The Illinois Triangle

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

I try to uphold the honor of my fellow men. I really do.

For example, I know men are forbidden by the Manly Code to ask for directions. I don't know how that got started. I think men are born knowing they will be lost a lot, just like calves know how to walk minutes after they are born.

Throughout my half-century-plus on this road-webbed planet, I've made my mark in the so-lost-you-don't-even-know-whom-to-ask department. I've infuriated my wife countless times by driving while totally lost, often with appropriate words of comfort, which unfortunately sound an awful lot like a sailor on a binge.

What I've discovered after several forays into Southern Illinois, however, is 1. you can't get there from here and 2. you won't make it back if you don't ask for directions.

Yes, I know there are native Illinoisans who think nothing of the mysterious paved roads that go here and there without benefit of official Illinois Department of Transportation signs. Yes, I know it is humanly possible to drive from Cape Girardeau to Paducah across Southern Illinois (although recorded evidence is hard to find). And, yes, I know there are maps of the southernmost tip of Illinois.

But, when it comes right down to it, visitors to the Land of Lincoln take their whereabouts into their own hands when they stray off familiar highways.

Last weekend I made my second full-fledged effort to find that secret Direct Route to Paducah. You know the one. It takes less time and fewer miles than going through Cairo and across the Ohio River to Wickliffe to Route 286 etc.

A direct route from our bridge to Paducah's bridge also would pretty much stake out a corridor for the proposed Interstate 66 that everyone's so excited about. When I say "proposed," think Herbert Hoover suggesting we should go to the moon some day.

So I set off on an official mission: find the shortest route between the two cities using existing paved roads. I discounted gravel roads, because they tend to end abruptly instead of getting me closer to my goal.

I went from the Mississippi River bridge through East Cape Girardeau (where Route 146 is being widened to four lanes) to McClure. From there, I relied on a map (sorry, guys) I had just purchased at a reliable convenience store.

I was particularly attracted to this map because it's laminated in six easy-to-fold sections. It was expensive. It really cost a lot. It turned out to be as worthless as a one-eyed beggar's spit.

This map showed a road going east from McClure to Mill Creek. In fact, the numberless and nameless (at least part of the way) road goes to Tamms and its maximum-security prison. Go figure.

By accident, I found the road to Ullin. Several miles east of Ullin I came to the campus of Shawnee Community College, a jewel of an institution that overlooks a lake and offers courses in truck driving and viticulture. What more could you possibly want?

Next came Grand Chain, the Tick Ridge Road and Hillerman, a town that repeatedly shows up on maps but does not show up in real life. Is this a test?

Finally, I arrived at a T-junction close to several humongous plants (power generation, chemicals and so forth) but nary a clue on which road to take to continue east. As I did the first time I made this trip a few years ago, I had to ask for directions through Joppa (my personal favorite) and on to Metropolis (which has a dandy 12th Street bypass if you know to turn left at the Food World).

Distance: 64.8 miles. Driving time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. If that corridor were an interstate, it would be closer to 50 miles and about 45 minutes.

And you wouldn't need a map.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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