Monday, April 11, 2011

Thorn Creek Woods Nature Center and Preserve, Will County, Illinois

Ah, spring. It’s almost in the air. When I noticed trees starting to bud, I checked on my favorite horse chestnut, which last year had turned brown in early August as the result of a fungal infection that plagues its kind. It lives, or at least buds.

On Saturday, the 9th, the weather promised to be spring-like, with a high in the 70s. It didn’t start out very promising, though, being chilly and gray for much of the morning. I decided to trust the forecast.

I took the train, but this time didn’t get off at the Homewood station. I stayed on until the end of the line, University Park. Long ago I somehow associated the “University” part with the University of Chicago—I didn’t get out enough, clearly—but on this day realized that the town and station are named for the nearby Governors State University campus.

After passing through a number of urbanized suburbs (the type that don’t look much different from a city neighborhood), I wasn’t expecting University Park, although I should have. It’s at about this point south where one can still find remnants of farms and swatches of open space. The University Park Metra station is hedged only by its parking lots, roads, and fields.

J, met me at the station, and we did a quick driving tour of Governors State. I wondered if there were any coffee shops on campus because there weren’t any anywhere else nearby. Like most suburban campuses, Governors State was designed for driving, not walking or cycling. On our way in, a giant Paul Bunyan dominated the otherwise empty field to our left. At one juncture, a sprawling metal thing perched atop an elevation, less impressive for its form than for its size and positioning.

Our destination was Thorn Creek Woods Nature Center and Preserve, probably the first Will County forest preserve I’ve been to (J. had walked around it one summer evening some time ago). The center is in a Lutheran church build in 1862. Aside from plain white partitions that form a hallway square around the central area where the congregation would have sat, the missing pews, and a brighter color scheme, it’s supposed to be well preserved. It’s authentic enough to lack indoor plumbing; the chatty volunteer pointed me to the portable toilet in the parking lot that everyone, including staff, uses.

The most striking features are the elevated pulpit in the wall and the rounded ceiling. She explained that the stairs were hidden, which I suspect created the effect of the minister appearing mysteriously from nowhere. Even a 19th-century rural minister can have a touch of the conjurer about him.

We bought T-shirts and walking sticks, and J. entered a raffle for gift baskets in addition to making a donation. The volunteer seemed surprised and pleased by his generosity.

As she told us before and after our walk, it was a perfect day for it. While it was 48º F in Hyde Park, it was 67º F and sunny in Matteson. I’d overdressed.

The terrain here is uneven, with the creek cutting through, and trees grow in odd shapes at odd angles to the ground, or so they appear to when denuded of their foliage. Woodpeckers and other birds flitted about elusively. I can imagine how lovely this place must be in the early summer, when the leaves and the air are still fresh, and the biting insects haven’t quite hit their peak.

Partway along, the trail splits a stand of stately pines, looking like a religious-themed greeting card in the mid- to late afternoon sun. I think I’d read that they had been planted by a farmer.

All around the pine stand and what the volunteer called the salamander pond was the sound of what she’d said are chorus frogs. While prominent, the sound wasn’t deafening or even very loud, making me think of dozens rather than of hundreds or thousands. Often I wonder what these areas were like 500, 400, 300, 200 years ago, before farms and Lutheran churches.

Beyond the pines and pond is a larger body, Owl Lake, which also would be even more beautiful on a summer’s day or early evening.

I’d read in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Chicago that Thorn Creek doesn’t get a lot of traffic, which doesn’t surprise me as the population density is low, and the preserve doesn’t offer the the unique features and marvels that make destinations of Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks in LaSalle County. We encountered a handful of people on the trail, and a young couple parked and walked in as we were getting ready to leave. They’re regulars; the volunteer, also departing, waved to them and mentioned she knew them.

The best character, however was the man, in his thirties, who was heading out as we were heading in. He was walking quickly and joylessly, ear buds planted in his ears with raucous, percussive noise blasting loud enough for me to hear it from 10 or more feet away. There, I thought, goes a man who knows how to appreciate the peace of Thorn Creek—or a busy construction site.

I hadn’t eaten much, so pizza at Chicago Dough Company sounded especially good, as did the pizza-dough appetizers and the pizza-dough cinnamon stick desserts. Who knew that pizza dough could be so versatile!

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