|Upon a big discussion, we decide to take the Metro into Chicago and see the sights. Graham & Mona are too tired from 4 days of straight driving to join us. It has gotten extremely windy, and we hear on the radio that some interstates have banned semi-trucks because of the high winds. Winds of over 60 mph are expected, and once we get onto the interstate, the ugly, black clouds are looming. It looks like a tornado could touch down! We drive to the University Park station, about 30 miles away. We don't have a lot of time to catch the train and I-57 has lots of construction going on. The people in the office gave us instructions, which is a good thing because once you left the highway, there were no further signs for the Metra station. There is a pay parking lot, and we drive up to the pay station, but you need to find a spot first and then pay. We find a spot, note the number and insert our $1.25 in quarters in the correct slot.
Then comes the fun with the ticket machines; you can only buy one way tickets for $5.50 each, one at a time if you pay cash. This becomes a frantic process with 8 people and only 2 working machines, fearing that the train will depart without us. We finally manage to each get a ticket and get on the platform to board the train. No time for pictures, we have to get right on and take our seats. Inside, the train has 2 decks, the upper deck has single seats facing each other on both sides and 4 seats that are side by side, not facing the window. On the lower deck, there are 2 seats side by side, in sets of 2 facing each other. We opt to sit on the top deck and realize once we get our seats, that the windows are very short, so you have to duck down to see out the window. We picked up a schedule on our way into the train, so we can see the stations we are passing and how long it will take. The total trip will be 1 hour, and according to the schedule, there will be a few times where we will go all out for 10 minutes and make no stops.
The conductor comes around to check our tickets - it is obvious we are tourists - and chats about the end point, Millennium Station, where to get information etc. There are not a lot of people on the train after the first few stations, but it does get busier closer to town. They have clips on top of the seats and on the walls where a passenger would leave their tickets or passes. When the conductor comes around, he can then check the tickets easily, without disturbing people. Of course, we did not know this and a few conductors come around and we hang our tickets down to the lower level. They also have a bike area, bikes need to be secured and are only allowed outside of rush hour. They also have a limit of bikes per train ride - it is printed right on the schedule. On our ride, 8 bikes were allowed, we had one in our car. The dark clouds are still looming and rain looks to be hitting Chicago any time. Looking out the window, in one section, there are a lot of buildings in disrepair, whole blocks seem boarded up and some homes and buildings have been in fires, but are still standing, caved in roof and all.
Once we get closer into town, the train goes underground; we get to our station, the end of the line. The platform is in a big tunnel with at least 4 tracks, very interesting compared to our Skytrain system.
The station itself is a hub-bub of activity, people are coming and going, there are lots of fast food restaurants, shoe-shining (that still exists?)and coffee shops.
They have free transit maps for the downtown area, which also show the downtown streets; once out on the street we decide to walk to the Sears tower.
The first thing you notice about downtown, outside of the wind, is how clean it is; a man was sweeping the stairs coming out of the station. The streets are impeccable and there are lots of planters and trees, even at this time of year. One thing you have to get used to is the screeching of the 'L' trains, you feel like running around with WD-40 to help them out! Walking along, we find Wacker, which runs right along the Chicago river; it really offers a great view of some of the neat buildings in downtown. It is an old city, obviously, but feels very new. The metal bridges across the river in several places have the street names on them with big metal and copper signs, very different. There is a round building that has a parkade for the bottom 5 floors or so, and to see those cars backed in so close to the edge is almost scary!
We need to find out how far we need to walk, and a doorman at a local hotel is very helpful in giving us directions. This is a good city for walking in, everything is very safe and traffic seems very calm. We find the Sears tower, now known as the Willis Tower. Sears was the largest retailer in the world in 1969 and had over 350,000 employees. They wanted to consolidate their offices and needed about 3 million square feet of office space, and more for future growth; architects were commissioned to design a building for them. The idea was to build a building with hundreds of floors, rent out the ones they did not need at the moment and re-take them as they needed the space for their growing company. At one point, the Sears tower was going to be taller than the World Trade Center that was not completed at that time. The Federal Bureau of Aviation put a stop to the plans by restricting the height of the building. Chicago has one of the busiest airports in the country. The towers would have two antenna's for local tv and radio. Building was started in 1971 and completed two years later; the tower is 1,454 feet tall, the world's third tallest building and has dominated the Chicago skyline since its completion. Sears Roebuck financed the cost of building the tower, but declining sales & more competition,plus lots of available office space meant a big loss for the company.
