History

Alexander The Great by Erin Wade

I have a long-term Audible subscription that gives me two credits per month towards audiobooks. When I say "long-term", I mean that this is something that has been in place since well before Amazon purchased Audible. In fact, according to my account information, I’ve been a member since January 2001 - not quite since the beginning of its existence in 1995, but still pretty early in its lifespan.

I listen to a lot of spoken word content in a blend of podcasts and audiobooks. At times, the volume of podcasts means that it takes a while to get back to the audiobooks, and from time to time I’ll hit a point where I have to use some of my Audible credits or I will lose them. Long story short, this is how I came to purchase Alexander The Great by Philip Freeman. It reflected an area of interest - I do enjoy history and biographies - but a mild one. It was something that I figured it wouldn't hurt to have, but I wasn’t sure when I would get to listening to it.

I should not have put it off. The worry, with a biography on a long-past historical figure like this is that it will be a series of dry facts, that it will be an experience more like taking one’s medicine - it’s good for you, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that you enjoy it. The approach taken for this tome, however, was different. Rather than simply providing a series of facts, Freeman takes a cue from David McCullough. This book reads more like a novel than a history book, with the author providing descriptions of the locations, and offering (perhaps speculative) insights into the feelings and minds of the many players in the life and times surrounding the legendary man. That he is doing so is addressed early on in the book - there is no pretense that he actually knows what the people of the time were thinking, but rather the author notes that he intended to make a more picturesque tableau, and he does so quite nicely. The reader gets a sense of what it may have been like to be there marching through Macedonia, Greece, or Asia with Alexander.

Not that this should suggest that historical facts are left out of the picture. In fact, the book does a fine job of giving an impression of events during, after, and before the rise of Alexander. For myself, having a passing interest in his story with little to no specific background information, I found this book a wonderful introduction.

To provide clear context of the events that lead to the rise of Alexander, the author chooses to begin with going into detail on the rule of his father. I’d known that Alexander was not actually Greek, and that he was the son of Philip of Macedonia, but that was honestly all I’d known, a tiny bit of trivia retained from my undergraduate Western Civ class far more years ago than I’d care to admit. Who Philip was (the hard-won king of Macedonia) or how that provided the ground work that made Alexander’s conquests possible was something that, frankly, I’d never even thought to consider. Understanding that Alexander learned at the feet of a political and strategic mastermind who did considerable consolidation of the lands of Macedonia and Greece certainly provides a clearer picture of how the events surrounding the man himself are possible - such legendary figures do not simply appear, pristine, from the ether. Rather they rise up along the steps provided by those who come before.

Among the other things this book helped to provide was some clearer context in terms of the historical timeline. I’ve always though of Alexander as ancient, and he was, but my picture of him lacked context. This telling clearly puts him in a context with respect to other events in history, with touchstones such as battle between the Spartans and Xerxes (as reflected in 300), his relative presence to Greek philosophers, and the existence and his experience with the great pyramids in Egypt. At one point Freeman notes that the distance in time between Alexander and the builders of those monuments is akin to the distance between our time and that of Alexander. It makes one realize that the ancient world was a long time ago, but that it was also an incredibly long span of time itself, with huge swaths of history already past by the time this conqueror’s sandals trod the earth.

The narrator for this book is Michael Page. He sounds to be a British reader, and he is pleasant company for the journey in the book. The only caveat I’d make for this is that it may be beneficial for the American listener to visit the Wikipedia page on Alexander The Great to look at the spellings of some of the names and terms. Page has a delightfully English pronunciation style that will be different than we’d expect. The most frequent example is his way of reading the name of Alexander’s primary foe in the book - Darius the Third. Most of us in the States would likely say "Dare-E-Us", but Page pronounces it "Duh-Rye-Us". For the record, Dictionary.com agrees with him, as does Merriam-Webster, so perhaps I’m just off on this, but I suspect others may find it a bit confusing as well.

This book is a survey of the times, and rolls past like a story rather than a text, so it will likely be unsatisfying for someone well-versed in the lore of Alexander the Great. But if this is an area of interest for you, and particularly if you’ve wondered how to start in this, this book provides a very nice entry point.

