Sunday, February 21, 2016

Hiking to the end of the line...

Our group met at the Haymarket Memorial this morning to begin our walk.  I think it was a first for me that a trail head was in a cemetery, but this seemed like a good (and historic) spot to start our ramble upstream along the Des Plaines River.

The Des Plaines, in these parts, is a tired urban river - but it's not the water quality that draws me back again and again. As much as anything it's the history of the waterway that sparks my imagination.  The river itself may be unassuming, but its proximity to the Chicago River was the portage, the geographic quirk, that caused Chicago to rise here. French explorers were the first Europeans to discover what the native Americans already knew: there was a link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi - which by extension linked the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

So as we knocked around alongside the river today it made me wonder about all the others who had been here before. There are numerous cemeteries up and down the river, dating back to an era when this was the western edge of the metro area, the open lands at ends of their earth. Of course the river had once been a minor trade route centuries ago, but it also acted as an escape route for those escaping enslavement via the Underground Railroad.

The colors in the woods alongside the river were dull and muted.  The brilliant cold and snow of last week had melted, and it is too soon for visible signs of spring/  The spring migration will soon bring colorful birds back from southern lands. Today we enjoyed the company of sparrows and winter juncos, not quite yet displaced from their perches.

Humans also come and go. As we took a shortcut through a second cemetery the surnames on the old tombstones turned 19th century and German. Our group was small, but it wasn't lost on me that our hikers hailed from all over the world. We, like millions before us, came to this corner of the planet, hoping to create decent lives in this metropolis borne of a swampy river portage. And today, we left our own footprints in the muddy trails along the Des Plaines.