Following in His Footsteps

Reflecting on a father/daughter walk along the Rock Island Trail
by Marie Smysor Watson
Walking the Rock Island Trail
The Rock Island Trail State Park is a 26-mile public trail stretching from Peoria to Toulon—one of the first rail-to-trail conversions in downstate Illinois.

The strange dog found us around the eight-mile mark. It came charging at us out of the trees that lined the path, barking. I like dogs as a rule. But.

“Don’t worry about the dog, Marie. He won’t bother you,” said the man walking a few paces in front of me. 

“I hope it doesn’t follow us all the way into town,” I said, uneasily.

“It’s about two and a half more miles into town,” the man said. “It won’t follow us.”

But the dog bounded back and forth, up and down the tree-lined trail. Our path was graded and fairly smooth. It stretched in front of us for a mile or more, before it bent around a curve and out of sight. 

The man continued to walk in front of me at an even pace. Nevermind that we’d been walking for eight miles. Nevermind that we’d already walked over 10 miles the day before and slept in almost-freezing weather. Nevermind that both of us needed to visit the facilities—there were no facilities to be had along this stretch of the trail. Nevermind that the man in front of me was 27 years my senior. 

“If you say so, Dad,” I said to his back, as he chugged down the Rock Island Trail toward the small town ahead. As always, I followed.

Walking the Line
It is from my father, Dennis, a retired postmaster, that I inherited a deep and abiding love of nature. Although we have kayaked and camped, explored and spelunked, fished and swam across the Midwest in the course of our decades together, he and I had never set out to simply walk. But after weeks of loose planning, several back-and-forth texting sessions and some questionable map-drawing, we began our walk on the Rock Island Trail on October 22, 2018. 

According to dnr.illinois.gov, the Rock Island Trail State Park spans “26 miles from Alta, in Peoria County, to Toulon, in Stark County” and “offers many natural and architectural attractions in a tree-canopied corridor that is only 50 to 100 feet wide.” It is what remains of the once-mighty Peoria and Rock Island Line, which used to deliver mass quantities of grain to the Peoria distilleries for the purpose of making whiskey. Prohibition put a damper on that, though; in 1963, the last whistle blew. The land was deeded to the state in 1969, but didn’t officially open until 20 years later, in 1989, as one of the first rail-to-trail conversions in downstate Illinois. 

As neither of us relished the idea of hiking all 26 miles in one day, we had to strategically plan our two-day walk. From my home in Kewanee, 45 miles northwest of Peoria, Dad and I drove our respective vehicles to the endpoint in Toulon, where I left my minivan, haphazardly stuffed with overnight camping supplies, in a designated parking lot. In order to have a car at each endpoint, we chose to begin our walk in the middle. After Toulon, we traveled to the parking lot on County Line Road, which fittingly designates the northern and southern borders of Peoria and Stark counties. There we left Dad’s truck, slung on our backpacks and began to walk north.

In this first section, we crossed two creeks: Mud Run Creek at Mile 15 and Camp Run Creek at Mile 16, both eastern tributaries of the Spoon River. The temperature was in the high fifties; once we settled into our pace, we were more than comfortable in our hooded sweatshirts and jeans. We had both packed a liter of water, knowing we’d be able to refill up the road in Wyoming. 

We chatted sparingly, mostly enjoying the surrounding nature. Hickory trees, interspersed with some elm, lined the path. We crossed a black-topped county road every mile, just often enough to remember that we were still in civilization. Before we knew it, we were walking into the outskirts of Wyoming (population 1,429). We sat down at the historic depot to eat our lunch—sandwiches and chips purchased beforehand.

Just as we were throwing away our trash, a man appeared and asked if we were interested in touring the depot. He was Grant McCauley, site superintendent for Rock Island Trail State Park. Ironically, he was there for a meeting with engineers about repairing sections of the trail that had been closed for some time.

“There are a couple of washouts on the trail,” he warned, speaking of a section of trail between Miles 14 and 15. We had read about the closure online but decided to take our chances. He also informed us that the campground where we were planning on staying was truly a hike-in campground. Unfortunately, we had packed for car camping. We’d have to explore plan B.

We thanked him for the short tour—the depot was a bright, light-filled place with historical artifacts relating to the old Rock Island Line—and were back on the trail, which took us through downtown Wyoming. After another pit stop for pie and coffee, we were out of Wyoming, heading northwest to Toulon. 

There were “Trail Closed” signs posted for this section as well, due to a washout along the edge as it neared the Spoon River. This obstacle was easily overcome; all we had to do was move to the side. We were in no danger, but bikers should be careful. The drop looked fairly steep.

After crossing the trestle bridge over the Spoon River at Mile 22, we trekked down to the water. It was cloudy, like the Spoon River always is, whether or not there’s been plenty of rain. “I’d love to kayak this whole thing someday,” Dad said. 

“There’s always next year,” I noted. 

Marie Smysor Watson inherited a love of nature from her father, Dennis, a retired postmaster.
Marie Smysor Watson inherited a love of nature from her father, Dennis, a retired postmaster.

