It was 6:45am when Susan McConnell and I stood on the corner of Haegers Bend Road and Lake Cook Road in Barrington Hills, Illinois. Sprinkles of sunlight hit the pavement. The air was cool and pleasant. The sky spread its blue hue for as far as we could see. It was a good day for a walk. Sometimes travel doesn’t need to include flights, trains or cars, nor exotic places and people. The walking journey, or spaziergang as the Germans call it, is a chance to slow down, observe, and refresh one’s outlook. As residents of Barrington, Illinois Susan and I had driven down Lake Cook Road thousands of times. Yet we had never walked its length and knew of no one who had. After traveling across the world this past year, I longed to explore my own backyard.
One reason why Lake Cook Road appealed to me was the impossibility of getting lost. It’s a straight shot through the towns of Barrington Hills and Barrington. Geographically, Lake Cook Road serves as a dividing line for four counties. The road goes through wooded areas, meadows, horse farms, a town center and surrounding residences. This route would remind us of what a unique area we live in. Also, Susan has been talking about hiking the Dolomites in Italy for nearly a year, but I haven’t bitten that bait yet. Lake Cook Road would be a good way to learn of our hiking ability.
We began walking east. The sun had not yet dried the misty morning dew. Moisture on the grass immediately soaked through our shoes. Lake Cook Road a.k.a. County Line Road in this area has no sidewalk, worn path, or paved shoulder to walk on. At first, the traffic was light but grew heavier. Large trucks barreled down the two-lane road at a speed of at least 50mph. This was no walk in the woods. Driveways stretched back to hidden farms and estates. Tree shadows pranced atop the road. I asked Susan why she decided to come with me. “I knew it would be scary, which I don’t like feeling, but I like new experiences – adventures with a beginning and an end,” she said.
We took precautions to avoid the hazards of walking down this road. Susan wore a bright green effervescent shirt and a straw hat. I was wearing a blaze orange billed cap and a hunting vest with blaze orange across the shoulders. We walked against traffic so we could see what was heading toward us. My strategy was to let the drivers see us from a distance. When the vehicle got closer we would move off the pavement so as not to interfere with traffic or scare a driver with our sudden roadside appearance. As “rush hour” went on, we spent most of our walk off road with wet feet. We didn’t pack birdcalls and binoculars. We carried water bottles and iPhones.
The whooshing sound of vehicles drowned out the bird songs that I knew were being sung somewhere beyond the traffic noise. I began to estimate the size and weight of vehicles behind us by the whooshing sound they made. I likened it to the rushing sound of white water on a canoe trip that eventually dissipates. Our pace was leisurely. We had no time frame or agenda. After one mile, on the south side of the road a green sign indicated the beginning of Cook County and the end of Kane County. No litter was scattered along the road. Two pulverized raccoon hides caused us both to pause at the same time. We moved quickly to get beyond the stench of the carcasses. Ahead was another dead raccoon not yet flattened. It retained its furry creature profile.
The sloping roadside terrain required foot dexterity. We could feel our leg muscles stretching. The balancing act was worth it. We admired the abundant shades of green and plant patterns. Purple and white phlox were blooming and other wildflowers whose names we didn’t know. We stopped to smell the summer scent of honeysuckle bushes. The foliage also created a wooded environment that sheltered us from the sun.
We came upon Spring Creek Savannah Forest Preserve. This site is usually caught as a glimpse while in a car, but when walking our eyes rested on its beauty. We watched the catfish tussling lily pads. It was spawning season. The creek’s collar of native wild grasses swayed in the wind. Recent rain showers filled the creek’s bed. This spot had always reminded me of Ireland. Up close, I saw it as pure Illinois. It was a lovely spot to sit and rest. I didn’t say anything about the tiny red bugs on the rocks at our feet. A local group called Spring Creek Stewards has been helping maintain the ecological health and beauty of this preserve. They affectionately refer to their volunteers as “The Family.”
Nearly one and a half miles into our walk the land opened up to expansive fenced horse farms. The herds of horses were absent while workers power washed the fences. It is here where one knows they are no longer in typical suburbia.
At Ridge Road, we left McHenry County and walked into Lake County. On the south side of the road was Countryside School. A sign out front reminded the children to “Read, read, read.“ Good advice. A reader is never alone, especially in summer while lying in the grass with a book. The school’s architecture is the same as the Rosyln Road School in Barrington. There’s one big difference between the two. Students can walk to Rosyln. Students at Countryside must arrive and depart by bus or car due to the hazards of walking on and across Lake Cook Road.
