Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Des Plaines Boss, Des Plaines
By John Greenfield
In mid-November I put a call out to my bicycling pals to do one more bike camping trip before the deep-freeze set in. Not that that’s going to prevent me from doing a train-plus-cross-country-ski camping trip to the Indiana Dunes or Illinois Beach State Park this winter.
I propose we go to Bong State Recreation Area in Southern Wisconsin or Rock Cut State Park near Rockford, IL, but nobody is up for chilly tenting. My friend Jonathan suggests that instead we ride up the Des Plaines River Trail, a dirt path that runs from about 50 miles from west suburban River Forest to the Wisconsin border.
We could spend the night at the very northeast corner of Illinois at Winthrop Harbor in a little cottage a stones throw from the border, owned by his old roommate Scott, AKA “Slim” or “Whitey” due to his build and pigmentation. Since Scott has mostly been living at an ashram in Edgewater lately, we’d have the place to ourselves.
As it happens, the prologue to this trip due north is a Friday night bike excursion due west along the Illinois Prairie Path. I meet my buddies Kevin and Seth at the Garfield Park Conservatory, and then pedal west on streets to Oak Park and Val’s Halla, 203 Harrison St., a terrific record store.
Val worked for Capitol Records in the ‘60s when the Beatles were on the label, so on display is a copy of the infamous original cover for the Fab Four’s “Yesterday and Today” album. To protest the record company slicing and dicing the contents of the disc, the musicians posed in bloody butcher’s jackets surrounded by severed baby doll parts.
We catch the Prairie Path in Maywood and make our way a few miles west to Villa Park for dinner at Tong’s Tiki Hut, 100 E. Roosevelt Rd., a Chinese restaurant with tropical drinks and faux-Polynesian décor. There’s a mural of a beach scene, fishing nets with plastic lobsters hanging from the ceiling, lamps covered with seashells and a tiki idol nearly six feet tall.
I guess I’m a hopeless cheeseball, but this kind of kitsch never fails to make me smile. Yvonne, the owners' daughter, comes up to chat with us. She's a mom, and when we tell her we biked there from the city she says wistfully, “You guys must be single, to be out doing fun stuff like this.” Well, perhaps three straight guys out drinking Mai Tais on a Friday night isn’t so glamorous, but we’re having a good time.
Afterwards we head a couple miles north to Lunar Brewing Company, 54 E. Saint Charles Rd., a brewpub with a blue collar vibe, for a couple of tasty coffee stouts. From there we pedal east on the Prairie Path and catch the CTA Green Line back into the city.
Maybe it would made sense for me to sleep in a motel in the western ‘burbs, because early next morning I get right back on the Blue Line and ride out to the southern terminus of the Des Plaines River Trail at Washington Blvd. and the river, just a few blocks from where we got on the Prairie Path. Across the street is the Golf Dome, a surreal tented indoor course.
I’d planned to ride up the dirt path and meet Jonathan, who lives in Rogers Park near Chicago’s northern border, at a Dunkin Donuts off the Des Plaines Rive near Oakton, St., due west of his house. But the southern end of the trail proves to be much rougher than I’d expected - a hilly, undulating, barely detectable path carpeted with dry leaves, more suitable for a mountain bike than my touring rig.
Ducking bare tree branches and occasionally spotting deer, I hustle as fast as I can. But after a bone-shaking spill I decide there’s no way I’m going to meet Jonathan in time riding on the path, so I bail and hammer on roads up to the rendezvous. I make a mental note to return to the trail some time with knobby tires. On the way I pass near, but don’t have time to photograph, the amazing multi-room tiki bar Hala Kahiki, 2834 N. Des Plaines River Rd. in River Grove.
From the donuteria we get back on the trail, which at this point has become a flat, crushed-limestone surface, much friendlier to road bikes. At one point we lose the trail and get directions from a scruffy old Polish immigrant on a mountain bike who says he’s ridden all the way from Washington Blvd. that morning. We’re much faster than him, but as we often get confused as we navigate the trail we find ourselves playing tortoise and hare with him for the next hour.
