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52 Hike Challenge – Hike 17 – Route 66: A Geographic Journey, Towanda, Illinois

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 17 – Route 66: A Geographic Journey, Towanda, Illinois

When I was in high school, I had a very influential teacher. He continues to be an important mentor to this day. But back in the “olden days”, he inspired me to become involved in a new project of his: transforming a section of Historic Route 66 from barricaded pavement to an educational linear park. It was a big task, but if you’ve ever met Mr. Walk you know not to underestimate him. The man gets things done.

My first hands on exposure to the project was pulling weeds after school one day. I know that doesn’t sound captivating, but it was. I was immediately hooked on the history and romance of traveling this historic road. Thinking about it now, it was probably the earliest seed of adult wanderlust in my brain. I spent many hours over the next few years working on creating informational markers, staining benches (so much staining!), planting beautiful gardens and broadening my knowledge of the Mother Road.

When I was a senior in high school we embarked on one of our biggest projects: designing, painting and installing eight 4 ft x 8 ft murals, one representing each state Route 66 passes through. Great care was taken to make sure these murals would weather as slowly as possible. Roofed shelters and UV-blocking plexiglass were installed with each mural, and it’s great to see each piece hold up pretty well over the last fifteen years.

For Hike 17 of my 52 Hike Challenge I revisited my beloved park, and took some photos so I could share the experience! I know some of you reading were involved in the early stages of this project. I hope you enjoy seeing your work still shining in Towanda, Illinois!

The trail starts with a trio of flagpoles flying the US, Illinois and Route 66 flags. There is also a welcome sign, informational pamphlets in several languages and a guest book that has been signed by people from all over the world. I’m not the only one captivated by the Mother Road.

As you travel along the path, you’ll see large gardens with labels on many of the plants, trees planted on the roadside (many with memorial markers), Burma Shave signs, informational placards, birdhouses, benches to rest on and the murals.

The murals are placed in the order in which you would travel the states if you were starting the Route 66 drive in Chicago and finishing in L.A.

I’m so grateful to have had teachers who valued service learning, and I’m especially grateful I was able to work on a project that is still┬áthriving. It’s great to be able to visit, but it’s also great to know there are many other people learning about and enjoying the project as well.

Have you ever traveled Route 66 or participated in a historical/travel/outdoor service project in your community? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Chicago Quick Trip

Chicago Quick Trip

Over Memorial Day weekend, my good friend Jess came to visit good ‘ol Illinois. We took a very short trip to Chicago, took some photos and thought I’d share!

Since we were staying overnight, we needed a place to sleep. We hit the jackpot when we found a vintage Airstream available on Airbnb. Jess and I both had wanted to stay in one, so booking this was a no-brainer. It turns out that our Airbnb hosts were some of the most warm, kind and hospitable people I’ve ever met, and after chatting with them over the two days we stayed with them, they’ve left a permanent impression on us. So thanks Andy and family!!

When we weren’t hanging out with our awesome Airbnb hosts, we were in the Loop, doing some sightseeing and meeting up with some old friends. On our first night in the city we grabbed a snack at the Berghoff, a historic German restaurant, then passed by the Willis (what will always be the SEARS, to me) Tower, the Cloud Gate (the “bean”), Millenium Park where we caught part of a concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Lions at the Art Institute and picked Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park as our meeting point with the rest of our group. After grabbing a few drinks, Jess and I headed out for famous Chicago pizza at Giordano’s.

On day 2 we did more wandering. Since we were short on time we mostly stuck to free, outside, walkable attractions. We spent quite a bit of time on Michigan Avenue and the Magnificent Mile where we saw the Chicago Avenue Water Tower and Pumping Station. We headed up to the Signature Lounge in the Hancock Building for brunch and impressive views of the city. After brunch we wandered by the Tribune Tower and discovered some free fun at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. We finished the day wandering along the Chicago River and making a quick visit to Navy Pier.

The highlight of the entire weekend for me, though, was running into the Puppet Bike. This is a one-man show that might just be the happiest place on earth. If you’re ever feeling down, just pull up some Puppet Bike videos on YouTube or search #puppetbike on Instagram and I bet you feel better.

PUPPET BIKE!!!
PUPPET BIKE!!!

Overall it was a great, quick visit to the Windy City and it was fun to show a visitor around! What’s your favorite Chicago attraction? Tell me in the comments!

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 16 – Starved Rock State Park

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 16 – Starved Rock State Park

For Hike 16 of my 52 Hike Challenge, I headed to a state park close to home, yet one I’ve sadly neglected: Starved Rock State Park. The park borders the Illinois River and contains 18 canyons formed by glacial melt. Legend says the park’s name comes from members of the Illinois tribe who starved to death while hiding from members of the Ottawa tribe.

My friend and I hiked two of these trails: the Starved Rock Trail that overlooks the Illinois River and French Canyon so we could see some of the park’s famous waterfalls. Both hikes were easy, but there were quite a few stairs involved.

We hiked the Starved Rock Trail first, which opened up to a great overlook. This trail is right next to the Lodge and food, which makes it a great end point to your day – get in some views, then sit back with a snack and relax. However, we had a jam-packed day and couldn’t stay to eat at the park, so we hiked it first. We couldn’t go to Starved Rock and not hike the namesake trail!

Next, we hiked French Canyon. Turns out we went a little too far and wound up in Wildcat Canyon, but doing a little extra walking never hurt. This trail was through some pretty heavy canopy which meant it was shady, but extremely humid and buggy. Definitely need bug spray in the canyons!

Both trails were absolutely packed. It’s great to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, but there were definitely some trail etiquette issues. It was a beautiful Memorial Day weekend and I suspect that brought out a lot of novice/casual hikers. However, I think this park is always popular. A few weeks after our hike the park had to close temporarily because there was no parking. All this to say, hiking short, popular trails here probably isn’t for you if you like a more secluded/solitary experience.

Overall we had a great time, and it was nice to be able to quickly knock out a couple different trails. I would love to return in winter when the falls (and crowds) are frozen.

Have you been to Starved Rock or another favorite state park? Tell me about it in the comments!

Lincoln Day

Lincoln Day

Hailing from the Land of Lincoln, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about him. Numerous school field trips, home state pride and an interest in Civil War history meant I had no shortage of Lincoln info growing up. And yet, I’m still fascinated by our 16th president and his tumultuous yet remarkable life. When I realized I would be spending some time in Illinois without other obligations I decided I had to have a “Lincoln Day” and go tour some of my favorite Lincoln sites.

I got extra lucky with my Lincoln Day plans. A good friend who shares my interest in Civil War history came from NYC for her first visit to Illinois and we were able to incorporate the Lincoln trip into her visit. It was meant to be!

Our first stop in Springfield, Illinois was the free tour of Lincoln’s home which was also the only house he ever owned. The tour is short but very informative and our National Park Service guide, Ranger Rosie, was great. She pointed out ways to view Lincoln as a father and husband, not just a legend and hero, by having us imagine him working at his desk late at night, sequestering the family pets into the informal rooms or playing on the floor with his children. It was a great way to humanize Lincoln and made us feel closer to him as a man. Another way Rosie connected her visitors to the past was to encourage us to hold onto the bannister when heading upstairs – the same bannister Lincoln himself used. I have a hard time imagining our historic idols as everyday people, and these small suggestions by our tour guide helped. The NPS staff was so friendly we had to stop and grab a photo with them and Buddy Bison after the tour.

Our next stop was my favorite museum of all time – the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. This museum is just perfection. It’s the perfect size. You can move through quickly if you’re short on time, but could also easily fill the time on a longer visit. The exhibits are laid out in an easy to follow arrangement with a natural flow. However, the best part of the exhibits is their effectiveness in telling an emotional story. And both of the shows left me misty-eyed! Some of my favorite displays in the museum are the Civil War soldier stories, the media display in which Tim Russert gives a modern day political news broadcast about Lincoln and his opponents, a recreation of Lincoln lying in state and the bedroom where Lincoln’s son Willie lies very ill, with an eerie clock ticking away the seconds and ballroom music plays in the distance as the Lincoln family entertains at the White House. We were lucky to visit during the last week an exact replica of Lincoln’s hearse was on display, which I was very excited to view. If you’re anywhere near Springfield, Illinois…GO to this museum. You won’t regret it. I love it so much I became a member on this trip!