Susan and I talked about all sorts of things – our families, our next work projects, house projects, what we love and what we don’t love. We must have been deep in thought when we passed the Jesuit Retreat House and Barrington Hills Country Club unnoticed. These two long established fixtures on Lake Cook Road are ones I tend to notice while driving. Barrington Hills Country Club has the longest golf hole in the area. The Jesuit Retreat house offers three-day silent retreats that can be challenging for anyone who loves to communicate.
Susan told me her leg hurt. I don’t think we were even half way to our destination. I was afraid she might want to end the walk. I pulled the Doug card. “Would Doug stop?” I asked, referring to her husband’s amazing ability to take on some of the biggest, most treacherous open water swim challenges in the world. He swam the English Channel and around Manhattan Island. Susan smiled because it was not often that I pulled the Doug card. She quickly responded, “No.” We continued walking. We rested on a small blue bench at the end of someone’s driveway. The bench was balanced on two wide tree stumps. “I’m surprised no one has honked at us,” Susan said. Moments later a car honked. “That was a hello honk, not a get off the road honk,” she interpreted.
When a sidewalk came into site at Old Hart Road, we got excited. Our pace quickened. We crossed the street to visit Pederson Preserve, a parcel of prairie land adjacent to Flint Creek. The Barrington Area Conservation Trust purchased this land and keeps it protected. Its walking path did not beckon us. The bright cool morning was over. It was hot. Summer hot.
The usual flurry of student activity at Barrington High School was halted by summer break. On the school’s fields no marching bands played. The parking lot and tennis courts were empty. We walked by my favorite cottage house that stands feet from the Canadian National Railroad tracks. The freight trains have become more frequent and require me to adjust my travel time by ten minutes in case I’m stopped by one. Recent accidents have caused congestion and delays in Barrington. But I never pass the tracks without imagining what it would be like to be a piece of freight on the train.
Just beyond the train tracks was Hager’s outdoor plant shop where personal service is guaranteed. Each year they pack my Christmas tree into or onto whatever vehicle I pull up in. We passed the Barrington Historical Society and the Octagon House before reaching the Jewel Osco grocery store. Inside Susan purchased a bottle of ibuprofen. She popped more than the suggested amount into her mouth. I warned her to read the label. “It’s okay,” she assured me.
We passed under the marquee of the historic Catlow Theatre. An online crowd funding effort raised enough money for a digital projector in just days. We looked up across the street at a new outdoor rooftop lounge. Some people don’t like the beat music played in the restaurant, but I do.
A car nearly hit us when we crossed Hough Street in downtown Barrington. Hough is also known as Route 59, or Barrington Road. Lake Cook Road also takes on a new name in the town center. It becomes West Main Street or East Main Street depending on what side of Hough Street you are on.
A half block south on Cook Street we took a short detour to visit Peter Yankala, owner of Phillips Men’s Wear. He’s tall, handsome and always impeccably dressed. Susan wouldn’t stop at a nearby restaurant for lunch because she said, “Were oddly dressed and somewhat ragged.” Yet she wanted to stop at the most fashion-forward store in town. Peter saw our hats and insisted on taking a few pictures. We obliged, posing as gals from the outback.
We ducked into the Bread Basket for lunch. Sam, the owner, welcomed us. Susan told him what we were up to and he smiled. “That’s good, it’s healthy to walk. I walked two miles once,” he said. We ordered a light lunch of stuffed avocado. During our last stretch we passed Northwest Highway, St. Paul’s cemetery, houses that dated back to the 1800’s and faded subdivisions. The swimming pool at Fox Point was open. The sidewalk offered us a cushion from the road.
At 1:10pm we reached Ela Road the east boundary of Barrington and our final destination. We had walked 8.83 miles or 21,509 steps. We burned 838 calories. We sat in the grass under the shade of a tree and waited for a ride home. I recalled the miles of dirt road I had walked this past year in northern India, Nepal and other undeveloped places. They were dusty, crowded roads flanked by garbage. Under this tree, I also remembered what it felt like to be an explorer. When roads become passages to other worlds, even the ones in your own backyard.
“Wow, that was big,” Susan said, breaking my thought.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We did this all in one day.” With some weariness in her voice she added, “I know now that when we get to the Dolomites my limit will be 8 miles per day.”