Discovering people discovering Illinois

(Photo above: Jacob, Ramona, JC and Melanie)

For five years, Ders Anderson from Openlands has been the American Discovery Trail Northern Illinois coordinator. State coordinators keep the ADT route updated, work on local trail issues that impact it, and serve as route guides/help desk to through-hikers. But in five years, Ders hasn't had much to do. Illinois has two ADT routes, one through scenic and hilly southern Illinois and the more urban, prairie land option across northern Illinois. Most ADT hikers under Ders's term have been choosing the southern route, and any trekking across the northern route haven't notified or needed Ders.

Until now. Ders has been relatively swamped this spring and summer, with six different through hikers contacting his office for route help, camping advice, or just to give him a heads up that they'll be coming through. 

Sometimes he's had to play home stay broker. There aren't any campgrounds along the northern Illinois ADT between the Indiana state line and the I&M Canal State Trail west of Joliet. That's why Ders called me on Friday looking for a home stay for Ramona from Champaign.

Ramona is on a three-week hike across northern Illinois, having been dropped off Sunday in Munster by her family to follow the ADT to the Mississippi River. Following the route maps, she hiked up the Pennsy Greenway into Lansing to connect with the Thorn Creek Trail in Glenwood, and gave me a call from Joe Orr Woods in Chicago Heights to give her a ride to my house where she could pitch her tent in my backyard.

Ramona had mentioned she had a jogging stroller with her, but when I arrived I saw four people and three loaded strollers hanging out in the shade of a picnic pavilion. At the very start of her hike in Munster, Ramona had discovered some kindred souls. The Castro family from Delaware have been hiking the ADT since 2013. JC, Melanie and son Jacob (16) literally walked away from their home, the boat, the business, and their old lives to forge a new one guided by their faith as they hike across the country.

Ramona, who has never through-hiked before, saw meeting the Castros as a good sign that either she wasn't just crazy for setting out on her own, or she's crazy in the right way. With three years of on-the-trail living under their belts, the Castros had tons of advice to share with Ramona and some good found loot too, like a big rainbow umbrella and a rubber tie-down to fasten it to the trailer.

I told the Castros that my yard had room for their tents too, but I'd have to shuttle them since my truck wasn't big enough for all. JC graciously declined. I asked where he though they might find a camp spot, and he said "I have no idea, but no doubt we'll find one." The Castros think they'll reach the west coast by 2019.

At Camp Buchtel, I cooked Ramona a burger, she did some laundry and used the shower, then got a great night's sleep outdoors in beautiful weather for it. This morning, I shuttled her and her stroller to the Old Plank Road Trail so she could continue west. I'm sure she'll see the Castros again.

It was all very cool. I'm a sucker for the vicarious experience, and can't meet a long distance bike tourist or a through hiker without soaking up every story they have while dreaming of my own big adventure.

Ramona at Old Plank Road Trail, stroller pointed west

Ramona at Old Plank Road Trail, stroller pointed west

I haven't thought much about the ADT and the people who walk it, but it's got me thinking now. The Quad Cities Convention & Visitor's Bureau is the new ADT headquarters for trail promotion, maps, and information; I think the QCCVB will raise the visibility of the ADT substantially.  

I want to help Ders solve the camping issue in the Chicago area—maybe all it takes is better leveraging a resource like warmshowers.org or finding a couple of fire departments or police stations willing to let a through hiker pitch a tent. Maybe Illinois Trail Corps could build some tent sites. The lack of running water fountains on the I&M Canal State Trail and Hennepin Canal State Trail is a huge issue. Hikers would be grateful for ADT information signs well-spaced along the route. 

If you see Ramona or the Castros out on the trail, take a moment to say hi and check if they need anything. Open your backyard or space by the barn for them if it makes sense. Enjoy their stories, and let them fill your imagination with an Illinois trail adventure of your own.