Our last Lincoln stop of the day was his tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. We got a great tour of the family tomb area, rubbed bronze Abe’s nose for good luck, and visited his original tomb.

The day was a great way to revisit an important piece of US history, and you can’t help but feel for poor old Abe. His life was so tragic. It seems like every win was followed by serious tragedy. Despite that, he was an important leader, and I’m so proud to be from the Land of Lincoln!

Have you visited any cool Lincoln sites? Or do you have another presidential interest? Tell me about it in the comments!

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 15 – Constitution Trail, Normal, Illinois

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 15 – Constitution Trail, Normal, Illinois

Hike 15 of my 52 Hike Challenge was more of an urban hike, on the Constitution Trail in Normal, Illinois. This trail is a huge asset to the community, connecting many parts of the city over 24 miles. While it serves some practical purpose (I used to ride my bike to work on it), it also gives members of the community a place to “get away”, with its tree-lined and sometimes canopied route. I needed to run an errand in Uptown Normal and it was a beautiful spring day, so I threw on some gym clothes, had my mom drop me off and walked home via The Trail. It is a short mile and a half, but there’s so much to see and enjoy along the way.

I started off by having lunch at nearby Medici. Gotta stay fueled for the “hike” home!

The restaurant is only about two blocks from The Trail, but along the way is the historic Normal Theater. After passing by the theater you enter The Trail near Uptown Station.

Once I was on The Trail I was surrounded by the wonderfully dense, green plants along my route home.

I was able to take The Trail within just a few blocks of home, cutting through the playground area of my elementary school to finish my trek. The gardens around the school were blooming and these bold iris were my favorite.

Iris at Colene Hoose Elementary School
Iris at my elementary school

Although I’ve spent countless hours on the Constitution Trail and consider it my entry point to hiking, I never ever get tired of it. I was very grateful to have this perfect spring day to enjoy it and other treasures in my hometown! Do you have a favorite hometown hike?

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 14 – Cahokia Mounds

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 14 – Cahokia Mounds

Hike 14 of my 52 Hike Challenge was a Native American historical extravaganza. I love learning about Native cultures and the ancient city of Cahokia is a fascinating piece of history that has been studied and preserved in Southern Illinois. I had planned to visit the museum (free, $7 donation suggested for adult visitors) and then hike a bit and climb Monk’s Mound. Luckily I arrived just before the only tour of the day, an hour-long walking history lesson through an important area of the city.

The tour was excellent and our guide was very knowledgable about the site. We learned about the three types of mounds built in the city (platform mounds used to elevate elite/ceremonial buildings, conical burial mounds and ridge-top mounds that are a bit of a mystery but probably used to measure direction and distance as they are placed at regular and intersecting intervals). We also learned about different areas of the site like the palisade wall and the common area called the Grand Plaza, artifacts found in the largest active archeological site on the continent, clues about the residents’ extensive trading practices and possible theories about the quick and mysterious abandonment of the city (which was bigger than London in AD1250 with approximately 20,000 – 40,000 residents).

I cannot stress enough how much I recommend a stop at this UNESCO World Heritage Site if you are visiting Southern Illinois or the St. Louis area. Cahokia Mounds was only a 15 minute drive from downtown St. Louis – it’s a must do.

After the hiking tour, I continued my hike on my own by climbing the 154 steps to the top of the 100′ tall Monk’s Mound, the largest of the 120 mounds on the 2,200 acre State Historic Site┬áand┬áthe largest man-made earthen structure in North America. The views from the top were gorgeous, especially in the spring when everything was lush and green.

Again, I think this is a can’t-miss hike if you’re in the area, and is worth the effort for a day trip. Beautiful midwestern scenery, many trails to choose from, interesting features to hike and rich history make Cahokia Mounds so much more than a regular hike! I hope to visit again and try out some other trails.

Have you ever visited Cahokia Mounds or a similar Native American site?

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