Downtown Chicago cityscape
Downtown Chicago cityscape

The plan: visit Aunt Lila
The challenge: the city of Chicago

When I look back at the plans we’d made, months ago, to leave the Appalachian Trail and head for Chicago, and Indianapolis, I have to laugh. These ventures live in two different spheres of reality. We assumed we could juggle them both. After all, we’re travelers, right?

But traveling at the speed of feet changes your sensory perception. When we returned home from the AT, I was uncomfortable in the rental car. It was small. We moved fast. Other cars moved faster. Rocketing down the Interstate, it felt surreal to cover the distance we’d journeyed over three months done in just two days.

And so it was with Chicago. When we hit Gary, Indiana we discovered an urban mass larger than either of us had dealt with this year. All the maps in my hands didn’t help. It was a Sunday afternoon and pouring down rain. We hit a full-on traffic jam within sight of The Loop, of downtown. We crept forward for nearly two hours. I pulled out the iPhone and found an alternate route. Thank goodness for traffic reports live on Google maps! The new route, however, didn’t move a lot faster. And we both needed a bathroom.

Getting off the Interstate in a part of the city we knew nothing about, we stopped in what looked like an older industrial Eastern European immigrant neighborhood, reminiscent of my years in Pittsburgh. We quickly found it was not. We weren’t welcome at the first stop, a gas station, where the lady told us to go elsewhere. Finding a McDonalds, we slipped in, not being able to understand the language over the loudspeakers. Later, Lila would tell us that wasn’t the best of neighborhoods to be in.

Stress swept over me in waves, something I hadn’t experienced in a long time. The traffic jam. The uncomfortable surroundings. Getting off one interstate onto another and being forced to drive through a tollbooth without paying since there was no lane to take change, just electronic passes. Finding our way in the pouring rain to O’Hare International, where we figured we’d stash the car during our visit since it was simpler than driving through the core of the city and cheaper than a city parking garage. Later, we found out that you’re not really allowed to do that. It’s considered trespassing, despite being the best way to connect with the metro area’s transit system.

On the El in Chicago
On the El in Chicago

By the time we got into the airport, I was numb with stress and shock over the fuss and tumble of dealing with the urban landscape. We transfered from airport bus to shuttle to train to city bus, and I stayed quiet.

Chicago traffic
Traffic as seen from the train station

While it was nice to visit with Lila, both John and I quickly realized we weren’t cut out for roaming around such a big city. Everything around us was jarring, especially the NO signs. 

cat in books
A cat peering out of the stacks at a downtown bookstore in Chicago

NO LOITERING was a popular one. We found it bizarre that in McDonalds, even paying customers were told we weren’t allowed to stay more than 30 minutes or we’d be loitering. So much for free wifi! Most of the restaurants were cash only, another surprise in such an urban environment.

Jimmys Pizza Chicago
Jimmy’s Pizza has fresh basil growing in the windows
We ducked into Lincoln Square very late in our visit, and I’m sorry we hadn’t seen it sooner. This little community has deep German roots, and along a pedestrian mall we discovered an old-fashioned apothecary, a fine German deli and bakery, a toy shop, and several German restaurants. At a nearby parking lot, a mural of Germany hinted at this neighborhood treasure.

Aunt Lila and John in Lincoln Square neighborhood
Aunt Lila and John in Lincoln Square neighborhood

Leaving a few days early – pining for calmness and outdoors that simply wasn’t here – we made our way back by foot, bus, train, shuttle, and bus to our car and hit the Interstate again. What a surprise that there was not a single Interstate route heading north that wasn’t a toll road! It seemed like we were being penalized for leaving. It made me wonder how many people ever got out of the city and visited Wisconsin or Iowa, with all these toll roads in the way.

Chicago mural inside O'Hare
Chicago mural inside O’Hare

Chicago was big, urban, and busy. We pointed our car north to the rural routes.

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  1. I totally feel with you. Recently we hit Manaus (north Brazil), a city with 2 million inhabitants. We had not visited such a large city in over 1.5 years. It was daunting! Thankfully the GPS worked great to get us downtown so no worry about maps. Aren’t you relieved then when entering the rural areas again?…