When I moved from Ohio, I missed the trees and hills. Yet, I’ve grown to find the prairie pure, abundant and ever changing. This section of Springbrook park was burned completely down last fall, once the lightning storms and the Indians renewed the prairie this way. In one spring and summer the prairie returns verdant and full of life.
As we cycle this path, every day its newness is a gift.
We hopped the train to downtown and just outside of Union Station is Lou Mitchel’s restaurant. Since 1923 Lou’s has been at the start of famous Route 66, that American mother road connecting East to the West during the dust bowl ( 1930’s ) as people migrated to California hoping for new chances and prosperity.
Route 66 has long faded, replaced by the super highways that bypass the small towns, but Lou’s has kept some old traditions. You get a donut hole ( baked there ), a complimentary orange slice and prune with breakfast, and a free tiny serving of ice cream after your meal.
We had omelets which were light and fluffy, but the whole-wheat toast baked there was sublime. A bite of omelet, a bite of toast, a sip of fresh squeezed orange juice… life is good.
With a bit of ice-cream to cleanse the palate we were off. Chicago has adopted some European ideas for bike lanes and in many places the bike lane is next to the sidewalk inside the parking lane. This creates a wall of parked cars to protect cyclists – and I felt safe on those roads. We headed over to the 606, a new elevated bike/jogging/hiking path that runs over the streets. You can cycle for forty city blocks without a light or car nearby. It was one of the best planned paths I’ve seen – and at $95 million to complete – it’s certainly costly. But it makes Chicago safer and better for living.
Heading North about 35 miles through the luxurious Evanston and nearby burgs along the lake you view awe inspiring houses but we had The Botanic Gardens and butterflies in mind.
Then North another 15 miles for lunch…
Then ten more miles to the train-station and home. Chicago is a cyclist’s friend.
We did a bit of urban cycling the other day, down the CALsag trail in it’s newly paved beauty along the canal, and then through Blue Isle ( not sure how a landlocked town gets that name ) and through Roseland to Pullman. Roseland is the hard hit neighborhood where many of the stores are boarded up or converted to Churches or Mosques or bars. When the jobs have left a place, then people look to find hope in one place or another. Just beyond is Pullman, a town of historical contradictions.
Of the Pullman factory – the engine of opportunity where luxury rail-road cars were made little remains.
Factories need people, and George W. Pullman envisioned a city for his workers, designed by architects with clean air, good schools manned by trained teachers, and indoor plumbing in every house. It was his idea of Utopia. In 1870, he was a visionary humanitarian – and his city was considered the finest in the world. Today, you can ride past the grand hotel, or magnificent church and the row houses and boarding houses in which his workers lived and worshiped.
The company maintained every building, and the workers paid rent. The workers shopped at the company store, banked at the company bank – and even the ministers rented the church for services provided their sermon’s aligned with the Pullman beliefs.
In 1874 there was a recession, and Pullman cut the worker’s wages by 30% but refused to reduce the rents. The factory workers struck, and Pullman crushed the strike. Then railroad workers across the country refused to work any passenger train that had a Pullman car on it. The Pullman name was reviled, and his utopia called un-American and despicable in every way. The Federal Government then broke the rail strike.
Pullman died shortly after the strike of a heart-attack. The scoundrel had tons of cement poured over his grave so that no-one could desecrate his body, and the humanitarian left a bequeath to fund a million dollar endowment to educate the children of the workers at his factory.
As we rode back to wrap up our 50 mile ride I pondered this complex man, and his vision while words of John Goodman’s ‘City of New Orleans’ played in my mind…
And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel
PS – if you ever played the video game Bioshock – with it’s visionary madman and failed utopia – it has to be modeled after this time and place
If you start in Naperville Illinois at the crack of dawn and head toward the Fox River bike path, you’ll catch the mist rising above the ponds. Then Northward bound along the mighty Fox river the daffodils burst into sight and the frog princes croak their song of undying love to all the frog maidens as you silently pedal by.
