[This piece also appears on Walk Weekend.]
Most people think of the Land of Lincoln as Chicago plus pancake-flat prairie, but Southern Illinois is completely different. The region, nicknamed “Little Egypt” because it’s located in the delta of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, is blanketed by the lush Shawnee National Forest and roller-coaster hills, which makes it a challenging, beautiful destination for bicycle travel.
Flooding along the Mississippi hit Southern Illinois hard this spring. My buddy Kevin was interested in checking out the aftermath, as well as the area’s unusual geography and historical landmarks. So on Memorial Day weekend we hauled our touring bikes on board Amtrak’s Saluki Line from Chicago to Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, for a three-day cycling adventure.
Arriving at 9:30 pm on Friday night we pedal a few blocks to the Train Inn B & B, located in a beautifully-restored 1905 Arts and Crafts bungalow. Paul Lewers, the innkeeper, shows us to cozy rooms and offers us Coronas to enjoy during our soak in the outdoor hot tub. In the morning Paul whips up a feast including a roasted jalapeno and cheddar omelet and seasoned, pan-fried tofu, the perfect fuel for the tough day of pedaling ahead of us. Budget travelers visiting Carbondale should check out the Heritage, a classic postwar motel.
Soon Kevin and I are rolling south out of the city, following a segment of Adventure Cycling Association’s TransAmerica route southeast towards Golconda, a small town on the Ohio River. Practically the entire section is within the Shawnee Forest on two-lane roads, shaded from the hot southern sun by maples and oaks.
Because this part of Illinois was largely untouched by the glaciers that smoothed out the rest of the state, we spend the whole day dealing with steep hills. My strategy is to shift down to my lowest gear, get in a comfortable, upright riding position and calmly spin uphill. At the top I shift up to high gear, get in an aerodynamic posture and zoom down the hill at top speed, sometimes breaking 40 MPH.
Southern Illinois is now home to many vineyards – one could do a great bike trip following the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail which connects ten wineries south of Carbondale. We notice a sign for Bella Terra Winery, so we detour two miles and relax on their shady veranda with glasses of their Diamante dry white and a shrimp cocktail.
We tackle the remaining hills of the day serenaded by the drone of cicadas and then cruise down the river bluffs to Golconda, a quaint town that shows little sign of damage from the floods. After showering at the local marina we camp in a park just west of the city’s floodgates. For those who prefer to sleep indoors, Michael’s Motel offers clean, inexpensive accommodations.
The next morning we fuel up at the Dari Barr, a greasy spoon where locals are breakfasting on fried chicken with excellent biscuits and gravy. We spin south out of town and towards Paducah, KY, where Kevin’s father Jim is living temporarily. Following the Ohio River for a spell we pass muddy plains that have been washed over by the floods. Football-sized turtles crawl across the road.
We climb southwest out of the river valley and downhill again, crossing the southeastern lobe of Illinois. We stop in Brookport, across the river from Paducah, to photograph a tiny yellow hot dog stand called the Snack Shack. Owner Thomas Tucker comes out of the house next door with his son Nathan and grandson Derrick Thomas, sees the camping gear on our bikes and insists on giving us lemonade and ice-cold slices of watermelon for free.
As we pedal the narrow, mile-long bridge into Paducah we’re glad it’s a Sunday morning and there’s almost no traffic. According to legend, in the early 1800s local Native Americans led by Chief Paduke lived in harmony with white settlers until Lewis and Clark Expedition co-leader William Clark arrived in 1827 with a deed to the land. Clark evicted Paduke and his followers and founded a new city, which he then named after the chief.
I’m surprised by how pretty Paducah is, with many beautiful old buildings, some of them painted vivid colors. Historic markers are everywhere, including one for humorist Irvin S. Cobb, the “Duke of Paducah,” who once said of the city, “Here, I claim, more chicken is fried, more hot biscuits are eaten, more corn pone is consumed and more genuine hospitality is offered than in any town of like size in the commonwealth.”
