Bill Lang, who for decades has been a member of the Joliet Bicycle Club, is one of the Making Trails Count survey volunteers that you might have talked with if you ride the Chicago Southland’s Old Plank Road Trail. Before early September, the last time I had seen Bill was in the late ’90s, when our bikes crossed paths at a Folks on Spokes ride.
Since 2008 when a tumor on his spine ended his ability to ride an upright bicycle, Bill has been surviving cancer. He was able to ride a recumbent for a few years until more aggressive treatment impacted his sense of balance. While still mobile, he uses a walker now to steady himself.
Bill’s always been a high mileage guy - before the tumor, 5000 miles was a typical cycling season. While the pace is slower, he’s still keeping a rigorous schedule of outdoor physical activity, clocking in the miles - and tracking them with his wireless cycling computer which he mounted near the hand grips of his walker. The tiny sensor that typically would be mounted to a fork blade or seat stay instead counts the rotations of the magnet glued to the walker’s 4” wheel, calibrated appropriately.
As of early September, Bill had walked 161.6 miles since June 1, average just above 1 mph.
Bill dispatches most of those miles along the Old Plank Road Trail and the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s Hickory Creek Trail. “I told my doctors over and over, ‘Quality of life - that’s what I’m after’,” says Bill. He insists that the daily trail walks are a key component to his survival, and to his emotional well-being.
I had stopped at Bill’s house in Mokena on a wet Saturday to drop off the Making Trails Count survey kit, and planned to scoot home after getting rained out on my own survey shift. He asked me how things were going with Trails for Illinois, and I told him how much work, and how much fun, GITy Up! (our overnight bike camping ride) had turned out to be.
Bill replied, “Yes, they’re always a lot of work. I’ve led dozens of overnight bike trips for different groups, all over the Midwest. I believe that we live in one of the best areas for bike touring in the world.” He leaned against the wall a little, and over the next hour began spinning tale after tale of overnight, bike touring adventure through a state that most Illinoisans sadly wouldn’t recognize, or maybe even dare imagine. River towns, 1000’ climbs, dramatic bluffs and stately forests, memorable landscapes accessible by bike in any direction from Chicago.
Bill’s rule for his overnight bike trips was that they begin at his front door - Bill’s home has always been his trailhead. Often times, the first leg of the ride was a local trail toward an Amtrak station, in Joliet, or maybe Kankakee or Plano. Amtrak’s Illinois service allows roll-on bicycle access for a small fee, and Bill used it to jumpstart many of his tours.
Mostly they didn’t camp, choosing instead local motels and B&Bs. Bill described ferry rides across the Mississippi, climbing ornery knobs in Central Illinois at 3 mph in his granny ring, of festivals and wine tastings.
I’ve felt from the beginning of this job that Illinois has, right now, a network of multi-use trails and quiet roads equal to much of what Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin boast. Promoting the state’s trail experiences is in our mission - GITy Up! is one way we’re fulfilling it.
I stood entranced, listening to Bill and feeling more and more confident that Illinois is ready for us to help raise it up as a trail-based touring destination, and that with efforts like GITy Up! and even Making Trails Count, we’re doing the right things. If more Illinoisans can experience what Bill has, their quality of life will rise, our rural economies will improve, and interest in connecting our trail networks will grow.
Bill said he has traveled the region for years giving presentations on his bike tours to different groups. I asked him if he’d share some of his writings and photos, and he has. If you follow the “Read more” link below, I’ve posted my favorite, a trip that used train, ferry, trail, and farm roads to cross Illinois and visit three of our neighboring states. I defy you to read it and NOT begin scheming how to sell a similar trip to your spouse.
When he took this trip in 2006, cancer hadn’t struck yet, but Bill was recovering from heart surgery. I leave you with the final journal entry from that trip:
I feel like I have just woken up from a long sleep. Again, I feel good. So I am on the bike again going places, and planning for trips again. [Bill’s wife] Char is much happier with me now that I am feeling better. I love doing these self-contained rides to different places in the mid-west. I feel that we live in the best cycling area of the country, and perhaps the world. We have so many choices of roads and places to ride, many options like riding Amtrak, ferryboat rides, quiet smooth very low volume traffic roads through beautiful farmland and quaint, friendly towns. Life is great!
Follow the “Read More” link below to read the full entry about the trip.
[From Bill Lang’s ride journal, June 15-25, 2006. Quick note about the train: Bill and I agree that Illinois’ Amtrak service is pleasant and reliable, and this trip proves the exception, not the rule.]
