The birds woke me up with their excitement over first light. It was already warm out, and for the first time in months I felt like I had finally slept warm while camping. Honestly it made getting out of my sleeping bag almost impossible. The morning was quickly becoming bittersweet with the realization that I was leaving here. Shawnee National Forest spans across almost all of southern Illinois, but this spot felt special. I think the potential of finding another amazing patch of wilderness- a spot of land that has no business being in Illinois, is what finally got me moving.
I'm pretty accustomed to cleaning my campsite and packing up everything the night before. Morning grogginess tends to leave me forgetful and bad at tightening straps all the way, and then there's the respect for local wildlife. Leaving a messy camp overnight invites them in for potential food, and once they develop that habit park rangers aren't too keen on letting the animal stay in the area. Best to not encourage this cycle.
The steep climb to Garden of the Gods Wilderness was now an awesome descent, and my new route back west avoided the highway I complained about earlier. This time, going north out of the park instead of my southern entrance, the morning was spent on these perfect country roads that I alone was using. There were a few farms along the way, but the more common site was the battle between abandoned houses and the plants around them. The plants were winning.
Tunnel Hill Trail being so nice just a few days earlier, I popped back on its northern half which cuts through more towns than the southern portion's wilderness. Small encounters with civilization when out on these sorts of adventures are always welcome. The feeling is like going into a museum, only nothing is preserved, restored, or behind glass. While not full-on ruin porn, the appeal is to see the signs of age. Americana aside, the trail wouldn't take me exactly where I wanted to go so I broke off back onto a series of isolated roads. Just me and the critters crossing them, which unfortunately included more dogs defending their territory. Including this pack that after a sharp right turn put me straight in line with them.
This situation was maybe the hardest dog encounter I've had to date. Luckily the headwind I had been so annoyed by on this road put me down wind of them, so I had the luxury of being able to stop and assess the situation. My best chance of making it through this wall of dogs without getting chased, without getting bit, would be a car. But as the route so far had kept me free of them, I was in the same boat here. Five minutes of waiting for a car or for the dogs to go run into the bordering woods, neither of which happened, one of them finally noticed me. I froze, as Jurassic Park has taught us all to do, but when one started trotting towards me the others joined in and I wasn't left with any options other than to start sprinting. You never know which ones just want to chase and which ones want to bite, so it's better to just drop into your hardest gear and try to outrun them. There's no real technique when it's a wall of six dogs already on the road coming straight at you, so I tried out the technique of yelling. No effect there, but now the dogs had about-faced to run next to me, doing their usual snarling and barking routine. It was just a matter of who had greater stamina now.
So, in the end I came away fine, but almost immediately after the last dog gave up I rode by two men standing by a mailbox who had just been watching the whole situation unfold. Now, I like dogs. I really do. The two dudes had looks of amusement. For my parting words, I said "fuck your dogs."
Luckily that was my last dog-encounter for the trip. It was a good final boss level, that's for sure, but by the afternoon I made it to Shawnee's Western Woods. Some quick googling got me suggestions for the best trails, twenty or so miles outside Carbondale, so in a backpacker's parking lot I locked my bike and headed back off into the woods. Here I wouldn't be treated to elevation changes, the western half of the state is flat and peppered with lakes.
A few hours hiking small trail loops, riding a couple miles through far more developed areas than the eastern side of the state, then hitting other trail loops, and I found myself in Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, more importantly by the lake, and treated myself to the closest thing I've had to a bath in four days. Though it was in the 70s, the water was still freezing. Nearby was an unused dock, where I layed in the sun for a while watching the clouds roll by and the beads of water on my skin disappear in the sunlight. The wind was strong and, checking my phone, it looked like the wind might be blowing in storm clouds.
I realized I could put clothes back on, ride back into town, and catch the last train of the evening back to Chicago. I just barely made that train, and didn't realize while boarding that I had wet underwear strapped to my front bag, which made for an awkward encounter with an old woman already sitting up in the seats adjacent to where bikes go on this train. "Went for a swim," I explained, then sheepishly walked to the other end of the car and grabbed a window seat. For the next few hours I watched the flat prairie, the farmland, and the small towns between Carbondale and Chicago roll by, still in disbelief that hidden in the bottom corners of the state were such vastly different area than what I saw now.