La Bamba: Champaign, Il

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Burrito as big as Henna’s head

After a wonderful Christmas down south in Hegewisch, we are headed further south to the Big Easy. Henna does have a bad cold but the kind folks at Effingham’s Urgent Care assured us she probably will start feeling better soon. So with a menorah in the back seat and candles to burn, we are ready to begin a new adventure. First stop off the interstate was La Bamba.

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Ramiro Aguas, co-founder of La Bamba

Always open well after last call and featuring “burritos as big as your head,” La Bamba has been a fixture in Champaign since 1987. Begun by two brothers, Ramiro and Antonio Aguas, La Bamba now has eight locations spread out over four states. Amazingly, the restaurants do not use freezers or fryers which results in a very fresh product. Henna and Corey are big fans of their veggie burritos. I like their tortas. The burritos, by the way, are available in several sizes including one that is definitely bigger than even my head.

winter-sky

The winter sky over the flat Illinois farm land

The days are a lot shorter in winter and hotels frown upon starting camp fires so we end up watching a bit more television than we do in the summer (which, if you ask me, involves way too much Food Network; I mean come on, how many times can anyone watch a future groom and bride fight over their wedding cake. And honestly, if you cannot compromise over a cake I’m not sure you should even get married). We also order a lot more pizza. Tonight’s pizzeria  told me that they were running low on dough so they were only making medium size pizza which would then be  delivered to us in about two hours. Our options were a bit limited so we added a salad and it was all delivered ninety minutes later without napkins or forks. The pizza, although cold, was actually pretty good. And when the ladies were not looking I switched the channel to watch some football.

 

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Where We Circle Southern Illinois Like a Turkey Vulture

There are few places less uncovered by Hennacornoelidays than Southern Illinois. The actual boundaries of Little Egypt (as this area is sometimes known) are a little vague. Generally speaking though, it is defined by the Mississippi and Ohio which come together at Cairo to form Illinois’ most southern point. The top lid is less clear but probably lies no further north than Effingham (a good four hours south of Chicago). You may still be in Illinois, but just try to get a Chicago newspaper or find a Cubs fan. Both are near impossible to do and any conversation reinforces the fact that most of this area rests further south than Richmond, Virginia.

So why do we keep coming back? It is part nostalgia. Corey and I honeymooned here almost fourteen years ago in the same cabin where I typed up these thoughts. Henna sat up for the first time here and in this cabin we have also searched for Easter eggs, listened to owls hoot at night, cowered by a television to track powerful storms headed our way, and walked the trail immediately outside a little bit further into the woods each visit.

But the area has a strong pull on us as well with each visit a mix of the old and the new. Very few things here are carefully marked and most visits involve a lot of time spent looking at a map. We are also happy to say that even GPS finds the area a bit dense and listening to it might cause the traveler to wander in circles. Return enough times and one begins to see each visit exists in fact as a circle with each trip overlapping the last.  For this adventure we circled the familiar while stopping at the new.

Pamona Winery

Those wine varietals you are accustomed to drink do not fare well in the Midwest. For that reason many of the Southern Illinois vineyards use hybrids resulting in wine that sort of resembles what you can buy a lot cheaper at your local grocery store. A few of the special vineyards, however, focus more on grapes that actually thrive in the thin southern soil. Pamona does it one step better by offering up a variety of apple wines. They are delicious with their Jonathon surprisingly tart and dry. Pamona also ages one in oak with the flavors reminding us a lot of Sake. The winery excels also in conversation and most visits include one with the owner, Jefferson Park native and self-described hippie George Majak who moved to the area in the late 1970s and had to initially learn to do without electricity. Things are more developed now, but the essential character of his place is a rugged retreat perfect for a picnic lunch or glass of Southern’s finest.

 

Little Grand Canyon

This was not the first time we hiked into the canyon, but it was the first time we successfully navigated the entire three mile trail. It involved a lot of wet rock scrambles with the trail often resembling a slowly moving waterfall. We also were fortunate to encounter a few hikers along the way many of whom had gotten lost somewhere along the trail. We heeded their advice and for that reason spent more time admiring the pock marked canyon walls and less time arguing over which way to go.

If you attempt this trail search out the terrain for white diamonds marking the trail and know that a few key junctions do not have said diamonds to guide you in the right direction. Also bring water and maybe hike your socks high and/or wear pants to help defend against the bugs.

henna at the lgc              waterfall

 

Longbranch Café & Bakery
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We cannot believe it has taken us almost fifteen years to discover this vegetarian diner that is located in Carbondale across the street from the train station. The only thing better than the friendly people working there is the yummy food they serve. Henna recommends the Puerto Rican Black Beans and Rice. Corey and I both loved their home made hummus, delicious grilled cheese sandwich, and their made from scratch tomato basil soup. If you do not have time for lunch, grab something to go at their bakery.

Plaza Records
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Our 3 new favorite words are “dollar record bin.” There were so many quality records to choose from I had to talk Corey out of renting a U-Haul trailer. The store also promotes local talent, has a small listening station, and can be found in Carbondale.