It’s a gorgeous Indian summer day and as we head north we encounter lots of people out biking, walking with children, jogging, horseback riding, canoeing on the river and even roller skiing. We roll through swaths of tall-grass prairie and past swampy looking oxbows in the river.
In Gurnee we spot the roller coasters of Six Flags Great America, then pass near the Gold Pyramid House in Wadsworth, a 1/100 model of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, guarded by a 40-foot statue of Ramses. Jonathan has never seen the pyramid but by then it’s getting dark, so we roll on to the end of the trail at Sterling Lake Forest Preserve, just south of the Cheddar Curtain.
Heading east to Scott’s shack, we stop for a beer at R & R Crossing, 14827 Russell Rd. a biker (motorcyclist) bar by some railroad tracks. Hogs are lined up in front and I fear we’ll have a “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” mishap, knocking the cycles over domino-style, and to avoid being beaten to a pulp we'll be required to dance on the bar to “Tequila.” One we're inside the regulars are nice enough - Jonathan even strikes up and acquaintance with a friendly, if taciturn, old cowpoke.
We roll a couple more miles to Lake Michigan and the cottage, a cozy little place with cheerful green, yellow and orange walls and a potbelly stove. When we plug in the stereo we’re lulled by blissed-out East Indian music, but there’s also a shrine-like niche populated by a weird assortment of dolls and action figures: the Pink Panther, robots, Kewpie dolls and Andre the Giant.
We cook tacos for dinner then relax on the couch with beers and books, listening to the trippy sitars and chanting. I read a book from Whitey’s shelf, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the morning we enjoy a John Denver moment drinking coffee on the porch as deer frolick in the adjacent meadow. We pack up and headed to south to Zion for omelets at the Star Lite Restaurant, 2325 Sheridan Rd., then stop at Zion Cyclery, 2750 Sheridan to chat with the owner, the mother of Chicago jazz drummer Tim Daisy.
Instead of pedaling home along the lake, a route I’ve done a dozen times, I persuade Jonathan we should spend the day hiking and sightseeing in the area. We could head across the border to Kenosha, WI, where there’s bratwurst joint and yet another tiki venue I’ve been meaning to check out, then catch Metra back to Chicago.
We ride to nearby Illinois Beach State Park, lock up our bikes near the park’s little resort hotel and walk on hiking paths on the southern end of the nature preserve. We stroll along the beach and on the top of a small dune ridge, walk past a current-less "dead" river and see slender, swirling trees that look like something out of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Back on our bikes we head north a few miles on trails through the park to North Point Marina, the largest harbor in the state, then go two miles west to catch the Kenosha County Bike Trail into the Badger State. In Kenosha we stop at the Southport Rigging bike shop, 2926 75th St., where we test ride an extremely fat-tired Surly Pugsly and I buy a bicycle bell with a picture of cow on it.
On the owner’s advice we visit Tenuta’s Delicatessen, 3203 32nd St., with a wonderful selection of Italian cheeses, sausage, pastas and wine. A poster on the wall portrays a fantasy scene of famous Italian-Americans hanging out together: Sinatra, Pacino, DiMaggio, Stallone, Madonna and Dom DeLuise. I buy some black pepper pecorino and chocolate Gran Marnier pecans.
We pass by Tacos to Go, 2422 52nd St., where big letter on the façade reading “Mexican egg-rolls” make me slam on the brakes. Just as advertised, these turned out to be egg rolls filled with meat, beans and cheese – worth trying once.
It turns out that the Rendez'vous, the punk-rock tiki bar I want to check out at 1700 52nd St., won’t be opening that night until after we catch our train, a bitter disappointment. So we roll downtown to the Brat Stop Too, 5511 6th Ave., a tavern populated by guys wearing green and gold watching a Packers game. Munching on fried cheese curds and bratwursts and drinking New Glarus beer, unavailable outside of the state, we enjoy a quintessential Wisconsin moment before sleepily catching our ride home.