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TRAVEL IN ILLINOIS Four towns in DOWNSTATE ILLINOIS well worth the time
by Owen Keehnen

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Vacations don't need to be expensive. Road trips can be thrilling, educational, and most importantly, a lot of fun. Exploring the sights, sensations, and hidden treasures of almost anywhere can be an unforgettable experience. Recently I took a drive through Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. On my return trip I drove north through southern Illinois. So many places downstate were full of surprises. Here is a quick rundown of just four of them.

Cairo is a town of profound desolation located at the southernmost tip of Illinois at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Visually, Cairo is a wonder, a modern-day ghost town with an almost otherworldly vibe. Many buildings here are abandoned and in various states of collapse, a condition made all the more surreal by an abundance of Japanese Kudzu, a vine which seems poised to consume the town. When Charles Dickens visited the town in 1842, he was moved to make Cairo the model for his nightmare city in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit ( 1846 ). Cairo also plays a major role in Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods ( 2001 ). In stark contrast to the general dilapidation in Cairo is Magnolia Manor, an opulent and preserved estate which hints at the town's former grandeur as a seat of river commerce. When visiting Cairo be sure to visit Fort Defiance Park, located at the lowest point in the state where the merging of the two iconic rivers is visible. FYI: Just across the Mississippi River in Kentucky, is Wickliffe, site of Wickliffe Mounds, the remnants of a Native American village dating from 1100-1350 AD.

Originally named Calhoun, Springfield is an interesting mix of grandeur with a touch of kitsch, the state capitol as well as a former thoroughfare for Route 66. I found both areas of interest fascinating. The capitol grounds downtown and the state buildings are imposing and impressive as is the surrounding statuary. In addition, there is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Lincoln's Home, Lincoln's Tomb, the Illinois State Library, and the Illinois State Museum. Also be sure to check out the Old State Capitol Building ( 1839-1876 ) and Lincoln Square, site of several notable events including the starting point for the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. Down the street from Lincoln Square is Recycled Records, a browser's paradise offering three floors of records and assorted collectibles. While in Springfield, be sure to stop by Shea's Gas Station Museum and check out the array of Route 66 and filling station memorabilia. And no visit to Springfield would be complete without a meal at the Cozy Dog Drive-in, another iconic remnant of Route 66 with lots of keepsakes from the thoroughfare's, and the diner's, heyday. The Cozy Dog is also the home of the original corn dog on a stick.

To the north is Lincoln, Illinois, another town which was once part of Route 66. The town square is pure Americana, dominated by a handsome city hall building with the unexpected sight of a phone booth on the roof. ( The phone booth was used years ago as a severe weather lookout. In questionable weather a fireman would man the booth and call downstairs at the appearance of a funnel cloud to sound the tornado alarm. ) The Lincoln Heritage Museum is here as well. The giant Abe Lincoln on a wagon at the outskirts of town makes for a fun photo op. There is also a Watermelon Lincoln Monument which commemorates Lincoln's christening of the town's new railroad with a slice of watermelon. This was the only town in the nation named for Abraham Lincoln before he became President. If you want to do an Abraham Lincoln tour of central Illinois be sure to add this one to your list, which should also include Springfield, Mt. Vernon and New Salem.

Bloomington was another mandatory stop on my downstate trek. For tourism, this town of approximately 80,000 features the David Davis Mansion ( Supreme Court justice ), The Prairie Aviation Museum, and the McLean County History Museum. Bloomington is also the home of Beer Nuts! However, on my Bloomington stop I was most eager to visit Evergreen Cemetery and check out the grave of Dorothy Gage, the niece of Frank Baum ( she died as a five-month old infant ). Gage was the inspiration and namesake for the Wizard of Oz. Baum hoped his books would be a way to memorialize the infant and honor her unrealized future. Baum's heroine, Dorothy Gale, was supposedly further defined by a newspaper account of a young girl picked up in a tornado and found face down in a mud puddle. Evergreen Cemetery is also where Bloomington notable, Adlai Stevenson Sr. ( U.S. vice president ) and Adlai Stevenson Jr. ( governor of Illinois/U.S. presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956/U.N. Ambassador ) are buried.

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