Saturdays on the North Branch

On Saturdays during the summer, my father would sometimes take me bike riding at the nearest forest preserve. Though I wasn’t always thrilled about being forced out of the house for outside exercise, I did enjoy in exploration via bicycle. When left to my own devices, I would spend my summertime days riding aimlessly around the neighborhoods surrounding the house, venturing out further and further each day, testing the limits of my legs and urban navigational skills. Riding through the forest preserves wasn’t quite the same, but it scratched my itch for exploration and adventure in an entirely different way.

More than a city park but far less than a state park, the preserves are chunks of woodland graciously allowed to persist within the endless tracts of suburban cul-de-sacs and strip malls that composed the greater Chicagoland. Most of them feature some form of paved or otherwise carved-out path used for walking, running, riding and, at times, even horseback riding. And while the preserves very much islands of natural beauty surrounded on all sides by heavy-trafficked highways and oversized mcmansions, they were linked to one another by continuous trails that bridged these gaps that separated them. One such trail, known as the North Branch Trail, followed the Chicago river from the northwest edge of the city roughly twenty miles to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

At the age of twelve, attempting to conceptualize twenty miles was difficult. To me, it seemed like an untenable amount of distance. Nevermind that a round trip would require forty-plus miles. My father thankfully didn’t attempt to force the full mileage of the journey on me from the get go. Over the course of the summer, we would venture a little bit farther out on the trail on each excursion, traveling from Norwood Park to Niles, to Morton Grove, to Golf. It always felt impossible on the last leg of the return trip, legs burning and back side aching from the cheap bike seat beneath me but there was a definite sense of accomplishment when I could look upon the posted trail map and see how far I had peddled myself.

Slowly, I began to dedicate the different sections of the trail to memory. Hills were great for gaining fantastic speed on the downturn but required great strength and a change in gears to climb without getting off to walk the bike. There were more than a few busy highways that had the potential to completely stall the journey for what seemed like an eternity while we waited, sweating profusely upon exposed concrete, for the walk signal to at last put a halt to the never-ending flow of high-speed commuters. Certain spots on the trail were more secluded than others, yielding rare sightings of grazing deer that amazed the little city kid that I was. Other sections were often crowded with runners and other, much faster and competitive riders. I grew to dislike the constant refrain of “on your left” as spandex-clad racers zipped by fast enough to make it seem as if we were hardly moving at all.

There was one bridge in particular that crossed over a major highway. The ascent was relatively steep and at first, I could never come close to making it to the top without hopping off the bike to walk it the rest of the way. On the flipside, it was an incredible and horrifying descent reaching what, at the time, felt like face-melting speeds. I remember both dreading and excitedly anticipating the appearance of that incline on the trail. Again, it felt like I would never be able to complete the climb without walking the bike to the top, but each time we approached it, I would get a little higher before my legs gave out.

And then one Saturday, everything fell into place. I don’t remember if my father and I made a conscious effort to actually reach the endpoint of the trail, but I remember we just kept going and going. We would stop at every trail water pump to graciously receive the cold copper-tasting ground water they provided. When scarfed down cheap gas station food on a park bench that, at the time, felt like a sumptuous picnic feast. We rode until my legs had nothing left in them, until I was coasting more than pedalling, until at last there was no trail left and the welcoming gates of the Botanic Garden sat before us.

I don’t have many good memories of my father, I never had the healthiest relationship with him. The man had a temper and often I would be on the receiving end of it. When I was fourteen, we had a falling out and soon after, my parents divorced. We were never more than cordial with one another after that. I can confidently say though, that that first completion of the trail was one of only a few fond memories that I have of him. Perhaps it had more to do with the journey itself, with exploring new territory, of reaching a destination under my power that had previously only been reached by way of car. But if I were to give my dad any credit for the way I turned out, I would have to say that he instilled in me my love of adventure that day.

Ever since then, I find myself chasing that same sensation, that sensation of seeking out new pathways branching away from the familiar. Ironically, this is in stark contrast to how I make decisions in the real world. When confronted with change, I tend to cling to what I know, what is safe, well-traveled. But if I ever want to grow, as a person, as a writer, I need to start apply what I learned on the North Branch all those years ago.

I need to remember that any new undertaking will always seem impossibly daunting at first. But, despite how ever many false starts or missteps taken, any journey can be completed as long as there is forward movement, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time.

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