Chicago 2020 (Trains, No Planes, and Automobiles)

Note: This trip was taken in February 2020 before COVID was a major issue in the USA. I have been pretty much trapped in my tiny apartment since then.


The last time I had been on a train before this had been more than 15 years ago when I had just started Boy Scouts.  One of our adult advisors worked for the Railroad and was able to get a few of us on board for a special tour.  We walked the length of the train and rode in a fancy sleeper car.  It was an adventure!  About halfway to Deland, FL we were invited to make our way to the front of the train.  We were told we were going to visit the engineer.  Now remember, I am barely 12-years-old, maybe 100 pounds, and am not used to being near heavy machinery.  We traveled through the business class and finally approached the engine car.  No, I’m not joking, we almost jumped onto the engine car, while the train was going 80 mph.  (This would not be allowed today, obviously.  I am starting to feel like the 60-year-olds talking about their childhoods.)   My senses were tingling as I tried desperately not to lose my balance.  After a careful shuffle through the engine car, we had reached the cockpit.  I was thrilled to see how fast we were traveling through the small towns of north and central Florida.  I was even allowed to blow the horn.  What’s not to like?

There is a historic connection for trains.  From the old steam engines to the modern diesel-electric, these massive machines carry us at a rate of speed that the human brain can conceptualize.  They bring us to the small towns.  Announcements remind us what our stop is only 25 minutes away.  I was reminded of old movies where there was a person that would walk from car to car to inform the passengers of the next stop.   One of the most impressive parts of the friendly monster is that you are traveling 80 mph on metal wheels.  Metal wheels sitting on metal tracks.  Wild.

Our journey north from central Illinois was filled with beautiful and wondrous sights.  Less than 20 miles from our starting point, we were greeted by my favorite set of windmills.  The further ones are hard to see through the frozen fog of late morning.  The flat farmland of Illinois in the winter is covered in snow and ice.   This perfect combination allows you can see for miles to the horizon.  Another surprise awaited me as we came into an area with frozen trees.  They looked like they were some mutant of ice and wood.  It actually reminded me of a recent computer game I have been playing.  The map on the game is a frozen wasteland.  One of the main resources is wood from the frozen trees.  I instantly gained a new respect for the game artists and designers.

Speaking of incredible human feats, the next view of interest on our train ride was a massive oil refinery.  It seemed to go on forever.  Pipes in every direction and gigantic storage tanks.  The windmills and nature frozen in place almost made me forgot about the human impact.  The train was running on diesel, after all.  😉

No Planes:

I have written in the past about how when you are flying in a large airliner, you feel disconnected from the world.  This can be a stimulating experience as you can get away from everything and just think.  (Wow, how exciting…thinking).  However, on a train, you are on ground-level.  You see the towns and the people.  You see the back of warehouses, people’s back porches, and the less-than-inviting areas of the larger cities.  The houses and the buildings are all designed to have their front facing the road.  What a testament of how invasive the automobile is in our culture.  Fascinating.  And yet, with all the stops, my ride was a still 30 minutes less than driving in a car.  If we stopped for a full five minutes at each town, I would have been surprised.  It is an efficient system.  Lots of people, coming from the farmlands to the City.  No road rage here.  There is no one else on the road except you.  😊

Then I saw it.  Union Station in Chicago.  More than 20 tracks wide and teeming with people going in all directions.  The quarter-mile of underground tunnel created a new type of cold that I had not yet experienced.  The first adventure of my trip was complete and I was in the bustling city of Chicago.  So many places to see and never enough time to see them. 

I jumped into an Uber to arrive at my hotel.  The hotel was part of a large complex that included other businesses as well as the convention center for the Auto Show.  My 15th floor room in the “South Tower” had a glorious view of Lake Michigan.  It also had several modern additions that I noticed over my weekend.  One of the simpler ones was a sensor that turned on the bathroom night light and closet light.  By this point, I remembered that breakfast had been about 7 hours before and I was famished.  I took the opportunity to order some room service.  It was my first time and it was delicious.  The food quality was surprisingly impressive and the price was alarming.  Excellent.

I had planned to take this trip almost a year ago when I first moved up here as a birthday gift to myself, however, the move was expensive and I could not make it work.  I felt like I had earned a little bit of fun.

I decided that I should recover from my travel day and watch a movie or two.  There is nothing like watching movies from your own collection in a perfectly clean hotel room.  It’s delightful.

The next morning, I arose and got ready for breakfast.  I never realized how self-conscious one can become while staying at a nice hotel.  I spent far too much time making sure my appearance looked presentable.  Eating breakfast at a full-scale restaurant seemed very odd to me.  Maybe because I wasn’t sure if I was going to get any sort of credit from my room price or if I was just out the $20.  It all worked out, but my overthinking got the best of me and I ate quickly and left.  This was the beginning of my observations about how much people can spend on a vacation.  The idea of consumerism has taken over our culture.  Maybe it was always there.  Maybe I never noticed because I was part of it.  Perhaps, my current financial direction is clashing with myself from six months ago when I booked this trip.


If a simple hotel visit was stirring all these thoughts together, you can imagine what the Auto Show did to my poor over-analyzing brain.  It was like a theme park, except not as well organized.  No clear signs for the coat check.  I did eventually find the coat check and paid my cash.  Cash, the paper printed with photos of our important leaders.  I had never seen so much cash being used in a singular weekend.  It was everywhere.  With Uber drivers at every corner, almost killing the old taxi business, and modern skyscrapers all around me, a ton of people were still using cash.  I always thought of cash as a “middle of nowhere” type of payment.  You would stop at a gas station in a tiny town or a hidden BBQ stand on the side of the highway and it just made sense.  This is not a small town.  It is one of the top five most populated metro areas in the country.

The main purpose of the trip was to attend the International Auto Show.  I knew 2020 would be a big year for the auto industry as the advancement of electric vehicles has now pushed into the mainstream.  I had been following the all-electric movement for a few years now and I was excited to see some “normal” cars get the treatment.  I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that each major brand had their electric model on display.  In the sea of gasoline-powered vehicles, it was encouraging to see everyday people excited about the new cars.  I wondered around for a bit and noticed all the different types of vehicles.  I saw top-of-the-line cargo vans next to streamlined luxury sedans.  There was a row of supercars that you could drool over, but not get within 10 feet of them.  We wouldn’t want the masses getting fingerprints all over them, would we?

To be fair, with just a few exceptions, most of the cars/trucks/vans were available to everyone.  There were plenty of children running around and pretending to drive.  They even had an indoor test-drive track.  I walked the entire complex and saw so many cars, I actually got lost.  There was not a clear exit path or sign, so once I got out of there, I was about done being around so many people.