Illinois Road Trip: The Eternal Indian, and Other Stories

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Last September, our family gathered in Chicago for a memorial for my dad. It’s one of those events that seems like it happened both long ago and just yesterday; long ago in that I can’t believe that nearly nine months have passed, just yesterday in that some of the experiences of last summer seem so immediate.

Anyway, people came from all points of the compass. We had a short family gathering at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, just past the southern edge of Chicago, where Dad’s ashes were being placed in the same grave where Mark, our brother, who died in 1960, is buried and where Mom, who died in 2003, is also inurned. After our ceremony, we walked around and visited some of Mom’s family elsewhere in the cemetery, then we drove back up to my sister Ann’s house on the North Side for a memorial–a party, really–with other friends and family.

Early the next day, people started to head home: our older son Eamon and his wife Sakura to New York, my brother John, also to New York, and last Thom, our younger son, back to the Bay Area. That was on Monday, it was already mid-afternoon, traffic back into the city looked like it was backing up on the expressway outside O’Hare. As we left the airport I asked Kate whether she’d just like to go for a drive someplace instead of going back into the city. She was game.

We headed west with no particular destination in mind. But if you go west from Chicago, there’s one destination I automatically think of, and that’s the Mississippi River. That was one of Dad’s favorite trips, and I usually never hesitate to start out on a foolishly long drives, but as we tried to get free of the traffic in the northwestern suburbs, even I had to concede it didn’t seem realistic since we had to be back the next day to fly home ourselves.

So then I thought of another place that seemed more reachable: the Black Hawk statue on the Rock River, near the town of Oregon.

Dad took us there when we were kids–it might have been the time he took us on a drive out to White Pines State Park with his mother, a trip during which I remember him getting our new gold Chevy Impala station wagon, complete with a 327-cubic-inch V8, up to 90 miles an hour on Illinois Highway 64. I would have been 13, and what I remember is that we pulled over on Highway 2, which goes up the west bank Rock River from Oregon to Rockford, to look at this statue on a bluff across the water. It made a huge impression–an impassive , blanket-clad stone figure gazing out across the river and off to the west.

So, driving west last September on Illinois Highway 72, I told Kate I thought we could get there before dark and that it would be well worth the trip. Along the way, we stopped to check out a historical marker in a town called Stillman Valley. The site turned out to be the burial place of militia members killed in the first battle of the Black Hawk War of 1832. (Yes, I had heard of Black Hawk’s War, but remembered it mostly for the name of its last skirmish, the Battle of Bad Axe, and the fact the brief conflict marked Abraham Lincoln’s first and only military service).

Driving on, we hit the Rock River at Byron and turned south. We made a detour so I could take pictures of the big nuclear power plant between Byron and Oregon. And eventually, we made it to Lowden State Park, home of the Black Hawk statue (titled by its creator, sculptor Lorado Taft, “The Eternal Indian”). As we parked, we encountered an older woman sitting in her car and finishing up her dinner, from the McDonald’s in Oregon. She directed us to the statue and said she’d be over in a few minutes to tell us about it.

So: I had my camera with me, and I had an audio app on my iPhone that was good enough to record our guide, Betty Croft. That’s her picture up above. We talked to her for an hour, until well after dark. It took me until the past week to actually sit down and listen to the audio and figure out what to make of it. Here it is (edited down to four minutes or so):

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