Thursday, October 25, 2007

COLUMN: Scenic Drive

The Spoon River valley is truly a picturesque place in autumn. Waves of rolling hills sport leaves in the most majestic of fall colors. Country roads wind breezily through the bluffs, lazily guiding their occasional passengers from one historic town to the next. When the trees occasionally part, you're awarded with breathtaking views of the plains created by the hard-working Spoon and Illinois Rivers. Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood could only dream of capturing such beauty.

Sadly, there's no time for that. Not when elephant ears are a-wastin'.

I started obsessing about it weeks ago: The Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive. Annually one of the most ambitious festivals in Illinois, the Scenic Drive is put on by over a dozen communities in east central Illinois. For two weekends each October, the towns on the Drive fill with vendors, events, and activities for all ages.

When I was a kid, going on the Scenic Drive was one of the high points of the year. We'd pack the car up, set out in the wee morning hours, and drive from town to town, making it home sometime around sunset, bellies full and feet worn. But that's the thing about childhood memories -- the more time passes, the more diluted (or perhaps deluded) they become. Either that or the Drive's changed a tad since my glory days of youth.

I had wanted to go on the first weekend, but that was the Saturday it reached 95 out, and that's not Scenic Drive weather one bit. Scenic Drive should be breezy, chilly, and a bit overcast -- you know, the kind of weather where looking at gourds and drinking apple cider sounds pretty awesome. The second weekend did not disappoint.

With my friend Linn in tow, we set out for the heartland last Saturday in the wee afternoon hours (hey, no matter how much I may like something, it always turns out I like sleep more.)

Our first stop was Maquon, where my grandparents and great-grandparents used to live. I remember the Maquon town square as hustling with food and vendors. This year? A few tables of junk and a dude selling corn dogs out of a trailer. We tried to stop at the fire department, which always had the BEST food, but alas, they had already closed for the day. Given the meager attractions, though, Maquon still had quite the crowd of shoppers. And more than any of my other deflated childhood memories, that's what weirds me out the most.

I remember the Scenic Drive as a hustling epicenter of hand-crafted commerce where friendly, farm-fed folk would sell homemade knick-knacks and treasure troves of antiques. Now that I'm older, I realize what Scenic Drive really is: the mother of all garage sales.

I looked around the tables in Maquon with a wrinkled brow. This wasn't a treasure trove. This was junk, and lots of it. Some of these vendors were trying to sell stuff that I bet they found in their basements, or perhaps the family dog found while digging up a bone. Dirty, rusty debris. As long as it was old, it was fair game to put a price tag on. I was tempted to make a sign and sell off the mess in the back seat of my car. Surely there's a french fry that's bordering on antique status back there someplace.

I guess I'll never understand the lure of antiques. I'm just not one to dawdle in the past. I don't get the appeal of frilly, old, Victorian stuff. Sorry, but the way I see it, if a product was made 100 years ago that's NOT made now, it's because a NEW and BETTER product came out to replace it.

Antique furniture, for instance, may look all quaint and dainty, but try sitting in it. Your great-great-grandpappy may have carved it out of a tree himself, but I'll take my poofy, scientifically designed, ergonomically correct, space age polymer blend chair any day over that chiropractic nightmare. Plus I like the sleek look of modern design better anyways. I guess I won't be happy until my apartment looks like the set of "Barberella," and hey, THAT'S an antique now itself.

So forget the antiques. No, the one thing I was concerned about on Scenic Drive this year was finding myself an elephant ear. That's right, the death pastry itself. Take some dough, throw it in a deep fryer, glaze that puppy up with sweet icing, and I'm in heaven.

I finally found my elephant ear vendor in the tiny town of London Mills. When I saw that sign and marched up and ordered my elephant ear, I thanked God that it wasn't too late. As it turns out, I wasn't the only one. As the elephant ear merchant started to glaze up my pastry, he triumphantly, err, blessed it. No foolin'. He said, quote, "I shake this sugar in the name of our Lord."

Yes, I had found a fundamentalist elephant-ear maker. And hey, that's pretty cool in my book. Personally, I'd like to think that God might prefer it if I ate something a little more nutritious, but hey, my arteries could stand a blessing or two. It was a little kooky, sure, but also a little heart-warming to know that a guy's out there spreading cholesterol with a side dish of positivity.

Suddenly, the Scenic Drive made sense again. It's all about people getting together, having fun, and celebrating the changing season. I didn't need to have my elephant ear blessed. I was already blessed -- with great scenery, a great friend along for the ride, a great set of parents that I surprised with a visit on the way home, and a pretty doggone good life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making me nearly laugh out loud while I'm at my (semi-) quiet library job.

I mean, not about the nostalgic, more wistful parts, but definitely the Elephant Ear Guy.