I’m obsessed with road trips.
Both near and far, I love traveling on the ground. You feel the bumps and curves. Moving between cities allows the local AM/FM radio waves to drift from one station to the next. Between songs, the DJ’s make announcements about the current weather patterns or local homecoming festivities.
Sure, you can stick to taking bathroom and break stops at the exits immediately off the freeway, or you can take detours. More often than not, a 5-10 minute drive will lead you to the main street of a small town where you can find a coffee shop or cafe.
I’ve been trying to finish Neil Gaimon’s novel American Gods for months. One of the best parts of taking the Minne-RoadTrip was finding myself with time to read. Reading a book about an epic road trip through small towns in the Midwest while on a road trip through southern Minnesota felt right.
What brought me to American Gods in the first place was a fascination with a near ghost-town in Illinois called Cairo.
I first saw Cairo mentioned in a Reddit post where someone described taking a detour off the highway due to an accident and finding himself driving through an apocalyptic setting of a town that looked mostly abandoned. Soon after, one of my family members came to visit us in St. Louis and mentioned that he used to visit Cairo often when he worked in St. Louis. On a particular route, he liked to stop in Cairo and watch the barges at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
The town used to thrive from the river and train traffic. In Mark Twain’s Adventure of Huckleberry Finn Jim hopes to escape to that most southern tip of Illinois, a free state, from Missouri where he can buy his family’s freedom from slavery.
Based on the articles I’ve read, the city seems to have declined due to flooding, decreased river and railroad traffic, and resistance to civil rights efforts.
There are people who still call Cairo home. The latest news I’ve read describes how HUD is tearing down the McBride housing projects, home to about 200 families (NPR Morning Edition interview with Cairo residents, June 2017) . A later update from this WPSD news article (September 20th, 2017) describes one company’s effort to create a 10-unit apartment building in Cairo for some of the displaced McBride residents.
Please know these few paragraphs are surely an oversimplification of Cairo.
People who have read American Gods will recognize the city, for it is one of many places within the Midwest that Shadow visits. In Cairo, he works at a funeral parlor operated by two gods. Other Midwestern places that appear in the book include St. Louis, House on the Rock in Spring Hills, WI, a small lakeside town in Wisconsin, Sioux Falls, SD, and Lebanon, Kansas. Having spent the past five years driving all over the Midwest due to our moves, I knew I had to read this book.
It took me months to finish American Gods. I’m not even sure I liked it. But I sure can’t stop thinking about it. The book left me feeling raw and confounded. I remember wondering what on earth I had just read. I had a lot of questions:
“Wait, Shadow and Wednesday are who? Laura went where? This all happened because why? The lake served to do what?
One thing I do know is that the book left me with a craving for pasties.
You know, those giant meat pockets that miners used to take for lunch? Shadow eats a lot of pasties (two a day!) when he’s at Lakeside, a fictional town that some speculate is Menomonie, Wisconsin.
The moment I put down the book, I headed to one of my old favorite restaurants for a pasty. Milda’s Cafe is located in North Minneapolis along Glenwood Avenue. You’ll feel at home at this neighborhood diner. I used to work upstairs and visited often for pasties, cinnamon rolls (if they ask if you want yours served with butter, just say yes) and burgers.
Pasties are served hot on certain weekdays (I think it’s M, W, F) but you can order frozen ones anytime. Simply pop it in your oven until warm. The flaky crust holds a huge mound of tender beef and root vegetable filling. Make sure you order it with a side of gravy.
My godmother who grew up on the Iron Range with Sunrise Market pasties says she’s used to them being enjoyed with ketchup.
There are many places you can get a pasty now in the Twin Cities but Milda’s is that special place I’ll turn to.
Like American Gods, or don’t. Either way, I’ll guarantee it’ll make you want to take a road trip and eat a pasty.
1720 Glenwood Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55405
- American Gods Roadtrip by Arteries of America
- “Saving Cairo: A Once Thriving River Town Finds Itself On Life Support” -NPR, June 2017
- Piece featuring Milda’s Cafe in Heavy Table, 2013.
- “What The Hell Happened In Cairo, Illinois?” -AskReddit post, November 2010
- “Cairo, Illinois: A Living Ghost Town” on Gila’s Place blog. She goes into detail about the town’s history and includes photos from her road trip.
Having been born and raised in Illinois, I’ve been to Cairo a few times. It’s one of the many cities in that state that took it upon themselves to change the pronunciation. It’s pronounced (unapologetically) like care-o. Illinois has a ton of these small towns named after famous cities that they simply pronounce wrong. That’s generally how you can tell someone is from Illinois – if they pronounce the city names different from other people. Love this post!!!
What’s it like visiting Cairo? It looks like they have a BBQ place there. Thanks for sharing!
I love a good pastie, too. I’m going to have to make a trip to Milda’s to try theirs.
The best ones I’ve found in my area are from Herman’s Bakery in Cambridge. It’s got the perfect blend of meat, veggies, and spices.
Will have to check them out!
There’s a sunrise market in St. Paul on grand that I guess is owned by the same family? I haven’t been yet, but am planning on going soon with a friend!
It is owned by the same family! heard their porketta is good.
I had to laugh at Chaoeng’s description of how to pronounce Cairo. Living in various places I have found that it is always best to ask the locals how to pronounce a town name because 9 times out of 10 I am saying it incorrectly. Ohio has several towns that are just like that and of course it makes sense to me because I was raised there but other people, not so much. Those pasties make me hungry. Thanks for a fun post.
Here are some other mispronounced Illinois names.
My hometown, Milan, is pronounced “MY-lin”. There’s a town called Rio, pronounced “RYE-o”. There’s a town called Orion, but pronounced “OR-ee-an”. I know there are others, but I’ll stop poking fun at my home state. Hahaha
Good to know! lol.