It's a big state, 55,593 square miles, the size of Turkey, a place I've explored more than Illinois, which somehow seems wrong. So I figure I will start at the bottom (I'd never been south of Chicago) and work upwards.

Not far across the riverine border from St. Louis there is a place where all your witches come true....Alton, Illinois, sometimes called the most haunted town in America. Many blame the limestone rock and the Mississippi River water for so much paranormal activity here. The rock holds the energy, the water retains the psychic residue of dramatic events of the past. It is indeed, I find, a spirited place.

I begin by visiting The McPike Mansion, built in 1869 in the Italianate-Victorian style, obviously once grand, but now looking sinister and derelict. Like all good haunted houses, it hovers atop a hill surrounded by large gnarled oak trees. There are broken windows with little fragments in the jambs, like transparent teeth. There is an iron fence; a graveyard in the back; and a nimiety of ghosts. Nylon camp tents are scattered about the front yard, a little Resurrection City.

I arrive to find an old Ford truck with a Ghostbusters logo parked in the driveway. There is a sign on its side: "Paranormal Investigation On-Site Vehicle," festooned with a pumpkin cutout, colored Christmas light strung along the top, and plastic skulls attached to the bow. Its owner, Jerome Minkes, introduces himself as a "paranormal investigator," a popular occupation in this town. With a demeanor that might be colored indigo, he sets about explaining some things to me: "Our energy after we pass, after our physical body dies, what we were in life becomes a ball of energy. And usually that can be recorded because it gives off a phosphorescent glow, and I have recorded many of them here."

I go in to take a look.

The place is falling apart. There are 16 rooms, 11 marble fireplaces, carved stairway banisters and a vaulted wine cellar, but everything broods, as though remembering a former glory. It was long abandoned, but in 1994, Sharyn and George Luedke picked up the place in auction for a song (not Ray Parker, Jr.'s) Their dream was to restore it, then turn it into a B&B. But it has turned out to be a more expensive enterprise than imagined, and going has been slow. To help finance the restoration the Luedke's hold ghost tours, and overnight campouts in the front yard.

McPike Mansion

When the Luedke's first bought the mansion they didn't know it was haunted. Six weeks after closing Sharyn was tending plants in the front yard and looked up to see a man in a striped shirt and tie standing in the window looking back at her. After a moment, he disappeared. Then, after researching the history of the building, Sharyn came across a photograph of Paul Laichinger, the original owner, wearing the same outfit.

Visitors see figures throughout the house. Many have the sensation of being touched by an invisible presence. Sounds of footsteps are heard pacing up and down hallways, and down the staircases. Objects vanish only to materialize in other parts of the house.

I wander about, hieing past yellow caution tape, ducking beneath hanging wires, touching the cool walls, and feeling a bit spooked. But I don't see any hard evidence of haunt.

Once back outside I confront Jerome: "Do you really think this place is haunted?"

He stiffens up a bit, and then says: "In all my years working at this location I have caught enough information to proclaim that yes, this McPike Mansion is definitely haunted."

From McPike I head downtown, to the most haunted building in Alton, the century-old Mineral Springs Hotel. This place is landlord to so many ghosts, it's like an almanac of spirits, a real Boos Who. But the spirit I meet is Cassandra.

Cassandra was a ten-year-old girl who drowned during her birthday party in the basement swimming pool, once the largest in Illinois. Cassandra was running in play and slipped and hit her head and fatally fell into the water. Ever since visitors have heard her screams, have watched her roll marbles, and have witnessed tiny wet footprints appearing by the pool.

Brandon Klein from the Gateway Paranormal Team is a happy medium. He uses a hand-held ghost hunters tracker detects the electromagnetic energy of see if Cassandra is around. After calling to her, the lights on the device begin to flash.

