When I was 13 my father married my step-mother and we all moved to a new town, Batavia. Seeing as it was the beginning of summer and I didn't have any friends in town yet, I was on my own for passing the time that summer. With the Fox River just a few miles away I hoped on my bicycle and rode down the Prairie Path (Batavia spur) to the river to fish.
There were a lot of great paved bike paths along the river, and it wasn't long before I started riding just for the sake of riding. It became a means of escape for me, an opportunity for adventure, and my bicycle gave me the freedom to go where I wanted to go, and do what I wanted to do long before I had a car. I got hooked on biking in high school, and despite the fact that I lived in suburban sprawl, the heart of the car culture, I didn't get a car of my own until my second semester in college.
I'm back in Batavia this weekend visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday. It amazes me now just how small everything around here seems, how short the distances see now, that once seemed like epic journeys. Yesterday I dragged Carol out on the Fox River Trail on a ride all the way to its terminus in Oswego. I had never ridden the trail past Aurora side the more southern extension is fairly new and because getting through Aurora on a bike is a nightmare. On the way, I couldn't believe how quickly we clipped past local landmarks. It seemed like it was just a few blocks to Island Park in Batavia.
Today I rode in the rain, back to my friend Heather's house on the west side of North Aurora where I had left my coat last night. Just looking at it on paper, I figured it had to be a 40 minute ride. I tried to put this in perspective with my "record" ride time to Red Oak Nature Center when I worked there, 10 minutes flat. Red Oak was about half way there... had I forgotten how long it really took me to "race" to my high school job? Sure enough, I rolled past Red Oak after about 12 minutes of riding and I was at Heather's place in just over 20 minutes after casually meandering through the back-streets of North Aurora.
Even the hills around here seem smaller than they used to. The hill up Viking Drive just down the block from my parents house just doesn't seem to have as steep of a slope as it used to. Something that used to be a challenge first thing in the morning now seems like a pretty easy warm-up climb. And then there is the hill on Raddant Road from the new Middle School up towards our place. There is a ~2 block stretch there that I used to half-jokingly call "The Wall" because it was so long and steep... not it just seems like a complete joke, a big-ring climb really.
What is it that makes this area seem so "small" now? Have the years of touring and taking long day-rides put things into perspective for me? Am I used to longer commutes to get where I need to go around Madison and other places I lived?
What seem sad about all this is despite the fact that even with massive urban sprawl on the fringes of the Fox Valley communities, this area is pretty compact, and really you could get to any store, restaurant or other location you would need to use on a daily, weekly or monthly basis in an easy 2-4, or on the outside, 5 mile bike ride. But no one does. There are few places on the planet more car-centric than the west suburbs of Chicago. None of the streets in the sprawlly subdivisions go straight anywhere, and the main thoroughfares around here are no place to be on a bicycle. And though there is an extensive network of bike paths, most of them are designed around recreation only, and few take you where you really need to go.
I'm honestly at a lost as to what to say beyond that. Such a great opportunity lost here in these cute old river towns. In the rush to grow bigger and bigger, there wasn't much thought about what makes community better. Even the river itself seems like a forgotten treasure, an amazing resource that to most people probably just seems like a barrier to travel rather then the beautiful lively natural place it could be. So part of me still has a warm spot in my heart for the Fox Valley, but a big part of me is quite happy that we now live in a place that's a lot more forward thinking.