POKIN AROUND: The adventure of a scenic drive

On Sunday afternoon the sun shone and the temperature hit the upper 40s. There was no pro football on TV. No Illini basketball to watch. No clothes to launder.

With the adventurous spirit of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, I laced my running shoes, fueled my Ford Escape and embarked on my first trip to Pere Marquette State Park, north of Grafton.

Unlike Marquette and Joliet, devout Jesuits, I did not make my trek to determine if the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of California. (I am told by Mr. Rand McNally it does not.) Or to convert the peoples of Alton, Godfrey and Grafton to Christianity.

I, instead, was intent on making what modern-day explorers call The Scenic Drive. I had heard stories of the mythic Piasa Bird along the Great River Road. The rustic lodge in the park. And hills within the park that can make brave runners weep like Packers fans, post-Jan. 15.

In 1673 Father Marquette noted in his diary that he saw a Piasa Bird painted on the Mississippi River bluffs north of Alton. It was a birdlike monster with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face like a man and scales and a tail like a reptile.

That image is long gone. But over the years it has been re-created on the bluffs, in part to boost local tourism and to aid local entrepreneurs in naming their businesses: Piasa Winery, Piasa Computers and Piasa Lincoln Mercury.

As I navigated Highway 100 North I saw many cars parked roadside. People scanned the bluffs and the glistening river with binoculars. They were looking for eagles. I saw only one.

Traffic slowed in Grafton. I saw bakeries, saloons, grills, marinas, motorcycles and mansions high atop the bluffs.

My journey to the park spanned 48 miles.

Pere Marquette State Park covers 8,050 acres. Marquette and Joliet stopped here, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, on their return trip north.

They had gone south to the Mississippi’s confluence with the Arkansas River when they turned back. By then they were convinced the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. They also feared entering Spanish-controlled territory.

Now on foot in the park, I noticed a plaque on the Illiniwek, the confederation of Indian tribes that lived in the area when Marquette and Joliet visited. As a graduate of the University of Illinois, I was intrigued by something on the plaque.

It stated that “Illiniwek” means “The Men.” I’d never heard that before.

So the school’s deposed symbol, Chief Illiniwek, meant “Chief of the Men”?

I was sorry to see the university, years ago, disown the chief but now I had to wonder: How many ways can one symbol be so politically incorrect?

The Pere Marquette lodge was built from 1933 to 1939 during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Local stone and timber were used. Additions have been made, including an indoor pool and a conference center.

The lodge has 50 guest rooms and nearby are 22 more rustic, stone cabins. Rates are $59 to $179.

The Great Room in the lodge features a mammoth stone fireplace that reaches 50 feet to the ceiling. At its foot is a chess board with pieces the size of children.

Tables and chairs line windows looking onto the Illinois River. The nearby dining room is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. For more information go to pmlodge.net.

In the visitors center I grabbed a fistful of brochures, ranging from Eagle Watcher’s Guide, to the Alton Museum of History and Art, to the Cahokia Mounds.

I set them in my car and, finally, at 3:30 p.m., it was time to run.

I decided to keep it simple. I would stay on a main, paved road, turn around and come back. The road, appropriately enough, was Scenic Drive.

Basically, I struggled uphill for 30 minutes. I did not cry, but I did whimper like a little girl who’d lost her American Girl doll.

I stopped twice to take pictures and catch my breath. I also stopped to observe “Lover’s Leap,” which disappointed me. It was more a “Lover’s Roll Down a Hill That’s Really Not that Steep.”

Upon reflection, that’s probably good. Although heartsick and disoriented, when you roll down a hill you can live to love again.

I reversed course, heading downhill, and covered the same distance at breakneck pace, fearing the whole time I would, indeed, break my neck. I covered the same distance in 21 minutes.

I caught my breath as I walked to my car. As the sun dipped into the Illinois River a father called across the field nestling the lodge: “Joseph, time to go! You’ve got practice!”

It was time for me to go, as well. I had the second half of a Scenic Drive to complete.

POKIN AROUND Steve Pokin is a columnist for the Suburban Journals. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 618-344-0264, ext. 126. His column is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PokinAround.