Jasper, my seven-year-old son, seems to connect with Cassandra and they start to communicate. He talks to her, and seems to hear her response. He shakes her hand. And, after a spell, he says out loud, "I love you Cassandra," and the lights on the device begin to flash rapidly. Jasper has become a ghoul's best friend.

"She's using too much energy!" Brandon cries. There are half a dozen of us on this tour. We aim all our cameras, all our lights and recorders in her direction, and then...suddenly all our devices go dead...and the room goes dark. Cassandra sucked all the energy from our batteries.

"Who ghost there?" someone asks.

No answer.

Is this for real?

I don't know.

Come to Alton and see, or feel, for yourself.

I never expected to find ghosts in Illinois, but I also never expected to find fine wine. From Alton I drive southeast to Shawnee Hills, spirits to spirits.

There are a dozen wineries on the hilly, wooded Shawnee Hills Wine Trail in Southern Illinois, all stitched together on one terribly scenic roadway that threads through the Shawnee National Forest. The only pain on this road is champagne.

I happen through in autumn, and the leaves shout with paint, more than the typical New England passage, but without the conveyor belt massclusivity of leaf peepers, and the surfeit of antique shops.

One of the many pleasures is The Blue Sky Vineyard, modeled after a 400-year-old Tuscan villa at the eastern end of the trail, well worth the sip. I spend the shank of the afternoon here on an enological expedition, discovering the velvety folds of Chambourcin grapes, and soaking in a gustatory and visual feast.

The area is named for an Indian tribe that settled there in the 18th century, and was the state's first AVA, or American Viticultural Area. The idea for the trail started in 1995, when the region's first three wineries -- Alto Vineyards Pomoma Winery, and Owl Creek Vineyard -- decided to band together. Now, it's a full-bodied destination, even sporting an eco-zipline down the road.

I run into Cindy Cain, who bears the scars of a happy childhood. She has lived and worked in the area for almost five decades, and is an unstinting advocate, a slice of sharp Cheddar on a warm apple pie. She says, "We have our own unique grapes, unique wines, and singular scenery, and one of the best parts is that we're still a bit of a secret. You can be driving along, walking the trails, and feel like you own it."

It's true. Even though I am here at the height of fall colors, I pass few other vehicles while meandering the trail. I stop at one winery and enjoy a first for me...a wine slushy...and while leaning against my rental and leisurely slurping the frozen wine, I count the cars who

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The same is true when I head to a short nature trail along the path of the now abandoned Cairo & St Louis Narrow Gage railroad. A bluff overlooks valleys of red, orange and yellow leaves from maple, black walnut and oak trees, and a patchwork of vivid green fields and golden corn stalks. A trail leads to the bottom of a limestone cliff, where I walk beneath the leafy canopy on an easy trail, but I pass no one else...this contrapuntal world is my own.

Illinois is a long state, about 5 ½ hours' drive with the velocity of desire, from the southern tip near Shawnee Hills to Chicago. Yet it's an intolerably scenic passage, so much so I stop more than I should to admire the jigsaw puzzle of fields, the sky of unnatural depth, the fizz and riot of farms, and it takes me about eight hours. Around midnight I check into a small, anodyne hotel, The Kinzie, and settle back to ready for the morrow.

When in college I got to know a little of iconic Chicago, dropping in blues bars, clubs and shnorking deep dish pizza. But I never really explored the museums. After all, I was from a suburb of Washington, D.C., which overindulges with museums. And tastes were different back then....I preferred the brew and the bash over art appreciation.

Now, though, I am intrigued with what museums might offer, and titillated when my friend Barney Harford, CEO of Orbitz, says that Chicago may be The Second City, but it bends the light waves like no other when it comes to museums. It is a city on the edge of forever.

Chicago, once an upstart crossroads, emerged as the grommet through which the economic world was stitched by the late 19th century. In 1893 it decided to celebrate with The World's Columbian Exposition, The Chicago World's Fair. Ostensibly commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, it was really a chance to showcase the advent of urban Exceptionalism. With the flowers of industry and commerce blooming, there came new prosperity, and with that the means and desire to create halls where scientific specimens, works of art, and other objects of value were displayed. This was the wellspring for the Great Museums of Chicago.

