Riding the Salt Creek Greenway Trail
Essay and Photo by Marcia Faye
My ride on the Salt Creek Bicycle Trail, which stretches 13.2 round-trip miles from Brookfield Woods on the east to Bemis Woods on the west, begins in my bedroom in La Grange Park when I wake in the darkness and listen for the sound of the wind chimes hanging outside my window. I prefer their tinkling gentle and occasional, for that means only the lightest of breezes will accompany me.
No matter the season, my black stirrup pants are standard apparel, for the same reason motorcyclists wear leather: The pants will save my skin in a spill. I take my chances, however, up top-sleeveless in warm or hot weather, short or long sleeves in cool, and layered Thinsulate, plus a wool ear band, in downright cold. A patterned bandana, protective gloves, rigid-soled shoes, prescription eyeglasses, and a black Giro "brain bucket" complete the look. Although I do not carry a flat tire kit in my hip bag, I do carry a small canister of repellent spray and a palm-sized awl, its ice-pick pointy tip capped with a rubber stopper so I don't accidentally stab myself instead of a mad dog or a forest fugitive. My big city upbringing rides tandem with me, even into the woods. I wheel my teal Hardrock 18-speed from the garage, its Evil Eye amulet swinging from the seat where it is attached by a chain. I flip on the rear blinker and the front headlamp, check for a break in traffic, and pedal one block down Maple Avenue to the trail's eastbound access point. I time my morning ride to arrive at the Brookfield Woods meadow on the first pass, just before the sun leaves its celestial Limbo, and on the second pass, just after it begins its glorious ascent into the sky.
A gossamer veil of light floats over the woods in the minutes before the sun shows itself. If the temperature of the air is slightly cooler than that of the creek, will-o'-the-wispy vapor tendrils curl out of the water, much like the first spring shoots that sprout out of the dirt that lines the Salt's meandering course; if the air is much cooler, the tendrils turn into billowing mists. The air carries a hint of moist sweetness with an aroma of wild onion here, of wild lilac there. Starlings and sparrows busily chirp and chatter in the deciduous and evergreen groves that line both sides of the paved path. I can hear the two-note high-low trill of a robin, its partner answering off in the distance. With jackhammer beak, a woodpecker sends out its rat-a-tat trunk retort. A red-winged blackbird perches on a solitary reed, its call like that of a frilled ruffle, that is, if a frilled ruffle could make a sound. Not a forest fugitive but a masked bandit watches me from a few yards away; as I approach, the lone raccoon scampers into the low foliage and quickly disappears.
Each of the trail's six segments features landmarks, both natural and man-made. The east-most segment closest to Brookfield Zoo is home not only to area coyote but to a metal crane as inconspicuous as a pink elephant, lying in wait next to the Salt until it is needed to clear debris from the small dam that marks this end of the trail. At this end, too, I can see the sky at its most expressive, its view over the meadow not yet obscured by the densely wooded forest preserves that lie ahead. I have seen a cratered moon on my left with the rising sun on my right; I have seen mountainous gray clouds, a rainbow arcing defiantly across their collective face. As if drawn by a fairy's wand, the rainbow stayed with me all throughout the first half of that ride. I spied colorful glimpses of it in between the leaves and tree branches from segment to segment, its hues and quiet majesty reinforcing the presence of Spirit that resides here, in this sacred place.
Beavers frequent the segment between 25th Avenue and Mannheim Road. I see a chubby brown head sticking out from the creek, and little paws just below the surface, paddling. The water in the beaver's v-shaped wake sparkles like diamonds in the sunlight. I hear the shudder and screech of steel wheels and the clank of chain-link connectors before I see the freight train with its silver Corn Products tanker cars, its SOO LINE boxcars, and flatcars laden with green John Deere tractors rolling across the trestle that crosses the trail. I apply light pressure to my brakes as I plunge into the darkness of the underpass and consider the sheer tonnage of the cars just over one foot from my helmeted head. A sacred memory comes to me here, in the total eclipse of this passage, only two railroad tracks in width. It is of a downpour that caused me to seek shelter there, along with a couple that had been out walking. The man asked me if I would be witness to their engagement. He proposed to his companion and presented her with a ring. She accepted and I bid them congratulations, wishing I could offer a champagne toast besides my handshake. Moments later, the rains abated enough for us strangers to continue on our separate paths, after having been brought together in this brief, magical way.
Just before the trail reaches Mannheim Road, it traverses a winding, uphill path populated with white-tailed deer. Sometimes I wave to them, sometimes I give a big grin, sometimes I shout "Hello!" in a British accent, just for fun. Sometimes the deer stare, sometimes they run alongside me, sometimes they continue munching a plant as if they didn't see me whiz by at all. Members of this last group are much like the other trail denizens who go about their early morning rituals with scarcely a nod in my two-wheeled direction. Squirrels and chipmunks carrying their breakfast crunch among leaves that blanket the woods like a perpetual layer of Grape Nut Flakes. A Canada goose sits placidly in a nest atop a plywood board atop a beaver dam atop a huge trunk that has collapsed into the Salt. A hawk waits on the same branch of a lone tall tree, swooping down occasionally into the meadow below. I, too, go about my early morning ritual, riding my bike, not giving much more than a nod, a flash of a smile, or the courtesy call-out "Passing on your left!" to the other bicyclists, joggers, or walkers whom I pass. This morning, like most every other morning, I am perfectly content to be a solo rider for the spell of the trail pervades my soul. And for that to happen I do not need a trail companion; I need only the trail itself.
For in the awe and beauty of life that is the trail I learn surrender from the flowing waters of the creek; trust from the goslings that follow their parents into the brush; patience from the watchful hawk; playfulness from the frolicking squirrels; humor from the waddling Mallard couple; courage from every fawn that coexists among the coyotes; steadfastness in the annual appearance of the sunflower field.
The sun is a giant persimmon, fast dropping deep orange into the Limbo of the western horizon. With rear blinker on, I head toward it. The gossamer veil of dawn has been replaced by a velvet shade, not yet fully drawn. Even the sound is that of rustled velvet, hushed, subdued. The robin's trill is no more; the industrious woodpecker is off nesting for the night. One raccoon, however, is awaking from its diurnal slumber and claws its way up a tall maple, its small mouth around a large corncob. A beaver is paddling in the Salt, in the direction of the sinking sun. The diamonds of its morning wake are now transformed by the alchemy of approaching darkness into smoky topazes. As I look over the top of the now empty railroad underpass, I see that the sun has vanished. I flip on my headlamp as I make the turnaround for the 20-minute ride back home.
I pedal-up the pace as the daylight diminishes. Car headlights appear through the groves where the trail parallels the suburban side streets. An algae-covered bog glows with a green phosphorescence. A lone doe crashes out of the woods and sprints before me, her tail swinging to and fro like a white pendulum in time to the beat of the night. I see the metal crane up ahead and make my final turn at the meadow where just over 13 hours ago, the sun was making its glorious ascent. High overhead, a jet emits twin contrails like pressurized whipped cream in a sky that is still a faint blue, the velvet shade not yet drawn tight. I give one last nod to a passing bicyclist, one final "Bike on your left!" to a teen talking on a cell phone before I cross Maple Avenue and exit the Salt Creek Bicycle Trail.
Once in my backyard, I switch off my blinker and headlamp before steering the Hardrock back into the garage. I do not go into the house but linger outdoors, still needing to feel the trail, to keep it close to me. With their maple trees and evergreens, the backyards seem an extension of the woods. A soft breeze stirs the metal wind chimes as I look up into the deep indigo sky to see Polaris and the other stars of the Big Dipper.
I lift my arms and reach out to them.
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