Hennepin Canal State Park Trail - Lock 2 to Lock 13 by Erin Wade

In rural northern Illinois there is a hidden gem of a state park. It’s long and narrow, and follows along the man-made waterway known as the Hennepin Canal.

Narrow to be certain - the park is generally the width of the canal and it’s towpaths, give or take a few expanded recreation and/or information areas. But also long to be sure. The Illinois DNR website indicates that the park occupies 104.5 linear miles, with 155 miles of towpath for riding/walking, etc. The canal runs from from the Illinois River just east of Bureau Junction to the Mississippi River near Rock Island. There is also a feeder canal that runs from Rock Falls southward and meets the main canal near Sheffield. The feeder itself runs nearly 30 miles, and provides water from the Rock River to the canal.

The eastern trail head is located in the tiny town of Bureau Junction, at the site of Lock 2.

Catrike Pocket at Lock 2 Trailhead

There is a Lock 1, apparently a little further to the east, but the towpath was not maintained between Locks 1 and 2, and Lock 1 is underwater during the summer months, making it hard to access and hard to see.

Driving to the trail head brought back a lot of memories. When I was a kid my family spent a lot of time on the Illinois river and its tributaries in this area. This included fishing trips with my father and grandfather, and weekend days at a beach along the river, swimming and waterskiing and watching the barges pass by. We’d marvel at the (relatively) tiny tugboats pushing row after row of shipping barge ahead of them. We’d have to stop and marvel because they also kicked up a significant wake that made you want to clear out of the water until they passed. And each trip we’d have to have at least one discussion about how it was odd that they were called tug boats, when they were actually pushing their cargo...


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Driving to the trailhead brought back these memories. The geography of the roads changes as you get into river country - the formal grid of farm country yields to the twisting nature dictated by the rivers and streams - and the smell of the air shifts to reflect the presence of the waterways even when you cannot see them.

The trailhead is set at Lock 2, and it literally begins at the lock.

Catrike with Lock 2 in full view

Lock 2 facing west

Lock 2 facing east

I decided to ride from the trail head to Lock 13 and back, a round trip a little over 22 miles. The surface of the trail varies considerably over that distance, from what appears to be older asphalt to crushed stone to dirt. One section, maybe 3/4’s of a mile long, is white chip gravel, with all the slow-going that entails for any cycle without wide tires (even a trike - you don’t worry about falling over, but you do still get to experience all of the bone shaking joy). Portions of the trail had late spring grass growing in abundance.

The trail ahead - taken at Lock 3

Traveling this direction takes you past the locks in ascending numerical order. As such, Lock 3 is the first you encounter, just a short ways down the trail. While Lock 2 is the beginning of the trail, Lock 3 may be the preferred starting point for the non-completist. This point in the park has a large cement parking lot (compared to the small affair at the trailhead).

A couple of weeks ago I ventured out on the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, which was part of what made me think of this trail, which is a little further from home. Given that both are trails that run along the towpath of a canal, you’d expect riding them to be similar experiences. This is true, to some degree, but there are important differences between the two, at least for the sections that I’ve ridden.

The I&M Canal runs through multiple towns along its course. The section I rode began in LaSalle, went through Utica, and I stopped just three miles shy of Ottawa. Each of these locations offers opportunities to stop and eat, have a drink, all within a short distance from the path. As a result, you are also riding, albeit briefly, through settled areas.

The Hennepin Canal is decidedly more remote. Though the towpath crosses roads, for the 11 mile stretch that I rode it was mostly just me, the trail, and the canal. People fishing were encountered along the trail, typically within walking distance of the road crossings, but otherwise I was mostly alone.

The Canal itself is still almost entirely open water. This means that riding along it provides a view that includes water throughout, including the requisite wildlife; And the wildlife abound. Fish surface and jump in the canal, frogs wait alongside the trail, and I saw more herons in this single two and a half hour ride than I’ve ever seen on a single day before. I also frequently caught sight of a small dark yellow bird I did not recognize - not bright enough to be a goldfinch, but of similar size. My best guess, based on my Peterson Field Guide, would be a Common Yellowthroat. If so, common or not, it was new to me.

The Canal is almost entirely open water. There were multiple sections with land bridges intersecting the canal. The canal still flows past them, through culverts, but they appear frequently along the way.

