Sometimes life progresses along a straight line, routine and expected. And then sometimes, life throws you a very (very) awesome curveball.
On Sunday afternoon, I got a text from one of the guys on my business team– and in an instant, the next three days took on a completely different turn.
The text was something along the lines of, “We’re taking a road trip to Chicago tomorrow. Want to come?”
Suddenly, instead of heading back to Norman before the winter storm hit, which I’d been tossing around in my mind earlier that day, I was headed north to beat the snow slowly rolling across the south-east.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I was on my way to Chicago. Headed to the Windy City — which was apparently named so because of its shady politics, not its nasty weather.
Day 1 – In Which We Follow Through on the Spontaneous Road Trip
The thirteen and a half hours on the road were occupied with lots of sleeping, 20 Questions, and other entertaining road games. I guess when you are in the mindset to spend the entire day on the road, it really doesn’t feel too uncomfortably long.
Highlights of the drive include playing 20 Questions with Jack (Q: “Is it a reptile?” A: “I can’t tell you that.”), seeing the St. Louis skyline and awesome giant arch from the interstate, and nerding out with Frank for a solid hour as we tried to figure out what exactly was a Voronoi Diagram (which is mind-bending).
We got into Chicago around 8 p.m. Finally there, with no prior planning and after a super long road trip, gave us all an adrenaline rush. Music cranked up, the miles ticked downward until we finally saw the lights of the downtown skyline appear ahead. Chicago, baby!
I was at the wheel for the last leg of the trip, so I had the privilege of driving through downtown Chicago (my first time in a crazy big city). It wasn’t too bad. When I wasn’t having a heart attack about everything– not knowing where to turn, where the lines were painted, blowing through an invisible stop sign, etc– it was actually pretty fun.
Naturally, our first step once in this great city, that we’d just driven miles and miles to see, was to drop Jack and T.J. off at a sports bar so that they wouldn’t miss any more of the College Football National Championship game.
Frank and I continued on to the hotel to check in and freshen up. We don’t care much about football (at. all.), so we were more than happy to drop them off and take our time getting back.
We pulled up to the hotel.
First of all, our hotel was on the Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago, which is a famous stretch of upscale shopping. And the hotel itself was gorgeous. Gilded walls, marble floors, sweeping staircases, crystal chandeliers. After checking in at the front desk, during which I half expected a snooty voice to pipe up with, “Uh, the YMCA is just down the street, kids,” we pulled the car around to the front door.
We were promptly greeted by valet, who took our bags and car keys and told us to head up to our room. The luggage would follow.
Frank and I busted it out of there, heading upstairs before someone could call us out on the fact that we absolutely did not belong in any place that nice (our very cheap hotel fare was courtesy of http://www.hotwire.com).
Once up in our room on the 24th floor (with a great view into the apartment homes of Chicago natives), Frank and I had barely begun to appreciate the plush carpet and $7 Evian bottle in the mini bar when there was a knock on the door. Must be our bags.
I opened the door and let in the bellhop. We were greeted with, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Moen. How are you two this evening?”
Frank and I grinned. The joke was funny on two levels. First, Frank’s last name isn’t Moen (that’s T.J.’s), and second, Frank is gay.
We called each other Mr. and Mrs. Moen for the rest of the trip.
We also took a picture of the His and Hers bathrobes provided for us.
After freshening up, we walked the three or four blocks to the bar where T.J. and Jack were watching the game. The bar was awesome — full of (very attractive) young professionals in suits. If I lived in Chicago, I’d go there all the time.
Watching the football game wasn’t quite the way I’d pictured spending our first, and one of only two, evenings in Chicago, but we were all pretty exhausted as it was, so it wasn’t a huge deal.
Day 2 – In Which We Explore the City and Serendipity Strikes
Frank and I woke up earlier than the other two and headed to breakfast at a small Mom and Pop diner around the block from the hotel. I have an immense respect for little places like that that can survive in such large, expensive cities. The food was delicious.
It had started snowing the night before, and by now the sidewalks were complete slush. Wet snow was everywhere. By the time we walked from the diner back up to the Magnificent Mile, my boots were completely soaked through and my socks were squishing.
Not particularly in the mood to lose any toes to frost bite, I bought boots in the first store we stopped in.
We explored a bit, walking down part of the mile and back up. We stopped inside an old water pump building that had a small photography exhibit on the first floor, which was pretty cool.
After that exploring, we did a bit more shopping. By then the other boys caught up with us, and we decided to walk down to the water. It was only about six or seven blocks, and for most of it, we walked along the river that cuts through downtown.
After the Navy Pier, we walked toward downtown and the “Bean.” On our way, we befriended a kindly Chicagoan who told us all about the area and gave us several recommendations for things to do before parting to head for coffee at the Chicago Institute of Art.
The Bean was awesome. It’s called something else more official, Cloud Something-or-Other, but everyone calls it the Bean. It’s made out of metal, reflecting the Chicago skyline and all the snow, and with the weather so gray, the silver sculpture was really striking.
After the Bean came our lunch. Traditional Chicago deep-dish pizza. Deeeeeeeelicious.
Then we ran over to the Chicago Institute of Art, which just happened to have free admission that day (Swoop!) but also closed in forty-five minutes. It’s difficult to see anything in a museum in that short span of time, but I was able to see most of the Impressionism Exhibit, which is one of my favorite art movements, and I popped over to see American Gothic, which is a classic.
