Chicago, and coming home

The day we’d planned to get to Chicago turned out to be a rather windy one, so Brad and Kim drove us to Joliet, where we caught the METRA train. We have light rail in Portland, only recently did we get a true commuter rail line, which I haven’t been on. The Metra is older, and shares a stop with Amtrak in Joliet. I think it took about an hour to get into Chicago, and it was fascinating to watch the scenery change. Joliet is an hour away by train and is still a suburb of Chicago! We went through a lot of older neighborhoods. Some looked well taken care of, and some, to be honest, looked like what I would expect in Detroit, with lots of boarded-up and falling apart buildings. I’ve never really seen much of that kind of thing in person.

The train station in Chicago was busy busy busy and a bit overwhelming, and it drops you right into the Loop, the busiest part of downtown. And while some of the stuff coming into Chicago looked like my idea of Detroit, downtown Chicago looks like my idea of New York City, which is appropriate considering Chicago is the third largest metro area in the United States. After grabbing a bit of food we decided to hang out near downtown until Critical Mass, since we wouldn’t have time to bike to our hosts’ house to drop off our stuff.

So we rode over to Buckingham Fountain, where I immediately got the theme song to “Married, With Children” stuck in my head. I have not seen that show in probably twenty years, and yet I recognize the fountain from the opening credits. I also observed some of the local squirrels, who were very fat and not afraid of anything.

On our way back to the starting point for Critical Mass, it started pouring rain, harder than I’ve seen on this trip! We hid under some trees and still got wet, and in ten minutes the downpour was over and the sky was mostly clear. We wondered if it would dampen (haha) the enthusiasm of people going to Critical Mass, but I really don’t think it did. We got there fairly earlyish and I’d guess there were at least 500 people on the ride! Holy moly! There were folks on all different kinds of bikes, including a bike gang (I think of folks from Puerto Rico?) with the most amazing blinged-out Schwinn cruisers. The bikes were all perfectly polished, and many had flashing white lights in various places.

Speaking of Schwinns: It seemed like half the bicycles there were Schwinns. Which makes sense when you know that Schwinn was based in Chicago for many decades.

Chicago’s Critical Mass was easily as big as any of the group rides I’ve done in Portland outside of the World Naked Bike Ride, and they take over all the lanes out of necessity, which led to at least one unpleasant confrontation with a driver that I witnessed. But mostly it was fun, just like any group ride. I did have reason to regret riding it fully loaded, as it seemed like every single person wanted to ask us where we were going, and when we said, “Here!” they thought we lived in Chicago ourselves! But I can’t blame people for wanting to talk to us, I know I’d ask the same questions of someone on a group ride loaded up for touring.

About forty minutes into the ride, Shawn realized he had a flat tire, so we ditched Critical Mass and tried to find an L train station. Problem is, the L system was built before people gave a rat’s ass about handicapped accessibility, so when we did find a station, we had to get our bicycles down two flights of stairs: a complicated and unpleasant procedure, considering neither of us are capable of getting the loaded bicycles down stairs without taking almost everything off. We also got confused by the pay kiosks. Thankfully, the trains come frequently, and soon enough we were on our way to our hosts’ home in the neighborhood of Rogers Park.

Paul and Ellen have the kind of apartment that I really wish I could find and afford in Portland: a gorgeous flat in an older building with mostly hardwood floors and tiled bathrooms. Paul and Ellen were excellent hosts and fun people. We spent most nights talking over glasses of wine. Our first night and most of the first whole day we mostly relaxed, although we ventured out that night to REI (our last REI on the trip, yaaay) and got beer and food at a great pub.

On Sunday we went to a monthly bicyclist brunch put on by Dottie of Let’s Go Ride a Bike, where Shawn was the only male. Everyone there was really fun to talk to, and the food was good, and afterward we went outside and everyone got to admire each others’ bicycles. Two of the women there rode Workcycles Azor Omas, and two more rode Linus Dutchis. They both have loop frames and are meant for city riding, with internal gear hubs, upright handlebars, and fenders, but they’re very different bicycles. The Omas are much heavier, but they are also equipped with more stuff–front racks (they both have rear racks), drum brakes, a skirt guard, a double kickstand, a full chain guard (the Dutchi has a partial) and generator lighting.