Land bridge

If you look at the satellite view from Apple or Google maps you get a sense of how these re-occur along this section of the canal.

Satellite pic of land bridges

In some cases roads run across them, but in others they are simply grass covered. One assumes these were filled in to allow easy passage perhaps to farmers and others attempting to cross from one side of the canal to the other. This has little impact on biking other than to provide a short variation to the scenery. However, if one were canoeing or kayaking along this section of the canal, between the land bridges and the locks one would have to expect to portage frequently. Looking at the map the feeder canal appears to be free of either land bridges or locks, so that section might be the better choice for paddler.

In fact, at one point I did have to do my own, cycling version of a portage...

Tree Down!

One might expect a canal towpath to be mostly level. However, on this section there are elevation changes, some of them abrupt, particularly as one goes under bridges.

Trail under bridge

It is also the case that, from Lock 2 to the point where the feeder canal joins near Sheffield, the canal is rising. This isn’t easy to see, but one can feel it when riding. I was definitely faster on the way back.

In most cases the trail rises up to cross roads, but in one case it has a tunnel that runs under the roadway.

Tunnel

One wants to take care entering the tunnel. It’s not long, but the trail surface inside is dirt, and considerably less dry than the surface outside. I had to pick my way along it carefully to not end up with a back full of muddy water.

The other distinction of this canal is the locks themselves. Perhaps because it is younger and was in service later than the I&M Canal (still an active waterway until the early 1950’s) the locks are present and visible along the way. Their presence gives a feel for something very different than just riding along a river, and they provide more interesting markers of distance than a simple mile sign. Each of them has been set up now with a cement wall in place of the old lock hardware, causing a waterfall at each transition.

Lock waterfall

And the locks are each marked with depth measurements, likely to guide the lock tenders as they filled the lock in.

Depth Marker

Depth Marker circled

When you reach Lock 11, you’ll find a picnic area, as well as some weathered information signs to give you some of the history of the canal:

info sign

More info sign

And still more info sign

While I rode out to Lock 13, my actual goal was to reach Lock 12. This is due to a personal connection there - as I understand it, my Great-Grandfather Percy worked as a lock tender for this particular lock. I’d heard this before, and always pictured him coming from his home to work at the lock, one of probably multiple shift workers tending to it to facilitate barge traffic. It turns out this was a much bigger job than I’d imagined - the lockmen lived on the canal, provided with houses and outbuildings to support their work there. It was a year-round job, and in the winter they would cut ice from the canal and sell it to help fund its operation.

Trike at Lock 12

Lock 12 was also the site of one of the canal’s aqueducts - essentially a huge cement water bridge that carried the canal over existing natural waterways. In the case of Lock 12, it carried the canal over Big Bureau Creek. According to Wikipedia, of the nine original aqueducts, six remain while the other three were removed with piping put in to carry the flow of the canal water under the waterway it crossed. Lock 12 is one of the three that were removed.

On the western side of the bridge you can see the water reach its end...

Canelus Interruptus

...and there is a large drain gate for the water to descend.

Down the water goes...

Looking closely at the eastern side you can see the water burbling up inside the lock.

Water burbling

Bureau Creek is far below, with some of what must the the original pilings to support the aqueduct still present.

Bureau Creek and Pilings

Bureau Creek is actually a recurring companion along the trip, often visible on the trail opposite the canal. It is visually distinct, being a winding, twisting affair as it works its own path down to the Illinois River. This periodically gives one the sensation of riding along a causeway just above the water, which is a pleasant experience.

Bureau Creek Pano

There are campgrounds along the trail. They must be well-hidden, as it appears that I passed two of them, at Lock 6 and Lock 11, and did not see them. In both cases it appears they are on the opposite side of the canal from the cycling trail. If one wanted to do a multiple day trip along the canal, it appears it would be friendly for bikepacking.

If you go, you’ll want to bring along your own supplies. I’ve already mentioned that it’s remote, and the DNR website notes that the only drinking water available on the route is located at the visitor center. I actually wished I had brought along a second bottle of water for myself on this go-round. If you look at the canal along the map, it’s rare that it travels through settled areas of any size. You are on your own for drinks and snacks.

