With Maple Lake and its forested splendor just a few miles south, the Wolf Road Prairie is equidistant north of our Cutoff. It sits, quietly hidden, just off two bustling metropolitan thoroughfares. I’ve been wanting to take a walk there for quite some time.
On Sunday afternoon, we took that walk.
Illinois is known as The Prairie State, and for good reason. 70% of Illinois was native prairie two centuries ago. Early explorers wrote of a “sea of grass” as far the eye could see. It was not uncommon for men to become lost on the prairie, whose miles of grass stood twelve feet high. Children of pioneers sometimes disappeared, never to be seen again, as the tall grasses would seem to swallow them up. The prairie was a perilous place to raise children.
Today, there is precious little native prairie left in Illinois; much of it was claimed as farmland during the great migration westward, for here lies the richest soil in the country. Bustling towns, housing developments, shopping malls, interstate highways, and the folly of man captured the rest of Illinois’ prairie. Fortunately, the Wolf Road Prairie, 80 acres of meadowlands, oak savannah, and wetland, was saved from a planned housing development, plotted for 600 homes, in the 1920’s, by the Great Depression. As we entered the prairie, we walked for a short spell on sidewalks originally laid for that development.
We parked our car at one of the two car banks, checked out the map of the terrain, and entered the trail, passing through the coolness of the oak trees. The
sidewalk abruptly ended, opening onto the prairie path. Under the sky blue canopy and the warm glow of the sun, it was easy to imagine the Potawatomi moving slowly through the big bluestem , hunting deer, gathering seeds, and fishing in the nearby creek. One could almost see the ghosts of pioneers, the ruts from their wagons forming all but hidden paths like the one we were walking, wild indigo brushing their long skirts and homespun shirts, the vast sea of grass before them and behind them for days on end.
I feel yet another reading of “LIttle House on the Prairie” coming on.