Sears started moving it's offices out of the towers in 1992 and sold the building in 1994, totally moving out in 1995. The building changed hands a few more times, and by 2003, Sears had lost the right to the name. Willis Group of London leased a large part of the building starting in 2009 and had gained naming rights, a few months later the tower was renamed. No one in Chicago was happy about the re-naming and most people, even brand new maps, refer to the building as the Sears tower.
We arrive at the doors of the building when a tall, black doorman approaches us and asks in his Chicago accent if we are here to go up on the tower. He informs us that because of the high winds expected today, the tower is closed and the glass observation decks have been retracted. Apparently, the elevator ropes sway too much in high winds. We thought the elevator was on the inside; Connor is disappointed but Evan is happy ( he has fear of heights). The doorman is very friendly and says we are more than welcome to come in out of the wind and look around. They have shops inside as well as a large wall with flags. We look around and decide what to do. There is a concierge inside, and we ask him about the 'L'. One of our books told us to ride the Brown Line to Kimbell and back, so you can see some of the neighborhoods in Chicago. He points us to the station and lets us know we need to go to the Walgreen's to get our Visitor's Pass - for $5.75 we can ride all day, including buses. Off we go across the street, the Fun Pass, as it is known, is kept in the safe at the back; an announcement is made and they magically appear.
With help from the friendly locals we find the station, get help with validating our cards and board the first 'L' that appears. The driver might have been a race-car driver at one point in his career, because once the doors close, he really steps on it. Poor Gerry has to steady himself with Connor & Evan holding him upright. The rest of the trip he holds on to the pole, even when he is sitting!
Downtown, the train goes around corners and stops a few times. Then we straighten out and go to the outer parts of town. This train really moves, it seems like we are going 50 mph at some points, and the most interesting part is how close the homes are to the tracks. This train is NOT quiet, it screeches and makes lots of noise; you literally go a few feet from people's windows and decks with BBQ's and patio sets on it.
The neighborhoods really change, close into town, there are a lot of homes that are not in the best of shape, the roofs look like they need replacing and the bricks look loose.
The streets and homes get nicer further out of town and for the last few stations we are at level crossings and have gotten into actual houses with yards. Kimball is the end of the line, so we get off and immediately get back on, each sitting on the opposite side, so we can see the other side.
This time, we don't ride the train all the way back to our starting point, but get off a few stops before to go to Navy Pier. Wayne has been there before and says it has great views of Chicago and you can see Lake Michigan.
More locals are willing to help us out to get the right bus, which our daypass covers, but in the end we decide to walk. It is quite a trek, but interesting. At some point, Steve's cap flies off his head during a wind gust, and it lies in the intersection - not one car drove over it! Evan runs out to rescue the cap and we continue on to the Pier. It has started raining now, and the wind is really picking up now that we are closer to the Lake.
Navy Pier is a convention center and place for tour boats. Inside, it has the usual shops and outside you can walk along the pier all around the building. There is also a ferris wheel, you can take a speedboat tour of the harbour and there are a few dinner cruise boats. Most of the attractions here are seasonal obviously; the views of downtown are stunning! We walk around, holding on to our hats(!)and walk all around the pier. The highrise buildings just go on and on... It is amazing how spread out this city is.
It is getting late, darkness is setting in, we have to go home and let Hudson out. The others stay to go for dinner and we manage to find the right bus to take us to the Millennium station, back on the train, and get home. It is most definitely very windy now, the leaves at the RV Park are blowing all over the place, but funnily enough the trees are still full of them.
We manage a bite to eat and laze around for the rest of the evening.