The Long Prairie Trail: Just a line in the field of time
BY MARK OLLINGER
With a use-it-or-lose-it-vacation policy at work and the end of the year on the horizon, it was time to take an afternoon to burn some unused vacation time.
The agenda was to run a few errands and then get in a long bike ride. The Long Prairie Trail, a rails-to-trails conversion which is about 30 minutes northwest of my suburban Chicago home, seemed like an interesting new trail to explore. The plan was to start at the east end of the trail in the small town of Capron, ride to the end and return in time before dark.
By the time most of my errands were finished and the car was parked at the trailhead, this ride was shaping up as a late afternoon affair with a rapidly approaching sunset. Located in Boone and Winnebago counties, the trail uses an abandoned Chicago & Northwestern rail line before merging with the Stone Bridge Trail. Strung together, the two trails are just short of 20 end to end.
To cover the distance and get back before dark, I was going to have to push the pace. For motivation, I planned to listen to some up-tempo rock music on my iPod. A little “London Calling” by the Clash would fill the bill. Before I could get past the first track, the temperamental battery on my iPod crapped out.
Denied digital music, I was going to have to rely on mental music in my head. Neil Young is one of my favorite artists and it was harvest time in Illinois, so you might think some from his bestselling “Harvest” album would come to mind, but there was no “Heat of Gold” as the leaves on the canopy of trees over the path did not yet have many colors. Instead, a song from the “Rust Never Sleeps” album stuck in my head. More specifically, it was “Thrasher.”
What initially triggered memories of this acoustic number were my neighbors on the trail. The path is surrounded by fields of corn, wheat and alfalfa. Combines were working on the north and south. They, too, were in a hurry to get done before the sun faded into the horizon. A hulking grain elevator is a few miles down the trail in Caledonia waiting to collect the fruits of their labor.
While the song Thrasher is ostensibly about Young’s break up with his former bandmates, Crosby, Stills, & Nash (they were just dead weight to him), views along the trail slowly brought back bits and pieces of the lyrics.
“They were hiding behind hay bales,
They were planting in the full moon
They had given all they had for something new
But the light of day was on them,
They could see the thrashers coming
And the water shone like diamonds in the dew.”
Admittedly, the song is set at dawn and I was riding in the evening, but the song played over and over in my head for the bulk of the ride. Recently cleared fields flanked the trail. One field had hay bale rolls standing guard on the last cutting of the year. If you are looking for solitude and wide-open spaces, the Long Trail has it in spades. I was alternately enveloped in a canopy of trees or wide-open views of fields. With it being a rails-to-trails conversion, it was flat as a pancake and straight as a row of crops.
The rail line was started in the 1850s by the Kenosha, Rockford and Rock Island Railroad Company. It was eventually sold to the Chicago & Northwestern line. A nasty derailment proved to be the death knell of the line. The owners decided that the line was not worth the cost to repair it. I guess it was just dead weight to them as well, just like my soon to be recycled iPod. The entire ride evokes a feeling of an earlier, simpler time and life. The former railroad towns of Capron, Poplar Grove and Caledonia, deprived of their old lifeline, look like they have been left behind.
Railroads were the internet stocks of the 19th century, now the abandoned lines remind me of the relentless creative destruction of capitalism. At least the recycling of obsolete infrastructure into recreational trails provides a serene place to ride. The trail is starting to show its age and could use a little TLC from the cash-strapped state of Illinois (good luck with that).
Numerous frost-heave bumps in the asphalt path gave the front shock a workout – so much for locking out the suspension on a bike path.
After a few miles heading west, the path seems to smooth out; or maybe I had become comfortably numb.
After 14 miles on the Long Prairie Trail, you cross into Winnebago County from Boone County. The asphalt of the Long Prairie Trail yields to the crushed limestone of the Stone Bridge Trail. The Stone Bridge Trail is the shorter of the two paths, but it does include the Stone Arch Bridge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Memories of places and people dot the trail. A fading sign documents the site of the train derailment that turned this bustling artery of commerce into a sleepy backwater. I had the trail to myself for most of the ride. Neil Young and Thrasher kept me company.
“They were lost in rock formations
Or became park bench mutations
On the sidewalks and in the stations
They were waiting, waiting.
So I got bored and left them there,
They were just dead weight to me,
Better down that road without that load.”
Several lines of the song allude to cocaine abuse that dogged the group. Young was a user as well, but it did not impact his creativity as much as it did Stephen Stills and David Crosby. Their best years of music were in the rear-view mirror by the mid-1970s, but referring to them as “park bench mutations,” that’s just cold.
Numerous memorial park benches with dedications dot the trail. Fashioned from composite materials, the benches seem to be holding up better than the riding surface and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Given the low traffic I encountered, the sheer number of benches seemed a tad out of place. The dedication on one bench read “Anna Quirk & Mary Hennessy December 24, 1944.” I assumed that date marked their entrance to or exit from this world. It was either a wonderful Christmas present or the ultimate lump of coal.
“Where the eagle glides ascending
There’s an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits.”
There were no eagles to view, but I did encounter several wild turkey hens taking advantage of leftovers from the recently denuded cornfields. Benjamin Franklin had pushed for the wild turkey to be the national bird instead of the bald eagle. The birds were intent on stocking up for winter as I was able to ride within about 20 yards of them before they scrambled into the brush for cover.
As for an ancient river bending, the Stone Bridge Trail’s namesake spans what would be more charitably described as a rather large creek draining a marshland. It’s a double arch bridge and a beautiful piece of work that is grossly overbuilt for its current use. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A winding stairway down to the creek gorge yields a small rest area and display that discusses the history of the bridge, local fauna of the marsh and the transition of inhabitants from Native Americans to white settlers.
“But for me I’m not stopping there,
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line in the field of time
When the thrashers come, I’ll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I’ll know the time has come
To give what’s mine”
I dallied too long reading the exhibit placards and lost precious sunshine time. With dusk approaching, I had to bag the last trail mile to the town of Roscoe and head back east to my car. My bike had a headlight light, but my faith in batteries had been severely tested earlier in the ride. It’s funny how impending darkness can provide an added shot of adrenalin. I covered the return route east faster than my more leisurely trek westward. The light battery proved to be more reliable than that of the iPod, and I kept my eyes peeled for the frost heave bumps. The combines were still hard at work with their lights ablaze. I was about a mile outside of Capron when the sun disappeared. I loaded my bike in the dusk and glanced around to see if there was a place in town to eat. A small Mexican restaurant looked interesting, but with one more errand on my to-do list, I decided not to stop. I had my own row left to hoe.