September 5 – 8, 2008

After we went to New York in May and had such a wonderful time, Jonathan said that he wanted to show me Chicago – and he wanted to see if having been to New York would affect his perceptions of Chicago, too. His family was from Chicago, and even though they’d moved to Colorado when he was two, they’d gone back to visit several times. So since I showed him around New York, he said he’d show me around Chicago.

Well, just a couple weeks after we’d been back from New York, I got an e-mail alert on airfare to Chicago – round-trip tickets for just $130. Even with all the other trips we’ve done this year, we couldn’t pass that up! So the trip was set for the weekend after Labor Day. Our plane landed in Chicago around 9pm Friday night, and we managed to figure out the bus/train pass system and get a couple of perfect 72 hour unlimited ride passes (we would be in the city for a mere 70 hours, but close enough!) and we got on the subway to ride into the city to the bed and breakfast where we were staying (it was cheaper than a hotel due to the shared bathroom). Well, not five minutes before we landed, they completely shut down a huge stretch of the line that goes to the airport, so that they could do maintenance over the weekend. We had to get off, get on shuttle buses, and ride around streets for quite a long time before we could get back on the train. In a way, this set part of the tone for the trip. Apparently, the weekend after Labor Day weekend is a good time for a city to get its construction projects done before winter sets in!

We both slept in a bit the next morning, and took our lazy time getting started on the day. We managed to find our way to the raw food restaurant that we’d been wanting to try, and had a wonderful lunch there. As we were walking back to the elevated train line, I noticed a very nice looking designer clothing consignment shop, and Jonathan agreed to let me have a bit of time there – it turned out to be a fabulous find! I picked up an excellent suit for $16, a silk knit top for $4, just a bunch of stuff and still spent less than $100. After that, we headed down to the museum district. Orange lines, brown lines, blue lines – figuring out how the el was supposed to run was challenging enough, but they were in the midst of long term construction projects as well as various weekend maintenance projects. The el runs in a complete square around the downtown district; trains from the north enter at the northwest corner, and trains from the south enter at the southeast corner. However, trains from the north weren’t running down there. And trains from the south were being run on the north tracks. We made it into the Loop, and then figured out that they’d completely closed down two sides of the square for work over the weekend. So we got off at what we figured was the closest stop, and caught a bus over to where most of the museums are clustered. We were going to go to the Aquarium first, but there was a tremendous line of people waiting to get in. So we went to the Field Museum next door. As we were purchasing our multi-museum passes, we asked about the line. Apparently they had just finished some renovations and had declared today to be a free admission day. That would explain it!

As we began wandering through the Field Museum, I suddenly remembered that the ending credits of the movie “The Ghost and The Darkness” had said that the lions from the story were on display in Chicago. We asked a staff member, and sure enough, she directed us back to where their display was. We eventually managed to find our way through the labyrinth, and were very excited to actually see them! They had a great informational display, too – pictures of the real Col. Patterson (played by Val Kilmer), documentation of the nearly 140 people these lions killed and ate, and information about the conditions at the time that might have caused these lion to choose humans as prey (a disease had killed most of the usual prey animals a year earlier). We talked excitedly about it, and as we talked, a bit of a crowd gathered around us. “Oh, I saw that movie – I just thought it was a movie, I didn’t know it was real!” “Yeah, that’s what made it even more creepy, the fact that it was real,” we responded.

We stayed at the Field Museum as long as we dared, and then caught one of the last water taxis (the museums are built on a peninsula extending out into Lake Michigan) over to Navy Pier (which also extends out into Lake Michigan), where we boarded a boat that took us up the Chicago River on a tour of the city, with a focus on the architectural styles of the buildings. We also learned much about the history of the city, such as how they used to dump all of their sewage into the river (it’s only recently been upgraded from “toxic” to “polluted”). This was why many of the older buildings backed right up to the river and had no doors or windows overlooking it – why would anyone want to look at sewage? It was also a problem since they got their fresh water from Lake Michigan, into which the river emptied. So they built a tunnel several miles out into the lake to collect water where the polluted shoreline wouldn’t affect it. Surprisingly, this didn’t work! So they built a canal, used it to actually reverse the flow of the river, and cause it to empty to the Des Plaines River, through the Illinois River, and then into the Mississippi River instead. The city of St. Louis wasn’t exactly happy about receiving all of Chicago’s pollution, but surprisingly enough, Chicago won the lawsuit.

We saw buildings that, we were told, had been altered because the city decided it needed a road there. In one instance, one sixth of the building had been lopped off the end to make room for the road; in another, they simply built the road through the building, even though the building was there first. I began to get the impression of Chicago as being a place of rather brutal efficiency – it seemed much cleaner than New York, and much more well-maintained than New York… If they needed to work on a El line, they would simply shut it down entirely and do the work they needed to do. If they needed a road built, they would simply build it right through a building if they needed to. If they had water problems, they would simply make the river flow backwards! But it was also extremely well organized – anytime something was shut down and re-routed, there were dozens of CTA personnel deployed to, if nothing else, stand on the station platforms answering questions about detours and how to get around. One morning I literally saw two dozen CTA personnel who had arrived for work, they were clustered around the supervisor who was explaining the day’s detours and what information they would need to provide to commuters. I can’t remember seeing anything like that in New York City!

After the architectural boat tour, we went to Buddy Guy’s and listened to some jazz for a while… but it was getting crowded and we decided to duck out after only an hour and head back to our bed and breakfast early that evening.

The next day, we went to the Aquarium first thing. Jonathan was very disappointed that the Oceanarium portion of it had been shut down just the week before we arrived. They would be doing long-term renovations on it through May of 2009. He had really wanted me to see that part! However, there was still plenty to see, and we spent the entire morning there (most of our Chicago pictures were taken here!). We went back to the raw food restaurant for their brunch buffet and practically gorged ourselves, and then we went back down to the museum district and went to the Planetarium for a couple of hours. After the Planetarium, we caught a bus uptown to the John Hancock building, and went to the observatory at the top. It was so beautiful and peaceful, and we stayed and watched the sunset. Afterwards, I tried to go to the Filene’s Basement across the street, but they had closed at 8pm. We debated staying out, but we’d been on our feet all day, so we headed back.

Monday was our last day. Our flight wasn’t until 8pm, so we had much of the day to fit in some remaining sightseeing. We first went to the downtown Library to use their computers to check in and print our boarding passes. The library was HUGE! And had lots of marble and beautiful architecture. And over 100 computers that you had to sign up for and then wait your turn. After that, we went to the Art Museum. It wasn’t part of our multi-museum pass, but we were glad we did it. We wandered around for hours, just soaking in all of the paintings and sculptures. Unfortunately, much of the Museum’s extensive Impressionist collection as well as almost all of their Van Gogh paintings were currently on loan to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. This allowed the Museum to completely empty one wing for renovations – definitely a theme of our trip! When we were in the gift shop afterwards, I saw a card with a Berthe Morisot painting on it… it struck a memory. I’d been in love with that painting in the early nineties and had known that it was in Chicago, but had completely forgotten! I would have loved to have seen it in person, but it was one of the ones out on loan. So – I guess if we make it back to Chicago again, we’ll have plenty to do!