I left early the next morning after my overnight in Ferne Clyffe State Park, cautious about the day's ride. The majority of my route to Shawnee National Forest's Garden of the Gods Wilderness would be on the Tunnel Hill Trail and I was feeling nervous the trail might turn out to be another miserable, demoralizing experience like my attempt at Missouri's Katy Trail earlier in the year. Southern Illinois was warm, and the overwhelming amount of green surrounding me gave me hope the trail wouldn't be a soggy, muddy disaster.
The roads leading to Tunnel Hill Trail were windy, rolling numbers not wide enough to mandate painted lanes that brought me past disinterested livestock and too-interested farm dogs. These dogs you get accustomed to with long-distance cycling, though their speed and snarls are way less entertaining when your bike, loaded down with food and camping gear, takes just long enough to accelerate that with every pedal stroke you plan with greater detail how to tend to a bite wound and how to dispose of an aggressive dog's body. Solace came when a breezy downhill butted up against the trail, and I found it dry, unoccupied, and covered in a fresh layer of finely-crushed blue stone.
Not having any experience with southern Illinois backwoods, but an entire childhood of northern Virginia's, I was surprised how similar the two are. Broad leaf trees in their tenuous relationship with kudzu were the only relief from the forest floor's dense, bordering on neon, greens which swelled to the edge of every creek bed. The smell of wet clay hung everywhere, and where that clay was on hiatus from being submerged you'd find the weird columns made by crawdads (er, crayfish for y'all everywhere else) that resemble smoke stacks. Thankfully the Virginia Bluebells were in bloom to break the smell of dirt and the onslaught of green.
It's best I was alone riding through this area. The nostalgia that's already worth apologizing for in this writing would've been unbearable to anyone near me at the time.
Breaking away from the trail to head into Shawnee National Forest meant the rest of the day's riding would be at a constant incline now on Route 34. I can totally see why google maps would consider this road to be bike-friendly. It's low traffic is appealing, but the vehicles that do pass you by are mostly semis who could care less about passing you with only a few inches of gap. Any display of frustration on your part leaves you seeing not-so-pearly whites in their side mirrors. It's the mark of a true asshole.
The last four miles to Garden of the Gods Lookout will sneak up and bite you. Though the elevation change is only about 850ft, and you're off Bully Rd, the grade felt pretty similar to those I've done in Colorado. The reward comes in making it to the top. The views were unbelievable and will make you question whether you're still in Illinois, and the campsite reminded me of those in Yosemite valley-minus all the people and bears.
Two other men were camping at the site that night, with an adorable pit who immediately came up to introduce herself. Being the only ones up there and it being a weekday, we shared the night building one fire instead of two and I enjoyed their hospitality, and their beer. They stayed up pretty late, as it was their last day out before returning to the real world, but were respectful all the same of my being comatose by 10pm. Nestled in my hammock in the chilly 30° weather, I was warm, full, and content.