Driving for Thrills in McHenry, IL

Take I-90 north from Chicago, past O’Hare and through the golden corridor, until you reach the junction with Highway 53; take that north too, to the very end, where it spirals into Lake-Cook Road going east. Pass a couple stoplights and take a right on Route 12, then continue north, through Lake Zurich and Wauconda and past a variety of marinas, until you reach Route 120. Just north of this intersection is the tiny burg of Volo, population 180, which boasts an antique-car market and museum and a Catholic church, one of few in Illinois still offering a Latin mass. Route 120 used to cut straight through but has since been rerouted south, hastening the ghostification of the already dwindling village. Take a right on 120, then a quick left onto Fish Lake Road. The first “drivin’ road” on our tour, this gravelly, tree-canopied lane rolls gently up and down, but in a straight line: a fitting bunny hill to the other roads, it’s fun even at a mild clip.

Take a left on Molidor Road; after a desolate country mile or so you’ll pass Grant Cemetery on the right, where a couple years after the whole dead guy affair I’d be arrested for trespassing. Unable to reach the caretaker, an eager Lake County cop had a supervisor talk him through the book of regulations for about 20 minutes until they finally found something they could bust me for, and I got dragged off to Waukegan. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, the cop knew something about Black Mass-style inversions, and I had long fingernails, long hair, and a shovel and pitchfork in the trunk. They thought I was planning to rob a grave or something. I was just hanging out. Really.

Beyond the cemetery is Route 12 again–cross it carefully, as a hill knocks out one sight line and Molidor, which becomes Sullivan Lake Road on the other side, snakes sharply left, then right again. Quick, look up! That’s Jimmer’s shack to the left, the former Castle Zoom. A rare example of time moving backward in greater McHenry, the fallow fields and converted coop have become a farm and henhouse again; strutting chickens, shiny new pickups, and No Trespassing signs abound.

Just past the castle to the north, the vague edges of the Volo Bog begin; a little way off to the right is the approximate location where the dead guy was found. Continue west around the bog, then take a right on Brandenberg Road. After another pair of right-left twists, you’ll come to the bog’s formal entrance; even absent a corpse, the bog is worth a look. Past the gate, the road curves sharply to the right; after that, take a left on North Stanley. This seemingly dead-end street actually trickles around a couple invisible corners, then widens slightly into Hell II, probably the most dangerous road on our itinerary. Huge-trunked trees line its treacherous, rutted length, which winds relentlessly up and down, jerking left and right, a jaggedly perfect obstacle course. Running Hell II is unsafe at any speed and completely exhilarating; it’s only called Hell II because we found it second.

North Stanley finally dips down and stops at Big Hollow Road; take a right, then a left when you hit Route 12 one last time. Follow 12 north until you penetrate Fox Lake, the resort town built around the eponymous body of water. Most of the restaurants, bars, and liquor stores in Fox Lake have dockside service, and the general flavor is midgrade yahoo. More genteel in-law Pistakee Lake lies west, crazy cousin Grass Lake, centered around the infamous blarney island, lies to the north. Route 12 crosses Fox Lake at its narrowest point, where it’s little more than a channel; drive over the bridge and continue north, straying close to Wisconsin, until you reach Johnsburg/Wilmot Road. Take a left, onto the Johnsburg side, to begin your loop back south.

On the outskirts of JoHnsburg, made famous by the Tom Waits song, you’ll hit the intersection of Johnsburg and Ringwood roads, where a quaint one-room chapel lies. My second girlfriend–yes, a goth–knew how to get in; we spent one gloriously tripped-out night there.

Continue south, through Johnsburg itself, following Johnsburg Road as it curves west, then take a left onto Riverside Drive. Though initially hidden by trees, the Fox River will reappear on the left; just as you enter McHenry proper, you’ll pass The first of the sites where I ditched my car. It was New Year’s Eve, cold, snowy, late–enough said.

