On the morning of Wednesday, September 6, my husband, Pat, and I found our way to a section of the Illinois Prairie Trail by bike through Warrenville, Naperville, Aurora, and Romeoville, Illinois. We dodged traffic and rode several shared use paths. The next day, we took part of the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, a National Heritage Area. Each mile is marked with signs around the canal. As we learned earlier from cycling the C and O Canal, by the time these canals were built they were outdated. For several years, this canal transported a large number of people and supplies from south to north, before railroads took hold. It is this canal that allegedly made Chicago. Unfortunately, several miles of the canal no longer had water, and the surface and width of the track continued to change. Pat, who was usually a mile ahead of him, scared off deer, muskrats and great blue herons. When we reached Joliet, the trail disappeared, so we had to walk a few miles through the city streets until the trail appeared again.
We quickly discovered that we were not ready for 60 miles after minimal summer training. We pushed forward, until I found myself getting slower and slower. I was questioning my abilities when, at an intersection, I checked my car’s rear tire. Completely flat.
It was the rear tire, and it was difficult to change. With nothing else to do, we got to work removing the tire from my bike and inserting a new inner tube. However, since we were not well organized, we struggled to find the tire lever, extra inner tube, and tire pump. And then we had a meltdown and threw all four panniers all over the road.
As Pat continued to struggle to reinsert the pin holding the wheel in place, I thought about calling Uber. At that moment, a couple stopped in their car and asked us if we needed help. “We saw you 45 minutes ago, and since you’re still here, we thought we’d ask you.” These two Good Samaritans were exactly who we needed. The man, who builds bikes as a hobby, refused to give up and eventually managed to remove the gravel preventing the pin from locking into place. We thanked them profusely. Given the time of day, we decided we wouldn’t make it the last 20 miles before dark. Three miles down the highway to Interstate 80, we found a cheap hotel and pizza and salad at Pizza Hut.
By Friday morning, refreshed again, we returned to Morris City and the path of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Our destination was to ride the rest of the canal to La Salle. We took our lunch break on the church steps in Ottawa, eating sandwiches and cashews while listening to the church bells. Ottawa is known as the place where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas first debated whether slaves had equal rights. While Abraham Lincoln advocated equal rights between whites and blacks, Stephen Douglas believed that the decision was up to each state. In the middle of the square is a statue commemorating this debate, surrounded by a beautiful fountain.
At the end of the canal in La Salle, we were sure to find a place to stay in town. But we were wrong. The town was fairly empty with many boarded up storefronts. We found a replica of a canal boat that takes paying customers to the canal a short distance with a horse but we passed by this activity. It was time to find a bike shop, add more air to all of our tires, and buy a new inner tube. It turned out that the bike shop was an additional 3 miles away, also near the entrance to Interstate 80 and that the shop had moved to another location. Fortunately it wasn’t far away. That night, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express which turned out to be an excellent choice due to its proximity to the bike shop. In the morning, on our way out of our hotel room, I looked at my rear tire. It was flat again.
Pat pumped some air in my tire, and we made it back to the bike shop 40 minutes before it opened. When the owner arrived, using a magnifying glass, he found a spike in my tire. “That’s what your apartment is for,” he said. Instead of trying to fix it, I opted for a new, more durable frame. We’ve heard that the Hennepin Canal, next on our list, has 10 miles of new rough gravel, which makes cycling it somewhat treacherous. I needed a good frame for my vision.
In the small town of Bureau Junction, after 15 miles of road cycling, we entered the Hennepin Canal Road. Our target was Lock 22 which offers a primitive campsite. This channel was full of water but the cycling surface for the first 10 miles was fresh chunky gravel. Unlike the route of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, there was no information anywhere about this canal and no mile markers. The interpretive signs have been damaged, making them unreadable. The visitor center is closed. The only people we saw on the road were fishing in a few different locks.
At about 5pm we had another 5 miles to go to our designated campsite. I was starting to wonder if this campsite was a good idea. That’s when we discovered the only commercial establishment on the entire canal, Hickory Grove Campground. It looked inviting, had running water, showers, picnic tables, and RVs everywhere. Joan, one of the owners, found us a place for the tent. “Make sure not to camp under any tree branches,” she said. We once fell at a campsite a while ago. “But why are you doing this?” she asked. Wouldn’t you rather take a trip to Hawaii or sailing? We shook our heads. “Whose idea was this trip?” Pat pointed at me. That’s when I loaded him up with a huge bag of popcorn and two popsicles.
We found our spot in the camp and started setting up the tent. It’s been two years and we wondered if we could remember so easily. Afterwards, two men came in a golf cart and invited us to have dinner with them and their wives. “We grilled chicken and there were a lot.”
We looked at the planned dinner – cold beans and yogurt and hurried to the campsite. And so we spent the rest of the evening – eating a meal together, telling stories around the fire late into the night, and making new acquaintances. The day that started with a thorn turned into a rose.
On Sunday, our goal was to continue on the Hennepin Canal for an additional 36 miles and then maneuver other roads and trails to Davenport, Iowa. The canal path was never ending. Water, trees, sand and lily pads. again and again. Finally, we reached the end of the canal and quickly found our way to Seven 11, and bought Dr. Peppers with ice to celebrate. We had 20 more miles to get to Davenport, our stop for the night, but it was great to bike through neighborhoods and on paved roads again. We landed on the Great River Trail next to the Mississippi River. We stopped to admire the great river, rode a few more miles and crossed the river on a wide bridge that carries vehicles and pedestrians. We are now in Davenport and staying on the grounds of the Warm Shower hosts’ press. Every day is a new adventure.