On my return trip from Springfield during the spring of 2013, I chose to travel south on Illinois 127 since I had explored US 51 on earlier trips. The two roads parallel each other heading south and eventually converge at Cairo (pronounced “Cay-ro”).
I was north of my destination when it began to get dark and I noticed a problem, my headlights were not working correctly. Now, it is both startling and frightening to see the highway go completely dark in front of you , but I quickly figured out a fix for the problem. A simple flip of the switch to high beam and back and everything worked like it should. But eventually the low beams were gone completely, so in order to reach the next town (Cairo) I drove in using the high beams. Luckily, I avoided law enforcement and after a short trip through the Illinois night, my first hint of what lie ahead came in the form of a lovely unincorporated suburb, ironically called Future City. And then I saw the massive flood gate and quickly passed through the tunnel under the levee and into what was once downtown Cairo. Even in the dark, it was worse than I had thought and the words of my older brother Bill kept running through my head, “There is nothing in Cairo”. He was right, there was no economic base, at all. Nothing. The hospital had closed years ago and most of the long abandoned business district was either collapsing or gone. There was no life to the place, but I did find 2 hotels and thank God for small miracles, one was a Days Inn. The room was nice, and so were the people, but there was a disturbing lack of exterior lighting around the place. And quite honestly, the whole town was like that, Cairo was a very dark and unwelcoming place.
After eating what they (the hotel) called a “continental breakfast”, I left to check out the town, hoping it would look better in the morning light. It didn’t. Deep down inside, I felt a little guilty, not enough to walk away without images, but I kept a low profile. This place is photographed a lot, so I was trying to be a little more discreet than usual. Following my second attempt at breakfast, this time at the local diner, I ventured out toward the southern end of town.
While parking to get an image of the A1 Used Cars sign, I happened to look down at the ground. It was littered with an unusual assortment of discarded “stuff”, remnants and remains from a yard sale or thrift shop that might have once happened on the spot. I had finally found a view of Cairo that no one else had ever seen.
As I walked along framing and shooting, I took notice that each vignette I found was completely different from the others. One would feature an old bottle or piece of china, another resembled a desktop, complete with a broken Santa Claus head. R2-D2 was also in the mix, along with a Planet of the Apes figure, a be-headed St. Francis statue and a small plastic squirrel. Another aspect of these “snapshots” was the fact they were resting on an old building foundation, which added a unique surface/background to each one.
My unintended stay in Cairo was something to remember, to say the least. It’s not really a place I would ever want to spend the night again, unless I absolutely had to, but I’m no worse for the experience. To be honest, apathy and a complete lack of hope seem to define the day-to-day emotional state of Cairo, Illinois.
I do feel sorry for the people who live there, because there is not much to look forward to. They seem to cringe every time they see someone with a camera or hear the words “I’m a photographer”, and it should not be that way.
Not for anybody.
Until next time