Galena is a small town that looks like a present wrapped in red bricks, or a make-believe world where all that’s required for life is wine and cheese and popcorn, and all anybody could want for entertainment is a useless little gift from a gift shop with a clever name. Galena calls to you from the pages of magazines, with pictures of its 19th century Main Street and accompanying paragraphs that make it sound like the prettiest Midwestern river town of them all. And though I have seen dozens of Midwestern river towns, and found a handful to be so pretty that I couldn’t possibly imagine anything better, I still wondered: Did Galena really have something all of them lacked?
Almost as soon as I get there, I can see that it doesn’t; it just has way better PR. As I search for a parking lot that isn’t full, I realize I could write a list of similar-but-better places in my sleep. And those places, the other old-fashioned all-American towns with historic storefronts lining a lovely central street near a riverbank, would have free and ample parking.
At first glance, there is nothing here to remind me that I’m in Illinois. Galena could be anywhere in the Midwest or the South, but it could also be a slick re-creation of a typical American river town created by some theme park in Florida or Sweden or China. What eventually reminds me that I’m in the Land of Lincoln is Galena’s obsession with being the Land of Grant. There is a museum dedicated to him here, and you can tour the house where he received the telegraph telling him he was president, or stay in the hotel that served as his campaign headquarters. At one point, he walks past me on the sidewalk, wearing his blue uniform, and I have to stop myself from asking some actor if he didn’t think attempting to expel the Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee was just a tad un-American, just a bit more to the tastes of the Confederacy he was attempting to defeat, rather than Union he was fighting for.
It is pretty here though, if you lift your eyes above Grant and the shop windows and the heads of the shuffling hordes, or concentrate on the sidewalk, where little crab apples have fallen in response to the season’s first cool air. While the clustered storefronts and church steeples of Galena are not particularly unique, they are conveniently confined to Main Street. Tourists too unimaginative to turn the corner – as they’d have to in order to reach as many shops in one of the similar-but-better towns like Madison, IN, Marietta, OH, or St. Charles, MO – can in Galena simply stroll mindlessly until the cute runs out.
But as I walk, looking for a store selling anything I couldn’t find in any other cleverly commercialized historic town, I know I’m the strange one. People want what’s easy; that’s why every hotel in Galena is booked, and every inch of sidewalk is occupied. I realize, too, that this is the first time on my travels this year that I’ve seen a large concentration of foreign visitors. They, perhaps more than my fellow Americans trudging unthinkingly from gift shop to bar to steakhouse, depress me. I can almost sense them concluding that America is attractive enough on the surface, with its flag-lined streets, good for a quick Instagram photo, but that ultimately it’s a silly, empty country, distracted by too many varieties of hot sauce and sweaters that say “But first, wine.”
I walk the length of Main Street several times, as well as the parallel streets, which function as a sort of backstage for the show that is Galena. I’m looking for something that feels real, and even when I climb a set of stairs that takes me up above the parking lots and back doors to look down on the Galena River, I don’t quite find it.
And then I walk around one more time, and a bearded man wearing a baseball cap and strumming a guitar is sitting on the sidewalk singing “Light One Candle.” He’s several months early for Hanukkah, and I doubt more than a tiny handful of the people strolling past him or stopping to listen have any idea what his song is about. But there he is, as random and surprising and coincidental as anything else I’ve seen this year, singing of a Jewish uprising in the home of Ulysses S. Grant.
On my way out of town I notice something my eyes had skipped over earlier, an integral feature of Galena hidden in plain sight. Just before the entrance to Main Street – where the ticket booth would be if the town was in fact a theme park attraction – stand heavy, utilitarian-looking flood gates. On this day they’re open, just waiting to swing shut and enclose the town center the next time the water rises. In other places, I’ve seen bright murals painted along flood walls, but not here. Maybe Galena doesn’t want its visitors to notice this bit of infrastructure, or maybe they just don’t feel the need to make light of a frightening reality. As soon as I see the flood gates, I realize that earlier, when I climbed to the top of the stairs and looked down on the river, I was standing on a defensive wall. And for the first time, I see Galena not just as a tourist trap but a place worth protecting, a vulnerable place that, should it be washed away, would represent something valuable lost. It suddenly feels real.