A Galena Holiday

Without a doubt, November would be the most dreary month of the year. Nothing good comes from November. It’s cold, it’s dreary, it’s usually damp (like right now), trees lose their stunning reds and gold and yellows of October and take on the lifeless look they’ll have for several months coming. And the onset of cold begins. 50, then 40, then 30, then 20. Days always feel a lot colder on the way down than the way up.

That is, November would be the dreariest month if it weren’t for the onset of the holiday season. The “Dreariest Month” award actually goes to February; All the cold, none of the holidays. Valentine’s Day and February’s shortness nothwithstanding.

But November is OK. It begins with the conclusion of (arguably) the most awesome evening of the year: Halloween, then right after, holiday stuff starts to kick in. Later come two vacation days from work and the thankful feast of Thanksgiving, then the lights and trees go up providing a festive backdrop for the happy December stretch to another awesome evening: The Winter Solstice. For us, a candlelit Solstice Evening celebration kicks off a long string of vacation days from work till after the New Year: Christmas, then Carol and my Wedding Anniversary then New Year’s Eve and Day.

With that many free days, who can resist a road trip! And for several years in the past, the holidays included a road trip north to Galena. Located at the upper left corner of Illinois, I consider Galena Illinois’ mountain town. Hey, when you live in Champaign County, it doesn’t take much. But the area does have some of the highest elevations in Illinois – which is a low bar, I realize.

In days gone by down south, the holiday season brought trips to north Georgia and central North Carolina. We’d visit the little imitation “German” mountain town of Helen, Georgia and the surrounding area filled with heavily forested parks, mountain streams, waterfalls and mountain trails. Carol and I were married December 30th, 1989 at the Stovall House, a small bed and breakfast set in a bucolic valley a few miles from Helen.  Just the close family with her Father the Episcopal Priest officiating, in front of a roaring fireplace that brought beads of sweat to my forehead (at least I’m pretty sure that was from the fireplace) and a dulcimer player providing lilting, mountainous music. ‘Twas a very nice wedding.

The closest we can get to that is the 4 ½ hour drive to Galena. We’ve done several Galena Anniversaries. Galena is set in a steep valley in the awesomely named ‘Driftless Area”. The Driftless Area escaped the glaciers that flattened Champaign County and much of the rest of Central Illinois during the last ice age. This area has high bluffs, steep forested ridges, and deeply carved river valleys looking surprising like north Georgia. The Galena River dissects the valley in the middle of town with most of the beautifully preserved 19th century buildings climbing up the steep rising hillside along the west bank of the Galena River. As you approach from the East along the curving, ridge hugging, Highway 20 and descend toward the town and the river, you may think you’ve just entered Olde Europe (note the extra ‘e’) with its red brick buildings lining the river, pointed rooftops and multitudinous church steeples rising from the town as it climbs the opposite hillside.

In Galena, you might even have to set your parking brake (remember that thing?) and try to remember which way to turn your front wheels when parallel parking (if you can find parking, that is). These are skills long since forgotten by Central Illinoisans. Is that away from the curb going downhill and into the curb going uphill? And what is this “hill” of which you speak anyway?

Just strolling the streets and shops on Galena’s Main Street brings a sense of visiting some far off land, far more than just 4 ½ hours away. Shops full of antiques, leather boots, woolen scarves and wraps, artwork, photography and popcorn. This shop sells all manner of hot sauce, barbecue sauce and interesting salsas, that one sells wonderfully scented soaps and lotions. Oh wait, that’s the same shop. Into alcohol? There’s Galena Brewing, Blaum Brothers Distillery and a number of Wineries in the area. Into eating? Tons of restaurants that we’ve tried with not a bad one in the lot. In a nod to my southern roots, one is called “Fried Green Tomatoes”. In a nod to my German roots, we recently had Anniversary dinner at Fritz and Frites.

Our first year, we stayed in one of Galena’s many Bed and Breakfasts and ate at the Perry Street Brasserie.  But more recently, since it’s our Anniversary, we’ve been staying in the honeymoon suite at the Irish Cottage (jacuzzi and fake fireplace included). This “Boutique Hotel” includes Frank O’Dowd’s pub. Where we’ve spent our anniversary eve chillin’ to the ‘groovin’ Irish folk tunes’ of Katie Sullivan while sipping on pleasantly warming Jamieson Irish whiskey.

The next day we explore the area just outside of Galena, head down the picturesque, wooded and curvy Blackjack Road to Chestnut Mountain, one of this states’ few ski resorts. Having grown up water skiing in Florida, I only learned to snow ski about 10 years ago, but I do love it.  We haven’t been skiing at Chestnut yet, but we strolled around the area at the top of the lifts as the skiers disembarked from the lifts.

There’s nothing else quite like it really: simply experiencing the physical, brisk, healthy, excitement of a ski lodge in winter. We had a nice hot chili lunch, dining at a window seat overlooking the slopes and watching the bundled up skiers shushing and swooshing around. Even if you don’t partake, having lunch at a ski lodge at the top of the lifts may just be the most un-Illinois thing you can experience without ever leaving our state.

On the way home, I slip in a CD we picked up in Galena by the awesomely named ‘Driftless Sisters’, continuing the magic of the experience that is Galena on the long drive back to the flatlands.

As long as I can look forward to some holiday cheer along with road trips to places like Galena, November – despite its dreariness – may not be so bad after all. There are ways of making the cold tolerable – enjoyable even. Take yourself a road trip this holiday season!

Oh and lest I forget, Happy 30th Anniversary, Sweetie!

Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, November 21, 2019

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