Have you ever felt the need for an epic adventure to spice up your life?
That’s how I felt last November when I met Nancy S. for a dainty lunch at the tea shop in Frankfort. We decided to bicycle across Illinois even though bicycling was relatively new to us. (First, I had to buy a bike.) The Grand Illinois Trail sounded like a perfect route for beginners, and I figured the two-hundred mile trip could be broken up into forty-mile segments to be doable. Right? Not quite.
I optimistcally planned to train over the winter by doing long bike rides while in Florida, but managed only one 20-mile ride and several shorter rides around our neighborhood. Did I mention that Florida is flat?
After Bob and I returned to Illinois, two new friends, Dot K. and Nancy T., joined my quest for adventure. Nancy and I began to study the trip plan. I got nervous quick when I discovered the route follows busy streets in several places; the Illinois River valley is made of huge hills; motels are few and far between; and my training was woefully inadequate. But I had already told everyone that I was going to bike across the state. It was too late to back out.
Day One. May, 2016. 37 miles from Lansing to New Lenox.
All of us are sixty-ish, but have the “just do it” attitude. Still, we started out easy. The first leg of the journey was a training ride to test ourselves and to see if we had the right bikes, the right gear, etc. Nancy T’s husband dropped the four of us off in Lansing. The Pennsey Greenway trail was to have taken us into Indiana, but it was closed for repair. Instead,we rode east on a service road behind the Lansing Country Club golf course until GPS said we were at the border.
The club’s exit gate chained and locked was our next snafu. Backtracking, we exited at 186th Street and rode quiet, residential streets to find the trailhead to Thorn Creek with no problem. The paved trail was in good condition, but within thirty minutes it began to rain. We took shelter from lightening in a picnic pavilion. I was pleased none of my fellow riders even thought of calling off the ride.
I had worried about riding through less desirable areas, but new trails by-passed possible trouble spots and avoided streets. I admit we pedaled extra fast in one iffy area, but felt safe overall.
The Grand Illinois Trail – Section two is now completely off-road. The asphalt on the trail through Chicago Heights looked less than a week old. A continuous path now connects several forest preserves in the Thorn Creek system before linking to the Old Plank Trail. Thank you to the trail advocates who made the GIT project happen.
The beauty of bike riding is that you see a town from a new perspective. For example, we passed grand old homes in Chicago Heights; and at the border between Matteson and Park Forest, we found a park and a viewing area overlooking a railroad cloverleaf. Very interesting, but hidden from most roads.
Frankfort seems to be the heart of the Old Plank Trail, so we stopped in the lovely, old-fashioned downtown for lunch at Smokey Barque (great atmosphere in the bar) and poked around in several shops. A bike store is right on the trail and well stocked.
We made it to New Lenox with energy to spare. Day One was a great test to see if the four of us women could stand each other and were capable of long distances. Thirty seven miles turned out to be doable, and we agreed our trip segments should not excede forty miles. We were good to go and all pumped for the rest of our epic adventure.
Stayed tuned for a trip report for Day 2.