Mimi's two-wheeled adventure

Mimi's two-wheeled adventure

URBANA — Back in the day, when I was younger and lighter, I would often bicycle after work from Danville to Indianola and back, making for a nice 38-mile round trip.

Such distances were nothing to me. I had long been into bicycling, enjoying the simple freedom of wheeling through nature and the countryside on my own power and the wind through my hair, and seeing nature up close.

So I couldn't wait to ride the new Kickapoo Rail Trail from Urbana to St. Joseph and back after it officially opened Aug. 25.

Sure, I'm sort of out of shape. And I hadn't bicycled in recent years more than maybe 3 miles at a time. I figured I would take the 6.7-mile rail trail nice and easy.

So around 11:30 a.m. the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I readied for my journey. It was a perfect day — sunny and clear, with low humidity and a temperature that never went over 75 degrees.

At first, even before I hit the trail, it was a bit of a struggle — my tires were underinflated. But I eagerly entered the rail trail at its head across from Berenger Commons at East Main Street and University Avenue.

After diverting to the Wal-Mart gas station on High Cross Road to put air in my tires, I re-entered the rail trail. Pedaling was a lot easier now that my tires were inflated.

This 10-foot-wide path is just great, I thought as I pedaled along. The white aggregate gravel on the surface is surprisingly easy to move over, offering little resistance.

Besides the loud crunch I heard from the contact between my wheels and the trail, the only other sounds were the motor vehicle traffic on U.S. 150 and the music of birds and insects along the way.

Trail signs

Along the way, I stopped at each of the trail signs. Each has photographs. The first welcomes users to the KRT and offers trail etiquette:

No littering. Stay on the right. Pass on the left. Dogs allowed but only on leash. Don't pick the flowers or take critters home.

The "Spring Singers Along the Trail" sign tells mainly of the frogs that live there: The cricket frog, spring peeper, American toad and chorus frog.

At each highway crossing, I also took note of the 3-foot-high yellow marker and the boulders along the side — all to prevent motorized traffic on the trail. Great!

I pedaled easily along, noticing the grasshoppers on the paths and the butterflies, among them monarchs, feeding on the wildflowers and weeds along the way.

First interview

After deciding to do my first trail interview, I stopped a pedestrian wearing an Illinois T-shirt and ear buds.

Tim Taylor, who lives along U.S. 150 at the trail half-mile marker, had hiked 4 miles east to just past Fulls Siding and was returning home.

"I actually walked to 2000E, a road I used to live on when I was a kid," he told me.

Since the trail opened, Taylor had seen a lot of users — bicyclists, families, walkers and runners. They tend to come in "clumps," he said.

"Of course, you don't want to be out here too late," Taylor said, noting that the overhanging trees on parts of the trail can be "intimidating" in the dark.

Even so, he'd seen red and white bicycle lights flickering by at night on the trail.

I stopped again at Full's Siding, where another sign gave a history of the spot and the grain elevators there. Then I noticed across the lane what I'd been looking for: The Free Book Exchange, a little library.

Free books, cards

It was made from a square blue piece of old luggage attached to a red children's bicycle with training wheels. Painted in black on a little white rock on top the library was a bicyclist and the words "Kickapoo Rail Trail."

"Free books posters postcards Little Free Book Exchange," read the cardboard sign in red ink. I opened the library and took a few of the postcards: one is of the silhouette of the Full's Siding elevators against an orange sunset.

Nick Dalrymple had set up the little library. Charming, I thought. Here, I had been thinking of ways to monetize the trail.

A popsicle stand? A place that sells cold water and other beverages?

Prairie remnants

I continued on, stopping at another sign: "Tallgrass Prairie: An American Heritage." Of course, what was left of the prairie were only the remnants alongside the rail trail.

I enjoyed seeing the yellow-flowered compass plants, elderberry bushes with dark purple berries and other plants, including sunflowers. And I even appreciated the yellowing and drying sea of corn and soy to my sides.

Once I saw the Pioneer Hi-Bred International buildings along U.S. 150 just west of St. Joseph, I realized I was approaching the end of the trail.

River walk

Before reaching the end, though, I stopped again to chat with a man who was pulling two children east in a little red wagon.

I just had to know whether he'd come all the way from Urbana. No, Josh Spain, who lives in Homer, was babysitting his niece and nephew, Karleigh and Jase Spain, both of whom live in St. Joseph.

"It's easier to drag them in the wagon," Josh told me. "As it is, we've just been puttin' along."

I asked the kids what they thought of the new trail.

"It's really awesome. There's so many pretty things," Karleigh replied.

"We threw rocks into the river," Jase said.

"What I like is it's like taking a nice, country stroll and you're not walking through town," Josh said.

"It's peaceful," his niece added.

"You can hear the birds sing," her uncle said.

From there, it was just a short ride to the trail trestle bridge over the Salt Fork River.

I stopped on the bridge to chat with Derek and Mindi Martin and their 7-year-old son, Pete. They live in St. Joseph; it was their first time on the trail.

"I like it. It's a different perspective from being on the road in a car," Mindi told me.

"I hope it helps the community, as far as the businesses in town," said her husband.

He, along with many others, look forward to the trail being completed all the way to the west side of Danville. He said that might help open new businesses in Ogden, about 5 miles east of St. Joseph.

Sore muscles

I eventually headed into St. Joseph, feeling a bit weary from the trek and thinking I might have lunch at the Wheelhouse, the new farm-to-table restaurant that lies at the trail head or end, depending on your viewpoint.

I decided I wasn't that hungry, and anyway, a friend and I had dined there the night before. The place was packed and nearly half of the patrons seemed to be bicyclists.

I instead went to the Geschenk Coffee and Tree Haus a block away. I asked for ice water. The pretty young blonde woman behind the counter gave it to me for free, even though I offered to pay.

I returned to the front of the building and sat next to my bicycle, which I had leaned up against a building. Another bicyclist parked her Trek near me and asked me to watch it while she went inside.

There were few spokes on the wheels of her bicycle, and the tires were thin. She had toe clips on the pedals, enabling her to pull up on as well as down.

"Is that a racing bike?" I asked when she returned.

She said yes and told me to lift it. It was super-light. We chatted a bit, agreeing that St. Joseph needs to add bike racks.

The bicyclist, who also was from Urbana, mentioned we would have a crosswind on the way back. She checked her cellphone and told me it was from the northwest, about 9 miles per hour.

"I'm too old for that," I said.

However, I felt refreshed after finishing the ice water. I figured I'd bicycle home without stopping.

But as soon as I hit that crosswind, I changed my mind. My leg muscles were feeling the strain. I made a few rest stops, but much fewer than on my way to St. Joseph.

On my way home, I thought about how so many people think our land is flat.

It's not. It undulates. It declines west from Mount Olive most of the way to Urbana. I welcomed those slight down slopes. The inclines ... not so much.

After arriving home, I threw myself on my leather sofa - leg muscles I hadn't used in a while were sore. I then soaked in Epsom salts for 30 minutes or so.

A friend came over and told me I looked different because of the oxygen intake from my bicycle ride. I did feel changed, as well as inspired.

The length and challenge of my first Kickapoo Rail Trail trek was not much compared to what I did a few decades ago. But it was a great start to renewing a physical activity I love so much. Here's to a longer trail and distances!

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