A lot of my professional colleagues are always surprised to hear that I’m not desperate to get out of SIU. While the University may have it’s issues, I really love the area. I just about freak out anytime I have to drive in Tulsa, St. Louis, or Nashville these days, and I thought I was going to have a stroke when I had to drive in Chicago last summer. I’ve never had a parking sticker on my car in Carbondale, and my commute to the office is 5 minutes door-to-door by bike. We can hit the farmer’s market, co-op grocery, international grocery, liquor store, and commercial grocery and be home with everything put away in two hours. The Child Development Lab at SIU is one of the best day care facilities in the nation, and that’s a huge relief (and it’s a one minute walk from our offices, and three minute drive from home). It’s nice to live in a small college town.
But, best of all, Southern Illinois is really far south. The weather is almost identical to what I was used to in Nashville TN. We’re actually only about 75 miles north of Nashville (and another hundred miles West). In contrast, Champaign-Urbana is 200 miles due north, and is a whole different world. Chicago is nearly 400 miles north.
As a bike racer, the difference is huge. Some of my Team Mack teammates have come here for Winter training camps, and Dave Stone (now with Druber’s Delta squad) used to run a “spring” break camp in the So. Ill area for riders from Champaign/Urbana. The 200-400 miles difference is huge at that time of year. In the first week of March, the average high temp in Chicago will be near freezing, while in So. Ill it will average 50 degrees. Down here, we train outdoors all winter, and it’s awesome! The roads are rough, but there are few cars, and the trails are incredible.
Today we celebrated Martin Luther King day by exploring some of the Shawnee National Forest on cyclocross bikes (mtbs are too slow on the transition areas, and you feel like you’re wasting your tires when you ride long road sections). I finally found a hidden rustic trailhead only 7.5 miles from Carbondale. It’s hard to justify putting a bike on a car in Carbondale, but despite our rural setting, there aren’t many trails in the campus area. We managed to wind around through the forest for a spectacular four hour ride. There were a few hairy creek crossings (at 36 degrees, you don’t really want to get wet), but it was still a great ride. It’s pretty incredible to be able to ride for hours and never see a paved road, and mostly be on single track trail.
Southern Illinois is also very hilly and scenic. Unlike the frozen, ugly, flat tundra of Central and Northern Illinois, So Ill is situated in the hill country. Today we were climbing up and descending huge rocky bluffs, admiring caves and ice formations on the sides of limestone cliffs. All kinds of wildlife are abundant, and we regularly see Bald Eagles, foxes, coyote, turkey, timber rattlers, deer, and varied other critters. And, I even spotted a cougar last year.
Unfortunately, my buddy Dave snapped his derailleur off just as we were exiting the trail area. Sometimes sticks jump out and bite you at the least opportune moment. Fortunately, we had tools and chain links, so we set him up as a single speeder and continued on our way. Tomorrow, I may try to do the same thing in the snow (if that happens), only I think that instead of running the Etherton Gauntlet past the scary squatters who have closed off the Forest Service road, I’ll work my way back to Von Jakobs’ vineyard for a glass or wine or so….