Saturday, July 16, 2011

Starved Rock, Well-Fed Cyclists

We're writing this from Starved Rock State Park after pushing 240 miles across Illinois in five days. We'll return to the nutrition-deprived Rock later, but first want to say a bit about how we got here.

The first of the five days was almost entirely eastward, with a light headwind but high humidity and temperatures in the high 80's. We had a great route in one sense, as all but 5 of the 50 miles were on paved back roads with almost no traffic. Literally saw only 20 cars going in either direction! But be careful what you wish for, as they say. The day is a blur of corn fields and soy fields, soy fields and corn fields. Going through no towns, we went past no town parks with rest rooms and water fountains, no cozy town cafes. Luckily we had chilled some cans of V-8 to supplement our two water bottles each, and made it with an improvised stop along the roadway to gulp down our juice, bananas and grapes. In short, we did the whole 50 miles before we had a real lunch.

The next day started in McDonough County, where we utilized the Chamber of Commerce's Historic Barn Tours brochure we had mailed to us last Spring. We routed ourselves past a half-dozen of the 3 dozen featured in the brochure, and are happy to share with you three that were our favorites: the Flack Barn (1900), the Redman Barn (1895) and the King Barn (1898). All three were in the cross-gable style that is apparently common here. Don't recall ever seeing it elsewhere.

Not in the brochure but also interesting was this round barn along another of our back roads.

The highlight of day 3 was the destination, Aunt Daisy's Bed & Breakfast in Kewanee IL. We received as warm a welcome as any one of our own aunts could have given us, starting with the invite to put our heat-and-humidity-drenched bike clothes in a bag outside our room while we showered so innkeeper Michelle could pop them in the washer/dryer! We walked past the dining room with its impressive woodwork and up the carved staircase to a spacious bedroom where we later enjoyed one of the best night's sleep this trip.

We had mentioned to Michelle our challenging search for fresh veggies in this agricultural heartland, and when we showed up for breakfast we had a gourmet riot of them: a fresh zucchini, spinach and cheese omelet; grilled tomato with goat cheese; grilled fresh apple slices dusted with cinnamon sugar; crisp bacon; and a garnish of fresh dill and parsley. WOW!

Day 4 was hard, with a strong headwind for the first 40 miles. However, the Rock Island Rail Trail started at mile 14 for the day, and like many rail trails it was heavily wooded on both sides. With our leafy wind protection, life was worth living again.

Day 5 started with a nervous review of every ten minutes as we watched a storm pass north of us. It was a Big Deal in Chicago, where it left 800,000 people without power for a few days, but it just missed the small town where we were. The road didn't even get wet there.  At 9:30 all danger appeared to be gone for at least 2-3 hours, so we made a dash for it.  Lucky for us, the weather front was pulling the wind in the exact direction we were headed, and with our 10-15 mph tailwind we covered the 50 miles in less than 3 1/2 hours, 45 minutes of which were water, snack and potty stops.  Hooray, 4 consecutive nights in the same place, Starved Rock State Park!
Starved Rock, the rock, is a sandstone monolith that sits 125' above the Illinois River.  Its name reflects a legend that Ottawa Indians trapped a band of Illiniwock there in the 1760s, in retaliation for the murder of the Ottawa chief Pontiac, and starved them into submission.  Even earlier, in the late 1600s, the French built Fort St. Louis on top of the rock.  It was part of their defensive perimeter to keep the British from the Mississippi valley.  It was actually attacked once, by Iroquois allied to the British, and survived the assault.  After hiking up some 100 steps past those sandstone ledges, both the starving legend and the fact of the successful defense are easy to believe.  What's hard to believe after sitting on top for a while, however, is that this now peaceful piece of stone was ever anything but a quiet woodsy place, even after seeing this realistic diorama in the visitors center.

You can look quite a ways to the east from the top of the rock, up the Illinois River.  We'll be following the Illinois in that direction for a full day when we leave.  To be more precise, we'll be following the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which follows the Illinois.  It's somewhere over there on the north bank, and we'll tell you more about it after we've ridden it.  

Starved Rock has given its name to a park that is much, much more.  It's actually the oldest Illinois state park, celebrating its 100th birthday this year.  It now runs about 6 miles east-west along the Illinois River, and averages about a mile in width.  In that area it has fabulous gorge after fabulous gorge.  We haven't seen rock formations this interesting anywhere east of the Rockies except at Watkins Glen State Park in NY.  We'll let the photos of some of the best of them tell the story.  Particularly interesting was LaSalle Canyon, the second photo below, where the trail goes up one side of the stream, passes behind the waterfall and then down the other side.

There's so much vertical sightseeing to be done, you could hurt your neck, such as the very impressive Council Overhang, which could shelter the population of a small town underneath.  In one of the narrower canyons we looked up to see the roots of tall trees 90-100 above us!

Of course, all that nature meant a bit of hiking.  Lucky for us, a cool front came in and for our second and third days there we had low humidity and highs in the 70s, something we haven't experienced since leaving Seattle a month ago.  Plus  there were well-maintained trails with surprises around every corner.  Of course with bluffs you are likely to have a few stairs to climb . . .  On our sixth or seventh climb like this we actually counted stairsteps, and got up to 155. Seems our "rest" days keep going this way.

Still, it was a relaxing time, aided by a good restaurant in the state park lodge and lots of relaxing space in the Great Room.  It actually filled up one evening when a rain shower brought the karaoke contest in from the veranda.
Around the lodge were a number of wood carvings reflecting some of the wildlife to be seen at Starved Rock.  We did see dozens of pelicans on the Illinois River, plus raccoons and ground hogs.

However, it was in our cozy cabin in the woods that we had our most interesting wildlife adventure.  In our cabin with its air conditioner turned off and its windows open for the first time of the trip. 

We had seen quite a few raccoons and been warned that they were prolific, so when Jeff got awakened at 3 a.m. by what sounded like scratching on the window screens, the first thing he thought of was that raccoons were trying to break in to raid our stash of energy bars and mixed nuts.  He stumbled around to find his cell phone and turn on its flashlight, but heard no more and saw nothing inside or outside the window.  Of course by this time Louise was also bright eyed, though not so very bushy-tailed. 

We had both finally started to resume something like sleep when at 4 a.m. we both heard it again.  Stumbled around again, saw nothing with the flashlight so decided to close up the windows to keep the coons from trying a third assault.

All was quiet until 5 a.m., when we heard the sound again, just as loud.  OK, throw out the hypothesis about coons and window screens.  It's not outdoors, it's in here!  What else could that be?  And then, just then, we remembered a sign on the back of the door that both of us had paid scant attention to.  Until 5:01 a.m..
Well, thanks to a strong zipper on the rack trunk where all the edibles got stashed at 5:02 a.m., we and they survived the night.  We're happy to report that we and our little stash of food are now en route to Chicago.  Three more days of riding and we get to see grandson Cedro, Louise's son Brian and his wife Ardy, and Jeff's daughter Becky who arranged to visit Chicago while we're there.  We'll tell you about our mini family reunion in our next blog.

No comments: