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Thursday, April 15, 2004 03:58 am

The road to Metropolis

Everybody knows about Route 66. Maybe they should take a drive down U.S. 45.

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COVER DESIGN BY NICK STEINKAMP

When geologists want to know what's in the ground beneath them -- what time has made of all the swamp muck and dinosaur carcasses -- they take a core sample. They jam a tube through layer after layer of earth and pull it out and study the little cylinder that reveals whether they're standing on dirt or coal or maybe even diamonds.

U.S. 45 is a core sample of Illinois.

Running down the eastern side of the state, it drills through all of Illinois' layers: the dying towns, booming suburbs, and gritty city streets; the rolling hills, empty plains, and thick forests; the wealth and the poverty. It brings the travelerface to face with immigrant families working at roadside fruit stands, old men touring America with their dogs, and cops trying to make a business of scuba diving.

U.S. 45, which opened in 1926 as part of a new system of numbered national highways, isn't like Route 66, the famous road that winds from Chicago to LA. Route 66 has TV shows and theme songs; it's all color and kitsch.

Forty-five is just a road. It's the people who use it and the places they go that matter.

I start my trip along 45 at the Wisconsin border, next to Johnny's Stateline liquor store, and end it 400 miles south, at the Kentucky border. That covered just a fraction of the road's true length, though. U.S. 45 starts in northernmost Michigan and runs 1,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Land of Opportunity"

A historical marker at the Wisconsin state line tells me the area now known as Lake County was acquired from the Potawatomi Indians and the first white settler arrived in 1834, showing up early and violating the treaty. It's an area of trees, rolling hills, and the occasional horse farm. With Fox Lake and other lakes nearby, it attracts weekend visitors from Chicago.

Those weekenders are a big source of income for Maria Vrakas, a Greek immigrant who works at George's Farm Stand. Working from 8 a.m.-8 p.m., seven days a week, she and her family sell fruit and vegetables to the people passing by, including those on the way to their lake homes. She also works at the Old Hickory Restaurant and Bar next door -- "Best burgers in county," the sign promises.

Vrakas came to America 25 years ago. Asked why, she explains, with a hint of surprise that anyone would need to ask, that America is the "land of opportunity." She doesn't mind that her opportunity means spending countless hours 20 feet away from a noisy, smelly intersection.

"Traffic doesn't bother me," she says. "I like noise. Otherwise it gets too quiet. I don't like that."

Keep driving south, and the semirural gives way to the suburban. Strip malls, subdivisions, and chain restaurants pop up. The monotony is depressing. But that's only a first impression. Even here there are quirks and surprises.

Out of nowhere appears a huge building set in a field of green. It's tan and striped, with wedding-cake architecture, all tiers and arches and domes. Turns out to be New Gracanica Monastery and the St. Czar Lazar Parish of the Serbian Orthodox Church. A look at the parish Web site tells me this is home to about 200 worshipers, a soccer team, and a Serbian folk-music and dance club (think polka on speed and you'll get the idea.)

Then there's a place offering a surreal mix of joy and tragedy: the Aarrowood Pet Cemetery.

The names on the tombstones make it clear that animals bring out the pure, joyful, silly sides of their owners. People don't worry about dignity when it comes to loving pets. If they want to name a beagle Baby Dumpling, they will. They delight in making Tiny Bubbles wear a Santa hat on his little poodle head. They call their Pekingese Disco Dancer.

But the messages on the stones -- and the toys left beside them -- spell out just how deeply people love their animals. "Matt's Best Friend, Nothing Less," reads one. "Our Hearts Are as One," says another. And then there's "Be a Good Dog. See You Later." A family is there burying a pet, and their faces are as solemn as any at a human funeral.

I get back on the road, looking for a diversion from all this heavy stuff. Des Plaines provides it.

Des Plaines boasts the McDonald's No. 1 Store Museum, a re-creation of the restaurant Ray Kroc opened in 1955 and built into a greasy empire. There's also the Choo Choo, a diner where the food is delivered on a little railroad track running from the kitchen to the counter and back. People who grew up watching their hotdogs and hamburgers arrive on miniature flatcars now bring the grandkids to enjoy the same thing.

The layers of Leave It to Beaver suburbia quickly give way to industry and business.

The highway passes behind the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, providing the view seen by tour buses and delivery trucks. It slides past a side entrance to O'Hare International Airport, one apparently used to reach cargo planes and charter flights. The neighborhood is filled with bargain motels and car-rental places.

The businesses soon change. Instead of catering to visitors, they seem to target locals. There are taquerias and bodegas, auto-body shops and liquor stores, an adult bookstore with a packed parking lot. It's not a pretty area but not run-down, either. Maybe "no-nonsense" is the best description -- a gritty place where people do hard work for not much money and then head home.

But highway 45 slices through just a small piece of Chicago. Soon, the affluent suburbs are back. The homes are big and tastefully bland. The shopping centers all seem to have "Parc" or "Centre" in their names. That doesn't last long, however. Eventually the Starbucks and Borders dwindle away, and I hit a new layer: prairie.

