Horseshoe Curve, 10 minutes outside Altoona, Pennsylvania, is a world-famous National Historic Landmark — so the signs say. It’s not on the beaten track.
When my family used to visit their families in the Altoona/Bellwood area, sometimes we’d make a side trip to Horseshoe Curve. I still have a souvenir calendar from way back when. Note that it was not “World Famous Horseshoe Curve,” but plain old Horseshoe Curve.
I don’t think we paid admission. My dad wouldn’t have paid, or would have paid only a nominal fee, for something as nonessential as a trip to Horseshoe Curve. I remember only that at some point, I’m not sure when, he commented how “overgrown” it’d become, which made it hard to see much.
In September 1988, after I’d been absent for awhile from Pennsylvania, my aunt took me to see it again. I think the only way to get up then was steps, difficult for her because she’d lost a kneecap to a car accident. You can see why my dad said you couldn’t see much for the trees and brush.
In the early 1990s, a visitor center/museum was built, along with a funicular to get up to the top for those who can’t or don’t want to handle the steps. Now there’s an admission charge to see the Curve, more if you want to go into the visitor center/museum. You can go up to the Curve only during the posted season and hours. It’s pricey for a family, and there’s no break for Blair County residents.
I’ve seen Horseshoe Curve as a passenger on Amtrak 42 (eastbound) and 43 (westbound), the Pennsylvanian. On this visit I didn’t, however. A freight train accident with a vehicle ahead of the Capitol Limited had made me miss the connection with the eastbound Pennsylvanian, so I’d had to take Greyhound from Pittsburgh to Altoona. On the way back, the Curve is dark when the Pennsylvanian passes at around 5:30 p.m.
The public can’t access Horseshoe Curve during the colder months. When we made a quick stop the day after Christmas, we just looked up. I’ll have to make a trip sometime in late spring, summer, or early fall for a real visit.
Countless trains have passed downhill toward Altoona and points east since Horseshoe Curve was finished in 1854, engineered by J. Edgar Thompson.
Kittanning Run passes under Horseshoe Curve from the north. It’s too bad there’s not a more bucolic fence to protect the public from falling in.
Of course you want to hear that water flowing. The odd thing is . . . I don’t recall anything but the reservoir. You’d think I’d remember hearing or seeing rushing water, but I don’t.
Pushmi-pullyu pairs of black-and-white Norfolk Southern helper engines go back and forth on Horseshoe Curve all day. They’re needed going uphill to pull/push and going downhill to help control speed/brake. You don’t want a long, heavy, fully loaded train speeding downhill around a curve. These two are headed back up the mountain.
It’s Pennsylvania, so you will see coal trains. You can imagine how much they weigh. This one is going downhill east toward Altoona in Logan Valley.
It’s not easy to reserve a large cabin at one of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County campgrounds, which became very popular very quickly. I managed to book one at Camp Bullfrog Lake in the Palos Hills region of southwest Cook County. The “hills” are moraines where the leading edge of a glacier halted and material at the leading edge piled up. With hills, woods, rivers, and sloughs, and the only canyon in the county (tiny Sagawau), this is one of the more interesting areas within reach of Chicago.
Camp Bullfrog Lake lies across 95th Street from Maple Lake, which is popular with boaters and fishers. Boats and kayaks are also available for rent at the campground, where we watched two men and a tiny figure paddling away.
The campground lay under heavy, low cloud cover, but the grim sky didn’t deter one group of revelers from playing cricket in the roadway. We passed them on our way out to procure what I consider to be a camping essential for amateurs — firestarter. (We already had our complimentary bundle of wood from the 24-hour office/store.)
For dinner we stopped at the Irish Legend on Archer Avenue, which I didn’t recognize but had been to once before in January 2013. Nearby, Jen’s Guesthouse (not a B&B) has taken over the space formerly inhabited by Courtright’s, which I do remember visiting a long time ago. It was a fine dining restaurant set against a wooded hillside. I loved it.
Back at Camp Bullfrog Lake we struggled to get a fire going. Eventually it caught, then died down several times only to flare up again on its own (zombie campfire?). With so much anxiety over keeping the fire going, s’mores were too much effort, but we burned, er, toasted more marshmallows than is healthy.
To the east (although I didn’t know the direction at the time) a glow in the sky might have appeared to be a lingering sunset on a less cloudy day, but likely was light pollution, source unknown (Chicago Ridge Mall?). As the campfire burned and reignited, stars began to appear, mostly overhead and to the west. At some point it dawned on me that gaps must have opened in the oppressive cloud cover of the day.
