Whistle Stop: Day 1 of Chicago

[Note: Posting this from Glasgow, Montana. I’m typing up fragments of posts as I travel (so what you see isn’t all retroactively written), but I’ve been a lot more occupied than I had anticipated, so please bear with me as I try to catch up!]

Sunday, Sept. 9: After a nighttime hike on Goat Island (which is part of Niagara Falls State Park), my friends drove me down to Buffalo, where we enjoyed a very Buffalo meal of wings and roast beef on weck at Duff’s before they dropped me off at the Amtrak station. It was a small station, but a surprisingly packed one. I took the midnight train going to Chicago and dozed off shortly after clambering on.

Monday, Sept. 10: I arrived in Chicago a little before noon. As I walked from Union Station to my hostel, I was immediately struck by how immense the city felt. I’m not sure if this was illusory because of my lack of familiarity with the city, but Chicago buildings simply seemed, on average, more massive and monolithic compared to the buildings in NY. I’ll continue to mull over why this was; I think the sprawled nature of the city may have contributed to it.

Now, I normally do a lot of research on a city before arriving so that I have a pretty good idea of the places I want to check out when I arrive. This was not the case for Chicago — I was going into it nearly blind. I confess that most of my knowledge of the look and layout of Chicago comes from the Nolan Batman films and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And the musical Chicago didn’t help at all. After setting my things down at Hostelling International, I grabbed a free tourist map and set off for a day of exploration.

Striking teachers at Cloud Gate.

Studying the map, I quickly realized that just about every building in Chicago was an architectural landmark of some sort. Unable to discern how each enumerated building on the map somehow contributed to the development of the skyscraper, I decided to start with the parks. And instead of seeking out all those notable buildings, I decided I would just read up on them if I happened to pass them (which worked out well in retrospect since I did so much walking). With a vague plan of attack in mind, I headed east from my hostel to Buckingham Fountain (more on this place in a later post), then north to Millennium Park. I stopped to people-watch at Crown Fountain (I had never heard of this sculpture before — it’s an interesting concept, but overall I found the faces a little weird — I did like the setup otherwise though), and then continued onto the iconic Cloud Gate, which has become one of my all-time favorite sculptures. I spent over an hour looking at the bean from every angle, experimenting with various camera angles, and then just sitting back and watching everyone else explore the sculpture. It’s simultaneously interactive and social (for example, you can’t help but capture photos of other people in your own photos) while allowing for personal exploration of the sculpture and private contemplation.

“Chicago Special” from Giordano’s

I had an early pizza dinner at Giordano’s (hot gooey goodness). By that time, the sound of news helicopters covering the downtown teachers’ rally was permeating the entire city. After dinner, I continued north past the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River. I paused at the Chicago Tribune building to inspect the Aesop Fable-themed archway and the pieces of various famous buildings on its façade. I then turned east to walk along the riverfront to the Centennial Fountain, which shoots out a jet of water every half hour to the other side of the river (nothing special, but the river walk was nice).

As sunset approached, I started making my way up the “Magnificent Mile” portion of Michigan Avenue (the equivalent of NYC’s Fifth Avenue) to the John Hancock Center, the fourth tallest building in Chicago. Taking the advice of the receptionist at my hostel, I went up to the Signature Room bar and lounge on the 96th floor instead of the observation deck — so instead of paying $27, I enjoyed the same view over a reasonably-priced (and tasty) $7.50 Raspberry Fizz. Even the view from the Signature Room’s woman’s bathroom, with windows so large that they were practically glass-paneled walls, was stunning.

After nightfall, I left the tower and headed back over the river. On my way back to the hostel, I revisited Cloud Gate and hung around for a little while. Even at 9pm, the plaza was relatively busy. Cops on patrol comically zoomed around on segways and photographers fiddled with their tripods and positioning around the sculpture. After an hour or so, I headed back to the hostel.

Coming soon: Day 2 of Chicago, the Amtrak ride from Chicago to Montana (during which I have some interesting conversations, including with a group of Mennonite women), and farm life in Montana (where I’m staying for 2 nights at my cousin’s). Unfortunately, I won’t have Internet for the next 2-3 days, which is Glacier National Park. The next time I update will probably be from Seattle!

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