Spoke & folk on the Fox
We came for the spinning and stayed for the singing
Last Labor Day Weekend, with both of our daughters away at college, my wife Debbie and I found ourselves freshly minted empty-nesters. Having some newly found alone time - and a need to train for an upcoming fall bike tour - we decided to explore one of the many bike trails in the Chicago area. Some of the suburban Chicago bike path options included the Illinois Prairie Path, Des Plaines River Trail and Fox River Trail.
I left the decision up to my wife. Debbie chose the Fox River Trail based on shopping rather than cycling considerations. On the Fox River Trail, we would be rolling through Geneva, Illinois, home of some of her favorite home accessory and knick-knack shops. After all, our inventory of potpourri was getting to dangerously low levels.
I had never ridden the Fox River Trail and was excited to explore it even if it meant overexposure to lavender scented candles and dried flower arrangements.
The Fox River Trail runs for 39.5 miles in a north-south direction from the city of Algonquin to Oswego. In Algonquin, the Fox River Trail merges with the Prairie Trail, which runs all of the way north to the Wisconsin border. For the bulk of its length, the route hugs its namesake, the Fox River. Nearly the entire trail is paved, with the exception of a short gravel section a few miles south of Algonquin. Since the trail stays close to the river, there is little elevation change along the route.
As of this writing, a half mile section of the trail is closed due to a washed out bridge section south of the city of Elgin. The Kane County Forest Preserve said that the bridge should be re-opened this fall. Needless to say, I was advised to stay off the closed section. On a subsequent bike ride, I decided to play scofflaw and check out the closed bridge. I found the bridge to be passable, but if you aren't paying attention, you and your bike could easily be swimming in the Fox River.
The Fox River Trail has a little bit of something for everyone. While hammerheads may be tempted to ride the Fox and Prairie trail all of the way north to America's Dairyland, there are plenty of noncycling alternatives to get you off the saddle. If spinning through a closed trail section is not your idea of gambling, then spinning a roulette wheel at one of two riverboat casinos may be. There's the Hollywood Casino in Aurora and the Grand Victoria Riverboat Casino in Elgin. Along the route you'll find numerous parks, forest preserves, and museums. In the town of East Dundee, you will have a hard time not stopping at a trailside Dairy Queen to reload the calories you've just burned off. In case you are looking for more organic fare, East Dundee hosts a Saturday farmer's market a few hundred yards away from the DQ.
Our Labor Day plans were to log some serious morning miles in the saddle before some equally serious shopping in the boutiques of Geneva. The ride started out at Geneva's Island Park. Island Park is located a little southwest of the intersection of State Street (Highway 38) and Bennett Street (Highway 25). A bike shop is located just north of the park along the trail. We headed south towards Batavia on a smooth tree-lined trail that shadowed the river. Soon a number of diversions turned our focused training ride into an attention deficit disorder experience.
In the Fabyan Forest Preserve we had to stop and gawk at a restored Dutch windmill, circa 1914. Before we could work up a sweat, we were strolling at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Villa Museum. The Japanese garden with its collection of ponds and walkways was too enticing to just ride by without stopping. Eventually we did make it to the end of the trail in North Aurora and retraced our route north towards the city of St. Charles.
Folk music festival
As we passed back through Island Park on the way to St. Charles, we ran into a new attraction. Heading north on the path, we started to pass cyclists and hikers with banjos and guitars strapped to their backs rather than hydration packs. This confluence of spandex and tie dye was headed to the Fox Valley Folk and Storytelling Festival, we soon learned. We initially spurned the siren songs of the would-be Guthries and pressed on to St. Charles, but vowed to return later in the afternoon for this unplugged version of Foxstock.
We logged about 25 miles of riding along the picturesque river before dropping the bikes and grabbing a spot in the grass to listen to the music at the festival. We wandered from stage to stage, and there were eight stages to choose from. Some of the stages were intimate little covered tents at ground level while a couple of the larger stages were raised. The two-day festival draws about 9,000 music fans.
Sponsored by the Geneva Park District and the Fox Valley Folklore Society, the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival will celebrate its 35th year this Labor Day Weekend (September 3-4). There are performers scheduled from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days. Sunday night will feature a barn dance followed by ghost stories after dark. The nearly 100 booked acts perform a mixture of folk, bluegrass, roots and blues. Spectators are encouraged to bring their instruments for hands-on workshops and a little jamming. More details on this year's festival can be found at www.foxvalleyfolk.com.
As I heard some familiar protest songs ring out, I must admit I felt a little bit out of place. Even though I am a card carrying member of AARP, I got the sense that some of my fellow audience members had burned their draft cards during the 1960s. The performers played banjos, harmonicas, fiddles and harps. I didn't see a single electric guitar. In a casual discussion with a fellow audience member I showed my naivetè by disclosing that my favorite Bob Dylan album was the electrified Highway 61 Revisited. Since I did not know about the festival when we racked up the bikes, I left my Hohner blues harmonica at home. Back in the day I could wail out a mean version of Oh Susannah, but I was way out of my league trying to keep up with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton on Willie Dixon's "Spoonful."
One of the stages is reserved for storytellers. I briefly considered participating and telling about the day I beat Greg LeMond in the Chequamegon 40 mountain bike race (his bike broke and he did not finish), but pure fantasy stories were discouraged.
We had a great day cycling next to the Fox. The sun was shining, the river was flowing and the music was pleasing. Debbie and I enjoyed listening to old standard covers of songs by the Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Even better from my perspective, the time spent at the festival cut significantly into our shopping time in the "cute" shops of downtown Geneva.
We did eventually meander into a few boutiques that answered the age old question "Where have all the flowers gone?" That's easy; They went into a dried flower centerpiece, every one, and it looks great on our dining room table.
Mark Ollinger is a tone deaf CFO for a tradeshow marketing company in the Chicago suburbs. He and his wife Debbie live in Barrington, Illinois.