In The News

GATHERINGS: Reading and Riding Cyclists Alternate Helmets and Thinking Caps

June 26, 2005

SHABBONA, Ill. — If this chapter of your life had a title, it might be “Pooped on the Prairie.”

You’ve ridden 60 miles on your bike. Into the wind. All in one unseasonably steamy June day in northern Illinois. Then you finally arrive in the campground and set up your tent, and it’s time to collapse.

Or is it?

Nope. Now they want you to gather around the campfire and discuss your homework. You know, that ream of paper they mailed you filled with literature and existential philosophy.

That might sound like the early stages of heatstroke delirium, but actually it was quite real. And the two dozen folks who crowded into Campsite No. 67 at Shabbona Lake State Park in DeKalb County said the test run of the Illinois Humanities Council’s “Velosophie” program was more exhilarating than exhausting.

“It was a nice counterpart,” said Terry Hogg, a retired Decatur teacher.

“You used all your parts–your physical part and your mental part–and you thought, `That was nice.'”

The idea was to exercise your mind as well as your body and use some carefully chosen texts to do some reflection on theconnection between the two activities–sort of like how the spokes connect to a bicycle wheel.

It’s the brainchild of council staff member and historian Ryan Lewis and his buddy Mark Rockwell, an instructor at Loyola University, and grew out of bike tours they’d done on their own in the past.

So the pair approached the League of Illinois Bicyclists, which was planning its third annual Grand Illinois Trail and Parks Ride in association with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The weeklong trek, which covers about 420 miles as it navigates a circuit of state parks, draws about 140 riders each year. Would the Ride be willing to offer “Velosophie” as an evening option for riders?

Well, let’s just say it didn’t hurt that ride chairman Chuck Oestreich is the retired head of the English department at Rock Island High School.

“When you pass somebody on your bike and you recognize them as a person in the group, all of a sudden you start talking philosophy or you start discussing the previous night’s poetry,” Oestreich said during a dinner break. “It’s wonderful.”

And, since it was an optional program, anyone who chose to chill out at their own campfire probably didn’t even know it was going on.

Connecting with the land This particular night was the final session of “Velosophie.” Already, the group had wandered with Thoreau in “Walking,” muddled through Martin Heidegger’s heavy-duty “The Question Concerning Technology,” glimpsed the hardships of the past in Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and gotten a breather with a poetry night with selections from Wallace Stevens, Mary Oliver and Mark Strand.

Cather’s novel about frontier life seemed to be a favorite among the women in the group.

“Everything was about the land to her,” noted Barbara Barnes, a 5th-grade teacher from Orland Park seated at a picnic table. “So we related that a little bit to, how does cycling connect us to the land? And what connection do we see between the way that she viewed the land and the way that we might as we cycle through?”

Through reading or just riding, the tour gave the land a chance to make an impression on Mary McKinstry, a nurse practitioner from Westchester.

“The hills always amaze me when you get away from the Chicagoland area–the Starved Rock and the White Pines areas,” she said. “I’m not sure a lot of people in Chicago are aware of what’s out there. It’s lovely.”

“Lovely” was not a word that was used by many of the participants to describe Heidegger’s philosophical musings.

“The Heidegger discussion was interesting, because I didn’t get any of [the reading],” laughed Marc Adami of Morrison, a retired sea captain who worked in offshore drilling and now is a junior high library aide.

Stoking fires and debate Still, Port Byron physician Bruce Perry said Heidegger’s thoughts on technology had their merits.

“These [bicycles] are high-technology components and materials,” he said.

“And we fool ourselves to some degree in thinking of [bicycling] as a natural activity.”

As a clothesline draped with garments and towels served as a backdrop, Lewis and moderator Adam Davis, a visiting lecturer from the University of Chicago, sat at a picnic table facing the “Velosophie” participants as they tackled Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.”

The short story deals with a 17-year-old British thief who finds running to be a surprising catalyst for thinking. But he finds himself at a crossroads in life and makes a choice that left many at the campfire scratching their heads.

“He could have been an in-law instead of an outlaw,” pointed out Barbara Sturges, an accountant from Park Forest.

The teen crook also took pains to describe himself as an ethical person who is intent on being the best hoodlum he can be.

“That’s kind of troubling,” admitted Davis. “Is this a story about a virtuous guy?”

“I think he’s looking out for himself the best way he knows how,” offered Al Sturges, board president of the bicycling league and Barbara’s husband, though he added that he found the young criminal abhorrent.

The fire snapped, crackled and popped.

Perry, the doctor, turned to his compatriots for help with a diagnosis. “You can either run from something or run to something,” he said. “Which is he doing?”

The talk turned to the title.

“Why loneliness?” Davis asked. “Particularly given the description of loyalty he feels to his family and his mates. Certainly, solitude and loneliness don’t seem like the same thing.”

Ah, that stoked the discussion. And soon, the group members were talking about the solitude not just of the teen but of themselves on the road.

And another thing . . .

As the fire dwindled and the bikers/thinkers departed, Lewis, Rockwell and Davis discussed their plans for the next day. Until Rick Strader of Rockford excitedly charged back into the campsite to share another idea about the thief’s motivation in the story. It was the kind of moment that teachers, or moderators, live for.

“It has to do with class because there’s a strong class identification in England,” said Strader, who lived in the U.K. for a time. “Here, it’s very fluid.”

Lewis was intrigued.

“We don’t even want to talk about class here,” he agreed.

And the discussion, if not the fire, was rekindled.


For more information about “Velosophie,” call the Illinois Humanities Council at 312-422-5580. For more information about the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks Ride and other events, call the League of Illinois Bicyclists at 630-978-0583.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune