I was running late, but there was nothing new in that. My hope was that my four year old, Alex and I would get to Finn Inn by 11:30. I got a recommendation on Twitter that Finn Inn is worth the 45 minute trip. There are enormous aquariums throughout the place, so you can eat with an aquarium view. Usually the drive into Alton on 67 is a fast escape into the wild, but with no leaves on the trees and brown winter grass it just looked barren.
Alton’s cultivated image makes it fun place for a fork in the road, but the drive on the Great River Road through Grafton was even more picturesque and interesting. We arrived to Finn Inn at 11:30. Already there was a 15 minute wait. When we were finally seated, we were able to dine with a small sun fish, a cat fish and what looked like several large carps. Although not elegant by any means, our unusual dining companions were very engaging. With the arrival of our food, I realized the fish were spending so much time at the glass to pity us – not that the greedy bastards bothered to offer us any fish food.
Alex’s chicken nuggets and French fries were, even less appetizing than those we get from the grocery store. I thought buffalo fish would be slathered in a spicy Tabasco sauce. As I found out, buffalo fish is a river fish native to the area – when cooked it has more of a sandy texture than flaky – YUM! No matter, the food wasn’t the most memorable part of the experience.
We drove north from Grafton to the free Brussels Ferry operated by the Illinois Department of Transportation. Once the ferry got underway, doors opened up and there were kids everywhere taking in the unusual experience. I got the sense that the ferry operators really enjoy this excitement. The experience was over in a flash. Now we were on this isolated peninsula that ends with the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. On a map the peninsula, is in Calhoun County, Illinois — directly above St. Charles, MO.
It seemed like the remote area was composed of nothing but swamp, lake, and forest nature preserves. We stopped in at the headquarters office just outside of Brussels, IL. The highlight was a large pile of gravel for Alex to climb.
Brussels is absolutely amazing. It is one of many rural towns that look like they may have been passed by the 21st century – Brussels looks like it was only moderately impacted by the 20th century. Its claim to fame is the hotel from 1847 that is now a family style restaurant. The town of just 150 has a couple of pretty rough but fun looking bars in town. The houses are completely from a different era – not like those modest houses along I-70 from the 1920’s – these houses go way, way back. Even more heartbreaking than the small minority of beautiful but shuttered houses is the dilapidated St. Mary’s Church. It burned down in a fire last year. It is a shame that there is absolutely no reason to go to Brussels, because it is just unlike anything I have seen before.
As we made our way over to the other side of the peninsula to take yet another ferry back to Missouri, the landscape just became more and more beautiful. As we went further inland, it became increasingly hilly and increasingly farmland – two things you wouldn’t normally put together. There started to be extremely steep ravines. There would be these forgotten, overgrown patches of brush and trees sometimes obscuring an abandoned house.
We drove the few miles on a subdivision style street to the Golden Eagle Ferry. The $8 passage on the Golden Eagle Ferry felt very much like a business trip. There were only a few kids getting out of their cars, even though the ride was probably 3 times as long. We drove off the ferry onto a gravel road, and drove until we approached an intersection, with no signage about how to get back to civilization. So I just sat there. When a car finally pulled on the road, I rolled down my window and asked which way to 370? Alex shouted in the background, hey where is my house? We made a left onto Route B and after a few miles, there could be no doubt that we saw New City off to our left in the distance – sure enough, New City Drive was the next exit.
Our driving tour of New City was not what I was expecting. Despite the meticulously planned, community concept, it didn’t really have a stepfordian feel. What it felt like was a community association on steroids. The rows of townhouses all tastefully done in different styles looked too much like a community, not enough like a place where people actually lived. Alex wanted to play at the playground for a little while. So he played for a little while and arrived at home at 4pm.