My dive often began in darkness, and when the temperature was well below zero. The windshield is a pane of ice. My breath makes cold fog that swirls in front of me. I check the temperature gauge and flip on the heater. The fan whines and cold air circulates inside the frozen Nissan interior. My gloved hands are already numb. I let the car warm-up for fifteen minutes. By then, the ice on the windshield has just begun to dissipate. I get a peak outside at the frozen, dark world that is my home.
Illinois is not a friendly state in the winter. It is cold and forbidding, hostile and unloving. I long for spring, and a drive in sunlight, trees swaying in a warm breeze along route 14 which I have been driving across daily for the better part of two decades. Route 14 is a dismal stretch of asphalt that curls from the prairie in McHenry County down through the Fox River Valley and into Chicago. Route 14 is a microcosm for
It should never be viewed as anything except a microcosm because it represents
everything that is good and kind and true about the America ; and it represents
the ugly destructive beast that is also part of our national character. United States
In the winter, Route 14 is an arctic zone; mounds of plowed, gritty snow shoved into heaps in parking lots and at intersections. The color is predominantly gray. For two years I have been snapping photographs and taking notes about Route 14 in my effort to understand this highway. Chicagoland is the crossroads of the Midwest, just as St. Louis is the gateway to the West. The suburban sprawl that intercuts the prairie and former marshlands is home to over four million people. The nature of those four million people is open for debate. For some, this would appear to be four million unhappy, poorly educated people often living hand to mouth. For others, this would appear to be four million generally prosperous people making a go of it. The truth lies somewhere in between opposing viewpoints.
I am always aware of the sky. It covers us with a blanket of moody colors; sometimes bright and sometimes hard and slashing with an oppressive tone. I am also acutely aware of the numerous empty storefronts, the lingering result of America’s economic crisis. Where once we bemoaned the proliferation of unsightly strip-malls alongside our highways, now we bemoan their inability to support the fractured constructs of commerce and industry. In 1818, the population of Illinois was approximately 35,000. Today, the city of Crystal lake boats a population edging on 40,000. The land here with trail that once lead to Fort Dearborn had been a rolling expanse of swampy marsh, oak savanna and various conifer. Many of the marshes had an odor, leading the Indians to call this “land of the skunk;” or according to some historians, Chicago is derived from the Indian word “chicagoua” which is the name of a garlic plant. Vile smells have always been a part of Chicago’s history, most notably with the infamous cattle slaughterhouses and stockyards. Today, the most prominent odors emanate from City Hall for the last sixty-plus years.
From a topographical perspective, Crystal Lake is part of the upper prairie that is still rich, productive farmland stretching all the way west to the Mississippi River. But heading east, you exit the prairie and enter the Fox River Valley, where every resident suffers the identical daily goal of getting out of the Fox River Valley. Of course, getting out of Illinois is also a goal. As of December 2017, and consistent four years running (pun intended), record numbers of people have left Illinois where high taxes, corrupt legislators, and high crime have become routine. The Chicago Tribune reported on December 29th, 2017 that in 2017 Illinois lost a net 33,703 residents, “dropping the state to the 6th largest, below Pennsylvania.” Staying is unappealing.
Residents in Lake County and McHenry County that work in Kane County or Cook County, their daily goal is crossing the Fox River. Getting out of the Fox River Valley is the solitary goal of morning commuters. Traffic bottlenecks in Fox River Grove. The Fox River is 202 miles long, and this winding, unpleasant bridge section is wall to wall automobiles at 6:00 AM. The small bridge and heavy traffic create all the congestion one could hope for.
Once I cross the river I still have to navigate the ghost prairie highway, where the poor condition of the asphalt serves as another blatant reminder that the Illinois Department of Transportation pockets more toll money that it will ever use to improve Illinois roadways. Of course, that topic is off limits with politicians and never investigated by journalists. Crossing the river itself offers but a glimpse of river life; a boater’s summer paradise of riverside bar-hopping and alcoholic excursions. The Fox River is, however, unappealing in every way, a polluted waterway where anglers cook and eat their catch at their own risk. Decades of industrial waste have been poured into this river which nurtures a sturdy if not radioactive breed of catfish that will, according to legend, rot your intestines faster than exposure to plutonium.
