Published: August 21st 2011August 22nd 2011
Chicago again (from the tour boat)
You can't stay out in the parks and countryside all of the time. Cities have their place and some of them should be visited. How else do you get to see how they work, understand how the people there operate, start to appreciate the sometimes subtle differences in culture that may be most apparent where big mobs of people congregate? And it is not necessarily an appropriate performance measure to be able to list those you have successfully skirted. I guess, though, if you are going to visit cities then they might as well be the good ones. Chicago seems to meet that criterion.
Walking along a track in Glacier National Park there were a couple of men behind us talking about the Tour de France. They mentioned that Cadell Evans had done exceptionally well and they wondered whether he was the first Australian to win Le Tour. I was able to let them know that, yes he was and, further, that the mighty Cadell had in fact learnt to ride a bike when he was a toddler living in the Northern Territory of Australia and, further, that he had even been in a race with my little brother. (I
didn't gild the lily though and say that Andrew almost beat him up the hill.) They picked me for an Australian traveller and wanted to know if we had visited the best city in the USA. My 'San Francisco' response was greeted with derision. It transpired that they, and the Scout troop that they had with them, were from Chicago. I proceeded to have an informative discussion with them, and their troop, about the city and its attractions..
There was substantial agreement about the high points but that broke down a little when we moved on to the priority that should be accorded to each. A wander around the lake shores, on a bike if possible, was considered to be very worthwhile. A trip to Buddy Guy's “Legends” blues bar was on the list as was the free classical music concerts in the Millenium Park. An architectural tour was mentioned by one of the boys as the thing his parents took visitors on. He didn't appear completely confident that it would be any good but perhaps old people like that sort of thing. Opinion was unanimous on the Sears Tower, now called the Willis Tower. You need to go
up to the Sky Deck and go out on to the clear viewing platforms. The Navy Pier was OK if you liked that sort of thing. The conclusion was that walking or riding around the city was the best way to enjoy it.
Our hotel was out of town a bit. A lot out of town is probably a better description. We were in the 'burbs but close to a train line. The suburbs here are like suburbs in a lot of places. We could have been driving through Canberra or even Brisbane but perhaps not Darwin. Plenty of lawns, very neat gardens, trimmed trees and did I mention plenty of lawns.
They do suburban shops differently in the, admittedly few, US cities we have investigated. Not so many of the big under-one-roof shopping malls that you find in Australia or Canada for instance. Here they have a conglomeration of shops, normally with a large, shared car park, but they are all separate. I am sure there must be 'normal' shopping malls in some places, and we have struck one or two, but they don't seem to be as common as we had expected. We can say that
All of these high altitude photos are from Willis Tower
suburban bars and taverns can be lively. Ours hasn't been an extensive investigation yet but we can say that some are noisy, serve some reasonable beer, have plenty of football on the numerous TVs, a reasonable number of happy friendly drunks and the food … well let's just say that quantity rather than quality may be the aim of the exercise.
Before I go on, a word on beer. One of the 'Rules' is that we eat and, especially, drink local. This Rule has been honoured fairly religiously for almost three years. There have been times when we have been tempted to let the definition of 'local' grow a little but, for the most part, resistance to that temptation has been successful. I was just a little worried though about US beer. I have sampled some of the major brands in the past and they weren't as much to my taste as they could be. I have found though that, in most places, there is a local tipple. Perhaps it is not always popular with the masses but we found local beers in Oregon that were drinkable, some draft porter we had in California was good. Montana had a
couple that they claimed were local. So far, Moose Drool leads the pack in the bottled beer stakes. It seems to be sold in Wyoming and Montana. We did enjoy some Fat Tire. A little tricky that one though. It was said to be local in California, Oregon and Washington and we have since found it on shelves in other States. Shiner's Bock is not really local for where we are – it is made in Texas. We were told the draft beer at a pub in the Chicago 'burbs was local but it was not to our taste at all. Another local wheat beer, Goose Island 312, was a big improvement but we wouldn't put it up with the best we have tasted . We had a local brew on tap in northern Michigan and it was OK. A nice creamy ale with a good head, almost reminiscent of Kilkenny. The investigation will continue.
Back to other aspects of touristing. Why would you do an architecture tour in a city of skyscrapers? Sure, there may be some value in cities with a bit of history. Rome, Lisbon, London, Prague might be OK or even Paris (although it does
become all a bit samey there after a whille) but isn't one skyscraper much the same as another? Isn't it all really just engineering? Well, given we are welcoming an architect to the family, all going well, we thought we should pick up our act a little and try to gather some knowledge. There are rather a lot of these tours offered around Chicago so there could be some suspicion that they think they have something to sell. I suspect though that it has more to do with the excellent tours put on by the Chicago Architectural Foundation that are now being copied by the more commercial operators. The CAF have trained over 450 'docents' – which are very well informed people that other less informed people might call tour guides. They seemed like the best option for us in our quest for an introduction to the subject.
