It’s a Sunday night in Aurora and a fiberglass dinosaur wearing the #34 jersey of Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton smiles down at my friend Eric and me as we clink glasses of Sweetness Stout, toasting the end of another epic walk. We’re at America’s Brewpub at the Roundhouse Complex, formerly co-owned by the late running back. The massive circular limestone structure was built in 1856 as a railroad maintenance workshop.
The dark beer helps kill the pain in my weary shoulders and blistered feet. I’ve just finished a forty-mile-plus hike from Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood across the entire width of the western suburbs. For two-and-a-half days I’ve traversed a landscape of cul-de-sacs, strip malls, parking lots and freeways, mitigated by miles on the lush Illinois Prairie Path trail system and multiple stops at brewpubs and tiki bars. In a half hour I’ll catch a Metra commuter train home from the station next door—I’m eager to return to the city and its dense, pedestrian-friendly grid.
Why did I subject myself to this death march across DuPage County? I love to walk. It’s a form of transportation that shows me details of my surroundings that I’d never notice on a bicycle, my usual travel mode, let alone in an automobile. So after my fortieth birthday this spring I decided to mark the occasion with a forty-mile pilgrimage to the Fox River, the western boundary of the Chicago metropolitan region. I hoped walking across the suburbs would reveal the redeeming qualities of a land built around cars.
After work on a Friday in late April a group of friends showed up to walk out of the city with me from my apartment in Logan Square. I live on the Albany Home Zone at the 2400 block of North Albany Avenue, a block where the needs of residents trump drivers’ desire to speed. My activist neighbors recently lobbied the city to create the home zone by reconfiguring the street with diagonal parking and large, landscaped bump-outs. This slows down traffic and provides additional green space, making the block a nicer place to walk, bike and hang out.
I’d stuffed aloha shirts, a raincoat, toiletries, snacks, water and more into a two-strap backpack. I’d learned my lesson from other long treks when I carried an overloaded single-strap messenger bag which threatened to cut off all feeling in my left arm. For a few blocks my entourage includes Kevin, my boss at a nearby bike shop, his wife Karen, and their little daughters Louisa, in a stroller, and Hazel, pedaling along with training wheels.
After Kevin takes the kids home, the rest of us continue west on Fullerton Avenue out of Logan Square, passing by taquerias, carnicerias, panaderias and paleterias. Outside a dive bar called the Levee, 4035 West Fullerton, a large shrub has been trimmed into the shape of a longneck bottle. “Do they serve Busch beer?” asks my buddy Jonathan.
At 6500 West, Fullerton merges with Grand Avenue; the Radio Flyer Company office stands at this juncture, with a twenty-seven-foot-long red “Coaster Boy” wagon out front. At Harlem Avenue, 7200 West, we leave the city limits and enter Elmwood Park, stopping at Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Market, a giant Italian grocery store, to pick up cannoli and cassatina, an incredibly sweet Sicilian confection made with sheep’s milk ricotta.
When we reach the Des Plaines River, the April showers have flooded the riverbanks, and nearby trees look ghostly in the moonlight with their trunks submerged in a few feet of water. Yellow lights reflecting off the river draw us to Gene and Jude’s, a River Grove hotdog stand in business since 1946. A long line of patrons waits to buy their minimalist take on the Chicago-style dog—mustard, relish, onions and sport peppers only—wrapped up with fresh-cut fries on top.
Ketchup on a hotdog is taboo in Chicago and Gene and Jude’s refuse to even stock the condiment. So in the parking lot I pull out the bottle of Heinz I brought for the occasion—for my fries only, I swear. A beefy guy with a camo-print doo-rag witnesses my transgression. “Hey, this guy brought his own ketchup,” he says to his buddies. “Gene must be rolling in his grave.”
