Friday, October 07, 2011

COLUMN: Bunker

Nothing on Earth heals my soul quite like a drive in the country. The rural midwest countryside is my confidant, my therapist, and my rock of stability. Sure, I love bright lights and big cities and nightclubs and theatre and hustling and bustling, but nothing beats an open road, a full tank of gas, and the complete and total lack of an agenda.

In college, I met my best friend Jason, and together, we have trekked thousands of countless and needless miles driving for the sake of driving. The trouble is, in this day and age, aimless driving is about as politically incorrect a hobby as one can possibly have.

For one, it's dreadful on the environment. I know for a fact that every dirt, gravel, and paved road within a 100-mile radius of the Quad Cities has seen my carbon footprint at one time or another. This week, we honored hordes of people riding their bicycles across Iowa, and I celebrated this eco-tastic feat by wasting an entire tank of gas driving in circles throughout rural north-central Illinois. Not good.

ESPECIALLY not good given the current price of gas. Once upon a time, five bucks could score you multiple hours of aimless driving fun. These days, it requires forethought, checkbook balancing, and budgeting a good percentage of my weekly paycheck. In this economy, it's a crazy pastime to have -- especially considering the average temp this summer has been about two degrees away from the boiling point of human blood. I've already worked my way through one a/c compressor in my car this year, and its newly-installed replacement is already getting a doozy of a workout.

But the worst part about aimless driving? We've done it too much. Half the fun of cruising around without an agenda is not knowing what's around the next bend. A crazy water tower? Historical marker? One of Ronald Reagan's seemingly endless supply of boyhood homes? But when you've been sputtering around rural Illinois for 20 years like we have, you start to memorize the bends and nothing's a surprise anymore. In order to get good and properly lost these days, I've got to drive at least 100 miles away from town, and that's quite a commitment. Put me in a car for more than two hours and muscles start seizing up, backs start going out, and the whole affair just becomes a big exercise in contemporary pain management.

Ergo, we've been spending time lately trying to RE-visit weird places we vaguely recall from drives of yore. For instance, there was one night in college that a carload of us took a study break and hit the open road. We were somewhere on the outskirts of Orion when we stumbled upon a REALLY weird building. All I remember were floodlights, barbed wire, and a clear sense of foreboding evil. The building didn't have a sign, but it didn't need one. I'd seen enough episodes of The X-Files in my day and this was CLEARLY where the government kept the bodies of crash-landed aliens. Re-finding that building was a top priority in my book. When we did, it was a bit of a letdown. In crisp summer daylight, it was a lot less evil and a lot more boring industrial complex of some variety or another. I still don't know what the heck's in that building, but it ain't Marvin the Martian. Boo.

But last weekend, we set out on an aimFUL drive to re-find quite possibly The Weirdest Thing We've Ever Seen In Illinois. It had been a rather boring afternoon of sleepy farm towns and cornfields a decade ago when we first laid eyes on it. Out of the rural blue, for about a square mile, all signs of human life dropped off the landscape, to be replaced with the ruins of bunkers, like some kind of weird abandoned Illinois militia base or something. The buildings were identical and resembled the domed habitat of Luke Skywalker on Tattooine at the beginning of Star Wars (wow, I'm a nerd.) All looked abandoned and overgrown with trees and weeds. All looked creepy as all get out. If the Blair Witch had a summer home, it was this place. We didn't get out of the car because it looked like private property and entirely uninviting and entirely unsafe, but to discover this place in the middle of rural Illinois was entirely cool.

Just one problem -- we have NO idea where we were that day, other than "the country." It was Illinois, it was east of the Quad Cities and west of Chicago, and I THINK north of Peoria. Beyond that, it could be anywhere. Still, we thought we'd give it a shot. All day long, we zig-zagged and criss-crossed around every country road in central Illinois until my iPod battery was shot and my back was crying out in pain... no luck. The place has simply vanished. Many theories abound:

* Like Season 8 of "Dallas," it was all a dream. But I couldn't dream up a place this creepy. It exists -- somewhere.

* THIS was where the government kept the alien bodies, but now we know, and now They know we know, so They moved it. My guess is to Alabama, where creepy militia bunkers are a way of life.

* It, like the rest of anything remotely interesting about central Illinois, has been mowed down and turned into a wind farm. I like the idea of wind power, but once you get past the excitement of seeing those futuristic white windmills, you start to realize how bad they wreck the landscape.

* They're not bunkers, they're all just various assorted boyhood homes of Ronald Reagan that we've yet to tour.

Someday, I WILL find those weird little buildings again and get to the bottom of it. Until then, it's just the excuse I need to waste gas and be an awful bio-consumer.

UPDATE: that someday is NOW. I never thought to check the internet, because I didn't expect Google to have much to say on a search for "WEIRD BUNKER THINGS IN ILLINOIS THAT LOOK LIKE LUKE SKYWALKER'S HOUSE." BUT when I searched for "ABANDONED MILITARY BASES IN ILLINOIS," it didn't take long to stumble upon the Green River Ordnance Plant. In business from 1942-1945, the plant made a variety of weapons (mostly bazooka shells) for our boys fighting in WWII. After the war, it closed down but was never torn down. Today, the remains are privately owned and some of the bunkers are used to store explosives to this day. DEFINITELY don't consider this an endorsement to go trespassing, because the Illinois EPA says that chemical and explosive hazards are still present, up to and including traces of cyanide and astesbos. That said, if you find yourself on U.S. 30 between Dixon and Amboy, it's worth a roadside look-see (note: We were 2 miles from there this weekend. Guess we zigged when we shoulda zagged.)

So, mystery solved. Which means I need a new excuse to continue my shameful passion for aimless driving. Wait, I'm pretty sure I saw a water tower painted to look like an ice cream cone somewhere...

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