05 September 2008

Bits and Pieces, Random Facts and Photos

A few pictures from my 3-day trip. And some boring trivia to boot.
I find myself slipping into my adult children's post-modernism, with a weakening ability to tell a coherent sequential narrative. And a bike trip is nothing if not sequential, and dangerous if not coherent. But maybe the enjoyment of it is dependent upon neither adjective.

Day One
Here I am, ready to roll. I have gone several summers without a trip.
This is the right thing to do with my life ...

Route: Illinois Prairie Path from my intersection, Elgin Branch to the Fox River. Fox River Trail north through Elgin.

I have wondered about this structure for all the years I've ridden the Fox River Trail. It is on the north side of Elgin, along the river. Someone has spruced it up. If only the rest of the property supported the fantasy of this tower!

Route: continuing up the FRT into McHenry County, the trail progresses without interruption through Dundee and Carpentersville into Algonquin.

Crossing the river in Algonquin, IL. This has been the turn-around point on my annual Easter Monday solo half-century. For years, the day after Easter was my first long ride of the season. This is 25 miles from my house.

The trail goes through Crystal Lake, McHenry, and on to Richmond. IL Rte 173 west into Hebron. Bigelow Ave. in Hebron is Hebron Rd, west to Gasch and then State Line Rd. I turned south on Capron Rd. into the town of Capron where I picked up the Long Prairie Trail, nicely paved into Caledonia. Main Street Caledonia to Caledonia Rd., Kelley, Main, Argyle=Harlem to the entrance of Rock Cut State Park.

My campsite at Rock Cut State Park. What? There was nothing worth photographing, no photo ops, for 75 miles?

The view from my tent. When I arrived, all the spaces across the road were occupied. When a light rain began, they all packed up and left. Curious.

Day Two

The route: Leaving the Park on Willow Creek Trail takes one to Harlem High School at Gladys St. Continue west to Crystal, Frontage Rd (rte 251), Roosevelt/Machesney, Victory and pick up the Bauer Parkway Trail and bridge over the Rock River.

The path through Rockford provides several crossings of the Rock River. This is a classic Jeremy Taylor shot: the Trek 520, on a bridge, above a river. You can tell it's not Jeremy's bike, due to the lack of front panniers.
I didn't know there is a toll bridge in Rockford; happily the bike route is free!

Continuing on the Trail to the Sportcore, the Rock River Recreational Path winds through a large park, along the Rock and up to street level at Riverside Bridge.

I should have stopped to take a picture of this bridge while I was on it (a la Jeremy), if only to better show how beautiful it was. Nice wide planked crossing with beautiful large flower baskets. This shot is looking back at it. Too late to do it justice, though maybe in full sun it would have been splendid.

I finally managed to navigate downtown (confession: the cue sheets are clearer about this section than I gave them credit for. Having now ridden it, I see what they mean. But at the time, I just wasn't getting it.)
The Guardians of Rockford. An awesome public sculpture, and maybe the coolest thing I saw - man made or natural - on the entire trip. Sure, some would have stopped to take pictures from various angles, etc. ...

Through western Rockford via Winnebago St. bridge and Cunningham St = Cunningham Rd.
For future reference, don't even bother trying to find the trailhead to ...
the now-infamous Pecatonica Path - my first view of it. Or rather, the first time I saw it and knew what it was. I may have seen its trailhead, a small field of mown grass leading to what looks like a deer path. According to the GIT cue sheets, that really must have been the trailhead. This is the first road crossing to the west. It's pretty cool, but definitely not for a touring bike, with or without gear. Single track, I'll grant that. The most amazing part of the short ride? (I was still so stubborn about the cue sheets that I thought, well maybe it will get better. Duh.) The most amazing part was the vast number of finches that scared up as I went about 100 yards down here. I love goldfinches - they are my "good cycling omen" bird (don't tell my theolgian friends I said that) . And when I got back to the road I was covered in pollen. That was interesting, too.

The route was aided by the excellent Illinois DOT bike maps, which guided me to and through Winnebago and Pecatonica and on into Freeport. South out of Freeport on Baileyville Rd., east on whatever is the name of the road that intersects at the town of Baileyville.

I don't know what town these stacks are in. At this point I am south and east of Freeport, the sun is shining. The wind (unseen but not unknown) is evidenced in the plumes. My caption on the photo, "this can't be good." Here I am finally headed east, on the road that intersects Baileyville Rd. at Baileyville. But before Co Rd 9 into Leaf River, toward Oregon. The next day, between Oregon and Sycamore, I would see these behemoths again. Yeah, I agree. I'd rather see the Rock Guardians.