Up near the Wisconsin border in Richmond after sixty miles or so along the path you’ll find a small fast-food joint still attended to by pretty teens who’ll take your order and bring you a hot-dog or a rootbeer and a smile. It was a long day riding, about 73 miles total and I hadn’t seen a Dog N Suds since the 1970’s. We pulled our weary seats in and enjoyed a root-beer as celebration of a day well done.
It was 1973 she was sixteen, I was seventeen and her first real job was car-hop and the local Dog N Suds. That year root-beer was the taste and flavor of youthful romance. She brought the root-beer out in a frosted mug ( just like the old days ) and it was lightly carbonated, slightly sweet with just a hint of licorice, just as good as I remembered. I told the story to our server, did we look so young at sixteen too, and she smiled and told me there were only a handful of franchises left in the whole country, a place of distant memories and tastes.
The Gilman trail, just off of the Fox River trail in Aurora Illinois runs just over twelve miles to Sugar Grove. It was a blustery day, gusty and cold. It starts on an old railroad right of way and I was struck with the thought that who doesn’t think engineers are artists has not contemplated bridges.
Crossing rivers, or highways
And if you bike back to the Two Brothers Microbrewery at the old roundhouse at the train station in Aurora you can get a craft beer ( Prairie Path Ale ), and food to keep you pedaling in the cold.
Beer and a mufaletta… a fine lunch for a bike ride and fuel for the last 10 miles home.
Alot of people traveled the I&M canal and each had their story. In France we visited a vineyard ordered planted by Charlemagne 800, along the I&M Canal not even 200 years old, Abe Lincoln rode the gentle water pulled by a mule, and one of my favorites Wild Bill Hickock was there too. In fact, back then most of the mule drivers were young boys aged 14 – 17. Wild Bill, then just “James Butler” was there driving mules.
Today one boat remains for tours and a little ride.
We came by just as they were heading out, with a one horse, I mean mule-powered engine.
Well Wild Bill witnessed another mule-driver mistreating his animals and took exception. A fight, or “bug tussle” ensued and the two went into the water. Each came out thinking they had killed the other, and rather than face a hanging, the two separately headed West to Indian territories. Now that’s how to start an adventure. Of course Wild Bill’s ended with aces and eights, but that’s another story. We just waved to the boat and pedaled on.
Farther from the big city, you can see the impact of the economy and hard times and many times we ride between neglected trail and passing abandoned industry. Still there’s beauty on the trail.
One section of the trail was closed, so we entered and rode down to see for ourselves. We found a washed out bridge, but somebody had taken the warning signs and laid them down at a narrow section so we could use it as a footbridge across. Score one for disrespect for authority. Then since the trail was closed, the rangers didn’t do much clearing and we had a section of under the tree
or over the tree. Personally I enjoyed that section….
At the end, riding the I&M canal let us walk in the footsteps of people who helped build the country, some famous, some infamous, almost all of them with an adventurous spirit.
We happened into an upscale restaurant halfway through a bike ride to LaSalle Illinois. Cycling into a town, you roll up and down the small main-street looking for a place that looks good. Across the street from a hot-dog place was the Uptown Grill. We normally try the hot-dog place almost every time, but since my daughter was riding with us, we decided a place with napkins would be in order. The grill turned out to be a very fine restaurant with a complex menu and fine wine list. But, for a biking lunch I threw down the gauntlet. What kind of root-beer do you serve ?
They say hunger is the best sauce for food, but a hot humid bike ride can help a root-beer taste pretty good. Hank’s from Philadelphia was a rich smooth root-beer, served in a chilled glass. A restaurant that cares about its root-beer just has to care about everything.
We had Gorgonzola chips, fresh made chips so crispy and light your fingers didn’t get greasy.
Having just been in France, this reminded me welcome back home to American cuisine.
Farther from the city the canal trail is not so well maintained. One of the aqueducts has collapsed leaving the canal a “tadpole puddle”. Some places it’s full of sediment, and trees 30 feet high grow there or people mow the grass in the canal behind their homes like it’s a play-ground for their kids.
