I’ve recently embarked on a new exercise program, and I’ve chosen a recumbent bike as one means to accomplish my goal. It’s fairly boring to cycle in my current gym, a gray and sterile place, so I’ve taken to closing my eyes while I cycle and imagine blissful scenes I’ve cycled through in my past.
I focus on the scenes around my home of 30 years in the eastern section of Wilmette, a charming village on Chicago’s North Shore. We bought our home in 1975 for less than $70,000, but during the three decades that we lived there, home values increased enormously, and by the time we sold it, its value had multiplied about 14 times.
During those years, east Wilmette became exceedingly desirable because of its location near Lake Michigan and its lakeside beach, harbor, and park—Gillson Park– along with excellent schools, a nearly invisible crime rate, a top-notch public library, a Spanish-influenced small shopping mall called Plaza del Lago, its 28-minute train ride to downtown Chicago, and other highly sought-after features. Although we were not at the most affluent end of the spectrum in Wilmette, especially as the years went by, we reaped the benefits of living in a near-idyllic setting.
I set my second novel, a mystery titled Jealous Mistress, in this part of Wilmette, which I called East Winnette (blurring its name with that of another North Shore suburb, Winnetka. [https://www.amazon.com/Jealous-Mistress-Susan-Alexander/dp/1463503652]
I’ve loved cycling ever since my parents gave me my first Schwinn during my growing-up years on Chicago’s Far North Side. I continued to pursue cycling throughout my high school and college years. And even when I was a law student at Harvard, I purchased a second-hand bike from a graduating 3L and delightedly rode it through the beautiful Cambridge streets until I myself graduated and passed it on.
While working as a lawyer in Chicago before I married, I bought an inexpensive bike at Sears and loved riding it through Lincoln Park, along Lake Shore Drive, and elsewhere along the lake, near where I’d rented a small studio apartment.
After I moved to LA in 1970, I bought a second-hand bike and hoped to ride it near my apartment in Westwood. But the neighborhood was too hilly for me, and I soon abandoned cycling there.
Landing in Wilmette in 1975, I was determined to once again be a cyclist. With the bike I moved from LA to Ann Arbor then moved to Wilmette, and the bike my husband acquired in Ann Arbor so he could ride with me there, we set out on our bikes as soon as we could. Having two daughters complicated things, but as soon as we could somehow attach them to us or to our bikes, or they were old enough to ride bikes themselves, off we went. Both daughters became avid cyclists, often biking to school during their high school years.
Here’s one of the blissful North Shore routes our family shared, one I remember with special and heartfelt fondness:
Our family of four would cycle out of the detached garage behind our house and set out on our bikes, riding a short way to 10th Street, a sometimes busy through street. We’d then ride three blocks down 10th Street (carefully, to avoid traffic, which was usually fairly light) to a delightful route down Chestnut Avenue. This route enabled us to ride for about six blocks without interruption by any curbs or cross-streets because we took the sidewalk on the eastern side of Chestnut, and it had no breaks of any kind.
I always loved our rides down Chestnut Avenue. Chestnut features huge homes and extensive front lawns, and I memorialized it as Oak Avenue in my novel Jealous Mistress. In this story, set in 1981, the protagonist-narrator is planning to visit a house on that street:
“It was only a few blocks from my house, but those blocks made all the difference in the world. The houses on my block ran the gamut from ordinary and somewhat cramped (mine) to large and fairly impressive (the one next door…).
But the houses on [Chestnut Avenue] were borderline mansions. One of them always reminded me of an art museum I once saw in Williamstown, Massachusetts (on a slightly smaller scale, of course).”
My protagonist-narrator hopes that the house she’s visiting “would turn out to be the museum lookalike, but it wasn’t. It just looked like one of the houses in a Cadillac ad in the latest issue of LIFE magazine.”
As our family cycled alongside the magnificent homes on Chestnut Avenue, we savored the uninterrupted ride that led us to where Chestnut ended and flowed into the adjoining suburb of Kenilworth.
Kenilworth was and still is an upscale, somewhat snooty, suburb just north of Wilmette. Like some areas of east Wilmette, this section of Kenilworth, east of Green Bay Road and close to Sheridan Road, also features huge homes, tall trees, and extensive front lawns. My older daughter remembers these areas as “park-like.”
Kenilworth’s streets had very little car traffic—a definite plus—but the best thing about them was that they were all paved with asphalt. In our part of Wilmette, later called the CAGE because of the four streets that bordered it (one of them was ours), the streets were still paved with red bricks. The vintage bricks (expensive to replace when they broke) lent a certain cache to the streets, and we loved them, but they were so bumpy that they were truly awful for bike-riding. So whenever we could ride our bikes on the streets of Kenilworth, we knew we’d have smooth sailing for that part of our ride.
When I close my eyes at the gym, I often picture the sights along this route. During the six months of the year (May through October) when cycling was more-than-pleasant on the North Shore, we’d relish the cool breezes from Lake Michigan and the delightful sounds of birdsong that surrounded us.
But another route was equally blissful. On this one, we’d head east, tolerating Wilmette’s bumpy brick streets as far as Sheridan Road, where we were able to ride down smooth sidewalks and streets leading to the stunning lakeside gem called Gillson Park. Riding into Gillson gave us a couple of options: We could head all the way to the sandy beach, riding alongside Lake Michigan, or we could cycle along Michigan Avenue, the posh residential street just east of busy Sheridan Road.
Gillson was, and still is, a gem for a host of reasons. One is the accessible beach and harbor, where sunning, swimming, and sailing were happily available in good weather. Another is the abundance of tall trees and green grassy lawns, where countless barbeques cropped up every summer. Still another is the marvelous Wallace Bowl, where Wilmette offered free concerts (and Broadway musicals) every summer, and where a concert of patriotic music, followed by fireworks at the beach, was an annual tradition on the Fourth of July that attracted people from all over the Chicago area.
So we would enthusiastically ride into and through Gillson, sometimes stopping to look at the lake, sometimes zooming past Michigan Avenue mansions, always having a glorious time on a breezy, sunshiny day.
Gillson Park turned up as Sheridan Park in a scene in Jealous Mistress. I couldn’t resist setting a scene in a secluded spot along the water where my protagonist-narrator could meet up with someone who turned out to reveal important secrets.
Update to today: If you’ve read my blog before, you know I live in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So you may be wondering why I don’t envision cycling on routes through my new neighborhood rather than the routes stored in my memory bank.
The truth is that although I moved a two-year-old bike from Wilmette to my new home in San Francisco, I’ve sadly never used it. Why?
The apartment building I chose is perched in a very hilly part of SF, and I soon realized that cycling on these hills would be much too arduous. Hence I ride the recumbent bike at the gym while my own bike still leans against a wall in my building’s garage.
Instead of cycling, I walk almost everywhere I can in San Francisco.
But cycling still beckons. I plan to abandon my boring gym and acquire a new recumbent bike of my own, a stationary one that will reside in my apartment, to be ridden whenever and for however long I wish.
I can hardly wait.