Open Spaces

Walking Lake Cook Road

After traveling across the world, I longed to explore my own backyard


Story by mary klest | Photography by susan mcconnell

It was 6:45 a.m. Susan McConnell and I stood on the corner of Haegers Bend Road and Lake Cook Road in Barrington Hills. The morning light sprinkled through the leaves of trees and plants. The air was cool and pleasant. The sky spread its blue hue for as far as we could see. It was a good day for a walk.

Sometimes travel doesn’t need to include flights, trains or cars, nor exotic places and people. The walking journey, or spaziergang as the Germans call it, is a chance to slow down, observe, and refresh one’s outlook. We have driven down Lake Cook Road thousands of times before. Yet we had never walked its length and know of no one who had.

Susan agreed to come with me to photograph our journey. One reason why Lake Cook Road appealed to me was the impossibility of getting lost. It’s a straight shot through Barrington Hills and Barrington. Geographically, Lake Cook Road serves as a dividing line for four counties. The road goes through wooded areas, meadows, horse farms, as well as the villages and surrounding residences. This route would remind us of what a unique area we live in. Also, Susan has been talking about hiking the Dolomites in Italy for nearly a year, but I haven’t bitten that bait yet. I thought Lake Cook Road would be a good way to learn of our hiking ability.

We began walking east. The sun had not yet dried the misty morning dew. Moisture on the grass immediately soaked through our shoes. Lake Cook Road, a.k.a. County Line Road in this area has no sidewalk, worn path, or paved shoulder to walk on.

At first, the traffic was light but grew heavier. Large trucks barreled down the two-lane road at a speed of at least 50 mph. This was no walk in the woods. Driveways stretched back to hidden estates. Tree shadows danced atop the road. I asked Susan why she decided to come with me.

“I knew it would be scary, which I don’t like feeling, but I like new experiences, adventures with a beginning and an end,” she said.

We took precautions to avoid the hazards of walking down this road. Susan wore a bright green effervescent shirt and a straw hat. I was wearing a blaze orange billed cap and a hunting vest with blaze orange across it shoulders. We walked against traffic so we could see what was heading toward us. My strategy was to let the drivers see us from a distance. When the vehicle got closer we would move off the pavement so as not to interfere with traffic or scare a driver with our sudden roadside appearance. As “rush hour” went on, we spent most of our walk off road with wet feet. We didn’t pack birdcalls and binoculars. We carried water bottles and iPhones.

The whooshing sound of vehicles drowned out the bird songs that I knew were being sung somewhere beyond the traffic noise. I began to estimate the size and weight of vehicles behind us by the whooshing sound they made. I likened it to the rushing sound of white water on a canoe trip that eventually dissipates. It was so close, this sound.

Our pace was leisurely. We had no timeframe or agenda. After one mile, on the south side of the road, a green sign indicated the beginning of Cook County and the end of Kane County. There was no litter along the road. Two pulverized raccoon hides caused us both to pause at the same time. We moved quickly to get beyond the stench of the carcasses. Ahead was another dead raccoon not yet flattened. It retained its furry creature profile.

The sloping roadside terrain required foot dexterity. We could feel our leg muscles stretching. However, the balancing act was worth it. The foliage created a wooded environment that sheltered us from the sun. We admired the abundant shades of green and plant patterns. Purple and white phlox were blooming and other wildflowers whose name we didn’t know. We stopped to smell the summer scent of honeysuckle bushes.

The beautiful vista at Spring Creek Savannah forest preserve is caught as a glimpse while in a car, but when walking our eyes rested on its beauty. We watched the catfish tussle lily pads. It was spawning season. The creek’s collar of native wild grasses swayed in the wind. Recent rain showers filled the creek’s bed. This spot had always reminded me of Ireland. Up close, I saw it as pure Illinois. It was a lovely spot to sit and rest. I didn’t say anything about the tiny, tiny red bugs on the rocks at our feet. For many years a local group called Spring Creek Stewards has been helping maintain the ecological health and beauty of this preserve. They affectionately call their volunteers “The Family.”

Nearly one and a half miles into our walk the land opened to expansive fenced horse farms. The herds of horses weren’t out in the pastures. Some workers were power washing the fences. It is here where one knows they are no longer in typical suburbia.

