Monday, July 24, 2006

Chicago tales II

I have more to add about the recent Chicago trip.

On Saturday, July 15, after visiting the Chicago Botanic Gardens, I was beginning to feel a bit worn out from the heat. I left the crowds at the Gardens behind and sought out the North Branch Bicycle Trail, which was listed as an icon on my map, but didn't show its route. I thought it may run east of the gardens, so I left and headed on the nearest road east. Alas, after about a half hour of searching, I could not find the trail. I was really hot and flustered when I saw Turnbull Forest Preserve, an oak grove with a picnic shelter and life-saving water fountain.

I parked my bike at the shelter and cooled off at the fountain. I hung out at the shelter for over an hour, looked at the maps for any further clue to the location of this bike trail, and listened to the Cubs game on my radio headphones. Around 6, an hour before the Ravinia concert, I pushed my bike on an overgrown trail through thick woods behind the shelter. I navigated around log blowdowns and slapped at mosquitoes. And then I discovered a profusion of orange and yellow snapdragon flowers in a small clearing. I took pictures and paused... as long as the bloodsuckers would allow. I thought, here I am, again, away from it all. Even in the heart of suburbia beauty is found at a remove. Compared to all the cultivated, planned gorgeousness of the gardens, the snapdragons seem more beautiful because they caught me by surprise, and they're wild.

The trail snaked around a hillside. I worried. Should I turn around and go back? If I continue, where will I end up? I could be late for the concert. Five minutes later I came to a small clearing, overgrown, non-descript, opening to a busy two-lane road. I saw another road and a person walking with a lawn chair. I followed that person and not only found the bike trail, but rode it to the gate at Ravinia Park.

The concert ended at 9. The next train back didn't leave until 11. Downtown is 20 miles away. I took the North Branch Trail and figured if I got lost I would just go left, to Lake Michigan, and follow it as closely as possible all the way back to my brother's place in Lincoln Park. I followed this older fellow who had a flashing red light and caught up with him at an intersection. I asked him if, indeed, this trail goes all the way back to Chicago. He said it does, but it would be really easy to get lost in Kenilworth, his final destination, so he offered to show me the way once we were there. But he was slow, and insisted on stopping and getting off his bike to cross on foot at each intersection, which follows the letter of the law of bicycle safety. I lost patience and wished the guy well as I continued ahead. Sure enough, at Kenilworth I lost my way. But I followed my plan and continued south on side streets. I went down a boulevard lined with mansions. Wilmette, Ken later told me, is one of the richest communities in the United States.

I came around a corner and saw a steel bridge, the white masts of what seemed like hundreds of ships in a harbor, and the foreign-looking, domed Bahai Temple. I followed a ramp next to the bridge, below, beside the Wilmette Canal, to check my maps under the lights. As soon as I found the location I heard a low moan, then a yell. Then I noticed the garbage bag and dirty knapsack at the end of the lot. A trail went off beyond these belongings, but tonight was not the night to explore it.

My ride took me past Northwestern University, where I watched a scrum football game in the commons past the main gate, and Loyola University's Lake Shore campus. I was surprised to see so many run-down buildings and general squalor just south of Evanston because everything I'd seen since Ravinia were upscale communities. You would think the closer you get to the city, the pricier the homes. But there's this stretch, far enough away from downtown, but not far enough away to be a suburb, this bubble of poverty. I also checked out the many public beaches and at one of them watched fireworks off Navy Pier.

At the Ravinia Concert I lamented being alone. This would be a lovely place to go for a date. But I realized, once I got back to my brother's place, that the adventure afterwards would have been less enjoyable with company. I don't get the least bit put off about getting lost because I know, at least in urban areas, that I will find my way eventually. Even if a companion also has no problems with getting lost, I still worry about their welfare. Getting lost alone is much more fun.

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