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Gas Up and Go

Mike Magnuson's Carbondale, Illinois

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The creative writing faculty at SIU get less inspiration from John Cheever than from the fine spirits poured at the Cellar, a bar that doesn't necessarily want you to find it. The number's unlisted and the door's not numbered; look for the dark, hard-to-read shingle hung in a corner of the parking lot along Illinois near Main, next door to Paul Hampton Photography, 101 W. Monroe. Even if nobody's falling off his chair spouting poetry, the Cellar's a cozy hole: they've got meat sandwiches for three or four bucks, all-around cheap drinks, and Elvira pinball.

They don't just serve a mean cafe brule--the CFM Convenience Store at Highway 51 and Pleasant Hill Road in southern Carbondale sits at the end of the Ice Age, marking the spot where the bulldozing glaciers gave up and out. The intersection doesn't look like much at first glance, but avid cyclist Mike Magnuson says when you're in the saddle you can feel the land change immediately; two minutes' ride and you're clearly in either the mind-bending Illinois flatlands or the rippling hills of the south.

The Shawnee National Forest surrounds the Carbondale area, its parks offering obvious fun for lovers of nature and sport. Giant City State Park (the Illinois Department of Natural Resources post is at 235 Giant City Road, Makanda, 618-457-4836) is fairly large, and though the flagship path is only a mile long, it's rated rugged, winding between teetering boulders and swell vantages. The park brochure quotes former Illinois DNR site superintendent Bob Kristoff on the park's name: "The early pioneers...thought [the rock formations around the trail] looked like the streets of a city, a giant's [sic--lonely giant!] city."

No matter how hungry you get hiking, if you don't like fried chicken don't eat at the Giant City Lodge (460 Giant City Lodge Rd., Makanda, 618-457-4921) on Sunday--all the kitchen'll fix after church is an all-you-can-eat white-gravy feed of the stuff, with dumplings, vegetables, and the works for $8.95. Don't say you're Catholic, either--this ain't Chicago, and Catlickers aren't popular on revival day. Nonetheless, the place is a pleasant stop for what it is; the real attractions are the Conservation Corps-built lodge itself and the water tower outside--climb up for a bracing overlook of the national forest.

The sign outside says singles are $19.95, doubles $29.95, and weekly rates are available; it doesn't tell you where you can download pictures of stripping coeds now that the Internet porn ring at the Sunset Motel (825 E. Main, Carbondale, 618-457-5115) has been busted up. As of last March, the fun is gone, but at those prices why not bang your head on an infamous board? The lodging's complete with plastic lawn furniture--in the rooms.

Since Carbondale's a college town, tourists benefit from the number of late-night feeding and watering holes along the main drag of Illinois Avenue. One of the most owlish stops is Sam's Cafe (521 S. Illinois, 618-549-2234), serving Greek and Middle Eastern alcohol sponges like greasy falafel and gyros. The place is filthy and cheery; service is slow but smiles real nice.

If pizza and beer's your pick of poison, both can be had in a quiet collegial atmosphere at Quatro's Deep Pan Pizza, just off the Illinois strip (218 W. Freeman, 618-549-5326). For a more "fun" (read: zoolike) ambience, try PagliaI's (515S. Illinois, 618-457-0321); the building looks a lot niftier, but Mike Magnuson says it's been riot-proofed to protect it from student celebrations. He also says the pizza at both Quatro's and Pagliai's is bad and overpriced: "We go to Papa John's."

If you think born-again Christians are good for nothing, then you've never beheld the glory of Bald Knob Cross (top of Bald Knob Mountain--you can't miss it--off Highway 127 south of Murphysboro in Alto Pass, 618-893-2344). There she is: standing 111 feet high, this blindingly white, approximately 200-ton steel and marble eyepopper spreads its mawkish arms over the Trail of Tears State Forest (in 1839 hundreds of Indian men, women, and children on the forced march died as they wintered in makeshift camps just south of the forest). The 1963 erection was the brainchild of a mailman and a reverend, but its matron saint, if Protestants were into that kind of thing, would be the legendary Myrta Clutts, to whose brood sow God granted a miracle litter of 21 piglets--6 of which were nursed by the family dog, Flossie--that Clutts might sell them off to fund a donation to the monstrous monument. Mike Magnuson brings almost everyone who visits to gawk at it; he says the caretakers have begun to regard him as a regular. "I'm not a God freak," he protests. "I just can't believe this thing is actually here." On our excursion we had the good fortune to catch the end of the Blessing of the Bikes: hundreds of saved bikers, having just performed said ceremony and consumed a feast of "roadkill stew," were relaxing in the sun, farting piously. Dan Wilson, president of the Bald Knob Cross Foundation, is quoted on the flyer: "You will never feel closer to God than you do on Bald Knob."

Allegedly there's a legitimate "wine trail" through the vineyards around Carbondale; however, everyone who wants tourists to wander in and buy "folk" handicrafts seems to have put up their own misleading markers; you could wind up dinking around all day following them. A dependable sample of Illinoisan vintage can be found at Alto Vineyard (8515 Highway 127, Alto Pass, 618-893-4898); you can taste the goods and get suckered in the gift shop. "Excellent, excellent wines," says beer drinker Mike Magnuson. If you'd rather do southern Illinois wine the swank way, try the Kite Hill Vineyard Bed & Breakfast (119 Kite Hill Rd., Carbondale, 618-684-5072).

And finally, no trip to any college town would be complete without a visit to an outdoor hippie mall where you can hear folksingers warble while you (no kiddin') smell the pot grow. The flagship of this, er, cultural phenomenon--basically a strip mall of shacks set in a pretty valley at the intersection of Baptist Hill and Makanda--would appear to be Southern Sisters Workshop (514 Makanda, Makanda, 618-457-8508), which carries a stereotypical assortment of obviously handmade goods. Don't go near the place if you're unfond of unleashed dogs, though; if you absolutely must have flax or hempen chaps before you're attacked by some mongrel, Southern Sisters has an outlet in downtown Carbondale (Southern Sisters Roots Too, 400 S. Illinois, 618-549-5560).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ann Sterzinger.

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