Taking the Prairie Path: Seeking Sustainability in the Suburbs

By Tracey Bianchi 7-16-2009

090716-bike-pathJust a half-mile or so south of our home is the Illinois Prairie Path. It's an old rail line that was converted to a walking and biking path in the early 1960s. An electric line actually, that once hauled commuters back and forth from the western suburbs to the city. After rail service ceased on this line, a naturalist named May Theilgaard Watts decided that letting this slice of the suburbs go the way of track housing would be a tragedy, so she rallied the troops and with partnership from DuPage County, helped form the Illinois Prairie Path Corporation. Thanks May!

For me, this little crushed gravel trail that runs 55 miles east and west is a tiny respite from the sidewalks and alleys that surround me in my town. As far as trails go, lovely as it is, the Prairie Path is not really all that majestic or lovely.

That said, the rush of passing a suburban parent with a bike trailer the size of an SUV can inject you with a healthy dose of adrenaline. You make the move left to pass. You shout, "On your left!" And then you hope that you can pass fast enough to not hit the cyclists from the oncoming side head on. I suppose this should not be underestimated. It's just that there are no boulders or single-track involved.

It is, of course, super flat (rail line + Illinois topography (or lack thereof) = flat, flat, flat). And it's very crowded (read David Goetz's bit on this trail in his book Death by Suburb, if you want to hear more about lines of people, spandex of every color, and uber urban weekend warriors). But in an urban area boasting around 8 million people, things get crowded. It's part of the deal.

I run the path about four times per week. I just love it. As soon as I turn west on to the entrance to the path that is closest to my home, I am instantly covered in shade. It is humid and cool, the ground is damp, and it feels all foresty and earthy. You really can hardly see the sunshine through the thick canopy of Oak and Maple trees that lock arms above the path. The gravel is always damp. There are puddles there for at least a day after a rain. And it seriously feels about 10 degrees cooler than the air on the sidewalk. I love it. At noon it feels like sunset. At dusk it feels like midnight. At dawn it makes me want to wake up and do something marvelous.

This first section that I run is dark and shady. Then I cross a busy street and enter an area that makes the previous section feel like an open field. It is even more dramatic. Perhaps another five degrees cooler and never a spot of sun. I call it the dark and spooky section. I love this part of the path. And it is only, maybe, 200 meters long, but it is glorious.

The other day I was running the path. I'd been on a week-long break-up with running and had not been there in a full seven days. I laced up my shoes, headed south, and moved along. I was listening to Matt Costa. Mr. Pitiful always makes me run faster. I am such a dork. I crossed that busy road and prepared to enter into the "spooky part" when suddenly it was not so dark anymore. It was actually quite bright and I sort of started to freak out. I looked up at where the former canopy of trees had been and saw these ghastly power lines that I'd never seen before. Apparently they'd been there all along and the power company decided that everyone was getting all tangled up together. So they chopped them.

Now they don't chop the trees down completely; they just hack off the tops. If you've never seen this, it's sort of like when you bite the crown off a head of broccoli. You still have a green stump but all the majesty is gone. And they sliced some big limbs too. Most they carted away in wood chippers I am sure, but a few fresh logs were still lying about. They were twice the size of my body. They were big limbs. I was sad. It would be 10-20 years before these trees made it so high again. If they did.

I spewed internal venom at the power company and then stopped myself. Those power lines were less than a mile from my home. Chances are they powered up my television, lamps, and this little laptop from which I type. I am such a dichotomy, on the one hand wanting to "stick it to the man" (the man being power companies or the logging industry or someone even bigger like the oil industry). On the other hand, I want lights, paper, and gasoline for my car. I also want the spooky part of the Prairie Path back.

I cannot have it all. I should not have it all. But how do I strike a balance? And let's be honest, I shut my lights off and rarely run my AC. I do what I can. But people down the street use floodlights 24/7 and chill their homes to 70 degrees in the summer. So does my little effort even help? And the trees have already been cut.

Yes, my effort helps. It is something. And as the saying goes, something is better than nothing. And it is indeed true that if everyone does their somethings, something will change. So talk it up. Flip off the lights. Turn off the AC. Run your heart out in the shade and then be sure that you can keep that shade. Small things do add up big if we all do them. Sounds cliche, but it is true.

P.S. -- Want an example? At the end of March the World Wildlife Fund sponsors a little gig called "Earth Hour." All over the world, for just one hour, people shut off unnecessary lights. Major cities and nations around the world report massive drops in energy use. Thousands of pounds of carbon emissions are kept out of the air. It's just a little bit, but a bunch of people makes a big difference. Make every hour earth hour, baby.

portrait-tracey-bianchiTracey Bianchi blogs about finding a saner, greener life from the heart of the Chicago suburbs. She wrote Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan 2009) and blogs at traceybianchi.com.

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