We walked for another hour until we reached the van. Since we hadn’t planned for hiking into a camping spot, we decided to spend the night at Jubilee College State Park. At less than 10 miles to the trailhead at Alta, it was a good alternative. After setting up camp, we built a fire. As soon as the sun dipped behind the fall-colored trees, we pulled our chairs up close to enjoy its warmth.

“Siri,” Dad said, his face illuminated by his phone. “Where is Orion?”

I’m sorry, replied the automated voice. I didn’t understand what you said.

“She never understands me,” he said, sighing. We counted the stars, but we never did find Orion, with or without outside help.

Close Encounters
Despite the low overnight temperature, we were fairly comfortable in our tents. After a leisurely few hours at the campsite, we drove to the Alta trailhead. We were rarely alone on the trail that first hour; we encountered many joggers and bikers who were out enjoying the gorgeous weather. Just like us.

The trail meandered behind several subdivisions, making us legal voyeurs into other people’s backyards. Just north of Mile 2, we saw a sign for the trail entrance into the Kickapoo Creek Recreation Area, offering backcountry camping. While we had made the right call about our night’s stay, I was still sorry that we hadn’t been able to sleep on the trail.

“Don’t worry,” said Dad. “There’s always next year.” If we have a family mantra, this would be it.

Two miles up the trail was the village of Dunlap (population 1,386). We walked by the library—a modern structure with a bike repair station (there was also one at the Wyoming depot). The trail wound its way through town, until it crossed State Highway 91 and headed northeast. Here we came to the heart of the hiking matter: the bathroom situation. Or lack thereof. 

Bathrooms on the Rock Island Trail are few and far between. They are located at the beginning and end of the trail, and at the Wyoming depot (as well as any gas station along the way), but a person really must be strategic in their effort to relieve themselves. For obvious reasons, it was much easier for Dad to do so along the trail than for me. I am an old pro at outdoor pit stops though, and so our only concern was not exposing ourselves to passing bikers. Fortunately, we were able to time our breaks just right to keep our privacy, and our dignity, intact. 

We’d just taken care of this very personal business when we were passed by an older couple on their bikes, headed north. Even in this more remote stretch between Dunlap and Princeville, there were plenty of cyclists taking advantage of the lovely weather. 

We walked, uneventfully, until we crossed another paved road. There, we saw the female half of the older couple riding her bike back toward us. Alone.

“Excuse me,” she said, stopping. “Can either of you tell me what the name of that road is up ahead? My husband ruined his tube and we both left our phones in the car. Back in Dunlap.”

Dad and I both had our phones on us. We were able to pull up maps and confirm that it was Akron Road that we’d just passed. “Thanks so much,” she said with gratitude. “My husband is a bit up the trail. Could you tell him I’ll meet him there?” We’d let him know, we assured her. 

When we came across him 45 minutes later, we delivered the information about meeting his wife with the car. We had big, friendly, helpful Midwestern smiles plastered to our faces, but it didn’t make a difference. 

“Fine,” he said, gruffly, pushing his broken bike with irritated huffs. Dad and I respectfully waited until he was far enough out of earshot to laugh.

Walking the Rock Island Trail
Walking the Rock Island Trail

On Our Last Leg
We picked up the dog a few miles later, and he followed us the entire way into Princeville (population 1,738). Past the waste treatment plant, over the railroad tracks and into town… he followed us the whole way, trotting nonchalantly back and forth like he had been doing it his whole life, down the street to the Casey’s, where we gratefully hit the bathroom and picked up a snack. We sat outside at a picnic table, enjoying the antics of schoolkids who had just been dismissed from school. 

We couldn’t stay; the trail wouldn’t wait. We followed it another mile through Princeville, where it parallels State Highway 91 just north of town. We were on the final leg of our journey, just the two of us. The dog was gone for good, off to follow his own adventure.

We encountered the first of the washouts after Mile 14, well past Streitmatter Road, where signs had warned about trail closures ahead. “Grant wasn’t kidding,” Dad said, looking somberly down into the gully. It was only 15 feet, but we had to carefully pick our way down—not an easy feat after walking as far as we had. 

We did it though, clambering up the steep wall of dirt, roots and rock. We were rewarded at the top with a dazzling display of natural prairie stretching out on each side of us. The trail hadn’t been maintained here, because there was no way to access it. The sun was low and cast beautiful shadows on the trail. Dad walked about ten steps ahead of me, his stride loose and easy, belying the fact that he had just walked more than 25 miles on 68-year-old legs.

Before long, we’d encounter the second washout and have to navigate it, too. Before long, we’d reach the parking lot and Dad’s truck. Before long, our walk would end. 

But not just yet. We still had a bit to walk, me following in the footsteps of my father, just as I had done for my entire life. PM

Marie Smysor Watson—writer, nature lover and avid bookworm—is a lifelong native of central Illinois. She lives in Kewanee with her husband, Kirk, and her three teenage sons.

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