I traveled to southern Illinois this past week for a few days of fishing on the Lake of Egypt with my father and brother, Brad.
The trip started in earnest in Rolling Meadows, a suburb of Chicago where my parents have lived the past 60 years. We took the Northwest Line train from Arlington Heights to the Ogilvie Station in the heart of the city.
The station is named after former governor Richard B. Ogilvie, elected for one term in 1968. A Republican before the party became the party of no, Ogilvie , bolstered by large Republican majorities in the state house, embarked upon a major modernization of state government. He successfully advocated for increased social spending, and secured Illinois’ first state income tax. He was also a staunch supporter of mass public transportation. The station which carries his name serves some 40,000 people a day. Combined with the 1.6 million rides a day provided by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), it makes the Windy City the nation’s second largest public transportation system.
The station was clean and the train on time but there was one small problem. The step up into the car was nearly 20 inches, and Mom, who stood five feet tall before osteoporosis and a knee surgery, had trouble navigating the rise. With a near Athenian effort and strategic shoves by Dad and I, she just made it.
The train we took was called the Saluki and it makes a daily round trip to Carbondale, Ill., home of the Southern Illinois University Salukis. The Saluki, also known as the Royal Dog of Egypt and Persian Greyhound, is one of the oldest known breeds of domesticated dog. Another train that runs on the same line is called The City of New Orleans and makes a much longer round trip.
When you consider the fact that you don’t have to arrive a couple hours early, as recommended when you go through an airport, train travel can actually be quicker than flying when going to regional destinations. Our train, for example, averaged just under 80 mph, and we completed the 350-mile trip in about six hours, faster than it can be driven in a car. A one-way ticket was just $27 and the trip went off without a hitch. I especially like hanging out in the snack car with a crossword puzzle, deck of cards and cup of coffee. On the way there I struck up a conversation with a professional comedian on his way to a gig who was trying to think up Bin Laden jokes for his performance. On the way back I invited a group of men on their way home to Chicago after spending time in prison to a poker game. Stir sticks were one pretend dollar and a peanut, ten.
The game was spirited but friendly as players busted and the pots grew. It’s funny how quickly people take seriously an abstract representation of money. It’s kind of the opposite of politicians who play with serious amounts of money, say our national debt, and treat it abstractly.
My brother Brad, a semi-retired civil engineer, and his wife Maralyn have a lovely home on the shores of the Lake of Egypt. I couldn’t help but notice that besides the name of the train, there are quite a few businesses, including King Tut’s Cleaners and other geographical places that play off the Egyptian theme, including towns named Cairo, Karnak and Thebes.
It turns out that the area is known as Little Egypt, because the lands between the great Mississippi and Ohio River valleys were like that of Egypt’s Nile delta. Although Illinois was a free state prior to the American Civil War, in Little Egypt some residents still owned slaves. Illinois law generally forbade bringing slaves into Illinois, but a special exemption was given to the salt works near Equality, Ill. In addition, an exception was made for slaveholders who held long-term indentured servants or descendants of slaves in the area before statehood.
One of the highlights of our trip was stopping at McDonald’s so Mom could get a strawberry lemonade. She doesn’t particularly like the flavor but was thrilled to get one because they were on sale for 99 cents.