Before I went to Chicago, EVERYONE was warning me about how cold it would be. Even when I boarded the train in St. Louis, the conductor said “It’s cold in Chicago. We should be going south, not north.” I kept getting told that ~nothing~ I have experienced would prepare me for Chicago’s coldness. And windiness. And snowiness.
The train crossed into Illinois pretty much as soon as it got out St. Louis city limits. The train made stop after stop in various Illinois towns. As a native of Chicago I eventually met in Chicago said (with her distinctly Chicago accent) “Outside of Chicago, Illinois is a rural state. I remember, when I was going to Springfield, there was a thirty mile stretch when I lost phone reception, and I thought ‘Whoa, we’re still in Illinois, we’re not far from Chicago.'” She also said in the same conversation “The people downstate say we are moochers, but Cook County [where Chicago is located] provides 70% of the tax revenue for the state of Illinois. We’re not moochers.”
Indeed, the only place the train passed through which was not rural was Springfield, the capital of Illinois. I enjoyed seeing the small Illinois towns, and watching the people all bundled up boarding the train. And a lot of people boarded the train – it was an ‘overfull’ train since there were more passengers than seats. Most of those passengers did not board in St. Louis – there were entire cars which were empty when we departed St. Louis – which shows that a lot of people in small-town Illinois use the train to get to Chicago.
When I was in Missouri, I didn’t see any snow. However, only about 40 minutes into Illinois, I started seeing frost, and about twenty minutes later, I saw landscapes coated with snow. There were a lot of fields, but there was also quite a bit of forest.
Meanwhile, I was uncomfortable, because the train was overheated – way more heated that any other Amtrak train I have ever taken.
Anyway, as we were getting to Chicago, I was bracing myself for the test – was I ready for Chicago winter weather?
Answer: the streets of Chicago – on a night which even local Chicago people said was particularly cold – were more comfortable than that overheated train.
I am happy to report that Chicago (at least near the train station) has better street lighting than New Orleans. It was pretty exciting, not just walking through a city I had never been to before, but walking through an environment I had never been in before. I have experienced snow in Kyoto, but Kyoto snow is much less intense than Chicago snow. The sidewalks of Chicago, even when they are cleared of snow, retain a thin layer of salt crystals which give them a frosty appearance.
That said, I must thank everyone who gave me dire warnings of Chicago winter weather. They persuaded me to bring clothing which made my time in Chicago more comfortable than it would have been otherwise (long underwear is very useful).
I slept in a hostel in Greektown, which is on the eastern edge of the ‘Near West Side’ and has a lot of Greek eateries. I suspect that the managers/owners of the hostel are also Greek-Americans.
The next day – which was the only full day I spent in Chicago – I spent hours walking around in downtown. I loved the look of snow blanketing the urban landscape. I noticed an abundance of signs saying ‘Caution – Falling Ice’ – hence the title of this post. Though I never rode the El, I enjoyed looking up at the tracks and hearing the trains above me.
Chicago is famous for its architecture, and yes, a lot of it is nice. However, the Sears Tower (I know it has another name now, but I still think of it as the ‘Sears Tower’) does not look like anything special at ground level – it just looks like a generic skyscraper.
The highlight of the walk was not the buildings, but Lake Michigan. It was the first time I had seen any of the Great Lakes. I liked its blue/turquoise/cyan color against the white/gray sky. I saw a great variety of ice floating on the lake waters. In some places the ice was really choppy and broken up, full of white edges, as the lake water undulated beneath it. In another place, the ice formed large sheets which were nearly translucent, making them the same color as the water, but one could see cracks in the plates of ice, like cracks in a glass window. I was impressed by a pair of ducks which were happily splashing in the lake water right next to one of the ice sheets. And the beaches – I have never seen a beach blanketed with snow before. I love the interested blobs of frozen sand which looked like cool complicated rocks – and felt as hard as rock.
In the afternoon, it began to snow anew. I felt that walking through Chicago was like walking through a Christmas card, and experience I’ve never had before. I grew up in coastal California, where it simply does not snow – in California, winter means the landscape because green with sprouting and reviving plants and new life (in other words, winter is to us what spring is to East Coast culture). As a child, the only times I ever saw snow was when my family visited the Sierra mountains – in summer. I saw snow fall from the sky for the first time in Kyoto, and that is the only other urban environment to date where I have seen snow, but, well, Kyoto does not look like a Christmas card.
I loved the weather in Chicago. I felt it was a challenge and an adventure, and the scenery was gorgeous. However, most residents of Chicago had a reaction like this when they heard I was going to San Francisco next –
Me: Next, I’m going to San Francisco.
Chicago Resident: I want to go to San Francisco.
Me: It doesn’t snow in San Francisco.
Chicago Resident: I know, that’s why I want to go there!
Some residents of Chicago seemed a bit … disappointed that I was not put off by the weather. However, they explained that, while the weather had novelty value for me because it was all new to me, dealing with the snow and the wind and the cold gets old when one has to put up with it all winter, year after year. I can understand that perspective.
In the evening, I … went to the theatre. There was no way I was going to stay in Chicago without seeing a theatre show (well, maybe if I were in Chicago on a Monday night I would skip the theatre). I saw The Christians performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I had seen a Steppenwolf production more than ten years ago when they toured in San Francisco, but this was obviously the first time I saw a show in their home theatre. I will post a review later, but in summary, it was excellent.
I was talking to one of the employees at Steppenwolf, and I learned that she is from Jackson, Mississippi. That’s near Vicksburg, so I told her that I had recently visited Vicksburg. I then learned that both of her parents were from Vicksburg. It’s a small world.
I was seated next to a long-term Steppenwolf subscriber, and I enjoyed talking with her before the show began.
After hearing about my travels, the Steppenwolf employees decided to give me a Steppenwolf notebook, a Steppenwolf pen, and a complementary drink at their bar after the show. I was amazed by their generosity. I enjoyed a cocktail at their bar, and was impressed without how many people went to the bar right after the show. I guess it is a Chicago tradition, or maybe just a Steppenwolf one. I really liked the cocktail, which had vodka and ginger and spices and some other things (I guess it was a variation of a Moscow Mule).
On my last morning in Chicago, I went to Hull House. That happened to be the one day of the week that it is closed, but that was okay, since I was content to just look at the building and peek through the windows. Hull House, of course, was the base for the historically important social activist Jane Addams.
In summary, I loved Chicago and its winter weather. This was the right time for me to visit.
I’ve never been to any of the places you’ve been blogging about lately… Or ever, actually, never left the country nor been to a good portion of the united States. I’ve wanted to visit Chicago for a while now and now you’ve made me really want to visit it in the winter lol. 😉 As someone from Maryland who went to college in Massachusetts I’ve always been used to some degree of cold and snow… But still Winter was always my favorite season. 😉
Well, before this trip (I returned home yesterday evening) I had only been to 3-5 states, including the state I was born in (the questionmark stations are Nevada and New York – I had spent a night in New York City, but did not see anything famous or remember much, and I had spent a few hours on the Nevada side of the Nevada/California border when I was eleven years old).
If you visit Chicago, I definitely recommend staying at the Parthenon Hostel. It only cost me about 30 dollars a night for a dorm bed, it’s in a convenient location (ten minute walk from the train station) and it is a well-run hostel. And of course, I recommend going to Chicago by train – especially since it’s THE Amtrak hub for the entire United States (it seems more than half of all long-distance Amtrak lines begin/end in Chicago). And I highly recommend seeing some theatre in Chicago – there are half-price ticket services if one wants to see a show without paying top dollar.
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