However, if you are looking for an opportunity to ride out alone in the wilderness - something that can be challenging in our well-settled times - this trail definitely offers the opportunity. You’ll come across the occasional fishing folks, and the sighting of them generally signals that you are close to a crossroads or trail entry point. Otherwise, if my trip was any gauge, you can expect long stretches of solitude in company of nature.

I&M Canal Trail - LaSalle to Buffalo Rock State Park by Erin Wade

Last weekend offered up an unexpected opportunity. It took a while to get the requisite everything else done ahead of my Sunday ride, so it was afternoon before I got my trike out to hit the road. Unfortunately, while the rest of the trike was game, the presta valve in my right front tire saw its opportunity to escape, and shot out across the driveway as soon as I popped the cap off. This was, of course, followed by the disheartening sound of all of the air in the tube rushing away, never to return.

Given my own previous experience with my tube changing skills, I quickly looked up the Sunday hours for Bike Works in Peru. It was about 2:00, and they were open till 3:00, which gave enough time to get there with room for a tube change before closing. The folks there were, as always, gracious and quick, and my trike was soon back in working order.

I had originally planned to head back home and ride one of my country road routes, but as I walked around the shop and waited, it occurred to me that I was only a mile or two from the Illinois and Michigan Canal trail along the Illinois River. Despite the fact that it’s less than a half-hour from home, I’d never ridden it. So, in the spirit of lemonade from lemons, I figured I ought to take the opportunity.

I entered the trail off of Joliet Street in downtown LaSalle. The trailhead is a little bit further to the west, in Peru, but I found this entrance first, and I didn’t want to waste daylight looking for the other entrance, so I went with it. This site also retains one of the original locks from the canal itself.

Lock High Side

Lock Low Side

You can get a feel for the change in elevation that the lock system facilitated by looking at the difference in levels on either side of the lock. Unfortunately, the lock doors do tend to gather gunk, but that doesn’t take away from the historical presence of the location. And, one assumes that, when the locks were in operation, that gunk would routinely be washed away.

The site is marked with information signs as well to let you know a thing or two about what you are looking at.

North Meets South

Rough and Ready

The trail itself runs along the canal, mostly on the original towpath (in fact, part of the trail turns out to be a side street called Towpath Road). This spot in LaSalle appears to be a popular one, with plenty of people walking the path and fishing at the side of the canal. One quickly finds that, in the LaSalle area section at least, the path is in need of some attention from a maintenance crew. Potholes abound, and avoiding them required focus on the trail ahead. This is (fortunately) not the case throughout. This first part of the trail was failing asphalt, but the surfaces varied throughout, including crushed stone, dirt, and grass.


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Since it’s on the towpath, you are generally in view of the canal. However, this doesn’t always mean what you might think it means. The canal has been out of service for about 85 years. This means that, while sometimes it’s open water...

Open Water

...other sections are essentially completely filled in.

Grass where water used to be... .jpg

There are portions of the trail where, if one did not know there had been a canal along the way, one would not guess that it had been there. This is spoken to by handy mile markers along the way that tell you which mile of the trail you’ve hit, how far you are from the next major point in the trail, and facts about the trail itself.

Mile Marker

The trail travels through the town of Utica, a charming little town that offers up a potential resting point along the way.

Utica downtown from the trail

Info Marker at Utica

The town itself has a tavern or two, a winery, and styles itself as the gateway to Starved Rock State Park, which is on the other side of the river from the canal. And being in the region of the park means that there are scenic bluffs on view during the ride. Sometimes these are glimpsed through the vegetation...

Bluff thru the cattails

...and other times they are right there in front of you.

Split Rock

While there are sections of the trail that run adjacent to, or directly through towns, other sections feel much more remote and rustic. As I moved into the remote and rustic portions foot traffic - and bike traffic for that matter - dropped off considerably. It was possible through some of these sections, overgrown and covered with trees, to feel completely alone.

Alone Time

And speaking of rustic, I came across this set of signs on the section of the trail about halfway between Utica and Buffalo Rock State Park:

Caution Signs

As one proceeds (cautiously) past the signs, this is what one finds:

Foot Bridge

Fortunately the trike only comes in around 35 pounds (33 without accessories) so it was easy enough to carry across the footbridge. That bridge is just laid in place, and some thoughtful soul has tied it off to a tree so it doesn’t wash away. While this was fun to come across, presents in stark contrast to other sections of the trail, where the bridge construction is at a somewhat higher level.

