Many of you know that Tym and I aren’t from around here. We grew up in Shelby County, Illinois, a farming community halfway up the trunk of Illinois.
Leaving family behind in your home state means the burden of visiting has always been on us—the leavers, not the leavees.
Let’s say we’ve come to know the road well: 40 West to Nashville and 24 North to Paducah, and 57 north just as well as we know I-40 to Knoxville I-75 to Lexington, 64 West through Louisville and across the toe of the Indiana stocking to Mt. Vernon, IL and turn right up 57. Both routes are about the same, give or take 20 miles. The trip is a full day, counting breaks for gas, meals and such. We do it in 12 hours–however long it takes to drive 700 miles without getting a speeding ticket.
Over 40 years, we’ve driven that route at least 60 times both ways. Like long-distance truck drivers, we threw the roadmap away years ago, and drive by instinct, the highway sprinkled with memories of stops we’ve made, such as the Midway, KY exit when our toddler locked himself inside the car with both sets of keys and laughed at us until a kindly man with a camper loaned us his coat hanger to slip inside the driver’s window.
A lot of the memories relate to food. There was the great discovery of Log Inn a few years ago, the “oldest restaurant in Indiana.” It’s now a popular eatery that’s been featured on the Food Network. It’s located inside an 1825 tavern that was a stagecoach stop as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln dined there. Seriously.
We know to buy gas before we cross the Mason-Dixon Line, where state taxes rise with the latitude. We’ve learned that Cracker Barrel is our best other than fast food, at least until we cross the Ohio River, where grits give way to hash browns and iced tea divorces its sugar.
To break the monotony, we’ve stopped at some attractions over the years: Churchill Downs, Mary Todd Lincoln’s home and the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the Jim Beam distillery, Mammoth Cave, Nashville, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Corbin. We’ve passed by Clarksville–the place the Monkees sang about during the Vietnam War. And we’ve seen the Corvette Museum that fell into a sinkhole at Bowling Green.
We’ve toured the National Quilt Museum in Paducah and sped past the US Federal Penitentiary in Marion, IL built to replace California’s famous prison on Alcatraz. We consider Marion’s inmates: John Gotti and Pete Rose and, more recently, members of Al-Qaeda.
This year we were dismayed to see that the best pie place in Illinois has shut down: Austin’s Broasted Chicken Restaurant in Dix, IL, the first exit north of Mt. Vernon. For 40 years, it was our prime stop for homemade coconut meringue pie.
Every time we return to our childhood home, we notice how distances have changed. Familiar landmarks—farm houses, windmills, weather-beaten barns—are thinning out, and in a land of flat, square fields, we see the world we used to know, but can no longer claim.
We can’t return to Illinois farm country without speculating what it would be like to renounce our Carolinian citizenship. Could we ever belong in Shelbyville, IL again?
There would always be that gaping hole of our history, the missing years beneath the meringue of childhood. For us, the pie filling has been our time here in North Carolina, a place we can never fully explain, even to people who’ve known us all our lives. You have to experience a place and love it, like that pie at Austin’s with the toasted coconut on top.