Monday, August 30, 2004

Little Norman Rockwell Towns Infused With Dread

We left Chicago on Friday afternoon- the city swampy with heat and humidity. A month previously Cathy had proposed a weekend away- a B & B maybe, somewhere not too far away, a town with hints of Norman Rockwell without being too phony. “Galena,” her parents suggested.

The drive there, with its fits of rush hour stopping and starting- the angry weave of commuters restless for openings and clearings to use to their advantage and escape the lethargic mass off all that metal, plastic and glass- was interesting in the way the passing landscape offers hidden meanings waiting to be plucked and understood.

Landscape denotes the interaction of people and place: a social group and its spaces, particularly the spaces to which the group belongs and from which its members derive some part of their shared identity and meaning.
-Paul Groth

About 40 or so miles West of the city, driving west on I-90, you reach Prairie Stone. This could also be called the outer limits of urban sprawl. It's here that the newest of the new office parks and the most abundant of affordable new housing bump up against cornfields and grain silos.

Low-density residential developments put several unique strains on our transportation infrastructure.

First, they often lack sufficient density to support any kind of efficient public transit service.

Second, they are often designed in ways- such as separating residential development from retail development- that leave residents dependents on the automobile for even the most basic errands.

And last, since new housing developments are often built just beyond the last new housing developments, low-density land use patterns put new homeowners further and further away from the region’s major job centers.

-from The Metropolis Housing Index: Housing As Opportunity

There’s a last gasp of sprawl in the form of an outlet mall, so new and sparkling as to seem antiseptic- free of germs or the taint of grubby hands.

Soon, however, we found ourselves on a two-lane highway, making our way past old red bars- gently worn old red barns, mind you, oozing a kind of folksy, mythological charm. Quaint. But this is shattered, these cozy rural/pastoral romanticisms, by a barn with a large sign draped on its side that read: “Kerry = taxes and TERRORISM.” A polemical shock- a reminder that beyond the myth there dwells the deep roots of farm raised animosities carefully cultivated in right wing Petri dishes. Kerry = TERRORISM- so simple, this unequivocally brutal statement pulsing through the heartland, or at least from the side of this particular barn, and offering a daunting challenge for those of us inclined to think otherwise.

The two-lane highway became a gravel road which in turn became a dirt road that led us to The Inn at Irish Hollow, the B & B we stayed at this weekend. We rented one of the Inn’s 3 cottages, the libidinously titled French Maid’s Cottage. There were chocolates waiting us in the kitchen, cookies on the bed and something contemporary, burnished and classical playing on the stereo. I went, dog that I am, immediately to the stock of accompanying CD’s, dutifully contemptuous of the Kenny G, the Yanni and the Kitaro and holding each briefly in my hand while I contemplated just what target demographic the French Maid’s Cottage was geared up for.

We made our way to downtown Galena, just a few miles of hills and valley’s away, parking on the town’s main street to prowl for some dinner. It’s a charming little town, untainted by the franchises proven systems of operation and riddled with independent stores hawking antique nick-knacks and grandchild wear- all seemingly pungent with aromas both lavander and waxy. We didn’t enter a single one, but the buildings themselves- the architecture- was old and graceful- detailed and attentive enough that we paused, pointed and appreciated.

There was a Lynch-like moment, too, when we first got out of our car. A nearby passing freight train, on the tracks just over the Galena River, was making an ominous, metallic squelch. It wasn’t sharp enough to be painful, rounded off as it was with a sighing hiss that infused our quaint surroundings with a curious and contradictory shade of industrial dread.

I won’t attempt to write about the incredible cuisine served at the Inn. Breakfast and a picnic lunch/dinner were included in the deal and most everything, we both agreed, was outrageously delicious foodstuff.

It rained for most of the afternoon on Saturday- a soft murmur of ambient pitter- patter that made sitting on the cottage porch with good books cozy and sublime. The late summer grass, the leaves on the trees and the occasional blooms of yellow, red or white seemed almost incandescent. Earlier we had put on our raincoats, hoods up over our heads, and taken a walk on the land owned by the Inn’s operators. We were deep in a valley, no cell-phone coverage, and we took a gentle sloop upwards for a few hundred yards- stopping to turn around and admire the view of the rolling hills- all static waves of numerous shades of green and dotted with farms. Our pastoral affinities were given a workout. We took some time to be still under a canopy of trees, the rain nicely muffled and drowsy, large drops plopping from the leaves and onto our palms to wash away the grit and realizing that our pants, our shoes and our socks had reached a point of unfortunate sogginess.

Later, the sun came out. It was there on Sunday, too. We had a great weekend.

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