ANNA-JONESBORO, Ill. — Growing up on Chicago's northwest side, I had a vague sense that "Illinois is out there somewhere." Chicago felt like its own entity, almost apart from the state. Sort of like the attitude of New York City dwellers to the rest of their state. The Chicago metro area, also known as Greater Chicagoland, has the bulk of Illinois' population. And pulls its weight in the state legislature.
The rest of the state often goes by the moniker Downstate Illinois. That includes even areas to the north and west of Chicago, as well as the largest chunk of the state's geography, which is Decatur on south.
You can hardly get any more "downstate" than where my daughter Joy and son-in-law Mark have just signed off on a rambling wood-frame house that almost looks like a small hunting lodge and 84 acres of idyllic woods and fields, a natural wildlife preserve. Perfect for the wildlife biologists that both of them are.
Joy teaches wildlife biology at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, and Mark has just (finally!) made a move in the U.S. Forest Service from his previous base near Aiken, South Carolina, to a new post in the Carbondale, Illinois, area. Joy is now close enough to her husband to spend weekends and vacation periods in their new Illinois home not far from the Kentucky border.
They still have a commuter marriage, but the commute has been shortened appreciably.
Paula and I recently had the pleasure and privilege of being their first family house guests. We loved the experience of seeing them ensconced in their new preserve along with their three handsome cats, Buddy, Rooster and Baby. The cats are all kept assiduously indoors as the woods surrounding the house are home to just about everything imaginable: raccoons, coyotes, bobcats and snakes that include copperheads and rattlers.
Just the way two wildlife biologists would want it.
The terrain is something many West Virginians would cotton to. It's not flat but rolling and even has hills. Most of the land is in trees but here and there the forest breaks out into quite lovely meadows. Some of the land in days gone by clearly had been used for farming.
The weather during our visit was overcast with intermittent rain, and the trails were wet and muddy. Thus we did not - as I had gleefully anticipated - get the chance to "walk the land." Joy had a hike all prepared for us, but we had to forego.
So instead we explored and enjoyed the house, which has decks with scenic views on both sides. One deck overlooks a pond where Mark expects he'll find fish as soon as he has time to put a line in the water. Pretty pond, too, about a half acre or so.
Joy and Mark's land is accessed by a narrow gravel road that runs about half a mile off a paved local road. Are they worried about being isolated? Not much with the house just down the road being occupied by a deputy sheriff, whose squad car is parked out front whenever he's not on patrol.
Amazingly, the town of Anna, Illinois, population 4,600, is only 10 minutes down the paved road. And right on their end of Anna is a congenial, price-friendly Mexican restaurant where we went to eat.
We followed the meal with a swing around Anna and its neighboring burg, Jonesboro. The two towns bump right into one another and get along so well that they often are referred to as Anna-Jonesboro. Each has its own restored main street of late 19th-century storefronts.
Not a ton of classic tourist attractions, but a heckuva nice spot to chill with a book and access to hiking trails through the woods.
John Patrick Grace is a book editor and publisher and teaches the Life Writing Class in or near Huntington.