Southern Illinois Snapshots

For your Easter viewing pleasure, here are a few pics from our Southern Illinois Spring Break 2014 Extravaganza. This was maybe our tenth time exploring the area and we still managed to uncover a lot of pretty cool stops along the way. If anyone is ever looking for things to do down south, reach out to us and we will be sure to hook you up. Noel, Corey, and Henna too

A new favorite hangout- the Quetil Trail which begins in Alto Pass (near the Rootbeer Saloon) and maybe goes all the way to Makanda. At least part of it is perfect for bikes. Look for the hidden stairs leading to an overlook.

A new favorite hangout- the Quetil Trail which begins in Alto Pass (near the Rootbeer Saloon) and maybe goes all the way to Makanda. At least part of it is perfect for bikes. Look for the hidden stairs leading to an overlook.

Along a gravel road near Piney Ridge Nature Reserve

Along a gravel road near Piney Ridge Nature Reserve

Alto Pass Vineyards

Alto Pass Vineyards

Pomona Natural Bridge

Pomona Natural Bridge

A bit of nature art along a trail

A bit of nature art along a trail

Along the Giant City Nature Trail

Along the Giant City Nature Trail

Southern Illinois Mayhem
View of Bald Knob Cross (which our broke state helped pay to restore and also where a volunteer pushed a little bit too much his religious views)

View of Bald Knob Cross (which our broke state helped pay to restore and also where a volunteer pushed a little bit too much his religious views)

Hiking along abandon tracks near Green Earth Nature Preserve in Carbondale, Il.

Hiking along abandon tracks near Green Earth Nature Preserve in Carbondale, Il.

Southern Illinois Tales: Garden of the Gods and Millstone Bluff

At the cliff's edge

At the cliff’s edge

Garden of the Gods is a relatively well known place but still involves a whole bunch of narrow winding roads with only limited signage pointing you in the correct direction. The roads are all paved though which puts it ahead of most S. Illinois attractions.

Hanging out at the Garden

Hanging out at the Garden

How the Garden came to be involves millions of years of erosion and a big inland sea that covered much of North America. I think that is what the plaques said. Maybe giants created the whole thing by stomping down. Probably not, but who’s to say? I am sure the Native Americans living in the area had their own explanations, but unfortunately there were no markers giving their side of the story. However you look at it, Garden of The Gods is pretty cool. The River to River Trail also passes through and a lot of people like to camp here.

Garden was happy to see us

Garden was happy to see us

Another sight that could do with a little more indigenous explanation is Millstone Bluff. This one is a wee bit less known and does involve a short jaunt on a gravel road. Thus far, archaeologists have discovered about a dozen “stone forts” in Little Egypt. The best known has been rebuilt and can be found at Giant City State Park. Who built them? Druids (sorry, I just read a good story concerning Stonehenge). Why were they built? At Giant City State Park the experts seem to think it was a holding pen for animals and/or grain. The archaeologists here see a military purpose. There are plenty of plaques that describe in some detail the petroglyphs discovered all over the surrounding rocks. But the actual petroglyphs are so faint (possibly from being touched and rubbed by previous tourists and excavations) that they really cannot be seen at all. I thought I made out a circle or two. Henna thinks not and was a bit disappointed in being unable to make out any animals (it didn’t help any that a couple of signs boasted about all the animal drawings that used to be clearly seen). There isn’t actually a stone fort, but there is a looted grave as well as, get ready, evidence of soil depression. We did enjoy the short but steep hike to the top of the bluff and the nifty views of the surrounding area. Maybe the rock artists were inspired by that same view. Noel

Looted grave

Looted grave

View from Millstone

Southern Illinois Tales: Makanda

Makanda

There’s not enough Makanda in Southern Illinois. Makanda’s small arts oriented, hippie community is centered on just a few shops on a boardwalk. The ice cream is good and the views are excellent but it could use a few more artists.

Outdoor Sculpture Garden

Outdoor Sculpture Garden

Anchoring the joint is an art gallery that, according to a framed article at another shop, was born the same year as Corey and I (1973). The owner mostly smoked both in and out of his shop while the three of us wandered around. In between conversations with locals, he told me that the exposed brick foundation walls hold up not only his roof, but the road that passes over the shop. When it rains, water drips down the inside of the walls. The back of the shop opened up to a pretty nifty sculpture garden complete with mazes, outdoor turrets, and whimsical metal creations. All of it fit into a space smaller than a city backyard.

