My sister lives in southern Illinois in a town of about 15,000 people called Mt. Vernon, a small town surrounded by acres of empty fields, harvested and shaved bare for the winter. In the villages on either side of the town, mini oil drills bob up and down in the front lawns of small houses and most of the bars have posters tacked to their doors that say “Hunters Welcome” in safety-vest orange. Mt. Vernon itself, though, sits at the intersection of highway 64 and highway 57, and the scenery is often what you’d expect to find at any other small-town stop on a road trip across the middle of the country: hotels, gas stations, fast food, two Mexican restaurants, a Kroger grocery store with a solemn pledge of good service stenciled on the glass window above the shopping carts.
Until last winter, my sister was in Chicago, where she lived for nine years, and before that, North Carolina, where our parents live now and where my sister and I both went to college. A little less than a year ago, she moved here for a job in the 5th district of the Illinois court system, working as an appellate defender. She is 32 years old, currently single, and says that her life looks different now than she thought it would. “How?” I say, pretending not to understand that she means that she is lonely. “More deer?”
“Yes,” she says, playing along. “There are a lot more deer.”
It’s about ten o’clock at night, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and Elizabeth is giving me and our mom a short driving tour on our first night in town. She rolls through the neighborhoods and points out the major landmarks—an art museum, the county courthouse, a federal building, a jail museum that once housed the noose used to kill the last man executed in the state of Illinois. In ten minutes, we’ve seen most of the town and several groups of deer, displaced from the woods by hunting season, leaping across highways, resting in the small green spaces of family life.
“That’s about it,” Elizabeth says a few times. “There’s really not a lot here.” But my mom and I make up questions to ask so we can extend the tour.
“Is that an apartment?” my mom says. “Or is it a nursing home? Didn’t you join some sort of gym? Let’s see the gym.”
The next day, while my sister puts in a half day of work, my mom and I go to the art museum and then to an independent bookstore. The museum has just three rooms of exhibitions, but the building is bright and modern with tall exposed beams and a high strip of glass lofted above the central corridor. Some of the artists, such as Mary Cassatt and George Bellows, are famous. My mom likes the calm of the near-empty exhibits and the wall panels, whose explanations are clear, informative, unpretentious.
“I don’t mean this the way it’s going to sound,” she says, a couple minutes after the two of us have left the bookstore. “I don’t want to act like I’m some city slicker coming out to the country, but this really isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I agree. That bookstore really was nice.”
We are walking back along a row of storefronts to the car. From what I can tell, this small stretch of shops—a wide-laned, relatively empty one-way street that dead ends into a squat building that contains the police station and jail—is the historic downtown. It doesn’t feel depressing so much as still and quiet, an unlikely place for anyone passing through to stop.
“Should we tell Elizabeth that we think she’s exaggerating about this town?” I say.
“Should we make her a list of reasons we think she should be happy here?”
My mom gives me a look. “You know that’s not what I mean.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m just kidding.”
“She spent a lot of time making friends in Chicago,” my mom said. “Nine years is a long time to live in one place.”
The rest of our trip is mostly spent driving. We see a high-ceilinged cave in the southeast corner of the state—a giant arch in a wide slab of rock beside the wide curve of the Ohio River that separates the southern tip of Illinois from Kentucky. We visit the Shawnee National Forest and climb through a field of moss-covered limestone bluffs radiating dampness and cool. We drive across a narrow bridge where strips of sunlight glide across the pale lime-green water floating between the bumpy trunks of Cypress trees.
We drive past the agricultural research buildings of Carbondale and the variations of Christmas lights and tinsel that each small town has pinned along the lampposts above its streets. We pass dozens of small churches and dozens of small windowless bars advertised with blinking arrow signs pushed out toward the edge of gravel parking lots. We pass villages of square prefabricated homes not much larger than the television dishes beside them, silver bins of grain connected to one another with networks of pipes and ladders, and train cars stopped along a rail line and heaped with dark slopes of coal.
We stare at everything as it slips past, even after the sky goes dark and there isn’t much to see except the shape of the shadows flashing long and short, dark and gray, like a coded message bleeping out one letter at a time. We are looking for something, I guess, but I’m no longer sure that the question is what I thought it was going to be. I had expected to ask about the possibility of happiness in a small and unfamiliar place, and the price of the bargains my sister has made to move away from her old life for a new job, but now in the back of the car, on the way back to Mt. Vernon and my sister’s apartment, I am thinking about myself, how strange it is that I have moved hundreds of miles for school and work without questioning my decisions, but that it’s never occurred to me once to move for family.
Maybe it’s the empty miles of farmland or the semi-trucks heaving along narrow highways edged with rail lines, the stillness of the landscape set against the machinery of a long and lonely haul, but suddenly, the smugness I felt toward southern Illinois evaporates, and leaves me with the tingling self-consciousness of an interloper, stumbling through the center of a close-knit town, aware suddenly, that’s she’s traveling alone.
Marian Crotty is the Assistant Editor for The Common.
Photo by author