Written: July 1, 2012, in Champaign, IL
About: Champaign, IL, June 2012
Champaign-Urbana is a fairly small town. It sits surrounded by vast expanses of green fields – the famed Mid-Western farmlands. I sent a postcard to a friend from here, in which I mentioned that I had thought about walking long enough to be in those fields so I could see a sunset unrestrained by a city landscape. I was fascinated by the idea that I could walk out of the town. I have always lived either in endless suburban sprawl or large metropolises.
As soon as I have inked those words, I realized that I absolutely have to do this. I have thought about it a few times with an abstract degree of detachment. However, putting these thoughts into actual words, giving the nebulous thoughts a concrete manifestation put a bond on me. The very same evening, after getting out of the lab, I put on a comfortable pair of sneakers, grabbed my camera and headed for a two-hour hike past the city limits, into the fields of greenery and sunsets.
One thing that caught my attention early on was the long shadows on the sidewalks. I was heading almost perfectly into the sun, and the tiny pebbles scattered on concrete slabs cast shadows many times their size as the sun neared the horizon. In the absence of mountains, the sun can get very close to the horizon indeed.
I traversed a few miles of dusty streets, through several neighborhoods, each with its character. Champaign is not an especially wealthy city, so I did not pass by many mansions. (Though the more luxuriant neighborhoods have a tendency of arranging themselves in such locations that you would not happen upon them by accident, citizen of mediocre income.) A sign in front of one apartment complex sternly warned me that “distribution of substances” was forbidden. It did not elaborate on the particular type of substances.
This neighborhood was very quickly followed by a school surrounded by a lovely park where young parents were chaperoning their children in carefree running about. This park was an idyllic setting in which “distribution of substances” seemed like an absurd and irrelevant idea, unless the substance was an ice cream that was too sweet, which is absurd in its own right.
Toward the end of my journey, already facing the quickly decaying sun, I realized that the final stretch of the road did not have sidewalks. Which is fine – I am not opposed to trekking off the pavement. However, it also involved a causeway crossing an interstate highway. Well, I thought, it wouldn’t be the first time cops had to pull me out of an emergency lane on a bridge. I have walked too far to turn around and there were no other options to cross the interstate. I could not see the free fields on the other side, but I could feel them. I took to the hot asphalt of the highway bridge, on foot in the emergency lane.
It was fine. No one bothered me.
As I crested the bridge, the endless fields opened up before me. It was as if I had come through a rugged mountain pass and reached the valley of the promised land.
The contrast between the two sides of the bridge could not be more cinematic. The side I had left behind was dominated by a gas station and a complex interchange system between several highways. The side on which I emerged consisted of a single road that slowly wound between giant fields, along a rolling hill. At the top of that hill, silhouetted against the sunset was a large farm house. The sun was getting low, its orange thicker, and its edges sharper.
It was stunningly perfect.
I meandered along the country road for a little while, snapping pictures of the scene that will never equal what it actually looked like. Some time ago, I have actually realized that taking pictures limits your experience. Experiencing the world through the viewfinder roughly abrogates the way I sense what is around me. I like remembering in scenes, not photographs. It is a heavily conflicting realization, since I dearly love photography, and find this art inspiring and deeply moving.
The sun’s last spark finally ceased, leaving behind only a majestic afterglow in the sky. I took this event to mean the curtain on my trip and turned backwards, toward home. My last stop on the way home was Merry Anne’s diner in downtown Champaign. It is a narrow space lined with tables that on one end open directly into the kitchen. Though this opening, the host slings drinks and food. It is open 24/7, and serves exactly the classic diner fare that you desire – things from the fry grill and milkshakes. I have a long-running obsession with diners. Pretty much any city that has a decent late-night diner is alright by me. I’m good with Champaign.
I grabbed a milkshake to go and headed back to the hotel. Lucky, too, that the hotel was exactly one milkshake away from the diner.