October 7, 2018
After the evening sugar high, next morning we went to Maple -N- Jams Café, a small storefront restaurant with a big menu and a wait. You can’t go wrong with a name like Maple -N- Jams (except grammatically).
Next we stopped at Strange Brew Café.
As it turned out, our visit to the area coincided with the 53rd annual arts and crafts fair at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. You can judge an event’s popularity by the number of LEOs required to direct traffic. We were sent around the corner, so to speak, to the Pioneer Woods parking lot, where we caught one of the circulating school buses hired to shuttle folks back and forth. I must note that school buses today have a lot less leg room than they did in, say, 1976.
When we arrived at last we found artists spread out in and around the schoolhouse and the nature center, along with folk musicians, a couple of food trucks, and the surprisingly ubiquitous St. Roger Abbey bakery display. The nuns speak perfect English with a strong unmistakeable French accent. A woman looking over the goods asked if they are Catholic. “Yes, yes,” said the nun. The woman seemed to indicate skepticism or doubt. “When you see a nun with a habit and cross, what else would we be?” She realized instantly that this may have seemed a bit combative and apologized repeatedly. The woman didn’t seem to know what to think. “What kind of accent is that?” she asked. I escaped with a loaf of rustic bread and my sarcastic tongue held firmly in cheek, with difficulty.
Before we got to St. Roger Abbey’s temptations, we’d walked through the schoolhouse, down the path to and along Longjohn Slough, and through various levels of the nature center, crowded with artists’ booths among the fossils and wildlife displays. I’m not even sure I’d ever been on the topmost level before, or maybe I didn’t recognized it in the hubbub. I ended up with candles and a couple of bookmarks that are “great for kids” (I didn’t mention they’re for me).
After listening to the final song of the day while we ate vendor fare, we headed to the little pond (slough?) off one of the trails where I’d seen a belted kingfisher once before. The last of the hayrides, which we’d found out about too late, was about to leave from the clearing across the way.
With that, we squeezed into the next bus, then wended our way to Saganashkee Slough. There we found the REI Boathouse, essentially a container housing kayaks and other equipment for rent for those who want a paddle around the slough. It’s an interesting idea; I wonder how popular it is during the season. I’m impressed by the size of Saganashkee Slough, which to me looks like a real lake but is part of the Cal-Sag Channel somehow (“Saganashkee” is the “Sag” part of the Cal-Sag name). According to the FPDCC website, “A slough — pronounced ‘slew’ — is a somewhat colloquial name for a shallow wetland or pond.” Many of the lakes and sloughs in the area have helpful depth maps, and ice fishing is allowed at some.
For a moment I felt like I could be in northeastern Minnesota.
We also made an unplanned stop at Sag Quarries.
For dinner we picked Ashbary Coffee House at the Old Willow Shopping Center. I couldn’t do this justice in a photograph. It’s a series of house-like buildings set against a wooded hillside in a way that makes the roofs appear to be slightly stepped. The effect is magnitudes more interesting than your typical strip shopping center.
The chili and panini were great on a grim, gray day, but the slot machines, while not in use, detracted from the charm. They seem to be a big thing in the southern and southwestern suburbs.
And so back to Camp Bullfrog Lake, where we bought a bundle of wood for $5. Again it took a while to get a fire going, then it had to be resuscitated several times. Next door outside Cabin 7. a horde of teenage girls was celebrating a birthday with a fire, song, and dance, and, as we saw the next morning, Silly String.
Alas, there were no breaks in the clouds this evening, and at about the time I had roasted my last marshmallow I started to see telltale flashes, soon followed by rumbling. Yes, just as I was confident the fire had finally taken hold in the wood, it began to pour.
From inside, however, we watched the fire burn survive a few outright downpours in addition to the steady rain for at least another 30 to 45 minutes. It didn’t just smolder and throw sparks. It flamed. Perhaps it did better for lack of our nurturing attentions, aka interference.
October 8, 2018
For breakfast we sent to Spring Forest 2, which had been closed the evening before. Like Jen’s Guesthouse, the Irish Legend, and Ashbary Coffee House, Spring Forest 2 is on a stretch of Archer Avenue, but on the opposite side. While the breakfast menu is very limited, a $2.50 breakfast burrito was just the thing. We ate on the porch, where the seats and tables were dry, but behind the house is a descending series of garden seating. Even wet from the overnight rain, it’s an interesting, charming setup. I love the multiple levels and again couldn’t do them justice in photos.
We stopped at Ashbary House, which wasn’t open, so we went to Kirsten’s Danish Bakery for coffee and something pumpkin.
