Review: 100 Things to Do in Illinois Before You Die, by Melanie Holmes

Everyone knows they’ll die, but few people believe it. For the sole species aware of its mortality, personal nonexistence is inconceivable. Many have come near death. A number of folks have even faced clinical death. But no one has experienced biological brain death, full stop, and returned to describe the final shutdown. Most likely it’s sudden oblivious blankness rather than blackness. More like switching off a TV set. The TV isn’t aware it’s been turned off—it’s simply off. Unlike TVs, however, while we remain alive we know we can still live. Bearing that in mind, Melanie Holmes' new book, 100 Things to Do in Illinois Before You Die, attempts to show us how much can be done in Illinois before entering that enveloping nothingness—though her suggestions are remarkably mild.

So, in case you haven't heard, we're all gonna die. Sorry about that. Knowing we face individual doom, we do one of three things

1. Buy into the idea that there is a happy land far, far away;

2. Forge on with the daily drivel of work, home, and sleep, and sulk about our inevitable demise; or

3. Calculate how much fun and frolic we can cram into our remaining years. 

You might recognize that last one as a so-called bucket list. Bucket list is a newer term than people realize. Created by screenwriter Justin Zackham to describe his own roster of things to do before he died (i.e., “kicked the bucket”), it inspired his script for the Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman buddy dramedy The Bucket List (2007).

The term caught traction, and became shorthand for an inventory of YOLO goals. Presumably, if you check off every item on your bucket list, you’ve won. Bucket list items go big. Running a marathon. Visiting Machu Picchu. Bungeeing into the Grand Canyon whilst simultaneously riding a flaming motorcycle and wrestling a polar bear. And whatnot. Bucket lists are designed to wrest as much living and splendor as possible from our too-short lives.

Which brings us to this review.

Reedy Press, a St. Louis publisher focused on travel guides covering city and state history and culture, has tapped into the bucket list trend with their 100 Things series. The series offers dozens of titles covering little-known local facts, regional eats, and curious tourist attractions. Sundry Reedy Press authors have shared the 100 things you must do or see or eat or visit before giving up the ghost in their respective towns or states. Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles get the 100 Things treatment. So do Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri; Traverse City, Michigan; and Fayetteville, Arkansas, which, no slight to any of these burgs, seems simultaneously esoteric and banal. Well, we all can’t afford to fly to Agra to gaze upon the Taj Mahal. Perhaps Reedy Press saw a market for bucket lists that can accommodate less liquid lives. By the way, the 100 Things series features 169 titles, charting a grand total of 16,900 things left for you to do before you croak. So, you know, shake a leg.

Considering the fact that no vacation site or sight has been left uncovered by the internet, it’s amazing Reedy Press still finds an audience. One apparently consists of Prairie Staters, leading to the publication of 100 Things to Do in Illinois Before You Die. Which raises the question, what does Illinois have to offer that satisfies someone enough to happily plunge into the great beyond?

Melanie Holmes' 100 Things to Do in Illinois Before You Die is a compilation of activities, dining options, and tourist spots to see in the Land of Lincoln. Honestly, the premise set up by the title is both dire and lacking. I was born in Illinois. I’ve lived here for over 56 years. Very likely I will die here since my wife and I have no desire to pay movers again. I think about my last day far too often. More than likely the last thing I’ll see, if not a hospital ceiling, is a formica tabletop at the Country Kitchen restaurant in downtown Highland Park. Dying at brunch in the state I love seems like a good death, but as for a bucket list item? Not so much. Surely Holmes has a few grand Illinois diversions.

Holmes offers a collection of mostly worthwhile places, dining, and entertainment options. She’s clearly put in the time and miles to see what Illinois has to offer, citing many family road trips with her husband and children through the years. While she does spend several pages on Chicago area tourist offerings, she doesn’t linger there. As a fellow Illinois traveler, it was refreshing to see other cities and towns mentioned—Cave in Rock, Herod, Quincy, and Princeton, for instance—that rarely appear elsewhere. While it is true that Illinois grows less exciting the farther south you go—though the number of confederate flags sadly increases—there are spots of beauty and edification in this flat green billiard table of a state.

Holmes mentions a few sites that, while not reaching Great Wall of China or Grand Canyon levels of staggering grandeur, are nonetheless worth the five or six hours to reach them. Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, say, or the several mounds, Cahokia being the most famous, that were once the sites of several large pre-Columbian Native American cities. Those seeking inspiration for one- or two-day trips will discover some decent family jaunts in the book.

That said, Holmes has a little difficulty sustaining the 100 things to do before you die theme. There are few surprises, or anything too outrageous here. Not to be snotty, but if the Grim Reaper comes a’knocking and you fear you still haven’t fulfilled your life’s goal of shopping at Gurnee Mills and seeing Kurt Elling warble at Ravinia Festival, you’ve led a sheltered life. Yet, Holmes likely knows her audience. Gentle folks who make wine-sipping and “glamping” a big part of their vacations, I suspect. To each their own.

Even so, it’s a thin read. Leaving The Bucket List behind we find an appropriate question in another Nicholson movie: is this As Good as It Gets in Illinois? Holmes’ descriptions are brief, to be charitable. A suitable format for an online review, but one expects more from a book. Generally, the reader is pointed in the direction of the sites and given a quick rundown of what all goes on there. But that’s what rest stop and hotel lobby brochures are for. I would have liked to hear more about Holmes’ own experiences and receive the feeling of being there even if I never get around to going. I don’t maintain a bucket list, but as someone who will eventually be caught dead in Illinois, I might have appreciated living vicariously through Holmes’ recollections.

100 Things to Do in Illinois Before You Die is available at most bookstores and through the Reedy Press website.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.