Bridge across the canal in Utica

As it says in the title, I followed the trail to Buffalo Rock State Park. As you start to enter park area you begin to come across picnic spots that range from basic...

Trailside picnic spot

...to advanced.

Picnic shelter

At Buffalo Rock itself there is a parking area for entering the trail. This sits just outside the entrance to the park itself, so if one wanted to ride into the park that option is available.

Arrived at Buffalo Rock

The park is about three miles from Ottawa, so one has the option of riding further and heading in to Tangled Roots for a draft and to fill a growler, or maybe swinging by BASH for a bit of sushi. For my part, I rode just a bit past the park entrance to round out the ride to 10 miles (I like round numbers where I can get them) and then turned around.

The rough condition of the trail around LaSalle aside, most of it is in good shape. Being along a canal there are very few sudden changes in elevation, so it’s the distance rather than any hill climbing that one has to take as the challenge. I could absolutely see taking the opportunity to bring along a picnic lunch, or maybe stopping along the way in Utica for a drink and a snack. The quiet moments along the trail give a feel for what it must have been like, 85 years ago and more, working the mules to pull the barges along the canal. I don’t know why I waited so long to go out and ride this trail, and I’m certainly glad that I took this opportunity.

The Omnibus Podcast - a Review by Erin Wade

Omnibus Podcast - Defenestration

The Omnibus is a new podcast by John Roderick and Ken Jennings. For those unfamiliar with these two gentlemen, this description, by Kim Holcomb on Twitter, sums them up to a "T":

FullSizeRender.jpg

Ken Jennings is likely the better known of the duo due to his record setting winning streak on Jeopardy! During that streak in 2004 he was all over the media, he has participated in multiple other game shows, and he is also an author.

John Roderick) is the lead singer and songwriter of The Long Winters, as well as a veteran podcaster, co-hosting Roderick on the Line and Road Work with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin, respectively. Roderick is also a former candidate for the Seattle City Council, a process which he detailed in painfully honest detail on ROTL, and which I talked about here.

The Omnibus is a new take on historical events and popular culture. The show is couched in the conceit that Ken and John are recording an encyclopedia of obscure and ephemeral information about our history and times in the hopes that it will be preserved for future generations - or beings, for there is no assumption they will be human - after what is almost certainly the impending apocalypse that will end our era. As such, almost any errata is fair game, ranging from describing how starlings were introduced to the americas to the "Rachel".

Yes, the "Rachel", Jennifer Aniston’s haircut from the TV show Friends. How is this a thing that needs to be preserved for future? This is part of the the magic of Omnibus - by the end you will understand why.

The range and variation in topics should be a clear sign to listeners that this is not a show that takes itself too seriously. Far from being a dry lecture about a given subject, the Omnibus ultimately plays as all the best podcasts do - it’s about two people, who clearly enjoy each other’s company, talking about something that interests them both. While each episode is nominally about the thing in the title, they all wander far afield, covering topics and ideas that are, to a greater and lesser degree, related to the original subject. The hosts know it when it happens, and you will hear them periodically note that they are, perhaps, veering some distance away from the topic (not that this realization has any impact on the course of the discussion). It’s a little like reading the cover page on Wikipedia, and then following the rabbit hole of links in each article, but doing so while taking with a good friend. If that notion appeals to you - and you know who you are - this show is absolutely for you.

I’m several episodes in at this point, but probably my favorite thus far has been the December 7, 2017 entry on Defenstration.

Full confession here - I’m quite certain I had heard this word before, but if I thought I knew what it meant, I was kidding myself.

Defenestration, my friends, is the act of throwing someone out of a window.

Is it possible to talk about such a thing for nearly 40 minutes? It is indeed, and magnificently so! How did such a thing reach the level at which it requires its own name? When it involves an entire city council, well...

There are many good podcasts out there, and between podcasts and audiobooks I have little free space in my listening time, so I guard it carefully. That said, Omnibus has quickly gained a spot in my regular listening cue. If you like history, but don’t want it take too seriously, Omnibus deserves a listen.

You can find the podcast here, and subscribe to it on iTunes here.

Enjoy!