This past Saturday, Ayako and I went to see hills. Like a puddle of water in the middle of the Sahara, a hill in Illinois is an otherwise everyday thing experienced ecstatically. Even when you’re expressly driving to visit them, their appearance still surprises. You don’t expect hills in Illinois. To the point where you will get in a car and drive an hour and a half out of the city across the Wide Suburban Sea and then the vast Ocean of Corn just to look at them. You will spend money to look at hills and to walk over and around them. Because you live in Chicago, the place that had to invent the skyscraper just to have a view.

Natural wonder is hard to come by in Illinois. There’s the Mighty Mississippi and Lake Michigan, of course, but aside from staring at water, there’s really just the prairie. And the prairie here isn’t even existentially evocative like the High Plains. It’s not an endless sea of grass stretching out in every direction to unreachable horizons, the very site of which can reduce a man to madness faster than any ghoul in H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination. No, here there’s just flat fields broken up by the occasional tree line, family farm, or Adult Video Store by the highway. This is no place for Romantics.

There are a few precious places, though, where you can glimpse a bit of the sublime. One is Starved Rock, where Ayako and I went to look at hills this past Saturday. Starved Rock State Park is a 1.5 hour drive south of Chicago. It’s a stretch of rocky bluffs and deep canyons on the Illinois River. The eponymous rock is a tall pillar of stone overlooking the river where the French once built a trading fort in the mid-17th Century. It was also supposedly the site of a doomed stand-off between a group of Illini and Ottawa warriors that ended in Illini starving to death. Hence the name.

The rocky overlooks are nice for the view and good for the leg muscles because as you walk up them your legs burn because you live in Illinois and you don’t really do inclines. We also saw a bald eagle nest in the distance while we were there. But the real draw is the canyons. Deep, narrow clefts through rock walls honeycombed by centuries of wind and water. The canyons end in near 100 -foot waterfalls. They’re truly beautiful, and I think would even be considered good sites in a place as drunk on natural splendor as Yellowstone. They’re all the more incredible for being in Illinois, a state thirsting for topgraphy.

Ayako and I both love hiking and camping, so we enjoyed our jaunt to Starved Rock. Not just for the hiking and the pretty canyons, but for the knowledge that even here, adrift on the boundless prairie, nature can still sometimes surprise.



Add yours →

  1. Yes! I’ve been there too. 😀 The only things are the industrialized-loooking dam thing you can see on one of the hiking paths which reminds you that you’re not that far from the city, plus the fact that you have cell phone reception.. (which was annoying because we were tip-toeing and trying to scare some squirrels when my cell phone rang and totally thwarted our plan to do so..)

  2. At some point we really do need a group trip to my hometown, where there are actually hills and other terrain features. It isn’t starved rock by any stretch, but since it is located 20 miles from the Illinois river and 30 from the Missisisippi there really are some nice spots in the river bluffs.

    FYI I was extremely bored one day and got out a topographical map of Illinois and I took some measurement. From the Eastern side of Illinois starting at roughly Champaign, through Springfield and over to Quincy the average rate of change in elevation is 6 ft.

  3. Starving for topography. I shall now try to reuse that line in another context. Thanks for the personal challenge, Austin.

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