Wednesday, July 27, 2011


We've now made it to Chicago, and more importantly to the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's play Chinglish, for which Louise's son Brian is an understudy, and to a mini-family reunion with Brian, his wife Ardith, our grandson Cedro, and Jeff's daughter Becky who arranged a pre-planned trip to Chicago to coordinate with our arrival.

To get here we followed the Illinois River 50 miles east, upstream, from Starved Rock State Park, then north 40 miles up the Fox River, much of that on the Fox River Trail seen here, then east again on rail trails to the suburb of Hinsdale and our motel home for a six-day visit.  On one of the side trails in the Fox River valley we encountered our first ever bicycle suspension bridge deep in the woods outside Aurora IL.

Getting back to the Illinois, the I&M (Illinois and Michigan) Canal was completed in 1848, more than two decades after the Erie Canal in New York State inaugurated a flurry of canal-building across the Midwest.  Just as the Erie Canal was built along the banks of the Mohawk and the C&O Canal alongside the Potomac, the I&M follows the Illinois, sometimes a block's distance away, sometimes a half-mile, before heading northeasterly to connect up with the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.  Most of the canal bed is now dry, but a few sections are still filled with water, though without canal boat traffic the algae has sort of taken over.  In this picture the canal is passing on an aquaduct over a stream, and the falling water you see is a sort of overflow valve, controlled by a dam gate at the end of the footbridge.

Of course at first no one could foresee the rise of railroads and what they would do to canal profitability, although it didn't take a lot of imagination by 1848 to see that they would eventually criss-cross even Illinois, which was still considered to be rather at the edge of civilization at that time.  The canal did succeed for a time in bringing a lot of midwestern trade to Chicago, and when railroads saw what a large and central location Chicago had become thanks to the canal, they headed there too.  Which of course eventually killed off the canal.  It lives on today as a well-maintained trail with occasional traces of its archaeological past, such as the locks pictured below, or the Seneca Grain Elevator that once loaded its products onto canal boats.

We chose to stay in the 'burbs for several reasons, chief among them the desire to avoid biking in Chicago traffic.  A series of bike trails got us within 20 miles of downtown, but shortly after we turned off from the last trail, it ends.  Needless to say, it's less than ideal biking from that point on down narrow and/or congested Chicago streets.  We found a wonderful motel that's part of a mini-chain, Clubhouse Inn & Suites.  For a very affordable price we got a comfortable room, an outstanding breakfast each morning, and a courtesy van to take us to or from the Metra commuter train station. 

We did six round-trips to Chicago and only had to walk the mile and a quarter between the motel and the train station three times, once on the weekend and twice when we came back after 8 pm when the van stops running.  The train line is perhaps BNSF's busiest line west from Chicago, and we saw Amtrak's Southwest Chief and California Zephyr whiz by on the middle trak, probably at their maximum speed of 79 mph, and a few 100+ long freight trains doing maybe 50.  The Metra commuter train is a so-called push-pull operation, with the locomotive always on the west end of the train so it stays outside the platform area when it arrives at Union Station -- that's an outbound train in the photo above.  One morning we sat in the first car and had an interesting and rare look straight forward through the blue-green safety glass on our 40-minute ride in.  As you can see, it's a busy line, and all those tracks get used, heavily!

We timed our visit to arrive midway through the run of Chinglish.  Brian was involved in a "workshop" production of the play in New York City, i.e. a performance of the work when it was still a work in progress, done with minimal staging and no costuming.  When the prestigious Goodman Theatre decided to mount the world premiere, Brian auditioned and won the challenging task of being understudy for three of the four male actors, one who plays an Australian who has lived in China 19 years and speaks fluent Mandarin, the others various Chinese characters.  About 40% of the script, and about 75% of the lines Brian had to master, are spoken in Mandarin and projected above the heads of the actors.  Brian still had pages of the lines he had to memorize taped to the kitchen cabinets in the apartment the theater provided (click on the photo to enlarge it, if you know how to read Mandarin).

