By Christopher Cudworth
We tend to take our roads so much for granted these days. But perhaps we should not be so cavalier.
Twelve miles west of where I live there is a remnant of the Oregon Trail, one of several branches of the wagon trail used by settlers to get to lands further west. The indentation in the ground where the trail once passed is several feet deep. The rut was cut by wagon wheels, pressed into the earth by hundreds if not thousands of people moving to a new life.
North and east of my home is a road called Army Trail. And yes, at one point it served military needs during the Indian wars in Illinois.
South and west there is a road called Deerpath Road. It winds through an oak forest where indeed there are white-tailed deer that are now considered more of a pest than a pleasure.
All these roads have a history of sorts. Some helped define history while others are more an echo of history and the success people have had in taming the landscape.
Of all the beneficiaries of success, cyclists and runners have to thank God for good roads. On a recent charity ride our group of cyclists found ourselves on a rough patch of road extending far to the west. Its surface was pebbled and shook the bike frame as we rode along. The high winds and rough roads slowed our pace by four to five miles an hour. It was a long slog for several miles. Those difficulties only came to full light once we’d turned off that road onto an entirely smooth surface. Then we glided back into a better pace guided by a favoring wind.
“Aaaaahhhh,” someone intoned. “That’s better.”
Runners can appreciate a good road as well. The dynamics are different, but road surface still matters. So does the camber. The angle at which the road falls off to the shoulder can put a strain on the legs on a long run. We tend to run against traffic for safety reasons, but that means the left leg is often striking a surface up to an inch or two lower than the right in some cases. Your hips bear the brunt of that cambered strike force. So do your knees.
Which makes it all the more special when a road crew comes along and installs an all new tarmac where there was once a crappy, pot-holed, tarsnake-ridden road. Recently a new road was installed on one of the most popular stretches of cycling route in our country. Campton Hills Road leads out of St. Charles to crest a glacial hill about 80 feet high. It’s one of the few climbing routes in our area topped only by the rise to Town Hall Road two miles west. That route of two successive climbs is where almost everyone who bikes central Kane County starts west for open country.
But the road was in terrible shape between the soccer fields west of town and LaFox Road three miles further out. There were sections of peppered potholes where your bike would almost come to a halt the road was so bad. These also tended to be in shaded areas where any moisture or fallen debris would make the road slick as well. It was dangerous to be cycling along and come to nearly a complete halt when there were cars bearing down on your from behind. The visibility is poor in those shaded areas as the shade was deep enough to obscure even brightly dressed cyclists.
We used to run that road quite a bit when I was in high mileage mode. The shoulders are basically absent however, formed only by short sections of gravel that fall away into weed-chocked drainage ditches. As runners we’d hop to it when running down the hill on Campton Hills Road. You don’t want to waste time in sections where cars some so close to you.
And there tend to be plenty of those. Campton Hills is the primary thoroughfare for traffic headed back and forth to subdivisions between Route 38 and Route 64, both state highways.
Then there are the thrillseekers, truck blasters and kids zipping out to the Mini-disc golf course tucked into the woods beside Campton Hills Road.
We’re perhaps fortunate there have not been more incidents in which cyclists or runners get hit or hurt on that section of road. The only recent accident was a cyclist in our group who was climbing so slow his wheel got stuck in a rut and he fell over and got a concussion. That was his own fault to a degree. But the condition of the road had something to do with it too.
So there is a blessing and a curse to the fact that Campton Hills Road was recently gifted with all new asphalt. It’s a safer ride for sure. But it also gives the illusion of a potential for greater speed to motorists as well. The road climbs a series of dips and half turns and that can obscure a runner or a rider using the road for recreation.
It would not surprise at all if someday the City of St. Charles were to ban cyclists and runners from the road. There are plenty of moneyed folk out west of town who don’t like to slow their vehicles down on the way to work and other places. The same goes for another hilly road north of Campton Hills, where Burr Road takes a series of sharp, clean climbs on its way north out of town.
Drivers love the same types of roads as cyclists and runners, and that can be a problem.
All this rider can say is that the climb up the west incline of Campton Hills Road was a ton more fun yesterday. There were no rough patches to slow you down or force you to swerve to avoid a flat. Just smooth black asphalt as you hit the six degree section and finished up and over the hill. Then the ride down the other side delivered a 34mph spin at full velocity.
And then, a surprise. For some reason a 40-yard section of road was not re-paved. All the familiarly dangerous potholes were still there. I gave a quick glance to check for traffic behind and did a slalom through the rough spots. At 30 mph that takes concentration and reaction.
Then it was back to smooth road and a brief contemplation why the road crews left that one section untouched. Perhaps there were drainage issues to address there, and it would be done later? It would not be a surprise. The Campton Hills area is formed of glacial till, a giant mound of pebbles run through by groundwater. One side of the road forms a park thick with oak woodland. Natural prairie has been planted and managed there as well. The birding and nature study in that park is fantastic.
That’s the yin and yang of a beautiful road. It serves so many people there is inevitable competition for use of the space, and at what pace. Who is to say that the light flickering through the windows of a BMW speeding through the woods is any less relevant than the cool shadows and warm bursts of light on the backs of cyclists and runners?
We all pay for these roads in one way or another. They are the property of the commonwealth, you might say. It can’t be too hard for anyone to use them or it would be unfair to everyone.
The whirr of your tires on new asphalt is the sound of peace to many. That’s how we make sense of things on the road, and down the road. For better or worse, the road is where we do much of our thinking, or lack of it, these days. Give that some thought next time you share the road with someone else.