Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chicago Journeys - Travel Essay

Chicago. The name of this Midwestern city speaks volumes. It’s more than just a city. It’s a journey. It’s a discovery. It’s an exploration. But, that’s just how I feel about the place. I’m a bit biased, due to the fact that I’ve lived my entire life just beyond the Chicagoland ‘burbs. Whenever I travel into the city, I’m always finding something worthwhile. Always finding someplace new. Always discovering these places. In a city of some three million people, you’ll always have yourself an adventure. It’s even an adventure just getting there.

 If you go by car, what you face is a massive frenzy of cars and trucks, all trying to keep up with each other. “Yay, it’s a race!” are my own thoughts sometimes. Don’t even dare catch a glimpse of what your fellow drivers are doing, because most likely, they are driving erratically with one hand and most likely talking with whoever is on their cell phones (even though their passenger should be doing such – but, I’m sure the passenger is also on the cell phone), reading a book (yeah, it’s been seen), having a full three course meal (alright, that might be a little extreme), or simply catching up on their CNN or some other TV show (yeah, I'll admit, I just made that one up entirely).

This might be the entire reason why I am often harassed by friends and family for being a backseat driver. You can thank those city drivers for turning me into that person always on the lookout for the unsafe driver and telling the driver to watch out for upcoming upon slow drivers and simple looking for the right exit. It’s mind-boggling to all of a sudden have to worry about four other lanes and watching and waiting for people to cut in from any direction.

Once you reach the edges of Chicago, what you now have to worry about are the taxi cabs. Just remember, they are only doing their jobs by getting their paying customers to their destinations as soon as they possibly can and as fast as they possibly can go in a raging river of cars. Enough said? I’ll have to think of something about taxis later. I’ve had some experience with that.

Despite all these traffic concerns, you can’t help but fall in love once you are in the heart of the city. There’s just something beautiful about the place. With me, coming from a small Illinois town, living on the western fringes of Chicago, it has always felt like the great city of Oz of sorts. The sight, the sounds, the smells, the colors and just the feel of Chicago, it’s an all out amazing feeling. At night, especially if you are way out in the country, there’s this soft twilight glow of a billion lights that can be seen on the eastern horizon, mixing in with the billions of stars that shine in the heavens. What makes the city of nearly three million souls the most unique, is the architecture of the buildings. These mighty buildings rise from the streets reaching towards the sky and hit the clouds on the way as they rise up and up and up.

The best way to find yourself in Chicago though, without going insane, is by way of train. It’s the most interesting way to travel into the city. Simply standing there amongst the cornfield scattered rows and the lonely parked cars, and waiting at the tiny train depot for the train to pick you up, is a relaxing experience. The light breeze that blows across the growing cornfields, in almost total loneliness, wakes you up, as the rising sun stretches and wakes right along side.

No better way to get into the heart of Chicago than by way of the train......

Walking around the grocery store soon after it has just opened up in the early morning is an interesting experience. Still feeling a little sleepy, I shuffle around and stare hard at everything, trying to figure out where exactly the soda-pop products are at. Echoes of footsteps can be heard throughout the store it seems as I walk through the silent aisles. I stalk the aisles, hoping to find some candy, pop, and a few magazines to fill me up and wake me up during the long train ride. Strangely, due to being a little sleepy still, I find myself staring at the grocery store clerks, watching them do their stocking business, setting up the show for the full day ahead. Almost feeling like I could just stand there for hours, crunching on a bucket of popcorn as they work. I have to shake myself awake and head towards the checkout lane.

            The train comes to a slow and steady halt and the doors slide open. With a magazine in hand, I race aboard to find the perfect seat, even though I’m the very first passenger. What can I say; I am the ultimate early bird. I watch as cars file slowly into the parking lot and the passengers hurriedly getting out of their cars, not wanting to be late. For a brief few moments, the entire parking lot comes to life. Bunches of people scrambling up to the platform and hoping to find their own little temporary personal space on the train. With a magazine in hand, I listen to the hushed whispers of conversation as I occasionally look around me. The talk grows louder as more and more people board. I take peeking glances from my magazine at the people walking by. A person will just lazily look me as eyes meet for a brief second and they disappear into the next car.

On a previous train ride, my dad tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out the window at this massive decaying warehouse. A dying monster that had been marked repeatedly by graffiti and the many windows, long gone.

 “I used to play in that building with my brothers and sisters whenever our dad brought the cattle into the city,” he had reminisced for me, from his farming childhood past.

 I looked again at the relic, history flowing just past the shattered windows. Soon to be lost, the city’s past crumbling away to make room for the city’s future. Soon to be lost it was, because ever since that time that I shared with my dad, I have never been able to find the same decaying building. It has mysteriously been lost to the forgotteness.

What makes a train ride into Chicago interesting is that the train itself is alive. People from all walks of life sit in the seats, and you can’t help but wonder at it all. There are the sounds of conversations and simply looking around to find something unique.

An old man dressed in a business suit jacket, sits towards the front of the train, looking like he’s long overdue for retirement in his graying white fedora and black suit. The old business man’s hands wrinkled with time and by hard work, comb through the front page news with his thick-framed eyeglasses. His capped lips moving every so slightly, reading to himself. An old woman sits next to him, very lady-like and with a stern looking face, her hands held firmly to her purse that’s on her lap, doing her best to not disturb her seatmate. She stares straight ahead, at the cream colored wall of the train. The gesture saying that they are not man and wife.

Two stylish young ladies
Glance across the aisle
Giggling to themselves
As they peek
At the two young business men
Sitting across from them

The guy learns over, very tanned
Dressed in his business-casual best
Sparking up a conversation with the two ladies
All smiles

Tiny Mexican children laugh, scream, and chatter away in Spanish while they climb all over their seats. The frail looking Spanish woman in flowing dark hair, coo’s at her babies, trying to calm them down to no avail, while the rugged looking father stares hard at the four little children and commands them as politely as possible to settle down.

“Mama! Mama,” all four of them scream and gain the attention of their parents, as well as the entire train car. “Papa! Papa! Mirada! Mirada! Chicago!”

“Chicago……” my dad’s co-worker buddy says aloud. No doubt about it. There it is, Chicago.

The Sears Tower rises out of the mid-morning haze. My travel companion perks up as I point it out to her. Life slowly returns to her, knowing that the ride is almost over. Arrival imminent. I can feel the anticipation mount throughout the train. Newspapers rustle. Suitcases are at the ready. Heads bobbing as they look out the windows, catching glimpses of the city life. Everyone leaning forward in their seats, ready to sprint.

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