Crossed the state line into Illinois on Friday and made my way north up Highway 51 to Carbondale
The best local stop for breakfast is Mary Lou’s Grill. It’s on the main drag, across from the Amtrak Station. The popular diner has one long stretch of chairs running the rail at the front counter.
Every circular stool is taken; once someone gets up, another person is immediately in that spot. Mary Lou’s is famous for its biscuits and gravy; when you get a waitress, make friends with her quick.
Just outside Carbondale I veered west up Highway 13; the locals say it’s less traveled and a much better road.
About 15 miles into the ride I was searching for water at the lonesome intersection in the town of Vergennes
(pop. 298). A sign points down the street to the business district; a tumbleweed rolls across the road in the distance.
There’s a small rickety, white building off to the side of the road with a pickup in front and a big metal can of Primex sitting on a table. A hand-painted sign with thin black letters on the side of the building reads ‘Antiques and Furniture.’
There are a couple of lazy wicker chairs at the entrance. Ducking my head I walk in hoping to find directions, water, or the distance to the next town.
Inside it’s like stepping into another world. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I found the place packed with fine antiques. There were two primary paths and it’s eerily quiet with the only sound being my bike cleats clacking against the hardwood floor.
The place is amazing with old oak headboards, small dolls with their heads wrapped in scarves, Dad’s Root Beer soda bottles, and a Roy Acuff collector plate.
The man sitting quietly in the corner is Jesse Clay Phillips.
He creeped me out, like the guys at Halloween that sit in costume on their porch and don’t move until you get too close to turn back.
Jesse, 73, managed a slow smile when I told him he scared me.
“Most people that come through are stopping for conversation,” he said. Jesse had an accent but I couldn’t pin it down. I half-expected him to say something like “you have a ‘purdy’ mouth.”
Jesse was dressed in a light-weight blue and black plaid shirt. He had white mad-scientist hair and a bit of a paper napkin stuffed in his right ear. I didn’t ask, and just assumed it was a lack of insurance combined with a home remedy.
Jesse had been there since the 1980s. He said his selection of antiques changed often and he only displayed the best. He had an old pitchfork made from a tree branch; the tines on the farm implement were sanded and polished to a fine point. “Take a look there at that shovel,” he said pointing to a completely wooden handmade shovel.
Jesse made some comment about my legs and fitness level; being alone in his den and wondering where his eyes were going I worked my way back to the light. Once outside I retrieved my camera and went back inside, this was too good of a photo opportunity to miss.
And with that I learned about the real Jesse Clay Phillips.
He was an artist, and showed me several books he self-published. Out of a thin cardboard box he retrieved a coffee table book ‘The Beauty of Southern Illinois, a pictorial tribute.’ “Took all these shots with a one-step camera,” he said.
Jesse had documented the landscape in a four-county area with photographs of trees, plants, and the ski hill during the seasons.
The photos were magnificent with crisp color, and an artist’s eye and patience. “Most people walk into a shot and wait; I think some of the best pictures are right there in front of you,” said Jesse.
Although we were far from rushing through the books, Jesse acted with hurried urgency trying to show me as much as he could while he had my attention. “Just a couple more, ah know you gotta go,” he kept saying.
And with that, I holstered my hurry and stayed and talked to Jesse all the while thinking that if I had been in a car I would have driven right by.