This past Sunday was my first longer ride for the season. Although I ride throughout the year, I find that my distances in the winter are generally shorter, and I try to choose routes that are closer to home in case I get into trouble. But once the weather starts to cooperate I can get out at further distances.
In this case, "longer" was right around 27 miles. My more typical rides run between 8 and 15 miles, and this mostly owes to available time - I often choose distances that I can manage within an hour, give or take, so I have time to get other things done. But we’ve been plagued with uncooperative weather over the past couple of weeks -first an unseasonably late snowfall, followed by copious amounts of rain. It’s been hard to get out between events, so I was itching to make up some mileage.
I laid out a route that took me through West Brooklyn and Inlet, and afforded the opportunity to visit Inlet Cemetery, a hidden graveyard that had been on my list to see (I’ve been engaged in genealogical research for quite some time, and my people are from the region - these visits sometimes offer the opportunity to find an ancestor or two). If you’ve never heard of these places, even if you are from Northern Illinois, don’t be surprised - they are tiny rural settlements, and well off the interstate highway.
One of the things that was made clear early on into the ride is the fact that the past winter has been very hard on our rural roads.
I drive these roads as well as riding them, so I was aware of the conditions, but coming across them on the trike provides a much more... intimate view.
The route took me straight west of West Brooklyn, and then a staggered ride northward. The ride overall was mostly on pavement, with a smattering - maybe 3-4 miles worth - of gravel. I don’t love riding on gravel, even on the trike, but the quality of the experience varies depending upon the condition of the road. In general, a good gravel ride, in my opinion, is going to be had on a road that is somewhat worn and broken in. You don’t want it so far gone that you are running into frequent potholes, but you want the passing of sufficient vehicle traffic to have carved tracks into the rock - essentially, so you end up riding on a well-packed dirt surface rather than raw stone. The roads on this particular course fit that bill nicely.
And once you get out on them you get to re-realize the rustic benefits of the path less traveled:
The gnarled old fence lines whisper of times past, where these rare wooded areas in the prairie stood as pasture land. But the cattle and horses, while not entirely absent, are far fewer than in past.
Turn and take in the whole scene - the fence line, the narrow gravel trail in conjunction with the light breeze and the solitude and one can briefly get a feel for what it might have been like living here during pioneer times. And when you are in these moments, you get an inkling as to why they stayed.
As you work north towards Inlet you move into a region that, before the turn of the last (twentieth) century was a large wetland. It’s since been drained down and the water that would otherwise stand atop the ground now evacuates through a series of ditches. These accompany you on the landscape, the straightness of line and regularity of curve the hint that they might not be entirely natural occurrences.
If you know to look for it, Inlet Cemetery can be seen from afar off of one road, but you have to ride around to the other side to enter. It arrives at about the half-way point of the route that I picked, and it doesn’t, strictly speaking, have an entryway. One has to pick one’s way through about a quarter mile of grass strip to get there. It’s passable on a bike or a trike, taken slowly. I paused Cyclemeter for the side trip - I’d like to take this route again, but I likely won’t stop at the cemetery again. Plus, I didn’t want the pokey time riding through the grass to count against me. (More about the cemetery here, for those who are curious).
After a break at the cemetery for sight seeing, plus some water and a snack, I headed out for the second half of the route. The first part of this takes you out into open lowland punctuated by raised islands of trees. From here, particularly this time of year, it’s not hard to picture the swamp that was present not so long ago. In a month or two crops will conspire to obscure the true nature of the land beneath.
In some cases the lowland is lower still, and you get treated to brief views of ducks and geese relaxing (or are they - I felt they were eyeing me with suspicion...) along the shores of the occasional pond.
That all gives way, however, as the course turns to the south and enters the northern edge of Melugin Grove, which gives the pleasant change to tree cover and the rare (for northern Illinois) winding road.
This section of the route also offers up spring flowers for view, though they were apparently camera shy.
As the ride winds through to its end you may encounter a couple of things you don’t expect to see:
(There are a handful of tiny grass airstrips in the area, reflecting an era in which the world apparently thought we’d be traveling by plane from place to place the way we operate cars now).
And every great once it a while you might think you’d gotten slightly off course and ended up in Texas...
All in all it was a great ride - springtime in Northern Illinois at its best.