It’s hot, over 90 degrees ( 32 c ) and the trees give shade, but the large waterfowl are gone. We hear birds singing around us, but they are deep in the trees. At one section, the sticks ahead of us suddenly wriggle away, turns out they are snakes sunning.
This is like where I grew up, small town America – wave at everyone, don’t have to lock your doors. Kids smile and wave at us, and one family is playing with their pet goat. We meet a guy who has ridden many trails, over a thousand miles all with his two buds.
We pass Seneca, a little town where a brick making company is still going strong after starting in 1835. They sit right on the canal and I wonder how many of Chicago’s fine brick homes were build on bricks fired there. During the potato famine in Ireland over two million people died or left the country in a great diaspora. Many found their fortunes here, and many their ruin, for malaria and dysentery claimed a toll. The workers believed that whiskey would prevent malaria, and so held out to ensure that their weekly pay included a ration of whiskey.
It’s too hot for snow, but the cotton-wood seeds drift down like snow and later we pass a golden meadow.
We ended at mile 83 in Ottawa, the Indian word for trade, at the conflux of three rivers the French had been trading for furs since the 1600’s. Ottawa hosted one of the Lincoln presidential debates, but now is just a quiet place. When Illinois was nearly broke in the 1840’s they had to borrow 1.6 million from investors to finish the canal. What’s was a dollar worth in those days? The workers digging by the canal by hand received one dollar a week and their whiskey ration.
We were left to turn around and head back the 25 miles, once more moving through time and we returned to the car. One more ride ahead of us to get us to mile 96 and the end of the I&M canal.
We drove out to Joliet for the second leg of the I&M canal. Miles 31-58 are farther out, and the trail is less kept being mostly crushed limestone. You might see a section where a million cat-tails wave in the breeze, or stands of pampas grass tower above you.
The canal, dug by hand by immigrant labor is six feet deep and sixty feet wide for ninety-six miles. It opened up trade in dolomite, limestone, and later the areas became steel towns where immigrants from all backgrounds worked the mills. But building the canal had challenges, and here we can see an aqueduct built over flat land to allow the canal to traverse a river below it. Think of it, a canal six feet deep crossing a river, they did so multiple times to open the heartland to the rest of the world.
Three times deer jumped out in front of us within several yards. We saw mallards, geese and goslings, ( I thought one goose was coming after me when I came too close. ) There were Great blue herons, egrets and a cormorant graced us with his presence along with cardinals, blue jays and robins and finches galore. There were red-winged black birds, and I think females with a yellow spot on the neck, but I have to confirm that ( still looking ).
Of course I don’t stop for garage sales, but do stop for turtles. This ten pound snapper threatened to give me something in common with Nine Fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom. Isn’t he ( or she ) magnificent .
I made up a corny turtle joke – my sense of humor is odd, let me know if you want to hear it.
When we dropped in and out of the shade, the flower scents were strong and lovely. It might have been wild grapes, but some flower had the scent of a sweet grapes – not cloyingly strong – but a hint that made me think that as a perfume it would be irresistible. The I&M trail has been full of surprises.
It was a hot humid miserable, great fifty mile ride.
We live about as far from the coast as one can get ( Chicagoland ) but Naperville has some excellent sushi restaurants. There are three, that form the Sushi-trinity near by and we try to alternate between them when heading out for lunch. This week it was Sushi House in Warrensville. It’s a small place but really provides excellent food.
We started out with a tempura roll, which includes battered shrimp in the center. It’s crunchy and tasty.
Next we had smoked salmon and Unagi ( barbequed eel ) – I have to admit the eel is my favorite of all time, one of those “last meal” type of flavors.
Being hockey season, we had to try their special “Black Hawk Roll” which featured the team colors in roe on top.
In celebration of spring we tried the “winter/spring” roll – artistically my favorite, it was almost sad to devour it, but we did, with gusto. Squid on the outside, spicy tuna and avacado on the inside, and roe providing the spring buds on top.
For the finale, a bit of ice cream, two mochi balls with a touch of chocolate sauce.