Day 28: Out of Chicago and squatting in an abandoned campground south of Joliet

I wasn’t ready to leave Chicago. I had originally planned on staying another day when I plotted out my route but I used it in Pittsburgh when I desperately needed it. If I didn’t have a time crunch I would have stayed another day, maybe two. But I’m less than a month away from Boulder, and I’ve got some Dead shows to get to. I know it’ll be worth it. 

I said my goodbyes to Kaitie and Bethany in the morning, thankful for how awesome they were. I felt like a roommate for two nights rather than a guest, and it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes it’s great to be the guest of honor, and others keeping it low key is what’s in order. On that front they were fantastic.

Before I left the city I just had to ride down Michigan Avenue and Lakeshore loaded down, which is exactly what I did. What I didn’t expect was that I would putter around for two and a half hours before I pushed west. 

It started at Millennium Park with the worst selfie the Bean could muster, completely devoid of the skyline I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off of the previous two days:

And then it was down Michigan Avenue. I could ride down that stretch every day for a year and not get tired of it. Riding down it with 60 pounds of gear on the bike was a delight. 

Once I got to the water tower I stopped to get some coconut water and postcards, and I plotted my route out of the city. I locked up just in time to highlight the infinit amount of Uber drivers there are in the Loop. 

And then I meandered around the lakefront, getting lost both intentionally and unintentionally. I made it to a point that highlighted yet another mark Trump has left on a great city. The road has been incredibly isolating, but the benefit is that I don’t hear all the chatter going on with this surreal election cycle.

And then down Lakeshore Drive…

The trail along the lake was great riding. I hadn’t been on this portion the previous two days, and I was happy to see others on bikes in such a great town to ride in.

Obviously I couldn’t stop gawking at the skyline, second to none. 

Eventually the morning was wearing thin and it was time for me to move on. I made it to Archer Avenue, which would take me 10 miles out of the city towards Joliet. I passed Chinatown:

 

And then it was a long, flat, fast stretch of Chicago suburbs to the rural areas southwest. 


The wind coming off the lake had me flying, and I enjoyed it as much as I could, knowing that the wind wouldn’t be on my side much longer. 

The road took me to Willow Springs, where I stopped at Imperial Oak for some craft beer. Cherry on top? Some locals saw the bike and bought me a pint. It pays to travel by bike. 

And then it was back to another towpath, this time the I&M Canal. 

I’ve come to really, really love these trails. I ride along American ruins that nature is reclaiming in peace and quiet. Some are in far better condition than others, and even then the condition isn’t uniform. There are portions that have brand new pavement and others that are a mixture of potholes, sand, and mud. I think what really does it for me is using them to travel. I’m not sure how gung ho I’d be if I were a local out for a ride. But using them as bicycle freeways is very satisfying. 

But big industry (or at least the remnants of it) in the hinterland was still the order of the day, as it has been quite a bit on this tour. There were lots of oil operations coming out of Chicago, and this one had a pipeline made into a bridge for itself:

The I&M was a bit problematic. Lots of cracks in the pavement and blacktop that had curled up creating bumps that kept me swerving all over the path and my panniers rattled endlessly all the while. It was basically forshadowing for the not-so-hot job the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has done with their parks, as I would soon find out. 

A lot of bikers on the trail never said hi to me, despite me waving and saying hi to them. This always bugs me, and sometimes I think it’s my personal hang up while others I think these people suck.  A few bikers were stopping for water mid-trail and called after me, making me dislodge the earbuds. I stopped to chat with them for a bit and they were tickled by what I’m doing. I’ve had conversations like this all along and cyclists tend to feel a sense of shame when they say something along the lines of “well, I’ve only gone out for a three day tour”. I always try to tell them it’s not a competition and that if they’re having fun on a bike, they’re winning. 

The guys told me that I’d essentially be on the I&M all the way to Iowa. This was a bit of a surprise. I never really know how I’ll get to each destination. Each day I have to plan it all out. But they told me the I&M would end somewhere around Joliet, and then I’d be on the Hennepin Canal Parkway to the Quad Cities along the Mississippi. Cool!

The nature was pervasive on the towpath, but it was peppered with lots of this:

And then I was off the towpath and on to roads leading through Joliet… another run down town I was warned about, yet nothing bad happened in. 

I tend to see at least one shuttered small business a day that makes me chuckle on the inside. This was one of the best:


And kind of indicative of the area I was riding through. 

The road stretched on past a massive Exxon Mobile refinery, complete with horrible smells for a few miles: 


I started thinking that all this less-than-gorgeous landscape was going to be worth it because my destination for the night was a nature preserve. The trees told me I was getting close:

And I was:

The website made it seem like this was a hunter’s haven, which it turned out to be. The camping info was scant, but I figured if it was on the website I’d be in good shape. 

I rode around a bit, catching glimpses of marshy coolness:


Turns out there was a reason I couldn’t find out much on the camping on the website. I couldn’t find the campgrounds no matter how many circles through the preserve I rode in, and the day (not to mention my energy) was wearing thin. I flagged down several cars and asked if they knew where it was. Most didn’t know. Some said there was no camping there. Finally a driver told me that the campgrounds have been closed for years because the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been completely defunded…but he knew where it used to be. He pointed me in the right direction, and when I got there I was greeted By waist-high grass and a gate locked to the road leading into it. 

I stopped to assess the situation. I was miles from lodging, tired, and running out of daylight. The website never said the campgrounds were closed, and I was miles from any sort of lodging or for-profit campgrounds. I decided to jump the gate and pick a spot out of site, as the signage through the preserve made it very clear that the area was patrolled at night. If I were found out the truth would be on my side. 

Strangely, the grass was mowed around the well that was rusted shut:

Why pay someone to mow grass in a derelict campground that was gated shut around a nonfunctioning well pump?

This is representative of what my options were for the night:

But for peace of mind I wanted to be hidden. So it was down the road a piece:


And I found my spot, complete with empty shotgun shells on the sign. 

I found a couple trees perfect for hanging the hammock near the rusted grill, and I had myself a spot for the night with the thick overgrowth walling in the hammock. 
I wasn’t really worried about being caught at this point, but even if a night patrol pulled through, I was out of eyeshot. The green and brown hammock didn’t hurt my cause either… I chose that color way for a reason. 

It didn’t take long for the mosquitoes to realize they had fresh meat. At least five or six at a time were very excited to swarm my face as I ate a quick dinner. I instantly started to regret not carrying any bug spray. I just kept moving while I ate, but as I laid down in the hammock, they started landing and sucking the blood right out of me. Although it was hot I got deep in the sleeping bag for protection, which worked, but my head was still exposed… And they knew it. Every few seconds I would hear that faint yet insistent buzz, right before a mosquito would kamikaze right into my ear, causing me to smack myself more than I’d like to admit. I ended up curling the sides of my hammock around my head and holding them shut, making myself a hanging nylon burrito. It worked okay; instead of getting bitten every 20 seconds, it happened every few minutes. I had to hold the hammock shut all night long, and if I ever fell into to deep a sleep, the mosquitoes were quick to make sure I got out of it. 

I woke the next morning with no problems other than being groggy, which I soon forgot about as I was greeted by this:


And then I started making my way to Starved Rock State Park. 

-J

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