Just north of the stand is our evening’s destination, a multi-room tiki lounge complex called Hala Kahiki, which means “House of Pineapple.” I trace my obsession with Polynesian pop culture back to my childhood when my family used to visit my dad’s cousin Leo’s tiki-themed motel, the Hawaiian Isle, in Miami Beach, Florida. Using the guidebook “Tiki Road Trip,” by local writer James Teitelbaum, I’ve visited all nine of the remaining tiki bars and restaurants in the region—a great way to beat the Chicago winter blues.
Opened in 1963 by Rose & Stanley Sacharski, Hala Kahiki is the granddaddy of them all, with what Teitelbaum calls a high TiPSY (Tikis Per Square Yard) factor. The place is packed with the carved wooden idols, fishing nets and puffer-fish lamps. There’s an outdoor garden with large Easter Island heads and a gift shop in back. My group is seated by a tinkling fountain with palm trees and a carved wooden heron.
Hala Kahiki doesn’t serve food but when a friend pulls out a bag of leftover fries, the sarong-clad hostess runs over scolding, “Guys, no Gene and Jude’s here.” We’ve walked almost eight miles and after tipping back multiple rounds of Mai Tais, Suffering Bastards and Fog Cutters, most of my entourage is starting to nod off. They hitch rides home with other friends who’ve driven to the bar—all except for Eric, who staggers with me four more blocks north along the river to crash at a Super 8 motel.
The next morning we walk southwest under a cobalt sky, following walking directions I’ve printed out from Google Maps. We cross the blue-collar, inner-ring suburbs of Franklin Park and Melrose Park, passing by modest homes, factories and churches offering services in English, Spanish and Polish.
The cue sheet takes us on a stairstep route mostly on quiet streets but the sidewalks often disappear, forcing us to walk on the left side of the road with gravel and crabapples crunching under our feet. It seems the city planners never considered that someone might want to travel these towns by foot and, in fact, we don’t cross paths with any pedestrians for the first hour and a half.
Walking conditions get downright dangerous when we head down North Avenue beneath the spaghetti-bowl interchange of the Tri-State Tollway and the Eisenhower Expressway. There are no sidewalks so we walk on the highway facing high-speed traffic, darting Frogger-style across several freeway off-ramps. Google Maps has let us down, although in fairness the site warns, “Walking directions are in beta. Use caution—This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.”
Things improve as we head into Elmhurst, an upscale village that poet Carl Sandburg and labor leader Eugene Debs once called home. We grab lunch at Jim’s Hamburger Heaven, in business since 1948, a neon-lit shack that looks straight out of “Happy Days.” The lady behind the counter tells me that McDonald’s, based in nearby Oak Brook, stole the idea for the Big Mac from Jim’s tasty little double-decker burgers.
We continue down residential streets lined with stately homes and lovely pink magnolia trees. Eric stops at a drugstore to buy Dr. Scholl’s shoe inserts for his already-aching feet—his green suede boots don’t seem to be working out. “I wish I’d done this earlier,” he says. “It’s like laying your head on a pillow after someone’s been whacking it repeatedly with a fraternity paddle. It feels better but it still hurts.”
Our next destination is Villa Park, originally built as a factory town for Ovaltine, now home to another beverage producer, Lunar Brewing Company. This small brewpub looks like a typical neighborhood tap except that moons and stars dangle from the ceiling and signs for craft breweries from around the country hang on the walls.
As planned, three of my cycling buddies show up sweaty on bikes to meet us for a cold one, having pedaled out from Logan Square via the Prairie Path. I order a Jumping Cow cream ale but the barmaid mishears me and pours me a Lunar Raspberry cream ale, which tastes like dry, fruity soda. A regular smirks at me, saying, “That stuff’s strictly for the strippers.”
After saying goodbye to my pals, Eric and I detour a couple miles south to another tiki venue, a Chinese and Polynesian restaurant in a strip mall called Tong’s Tiki Hut. While the TiPSY factor here is lower than at Hala Kahiki, Tong’s has plenty of fun “exotic” décor: murals of beach scenes, monkeys carved out of coconuts, a Buddha statue and a nearly six-foot-tall carved idol.
