Our First Overnighter: To Marseilles and Back
We set out early one Saturday in June, despite the dismal weather report that promised afternoon thunderstorms. The train brought us to our first trail, the Old Plank Road Trail, in short order. We were underway.
The Old Plank Road Trail is nicely paved and dead flat, so we covered the 20 miles to Joliet quickly, stopping only to fill up on coffee and breakfast in Frankfort. Crossing through Joliet was the only scheduled road riding on the trip. We navigated across the city following the route I’d plotted out days before and uploaded into my Garmin GPS unit.
Somewhere in Joliet the trip transformed from a little day ride into an adventure, and I’m not entirely sure what made the change. Maybe it was navigating through a town we’d never been to before, or maybe it was the giant hill that reminded us we were no longer in Chicago. Or maybe it was the big puffy clouds that looked like they were deciding between being picturesque and threatening.
Joliet must be mostly on a hill, because when we popped out the on other side of the town we were treated to a long downhill, which ended at the head of our next trail: the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail. The 96-mile crushed limestone path is built on the mule track running alongside the canal that once connected the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, and contributed to Chicago’s becoming a regional trade center. Remnants of the canal passage, locks, and lockmasters' houses mark the passage along the trail and remind you that you’re riding where mules once toiled, pulling their barges. The towns along the path come in regular intervals of 10 miles or so, which corresponds to the distance a barge would travel in a day. (It’s possible to travel to the end of the I&M Canal Trail and pick up the Hennepin Canal Trail, which stretches all the way to the Iowa border. That trip is on our list for sure.)
Typical stretch of the I&M Trail.
That morning the canal was filled with white lilies, and the trail was almost completely void of other users, making the miles easy to cover. We pointed out herons, listened to the ziiiip of rocks in our fenders, and chatted away, easily able to ride two-up most of the time. We made Channahon and stopped for beers and lunch at a little roadhouse that served Mexican food.
As we pushed on, the canal trail extended out onto a spit of land with the canal on one side and the massive Kankakee River on the other. We followed this for miles, slowly winding down through the river valley, when suddenly we came around a bend to find the trail pointed south into a sky the color of blueberries -- which makes the situation sound much better than it actually was. There’s a reason people describe impending storms as "bruises."
Blueberry or bruise?
A quick check of the weather map showed a pretty epic storm bearing down on us, two bikers left perched on this narrow spit of land between two waterways. We picked up the pace considerably.
As luck would have it, we felt the first few splats of cold rain just as the canal trail dipped below an underpass. By the time we’d stepped off the bikes, the rain was falling in torrents, but we were sheltered. Two other bikers joined us shortly, and we chatted with them for the next half hour as the storm raged. When it had passed, we opted to stay on the trail. The limestone does a good job of draining, and the surface was almost more comfortable to ride on wet than when it was dry.
Lucky overpass #1.
As we neared the 50-mile mark and the town of Morris, the sky blackened again. As before, there was one huge storm in the area and it was heading directly for us. Also as before, we made it to an overpass just as the bottom fell out of the sky. When the torrent cleared we took a photo to commemorate our first 50 miles ridden in a long while, and then headed for the Tully Monster, a nearby pub named after the Illinois state fossil. We figured if you find a bar named after a fossil, you ought to see what it’s about.
You can see the I&M Trail about 50 yards behind the bar.
The Tully Monster was everything one could expect from a small town bar named after a fossil, and it had a really nice beer list as a bonus. While waiting for our beer, we chatted with a couple of the other kind of bikers (the Harley kind) who were drying off after getting caught in the storm. When we told them of our destination, they asked if we knew about the “ride” that was happening in Marseilles. Apparently the town was ground zero for a bunch of bikers -- the other kind -- that evening. Interesting …
A portion of the trail was out west of Morris, so we traveled on roads for a few miles. The afternoon wore on, and we began to look forward to pitching a tent. In Seneca, we passed up the town fair, which actually looked pretty inviting. The trail became almost singletrack, but it was still pleasant to ride on.
The trail gets skinny.
With 60 miles covered and 8 to go to our campsite in Marseilles, the sky again turned black. I figured we were going to get soaked this last time for sure, but it held off until we reached the town -- which, as promised, was overrun with motorcycles and riders. We watched the rain, motorcycle people, and bikes from under a gas station cover until the final storm cleared.
By the time we’d had a few beers and listened to some classic rock, there was a beautiful clearing-storm sunset. I think the bikers all thought maybe we were confused about what kind of rally this was, but they were friendly. By the time we retired to the campground, we felt like we’d traveled long to a faraway place. In fact, we were less than 90 minutes from our home via car -- and that, we discovered, is the power of the overnight trip.
Wait, this is a cycling rally, right?
The next morning we got up and reversed our route, opting for some sleepy Sunday morning roads for a portion of the trip. While getting coffee in Morris down the street from the Tully Monster, an older lady offered to buy us coffee. Nice town, Morris. We stopped at the same Mexican cafe from the trip out for a lunch that would, I believe, give me (Joe) food poisoning later that evening. It wasn’t the trip’s fault, though, and it did lead to some epic hallucinatory dreams in which I became an evangelist for the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, developing a website to monitor tourist locations and ideal birding spots.
I don’t know that I would have picked the end of my first tour as the time for a vision quest. But it worked out okay, and I was mostly recovered a few days later.
Somehow we managed to pack a weeklong vacation into a weekend, and we were ready to try it again soon.
Tip for this adventure: The Tully Monster has a wonderful beer list, and the food isn't bad, either. If you're in Channahon and considering Mexican food, you might ask yourself if you're ready for a vision quest.
Favorite local bike shop: TATI cycles in Chicago.