Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Trails of Madison County

Our first biking destination this trip was the (Bike) Trails of Madison County, Illinois. But first we had to say goodbye to St. Louis. Besides the Arch and the Art Museum, there was one other site Jeff knew of from a conference of university attorneys he once attended there -- Union Station. You can see the red-roofed station on the right side of this photo taken from the hotel we stayed at.

Marriott renovated the grand old train station and added conference rooms and hotel rooms under the old train shed roof. The majestic waiting room now serves as the hotel lobby which one enters from the street past this allegorical window depicting St. Louis connecting New York and San Francisco.

We picked up a bike trail north of downtown that brought us up to the first of several crossings we will do of the Mississippi. After navigating some industrial areas on the Illinois side we found ourselves on the first of several trails we rode in Madison County. There are so many intersecting trails that you can do 7 different loop rides varying from ten to thirty miles in length. Those trails were all paved and in excellent condition, as you can see.  We didn't ride all the trails, but in 3 days did cover about 50 miles.  Try doing that on the Bridges of Madison County, Iowa!

Our first interesting site, not too far off the bike trail, was Cahokia Mounds. This is the largest prehistoric architectural site in the U.S., with the largest mound comparable in surface area (though not at all in height) to the great pyramid at Giza. We spent a few hours in the visitor center and then hiked up the largest mound, which is the height of a 17-story building. Keep in mind, all the dirt to construct it was dug with simple tools and carried there in wicker baskets. As you can see from 170' up, the Arch was still quite visible 15 miles away. From the top you can also clearly see a number of smaller mounds, including one nearby that's perhaps 30' tall.

Since the group that built the mounds and lived in a very large community here mysteriously disappeared about 1300 AD, all we know about them is reconstructed from archaeological digs. In the 1960's, for example, scientists found evidence of what is now called "Woodhenge," a circle of cedar posts positioned to line up with the equinoxes and solstices. The visitor center had a number of murals and a model village to bring what otherwise was a curious but otherwise fairly uninteresting mound of earth to life.

We next returned to the Mississippi and rode along one of its many sloughs, or side channels, on this dike trail. Occasionally, however, the trail descended and we had to walk the bike through gates where a road cut through the dike. You can see some minor flooding on that road we descended to cross, to the right of where the bike is, but it wasn't enough to force the installation of a temporary wall at the dike opening, at least not yet.  However, the river was expected to rise for the next 5 days, so that gate might well have been closed and a few feet of the bike trail been under water if our trip had started just a few days later.

Our third night out was in Alton, IL, where Elijah Lovejoy's demise arguably became the first death of the Civil War, in 1837. He printed an Abolitionist newspaper here, and three times pro-slavery mobs threw his printing presses into the Mississippi. He tried defending the fourth press, and was murdered for his effort. This column and statue was erected 60 years later to honor him. Nearby was a very different monument, a life-sized statue of the tallest person ever to walk the earth -- though due to his size, walking was actually painful to him. Louise's 2 shoes were about equal to Robert Wadlow's one (for the record, they were size 36 and manufactured for him for free, provided he let the world know which shoe company it was that made them).  At 8' 11.1" he truly makes 6' 4" Jeff look tiny! Sadly, a minor wound became septic and he died at only 22 years of age. Given modern medicine's ability to control pituitary malfunctions like his, it seems likely that his record will not soon be matched.

We'll be following the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers for most of the next 2 weeks, so we'll have a bit to say about them in our next blog entry.

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