Take Riverside Drive south, through the two-block eastern edge of McHenry’s old downtown, then turn left on Route 120, which immediately crosses the Fox. Take a right onto River Road and proceed north. After crossing a tiny channel of the Fox, the road curves sharply right up a steep grade; cars coming the other way wreak havoc on the guardrail here every year or so. The rest of the road is a pleasantly banking, gently hilly ride, abutted by the McHenry Dam to the west and fabulous Moraine Hills to the east. But stop short and take a left on Miller Road, beginning your trek to greater McHenry’s west.

Miller crosses the Fox again, then becomes Bull Valley Road; follow it a long way west, past the Logan’s Run-like Centegra Northern Illinois Medical Center, until you reach Crystal Lake blacktop, called McHenry Avenue by citizens of Crystal Lake and Crystal Lake Avenue by citizens of McHenry, the burgs it connects. (Other portions are called Walkup, for some reason or other.) Take a left, then the first right, onto Mason Hill Road.

Mason Hill will take you into Bull Valley itself, the upscale residential district roughly triangulated by Woodstock and the aforementioned towns, the jewel to their crown. Bull Valley has some of the best driving roads in greater McHenry–and a vast police force, whose citations form the bulk of the village’s revenues, a sure recipe for adolescent joust. When Mason Hill hits Cherry Valley Road, take a left, and head south.

On the left, about a half mile down, is the House With No Corners. Legend says this round-edged mansion was built by a superstitious man terrified of a reputed Satan worshiper down the road: having heard that evil spirits could only hide in corners, he undertook the construction of a house with none. Unfortunately, his blueprint was imperfect, and he was found dead of fright in the mansion’s sole corner–or so the story goes. (The house was in fact built by seance-holding spiritualists George and Sylvia Stickney; George was indeed found dead in the corner.) The Bull Valley police have since made the building their HQ.

After a brief jog west on Crystal Springs Road, continue south on Cherry Valley; near its terminus, to the right, is the towering gate to the Devil House, allegedly built by the fellow who spooked the round-house guy. (Truth be told, he’s likely been confused with the stoner squatters, supposed practitioners of the black arts, who trashed the Stickney Mansion in the mid-60s.) The decades of midnight visits spawned by this hoary legend have led subsequent owners to stock attack dogs, shotguns, and still more No Trespassing signs, inadvertently reinforcing kids’ suspicions: What are they trying to hide?

Cherry Valley dead-ends at Ridgefield Road; take a right and coast through this spectral half-block community, inexplicably built in the middle of nowhere, then take another right on South Country Club Road. When you hit Mason Hill again, take a right, then a quick left onto Valley Hill Road. Fish Lake Road’s steroid-enhanced older brother, from this end Valley Hill features three or four ridiculously steep drops that, at speeds in excess of 70 miles an hour, will get you air; the ticket I got here missed a reckless driving charge by a hair.

When Valley Hill hits Bull Valley Road, take a right and plow back east until you reach Barreville Road, which extends downward from downtown McHenry’s Green Street. Take a right, and continue south to West Justen Road. Take a left, and coast around yet another sweeping S curve, after which you’ll break out into a straight stretch, the entrance to Hell I (see below). On the right is another miraculously restored barn and stable, in our day a steer-skulled relic we’d taunt each other about in classic fashion: “Hey, let’s check out that old barn.” Pause. “What–are you chicken?” One night we pried off a board and slipped in; what we found was a creepy Evil Dead-style first floor choked with gourds hanging from the ceiling and a loft with a bizarre shooting gallery complete with bullet-scarred mannequin. We got the hell out.

Just past the barn the road forks; take a left onto South Fernwood Lane, the driving road known as Hell I. Longer than Hell II, with somewhat gentler curves, it’s still a genuinely scary ride, rollicking through the middle of a forest and ending at the Fox. On my virgin listen to the Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk, I hit a patch of black ice and ditched my car again, stopping just short of an entirely deadly tree.