The play is about the owner of a Cleveland sign company who shows up in a city in SW China to try and get a contract for signs in a new cultural center about to be built.  Much of the humor of the play involves "Chinglish," i.e. mangled translations.  For example, the businessman introduces himself as the head of a "small family-run business," which gets translated into Chinese for the Minister of Trade.  As he sits listening to the interpreter, we see in the supratitles what she actually translates that to: "His company is small and insignificant."

But the play is not just about funny translations, it's also about the virtual impossibility of translating centuries of meanings buried inside our language, or of truly understanding another culture.  Even when the words were correctly translated, meanings were lost.  The play also had a carefully constructed plot with breathtaking twists and turns that were not only unanticipated and therefore fun, but also often remarkably insightful as Hwang played with the cultural assumptions of both his Chinese, American and Aussie characters.

The day after the play opened and received rave reviews from both Chicago and national drama critics, the producers announced that the play will move to Broadway this fall.  It's still too early to know whether or in what capactity Brian might continue to work on the play, but we're keeping our fingers crossed.

Jeff's daughter Becky arrived a day after us, and met Ardy and Cedro in front of the Goodman and got a backstage tour of the theater from Brian, including a look behind (and above!) the set and a preview of part of the set from the audience side.  We also got a bit of walking in despite temperatures around 90 each day and what felt like near-saturation humidity.

Becky also introduced us to a tradition she has kept up through all her visits to Chicago, a drink at the top of the John Hancock building, 76 floors up and 2 flights above the main observation floor.  Once the tallest building in Chicago, it's long been #2 to the Sears Tower (now renamed the Willis Tower), and it looks like another building to the south might have edged the Hancock into the #3 spot.  But the view is just as good as ever.

Needless to say, we also spent a lot of time enjoying 11-month-old Cedro.  And there were a few memorable meals along the way, including a great stir fry whipped up by Brian and a trip to Chinatown (what else, when in town to see Chinglish?) and what may have been our best dim sum ever.  Alas, it was so good that the food kept getting grabbed before we could get a decent photo of the cornucopia of delicacies.

On our last day in Chicago, and after Becky was already back in Austin TX, we were joined by the other understudies for -- what else -- a Chinese dinner at a small place near the theater.  It was so good that Cedro started us doing a wave, although we're sorry to say that Norm was a little slow on the concept.

With our interest in art, we of course spent a whole day at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world's great art museums with great and famous painting after great and famous painting.

Besides Grant Wood's American Gothic from 1930 and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks done 12 years later, you might also recognize Vincent Van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles done in 1889 shortly before his death -- actually the second of three versions of this scene that he painted -- and Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, completed in 1884.  The detail shot shows his "pointilist" style of using tiny dots of color, revolutionary in his day.

Another painting you may recognize but perhaps not by the name of the painting or the painter is Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 masterpiece Paris Street: Rainy Day.  And then there's an 1875 Renoir, Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise, that looks familiar, but only pehaps because it is so evocative of the Luncheon of the Boating Party done 5 years later and now hanging as the star attraction at the Phillips Gallery in Washington DC.

Another painting that astonished us as we looked at it from a distance and then up close was Camille Pissarro's Haying Time, which he painted in 1892.  When you look closely at the stalks of hay, you have to wonder how he had the genius to see all that color in that field!

We'll close our art tour with a few of Claude Monet's paintings.  Many museums are giddy with pride to have one or two, but the Art Institute has a roomful of them.  And when you have a roomful, as only a few museums this side of France enjoy, you get the chance to see something that you don't see when there's only one or two.  Monet was a revolutionary who saw that a scene was never the same, no matter how many times you saw it, for the light was always different.  Here are two paintings done three years apart, in 1900 and 1903, of the same scene, Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather and Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect.

Similarly, Monet painted dozens and dozens of haystacks, playing with this same discovery about the mutability of light.  Here are three all done in 1890-91, entitled respectively Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), Stack of Wheat (Thaw, Sunset), and then, simply, Stack of Wheat.

Well, that snow looks good.  We're now off to the northwest of Chicago in weather that will be in the high 80s and maybe even low 90s for the foreseeable future as we head to another rendezvous with the Mississippi around Winona MN.  We'll write to you next from Wisconsin, which we'll first hit in 5 days of riding.

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.