I said I hadn’t seen any cicadas but I’d spoken too soon. The other day on the North Branch trail, I heard them before I saw them. At first I wasn’t quite paying attention to the droning sound coming from somewhere off in the trees. But it was persistent, and it slowly changed pitch, cranking methodically down and up and down again. As the noise grew thicker and harder to ignore, I started spotting the cicadas on tree trunksâ€”just a few at a time on each treeâ€”and I stopped the bike and pulled over to the side of the trail to get a closer look. And then, as I stood there, I could see the cicadas weren’t just on the trees, but on the leaves and the tips of the tall prairie grass, dozens of them, with new ones landing and whirring about. They were everywhere and the sound was enough to drown out my own voice.
I don’t think I quite believed in this seventeen-year cicada business â€”that the damn things would actually emerge from the ground and buzz and mate and zorch around. I’m cynical about nature like this; nature has occasionally disappointed me. I know how it’s supposed to work, but years of being bad at science (biology is hard!) and being even worse at dieting has made me wary. Sometimes it’s hard not to think that after all the damage we’ve done, the world is just a little bit broken, a half-assed machine that takes your quarter and doesn’t return it. So to stop next to a field and witness these great big badminton-birdy-like creatures partying hardâ€”just as nature intendedâ€”still kind of blows my mind.
Also, the last time the cicadas emerged I was nineteen years old, and I hadn’t started smoking yet, and while I know I didn’t really bike much that particular summer, I’m sure I was still in good enough shape to ride 20 miles or more in a day. I mean I’m sure that was the last time I could take that for granted. After that, I burrowed underground and fed on Marlboros and Lean Cuisines and apathy for years and years. It’s taken me this long to shed all my old skin and dig myself the hell out.
On Saturday Chris and I went to Kiddieland, a place that has nothing whatsoever to do with nature. It is a very old amusement park, the oldest in the Chicago area, I think. There are old photos and home movie footage of my brother and me riding the short-kid ridesâ€”the ones where you went around in a circle while sitting in a rocket or a flying saucer or a hot rod or a helicopter. I think my dad even went there when he was a kid. The shortie rides are still there, and so is the roller coaster, which gets scarier the older it gets, particularly when you notice that the whole thing is controlled only by four splintery wooden levers. Really, the whole thing looks like something Our Gang slapped together with planks from an old boxcar and assorted rusty barrel hoops. It totally puts the “die” in “Kiddieland.” There’s also an extra violent Tilt-A-Whirl and an octopus ride that still goes by its old unfortunate name, “The Polyp.” There are newer rides, tooâ€”a log flume and a sort of sinister water slide where you cling to an inflatable raft and get washed down a big dark pipe. When you walk around the park you’re assaulted by giant fiberglass clown faces and the most rancid food-service smells ever. Oh, and the whole place is across the street from a horse track. All and all, Kiddieland is a most excellent and unwholesome good time. Lest you think all I do these days is ride my bike and gaze wide-eyed at caterpillars.