Just browsing

Just browsing

Surrounding this breath of life are the rolling hills and forest that make up Giant City State Park. There are also a lot of windy roads (some paved, some not), a scattering of wineries (Owl Creek is the best) and a whole lot of farms. WGN was out and about the same time we were and we caught someone shooting film outside the Blue Sky Vineyard. They also interviewed the artist at Makanda and coaxed him into getting a band to play in his outdoor garden. At another stop, the inn keepers told us that most of the WGN crew was spending the night. Trying to get back to our cabin we got a little lost (we have gotten a little lost almost every time we have explored Little Egypt- we have been exploring this area on and off for eleven years). In doing so we discovered another sight, Grassy Lake, and made a mental note to look it up next year. I hope we can find it again. Noel

Southern Illinois Tales: Pomona Natural Bridge and Little Grand Canyon

On the west side of Little Egypt is another tiny dot packing a giant wallop. Pomona, Il has not one, but two dramatic natural features. They are the Pomona Natural Bridge and the Little Grand Canyon. There are of course other natural bridges and canyons in the U.S. What Pomona offers that, say, the Grand Canyon does not is solitude and the thrill of finding the right parking lot (and not to mention the thrill of finding your way back to a well marked paved road).

Creek by Pomona Natural Bridge

At the cabin we always rent in Southern Illinois (Rustic Hideaway) there is a guest book. I would venture to guess that every fifth or so entry talks about being frustrated by the loop trail that descends down and up the Little Grand Canyon. A typical entry reads something like this: “Went to the Little Grand Canyon and got lost on the trail. Very steep. I am thankful to have made it out alive.” Once when Henna was very little (less than a year old) Corey and I almost made the full loop. We hiked all the way down and about a third of the way up when suddenly the trail became both very narrow and very blocked by several fallen trees. For a few feet we passed Henna back and forth while taking turns scrambling over the trees. Then our better judgement prevailed and we turned back. Since then we have attempted the trail three times and have never since made it to the bottom of the canyon. Last week we worked the trail backwards which afforded us a view of the Big Muddy (a tributary of the Mississippi). It was cold, we were hungry, and we had no intention of hiking very far. I think that is the best way to approach this unconquerable trail.

Henna and Corey begin journey over bridge

Henna and Corey begin journey over bridge

The Pomona Natural Bridge is a bit of a challenge to get to but easy to take in. The windy gravel road leading to the bridge would not at all be out of place in the west. At the parking lot are a bear proof trash barrel, picnic table, and grill. Someday we hope to make use of those things. There also is a short trail that leads to and over the bridge. And, of course, there are several downed trees which make the trail a bit more challenging than it should be.

Big Muddy River

What else does Pomona have to offer? Bobcats. We saw one pounce along the side of the road. And the Pomona Winery makes delicious apple based wines that we love to sip back at the cabin while nursing our wounds in the hot tub. Noel

Southern Illinois Tales: Cave-In-Rock

In the spirit of Passover and our own sense of irony, we journeyed back to Egypt this Spring Break. That is, we hung out in Illinois’ “Little Egypt” where the Mississippi flows past Thebes on its way to Cairo. We of course have a few stories to tell and would like to begin at Cave-In-Rock, Il.

A little spelunking at Cave-In-Rock

A little spelunking at Cave-In-Rock

Cave-In-Rock is known for their cave in a rock adjacent to the Ohio River (which later meets up with the Mississippi at Cairo). Cave-In-Rock is just a tad west of the River to River trail’s beginning at Battery Rock (the River to River trail is a roughly 160 mile journey that wanders over some of the most beautiful land in the country). Lewis and Clark made some notes about the cave in their journey west and it has since been used by river pirates, Confederate soldiers, vagabonds, a movie or two, and at least one church. Today it is an easily accessible wonder with a good amount of spray painted graffiti on the cavernous walls. Like most attractions in Southern Illinois there were no rangers and few signs offering information related to the attraction. Just the cave, a few rusty playgrounds, a diner not yet opened for business, and a few apartment style rooms which offer great views of the river and enough room to spread out (Hennacornoeliday recommended).

Cave-In-Rock State Park

Cave-In-Rock State Park

View from lodge

View from lodge

Cave-In-Rock is also a town that offers a car ferry service to Kentucky and one mighty good fish place called Dutton’s Café. Dutton’s Café’ was the type of place where a regular came by and went into the kitchen to talk to Mrs. Dutton while she breaded his fish. The food was awesome and included two hush puppies with every order (Henna groaned when I joked they were made with 100% puppy meat). We pestered Mrs. Dutton with questions until eventually she broke down and told us all we wanted to know about her town. Turns out she and her family are big Cub fans and on the wall next to framed articles about the town and its citizens was a picture of Ron Santo with two of her grand children. We also learned about the official state mineral fluorite which used to be mined around those parts in great quantities (until they “figured out it was cheaper just to import it.”) Later we met her very fit 96 year old father in law (who returned from a day fishing with some of the most mismatched and colorful duds I have ever seen), and another elderly (but not that elder) gentleman who retired from mining some time ago and is now, along with thousands of his mining brothers, looking to the courts to protect his pension. He was friendly and was quick to note that he did not say anything when he learned we were from Chicago. He also offered to take us out fishing if we ever found our way back to Cave-In. I have a pretty good idea where I might be able to find him if we decide to take him up on his offer. Noel

Special thanks to Liz who let my try out a lens which made the cave pictures possible