August 19, 2018
SUMNER, Il.: What’s striking about the small Midwestern places we’ve passed through so far is the sameness of economic hardship—that’s the impression, although superficial, obtained from quick glances.
Shuttered stores and factories, some collapsed by fire, and few pedestrians, even in the business areas. These places, like many others elsewhere, are built along a single commercial strip of fast food, pawnshops, gas stations, quick-cash establishments, and a few chain restaurants. Seymour, where we spent Saturday night, branches from U.S. 50 for five miles. As a larger town it had an Applebees, Chili’s, pizza places, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc., etc., and of course, Walmart.
We got to 8:00 AM Mass at a small parish in Seymour after a night of groggy sleep at our Travel Lodge. I was impressed that the priest spoke bluntly about the sexual-abuse scandal, reported last week in PA. Then we hit 50 again, cruising back into corn country, the highway nearly needle-straight to the horizon. I thought Bedford, a larger town, would be an interesting place to walk. I had visited Bedford years ago and the daily newspaper, the Times-Herald, ran my newspaper column. But again, the small downtown had nothing open, not a soul on the street.
Beyond Bedford Sandy took over driving, and we stopped at one of the strangest places I’ve ever seen or would have imagined in the small-town Midwest: Bluespring Caverns and Mystery River Voyage—where you can take a guided boat ride through a cave through which a creek flows, to view critters who live there, including the “northern blind cavefish” and the “blind crayfish.” Bats and salamanders also can be spotted, they say. The brochure bills it as “America’s Greatest Voyage in Earth,” which I guess would be like padding a canoe through flooded Luray Caverns. Various minerals used to be mined in the creek, and you can “pan” for them by purchasing a small canvas sack. T-shirts are available in the gift shop. We passed and got back on the road.
Sandy stayed at the wheel across the Wabash River into Illinois. We were looking for Red Hills State Park, about 20 miles west of the river in Sumner. The parked turned out to be a pretty, shaded place, sparsely used, on a small lake. For $20 we got a nice level site. Looking for some groceries, we were directed to Casey’s General Store in Sumner, which carried neither vegetables nor beer.
A customer directed us to Walmart (again) in Lawrenceville, 12 miles away. Before making that hike, we drove up the main street of Sumner, lined with two-story brick buildings once occupied by various businesses—now all clearly long shut down. Farming and “ag services” employment remains, but otherwise not much beyond retail, and that only in Lawrenceville or points north.