Our tour was by boat. We were taken on a very leisurely cruise up and down the river while our docent provided a commentary on the buildings that we passed, the politics and history of Chicago and a suite of current planning and development issues that successfully brought alive both the
architecture and the city itself. I started out looking at some of these buildings with just a little misgiving, wondering what you would talk about in a city that had been pretty comprehensively burnt to the ground in 1871. By the time we arrived back at the wharf 90 minutes later my eyes had been opened. There is no way I will remember all of the names of the architects or the firms but our docent knew them all and was able to provide us with an appreciation of the different styles, the ways in which architects had dealt with the difficulties of particular sites and the way the local government of the city had attempted to clean up the river and provide a more healthy and livable environment. The river, by the way, is no longer toxic. Now it is just heavily polluted. These things take time.
We did make the trip up the Sears/Willis Tower. This building is said to be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. This was a fuzzy concept for me. Not a tall building but the 'western' hemisphere. Wiki tells me that the Western Hemisphere contains the Americas. Not much else. There is
also an Eastern Hemisphere. It contains the rest, Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa. I have a suspicion that all of these place being lumped into one hemisphere will be new information for many Australians. It was for me.
But I digress. Back to the Tower. We shouldn't have expected to walk in, hop in an elevator and be carted to the top of a very tall building, but we did. Instead, we spent a considerable time in queues of other people who wanted to see the city from this vantage point, watched a movie about the building being built and then hopped in a lift that took us up 103 floors to the Sky Deck. The views were impressive although the glass boxes on the side were not good for anyone with a fear of heights, and they could have done with a bit of a clean (for better photos). We were very lucky with the weather that gave us clear views of the city.
Chicago is indeed an interesting city. The centre at least is impressive and easy to enjoy. The planners and the local government have worked well with the commercial enterprises to create a downtown
area that is alive and attractive and very well worth the visit. We agreed that it was a city that it would be easy to live in for a time, especially in one of the nice apartments with spectacular views. Not that we have any intention of doing so – just in case the CBP people are reading.
Leaving Chicago we decided to move on up the shore of Lake Michigan. Our first plan was to take it pretty easy for a day or two but we changed that and drove a little over 700 km to get to a place were we could sit for a while. Another one of the 'Rules' – every now and then you need to schedule in a weekend or perhaps more where you just sit. Books may be read, sleeping-in is allowed, recuperation from minor maladies allowed some time, blogging brought up to date and very little touristing is done. St Ignace has a campground that is comfortable and well set up and this is where we decided to sit.
The weather has kicked in to assist us to relax for a few days. Rain here comes, goes and then, more
quickly than you would normally expect, comes back. It may be storms or it may be just a gentle drizzle but it is always there or thereabouts.
We have broken the rules on a couple of days. Mackinac Island is just off the coast here and it had to receive a visit. They banned the horseless carriage a hundred or so years ago here. The result is that things are all very gentle and genteel. Horses and bikes (treadlies) the only form of transport. We took none of them and utilised the other option available - an even older form, Shank's Pony (feet). We walked around the foreshore looking at the main street which is full of tourist shops, very pretty houses, fudge shops and the like. Over 30 restaurants and bars around so plenty of options. Climbed up to the Arch Rock which was near the highest point on the island at about 300 ft. We ended up covering about half of the island before it started to rain a little heavily. That drove us to a pub for an expensive and not excellent lunch but with some good local ale the name of which I didn't pick
up in the noise (Light House?).
A 160 mile round trip to have a look at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum wasn't necessarily our best decision of the trip. We were prepared to be interested in the countryside but it didn't really hold a lot of appeal after the first 10 minutes. Relatively low and scrubby with a fair amount of swampy ground. The museum was interesting but not all that spectacular. Their primary exhibit was about the Edmund Fizgerald which sank 10 Nov 1975 with the loss of 29 lives. But we also found that over 300 people died in the Whitefish Point area over the years, among a total of 30,000 who died in shipping accidents in the Great Lakes over the 4 centuries since Europeans arrived. It seemed, after looking at the information provided that more than a reasonable proportion died as a result of ships ramming each other due to speed or fog or both. The area used to be very congested. It is less so now and perhaps they have developed some safety procedures. In this part of the country the water is the thing. Get a boat and get on it, dip a
On the edge
on the perspex viewing boxes on Willis Tower
line into it or just sit and watch the freighters and the storms pass.
Publication of this brings us back to real time posting. We always intend to do this but there are times when events and internet connections work against us. In the next couple of days we will cross into Canada, moving reasonably quickly across some of Ontario and into Quebec. We have it in mind to stay there for a few days and possibly drive over for a look at New Brunswick. We have given up the original idea of getting over to Newfoundland. There is simply not enough time. We will be back in the US in time to float down through some of the north eastern States and collect Sarah in New York in September.
There are more photos below