In my last post, I told a story about how I took a solo trip to Europe a few years back but after I wrote it I was reminded of an earlier solo trip, one not so glamorous but equally important.
Years ago, when buying a ticket to Europe was so far out of my budget that it might as well have been Mars, I needed a get-away. Bad relationship, bad job, bad twenty-something crisis.
I had a car and enough money for gas and food but little else, so it had to be somewhere I could do round-trip in one day. I picked up a map and looked for places within three hours drive. On the bottom of the map was a small ad for Arcola IL with a pretty photo and a promise that it was worth a visit. It became my destination.
Before this moment I’d never heard of Arcola. You might not of either. It’s a small place (less than 3000 people), tucked off I-57. Its claims to fame, though, are pretty cool. It’s touted as the “birthplace of Raggedy Ann & Andy” because the creator of those characters, Johnny Gruelle, was from Arcola. It’s also in the middle of Illinois’ Amish country and the “broomcorn capital of the world.”
I knew none of this when I picked it. This was before the internet so all I had on Arcola was that ad about the town’s charms. Good enough.
Arcola lived up to its promise. It was charming. I ate pie, bought roadside fruit, went to a quilt shop (I had just started quilting at the time), and wandered in and out of shops. I bought a Raggedy Ann doll that I still have, and I spoke to a woman who was disappointed I’d chosen to visit a week before a big fair they had at the end of every summer.
“We have food, and music, and all kinds of fun,” she told me. “It’s the biggest thing you’ll ever see.”
I still remember that line. I guess I could have taken it as naïve – that she thought this small town fair was such a big deal, but I didn’t – and don’t. Because it was a big deal. It was a celebration of the rewards of hard work and the all too fleeting pleasures of life. She was talking about being present in a moment of joy. Being with friends. Just being.
When I left Arcola and drove home, I felt better. Running away, even for a day, helped. I watched the cornfields turn into suburban streets, and finally parked outside my apartment by Wrigley Field. I called a friend, and we went out for a hot dog and Cokes, sitting outside on a wooden bench outside one of those summer-only stands. We chatted about nothing in particular, and enjoyed the still warm night. It wasn’t the Arcola festival, but it was a celebration of sorts.
Sometimes now when I’m tempted to think that travel means a plane ticket and a hotel room, I’m reminded of that day. Getting away, getting the sometimes much needed perspective that only distance can provide, can be just a gas tank away.