I first head to the Museum of Science and Industry, largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, with 14 acres of exhibit space. I meet up with Anne Rashford, Director of Special Exhibitions, who tells me, "We've completely reinvented the museum; more than 75% of the exhibits on the floor have been redone." I take a look around; everywhere rum little scenes clip into action. I swirl around a 40'-high tornado. I crouch and follow The Great Train Story model railroad which has over 20 trains running on 1,400 feet of track, completing the winding journey between Chicago and Seattle. I get a near "real-time" view of our planet Earth with a 6-foot-in-diameter, solid carbon fiber globe suspended among computers and video projectors, loaded with data sets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. I can see the flow of our ocean currents, changing cloud cover, the geophysical forces that shape the planet; the Earth as a dynamic, living system. Doubters and panjandrums should come here: you can see global climate change in action.


And finally I step into an actual German U-505 submarine, which in June 4, 1944, was prowling off the coast of West Africa on a hunt for American ships, when depth charges from the USS Chatelain blasted the boat out of hiding. It was the end of a violent run for U-505, which had terrorized the Atlantic Ocean as part of a massive U-boat campaign that almost altered the outcome of World War II. Now, it is a national memorial to the 55,000 American sailors who gave lives on the high seas in WWI and WWII.

A short Uber ride and I'm in the main hall of the Field Museum of Natural History. Here I meet Gretchen Baker, Exhibitions Planning and Operations Director, who stands in front of the star exhibit, SUE, world's largest and most complete T-Rex. "SUE had a long journey getting here. She was discovered in the hills of South Dakota, and immediately every museum or collector wanted her, or pieces of her. After many disputes and a court case she ended up in auction at Sotheby's in New York, and we were the lucky bidders."

She is an allure with a nimbus, but just one of a collection that numbers some 25 million specimens, in over 350,000 square feet of public space, making the Field Museum the fourth largest natural history museum in the world. I take a look around, and am especially drawn to the dioramas, all made by Carl Akeley, the legendary taxidermist who died of fever in the Congo in 1926.

Finally, I make my way to the Art Institute of Chicago, which at first is like being in a dark room at the moment the blinds are opened on a bright day. After a while the shock of so much familiar art subsides, and the experience becomes meditative. Here I meet Rebecca Baldwin, Director of Public Affairs. She explains that as Chicago emerged as a world trade center, minting fabulous wealth, many had the fortune to see and collect great art from all corners. These same people felt a responsibility to give back to the city that enabled their prosperity, and founded the Art Institute, and donated personal collections.

"Some of the greatest pieces, American Gothic, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, were purchased directly from the artists before they were well-known, and then when showcased in these halls, their fame emerged."

Why is showcasing art important, I ask?

"Having first-hand experiences with art goes beyond just seeing the pieces. It enables people to understand the creative process, and then to think creatively themselves."

My takeaway from a day of Chicago museum tasting is that these halls are passports to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, art, experiences, the hopes and cycloramic dreams and strivings of all human beings. They are a sort of beneficial virus that absorbs information and infects those who pass through. They store the energy that fuels imagination, open the lids to treasure chests of knowledge. Museums done right change you. And inspire you to explore, not just interior worlds, but the great outdoors.

And so inspired, I hit the road again, and join the flock to the rock. I drive a couple hours southwest to a sumptuous state park called Starved Rock. I check into The Starved Rock Lodge, reminiscent of Yosemite's Ahwahnee, with its Great Hall, timbered log walls, chandeliers, massive stone fireplace, and picture windows that peer into the lusty stealth of Nature. Here I meet Kathy Casstevens, the Director of Fun at the lodge, who talks in very rapid, perfectly formed sentences, like a dancer performing fouettés. She offers to take me on a hike.

