Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Back in the Saddle Again

I had a big day planned of Sunday, July 1st. 150+ miles and several fabulous destinations, but I couldn’t get to sleep. Excitement, I expect. Getting up absurdly early Sunday has become a regular occurrence, but it seems odd to call being on the road at 7am a late start.

WTTW did a program once about IL 1. They drove from downstate to Chicago, covering the spectrum of our state, from the bookwavers to the Pride parade. Having missed the television broadcast, I decided to do the next best thing: check it out for real.

I shot out of the city on Halsted St. Greektown, the new cookie cutter Maxwell Street, elderly Asian ladies shielding their faces from the sun with baseball caps in Bridgeport. A quick photo at the Stockyards. Englewood. West Pullman. And over the Little Calumet.

It felt good to be back a-wheel.

I didn’t see Archie and the gang in Riverdale, but I got caught by a freight train for 15 minutes. Competing varieties of gospel music blared from the open windows of the queued cars.

My route would take me near Glenwood and Mt. Glenwood cemetery, final resting place of Marshall "Major" Taylor. He seems to be enjoying a renaissance as of late, with numerous articles in publication recently and the “official” (ie final) opening of the south side trail bearing his name. I had neglected to note it’s location and with the mileage on the plate today I was sure he’d forgive me for not visiting.

“But what if it was just around the corner?” I thought, making a sudden left on Volmer Rd. The name “Glenwood” wasn’t on the map, so how big could the town be?

I asked directions of the gents manning the recycling drop off center, where people motor over their trash to feel like they’re “environmentalists.” The cemetery was only a half mile away, but on the other side of the forest preserve, requiring a 4 mile loop north. No problem. I followed their instructions, but could not recall the final street in the series and guessed wrong, ending up south of where I started on Joe Orr Rd.

Heading further east to take another pass, I turned north on Cottage Grove. Correct street, wrong cemetery, aptly named “Assumption”. Undeterred, I pressed on.

I asked a municipal worker near Jurgensen Woods. He could cite no street names, just navigation via landmark: the traffic light, the tracks, the bridge. I disregarded the road closed signs on Thorn Creek and the rocks in the exposed roadbed grew from fist size to head size. Eventually I was ‘out of the woods’ and into Thornton. A quarry seemed an unlikely neighbor to a cemetery, but a quarter-mile later, there it was.

“Worlds champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way without hatred in his heart, an honest, courageous, and God-fearing, clean-living, gentlemanly athlete. A credit to his race who always gave out his best. Gone but not forgotten.”

The plaque was installed in 1948 by a group of retired racers and the Schwinn Company. They also exhumed and relocated his remains from a pauper’s grave.

The excursion had added 12 miles and killed over an hour and a half. I tired of the traffic on Halsted, so I took the back-roads to check out the Thorn Creek South Trail. The pavement went from bad to worse to non existent so I bailed and jumped on the CBF recommended route southbound. Soon the smell of burning leaves marked my exit from civilization.

It was about 11am and I’d done 50 miles, but I should have done 70 with the tailwind I was enjoying. Now off the CBF map, I checked out the IDOT bike map's recommendation, Western Av., which was flanked by cornfields. The previous day Daisy and I had accompanied my friend Ruth Welte for a few miles as she walked the length of the city on Western Av. for an upcoming feature in Time Out Chicago. It will be interesting to see if she encountered any agriculture.

I backtracked to Ashland which was vastly more pleasant. (I’ll never understand those folks at IDOT.) I made my way south through the street-per-mile grid, on other north-south streets also bearing their familiar city names until the Will-Cook county line. I slowly gained on a cyclist in the distance.

His name was John, of University Park, employed in Morris at a Coal Burning Power Plant, to which, once in a great while, he commutes by bike. Much of the ride is I&M Canal Trail. He said at times the insects are so thick along the stagnant canal, he wears a head net.

John accompanied me for a while, guiding us to the better roads and even being sport enough jog over to Momence, where he used to play country music at the Budweiser Inn. I went looking for provisions while he soaked his feet a bit in the Kankakee River. We then doubled back along the scenic river road, doing another 10 miles before parting ways at Aroma Park, just outside of Kankakee, home of former Governor George Ryan.

From Chicago, Kankakee is 55 miles as-the-crow-drives. I had budgeted 60 miles of my 150 for the day. When I hit town I was at 95. Given that my tailwind would soon be a headwind, I knew there would be hell to pay for my earlier indiscretions.

Regardless, I have sworn to eat only quality vittles on these trips from now on, so I set about finding a proper eatery. Two good looking diners downtown were closed. I just couldn’t abide the hot dog stand that served no fries. The DQ served only iced cream. Pizza by the slice, closed. Another fantastic looking home cooking joint, closed. Another location of the fri-less hotdog franchise.

