Strength of signal
Sports fans are happily learning the Chicago AM radio stations that concentrate on the Bears on game days -- namely WBBM-AM 780, WMVP-AM 1000, WGN-AM 720 and WSCR-AM 670 -- can be heard all the way to Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The same can't be said for favorite Chicago FM stations, most of which fade from car radios by Kankakee. Here's how to make some transitions:
At the risk of offending those Illini fans who closely guard this secret route, here is one shortcut to Champaign (especially for fans in western and southwestern suburbs): Take I-55 south to Gardner. Exit at Gardner and turn left (back over the highway). Go right at the stop sign and right again after you have crossed the bridge. You are now on Campus Road, a nearly straight shot to Champaign. It's pretty much Campus Road all the way, though there are a few turns. In Chatsworth, turn left on Walnut after you cross the tracks, and right on 7th Street. Continue south. There are two minor jogs -- the first goes left and the second goes right. In both cases, follow signs to Champaign. After Dewey, go right on Illinois Highway 36, and then a quick left, following signs to Champaign. You will end up on the western edge of Champaign. Follow any one of the major roads into town. Warning: There are virtually no bathroom stops and cops do patrol the road. On Campus Road, the speed limit is 55 miles per hour. You will have to contend with farm equipment and a few pheasants. But you will also get some Grant Wood images of rural Illinois (or at least as good as we get). And you will save 30 minutes. Rails
The Illinois Central railroad is never far from sight and, in fact, many towns in the I-57 corridor were once train stops. In addition to remaining a popular way for students to get to and from the university, the route -- think of Steve Goodman's great "City of New Orleans" song -- is a historic one too. It was on these rails that much of the great African-American migration to Chicago from the Deep South took place in the early 1900s. This is how Louis Armstrong, Robert Abbott and other black pioneers came here. In Paxton, an old depot at 250 N. Market St. is the home of the Illinois Central Railroad Historical Society museum. It is open on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. "We'd like to do more, but we're an all-volunteer operation," said the organization's Charles Werner. "There's a lot of interest too. We're always getting calls from people making documentaries or writing books." Pit stops
There are two state rest stops in either direction between Chicago and Champaign. One is halfway between Monee and Peotone, or about 15 miles south of Interstate 80. The other is between Buckley and Loda, or about 32 miles north of Champaign. All have well-maintained rest rooms and vending machines and, with picnic tables and lots of shade, each is a nice spot for a picnic. Traps
According to beartraps.com/i57, these are the speed traps on I-57, between Champaign and Chicago: Mile marker IL 235 at Interstate 72 West junction Mile marker IL 236 Champaign/Urbana Mile marker IL 237 Interstate 74 junction Mile marker IL 312 at Kankakee Mile marker IL 345 Interstate 80 junction Mile marker IL 350 Mile marker IL 358 Junction Interstate 94 Queen of the road
Bear fans weary of the commute to games should keep Bea Bruns in mind. For three years, the Paxton resident commuted to work every day and back--a round-trip grind of 230 miles! "Sometimes I have trouble believing I did it," said Bea, who retired nearly 25 years ago from her Loop job as an education director for an insurance association. Here's how it worked: Every weekday morning at 4 a.m. she left her farm house on the edge of town and drove approximately 80 miles to far south suburban Richton Park, where she boarded a commuter train for the remainder of the trip into Chicago. "It got kind of depressing," Bea recalled, "because it was always dark in the morning when I left and dark at night when I got home." Why did she do it? After 30 years of living in Chicago and New York City, she wanted a rural setting and, together with her sister, Marie Hintz, bought the house near Paxton after visiting relatives in the area. But she still had three years to go to qualify for a pension, thus the commute. Would she do it again? "I'd have to think about it." Does she ever return to Chicago. "I visit the Art Institute of Chicago periodically."