Chicago – Chapter Three

Day 5, March 30: The second day in a row with a cloudy morning greeted me, but I wasn’t too worried – it had cleared up nicely the day before, and I was hopeful it would again. I grabbed a cheap breakfast croissant and ate it in the company of nonfunctional LCD fountains in Millennium Park. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry at that stage, but I did want to get some nourishment without roaming too far. My goal was the Architectural Foundation on the edge of the park and one of their walking tours.

The tour guide for our group of seven was a sprightly older lady full of American enthusiasm and a clear affection for Chicago and its architecture, some of the older examples of which she was to take us around in a tour lasting an hour and a half. For a city that burned to the ground in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it set to work rebuilding itself with a vengeance, and we got to see such famous buildings as the Monadnock and the Rookery and had an introduction to the Chicago School and such styles as Beaux Arts and Art Deco. For all that it added to my feet’s woes, it was fascinating and I’d heartily recommend it.

The morning wasn’t done by the time the tour was though, so I hopped on the El train north to Diversy. For the first time I was heading significantly away from the Magnificent Mile and the heart of the city. My goal was Wrigleyville, and to get there I walked up a fair chunk of North Clark Street, one of the most interesting and characterful streets in the city. Sadly, a lot of that character lies in the bars, which weren’t open at that stage of the day, but the record and t-shirt stores had a charm all their own. There was nothing of the chain store feel about the comic store that I spent a happy half hour in, for example.

The further north I went though, the more everything became dominated by one feature: the Chicago Cubs, that perennially cursed team. Wrigley Field, which was being prepared for the weekend’s season opener, had the feel of a very welcoming cathedral of sport, and the sight of bleachers atop nearby homes overlooking the field was a clear reminder of how much of a community team this one is.

After Wrigley Park, I headed south on Halsted Street, finally coming to a halt at Clark Street Hot Dogs for a zen hot dog.* Which was enough fortification for me to continue walking – the sun had come out, and I decided to walk all the way back to town rather than take the El. On the way I passed the site of the Valentine’s Day Massacre – once a garage and now an unmarked patch of grass between houses and apartments. (The signs on the streets nearby that there was to be no parking when the snow was more than two inches deep was a reminder of how some people deal with snow a lot more often than Ireland has in the last couple of years.)

Beyond Wrigleyville, I hit Lincoln Park, with its free zoo. A lot of which were taking the afternoon off, but as I wasn’t paying for performances, I couldn’t really complain. It was worth the time to roam around anyway, particularly because of the ape exhibit – the gorillas and chimps are disturbingly human in their mannerisms. Even television can’t give as clear a depiction of that as simply being close to one of these creatures in the flesh.

South of Lincoln Park and north of the city were some of the nicest neighbourhoods I’d come across in Chicago, with houses that beat out nearly anything I’d seen in Dublin. I strolled through under the fading sun, hit Lakeshore Drive and turned south from there to the Hancock Tower. My CityPass allowed me an extra visit up to the viewing deck, and this time at least the lift didn’t seem to rattle quite so much. Once again I got to have a sunset experience, and if I was ten stories lower than I had been in the Willis Tower, and without the SkyDeck glass booths, the view was better than it had been two stories higher and a few days earlier. I sat back with a coffee and watched the sun go down, enjoying the lights coming on and the shadows of the skyscrapers stretching out over Lake Michigan. I couldn’t really choose between the two towers, but I suppose if I were to have to choose a place to have a drink, the bar on the 96th floor of the Hancock would be the place to be. Even if the prices are crazy.

Walking down the Magnificent Mile in the dark, I had a thought of picking up some Garrett’s popcorn, but the queue for the store was nearly as long as the one for the Apple Store the day before. Something to remember for the future. I rested my feet in the hotel, then headed out to the Gage restaurant, another recommendation from my relative. It was another good insider tip – great beer and a lovely burger, all in very salubrious and relaxed surroundings. However, much as I might have wanted to hang around, I needed to get up very early the next day. Travelling was on the menu once more.

Day 6, March 31: It was still dark when my alarm went off the next morning. It was still dark too when I headed out the door, aiming for the Blue Line, having showered and shaved and stuffed anything I thought I might need into a shoulder bag. I didn’t have the chance to grab breakfast, but after getting the runaround at the terminals, I found a Garrett’s popcorn booth and grabbed myself a small (huge) bag of caramel corn, which would do for breakfast. And lunch, dinner, breakfast the next day and sundry snacks in between.

