The Great Western Trail is a former railroad bed running from St. Charles, Illinois out to the town of Sycamore, seventeen miles away. For much of the trail from St. Charles to Lily Lake, there is ample shade at all times of the day to keep runners and cyclists, walkers and wanderers from baking in the sun. That doesn’t mean the trail doesn’t dry out during the summer. Lacking rain for the last few weeks, the GWT is a dusty trail indeed.
This Sunday we ran four miles out to Brown Road and turned around to come back home. On the way, I glanced down to notice that both sets of our running shoes were covered in the dry dust formed of crushed limestone and a base of claylike dirt.
Active rail line
I well recall when the trail we now traverse by foot and bike was an active rail line. Trains rumbled through town by crossing a tall bridge spanning the Fox River and continued west at a fast pace through the cornfields heading west to Iowa. Back in town, a set of spurs once served thriving manufacturing plants upon which the city’s population depended for employment. Those rail spurs leading to those old industrial buildings are torn up now. Progress left them all behind.
But the railroad bed west of town serves hundreds of people every day. Local marathon clubs and the running groups sponsored by the Dick Pond running store also train on the trail. Groups of high school runners gathered in groups of ten this summer to train for their possible fall cross country season.
For the last forty years, I’ve been running on that trail. It was establisehed when a county chairman by the name of Phil Elfstrom first adapted the rails-to-trails philosophy in our area. During that same era, the county snatched up miles of riverside railroad beds as well. That work led to a trail system covering thirty miles south to north, even crossing county lines.
The cost of vision
We’re grateful for these trails, yet they eventually cost Phil Elfstrom his job. His aggressive attempts to purchase river’s edge property pitted him against some wealthier private property owners north of St. Charles and he was eventually ousted from his position leading the county board and forest preserve districts. Like Winston Churchill, he’d done a ton of good in his public life. But ingratitude and selfishness ultimately brought him down. Those standards applied to all parties involved.
The Oregon Trail
Just west of St. Charles there is a small forest preserve where a broad rut from the former Oregon Trail is visible in the earth. So many wagons crossed through the region on their way west that they wore a three-foot deep and thirty-foot wide groove in the earth. Over the last thirty years a grove of trees has invaded that historic rut, and it’s barely visible any more. I think that’s a helluva shame. To me that rut is an important reminder of a time when trains didn’t even cross the nation. People had to hit the dusty trail if they wanted to get anywhere. There is something valuable in the both the pride and humility of those ventures.
America is such a young nation we can hardly afford to forget its history. The country as a whole is not much more than two hundred years old. Yet the truth of its formation is so shrouded in popular myths about nobility and ideals that our country is now embroiled in a war of self-deception. Some seek to ignore and dismiss the truth of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans while claiming the spirit of democracy was at work the whole time. But I’ve come to the conclusion that much of America’s history is like that remnant of the Oregon Trail. It is obscured by the aggressive trees of selfish tradition. At the same time, our history is symbolized by the spurious scourge of the Dust Bowl era when lies about agricultural speculation on the Great Plains led to a nation choking on the dust of its own fortunes. Such are the times again.
Thus I find it ironic that people now run and ride where railroad trains once ruled. All of us are reclaiming a sense of space, and yet we are also called to consider our place in this world. The dust we kick up floats through the air for a bit and settles back down. We make our mark, breathe the air, and move on. It’s best that we consider that brevity and its “dust to dust” reminders, then consider what it is we’re doing for the next generation besides moving down a dusty trail.