The Undiscovered Country
1 Aug 2008
What city do you live in? What neighborhood?
I grew up in Chicago and would have bet for many years, that not a hill existed in the state of Illinois! Well, it's called The Prairie State - for good reason. Thanks to the coming of the glaciers10,000 years ago or so, most of it was flattened to a level plane beneath relentless tons of ice. But I'd have lost the bet. The extreme northwest corner of the state was never subject to the glaciers - thus the name, "The Driftless Zone." This is an area of rolling hills, stone bluffs, wooded canyons. I live in Savanna, a small town on the Mississippi River. Not only is it quaint and scenic here, it sometimes feels that I found a doorway back through time. Only 3 hours from my old home city - yet, not a freeway to be seen. Only one stoplight in the county, the nearest mall is probably 40 miles north of here (Dubuque), Wal Mart is across the river (Clinton, Iowa), and a "traffic jam" is 5, 6 cars behind a tractor - maybe!
What are some adjectives that describe your neighborhood?
Like many other towns along the Mississippi River in this area, Savanna dates from the middle 1800's with a history both colorful rich, going back to the era of the steamboats. Unlike its famous sister city to the north, Galena, it is not a tourist town and hasn't been "regentrified." A mix of grand Victorians, old frame cottages and red brick vintage storefronts, it's a sleepy little burg with hilly sidewalks shaded by enormous trees - the kind of place where yards are purple when the wild violets bloom, and lilacs by the thousands scent the air like incense every spring. Kids play baseball in the streets and chase the fireflies. People sit on porch swings here, and burn their leaves along the curbs in fall. Sleds appear in winter. And the only sounds which interrupt the song of crickets in the night - other than the thunder - are the trains along the river and the tooting of the tug-boat horns. Well, a siren now and then! Not very often, though. Once upon a time, the town was rowdier than now... in its heyday there were more than 50 taverns here but there are only several left, today.
How long have you lived there, and what brought you there?
If someone had told me when I lived in Chicago (or in California), that I'd move to a tiny burg in the heart of Farm Country, I'd have laughed out loud! That was not the plan. When my husband and I left the west, we were going Home; and he is also from Chicago. As it happened, we stayed with his aunt for awhile here, fell in love with the area and changed our minds. I think it may have been the house... we were out driving, turned a corner, saw the sign in front (For Sale. Call Owner) and I knew just looking at the yard, I had to have the place! I will admit, it doesn't look like California much in winter buried under snow and ice. But in spring and summer, what a perfect mix. The home is old and used to be a farm house. Red! As we discovered when we stripped away the siding in the back to add the deck. Flowers, trees, a spacious yard, a little forest out in back, a quiet street with barely any traffic (perfect for our cats!). We bought it and we stayed.
What is your favorite thing about this place? Your least favorite?
I always used to say, I could live in the heart of the city - which I did for many years (Chicago first, Oakland, California later.) Or, I could live in the wilderness. Tried that too, in Baja (Mexico). Suburban sprawl? Not for me. I love this little town because it's yet to be developed. There are no cul-de-sacs or strip-malls here, every home is different, every yard and garden is unique. The area is sometimes called the Undiscovered Jewel of Illinois and is situated in a wilderness preserve extending north into Wisconsin, west to Iowa; a place both beautiful and wild, famous for its cliffs, canyons, forests, marshes, even caves. No matter where you go out here, you're on a two-lane country highway curling through pastoral scenery (farms, horses, rustic barns and every now and then, another quaint old town.) We do miss the night-life and excitement of the city now and then (can't go out at 2 a.m. and get a good Chicago hot dog! Much less a gourmet meal) but neither do we feel like we have to triple-lock our doors. I think the trade is good.
Do you feel that you belong there?
One thing which seemed very funny to me when we moved here, is that I felt very much like I was "home," having come all this way from California. After all, it's Illinois! I soon discovered, that was not the feeling of the locals, though... most of whom were born here, grew up here, very seldom go too far and think of Chicago as "another galaxy" even though it's 3 hours down the highway if you head due east. There is a saying.. "Once a Chicagoan, always a Chicagoan." I suppose in many ways it's true. We are not farm people (by a long shot) while most folks in these parts are, or were. By that token, we're a long way from home. However, people from Chicago are discovering this area and now, more and more are showing up. Some have vacation homes along the river, others move here to retire. I'm sure if trains were running to Chicago (used to: there are only freight trains, now) this would be a bedroom community by now and people would commute.
What is the most common misconception about where you live?
I think the most common misconception people have especially when they see my photos, is that this is some isolated pocket of the Universe where time stood still and everything they see represents not the present, but the past. It is not life as seen on HBO! But neither is it Epcot. The rustic barns, the family farms, the country markets and the mom and pop cafes are still very much in business - still Today's America, albeit not the one we see on television (or on city streets). All this might be looked upon as corny or old-fashioned in a lot of quarters. Ten or twenty years ago, I might have been the first to chuckle at it! But it's Real - and it is the Heartland. They can call it a Time Warp if they want, but me, I rather like the place.
What is a special fact about your city that you have to live there to know?
This town does have its little secret... namely, a place called Poopy's. Yes, Poopy's. (No further comment, there!) Huge bar and restaurant - live music - free camping in the summer - very popular with bikers - you can even get tattoos. Shouldn't let it scare you... BEST food in town!
What aspect of your city do you secretly love?
I love the history here, even though I don't know much about it, yet. I do know, the area area was especially sacred to the local natives, long ago: a place where even warring tribes could meet in peace to talk things out, and often did. Later it became a raucous steamboat port, with many a shoot-out to its name (along with something called the "war boats.") These were floating - um, let us say, Houses of Ill Repute. When the law came down, they could disappear among the islands in the river thus avoiding prosecution. There was big money to be made in other, legal ways -- such as gathering the eggs from wild swans! Or, harvesting the river clams. Those were used for buttons prior to the age of plastic. Several grand old homes along the riverbank are built with widows' walks around the turrets - specifically by steamboat pilots who were wont to retire here and still gaze at their beloved Mississippi from their homes. I like to think Mark Twain hung around the docks back then... who knows! Wouldn't be surprised.