AMTRAK Bike Trip
Plano, Illinois to Quincy, Illinois
June 15, 2006 Home to Plano, IL 66 Miles
It was a beautiful sunny summer morning when Bill L. departed his Mokena residence on his loaded bicycle and headed for New Lenox to meet up with Bill G., and head 60 miles to Plano, IL. to board Amtrak for a train ride to Quincy, IL. We biked through Joliet, got on the I. & M. Canal Trail at Rockdale, taking it to Channahon. Then back to the roads to Minooka. A McDonald’s stop was in order in Minooka. We continued onto Lisbon, Newark, Millington, Silver Springs State Park, and Plano. We knew this route very well, as we have biked over these roads many times over the years.
We arrived Plano mid-afternoon, allowing plenty of time for problems so we would not miss the train. We rested in Plano, ate our dinner at an Italian restaurant near the train station, then headed over to the train station to wait for the train. And wait. And wait. There is nowhere to sit at the train station. We just sat on the sidewalk. There was another lady that lives in Quincy that was visiting her daughter in Plano, and returning to Quincy. The train was due at 6:53 pm.
It was about 6:30 pm when we first heard word that there may be a problem. A local resident (who must have plenty of time on his hands) came over to the depot and informed us that there was a hazardous materials spill on some train tracks near Downers Grove, IL. He was not sure if it would affect our train.
The train showed up a little after 11 pm. Parked our bikes, then listened to the train crew complain to each other about how stupid the train dispatcher was. Since I am a retired train dispatcher, it was interesting listening to them complain. After about traveling for 30 minutes, the train had to stop at Malden, IL because the train crew was almost 12 hours old, and the federal hours of service law prohibits them from working over 12 hours. We took a 30 minute delay waiting for the relief crew.
We arrived Quincy, IL shortly after 3 am. We should have been there at 10 pm. Bill & I unloaded our bikes, tried to orient ourselves, which we failed. We would bike to an intersection, shine my light on the street signs, locate on the map our location, then bike to the next intersection and do it again. Of course, we went the wrong direction. We turned around, then biked the 3 miles through the dark and quiet streets of Quincy to our motel. Checked in, got an extension on check-out, cleaned up and bedded down.
June 16, 2006 Plano, IL to Kahoka, MO 58 Miles
We were up by 11 am, checked out of the motel, biked to McDonald’s for breakfast, well lunch, and departed town. The traffic was heavy biking in Quincy. Quite different from when we biked to the motel at 330 am. The temperature under bright sunshine was now 90 degrees.
We reached the edge of town at the Mississippi River. The traffic disappeared. We headed north along the flat Mississippi River valley. With a nice south wind pushing us. We headed for Meyer, IL where we crossed the Mississippi into Canton, MO via ferry. Cost us each $3 and we were the only ones on the ferry. This is the longest continually operating ferry service on the Mississippi. Started in 1844.
Now we were in Missouri. Canton, Missouri to be exact. As we departed town, up the hill, we passed a horse and buggy. We headed up route 81 to Kahoka, MO., with a nice tailwind. The road had some rolling hills with periods of flat traveling on the ridge. Mainly farmland with some wooded areas. Everything was so green as we biked passed the beautiful farms. It was a hot day, and we were going through water quickly. There was a lady cutting watering her flowers, we stopped to get water. She had a nice farm on top of a hill with a great view of the surrounding area. At first she thought we were some of the cyclists from town, who often stop there for water. We visited, got our water, and headed north for Kahoka. Kahoka was a very small farming town, with one motel. It was a nice place in a nice town.
June 17, 2006 Kahoka, MO to Fairfield, IA 76 Miles
After a quick breakfast at the local convenience store, we departed Kahoka on some more beautiful roads, low traffic, smooth pavement, and, for the third day in a row, a stiff south wind as we headed north. Again, some hills mixed with plenty of flat riding on the ridges. We crossed the Missouri/Iowa border and were welcomed to Iowa with a gravel road. It lasted about two miles from the border to Mount Sterling, IA. Then back on pavement flying north to Keosauqua.
We took a detour into Keosauqua State Park, doing a loop along the Des Moines River and coming back into Keosauqua from the west. We had some very steep climbs in the state park. Later that evening we read an article written by a local cyclist that the hills in the Keosauqua State Park are the toughest in the area. The ride from Keosauqua on Rt. 1 was easy with the tailwind, but there was more traffic on this Saturday morning than we had been accustomed to so far on the trip. We stayed at a motel on the western edge of town. Fairfield was a different type of town. It was one of those towns with a different view of the world, and home of Maharishi University of Management.
June 18, 2006 Fairfield, IA to Burlington, IA 72 Miles
We awoke to a cloudy morning, and there was rain on the radar. Looked like we might get wet today. We departed headed mainly east to Burlington. We did get some light showers from Stockport to Hillsboro. Just enough rain to get the roads wet, but not enough to put on the rain jacket.
