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

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

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 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