Whittington Woods


“We’re from Mount Vernon, but not the one here in southern Illinois. We’re from Mount Vernon, Washington.” Of course we could have said a similar thing in Montana, South Dakota, Iowa and Missouri. They all have towns named Mount Vernon. In fact there are 33 places in the United States named Mount Vernon. I don’t know the stories of all of them, but I suspect that they all have been named in honor of George Washington and his estate in Virginia. It isn’t quite as common as places named Washington. There are 88 different places in the United States that have the last name of our 1st president, including the state where we now live.

However, as Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I don’t believe we are in Kansas anymore.” We’re not in Washington state anymore. Our journey has taken us to southern Illinois. We’re camped for the night in Whittington Woods, south of Mount Vernon, Illinois, not too far from the Kentucky border. We know we aren’t from Washington because the two cities we drove through yesterday, Kansas City and St. Louis are even bigger and more criss-crossed with highways and traffic than Seattle and Spokane. And the space between the two cities is filled with a lot more towns and cities. For a kid who grew up in small town Montana, the traffic in St. Louis is intense and the roads could use some repair. We used to say that the roughest roads we had pulled our camper down were gravel roads in rural areas, but I think there were more bumps and bounces for our camper yesterday driving on urban highways. Nonetheless, we are calmly camped in the place we had planned for the night with no damage other than a bit of stress from the driving.

In this part of the country the Interstate highways criss cross and run on diagonals and it takes a bit of figuring to get form one place to another because there are different possible routes. We drove Interstate Highway 90 across Washington, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota. Then we took Interstate 29 down through South Dakota, Iowa and Missouri. Interstate 70 got us across Missouri, but in the short distance we’ve been in Illinois, we’ve been on two different Interstate highways and we’ll see more in our drive tomorrow. Other than one intersection where the ramps had been recently changed our GPS has gotten us where we want to go without any glitches.

I remember a trip to St. Louis years ago. I met our Associate Conference Minister there. We were attending the same meeting and we had the same breaks and free time. He had a rental car and we decided to go into downtown St. Louis to see the famous arch. He had a new GPS unit, but it didn’t do a good job of getting us where we wanted to go. He kept following the turns indicated by the GPS and it kept saying, “recalculating.” Finally, at one point I said, “Look, I can see the arch. If you parked I could walk there in 5 minutes.” We finally found a parking place without the aid of the GPS and got to go to the top of the arch. GPS has improved a lot in the years since. We have an atlas with conventional maps, but we are following our GPS to navigate to the campgrounds where we have made reservations on our trip.

We know that we aren’t in our home country from other indications than just the maze of highways. The woods where we are camped are a hardwood forest, with oaks and other trees. They are tall, taller than the pines and spruce of the Black Hills, but not as tall as the Cedars, Hemlocks and Douglas Fir of the Pacific Northwest. The night sounds include lots of singing frogs and crickets, a different sound than we are used to. The flies are definitely bigger. As we took a walk in the woods yesterday a fly was buzzing around us that seemed to be about the size of a Piper Cub. It sounded about as loud as one, too. I’m exaggerating, of course, but they are more than double the size of the flies we are used to seeing. They are noisy, but don’t really cause much of a problem. I didn’t have one land on me, but I saw several resting in various places and I don’t really want to have one land on me. As far as I know they don’t bite like the black flies, deer flies and horse flies we’ve encountered in other parts of the country.

We are just a few miles from Rend Lake, one of Illinois’ largest man-made lakes and one of the larger Army Corps of Engineers projects in the area. It is hard to imagine what this country was like before the massive water projects that were a part of a couple of decades in the early 20th century. The vision of being able to control flooding, generate electricity and provide municipal water by damming up streams and rivers was ambitious and the projects were huge. There is a much bigger story in those projects than today’s journal entry, but these lakes are set in rolling hills, much different geography than the deep canyons of the west. Here there are all kinds of diversion dams and other structures to contain the spread of the lakes. One wonders if they were accurate in predicting just what would be flooded by the dams, or if they ended up making additional dams to control the flooding that was caused by the initial dam. At any rate there are some big lakes in Missouri and Illinois that were created by engineers and laborers during the first three decades of the 20th century. It makes us marvel at the vision and ambition of those who envisioned them.

Our adventure continues as we have now traveled two thirds of the way across the continent. Our plan is to complete our journey to South Carolina in just two more days of driving. Even though we’ve been to South Carolina before, this is our first trip by driving. We’ll continue to discover new things and see new places as we go.

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