A patch of the past

Forty-five becomes a two-lane country road, overwhelmed by the scale of the land and the sky. At times, the only colors visible anywhere are gray and green. Gray sky, gray road, gray houses but lush green prairie.

By prairie, I mean farmland -- endless acres of carefully tilled and fertilized farmland. The original prairie of wildflowers and tall grasses has been all but eradicated, its 22 million acres cut down to just 2,000. That's less than one-hundredth of 1 percent.

But 45 passes by some of those remaining acres. The Loda Cemetery Prairie in Iroquois County is tiny, just 3.4 acres, but it has never been tilled. Its plants offer a taste of what the original settlers encountered: grasses rustling in the wind, pink and gold flower peeking out from tangles of green, insects buzzing.

Adjacent to the little patch of prairie is a cemetery offering its own reminders of the past. The dates on one tombstone tell the story of P.H. Reed's family. Daughter Hope died in 1886, age 2 days. A year later, a second daughter, Goldie, died at 26 days. And within the month, his wife, Threasa, was dead, too, a few weeks shy of her 28th birthday. Other stones hint at similarly brief lives and sudden losses, offering something to think about on the highway.

Down the road a bit, in Rantoul, I come to a great museum at what was once the Chanute Air Force Base. It covers the history of the base and the history of military aviation, from the Army's purchase of a plane from the Wright Brothers in 1909 to the role of black pilots in World War II to modern fighter jets.

This isn't a museum where you simply look at pictures -- they've got actual planes, lots of them. You can take a close look at a P-51 Mustang from World War II or climb into the cockpit of a B-52 bomber filled with the smell of oil and old insulation. Bill Howell, a retired pilot who says he donated memorabilia for the museum, calls it "probably the most outstanding thing in Illinois" for aviation buffs.

Howell, along with his shepherd mutt Mandy, is wandering. Driving a pickup and pulling a silver Airstream camper, he is visiting spots that remind him of the old days, when amateur pilots were a bit more casual.

"I stop at airports and shoot the bull with other old duffers who know about aviation," he says. "Aviation is dying. You can't just jump in your plane anymore and go screw around or get a hamburger with your friends."

More museums are waiting in Arcola.

There's the Raggedy Ann museum to honor the resident who wrote the first stories about the little rag doll and her brother (or is it boyfriend?), Raggedy Andy. The building also houses the Louis Klein Brush Collection, which is more interesting than it sounds. Around the corner stands the world's only memorial to hippies and their anything-goes philosophy. And a few blocks away is an Amish cultural center that explains the history and customs, right down to the different buggy styles, of the area's Amish residents.

Worn out after all that excitement, I settle into the car to enjoy the sights and sounds of the road.

End of the line

Little see-saw oil wells start showing up in the fields around Mattoon. The flat-as-a-table landscape gives way to rolling hills near Effingham. Alongside the road, horses graze as the sun goes down. A full moon begins its climb, illuminating the mist rising from the pavement.

I cross creeks with such names as Big Salt and Skillet Fork. The highway pushes through layers of forest, rocky bluffs, even a swamp that looks as if it has been transplanted from Louisiana.

Towns whiz by, their signs boasting (Hord: "Home of the FFA state treasurer") or inviting (Carrier Mills: "Where a friendly smile says stay a while"). Eventually I end up in Metropolis ("Home of Superman"), just about as far south in Illinois as it's possible to get.

This is the end of the line. U.S. 45 -- at least the Illinois leg of it -- ends just down the road in the little town of Brookport, where a bridge crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky.

Normally the population of Metropolis is a little under 7,000, but this is the weekend of the annual Superman Celebration. Thousands of people are there, some just to eat a corndog and maybe take in the antique-car show but others to celebrate all that is Superman.

They take pictures of the Superman statue, trade Superman comic books, ask questions of old Superman actors. Everywhere you turn, there's a new variation on Superman's famous "S" symbol: silver, green, black-and-white, purple-and-lavender, camouflage, even heart-shaped.

Bill Barrett has made the long trip down from Springfield with his son Isaac. "We came down here because I was online and I saw they were having a Superman festival. Superman is Isaac's favorite superhero."

"He's the man of steel and he's strong!" Isaac explains.

A few miles outside town, someone else is demonstrating that same kind of enthusiasm, but not for Superman. Glen Faith is gushing about his efforts to turn an abandoned quarry into a top-flight scuba-diving location. He has stocked the 8.5-acre hole in the ground with rare paddlefish and sturgeon, built changing rooms and a platform for divers who use wheelchairs, even sunk a semi and a 727 jet fuselage to give divers more to see.

With its cold, murky water, Mermet Springs will never be the Virgin Islands, but Faith, an investigator for the Illinois secretary of state, has made it a popular spot for Midwestern divers looking to take a class or just enjoy the experience of being underwater. And Faith gets to enjoy defying people's expectations by building something out of nothing.

"My dreams," he says, "are what you see."

Also from Christopher Wills

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