Day Three
My campsite in Lowden State Park, Oregon. This trip, not such scenic campsites. Now, if this were a video clip with audio, it would be much more telling.

Route home: Daisyville Rd to Brick Road. Brick has a steep climb up away from the river, and rolls eastward for quite a way.

And it really IS a Brick Road. Or at least, it used to be. In this section, they have maintained, preserved, or restored the brick in homage to the past. I don't know, maybe the county was tired of answering the question. But it is pretty cool. I noticed that here cars heading west into the intersection experience this stretch of brick as a rumble strip. A little kinder and gentler than the usual.

Brick to Co Rd 4 past Payne's Point to Lindenwood Rd. Lindenwood stretches even longer eastward. I was on it a long, long time, when I saw a cyclist in my mirror. It was inevitable that this unencumbered rider was going to overtake me. But hey, I was the one having fun today! We greeted each other as he passed, then I read his jersey "don't mess with Texas" - and again I missed riding with my friend Tom.

A quick connect on Esmond to Old State Rd on to IL Rte 64, good old North Avenue, and I was in Sycamore. Practically home! But not before a stop at Elleson's. Mmmm, donuts. Elleson's is a destination in its own right.

The eastern edge of Sycamore is the western terminus of the Great Western Trail, east 18 miles to St. Charles at Leroy Oakes Park. Through town to the Fox River Trail, south to the Geneva Spur into West Chicago. 3 options to home from there, I chose to ride past Wheaton Academy on Hawthorne, Indian Knoll to Geneva Rd., and ...


Day three: jiggedy jig

The sleeping at Lowden State Park, Oregon, IL, isn't great. The campground I landed in is literally road-side, and that road is surprisingly busy, all night long. What keeps people moving through Oregon in the wee hours, anyway? Is there some sort of Byron-Oregon axis, or is it just the proximity of IL rte 64? Add to the traffic noise the strange midnight "search-and-rescue" ballyhooing somehwere in the woods, and the general (though, to me, pleasant) discomfort of sleeping on the ground, and this was not an ideal night's rest. But it followed a hot shower, and it was the eve of my return home. Both very good things.

There is some sort of statue in Lowden, the signs for which I noted upon my arrival and during my evening constitutional. My plan to swing by it and get a photo changed when, just as I pushed off, it started to sprinkle. Score - I packed up dry. But with the appearance of a long light soaking rain, I forewent the statue and headed home.

My friend Jeremy is a great trip photographer. I wish I were more relaxed, and stopped more to do this. I'll post the few pics I did take, but I regret many I didn't. Maybe I would have taken a picture of the statue - I don't even know what it is, the signs just say "statue." I do know I should have taken a picture in Rockford, on the western edge on Cunningham St., of the sign and lawn of "Mount Goshen Full Gospel Baptist Church" - it sounds like an interesting merger, doesn't it? And adaptable to its neighborhood? Culturally apt? In this apparently Hispanic section, the Mount Goshen Full Gospel Baptist Church has not one, but two statues of the Virgin Mary. Awesome. I should have stopped on my way out of Rock Cut State Park for a breath-taking view of the Creek bend right on the park's border. And on and on. Oh well.

My ride home on Saturday was entirely on roads and paths that I have been on at least once. The Saturday morning group has been out Oregon way at least once, and I think it must be twice. I remember a high-speed roll down River Road from Lowden into Oregon; and it almost has to be another time that Jim and I stopped to check our location with Jim's phone, to be sure that this was Brick Road. Anyway, the IL bike map was an excellent aid to my memory, a constant check on my assumptions, and a confidence booster as I made my way into Sycamore.

Sycamore is a twice-yearly destination for me along the Great Western Trail. I'm not so much a fan of Path riding anymore. But I like to get out that way for the singular pleasure of the local bakery. From home this is a 65-mile rount-trip. So, whatever my mileage would be today, from Sycamore I'd be 32 or so from home. Sweet.

Yesterday's wind hadn't really changed. But today that moderate SW wind did wonders for my spirit and my pace. From Oregon to Winfield the route is almost due east, so there were very few miles riding south. And long, long stretches of straight east roads: Brick Road, Lindenwood (this road goes on forever), Old State into Sycamore. I arrived at my long anticipated bakery stop in 36.8 miles, 2 hours, 26 minutes, with an average speed of 14.9mph! (Funny how exciting that is. Most guys I ride with don't get this, I think. Sure, I enjoy the push and challenge of the group road rides. And when I'm alone and load-free, a 15mph ride is not very satisfying. But I still find my greatest cycling pleasure on a loaded bike, even if I don't quite reach 15mph averages!)

