Suburban Bushwhacking

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Here’s proof that you can have a delicious weekday morning adventure, complete with a very real sense of discovery, right out your front door.

The morning woke up drizzly and wet, as I pondered the change in the direction of my life over coffee and articles by Alastair Humphries. I’d been up since 5am, and the combined effects of kick-the-the ass reading and caffeine boosted me out of the chair and out of my house, where I stood on the front stoop for a brief moment, wondering: what next?

Then I started walking. Trying to keep off the sidewalk and pavement as much as possible, I skirted the backs of suburban houses and disused office parking lots, to the easement that runs along ComEd powerlines and follows an old rail line.

The easement is overgrown with wild plants and thistles, the footpath gravelly in places, grassy in others, worn down by dog walkers, off-road joggers and occasional gravel bike explorers. The train tracks, broken and long-abandoned, run along the west side, with thorny blackberry bushes a thriving jungle between the ancient, creosote scented ties. Vegetation is thick on both sides of the path, and the ditch under the powerlines seasonally fills with water, creating a linear wetland. In the spring and summer, the dominant sound is the incessant trill of the territorial red-winged blackbird. On this late summer day, the buzz of insects prevailed.

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I hiked along, thinking that at some point the easement would intersect the North Branch Trail, but I wasn’t quite sure where that point was and how long a hike I was in for. I resisted checking my phone, since I wanted to preserve the element of the unknown. Plus, it was early, the path was quite beautiful — who cares how long the hike would take?

After I crossed Lake Avenue in Wilmette, I started to have second thoughts. The path opened up to a gravelly dumping ground for some company or utility, and continued along the rear end of a self-storage facility. I was this close to turning around to brave the traffic crossing on Lake Ave again. But instead, I pushed on. Eventually, the greenery along the path resumed, and even got thicker. Until the path entirely disappeared. What the…? I might have to turn around after all. But there must be a path, I reasoned with myself, armpit-deep in teasels, I know this comes through somewhere on the other side!

So I pushed on, covered in burrs. I resorted to walking on the railroad ties, which — though inconveniently spaced for a my natural gait — were at least somewhat weed-free. Why were they weed-free? That’s when it hit me: I was standing on an old railroad bridge that I knew was somewhere around here. The tall weeds obscured the river from view and that’s why the bridge came as a complete surprise!

Gingerly, I walked out onto it, hovering over the murky river current, and took a 360° view: a car bridge to the east, stencil graffiti on a cement block, a great blue heron perched on a low branch, stately, but regrettably too skittish to pose for a photo. And all around, silence and solitude against the ubiquitous din of cars in the distance, people rushing off to work everywhere, unaware that right here, on this thin forgotten slice of suburban wasteland, was quiet beauty, waiting to be discovered.