Fall can be such a conflicted season. With the weather changing from warm to cool, there are still hot days in September that fool you into thinking the weather is not really going to change. Just yesterday while starting out on a run, I encountered a woman walking her dog who turned to me and said “It can stay like this all winter and then just turn to spring.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? 68 degrees. Dew on the grass. Forever. Perhaps it’s like that down in South Carolina all winter. But probably not.
Here in Illinois we’ll still get six more weeks of pretty decent weather before the dank arrival of November. It’s like the Groundhog Day Reversal.
But that’s fine. By then we’ve been through the shiningly shorter days of October. The leaves have flared brightly and fallen. We crunch through piles of them and the season progresses. We brace ourselves for winter.
Change is a constant. Yet for some reason we also love to embrace the thought that some things never change. We love small little towns where the storefronts are still occupied with locally owned businesses. We cherish the discovery of a restaurant that seems like it remains locked in time. We have one like that here in Batavia, Illinois. It’s called Daddio’s. It’s a diner that’s a real throwback in time. And damned good food.
While driving around we love those little sections of landscape where the farmers rotate crops and there are no FOR SALE signs on the roadside beckoning developers. We cherish the hollyhocks growing by the mailbox. The farm cat that sits on the stump. The barking dog that will secretly stop and wag its tail if you talk nicely.
These are the places where things don’t change because no one is really trying to change them. These are the unincorporated sections of America.
There is a section of road behind our house that cuts through an unincorporated section of Batavia Township. The Welcome to North Aurora sign marks the end of that town’s grip on the landscape, and immediately the homes on that street go from cookie-cutter to eclectic. Old, low-slung ranches and half updated Colonials. Even a roughly treated former farmhouse being slapped with modern accoutrements. Because it’s unincorporated. People play by different, somewhat looser rules.
The road itself is some sort of calm black asphalt with no apparent relative roads anywhere in our county. It holds up well under plowing in winter, and isn’t bad for footing even when the snows and ice make other roads slippery. The few driveways that peel off the main road are typically black as well.
This past summer though, the road was splattered with the carcasses of frogs run over by passing cars. There was a massive migration of young bullfrogs from the local wetland. They headed out in all directions after a particularly heavy rain and many wound up smangulated on the unincorporated strip of Hickory Lane.
My wife and I were headed out for a run and I mentioned going up Hickory. “Ugh,” she chuckled. “It’s still covered with frogs.”
She was right. From a frog’s standpoint, it looked like crucifixion row leading into the City of Jerusalem after the Romans quelled a Jewish rebellion. But there’s no accounting for the ways and means of evolution. For every frog we spotted on the road, there were likely ten or twenty that made it into some wet ditch. Life is a numbers game. It is also a pre-existing condition.
So the unincorporated area near our home is not without its reminders of mortality and life passing us by. There are days when I run that road and it feels like I’m 80 years old. Then there are days when I feel good and race along at 6:30-7:00 pace and I could be 30 or 40 years old again. Instead I’m somewhere in the middle of all that. Grateful for the good days and respectful of those when I feel creaky, strange or old.
Sometimes I take the unincorporated path back from a bike ride and the smooth surface of Hickory Lane welcomes the thin black tires of my Specialized Venge. There are no tarsnakes on Hickory. No patches of black tar or long strips of rubbery, warmed up goo to make the rider anxious when bike tires sink into the grooves.
I’ve gotten to know some of the people along that stretch of road. I’m now “that runner guy” to many. I am happy to play that role. They wave and I wave back. Their dogs give a cautious yip or a bark, but I am no longer the odd threat I once was to the canines protecting their home turf.
One day there was an actual herd of goats wandering the roadside. They’d gotten out of their cage at a farmhouse somehow, so I yanked up some grass and placed it before their munching mouths. They happily chewed up the grass and nudged me for more. They smelled lightly of hay and dirt, because they’re goats. That’s what goats smell like. They have weird eyes, and I don’t trust them entirely. But that’s the beauty of unincorporated areas.
Down another unincorporated road near home there is a horse farm where I stop sometimes on a run or a ride to yank grass and feed the steeds and fillies. I didn’t used to care one whit about horses. But I visited a barn a few years back and one of the horses in the stalls seemed to adopt me. That big soft muzzle won me over. Now appreciate the look and feel of a nice horse. They are the ultimate unincorporated animal.
These sensations appeal to the unincorporated me. There’s a person in me that was raised on a farm in upstate New York. Who knew the smell of cow manure and did not find it offensive. Who caught frogs with bare hands and marveled at the sight of young barn swallows with yellow mouths begging parents for food.
The unincorporated you is the person who feels alive at such sensations. Who can forget the supposed sophistications of the phone and the news feed. Who watches the sun for a minute as it rises above a bank of gray clouds at dawn.
Embrace the unincorporated you. The one who rides without a bike computer now and then. Who lets the Strava fall away for the day. Who swims without counting laps, and takes a long shower outside if the occasion arises, and stands naked in a prairie when there’s no one else around.
The unincorporated you is alive within. Embrace the feeling, that mildly untamed nature of who you want to be. In control, but not absolutely under control. There’s a freedom of spirit there. Unincorporated.