Elleson's. It is a classic small-town bakery. Loaves of bread, a good selection of donuts, muffins and other sweeties. Average coffee. Juice in small bottles. I don't know, it's just a bit of my childhood, I guess. (I have a century road route, a loop from my house, on which Elleson's figures prominently.) I dragged my sorry sweaty self to the counter and got a muffin and a donut, and a cup of coffee. In deference to the seated customers, I went back outside and sat at a small table to enjoy this self-indulgence under the canopy, out of the just-emerging sunshine.

The way out of Sycamore goes through a great city park on the east side of town. The bike path winds around the golf course, through a picnic and games area, and past soccer fields. My plan - this is fool proof - was to fill up my bottles and Camelback at my tried and true Sycamore pit stop. Ha! The one time this trip I would get it right ... the toilets are still there, but the sinks have been removed. I found this truly ironic, after 2 days of failing to keep my hydration supplies current. Oh well ... it is a mere 18 miles on the Great Western Trail, into St. Charles at Leroy Oakes Park, with its water supply. I would be OK.

There is a lot to like about the GWT. It is in pretty good shape, it goes through a few small towns, it parallels Rte 64/North Avenue and there are long stretches of that road with good wide shoulders, so there's an option if you need it. Much of it is shaded, and there are plenty of trail-side tables for the casual trail user. A section of trail, running through the tiny burgh of Lily Lake, is paved. I've never ridden these 18 miles in anywhere close to an hour, which would frustrate me if it were a road ride. It is a pleasant diversionary ride. And, as I found on Day One, this ride was actually more comfortable with a loaded bike. Interesting.

At Leroy Oakes Park - water! and a pit stop. A little sit-down and a final fuelling. Mileage to here: 57.4, at 14.8mph (not a bad drop, considering I had moved from paved roads to a crushed rock trail), in 3 hours, 51 minutes. The route from here takes me through St. Charles to the Fox River Trail, to the Geneva Spur of the Illinois Prairie Path. The spur goes through West Chicago to my home intersection, but I chose instead to take streets around the north side of town, cross IL rte 59 at Hawthorne, to Indian Knoll and Geneva Rd. From Indian Knoll to the Prairie Trail Center is the final sprint of ABD's Monday night club ride. Muscle memory kicked in - well, and the proverbial horse had long been smelling the barn - and somehow I still had enough energy to bring this load above 20mph (OK, sure, the westerly wind did help, too!). A quick stop at Prairie Path Cycles - the awesomest bike shop ever - well, honestly, just to be seen.

I rolled into my drive at 2pm, the end of a 72.3 mile day, 4 hours, 56 minutes of cycling, with the daily average speed 14.6mph. My Karen was out ... well, and it was a Saturday, after all ... so no homecoming photo. A quiet solo ending to a successful solo trip.

Photos and other observations follow.

03 September 2008

Day two: what trail?

The cue sheets of the Grand Illinois Trail have been upgraded since I first rode the southern 75% of this sweeping loop. I remember there were some funky or obscure directions then. So far on this trip, apart from a mis-named street and a road I somehow missed, the GIT was doing all right by me. Friday began with a sense that I would be able to push west to Frankfort and then decide what to do about that Galena destination. So far, so good.

It's never fun packing up a wet tent, but breaking camp went surprisingly well, and after checking in with my Karen, I was on the road shortly after 8. The reload of the bike also was a pleasant surprise, and I rolled out of Rock Cut without rattles or tipping. Well, I rolled out of the campground ... actually identifying the path out of the park (Willow Creek Trail) was another matter. Thankfully the park's signboards ('you are here' is a reassuring message) were clear enough to make an informed guess at the way out. Through the park, along Willow Creek (apparently), and past Harlem High School, and then it was back on city streets in a Rockford suburb.

First cue sheet problem, "continue east on Gladys Dr" ... umm, but I believe I am heading west at this point, I haven't yet been on Gladys Drive, and going the opposite direction would put me in a classroom or cafeteria. Follow instinct, in that case - they have to mean west.

