Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
It was a crisp February morning when we left our home in Elgin, Illinois. The sun was shining, the traffic around Chicago was uncharacteristically light, and we were a mere 37 minutes behind schedule. Considering we were packed up for a month, I was pleased that was the extent of our delay.
For the next several hours we drove six- and eight-lane highways. It was hard not to speed. The whole point of this trip was to explore the back roads, and here we were ignoring the small towns and their water towers, murals, and giant Muffler Men. We were ignoring the journey to get to the destination. It felt wrong, like we were betraying our creed with our first steps out the door. But, we had to be in Pulaski County, Missouri, by 4 p.m., and I wanted to stop at Cahokia Mounds.
It’s difficult to express the combination of excitement and trepidation we both felt. We’d been on long road trips before, taking sixteen days to drive Route 66 a scant year and a few months into our relationship. We not only survived that trip, it made us stronger. I don’t think we were worried so much about us as we were about the magnitude of what lay ahead. Our route to San Diego was mapped out; our way back was not. This was the biggest and most intimidating thing I had ever tried to do. I had a lifetime of anticipation and hope, and my husband had put his plans on hold to support my dream. Heady stuff.
We were also slightly concerned because of the state of the country. It was less than a month after the inauguration and tensions were high. But that’s also precisely why we were taking this trip when we were. It’s easy to judge on a macro level; when you meet people as individuals, you find there are more similarities than differences.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The drive on I-55 toward St. Louis allowed us to get better acquainted with our companion for the next 31 days, a crossover SUV on loan from Kia. We dubbed this blaze blue beauty Mae Sorento, after the indomitable Mae West. The name proved apt, as she was strong, and capable, and didn’t take no guff from wayward potholes and guardrail-less switchbacks. She was also quite comfortable, and our first few hundred miles flew by as we headed to the most important archaeological site in North America.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois, uniquely illustrates America’s past, both pre-Columbian and post- “discovery.” The site, one of 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the U.S, preserves the history of a city that existed long before Columbus stumbled onto that Bahamian beach.
We almost missed it, even though I’d been to the site on a field trip in elementary school, probably about the time it received the UNESCO designation. It looked like a bunch of randomly placed hills that were split down the middle by a four-lane road.
If you don’t stop, you’d never know those mounds used to be the epicenter of civilization on this continent.
The Interpretive Center and the wayside markers on the grounds tell the tale of the indigenous people who built the city and those who came after. It’s continuing proof that civilization on this continent did not begin with the arrival of Europeans.
Cahokia, named by French explorers in the 1600s after the tribe that was living there when they arrived, had been a planned city that covered six square miles dotted with 120 earthworks. Seventy of them remain on the site’s 2200 acres.
The community began around 700AD, about the time the Chinese invented gunpowder, as a cluster of small settlements. Over the next couple of centuries those merged to become a larger community. By 1050 – 1150 the population had exploded to anywhere from 20,000 in most estimates to as high as 50,000 in others.
To put this in perspective, London’s population was around 20,000 and the Tower of London was constructed during this period. About a third of the inhabitants of Cahokia were immigrants, making this city North America’s original melting pot.
By 1350 they were gone. Nobody knows where they went, or why they left.
We hiked to the top of Monks Mound, joining families, a couple with their dog, and firefighters who were training by running up and down the stairs with packs on their backs. Calling it a mound is a bit of a misnomer. The base of this beast covers over fourteen acres and the pyramid rises to a height of one hundred feet. It contains twenty-two million cubic feet of earth – larger in volume than the Great Pyramid of Egypt – every foot carried by hand in baskets.
From our vantage point, we could see the Gateway Arch in the distance; below us, U.S. 40, or Collinsville Road, bisected the site. It was an odd juxtaposition, but it exists because the road had been authorized in 1806 by Thomas Jefferson as the National Road. For years a steady stream of wagons, trains, and streetcars cut through the complex. There was even talk of putting a highway through the ancient site, but the discovery of a series of “Woodhenges” provided an increased understanding of the historical significance of this Mississippian culture.
In 1964 Cahokia Mounds was declared a National Historic Landmark, in 1966 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1982 it became one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Today this treasure trove of history opens the door to the past.
For us, it opened the door to our journey into a complex country with surprises and limitless stories, and was our perfect introduction to “Two Lane Gems.”
This excerpt was previously published with modifications at Centuries of Secrets at Cahokia Mounds