We begin with a short walk from the lodge to the eponymous Starved Rock, a huge stony hand that lords over the landscape. The steps are slightly bowed from generations of traffic, the edges rounded down like a pouting lips. According to legend, in the 1760′s the Potawatomi and the Ottawa surrounded a band of Illiniwek atop this butte, and held their ground until the Illiniwek died of starvation.

There is an idea maze of trails through 18 canyons in this park, and we set off to hike a few, including French and LaSalle at the edge of the woods, along the Illinois River, whose waters ripple with the drift of eagles for much of the year. We veer inland, through clusters of Virginia bluebells, and floral arrays of marsh marigolds, wild iris, trillium and Dutchman's breeches, plus purple-flowered spiderworts, nodding columbine and blooms of shooting star. We step up a steep-walled sandstone slit to a silky waterfall.

This is unexpected. It looks like Arizona. Here, in this quiet warm-toned canyon, with a crack to heaven, there is the kind of repose that inspires poets and dreamers. There is a sense of collaborating with the forces behind the pageant of the world. But this is not Switzerland or Colorado....this is Illinois.

It is utterly still at the end of this little rift, the only movement the lazing turning of my own thoughts.

How can you explain that you need to know that the oaks and pines are still there, and the hills and waterfalls and sky? Everyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and season instead of the hour and minute? No, you can't just come here.

Hiking always goes well with boating, so I next board a packet boat called "The Volunteer," a 76-foot replica of a 19th-century canal boat that plied the 96-mile, hand-dug I & M (Illinois and Michigan) Canal, with a lock system from the designs of Leonardo da Vinci.


This is the canal that turned Chicago from a swamp into a global commerce hub, as it connected Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, allowing cheap water transport to, from and between the East Coast and The Gulf of Mexico, enabling the efficient mixing of ideas and markets.

There is less than a mile of the once great canal open for navigation, between two turtle-filled locks in LaSalle, and just two mules, "Moe" and "Larry," who now trudge the towpath pulling the craft. Legends still swirl, though. Wild Bill Hickok was a mule tender here; Lincoln took his family on a trip; and the Marx Brothers were chicken farmers nearby.

Before continuing up the road I stop in the nearby town of Utica for refreshment, and step into the August Hill Winery tasting room to find a pairing I never imagined. They are offering "Sip 'n' Snip" Wine & Craft Beer Tasting for an organization called No Animal Left Behind, which uses proceeds to spay and neuter local cats and dogs. I do my part, so they can lose theirs.

Then I make a three hour trek northwest along tree-dotted rolling hills to the former rip-roaring lead-mining town of Galena. In 1845 it produced almost 85% of the nation's lead, and was the busiest Mississippi River port between St. Louis and St. Paul, a bustle bigger than Chicago.

I check into the DeSoto House, oldest operating hotel in Illinois, opened in 1855, the year Congress approved $30,000 to test camels for military use and founded "The U.S. Camel Corps." (Except for the date, there is no relationship between these events, but I do find them interesting.) Lincoln stumped from a balcony here; Ulysses Grant used a couple rooms as presidential campaign headquarters, so the place sings with history. (Grant might not like that phrase...he was supposedly tone deaf, and once said "I know two is Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the other isn't.")

And it may be the last hotel in Illinois that uses actual room keys.

Galena has been cited as having "The Best Small Town Main Street in America," because it looks like a movie set idealization of Norman Rockwell's home. Of course, the actual movie theater appeared in the movie Field of Dreams.

By the middle of the 19th Century, Galena was one of the richest river towns in the Midwest. But when the lead ran out and the Galena River silted up, the town went into a century-long dive. The townsfolk became too poor to tear anything down. That, it turns out, was its salvation, and today the town appears pretty much as it did when Ulysses S. Grant worked in his father's store on the red-hued street. Now, that preserved-in-aspic quality is the lodestone, the touro-dollar draw.