Instinct plays a significant part of any bike ride, navigating any new route, and especially touring. I often feel that there are times I am just giving my bike freedom to lead ... I love this especially when I am casually exploring a new cycling area. Rockford, it turns out, is fairly careful about marking its streets and the main recreational path that takes cyclists through town. But it was while in Rockford that I began to wonder why in the world the GIT route is not marked more carefully and completely. Well, expense, yes I get that. It would be interesting to know how much it would cost for a little logo plate to go up on existing signs and poles at key turns and crossings on streets and roads. Or a symbol painted on the road to indicate GIT turns. Either this is a regional resource meant to be increasingly and widely used, or it is just a good idea for the most diligent and intrepid touring cyclist. (I am neither.) Still, I must say that the cue sheets and the city's marks made it fairly easy, though not quick, to get through Rockford.

Then again, a little more signage? Would it be too much to just clarify a turn here and there? Or maybe in a new city, in an overcast day, before a true breakfast, with plenty of uncertainty ahead of me ... maybe it was just me. Working my way through downtown Rockford got a little complicated and I missed a turn. Well, it wasn't like being disoriented on a bicycle in the Loop, certainly. Downtown was pretty quiet for the 9:00 hour, and 1 hour, 40 minutes after leaving the state park I was on the west side of Rockford, 20 miles down on a day that could go as many as 100. It was here that I realized what a great decision it had been to not press on the night before. I thanked God for it.

Sound the ominous chord. Cunningham St becomes Cunningham Rd, and it is pleasant to be back in the country. It's a quick jaunt on a road with a narrow shoulder, then a turn to find ... No way, they can't mean that! Here's the short version: unless you are riding a mountain bike and want to enjoy some flatland single track, Do Not Under Any Circumstances consider taking the Pecatonica Path. Disregard the GIT cue sheets, regardless of the weather, if you are loaded for touring or riding any kind of road-worthy cycle. For all practical purposes, it does not exist.

I have marked my cue sheets accordingly. "Pecatonica" is an anglicized form of the native American word for murky meandering water" or "crooked river." Try to enjoy this some other way. I spent the rest of the morning, and the early afternoon, trying to see if there was any part of the trail that could I could actually ride. The 1/2 mile or less that I was on was beautiful with wild flowers and prairie grasses and more finches per linear meter than I have ever seen. But it was no touring bike trail. It is really negligent to keep this feature on the GIT cue sheets.

Long story short, I crossed the path at several points, thinking that maybe this time it would be traversable. It never was beyond a few meters in the little towns it goes through. Thankfully through the good service of the Illninois cycling maps, I could both enjoy this increasingly rolling country and stay on the roads to get to the towns I had my sights on this day.

Mile 30, 2 hours, 26 minutes, and my morning average speed was 12.4mph. It was time for breakfast, and Winnebago, IL, had just the place for me. Fraiche was the first cafe I saw, but I was certainly not going to be comfortable in a place with a French name, 3 hours into a ride after a night without a shower. No, it was "Village Family Restaurant," just beyond, that my bike led me to. It's sign as a Pancake House and its claim to Southern Cooking were not to be ignored. A storefront location, clearly a locals' place, it instantly reminded me of Southern Kitchen in Los Gatos, CA, a favorite of son Chris and a must-eat place when we visit him. And the breakfast I had there was worth the long, slow ride to get there. I ordered the German Breakfast special: potato pancakes (made fresh right there), 2 eggs and bacon; apple sauce for the pancakes, and perhaps the most classic cup of small town restaurant coffee I've had in a decade. And the waitress knew how to wait on a cyclist: she offered to refill my water bottles, asked about the ride, left the water pitcher on the table, was ready with the coffee but also understood that practical considerations kept me from that extra cup. And when she asked "will that be all?" she was not surprised when I asked, "ummm, do you have a sweet roll, or a cinnamon role, or something like that?" Mmmm, was it good! A quick trip to freshen up, after a long leisurely breakfast, and I was ready to roll out of Winnebago and on to ...

Where? Now it was beginning to look like the day could slip away from me. Freeport would be a cinch. But what was possible beyond that? I resolved to get there and then decide, but was already thinking that a turn back toward Oregon, IL, was the most likely option.

At this time, I still had vain hopes of actually spending time on the Pecatonica Trail. At the time, now knowning the etymology of the name, I was trying to find ways to play on the Latin Peccata, sin. Well, it may have been a sin to call this a cycle route trail, but it was stupidity to keep trying to make it work. Finally, at 4 hours, 21 minutes and 57.3 miles, I was on a street corner in Freeport. My average speed had risen to 13.1 miles. Man, I was cruisin'!

