Today is the first day of our lower Midwestern bike trip. During the next five days, we plan to ride on four Hall of Fame trails in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.
Ed (my husband) offered to pick up Joyce and drop us off at the airport on his way to work. The security line was longer than usual; I was relieved that we got to the airport early. After grabbing a biscuit at Chick-fil-A, we proceeded to our gate. In a few minutes, about halfway through our breakfast, we realized that our flight had been moved to another gate. Fortunately, we only had to move one gate over.
Our flight to Chicago Midway was about an hour an a half. During the flight, Joyce and I discussed our travel strategy for the day. After researching the maps and time schedules, we decided to take the Orange CTA line from the Midway airport to downtown (Quincy Station) and then transfer to the Union Pacific train to Wheaton after picking up our bikes at Amtrak. This decision was a diversion from our original plan, but it would allow us to ride all of the Main Stem of the Illinois Prairie Path.
A nice young lady on our plane gave us directions to get to the CTA Orange line, and we had no trouble finding the station. We purchased a day pass so that we wouldn’t have to purchase another ticket after our bike ride. It took about 30 minutes to reach downtown Chicago where we exited at the Quincy Station and walked two blocks west on Jackson Street to Union Station. We stopped at Passenger Services, and the agent personally walked us over to a keyed elevator which took us down to Baggage Express. The baggage attendant quickly retrieved our bikes and even helped us unpack them. We’re becoming loyal Amtrak fans!
Since we were a little crunched for time, we decided to wait until we boarded the Union Pacific train to put on our pedals and panniers. After unpacking our bikes, we took the elevator up to the street level and pushed our bikes a couple of blocks north on Canal Street to the Ogilvie Transportation Center. We purchased a ticket for $5.25, screwed our pedals back on our bikes, and boarded the train to Wheaton.
Our 50 minute train ride to Wheaton flew by quickly because we ate our sack lunches and spent the rest of the time mounting our panniers and preparing our bike gear (Garmin GPS, GoPro camera, etc.). After deboarding the train in Wheaton, we spotted the Illinois Prairie Path a few feet from the station.
The first couple of miles of the trail was comprised of extra wide sidewalks through the business district of Wheaton. As we left the town, the trail changed to crushed limestone. For the next 14 miles, we rode in and out of tree canopies crossing several roads that intersected the trail. Although the numerous intersections were frustrating, we understood why this trail is widely used by Chicago commuters.
The temperature was mid 70’s under mostly sunny skies, which was a nice break from the mid 90’s in Atlanta. Numerous varieties of wildflowers, including brown-eyed Susans, coreopsis, purple gayfeather! etc., grew profusely along the trail as we passed several parks and one prairie restoration area.
We rode through several suburb communities, ranging from small apartments to large mansions. After riding about 11 miles, detour signs led us around a construction area on the trail. We almost missed the last detour sign because it had fallen flat on the ground. Upon returning to the trail, we rode a couple more miles before the trail seemed to end. Prior to our ride, we read instructions for navigating from the temporary end of the trail to the Forest Park CTA station; however, we somehow managed to miss a turn and wound up on a busy highway.
Joyce and I pulled out our smart phones and tried to figure out the best route to the CTA station. The new bike feature in google maps is usually extremely helpful so that was my first strategy. The map indicated that we were about 3 miles from the CTA station, and it gave me the option to return via the Illinois Prairie Path. I selected that route; however, as we proceeded, the directions updated to a new route which took us along a busy road (Roosevelt Hwy). For safety, we decided to ride on the sidewalk.
After a mile, we stopped at a convenience store and asked whether we were on the best route to the CTA Station. The clerk was unsure but directed us to the fire station located directly behind their building. I rode over to the station, and a fireman who was just getting off duty confirmed that we were on the shortest route. After a couple more miles, Google Maps indicated that we should turn left and that the station would be on our left. I did not see the station so I kept riding. Fortunately, Google Maps directed me to the next closest CTA station. Frustrated, I asked a couple waiting in their car at an intersection for directions to the CTA station; they laughed and pointed a few feet down the street. We pulled into the Harlem/Forest Park station about 2:50 PM.
It took about 25 minutes to ride the Blue CTA train back downtown to the Clinton station. After deboarding at Clinton, we realized that there was not an elevator up to the street level. We had two options: 1) carry our bikes up two flights of stairs, or 2) push them onto the escalator. We chose the escalator! The weight of our panniers on the back of our bikes paired with the natural downward pull of gravity almost knocked me off my feet as I started up the escalator. I managed to get my balance just as I glanced back and saw Joyce falling backward. Fortunately, a strong man behind her caught her as she was falling and helped her regain a grip on her bike. At the top of the escalator, the attendant told us that we had to climb about 20 steps to the street level. The Good Samaritan who helped Joyce navigate the escalator offered to carry Joyce’s bike, and she helped me carry mine. After reaching the top of the stairs, we had a short two block walk north on Clinton to Union Station.
As we entered the Amtrak waiting area, we noticed a long line of passengers forming to our left. I asked the attendant at the front of the line for directions to our train, and he indicated that we needed to get in the line behind him. He leaned over and asked us if we were seniors, and we responded “Yes.” He directed us to Gate E where we were quickly checked in with virtually no wait. Sometimes it pays off to be old:-)
The conductor was extremely anxious about us boarding our bikes because there were no bike racks on the train. Realizing that we held bike tickets, he had no choice but to figure out a solution. He helped us board the dining car and asked us to secure our bikes in a handicap area, which normally was reserved for wheelchairs. We fastened our bikes to the railing with bungee cords and proceeded to find a seat.
As the train pulled out of Chicago! I headed to the dining car to buy supper. Although my watch said 4:00, it was 5:00 Atlanta time, and it had been six hours since I ate lunch. Joyce and I located a table in the dining car, ate our dinner, and then returned to our seats for the remainder of the trip.
Our train arrives in Flint, Michigan about 10:00 PM. We plan to spend the next two nights at the Holiday Inn Express near the Amtrak Station and ride the Per Marquette Trail tomorrow. This has been a long day, but it was quite a transportation adventure!
Illinois Prairie Trail
Joyce on Illinois Prairie Trail
Wildflowers on Illinois Prairie Trail