When you hit the river, turn around and head back down South Fernwood. When you reach the fork, take South Justen Road left until you hit Wright Road. Observe the posted limit–you’re in Prairie Grove now, another Bull Valley-style den of speed traps. Take a left and follow Wright east to the itsy-bitsy principality of Burton’s Bridge, anchored by sketchy bar Kief’s Reef, where Route 176 crosses the Fox. One last S curve awaits, road laid atop a roughly 85-degree grade on either side; I Ditched my car here too, practically turning it on its side while somehow avoiding injury or automotive damage. My parents were unimpressed.

Take a left on 176 and head east, then take another when you hit River Road. Proceed a little ways back toward McHenry proper, then take a right on Lily Lake Road, the last of the roads you’ll sample. Lily Lake is a leaner, longer thoroughfare than the others, punctuated by irregular hills and twists. At the mightiest crest, followed by an insane jerk to the left, a friend of mine’s brother totaled his car, seeding his face with subcutaneous glass; he claimed “mechanical failure” and apparently his insurance company bought it.

Lily Lake Road dead-ends at Route 120; take a left and head toward McHenry again, making another right at Chapel Hill Road. Head north up to Lincoln Road, which eventually becomes Sullivan Lake Road, then Molidor past Route 12. To your left is the formerly unincorporated, east-of-the river sliver of McHenry where I grew up; to the right is the crumbling but active McHenry Outdoor Theatre, where we’d smuggle in canned beer and drink it, warm, through straws. The go-cart track that was across Lincoln is now defunct.

As you drift past the northern fence cordoning off the Outdoor’s parking lot, note the No Passing sign on the right; now as then, the shoulder is no lower than the road, with just enough room between sign and fence to briefly pull off and do a minislalom. Called “sign action,” or more correctly “getting a little” thereof, it’s the easiest of the boneheaded stunts we undertook in our driving tours of haunted McHenry. If it’s quiet and there isn’t much traffic, you may be tempted to get a little yourself before you continue west to Route 12, then south, and back to more familiar parts. –Brian Nemtusak

Where the Pols Play in LANSING, MI

Lansing owes its existence to Michigan pols. The state capital was moved here from Detroit: the British had sacked the city during the War of 1812, and legislators didn’t feel safe meeting so close to Canada. At the time, Lansing had only about 50 people, but it was centrally located, in the palm of the mitten-shaped state. The first capitol was built of logs. The current one, constructed in 1879 on the corner of Michigan and Capitol avenues, is stone and features a narrow, buff-colored dome. On the front lawn are a statue of Austin Blair, governor during the Civil War, and North America’s tallest northern catalpa, which is kept upright by pillars and cables. An eccentric Lansingite once mounted a campaign to light the dome red, white, and blue on special occasions, but though he collected thousands of signatures the state never granted his wish. The capitol’s open for tours six days a week; call 517-373-2353.

The Library of Michigan and the Michigan Historical Center are housed in the same building at 717 W. Allegan. From the outside it looks like the party headquarters in a minor-league Soviet city. In the atrium, though, there’s a 55-foot-tall white pine and a pool with an aqua-tinted stained-glass floor depicting the Great Lakes. You might see a legislative aide beavering away in one of the carrels here. Call 517-373-5400.

Legislators and lobbyists aren’t as chummy as they used to be, but you might spot some dining together at The Exchange (314 E. Michigan, 517-319-4500), where you can cap off your steak with a top-shelf scotch and a cigar. Senators and reps who just want an after-session drink go to Kelly’s Downtown (203 S. Washington Sq., 517-484-5007), which also has high-end scotch–with term limits, they have to live like big shots while they can.

Humble staffers are more likely to be seen at Dimitri’s Restaurant (104 S. Washington Sq., 517-487-1666), renowned for its double olive burgers, Coney dogs, and a “special sauce” that tastes a lot like ranch dressing. And since a staffer’s lunch doesn’t mean a two-hour meeting, aides also congregate at Kewpee’s Sandwich Shop (118 S. Washington Sq., 517-482-8049), where the briquette-shaped hamburgers ooze grease.

In Sine Die, hero Josh Brisco goes all the way to East Lansing for lunch–to the Peanut Barrel (521 E. Grand River, 517-351-0608), a popular campus-area bar, where he enjoys a tuna melt. Another of the novel’s characters mentions hearing a fictional band called Hard Licker at Rick’s American Cafe (224 Abbott, 517-351-2285). A sweaty three-chords-and-a-pitcher club, Rick’s hosted a lot of shows by real-life band the Verve Pipe in the early going.

Gays and lesbians thrive in Lansing, thanks to the tolerant university atmosphere (and cheap real estate). Gay couples have renovated many of the west side’s old houses, and the east side, which is close to Michigan State, is sometimes called “Dyke Heights” by those who know. Josh Brisco’s first gay bar is Club Paradise (224 S. Washington Sq., 517-484-2399): “It seemed innocuous enough, the dank brick building looming purple in the middle of downtown Lansing,” writes author Matt Levin, describing Josh’s apprehension as he works up his nerve outside the door. “Nameless, faceless, anonymous–it hovered quietly in the midst of Washington Plaza, an intermittent series of pretty faces, circuit boys and fems slipping behind dark glass doors to invade its premises.”

The city’s biggest gay club, Spiral Video Dance BAR (1247 Center, 517-371-3221), is also purple. Located in Old Town, which the city fathers have solemnly designated Lansing’s “funky” neighborhood, Spiral has a 2,000-square-foot dance floor, a mirrored stainless-steel bar with lavender bar stools, and a design with an “ornate medieval feel,” according to the bar’s PR. Spiral was one of the sites for this year’s Ladyfest Lansing, a womyn’s event featuring dyke poetry slammer Alix Olson and alt-folkie songstress Mary Lou Lord.

None of Ladyfest’s acts appeared at Club 505 (505 E. Shiawassee, 517-374-6312), but they might have found an appreciative audience there. The troll bar is the Esquire (1250 Turner, 517-487-5338), which has karaoke on Wednesdays and euchre on Thursdays.

A good source for information on gay life in Lansing is lansingcitypulse.com, the Web site of alternative weekly City Pulse, whose publisher is gay. For a more jaundiced view of the city, try lansingsucks.com, where locals explain why living in a place two hours east of Lake Michigan and 90 minutes west of Comerica Park means “It’s grim here.” –Ted Kleine

Sites and Satellites in Milwaukee, WI

When I asked Milhaus for a list of their favorite places in Milwaukee, the artists’ collective supplied only confusing little mites of information. What they called “best theater” and “best performance space” were storefront apartments, “best gallery” was an auto body repair shop, and “best park” was an elevated, wedge-shaped stretch of grass demarcated by two sets of railroad tracks and a major street and housing a clump of sticks inhabited by muskrats. After some investigating, I discovered that all of these were homes to Milhaus contributors who’ve also formed hubs of collective creativity on their own. Well, except for the “park.”

A mauve behemoth in River West consisting of individual storefronts connected by a network of dark, dripping basement tunnels accommodates three of the places on the list. It’s also where Milhaus is opening up shop. The only space offering any hint that the public is welcome is the westernmost storefront, which currently displays a naked mannequin with missing limbs and some film equipment; taped on the door are the siesta-friendly business hours (weekdays 10 AM to noon and 3 to 7 PM). This is River West film and video (820 E. Locust, 414-265-8433), run by filmmaker and musician Xav Leplae. Legend has it that Leplae initially opened the place as Pumpkin World and sold only pumpkins. Whether or not this is true, it’s now where Leplae’s friends and local college kids rent film equipment, as well as one of the better-stocked movie rental places in the area. Instead of organizing his stock into the customary sections, Leplae’s divided the videos according to his own categories, among them Terrible, Overrated, Underrated, Overrated but Good, Annoying, Unstoppable Bitches, and Worst of America. In the basement Leplae has built a film- and video-editing suite; next to that there’s a practice space available to bands for seven bucks a rehearsal, plus a recording setup used by much of the Neapolitan Records roster.

