Joe Writes . . .
The stop after Albion is Battle Creek. The land adjoining the tracks is largely devoid of buildings except for the occasional strip bar or motorcycle club. As in any good detective novel, life is hard for those living on the wrong side of the tracks. Evidence of the railways’ importance to the cereal industry abounds. Grain cars sit empty waiting for the next assignment and I envision an entire car filled with tiny marshmallows to mix into Lucky Charms. We have been playing peek-a-boo with the Kalamazoo River for a while and just after departing Battle Creek I notice a sorry tributary of the Kalamazoo running through a concrete sluiceway. I am reminded of the Grand River in downtown Jackson; there’s not much that is sadder than a river encased in concrete.
Next stop: Kalamazoo itself. It’s increasingly grey and rainy, making it difficult to see more than a short distance into the passing landscape. On the return trip I will be surprised by the evidence of homelessness visible from the train in Kalamazoo – tents and tarps rigged as shelter behind abandoned buildings, a lone disheveled man squatting down behind a garage – but on this leg of the trip I can’t see much. Shortly after leaving Kalamazoo Linda comments that the train is traveling at 81 miles-per-hour. She knows this because the Waze app on her phone thinks we are in a car and is warning us to slow down. Waze ain’t seen nothin’ yet; we charge through the Village of Mattawan at 110 miles-per-hour. Don’t blink.
I fall asleep and am only vaguely aware of the short patch of Indiana we traverse, steel mills contrasting with lakeside condos and views of Lake Michigan. When I am once again fully-awake the train is slowing as we approach Chicago from the south. This part of the city goes on forever. Like most tourists who visit Chicago’s more-glamorous areas, I’ve never visited Chicago’s South Side. I know there are rough areas and I’m sure there are nice areas, but I’ve never been there. Lou Rawls singing Dead End Street comes to mind. “As soon as I was big enough to get a job and save enough money to get a ticket – to catch anything – I split. But I said one day I’m going to return, and I’m gonna straighten it all out.”
We arrive at Union Station at 10:40 am Chicago Time, four hours and 15 minutes after departing Ann Arbor. Had we driven the journey would have taken about 5 hours. We are rested and ready for the 20-minute walk to our hotel; had we driven we would likely be tired and cranky.
Chicago seldom disappoints. We ate in some wonderful restaurants, including a Peruvian-inspired meal at Tanta Chicago where we were the only people over 35 in the whole damn place. When I was a partner at Metzger’s German Restaurant in Ann Arbor I often heard about Chicago’s legendary Berghoff Restaurant, a place I also remember my parents speaking of fondly. It turns out the Berghoff was only a block from our hotel so we ate there our first night in town. My expectations were not high – there are only so many ways to cook schnitzel – but we were blown away by the seafood dinners we both ordered. Linda had spinach-stuffed sole and I had scallops. On our final night in Chicago we ate at a place Linda loves, Eataly. I had never been there and this, too, proved a great choice. There is a fun shop at street level – we bought a big jar of capers in salt, loving capers as we do and never having seen them in salt – and a very good restaurant on the second floor. We both chose pasta dishes – what else? – and were served by a knowledgeable and engaging young woman. Downstairs again for gelato and then back to our hotel where I fell asleep and missed the Kansas City Chief’s comeback victory in the Super Bowl.
The return leg of our trip on Amtrak was largely uneventful. This time we sat in coach but the seats were still roomy and comfortable. There were a couple of characters in our car, both of whom at different times occupied a seat directly in front of us. One woman had done everything she could to look exactly like Michael Jackson – including, I think, plastic surgery – while the other complained of bed bugs in the car a bit forward of us. Oddballs both but largely harmless assuming the bedbugs were a figment of the second woman’s imagination. I decided that was, indeed, the case after eavesdropping on her end of a bizarre phone call.
So ends our trip to Chicago on Amtrak. For now it’s back to the grindstone, but I can see us traveling by train again soon. Catch you on the river or catch you on the rails.
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