Western Illinois — one wild ride

July 12, 2008

I’m writing this post from our rest day spot of Lafayette, Indiana, which as most of you know is next door to where all of us lived for a long time, West Lafayette. We’re here so mom and dad can see old friends, so we can meet up with my brother Eric and his family, and so we can just rest a bit.

I want to write, however, about one day’s ride in western Illinois, from Moline south/southeastward toward Hennepin. This day was an epic ride, although in ways that we didn’t really anticipate at the outset. Most of the ride, about 65 miles, was on a multi-use trail called the Hennepin Canal Parkway. When planning the ride a couple days earlier, dad and I noticed this trail on the map. Hmm, looks good, runs in the perfect direction, let’s take it!

Well, the trail started perfectly enough in Moline: flat, smooth and of course carless. After about three miles, this situation began to deteriorate. Soon we were riding on the kind of surface eerily similar to the road surfaces in Oregon (see our posts from that part of the trip to get a sense of how much we just loved those roads). Basically, this surface, which we’ve called chip-n-seal, consists of stones that jut up out of a kind of tar surface. Really, really rough.

Unfortunately, even this surface didn’t last long. Soon we hit other, hmm, even more interesting surfaces. Soon we were riding on mixtures of gravel, sand, and mud, and even encountered gigantic weeds that had grown up on the surface of the road. I kid you not: absolutely huge weeds whose full blooms spread almost the width of the trail, forcing us to dodge them. For long stretches we were riding on a kind of mishmash of sand, dirt and gravel, a surface apparently enjoyed by horses, judging by the many hoofprints and copious amounts of dung. At two points we had to ride over huge piles of sand that appear to have been dumped there randomly, as if some state highway guy had decided in 1958 he was going to start paving the thing, got the program going by depositing the raw materials at strategic spots along the way, then got fired for coming up with the idea. Inevitably, we had a couple of flats, delaying our progress substantially.

We stuck with the trail despite these problems, however, for a couple of reasons. First, the direction was, as I said above, absolutely perfect: a diagonal running southeast, cutting across Illinois in exactly the direction we needed to travel. Taking roads would have added another 20 or 30 miles to the route. Second, as you might judge from the trail description, the canal was a pretty wild thing, completely undeveloped and isolated from almost all the towns in the area. As a result, the entire length of the canal is a kind of spectacular wildlife greenway and thus worth experiencing. We saw an unbelievable collection of birds, small mammals, turtles and other creatures.

But by far the coolest thing that happened on this day’s ride was our ride over the Illinois River, just after the trail ended. As one might suspect, finding bridges over major rivers that are safe for bikes/peds isn’t exactly easy. We had to ride in the car over the Missouri and Mississippi, sadly, simply because there was no safe way across on a bike. In plotting our course for the day, dad and I noticed that the only bridge over the Illinois appeared to be an interstate bridge, although it wasn’t entirely clear from the map we had. We figured we’d wing it — generally speaking, a bad idea on the bike.

Well, when we arrived at the bridge we discovered that it was, in fact an Interstate. As in, an Interstate Highway. We stopped at the base of the on-ramp to contemplate what we were contemplating, which is whether we were going to gin up enough courage and lose enough brains to actually do this. Prominently displayed was one of those signs that said:

ABSOLUTELY PROHIBITED ON INTERSTATE HIGHWAY

… Non-motorized vehicles, horses, pedestrians.

Now, we’ve all seen these signs getting on the Interstate, and I’m fairly certain that all of us have at one time or another thought, What kind of idiot rides a horse on the Interstate? If uttered among others in the car, this is usually followed by peals of laughter, much head-shaking, and complete disbelief that it’s even necessary to post a sign warning people not to walk or ride or a horse on the Interstate because of the self-evidently stupid nature of the proposition.

You have now met your idiots. Realizing that we had no choice (mom was off in the plains of central Illinois, finding a place to stay), dad and I screwed up the courage and lost enough brains, mounted our bikes and rode up the on-ramp. We focused on hitting the Interstate at a point where there weren’t any oncoming cars, which in this case was an easy thing to do, as there was almost no traffic. Realizing this at the top of the on-ramp, I decided to, as we bikers like to say, put the hammer down to try and get the 2 or 3 miles of this experience over with as quickly as possible. I quickly dropped dad, leaving him for vulture bait. Ahead of me loomed the bridge over the river, which was ramped sharply upward (to let barge traffic pass underneath). I hit this thing at full chat and absolutely buried myself to get up and over it as fast as I possibly could. A couple of cars and a truck passed by, thankfully without so much as a honk and a “What the hell are you idiots doing!!?” shout.

Two things went through my head as I crested the bridge. First, the bridge was really really high, maybe 100 feet over the river, and the guardrail was disconcertingly short. It would have been a bad time for a strong crosswind to blow me into the guardrail, which would have ended in an up-and-over scenario to certain death below. Second, as we were very much breaking the law at this point, I was kind of worried about the state patrol pulling up and arresting us for some kind of federal offense. I had visions of spending the night in the Bureau Junction, Illinois jail. Still, it was kind of cool being an outlaw. My mind started singing a line from a horrible heavy metal song I heard about twenty years ago: “Breakin’ the law! Breakin’ the law”. Come and get me, copper!

Down the other side of the bridge and into Hennepin, the Interstate ended, merging with a state highway (as it turned out the Interstate at this point was just a spur, which explained the low traffic volume), and I slowed to a stop to wait for dad. Up he came. We exchanged the requisite high-fives, both of us knowing we had just done something that you normally don’t even consider doing. In retrospect, what we did wasn’t very dangerous, given the stretch of Interstate we rode on, but it makes for a good story.

  1. Matt Gaston Said,

    I can picture the bridge in my mind, as I crossed it once on my way to my brother’s wedding (held in the lovely burg of Pittsfield, IL). As I recall, it was quite spectacular, over a rather high gorge — definitely not something you expect to see in the flat lands of Illinois (espcecially since I recall no songs or poetry or history classes about the “mighty Illinois river”).

    And yes, you are idiots. Almost as bad as the people who ride their bikes on the GW Parkway despite the fact that there’s a PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE TRAIL running right alongside it. I met one of those the other day at the Memorial Bridge merge and was like “Why?”

    But I digress. Hopefully you’re enjoying being “Back Home Again…” (even if you are in the Land of Boilermakers) and are soon looking forward to the rampant boredom that is Eastern Indiana and Western Ohio.

    I’ll tune in for further adventures. Continue to be safe.

    Matt

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