Oh, the winds, would you believe they were out of the west-southwest? What? Day number 4 with a push? We can’t believe it! But we enjoyed it as we headed east along the quiet mainly flat country Iowa roads. The state really has some wonderful smooth (mainly concrete) back roads for the farmers. As we biked through Middletown (home of the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant) we were there when church just let out. So, we had lots of traffic as the church goer’s were now trying to be the first at the restaurant for dinner. As we approached Burlington, we found some more hills. Burlington is hilly! We checked into the motel, then headed to Bill G. cousins place for a nice afternoon visit. The sun came out and it was a very nice relaxing afternoon.
June 19, 2006 Burlington, IA to Muscatine, IA 67 Miles
We awoke to a nice sunny morning. The morning air was refreshing as we headed out to Snake Alley, Burlington, IA. This is a short cut down the hill built in 1894 for the horse and buggies to get down the hill directly into town. It is a cobblestone road so the horses would not slip. It also curved back and forth between the houses. Just like Lombard St. in San Francisco. Snake Alley is dubbed the crookedest street in Iowa. So, we biked up it.
We departed Burlington on the Great River Road, headed north to Muscatine. Again we were on the river flats below the bluff. So the west wind (a cross wind) could not get us most of the time. We stopped at Oakdale for a break, but the crabby lady at the store was crabbing at two young kids, and when Bill asked her a question, she snapped back at him, so we decided not to go in the store and buy anything. We went to the local park in town and ate our snacks we had in our bags, filled our water bottles, and headed north to Toolsboro to see the Indian Burial mounds that are over 2000 year old. To avoid a gravel section of the road, we had to bike into the wind (a new experience for this trip) to Wapello and back out to the river road. We took a nice break at Wapello. As we approached Muscatine, there was this yard display with a huge pocket watch that was really working. We took pictures and headed on.
We found the bike trail in Muscatine along the Mississippi, biked it east to where it ended, then north through the local park up to our motel for the evening. There was a shopping area around the motel so we had plenty of choices for dinner, and a place to restock our snacks we carry on the bike.
June 20, 2006 Muscatine, IA to Maquoketa, IA 63 Miles
A cloudy start, temperature in the low 70’s, looks like rain. We headed out going north. The winds were from the south. Yes, another day of tailwinds as we headed through Bennett, Lowden, and Massillon. We stopped at Massillon and waited out a thunderstorm in the local city pavilion. The wind blew, the sky got dark, lightning all around, but it did not rain! We waited out the storm, then when the lightning stopped, we headed out.
Then it started to rain lightly. The wind shifted to out of the NE as we now were headed east through Lost Nation, Elwood, and on to Maquoketa. While going east on Rt. 136, there were a fair number of cattle trucks that passed us, spraying us with the mist from inside the trucks. Uck! We had 20 miles of this light rain. The motel I made reservations at in Maquoketa was about a mile outside town with nothing around. We went into town and out to another motel where there were plenty of restaurants and stores close by. We got the last room available there because there was road construction nearby and the construction workers had most of the rooms. That night it rained and stormed the entire night.
June 21, 2006 Maquoketa, IA to Cassville, WI 76 Miles
We awoke to rain. Took our time getting ready and ate breakfast. Watched the radar and when we saw our break in the rain, we headed out. Headed north with a south wind. Outside town we stopped at the Maquoketa State Park where we could explore the caves. It was warm outside…upper 70’s, cloudy, and very humid. The cave area was in the trees and down a hill, and there was fog coming out of the cave where the cool cave air met the humid outside air. Kind of eerie. We low-crowed to get into the cave, but once inside we could stand up. These were self-guided caves, and there were lights throughout the cave. Outside the cave entrance, there was a natural bridge.
We departed the caves and headed north, with a tailwind again. At Barnard it started raining on us. Just light rain. When we arrived Peosta, we got in out of the rain had had lunch, while it rained. Shortly after leaving Peosta the rain quit. At Bankston the road was closed. Torn out. No way we could get through. The detour may have added about one mile, but it added some very steep climbs up through the forest. We had a young coyote come across the road in front of us, then sit there and watch us.
This area of Iowa became quite hilly. Up and down many hills, and down a long hill into N. Buena Vista. By this time the sun was out bright. Since N. Buena Vista is on the Mississippi, I was hoping the road to the Cassville Ferry would be flat. Not really. Up and down the bluffs we went for the next 7 miles, then two miles down a gravel road to the ferry. Once across the Mississippi into Cassville, Wisconsin, we were on the flats, and not far to our motel. We biked a few extra miles out to the Stonefield historical site, which was closed when we got there. Ate at a nice Italian restaurant in town.