Seven Angels Crossing in Fox River Grove lies in the shadow of Bettendorf Castle. It was here, on October 25, 1995, that a school bus was struck by a Metra Union Pacific train, killing seven students. The crash occurred at the intersection of Algonquin Road and US Highway 14. There is a small memorial for the children near the site. The cause was attributed to both a judgment failure by the driver, and the insufficient warning light design of the track system. This is a generic summation on my part of a complicated and tragic set of circumstances. The phrase “Seven Angels Crossing” is of colloquial origin and I have never seen a print reference for it. It is, quite simply, the name locals use when referring to the site of this tragedy.
Bettendorf Castle, located at 418 Concord Avenue in Fox River Grove, overlooks this part of Northwest Highway. The castle rests on a bluff and is obscured by spindly trees and unkempt scrub. Built by Theodore Bettendorf, he wanted to build a version of the Vianden Castle in Luxembourg, and he began the structure in earnest after the first World War. By the early 1950s, the structure included turrets, a drawbridge, towers and even a moat. He took him over thirty-six years to complete the castle which now stands as a point of contention for agitated neighbors who consistently protest the location as a venue for weddings of other public gatherings. The McHenry County Historical Society have at least acknowledged the castle’s cultural importance with a plaque. I have never met the current owners, but I am impressed by their ongoing efforts at restoration and in making the castle accessible to the public.
Driving toward Barrington is fraught with peril during winter. The cold wind helps the snow pile up and ice easily forms along the parched and cracked highway. This is often white-knuckle driving. Fools and drunkards have died along here, as evidenced by the roadside crosses. Everybody is in a hurry to make time and get to work. Safety precautions are thrown to the dogs. I have lost track of the number of mangled cars I have seen and accidents I have witnessed.
At the outskirts of Barrington, I arrive at another desultory stretch of banks, car washes, fast food restaurants and pharmacies. If you blink, you’ll miss the sign just before the McDonald’s restaurant that announces Langendorf Park. There is no park worth mentioning, just an innocuous building, but there was a park here in 1934 when Lester Joseph Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson, engaged in a furious gunfight with FBI agents Herman Hollis (the agent believed to be responsible for the shot that killed John Dillinger just weeks earlier), and agent Sam Cowley. Hollis and Cowley were killed, and Nelson was mortally injured, dying later in a safe house on Walnut Street in Wilmette. Nelson’s body was left wrapped in a blanket in front of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Skokie. Today, this gunfight is known as “The Battle of Barrington,” and photos taken at the scene in 1934 show a wooded area that bears no resemblance to the conglomeration of buildings that occupy the space. The Barrington Park District building sits on the site, and there is a plaque on a boulder at the base of the flagpole. A nearby golf course is the only hint that this was once a sparsely populated area. Scant yards away, the dumpster behind the McDonald’s restaurant offers its aroma of decaying food complemented by the ever present buzzing of flies.
The next goal is to put Barrington behind me and that means crossing Lake-Cook Road. I pass Lake Barrington without a glance; an unattractive pond swarming with bird feces. This last bit before Palatine is white knuckle driving in the winter. Palatine is an old neighborhood, pleasant and traditional, and overcrowded. The neighborhoods are tranquil in the summer, with manicured lawns and carefully tended shrubbery where the occasional burst of red or yellow flowers adds a homespun feeling to the streets, like someplace you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting. I pass Rugport, an iconic business that has survived longer than most restaurants.
Arlington International Racecourse opened in 1927 and remains a pre-eminent horse racing venue. From here on route 14 slips into a long stretch of quaint homes and old money, where the only movement you’ll see on a summer’s day is some frumpy old gal walking a poodle on a pink leash with bells. Here, at last the Arlington Racecourse elicits memories of betting on the horses and drinking beer from tall glass steins, watching the gold digging dames in their tight dresses and clacking heels wriggle it for the crewcut money-men, and giving off an aura of desperation.
This was my exit point. Exits are like endings in stories; that place where the story concludes and another one begins.