After Jim flags us down on Broadway, we experience some that hospitality at Doe’s Eat Place where we enjoy a southern-style lunch of fried catfish and sweet tea plus Mississippi-style tamales. Then we stroll to the waterfront where walls are painted with fascinating murals of the area’s history. Before hitting the road we cool off with drinks in Paducah’s LowerTown arts district at Etcetera, a charming gallery-café.
We say goodbye to Kevin’s dad and continue west on back roads across a relatively-flat, sparsely-populated hump of Kentucky towards Cairo, IL, a city located on a peninsula at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi. We’re planning to camp twenty miles northwest of Cairo at Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area, where bald cypress and swamp cottonwood trees create a bayou-like atmosphere. But by the time we reach the Mississippi, Kevin’s knee is bothering him so we decide to stop in Cairo instead.
As we’re pedaling north along the Big River towards town the aftermath of the floods is apparent – land adjacent to the road is submerged and trees stand in several feet of water. Earlier that month the entire city was evacuated when the rivers threatened to breach the city’s levees. On May 3 the Army Corps of Engineers blasted a levee on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, saving Cairo but flooding 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland.
Even without the flooding, Cairo, named after the Egyptian capital but pronounced “Kayro,” is a strange town. After Ulysses S. Grant established a fort here during the Civil War the city boomed due to river traffic, but it declined during the 20th Century from 15,000 people to less than 3,000 today. It’s largely a ghost town, with many blocks of abandoned buildings. But a historic district on the northwest side of the city contains well-preserved mansions on a street known as “Millionaire’s Row.”
We get dinner at Shemwell’s Barbecue, in business since the 1930s, specializing in delicious smoked pulled pork, beef brisket, ham and turkey sandwiches flattened in a press. Just south of Shemwell’s is George Gray Barnard’s “The Hewer,” a bronze nude of a young man laboring at the riverfront, cutting timber to save the city from destruction. We sleep at the Belvedere Motel, with shabby-but-clean rooms.
The next day we roll north with a sultry tailwind towards Carbondale. I part ways with Kevin and take a four-mile, winding road to the top of Bald Knob, the highest peak in Southern Illinois at 1,034 feet, topped by the 111-foot Bald Knob Cross. After the tough climb I’m rewarded with a breathtaking view of the verdant countryside. The gleaming white crucifix is an inspiring sight, even for a Jewish person like myself.
I roll back down to the dry town of Alto Pass and cool off at the Root Beer Saloon, offering five different brands of craft root beer on tap. The décor includes dozens of stuffed ducks, antlers, giant plastic lobsters, a stuffed mountain goat and a 14-foot python skin. The restaurant specializes in seafood, so I order steamed shrimp and crawfish flown in from New Orleans. They also sells bulk coffee, tea and spices, and electric guitars handmade by the owner.
Back in Carbondale I meet up with Kevin at Tres Hombres Mexican restaurant, where we toast our Southern Illinois sojourn with frosty pints of India Pale Ale on the patio. Soon we’re dragging our bikes onto the train for the relaxing ride back to the big city.
406 E. Stoker Street, Carbondale, IL (618) 549-1717
1209 W. Main Street, Carbondale, IL (618) 457-4142
Bella Terra Winery
755 Parker City Road, Creal Springs, IL (618) 658-8882
Michael’s Motel 816 S. Adams Street, Golconda, IL (618) 683-2424
Main St, Golconda, IL (618) 683-4878
Doe’s Eat Place
136 Broadway Street, Paducah, KY (270) 443-9006
1102 Washington Ave., Cairo, IL (618) 734-0165
3901 Sycamore Street, Cairo, IL (618) 734-4020
Bald Knob Cross
3630 Bald Knob Road, Alto Pass, IL (618) 893-2344
Root Beer Saloon
#4 Main Street, Alto Pass, IL (618) 893-1634
119 North Washington Street, Carbondale, IL (618) 457-3308