At Ridge Road, we left McHenry County and walked into Lake County. On the south side of the road was Countryside School. A sign out front reminds the children to “Read, read, read.” Good advice. A reader is never alone, especially in summer while lying in the grass with a book. The school’s architecture is the same as Roslyn Road School in Barrington. There’s one big difference between the two. Students can walk to Roslyn. Students at Countryside must arrive and depart by bus or car due to the hazards of walking on and across Lake Cook Road.

Susan and I talked about all sorts of things—our families, our next work projects, house projects, what we love, and what we don’t love. We must have been deep in thought because we passed the Jesuit Retreat House and Barrington Hills Country Club unnoticed. These are two long established fixtures on Lake Cook Road—ones I tend to notice while driving. What I know about Barrington Hills Country Club is that it has the longest golf hole in the area. What I know about the Jesuit Retreat house is that the three-day silent retreat is challenging for one who loves to communicate.

Susan tells me her leg hurts. I don’t think we are even half way to our destination. I’m afraid she might want to end the walk. I pull the Doug card.

“Would Doug stop?” I ask, referring to her husband’s amazing ability to take on some of the biggest, most treacherous open water swim challenges in the world. He swam the English Channel and around Manhattan Island. Susan smiled because it was not often that I pulled the Doug card. She quickly responded, “No” and we continued walking. We rested on a small blue bench at the end of someone’s driveway.

“I’m surprised no one has honked at us,” Susan said. Moments later a car honked. “That was a hello honk, not a get off the road honk,” she interpreted.

When a sidewalk came into site at Old Hart Road we got excited. Our pace quickened. We crossed the street to visit Pederson Preserve, a parcel of land adjacent to Flint Creek. The Barrington Area Conservation Trust purchased the land and keeps it protected. Its walking path did not beckon us. The bright cool morning was over. It was hot. Summer hot.

The usual flurry of student activity at Barrington High School was halted by summer break. On the school’s fields no marching bands played, parking spaces were open. The tennis courts were empty.

We walked by my favorite cottage house that stands feet from the Canadian National Railroad tracks. The trains have become more frequent and require me to adjust my travel time by 10 minutes in case I’m stopped by one. Recent accidents have caused congestion and delays in Barrington.

Just beyond the train tracks was Hager’s outdoor plant shop where personal service is alive and well. We passed the Barrington Historical Museum and the Octagon House before reaching the Jewel Osco. Inside we purchased a bottle of ibuprofen. Susan popped more than the suggested amount into her mouth. I warned her to read the label. “It’s ok,” she assured me.

We walked under the Catlow theatre marquee and looked up at the outdoor rooftop lounge at one of the new restaurants in town.

We were nearly clipped by a car when crossing Hough Street, a.k.a Route 59, Barrington Road, in downtown Barrington. Lake Cook Road is known as West Main Street and East Main Street depending on what side of Hough Street one is on.

We veered a bit off Main Street and walked a half block south on Cook Street to visit Peter Yankala, owner of Phillips Men’s Wear. He’s tall, handsome, and always impeccably dressed. Susan wouldn’t stop to eat at Egg Harbor for lunch because she said, “Were oddly dressed and somewhat ragged.” Yet she wanted to stop at probably the most fashion-forward store in town. Peter sees our hats and insists on taking a few pictures. We oblige, posing as gals from the outback.

We duck into the Bread Basket for lunch. Sam, the owner, welcomed us. Susan told him what we were up to and he smiled. “That’s good, it’s healthy to walk. I walked two miles once,” he said. We ordered a light lunch of stuffed avocado.

During our last stretch we moved past Northwest Highway, St. Paul’s Cemetery, houses dating back to the 1800s, and subdivisions. The pool at Fox Point was open. The sidewalk offered us a cushion from the road.

We reached Ela Road at 1:10 p.m. We had walked 8.83 miles or 21,509 steps. We burned 838 calories. We sat in the grass under the shade of a tree and waited for a ride. I recalled the miles of dirt road I walked in northern India and other places this past year. Dusty, crowded roads flanked by litter. I also remembered what it felt like to be an explorer. Where roads become passages to other worlds, even those in our own backyard.

“Wow, that was big,” Susan said, breaking my thought. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We did this all in one day.” With some weariness in her voice she said, “I know now that when we get to the Dolomites my limit will be 8 miles per day.”