I was getting dizzy, tired and crabby when I happened upon JR’s Chicken. The girl was mildly rude, the sides small and I wished I’d noticed the buffet before I’d ordered carry out, but the fried chicken was truly stellar.

Fully sated I began trekking northwest along the river, to my next destination: Kankakee River State Park. Once there I jumped between the crushed limestone trail and park roads, checking out various campgrounds. Quite a nice park. After a few miles the 10 mile trail became paved and I followed it to its terminus.

Reviewing my trip, I see that there is also a KRSP just across the Indiana border. Damn. It would have been pretty cool to hit them both, but I was already in over my head.

Next up was my attempt to connect with the Wauponsee Glacial Trail. The IDOT map showed it as ‘proposed’ reaching the Kankakee River, as do the Will county maps. I now know it extends further south than the ‘existing trail’ is shown, but I was unable to locate it and ended up taking route 53 through Wilmington to my next and most exiting destination: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Midewin is the former site of the Joliet Arsenal, 19,000 acres of land fenced off during WW II, the land to keep the general public away from the production of TNT. To give you an idea, an explosion in 1942 killed 40 workers and broke out windows in downtown Aurora— 30 miles away.

I arrived at the park headquarters only to find it closed, but with enough employee presence as to prevent my typical fence hopping. I backtracked to South Arsenal Rd. and headed east, encountering one locked gate after another. Finally, I rolled up on locked gate with two dudes on mountain bikes on the inside looking out. At a debriefing, I learned that the south section of the park was no longer open to the public. They helped me slip my bike under the fence and we rode a bit chatting about the park.

To be clear, there isn’t much prairie at the Tallgrass Prairie. Much of it is leased as farm land, there’s some industrial development, a landfill, numerous small cemeteries and the munitions plants and bunkers. None the less it is an amazing place and I took numerous photos of the aging structures and weed choked roads during my unfortunately brief ride across it.

It was now about 8:45pm, sunset and I had 145 miles on my legs. It was time to get serious. I wrote out a detailed route, donned the reflective vest, fired up my five lights and hit the unsigned road.

Some months back my friend Shawn Greene gave me a few Songs: Ohia recordings. It took a few listenings before I got into them, but I had the song “The Farewell Transmission” repeating in my mind all day, its lyrics becoming increasingly personal:

The real truth about it is
my kind of life's no better off
If I've got the maps or if I'm lost…

I didn’t start out from where I thought, so I guess I wasn’t on my route to begin with. No matter, I remained on a northeast course, left-right turning until I found my streets. Road construction forced me to quickly abandon the route (I’d learned to heed the road closed signs.) Fireworks shot up to the left and right, like coded signals between parties miles apart.

I took a short spin on the Old Plank Road Trail, which I had intended to follow in its entirety before overextending my mileage forced me on a more direct course. I’ve done portions of the OPRT in the past; it’s wide, paved the full length and the cross streets signed. It passes through some nice wetlands and suffers only the occasional road crossing. It was nice to get away from the numerous oncoming idiots who felt the need to illuminate me with their high-beams.

The real truth about it is
there ain't no end to the desert I'll cross
I've really known that all along…

I exited the trail and rolled up on a series of Lincoln highway strip malls. By some miracle, one of those Republican Gubernatorial Candidate franchise iced-cream shops was open late, where I purchased another food item I’d been seeking: a malt. Outrageously priced at $5, it was pretty damn good.

My good fortune continued finding the next street in our series, Wolf Rd. at the first intersection. 108th was another casualty of road construction so worked my way up Wolf to the vast, pitch black forest preserves of Palos, where I hit a pothole so hard the mirror flew off my visor. (I found it in the road before it—and/or I— was crushed by the next speeding motorist.)

here comes midnight
with the dead moon in its jaws..

171 is the most direct route from the Joliet area, but I opted to pass few nasty stretches of lousy pavement and bad sightlines. The real obstacle, however, is the interchange with the 294 toll-way, Where several lanes of 70 mph traffic cross each other.

I’ve been on some pretty hairy roads in my time, even riding illegally on the interstate, but this exchange is hands down thee most dangerous place I have ever ridden a bicycle.

Fortunately there exists an alternative, albeit a somewhat tricky trespass: Jedle's Pass.

1) Get yourself onto the I&M Canal Trail near Willow Springs.
2) Follow it north until the turn around at the overpass of La Grange Rd. (US 45)
3) Cross the train tracks to your right (northeast) and cut through the trailer park.
4) Ride northeast on Testa Dr., which is a loop through the trailer park.
5) Exit the park 79th St. which runs parallel to 171/Archer.

From here I it was smooth sailing into the city, where I stopped in Garfield Ridge to satisfy one last craving: couple of carne asada tacos.

202 miles for the day, 19 hours out, 15 in the saddle.


See all the Ride Photos:

See the general route here