Having fueled ourselves, we turned to Black Partridge Woods on Bluff Road, a gem of a nature preserve with a lively stream bubbling underneath a stone arch bridge. Here, bluebells bloom among the trees in spring. It would be idyllic — except someone decided to run an extension of I-355 over Bluff Road about a quarter mile away. It’s hard to appreciate the bubbling of the brook over the near-constant roar of the interstate. Bluff Road is hilly, twisty, and rustic away from its intersections. Now at one intersection a massive concrete warehouse-style building is materializing across from what may have been once peaceful houses on a country lane. I should be content that Black Partridge Woods with its spring-fed stream hasn’t been paved over.
Next we headed to nearby Waterfall Glen, named for Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, not for the picturesque CCC-built low-head dam on Sawmill Creek. Waterfall Glen surrounds Argonne National Laboratory, and it usually takes me a while to figure out I have to search for “Rocky Glen Trail” to get to the right parking area. Otherwise I find myself trying not to look guilty at one of Argonne’s guard houses as I did now.
After Google helpfully suggested “Rocky Glen,” we found ourselves on familiar ground—a roadway closed off to cars, a left-hand turn on a trail, then a walk along Sawmill Creek to the low dam. There often seems to be hordes of people here, including this day. I’d forgotten that it was a school holiday, Columbus Day, so there were lots of people milling about and walking in the water.
I’d read that a trail runs along the creek and thought I’d seen it, so we started down its muddy spots. It passes through trees for a short distance before it opens onto a length of even stepping stones below a shored-up hillside. At the point where the creek turns south, you see the dam in one direction and a part of the creek you can imagine to be somewhat wild in the other. I could have stayed there all day if my body would let me. For a short time we were the only people around, but soon people and pets started to appear — almost like we’d been followed.
I think I could be happy living near a stream like the one at Black Partridge Woods or Sawmill Creek at Waterfall Glen — as long as no one thought to build an interstate extension or highway or concrete block nearby.
Our next stop was another favorite, the Plush Horse in Palos Park, a “venerable ice cream shop” in a house located in an area that seems more developed than I remember. Sigh. The inside was raucous with children and teenagers, so I sought refuge outside on a comfy Adirondack chair that made eating an ice cream cone a challenge, accompanied by yellow jackets — it’s that time of year. Not content with buzzing us, one decided to take a long stroll on my mouth, where its little feet tickled my lips and the threat of its stinger ensured I would do nothing about it. It’s amazing how long a minute or two can seem.
After dessert at the Plush Horse, I found Mediterranean cuisine at a new place, Simple Taste, in a fading strip shopping center. We were the only diners in the late afternoon/early evening hours. I had baba ghanoush and zucchini noodles — both of which hit the spot not taken up by Plush Horse ice cream.
And so another camping adventure ends, with a full heart and belly.
Last year I saw what seemed like dozens of Hemaris diffinis and thysbe moths around one of the butterfly bushes at the public garden down the way, but this summer I’m seeing very few—only one at a time, mostly. Over the past couple of years I’ve seen only one giant swallowtail, the first butterfly I noticed there when I was on my way home from the farmers’ market. I haven’t seen one since.
At least I’m seeing monarchs, tiger and black swallowtails, red-spotted purples, several kinds of skipper, and a few hackberry emperors. I’m terrible at identifying trees, but several of the trees here look like hackberry trees. The hackberry is to the hackberry emperor what milkweed is to the monarch—sole food for the caterpillar.
On August 11, a very pale hackberry emperor landed on my shirt and stayed until finally I had to start walking and gently shooed it off.
I say “pale” because hackberry emperors are usually darker.
Last week I was about to walk my bike through the grass from one bush to another when a hackberry emperor landed on my arm and proceeded to probe about with its proboscis. It went at it for several minutes, even after I started walking again, arm raised in an awkward position. After a few moments it flew off.
Assuming it was partaking of sweat, I looked up the behavior, called “puddling.”
By sipping moisture from mud puddles, butterflies take in salts and minerals from the soil. This behavior is called puddling, and is mostly seen in male butterflies. That’s because males incorporate those extra salts and minerals into their sperm.
When butterflies mate, the nutrients are transferred to the female through the spermatophore. These extra salts and minerals improve the viability of the female’s eggs, increasing the couple’s chances of passing on their genes to another generation.
What could be more charming than knowing the sweat from your body will go toward the production of more hackberry emperors? I may not have children and grandchildren, but I will have butterflies!
When the sun sets, sandhill cranes return from area fields to Goose Pasture at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana. Turn your sound up. Taken Sunday, December 3, a peak time during migration.
A National Historic Landmark and a Chicago Landmark, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is an oasis of calm and peace if not quiet in bustling Lincoln Park. It’s a little like the Secret Garden without the stone walls or English-style landscaping.