Road Tripping in Chicago, Part I

When Brit and I first got our duplex those months ago, sleeping on incredibly uncomfortable inflatable mattresses in our otherwise empty new living space, we marveled at Nashville’s central geographical location. 4 hours to the Smoky Mountains, 5 mountains to Asheville, NC. 4 hours to Atlanta. 7 hours to Florida beaches. 5 hours to swamps. 8 hours to Chicago. Back in Dallas – and most of Texas, for that matter – there’s simply no comparison. The closest cool destination from Dallas was Austin, and from there it was just other Texan cities.

Finally came the time to embark on our first road trip out of Nashville, and, through some good timing and vacation time, we made it a 4 day weekend. With the car loaded up and ready to set off into the fruitful future at 5:30pm on Thursday, we promptly got stuck in traffic. A fair amount of frustration was eventually defeated by Wilco’s new album, and once through the traffic, things flowed pretty well. It was on our drive that we discovered that southern Kentucky is about as boring as northern Indiana, though Indiana definitely takes the prize (Indiana, after all, doesn’t have tons and tons of caves).

By the time we hit Louisville, the sun had gone to bed, and once we got north of Indianapolis, we were welcomed by a whole field of red lights. They were blinking in unison and stretched farther than we could see. “Aliens,” we said, but then we were honestly confused as to what was going on. Only after looking it up on a phone did it become clear that those lights belonged to windmills. Lots and lots of windmills.

We got through Gary, Indiana, (birthplace of Michael Jackson and, according to my dad, a pretty unsavory place) and suddenly our one-highway trip became more complicated. Way before we ever saw a hint of a major American city, a sign welcomed us to Chicago, and then we crossed a foggy bridge and emptied our pockets into several toll booths. It was $5 in tolls just to drive into Chicago.

It probably goes without saying, but Chicago is massive, both in physical size and in population. It was well past midnight by the time we got into the city, but suddenly we were both very much awake as the highway split into many lanes and huge and historic buildings bid us welcome, sleepy though they surely were. Almost immediately a taxi cut me off, turning right, and when we later asked Reilly about it, he informed us that mid-Westerners are very vocal about their disdain for Illinois drivers.

Reilly is a childhood friend of Brit’s. They lost contact for some time but recently started talking again (thanks Facebook!), and he was more than welcoming while he and his roommate, Sam, let us stay with them, drastically reducing the costs and headache of our long weekend. We showed up at Reilly’s place at around 1am, having just driven from Nashville to Chicago with only one stop. Our dinner that night had been a mix of bananas, trail mix, and cinnamon almonds that we’d packed for the trip. Hungry we weren’t, but our stomachs were certainly confused.

We slept on an air mattress with a giant stuffed fish hanging above us, content with the fact that the first hurdle – the drive – was safely conquered. Though Google Maps insisted it would take 8 hours and 8 minutes, it had really taken us around 7.5 hours.

Friday had an early start as neither of us could sleep with the sun shining in on us, so we took the opportunity to make sure that the car hadn’t been towed. It hadn’t, so we walked to a place called Bongo Room that Reilly had suggested for breakfast. I got a tomatillo salsa dish with chicken and spinach and it was splendid.

After breakfast we went to a 711, but they don’t sell 3-day train passes, so we instead went to the train station, which also doesn’t sell 3-day passes. The employee pointed us to a currency exchange store that should have them. “No,” said the bored woman behind the counter, “we sold out of those.” How you sell out of something that you print is beyond me, but then we had no choice but to buy day passes, which was complicated when Brit put $20 into a no-change machine.

We set out in Chicago in almost the same way that we did when we explored Portland – which is to say, by riding the train somewhere and then walking a lot. In Chicago’s case, we took the train to the loop (the trains make a big loop in the downtown area) and then wandered around, very obviously not from around there. We saw a lot of cool stuff, some of which had been featured in movies (such as most of Chicago, disguised as Gotham, in Nolan’s Batman movies), and eventually we found ourselves at the fabled Bean.

It was at about that point that it began raining pretty hard, fulfilling the threat the clouds had been uttering since we’d woken up. I had my camera with me and was thus not too pleased with splashing around, so we ducked inside the Art Institute of Chicago, which looked amazing. Brit’s mom was in town for one of his younger sister’s gymnastics meets (see what I mean? perfect timing), and she’d agreed to meet us for lunch, but the rain refused to let up. We sat on some couches in one end of the Art Institute for about 20 minutes just waiting, futilely wishing the storms away while monitoring their progress on our smartphones. Several other people eventually joined us and everyone looked fairly miserable.

The rain lifted and we took off, eventually making our way to Giordano’s, which serves pizza that they very vocally tout as “Classic Chicago”. Brit’s mom met us there and we split one of their deep dish masterpieces – and yes, it was very good. I’m a sucker for deep dish pizza, and they did it right, with the crust practically being a pie crust. I ate way more than I should have been able to eat but felt pretty great about it.

We then walked several blocks back to the Art Institute, only this time we paid to get inside. Chicago is a major city – was only fairly recently usurped as America’s Second City – and so it should not have surprised me that their museums, for which they are very famous, would be so well-equipped with priceless works of art. But, when face-to-face with original paintings by Dali and Picasso and Van Gogh and Cezanne and Monet and Pissarro, it’s hard not to be impressed. Those things are so reprinted that you sort of forget an original exists somewhere – and not just somewhere, but in Chicago, a mere 7.5 hour drive from where I now live.

After viewing the whole of the second floor of the museum, Brit’s mom had to leave to meet up with a childhood friend that she’d only recently reconnected with, and who happened to live in Chicago (thanks Facebook!). Brit and I continued on, seeing just about everything before we got completely and hopelessly lost and nearly had to resort (again) to cannibalism. But, alas, we finally saw the light of the outside world and made our way out of the building.

Fog was the flavor of the weekend in Chicago. We were notified by locals that that amount of fog was simply not usual, but it really seemed to fit the place that stood in so well for Gotham and apparently has absolutelybrutal winters. It was at this time that we made our first trip down to the Lake, where we met America’s Third Coast. We just sat for a few minutes, the first time we’d stopped walking all day aside from the train and eating, and watched the water.

Next we re-boarded the train, rode it across town, and hung out in Reilly’s until he came back home. It was then that we met Sam and Kate, Sam’s girlfriend recently moved back from New York. We got drinks at a bar, Rodan’s, and chatted for a while. Then Reilly’s girlfriend, Amanda, joined us, and we ate at a place farther down the street called Handlebar. The food was good, as was the beer.

Back at Reilly’s, Sam and Kate went to bed, and Reilly and Brit reminisced about long-ago childhood memories as our pre-planned departure time slipped by unnoticed. How wonderful a thing it is to reconnect with an old friend to discover that you still understand them as fully as you did when life was much simpler and more straightforward.

That night ended with us driving across town to get to the hotel that Brit’s mom was staying in. It was, as she put it, “basic” – a description that seemed very apt, as it was certainly not a ratty place but far from luxurious. Nevertheless, its queen-sized bed was more than enough to entice our spent bodies into a surprisingly restful sleep.

Stay tuned for Part II of Road Tripping in Chicago, in which we see yet more museums, eat hot dogs, and meet Tommy Wiseau (!).

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~ by Jon C. Forisha on March 27, 2012.

One Response to “Road Tripping in Chicago, Part I”

  1. […] travel blog once again (be sure to go back and check out my Summer Road Trip, Portland, Nashville, Chicago, and St. Louis entries), though I most likely won’t be updating while actually on my trip, […]

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