Hawaiian music plays softly in the nearly empty restaurant as the middle-aged ladies who run the place converse in Mandarin. Co-owner Diane Yung tells me the place opened in 1981 and she took over in 1990. Eric and I order a pu-pu platter, the classic tiki-Chinese appetizer with deep-fried and barbecued tidbits arranged around a small bowl of fire. We wash these down with potent Zombies in mugs featuring voluptuous, grass-skirted maidens.
Our directions tell us to walk west from here on Roosevelt Road, but it’s a nasty highway lined with big-box stores and no sidewalks, so we detour north onto residential streets. We get confused by the non-contiguous street pattern and have to navigate with Eric’s smart phone.
As we walk past silent ranch houses Eric says, “Notice how even on a nice day there are no people outside doing anything.” “Yeah,” I say. “It’s kind of creepy here. You can see why so many of Chicagoland’s famous mass murders happened in the suburbs, like the John Wayne Gacy killings, the Tylenol poisonings and the Brown’s Chicken massacre.”
We stairstep northwest into ritzy Glen Ellyn, formerly home to performance artist Laurie Anderson and Weathermen co-founder Bill Ayers. As we pass big, beautiful old homes on Park Boulevard, we see yard signs reading “Save our neighborhood / Say no / vote for the referendum.” An older couple out gardening explains that neighbors started a campaign to block the conversion of a small church nearby into a Montessori elementary school. “It’s a classic case of NIMBY-ism.”
After dinner at a Thai restaurant in downtown Glen Ellyn, we walk a bit further west to Wheaton, where we’re hosted by my boss’ mother-in-law, Margaret. Exhausted after walking twenty miles, Eric and I flop down on her couch with Fat Tire beers and watch “Saturday Night Live.” By coincidence, the opening sketch is Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprising their roles as Wayne and Garth, two metalheads from Aurora, our final destination.
Sunday is another beautiful morning and I’m raring to go, but Eric decides he can’t walk much further. Since he’s taller and brawnier than me, his feet have been taking more of a beating. “Every step is agony,” he complains. “My feet are swollen and puffy, pretty much everywhere they’re in contact with my shoes.” He decides to catch Metra back to the Loop, then ride another Metra line out to meet me in Aurora.
Wheaton is nicknamed “The Button of the Bible Belt” since it’s home to dozens of religious organizations. On the other hand, the very profane John Belushi attended Wheaten Central High School. The largest religious school here is Wheaton College and evangelist Billy Graham is its most famous graduate. The preacher, now 92, has met with every U.S. president from Truman to Obama. I stop by the Billy Graham Center Museum but it isn’t open yet. I’ve read that the exhibit focuses on Graham’s humanitarian work and skips over his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.
In downtown Wheaton, I pick up the Aurora branch of the Illinois Prairie Path, the sixty-one-mile network of trails that fans across the western suburbs. I come to a boulder with a plaque honoring May Theilgaard Watts, a Morton Arboretum naturalist who first proposed converting abandoned railroad right-of-ways into the trails system in a 1963 letter to the Tribune. The villages of Wheaton and Glen Ellyn wanted to turn the land into parking lots, and in the letter Watts cautioned that “bulldozers are drooling.” The plaque includes a quote from Watts, “Footpaths are defended with spirit by their users.”
The Prairie Path soon becomes a green tunnel of budding maple and walnut trees and the crushed limestone surface of the trail crunches pleasantly under my sneakers. Birds are singing, the air smells like pollen and the sunshine feels good on my face as I walk southwest. There’s a steady stream of joggers and bicyclists in DayGlo Lycra. I stop and chat with an older man with a large backpack who’s training for a long hike in the Swiss Alps.
The trail passes by the Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve, an appealing green space with a large sledding hill and a lagoon where families fish for trout on this lovely afternoon. I soon encounter three horseback riders and have to step carefully to avoid the fresh manure they leave in their wake.