Leplae also runs Chez Xav, a by-reservations-only restaurant in his kitchen. For three dollars a head–there’s space for up to 12–Xav will make a well-balanced meal, usually consisting of salad, soup, and entree. There’s no menu; you just sit at the bare wood table by the stove and eat what’s put in front of you. Tea and dessert are extra.

The easternmost storefront is a former Chinese restaurant now occupied by experimental filmmaker Stephanie Barber, who teaches film at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, plays keyboards in a herky-jerky minimalist electronic band called XKS with Leplae (she’s the S, he’s the X), and has an R & B alter ego named Ms. Money Money. Here Barber runs Bamboo Theatre (832 E. Locust, 414-374-4135), a wide-open room with decoupaged found photos on the floor and chairs arranged in front of a white wall framed by trompe l’oeil curtains. On the first Tuesday of every month for the last four years she’s hosted Soup & Cinema, a free night where anyone can show short films and enjoy a bowl of soup from the kitchen of Chez Xav. Barber also intermittently holds Bamboo Theatre Presents, one-night-only retrospectives of experimental filmmakers.

South of the mauve building, in a warehouse space above a body shop, is Jody Monroe Gallery (631 E. Center, 414-372-3304), run by sisters Kiki and Mali Anderson (the former’s the K in XKS and a poet and arts writer; the siblings share the nom de plume “Jody Monroe”). They opened about four months ago with the idea that they’d show two artists at a time, one local, one not. Currently they’re featuring two embroidery artists: Megan Whitmarsh, better known for her comic books, and School of the Art Institute grad Chris Niver, now based in Milwaukee. The Andersons have also recruited Drew Kunz and Stacy Szymaszek, coeditors of the local lit journal Traverse, to coordinate a series of informal readings. The gallery’s open by appointment only; call for more information.

Farther south, past colorless downtown Milwaukee, is the home of Theresa Columbus, who’s always got a smile on her face and speaks as if she’s just discovered the most exciting thing in the world (“You’ve reached wonderful Theresa,” says the voice on her answering machine). An acknowledged influence on and frequent contributor to Milhaus, Columbus started Darling Hall (601 S. Sixth, 414-765-1257) in 2001 to provide a venue for performances that wouldn’t quite suit the stage of an established theater or club. Soon she was hosting the Tingle Showcase, a talent show held every few months and featuring five-minute variety acts; the in-house Tingle Dancers, of whom she’s one, provide entertainment in between. Columbus is also a performance artist who found her stage legs presenting elaborate surrealist plays at Pussycat Caverns in New Orleans, the underground burlesque theater and rock club Miss Pussycat ran with her girlfriends before she met and married Quintron. –Liz Armstrong

Tracking the Trace in Illinois

There are few spectacular views or historic buildings left along the route of Edwards’ Trace, the possibly prehistoric trail from Saint Louis to Peoria, and its three remaining fragments are visible only to the trained eye in the right season.

Inspired by John Mack Faragher’s 1986 book, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie, local historian David Brady covered a lot of ground south of Springfield in his search for surviving sections of Edwards’ Trace before he found one in Lake Park. It’s just off the mile-99 exit of I-55, southeast of Springfield. (At this point I-55 and I-72 are the same road; on I-72 the exit is at mile 94.) Follow Adlai Stevenson Drive east across the Spaulding Dam (which creates Lake Springfield), where it becomes East Lake Shore Drive. Follow its curves along the lake and past a golf course. Beyond this, you’ll be on a visible ridgeline between two creek drainages–a rarity downstate–where the ground drops off on both sides. Watch on the right-hand (lake) side of the road for the Area 6 picnic shelter and a white-on-black metal historical marker with a long inscription about Edwards’ Trace. If you come to the Henson Robinson Zoo, you’ve gone too far.

I didn’t try to follow Brady’s footsteps by looking for more traces of the trace. For one thing, there probably aren’t any. For another, I was intrigued by the fact that early historical–and possibly prehistorical–travelers between Edwardsville and Springfield kept to the higher ground, navigating between the strips of timber that defined the creek valleys. I wondered if there were still any landscapes that looked somewhat the way they did back then–or enough so that you could navigate through them if there were no roads.