Here again, I failed to learn and apply the lesson of Thursday. I did actually look for some place to get water, on my way through Freeport. But I rode south out of town without having done so, mostly because I was too stubborn to go off route for it. By this time, my optimism about finding water was truly unfounded. But, ride south I did, on Baileyville Rd. In spite of now ample evidence, I reasoned that there would at least be a vending machine in this little town. It turns out Baileyville Rd does not even actually go through Baileyville ... you have to actually turn west and ride agout 50 yards or so to get there. And no, as you have already surmised, there is nothing really to be seen or had there. Even along "Commercial St."

Well, I had to get off Baileyville Rd. at that intersection anyway, and 50 yards west is not hard to backtrack. I headed west, on my way to Leaf River, the next likely town. By this time I was starting to feel the effects of the sun which had finally broken through about noon; the effects of the wind, which was pretty stiff out of the south (the direction of my route out of Freeport); and the effects of the long long low incline from Freeport to Baileyville. The afternoon was not going to be pleasant. I had enough liquid to keep me from panicking, but not enough to guarantee me a safe ride all the way into Oregon.

Slogging my way up Baileyville Rd into the southern wind, I thought that sign to German Valley looked promising. It's just hard to say - there might not be any "there" there, but it would have got me a respite from the wind as I rode east. Well, it couldn't have hurt ... my stop in Leaf River was all but a bust as far as refueling. I had plenty of food with me, and way more Gatorade powder than I needed, especially given my dwindling supply of water. But thank God the Leaf River Fire Department keeps a soda machine in working order. The Sierra Mist was my hydration salvation, the little shady park was my natural cooler, and as I took stock of my situation it was obvious that I needed to continue south into the wind, a little east, and had to get to Oregon before dark. The arrival at a campground with enough light to set up was no longer a shoo-in.

And, by the way, where the heck was everyone in Leaf River? Had they already left for the football game? Here I was at 82.6 miles, 6 hours and 19 minutes of riding behind me, my average speed had dropped to 13mph. And I had been fantasizing about Casey's General Store for a couple of hours already.

I was under the impression that every little town in Illinois has a Casey's. I don't know why. I had been stiffed often enough even on this trip. What keeps me dreaming like this? Maybe German Valley has one, I don't know and probably never will. Hey, tonight I can't even get a Casey's website to appear! On my way out of Leaf River I kept trying to get into places that might have water fountains - post office, closed; city offices, closed; library, closed. The Library was closed, before 5pm on a Friday?!? What is with this town? I began to pray that I would see someone out in their yard, and I could stop and ask for some water from a garden hose. It was a long, lonely, starting-to-be-parched, disappointing stretch into Oregon. It would have been very different had I simply gone off route long enough to find a convenience store in Freeport. What a dope.

To my very great pleasure, my ride into Oregon - I came in on a short stretch of Rte. 64 rather than take quieter roads and add several miles to this now-disappointing day - was almost completely free of auto competition. The road was in good shape, and coming from the west there is a beautiful long sweeping descent into downtown. Rather like riding into Lake Geneva from the west on WI-50. Only, on this day at this time, no cars! And there, on the very western edge of Oregon's downtown ... my fantasy come to life: Casey's General Store.

I know what I can get in a Casey's. I can get pizza by the slice, hot or cold sandwiches, of course any kind of candy or energy bar, chips, beverages. Every Casey's I've been in while riding has seemed surprised to have a cyclist there. Surely I'm not the only one to ever stop in? But the great thing Casey's has is a case of ice cream novelties. This day's ride ended with a Triple Chocolate Dove ice cream bar, a short can of Pringles, and the largest bottled water I could get cold. I sat in the grass by the curb and re-fueled to my heart's content, knowing that on the other side of town (what, a quarter mile further on?) I would be able to get supper. The girl at the counter asked if I wanted a bag. No, I said, I'll take it like this. "Do you eat this stuff while you ride?"

Supper was also long anticipated. There could hardly fail to be a Subway in Oregon, and in fact I'm pretty sure I knew that for sure. A 12-inch sub fits nicely under the flap of a Camelback Rogue, so I was well supplied for my last short mile or so up to Lowden State Park. It was kind of critical that there be a campsite there; I wasn't sure I could make it to the other state park on the other side of town.

Sure enough there was. And for $10 I got a site and access to running water, flushing toilets, and a hot shower. Now that is a great way to end a day full of disappointing cue sheets, a stiff head wind, and ignorant hydration decisions. After setting up camp and devouring my sub and Pringles, I took a brief walk through the campground then settled in to a quick review of Hebrew vocab and, as it got dark, another episode of "Wait, Wait." You know, after all, it really doesn't get much better than this!