The museum then kicked us out, and we walked through the Chicago cultural center before going to a coffee shop to wake up and warm up.
The coffee shop, called Intelligentsia, was clean and inviting. The area where they made coffee was surrounded by a low counter, open to curious eyes, and all around their walls were hung gorgeous photos printed on wood.
The photos really struck me, and I kept looking at them as I ordered coffee and sat down at the counter to wait for my 16-oz Chai latte with a shot of espresso. I pointed them out to everyone in our group, and Jack and I got into a discussion about the different film techniques the photographer probably used for various effects.
At this point, I noticed that the barista making coffee on the other side of the counter was eavesdropping on our conversation. I didn’t mind, though it made me nervous to explain film techniques to Jack while this kid listened. Chances are, he knew more about it than I did.
Finally, I decided that if he’d already heard all the conversation, he might as well join in. So I leaned forward and asked him if he knew who the artist was. He said that it was a local artist and that his bio was on the wall. He then asked me which picture was my favorite.
I looked around.
“Well, I like the picture of the van, the flowers, and… the sunset behind me.”
“Yeah, the sunset is cool. It was taken in the Australian outback.”
Strange. . . How does he know that?
“Wait. Are they your pictures?!” I asked.
Bingo. He smiled sheepishly.
We then got into a discussion about his photography, what camera he uses, and all the places he’s been — including Montana. I will always appreciate being from Montana for the connections it brings me with other people (which is more frequent than one would expect).
Anyway, we definitely hit it off. He was a fascinating guy and I wanted to know more about him. But the group was ready to go. We got up to leave, but then someone had to use the restroom. While we stood around, I pulled away from the group and started talking to the barista again. It was disappointing that I had to leave before I got the chance to ask him more questions. He was interesting.
But my group left and I reluctantly followed. Outside, we walked to the end of the sidewalk, and while waiting for the light to change, one of the guys asked me if the barista was coming out with us that night. I was confused.
“I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t ask him.”
“You should. Why not?”
“You’re right! Why not?!”
And with that, I spun on my heel and marched briskly back to the coffee shop and through the revolving doors. Not stopping to think about my words, because I knew I’d lose my nerve otherwise, I walked directly up to this unsuspecting guy munching on his noodle salad, and drew a deep breath.
He looked my way and I smiled.
“Do you have any plans tonight?”
No response. The only way to go now is straight through.
I continued. “Well, if you don’t have any plans yet, we’d love to have you come hang out with us.”
And with that, I’d made a new friend. His name was Joe.
Joe met us a couple hours later, after we’d done a bit of shopping and had checked out State Street. We got dinner at The Three Billy Goat’s Tavern — a great hole-in-the-wall pub that serves cheap food, gives you chips instead of fries, and was featured on the Food Network for their double cheeseburgers (I think).
Looking around the place, it felt like the tavern has been in business since the fifties. Many a mob boss probably held court in the dark V.I.P. corner behind where I was sitting, and autographed pictures of famous people cover the walls. A friendly “We don’t give a f*ck” attitude rolls off the bartender and the owner, a large, jovial Italian-American fellow who was getting a huge kick out of flirting with and making fun of the women at the table next to us.
After dinner, we went out for a bit to appreciate the Chicago night life. Only in a big city will you find people still out on a Tuesday night (and staying until the bars close at 4 a.m.). In fact, with so many people out on a Tuesday, all those places must be insanely busy on the weekends.
For most of the time we were out, Joe and I talked. It was very interesting to hear his life’s philosophy. Basically, after getting his degree, he set out from home with no car and only a little money and let the world take him wherever. He ended up in Portland, British Columbia, and lots of other West Coast destinations before returning to Chicago, where he’s now a barista (and getting restless again).
I envy that. If I were a guy, I’d do something exactly like that. I’d hitchhike across the states or Europe or something, meeting people, seeing new places, and writing/taking pictures of the whole experience. But I’m a girl and have to worry about silly things like safety, yada yada.
All in all, meeting Joe provided quite a bit of food for thought. And while I don’t completely agree with all his life philosophies (some of it is a bit too “let it be” for me), I think some of them have a lot of merit.
Like the Proverb he lives by, which goes something like, “Cast your bread upon the water and it will come back to you in good time.”
I like it. Be generous with your money, time and gifts, because you never know when things will move and happen because of that generosity.
While I absolutely loved seeing Chicago and exploring a new city, I think in some ways, randomly meeting a barista and learning all about his life philosophy may have been the most thought-provoking and memorable part of the trip.
Day Three – In Which We Drive 13+ Hours Back to Norman
Another long car trip. This time, we played games like “Who’s Hotter?”
“Who’s hotter, …. Katie Perry or Shania Twain? Rihanna or Lady GaGa? Condoleezza Rice or Michelle Obama? Hilary Clinton or Angela Merkel (Prime Minister of Germany)?”
This spun into any assortment of Either/Or questions, including “Would you rather be deaf or blind?” and “Are you a butt or chest person?”
Being in a car full of guys, I felt honored to be privy to such information.
The roads were mostly clear headed back, with only one rough patch somewhere in Illinois. Being the “seasoned” icy road driver of the bunch, I drove through that stretch. Not comfortable, but I guess I’ve seen worse.
And then finally, after a total of about nineteen hours in the car and thirty-four hours in Chicago, we were back in Norman, exhausted but content. It was a trip to remember.