Robert Mazrim told me you’d have to be pretty dense not to be able to follow this portion of the trace, so I got off the interstate at Raymond (mile 63) and wandered southwest, looking for the scenery, not the ruts.

The prairie grasses are long gone, replaced by bare ground in the spring, corn and soybeans later on. The blacktop roads run in a north-south, east-west grid, so there’s no way to steer a diagonal path between creeks as soldiers in the War of 1812 did. Even the trees are no longer a reliable marker for watercourses. Nineteenth- and 20th-century inhabitants added trees as they subtracted native grass: groves now surround and define towns, occasional hedgerows break the wind, and second-growth woods cover some abandoned coal strip mines.

I meandered through Montgomery and Macoupin counties, getting lost and found and lost again on narrow blacktop roads northwest of Litchfield and east of Carlinville. Every now and then I’d come to a crossroads with nothing but sky and dirt all around. A low brown line furred the horizon, recognizable as trees only because earlier I’d seen them up close. The vista was so large that I could believe I was standing on a slightly convex surface–either the high ground between two creek drainages or the curvature of the earth itself. That sensation is just about all that’s left from 200 years ago, I thought. There’s nothing else to see.

From there I wandered southwest toward Bunker Hill. Near Dorchester I found myself on a short stretch of blacktop that went off the grid and most uncharacteristically snaked around the landscape for a mile or so. The same thing happened between Millville and Bunker Hill. At the time it didn’t occur to me to wonder why. Weeks later I found out where I’d been.

“I’ll never tell you that any particular road is 3,000 years old,” Mazrim told me. “But that blacktop around Millville, along Paddock Creek? I’m pretty confident that was part of Edwards’ Trace 200 years ago.”

After Labor Day, the Under the Prairie museum in Elkhart (217-947-2522) expects to have a guide available for drivers who want to use back roads to follow portions of the Edwards’ Trace corridor. –Harold Henderson

Take You Out to the Old Ball Game in Hobart, IN

The Deep River Grinders play all their home games at Grinder Field in Deep River County Park in Hobart, Indiana. The park, at 9410 Old Lincoln Highway, is about 45 miles from downtown Chicago. The best way to get there is to take I-90 east to Indiana. Get off at exit 14B, Broadway, and turn left on Fifth Avenue. Continue on Fifth as it turns into U.S. 12 and Melton Road. Turn right on Ripley and continue down this street as it turns into Hobart Road. Turn right on County Line Road and go to 73rd Avenue. The park’s entrance is to your right.

The Grinders are still finalizing their 2003 summer schedule. But fans can catch the team in action on their home field Sunday, July 13, against the Rock Springs Ground Squirrels. Other Sunday home games this season include an August 3 meeting with the Bonneyville Millers, an August 17 contest against the Winona Lake Blue Laws, and a September 14 matchup with the Ludington Mariners. All start at 2 PM. For more information, and for schedule additions, see www.geocities.com/deeprivergrinders or call manager Joanna Shearer at the park’s office (219-947-1958).

Interested in playing vintage “base ball”? The Grinders practice every Thursday at 5:30 PM–come out and give it a try. You don’t have to live in Indiana to be on the team.

When the Grinders aren’t playing or practicing, there are still things to do at Deep River. Wood’s Mill, the restored 19th-century gristmill that stands next to Grinder Field, offers demonstrations of its still-active grinding wheel along with quilting bees and a collection of antique toys. Canoers (you have to bring your own boat–the park doesn’t rent them) and anglers are welcome, and there are hiking trails, playing fields, and picnic areas with barbecue facilities. The park’s most popular attraction, though, is the Deep River Waterpark (9001 U.S. 30, 219-947-7850), which features slides like the Dragon and the Storm. Admission to the water park is $14, $12 after 2 PM, and $7 for visitors standing less than 46 inches tall.

–Dan Rafter

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/William L. Brown.