Ride 46: Bluffing on the Mississippi

  Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides 

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Alton, IL       April 10, 2005

The Illinois Department of Transportation built the Vadalabene River Road Bikeway from Alton to Grafton as a demonstration project in 1976. A quarter-century after our nation's bicentennial, it remains one of the most scenic bike paths in Illinois. The path is named for Sam Vadalabene, an Illinois state senator who supported bike trails (the Vadalabene Nature Trail a mere dozen miles to the southeast is also named for him, which could be confusing). As the name implies the Vadalabene River Road Bikeway runs parallel to the Great River Road along the Mississippi River from Alton to Pere Marquette State Park.

Since there was still a chill in the morning air when I arrived in Alton, I stopped to see a few things around town before I began my ride. My first stop was a monument dedicated to Robert Wadlow. This man loomed large over Alton--he was nearly nine feet tall and weighed 490 pounds! Wadlow was a friendly man, a gentle giant, and he was much-loved in this town. Sadly, his unusual enormity led to an early death at age 22:

The next site was more infamous: the remains of Illinois' first penitentiary. The prison drew the ire of activist/reformer Dorothea Dix in 1847. In the next decade, prisoners were transferred to the new prison in Joliet. The Alton prison closed in 1860, but it soon reopened to house Confederate prisoners. Unfortunately conditions had not improved one bit, and many interred soldiers died. After the Civil War ended, it was closed for good and torn down except for the wall that stands today:

The bikeway runs along the IL 100 shoulder through Alton, but I chose to start on the west end of town at Piasa Park. The city had recently paved a parking lot there and was constructing toilet facilities. The "Piasa Bird" is a painting on the side of a cliff that vaguely imitates an Indian cliff painting of a river monster. Marquette and Joliet saw a similar painting (but not the monster itself) on their legendary journey along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Marquette's description, however, does not mention wings:

I talked to a local man as I prepared for my ride. He was still waiting for a friend when I departed. They passed me just a few miles down the road while I was taking pictures. The trail runs next to IL 100 for several miles, sometimes separated by a guardrail or a narrow, grassy median. There are some dangers in bicycling beside high bluffs:

When I took the photo above, I discovered that I had room for only a dozen photos on my camera's memory card. I hadn't packed an extra, and I didn't feel like riding back to the car for one. I went through yesterday's Hillsboro-Roubaix photos and freed enough space for a total of twenty pics. I would have to be more judicious than usual. Regardless, I couldn't pass up a photo of this landlocked houseboat ready and waiting for the Mississippi's waters to rise:

After 5.5 miles, the bike trail moves onto the IL 100 shoulders. Cyclists ride with traffic (eastbound cyclists use the opposite shoulder) and may cross over anywhere there is a gap in the median:

This is a fast section of the trail, but it has the pitfalls of riding on any highway shoulder: stones, garbage from motorists, and traffic noise. Traffic noise especially comes from the motorcyclists who flood this highway on weekends. Speaking of floods, I thought Raging Rivers WaterPark was an ironic name for a tourist attraction near Grafton, a town that has been ravaged by the Mississippi's flood waters.

Bicyclists are not allowed to ride IL 100 through Grafton. Riders are directed south, passing behind the town's tourist district. This is the only place where the trail runs along the bank of the Mississippi River:

West of Grafton, this cross commemorates the point where in August 1673 Marquette and Joliet first entered what became Illinois:

The path gets away from the highway a bit for two miles, becoming hilly and curvy. The trail is littered with leaves, branches, sand, and rocks, but wooden fences prevent cyclists from tumbling into ravines. I turned around at Pere Marquette State Park. The park's lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression:

On the way back I paused to watch the Brussels Ferry from my perch on the bike path:

The ride west beneath the awesome bluffs was neat, but the ride back to Piasa Park was more scenic because I could view them from across IL 100:

After the path separated from IL 100 once again, I came upon a terrible accident. There were two fire trucks and an ambulance, and lots of people were gathered around someone lying on the trail. Since the bike path is near the highway, it was unclear whether the injured person was a cyclist riding the trail or a motorcyclist who had run off the road. I walked my bike around the assemblage and resisted the urge to look. I wouldn't want someone seeing me in that condition, so out of respect I choose not to gawk.

Along the ride, I had stopped many times to take pictures or write notes for my book. I had to wonder about the random luck that may have saved my life. Had I taken fewer pictures, I could have been there when that accident happened. If a motorcyclist had run off IL 100, could I have possibly reacted in time to avoid it?

The accident cast a pall over the rest of my ride. I stopped at Clifton Terrace Park to collect my thoughts and take a picture I had skipped earlier when I thought I might run out of memory card space. In the mid-1800s Louis Stiritz built terraces for his vineyard along with this wine cellar:

About half a mile past the park, I noticed that my rear tire was low on air. I'll be the first to admit that I'm downright lazy about fixing bike problems. This one particularly bugged me because I had new tires at home to put on the bike. I didn't want to remove the tire, patch the tube, and remount the tire, then go home and take it off again. Instead, I tried pumping a little air into it. I was lucky it lasted for the remaining three miles of my ride. Back at Piasa Park, I opened all the car doors to dissipate the heat built up inside. I drank some water and loaded up the bike. Then I surreptitiously changed from cycling clothes into street clothes. At 43 miles, this turned out to be the longest ride in Biking Illinois. With auto refinance rates soaring it's refreshing to see that in Illinois you can still bike a considerable distance on bike trails and not have to worry about auto refinance if you didn't want to rely on a car as your only means of transportation. While many can't give up their car, and the auto refinance rates that come with it, it's still nice to use the trails for recreation.

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