It’s been a tradition since 2018 for a group of wild OOFD riders to wake up before dawn on the last weekend of August. We gather to travel the furthest distance in a single day out of any ride in our season. The goal is to reach Starved Rock State Park, by means of battle with the trail known as the I&M canal in all its technicalities.
We’re lucky to have the support of Blue City Cycles to open so early for our access, as we wander around the shop bleary eyed but eager to get riding before the heat picks up. The shop cat, 17yo, seems confused by the pre-dawn visitors - just as confused as we were at the feat we’d willingly signed up for. Most folks share that nerves kept them up for some of the night. All folks are ready to speed along the narrow canal path, even knowing the past few years riders have arrived only after dark sets in.
We roll, heading out of the city limits to reach the entrance to the I&M Canal trail, passing by Portage Park and its Memorial Statue. We take in the sights and sounds (and sometimes the smells) only the Canal offers southwest and onwards to Joliet. Here we have platters of Mexican food galore for lunch to refuel for the journey ahead. We still have another 60 miles to go and the day isn’t getting any longer!
One of the pleasures of this trip is only needing to stay on the Canal trail for essentially the majority of the trip, only punctuated by the occasional road crossing. We keep the pace and snackage high throughout the day. Riders enjoyed a welcome stop and pizza at Casey’s before dark, one of the finest small town establishments the Midwest has to offer. At this point it’s just the home stretch, traveling through the rough and sometimes overgrown dirt trail until the State Park. Even through some mechanicals like a blown tire and general exhaustion, everyone is in high spirits as they roll into camp, even in the dead of night. We celebrate with burgers and hotdogs and pass out in our tents like champions.
As is to be expected, Saturday morning we’re all moving a bit slow. We’re driven out of bed only by the promise of feasting and restoring sodium levels at the Lodge with a large breakfast. Talks of the different critters folks witnessed along the route, preferred hiking destinations for the day, specific areas of soreness and mental tricks employed to endure the high mileage all cover the breakfast table. Once caloric deficiencies have been satiated, we’re back on the road and split up to hike and explore. I join a group headed to Matthiessen State Park, just a jaunt down the road from our camp.
Descent into the park brings the welcome of cool air, and concaved geographic features with tree canopy offers protection from the sunlight above. I’m greeted by new and familiar plants, mushrooms on fallen logs, and the oddity that is the bright orange-hued creek at the bottom of the dells. We hike here for a few hours, jumping on steps over pools of muddy water and speculating on the tactile experience of clamoring up crumbling sandstone walls. With some hesitation, we leave back up to the surface to rejoin at the Lodge, and eventually make it back to camp for camaraderie in the face of the day to come.
Sunday starts off cool. As we get rolling out of the campground, we pass through a layer of mist coming off the roadway heading back East. Our route is the exact reverse as Friday, but starting so far West the mornings are already cooler - not impacted by the heat of our concrete city. We ride trail, balancing delicately our proximity to the tire of the person in front of us [to ride their tailwind while still maintaining enough distance to dodge upcoming obstacles]. This day always goes by too fast for my preference; moving too quickly back towards my responsibilities in Chicago. While I still can, I’m soaking in the sun before fall transitions in, gazing over handlebars to catch as many faces of wildflowers as possible, glancing towards the canal waters to catch views of turtles sunbathing and cranes looming over their next meal. It can all be a blur at the 17mph clip we were holding, but I know for days and weeks to come I’ll return to reference that memory as the epitome of summer.
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