June 22, 2006 Cassville, WI to Monroe, WI 87 Miles
Today was a sunny day, somewhat cooler then in the past, temperature in the low 60’s as we headed east….with a west wind! The hills started out right away as we climbed up out of the Mississippi River Valley. We quickly learned that almost every road is paved in SW Wisconsin, so we tailored our route to be as direct and scenic as possible. Only one drawback, the back roads do not level out the hills!
We took a short cut into Potosi, WI, right up Dog Tail Road. In town we stopped at the local gas/convenience store where the locals were catching up on the latest gossip. They asked how we came into town, and when we mentioned Dog Tail Road, they all busted out laughing saying that is the toughest way into town.
We rolled on…up and down into Platteville. Through Belmont and on to Darlington biking on roads with names like Roller Coaster Road and so on. The roads are straight….straight up and down! No curves. We were to spend the night in Darlington, but this is a very small town, the motel was kind of dumpy, we had a nice tailwind, it was early, just past noon, so we decided to push on through the hills to Monroe. Once we would get rolling, the hills were easy. Fly down them at speeds of over 40 MPH and then we would be somewhere between three/fourths to all the way up the next hill before we lost our momentum. Then down again. Many times we were not able to see the bottom of the hill until one/fourth the way down. The pavement was good, and no curves! We both topped out at 47 MPH max speed.
The countryside was quite beautiful as we passed by painted barns, fields of cattle, corn, wheat, beans, through Wiota, Woodford, and finally into Monroe. Again the motel was in an area where there were stores and restaurants. We felt good about today as we covered many miles through many hills.
June 23, 2006 Monroe, WI to Dixon, IL 68 Miles
Another cool start…in the low 60’s, sunny, and a north wind. Today we would be headed south all day. We wanted to head for Rochelle to check out some of AIBR route, but could not get a motel in Rochelle area due to the Mormons had a convention going on and all the motel rooms were booked up. So we headed for Dixon where I could find us a room.
Departing Monroe south were hills. They were tough hills. Or maybe we were still feeling the effects of yesterday’s long mileage and hills. We knew 10 miles of hills is all we would have before we hit the Illinois border and the Jane Addams Trail. The trail took us 13 miles south to Freeport, IL. Now the roads were mainly flat, with lots of truck traffic from Freeport to Forreston. From there we decided to take Rt. 26 through Polo and Woosung, and onto Dixon. Most parts of the road had a nice shoulder, and the traffic was light. The pavement was excellent. We stayed at the Super 8 on the south side of Dixon. I did go back into town to the bike shop to see my friend BJ, who I have toured with in the past. A word of caution….you never want to stay at a Super 8 on a Friday night in the room next to the Jacuzzi suite! And don’t ask why!
June 24, 2006 Dixon, IL to New Lenox and Mokena, IL 108 Miles
We were having trouble in finding a motel in the Ottawa area. Some wanted over $100 for Sat. night, and even Super 8 was over $70. We decided to go as far as we could towards home. We could do it. No, we did not have a tailwind….just some of the time, and the winds were very light so they really did not hold us back. It was sunny with again a cool start. Forecast for Sunday was rain. Another reason to head for home. We also had no more clean clothes.
We headed for home. Lee Center, Shaw, West Brooklyn, past the windmills of Compton, and into Paw Paw for our break. There were plenty of cyclists in town as they were getting ready for a 40K race. We did not hang around for the race. We headed out to Earlville, Harding, stopping for water at Serena. Then on through Lisbon, and a burger break at McDonald’s in Minooka.
We now were confident we could make it home in good shape. On we went through Joliet, and on to our homes in New Lenox and Mokena. A long day but the weather was very pleasant and the ride was a pleasant one. Finishing the trip with a century was the perfect ending to another great bicycle trip.
Epilogue: The Last Hurrah….NOT!
Many of you remember what I wrote at the end of our Southern Illinois bike trip last month. I was depressed. I could not bike the way I wanted to because of my heart condition. I was living in a fog. Burned out. Like a zombie! No energy. The same feeling I had when working midnights years ago. May 22 I underwent a procedure on my heart. So, three hours on the operating table and $80,000 later, I feel much better and now I have my energy back. I can do things and ride almost like in the past. I feel like I have just woken up from a long sleep. Again, I feel good. So I am on the bike again going places, and planning for trips again. Char is much happier with me now that I am feeling better. I love doing these self-contained rides to different places in the mid-west. I feel that we live in the best cycling area of the country, and perhaps the world. We have so many choices of roads and places to ride, many options like riding Amtrak, ferryboat rides, quiet smooth very low volume traffic roads through beautiful farmland and quaint, friendly towns. Life is great! Bill Lang