Detouring off the trail in Warrenville I arrive at Two Brothers Tap House, located in a bleak industrial zone. The brewery has little in the way of decor besides posters for house beers like Domaine DuPage French Country Ale and Prairie Path Golden Ale, but the brew and the food are tasty and the place is packed with young suburbanites. I belly up to the bar for a pint of Bitter End Pale Ale and a plate of bacon-wrapped meatloaf.
Next to me are Mary and Richard from Glen Ellyn, hardcore beer geeks. Mary receives a text that Three Floyds brewery in Munster, Indiana still has a few bottles of Dark Lord Russian Imperial stout left over from yesterday’s Dark Lord Day release party. The couple immediately get in their car and drive fifty-five miles to claim their prize.
Back on the trail for the final leg of my suburban safari, I pass a small pond where frogs are croaking, a flock of red-winged blackbirds perch on nearby branches and a beaver scurries by. It’s a treat to encounter wildlife you don’t normally find in Chicago, but I’m getting really sick of walking. I sit down on a bench, take off my socks and massage my throbbing feet, dotted with multiple blisters.
As I trudge the last few miles, I think about my journey so far. While the Chicago suburbs are not the cultural wasteland that city dwellers make them out to be, the interesting places are few and far between, it’s hard to live there without a car, and the lack of human interaction on the streets is alienating.
If I ever get married and have kids in Chicago I’ll face a dilemma that has confronted many of my friends with children. Unless Jean-Claude Brizard, the newly appointed CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, is able to fix our city’s educational system, it will be tempting to leave the city for the better public schools and cheaper, bigger houses of the suburbs. Will I sell out, abandoning the diverse, social, walkable streets of Chicago for what Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway called the “broad lawns and narrow minds” of the auto-centric western ‘burbs?
I hope not, having experienced suburban isolation firsthand on this walk. My friends with kids provide good role models for me—almost all of them have chosen to stay, proving that it’s possible to build a rich family life in the city. Most of them don’t even own cars. Instead they take advantage of Chicago’s many green transportation options, traveling with their children via the CTA, Metra, I-GO Car Sharing, taxis, bicycles and on foot.
Now I’m descending bluffs to the Fox River, a broad waterway where Canada geese swim against the current. I turn south down the Fox River Trail, a paved path that runs fifty miles from Aurora to McHenry, Illinois, at the northwest corner of the metro region. McHenry is the hometown of Alkaline Trio singer and guitarist Matt Skiba, a bike-messenger colleague of mine from the late nineties whose band went on to become one of Chicago’s most successful punk acts.
After rounding a bend in the path I catch sight of downtown Aurora, the Hollywood Casino and Walter Payton’s roundhouse. The suburb is nicknamed the “City of Lights” because it was one of the first U.S. municipalities with electric streetlamps. As I march triumphantly towards my finish line, one of Skiba’s anthemic songs plays in my head:
And all your lonely nights in the City of Lights are much like
All these crowded bars I so often find my stupid self stumbling through…
Fuck you Aurora, you took my only friend.
You won’t catch me behind the wheel of a Chrysler ever again.
Suburban milestones and diversions
America’s Brewpub at the Roundhouse Complex
205 North Broadway, Aurora, (630)892-0034, www.rh34.com/content/2.html
Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Market
2400 North Harlem, Elmwood Park, (708)453-0155, caputomarkets.com
Billy Graham Center Museum
Wheaton College, 500 East College, Wheaton, (630)752-5909, billygrahamcenter.com
Gene and Jude’s
2720 River Road, River Grove, (708)452-7634
2834 River Road, River Grove, (708)456-3222, hala-kahiki.com
Jim’s Hamburger Heaven
281 North York, Elmurst, (630)832-3535
Lunar Brewing Company
54 East St. Charles, Villa Park, (630)530-2077, myspace.com/lunarbrewingco
Tong’s Tiki Hut
100 East Roosevelt, Villa Park, (630)834-7464
Two Brothers Tap House
30w315 Calumet, Warrenville, (630)393-2337, twobrotherstaphouse.com