I really like both bicycles, but I’ve thought about buying a Dutchi, and one woman let me ride hers around a bit before giving it back. What I’d really like is something that weighs less than an Oma, has all the stuff on the Oma, but costs the same as the Dutchi. A girl can dream.

When Shawn and I got home from the brunch, Ellen and I attempted to visit the Frances Willard House a few miles away in Evanston. Frances Willard was a fascinating woman in many ways–she was a suffragette, as well as the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (aka the people who pushed the hardest for Prohibition). She also wrote A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle in 1895, which I read a couple of years ago. The book has a very preachy tone, with over-wrought language, but it’s still a fun book to read! She learned to ride a bike when she was older than most cyclists during the bicycle boom, and she named her bicycle Gladys, for its “gladdening effect.”

In any case, I wanted to visit her house because they have said bicycle on display, but Ellen and I were thwarted–they weren’t open! Even though it was during their open hours! Hmph.

On Tuesday Shawn and did a bunch of tourist things:

First we biked the Lakefront. It was a gorgeous weekday, and oh man, it was beautiful and miraculously uncrowded. Such great views of the city and the lake! There were beaches!

Then we went to Grant Park and looked all around, checking out all the cool stuff. It’s filled with all kinds of public art, including a giant reflective kidney-bean-shaped sculpture called Cloud Gate, where a security guy on a Segway told us we couldn’t walk our bicycles underneath. There’s also a fountain called Crown Fountain that shows fifty-feet-tall rotating pictures of people’s faces via LED’s. The expressions of their faces change, and occasionally water comes out where the person’s mouth is, in such a way as to make it look like they’re spitting a long stream. The reaction of some Asian tourists to this, was almost as much fun as the fountain itself.

After that we visited the Art Institute of Chicago, and oh my god. I’m so glad I did. Our host Ellen has a friend who works there who got us in for free, and we had a couple of hours to explore, but I could have spent all day there (or, even better, many days).

OH MY GOD. The medieval stuff! (I love medieval art like you wouldn’t believe.) The Renaissance stuff! And you could get right up close to it, and stare at brushstrokes. And they had a bunch of paintings I had seen in photos my whole life–Van Gogh, Picasso, a whole damn room, almost, of Monet. I could have stared at any given painting for an hour, and yet I know there was more to look at. I was just about hyperventilating.

What might be the best part, though, was Chagall’s America Windows. I think because I wasn’t anticipating it? I don’t know. But I could have sat there all day, soaking up all that blue light. The more I looked at it, the more I saw. It just took my breath away. It’s so beautiful.

After meeting up with Shawn (who had checked out different exhibits) and doing a quick peek at the gift shop, we sat outside on the steps, and I just felt kinda overwhelmed. It was an odd sensation, as though all the stuff I’d looked at hadn’t quite settled into my brain. I hadn’t processed it yet. Yeah, I have to go back someday.

Once we got our bicycles, we went to the John Hancock Center, the sixth-tallest building in the United States. Now, the building has an observation deck on the 100th floor, but it’s almost $20 a person. So instead we went to a lounge on the 96th floor and spent about half that total on one beer and a tiny soda, and watched the sun setting over Chicago. From there we could see for miles and miles and miles, city as far as the eye could see…we also saw that three of the buildings in downtown Chicago have swimming pools on top!

From there we went out to a late dinner and a couple of beers with Shawn’s friend Nate, at a bicycle-themed, vegan-friendly placed called the Handlebar. I finally got to try a deep-fried pickle with vegan ranch, and it was amazing.

Chicago is a very bike-y city, which I find impressive under the circumstances. Yeah, there were lots of bike lanes and sharrows and “share the road” signs. But everyone on the road is really aggressive! Both drivers and cyclists. Everyone, it seems, is always honking. The traffic is bad enough that cyclists tend to stop for red lights (because otherwise they’ll just get run over), but on one stretch of road, I had a dozen cyclists pass me, sometimes within inches, and none of them rang a bell or said “on your left.” On one downtown block, Shawn and I were taking the lane, and at the next intersection a driver argued with us about it and said we were in her way. While Shawn and I were walking, someone stopped at a red light, and then went, even though Shawn and I were still in the crosswalk with the light in our favor, and we had to run to avoid them.

Also, like many cities that get snowy winters, the roads were utter shit. Pothole-central. If I lived there, I would ride a bicycle with really fat tires. (Studded, in the winter.)