The flight to St. Louis was on a small jet, and the difference between that and a large jet was clear in terms of speed of takeoff and landing. I was in St. Louis in less than an hour and still got a free drink along the way. Take that Ryanair! The metro took me straight from Lambert Airport to Union Station which, as it turned out, wasn’t actually a station any more. Which was a shame, as the only reason I’d got off there was to sort out my train ticket for that evening. I’m not even sure what it was – half a mall, half a museum, all more open-air than either of those descriptions might suggest. Either way, I didn’t linger. I walked from there into town, towards the Mississippi, noting the location of the Amtrak station as I passed.

Before I hit the river though, I have to pass Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, which is gearing up for a game later in the day, with crowds in red shirts gathering as I pass by. The city itself doesn’t look quite so sharp as Chicago, and there are signs of decay all around until I hit the very heart of town. This is a real site of faded grandeur, its prominence as an industrial and trade hub stolen by, well, Chicago.

Still, there are sights to be seen, two of which are collected in one location: the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch that towers over it. The gleaming steel span has a museum beneath and a cable car system that brings you up to a small tunnel in the top. Once again, being on my own had its advantages – rather than wait a few hours for my turn, I got fitted into a spare corner of one of the cars, along with two parents and their kids. The space up top is very cramped – just enough for me to stand upright and no more, and the view is equally cramped – two rows of windows looking out and down, one over the Mississippi and one over St. Louis itself. There’s not much sign of upkeep either – the paint inside has flaked off in a lot places, leaving the bare metal underneath.

Once out of the arch, I headed into town. I had a particular goal in mind for coming to St. Louis, and to get to it, I needed a little bit of tourist help. Unfortunately, the office that I found proved a little misleading, and they discouraged me somewhat from the idea that I could make it out there and make it back in time for my train. I dithered for a little while, achieving nothing more than costing myself half an hour, and eventually decided to go for it. If I’d come this far, why should I not at least give it a shot?

The goal of my efforts? The city of Cahokia, built by the Mississippian tribes and abandoned more than two hundred years before Columbus showed up. To get there, I had to take the Metro to the far side of the river, get off at a bus terminus, then take that bus down the Interstate for a while and get off at a crossroads surrounded by a half-hearted effort at a town. From there it was a stroll of just under a mile (the tourist office had said nearly three miles) to the Interpretive Center at the heart of the complex of earthen mounds that’s all that remains of Cahokia.

By the time that I got there, the sun had come out and was warmer by far than it had been in Chicago. The interpretive centre was definitely worth the effort – it’s free, but there are suggested donations – as it’s a thorough investigation of the archaeology and history of the site. The real star of the show are the mounds themselves and the trails that wind among them. I didn’t have the time to explore them properly, but I did walk around under the sun for a while, then head straight for the largest of the mounds – Monk’s Mound, which covers more of an area than the Great Pyramid in two earthen tiers that offer a view all the way back to the Mississippi and the Arch I’d climbed a couple of hours before.

I had the top of Monk’s Mound to myself for a little while, but I was pushed for time again, and I headed for the exit soon enough, walking all the way back to the crossroads in time to catch a bus at a place without a stop. The trip back into town gave me enough time to look for some reading material and some food slightly healthier than anything I’d managed on the trip so far (water and fruit), but when I got to the station, I blew any healthy aspirations I might have had with a slice of pizza, garlic bread and a Pepsi.

I was still eating when I boarded the train, and we were soon heading out across the Mississippi and the plains beyond. The clouds came in to prevent any magnificent twilight vistas, but before then I had the chance to see America’s backwoods and small towns, industrial and agricultural sights alternating with each other. The towns and cities of Alton, Collingville and Springfield slid by before darkness fell, and I glimpsed levees and rivers, lonesome and abandoned houses, and lengthy cargo trains. The abandoned sights made more sense amid the endless plains – in a country with so much space, why not abandon rather than rebuild? Eventually though, darkness claimed the last of the scrubby, spring-bare trees and I had to wait until Chicago to see light again. There was just enough time to walk from Union Station in Chicago back to Hotel 71 and grab a drink before last orders.

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Travels, Reviews, and Assorted Musings

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