Some nicknames make perfect sense. I often answer to Red, nothing out of the ordinary for a carrottop, and my college roommate, Fats, was usually one of the last to leave the pizza buffet. But every now and again, you run across a moniker that leaves you downright mystified, like the appellation they came up with to designate this gently rolling countryside in Southern Illinois.
Riding through a fertile, verdant region curiously known as Little Egypt, I mull over the reasoning, or maybe lack thereof, that begat the name. Cinematic scenarios of Middle Eastern sand, sphinxes and pyramids aren't exactly dovetailing with the Midwestern reality. Nor am I any closer to solving the mystery after questioning some of the locals. A few offer guesses but no one seems sure. One elderly shopkeeper shrugged and pointed to the numerous oil wells around, sights often associated with big Egypt and its OPEC neighbors. Yet even though a breeze laced with the rubbery scent of raw petroleum was wafting our way from the perpetually nodding horse-head pumps, I left the man's shop not knowing whether I had been enlightened or merely fed a line.
The chilly wind slicing across the surface of Rend Lake reminds me that the VTX1800T's saddlebags have more than enough room for an extra fleece. The temperatures are languishing in the 50s due to the morning cloud cover, and somewhere between Whittington and McLeansboro, I give in and go digging for my sweater. The wide, flat landscape east of the lake is freshly planted with spring crops but little else stands in the way to break the swirling, late May winds. The gusts whip in from every direction, defying the Honda's ample windshield with irksome accuracy.
As I continue east across the broad plains, skewers of bright sunlight begin penetrating the somber clouds. It's obvious that more rain is one thing not needed around here. Recent storms have caused flooding, leaving muddy ponds in the lower-lying fields. Tractors and plows sitting idle near the road are staged for planting when the waters finally recede.
Setting out across the Wabash River bottom, I'm relieved that the elevated roadbed rides high enough above the submerged grassland. The actual riverbanks are no longer discernible and the murky water has crept up the trunks of the tall hardwoods. Beneath the bridge itself, the swift current is clotted with tree branches and other debris, and its chocolaty surface roils with the menacing whorls of eddies and whirlpools.
Maybe, like the Nile Delta, this area usually floods each spring and that's the reason for the name. The attendant at the tollbooth wouldn't know about that, he says, tossing a glance over his left shoulder, because he lives back there, the next state over, in Indiana. Then, with a nod westward, he suggests that I take it up with the folks on the other side of the Wabash.
Rolling into the riverside town of New Harmony, I'm smitten with its peaceful, 19th-century aura and happy that the river hasn't climbed this far. This well-preserved community was founded in 1814 by a group of Lutheran separatists called the Harmonie Society. A highly disciplined group of strict scriptural adherents, they successfully pursued Christian communal living. But in 1825 the Harmonists suddenly relocated to Pennsylvania and the entire town was sold to Scottish philanthropist Robert Owen. He too sought an enlightened society, promoting free education and the abolition of personal wealth and social classes. Today, tours are offered, highlighting the area's many historic aspects. And for java junkies, the Church Street Gallery & Coffee House on the corner of Church and Main is a colorful place to re-stoke the boilers.
After crossing the Ohio River in Evansville, I extricate myself from midday traffic by peeling off at Kentucky Route 268. The winding road is practically abandoned and a joy to ride as it bounds by the farms in the rolling valley. And with the sun finally checking in, the many shades of green in the spring sprouts, the rippling grasses and swaying trees are displayed in the best possible light.
I shoot back across the mighty Ohio into the Land of Lincoln via Route 13. Just across the river, a somewhat forlorn-looking collection of buildings dominated by an imposing Greek Revival structure draws me to the streets of Old Shawneetown. Long ago, this riverside settlement was the economic hub of the Illinois Territory. The columned building, the former Bank of Illinois, was built in 1841. Relocated from an earlier site just down the street, it was the first bank in the state. Though closed since 1942 and in what appears to be an ongoing state of restoration, this dignified edifice is worth the short side trip for a close-up view.
With clouds thickening again, a few raindrops pattering the asphalt, and not in the mood to test my rain gear, I beat a hasty retreat to Rend Lake and barely outrun the downpour.