The street is exuberant with boutiques, bars, reliquaries, art galleries, cafes, ghost tours, trolleys, locals sporting thick, black Ulysses S. Grant beards, and shops specializing in everything "craft." The old brown brick buildings host handcrafted jewelry, homemade fudge, artisanal cheese, hand-sewn clothing, self-published books, in-house roasted coffee, immaculate confections, stove-popped gourmet popcorn, and, of course, craft beer.

I stop in at the Galena Brewing Company, where these is a sign on the wall, a nod to the movie partially filmed across the street, "If you tap it, they will come." I order a flight of their craft beers, and my waiter, sporting a Ulysses S. Grant beard, presents a menu, featuring gluten free and vegetarian roasted garlic hummus ("Nothing fried here!"). The beef, it turns out, comes from cows who attended Waldorf schools, and were slaughtered under the adoring scrutiny of ethics majors (just kidding).

I see a large sign over the bar for Red Stripe, the famous Jamaican beer, and ask what it is doing here...seems a bit out of place. Turns out Red Stripe was invented in Galena, by the original Galena Brewing Company, back in the 1830's. But when the brewery closed down some 80 years ago, a couple of British investors bought the Red Stripe brand, and moved it to Jamaica, where it gained a following among stationed soldiers in World War II. Now it has come full circle, and is here to savor, along with the Pulled Pork sandwich.

In the lambent light of morning, I make a desultory stroll the length of Main Street and notice an elision of neon, franchises, fast food, and the major technological trinkets of this century. Folks are simply enjoying themselves, vendors and visitors alike. Through the big iron gates at the south entrance, built to prevent the Galena River flooding into town, I stop into Fever River Outfitters, a kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboard shop that also rents scooters for a self-scoot to the Galena Cellars Vineyards, 12-miles down a country road. I meet Debra Malone, the hoydenish owner, who gives me a map and a driving lesson, and then points me in the right direction.

Jasper Bangs falls for Illinois. Photo by Laura Hubber

I get the lead out on a Cali Classic 50, zipping through gently sloping hills, tartaned with pastures spotted with grazing cows. There is a shy glance of deer at one junction, and at another a couple of huge turkeys scatter like shot out of the trees. The final destination is the vineyard where I sit on the lawn with Linda Davis, the manager, who confesses, "With this job I don't drink wine anymore; I don't drink any less, either." We sample some surprisingly good locally-crafted wine, which is paired with some of the craft foods in town (The Bunny Blush goes with asparagus quiche), including, get this, the craft popcorn.

For my final stop in this revelation tour of Illinois I make my way back east, to Lake County. My friends Didrik and Cynthia have joined, and brought their sons, Oscar and Huey, so we decide to make this a kids' stop.

We check into the Keylime Cove Resort, a Caribbean hotel built atop a waterpark...its dessert all the time...and then head over to Six Flags Great America, which has been called the Best Theme Park in the World. It has the tallest, steepest, fastest roller wooden coaster in the universe (The Goliath), and is the self-proclaimed "cleanest theme park in the world"...all the employees carry long-handled pickers to pinch up any stray trash.

We all become champions in theme parks, and this one more than most. Children become super-heroes, twice their age and size, and parents become young and dashing, as we all conquer the dragons and a Homeric catalogue of roaring rides. With oceans of kids pulsing about, this is contained creative destruction. I spend the day riding with five-year-old Oscar, who puffs out his chest at each twist and turn, while I scream and giggle like a guileless boy.

This seems to be a metonymic shorthand for the whole of Illinois. It is a place for small and tall, a land modest and grand at once, a state of being that surprises and delights, that beats to the sound of awe. It is an axe for the frozen sea within us; a hub that spokes to the world, a thousand miles from everywhere. Happiness may be reality minus expectations, and as such, Illinois, which defies presumption, is indeed an improbable and authentic joy.