On the upside, it’s very flat. On the downsides, distances were more than I was expecting. Chicago isn’t wide, but it’s loooooong. From Rogers Park (where we were staying) to downtown was something like ten miles. Between that and traffic, it felt like it took forever to get anywhere!

Chicago is a city in a way that Portland just isn’t. Chicago makes Portland look tiny. I felt like a country bumpkin sometimes. It’s also far more racially integrated. Portland isn’t as white as its reputation would lead you to believe, but it’s still whiter than Chicago, and there’s a lot of de facto segregation. Chicago also felt older and much more industrial.

I feel drawn to visit Chicago again sometime, perhaps for longer. I think because it was just so different from any place I’d ever been.

On Wednesday Shawn and I packed up our things and put them on the bike one more time, and after a stop at Trader Joe’s to buy as much food as we could cram into the bags we planned to carry on, biked down to the Amtrak Station. It took longer than we expected, so we were almost frantic to get our bikes boxed up. And I’d never put my touring bike in a box…turns out my nice wide-swept handlebars with their bar-end shifters, even sideways, weren’t going to fit without a good fight. Part of the box tore until we bent the sides out a little. We were so stressed out about getting everything done fast enough, so of course we get upstairs, breathless, only to find that the train was forty-five minutes behind schedule.

Shawn and Paul and Caroline had planned it so that all four of us (plus Paul’s dad in Red Wing) would be on the train home together! We passed Paul and Caroline waiting to get into their car as we went towards our car.

The Empire Builder takes two days to get from Chicago to Portland, a distance it took me and Shawn four months to ride (although we did take a much more circuitous route). Paul and Caroline, because they’d taken the Northern Tier ACA route, had followed much of the train’s route eastward. So we both had the strange experience of covering weeks of distance in hours. Matter of fact, we realized that every hour on the train covered about a day’s worth of riding. It was sorta surreal.

I wish we’d been able to afford a sleeper car, but other than that, it was a very pleasant ride. We spent lots of time hanging out in the lounge car, or reading in our seats, watching the scenery go by. We snacked whenever we felt like it. We drank a few beers that Paul’s father Jerry sneaked onto the train. We were amused by drunk people late at night in the lounge car, especially the first night. We got off the train in Minneapolis to stretch our legs. When we went through Glacier it was dark, but I was able to just barely see part of the road Shawn and I took to Marias Pass. Occasionally we’d pass people’s backyards and they’d wave to us, which was fun. Our last morning on the train we came up the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, which was beautiful even in the misty rain.

As the train pulled into Portland, and the sights got familiar (Look! It’s the Fremont Bridge!), and we packed up all our things, I found myself growing really nervous. I don’t know why!

As we stepped into the train station, we got a pleasant surprise: a group of our friends were there with a “Welcome Home” sign! I couldn’t believe it! It was as good as getting a surprise birthday party! Everyone hugged and talked and after a bit, the four of us put our bicycles back together, a few people went back to their jobs, and the rest of us went to Los Gorditos. And then Shawn and I biked to the apartment I’d lived in before we moved in together, where we’re staying for now with my old roommates, and we were officially home.

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2 Responses to Chicago, and coming home

  1. You discovered what I love so much about Chicago…the culture, the people, the excitement of the big city, the nightlife. I love it even more than New York, but that may have more to do with me being a Midwesterner. I feel at home in Chicago and more like a visitor in New York.

    I also love Minneapolis, where I’ve also lived, but it has a completely different vibe than Chicago. It feels small town to me in the same way Chicago made Portland seem small to you.

    Come December we’ll be heading down to Joliet to my in-laws. A week long early Christmas visit. We always make a trip into the big city for some culture while we’re there.

    • Minneapolis felt, in a lot of ways, a lot like Portland, although in some ways it felt totally different. I can see why people who’ve spent a lot of time in one would feel comfortable in the other, for sure.

      For me, most of the time, Portland is plenty exciting. There is always something fun or interesting happening. And I love living somewhere where I could participate in any of those things if I really wanted to, even if I don’t! I just like knowing that it’s happening. If that makes sense. But at the same time that all that stuff is happening, I run into people I know all the time. I’ll go to events where I think I’ll know nobody, and see people I know. I love it (most of the time) but I wonder if it feels claustrophobic to people from bigger cities.

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