Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Chicago, Illinois – Corning, New York USA, Day 144-151, 24-30 August 2008

Chicago, Illinois – Corning, New York USA

(This post with more pics for Brenna!)

Day 144-151

24-30 August 2008

1,762 km

Total: 17,531 km

Soundtrack:

At the Hundredth Meridian’ – Tragically Hip

‘Via Chicago’ – Wilco

‘Sweet Home Chicago’ – Robert Johnson, The Blues Brothers, et al

‘Chicago’ – John Kander & Fred Ebb, Django Reinhardt, et al

‘Damn Right I Got the Blues’ – Buddy Guy

‘For the Driver’ – Ron Sexsmith

‘Over the Falls’ – Primus

DB: The vast bulk of visitors to Chicago arrive either by train or plane. Hence, most visitors only really get to experience downtown Chicago, which in and of itself is fabulous. However, in continuing our successes in travelling the back roads we headed into west Chicago and areas and neighbourhoods that differ greatly from the slick world of the main city centre.

Travelling down North Avenue took us through neighbourhoods that had been somewhat neglected until recently but were now experiencing a new lease on life. This is Obama country. Old brownstone buildings were being spruced up, funky new stores opening. At one point it seemed that every second storefront was a church of some description. Recently arrived immigrants from West Africa added splashes of vibrant colour with their traditional attire, and African, reggae, hip-hop and blues music burst out of open doors and cars. While still a little rough and ready, it felt welcoming. A man made a point of slowing down next to us and calling out his welcome to us to his home-town, wishing us all the best. Patrick Capone, no less, (is it a good thing to be discovered by a Capone in this town?) logged onto our website that evening and left a warm comment. We had the sense that our next two days in The Windy City were going to be fun.

(Pic: Driving into Chicago – Obama motif in the window)

We checked into a cool hotel just off Michigan Avenue and a couple of blocks west of the extraordinary Lake Michigan, and headed out for an Italian meal that was decidedly more posh than previous camp meals and diners. We thought we deserved it, and especially the children who survived more than 3,000km in the truck in a week with aplomb.

(Pic: Sandy walking and Maddy scooting in downtown Chicago)

Chicago is famous for many things – blues, jazz, a great fire that destroyed the whole downtown area in 1871, a centre of black migration after emancipation and during the Great Depression – but also its architecture. It seems the skyscraper was born here and is celebrated as only Americans can celebrate “the birthplace of the biggest/tallest/loudest/shiniest” of anything.

(Pic: Reflections in downtown Chicago)

We took a Chicago river cruise and familiarised ourselves with some of the novel, interesting and beautiful structures, and afterwards wandered down Michigan Avenue to see some more. While knowing that mid-west winters can be brutal, seeing people out and about in the warm sunshine again made us think “we could live here”. We had a beer at Buddy Guy’s famous blues club and pre-dinner martinis at the Signature Lounge, on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building (it sounds as if we lurch from one bar to the other on this trip, but really the children are much more sensible than that, and anyway, the drinks cost less than admission into the official observatory one floor below).

(Pic: View from the John Hancock buiding, Chicago)

SK: Chicago has a plethora of fabulous museums and galleries covering every genre of which you could dream. Bliss! Our original list of things to do in town included visiting a number of these places. We ended up, however, not seeing the inside of any of the cultural institutions – a combination of too little time and too little inclination on the part of the smaller members of the party, who were keen to be outdoors. Instead we opted to walk and scoot over a large amount of the city, and absorb the city’s culture – art, community, fashion, history, religion – from the street. Millenium Park was a favourite with Frank Gehry’s fabulous installation and Anish Kapoor’s magical ‘Cloud Gate’, (affectionately labelled ‘The Bean’ by Chicagoans) and hundreds of lunchers to people-watch.

(Pic: Sandy and Maddy at ‘The Bean’)

This was a reminder that seeing a city from inside its cultural institutions is great – but seeing it from outdoors also is a bonus. Watching how people move, eat, dress, communicate and play is as much fun as trawling through galleries filled with art that depicts this same thing in literal and abstract forms. Streets a block apart reflect huge divides in wealth; people and their dress change from one corner to another. It may (or will – gulp) be years and years before we get to come back to the cities that have fired our imaginations, but the feel of these streets and the emotions and observations that were engendered on the pavements are the memories that will remain.

DB: On our drive out of Chicago we detoured through the fabled Kenwood district and marvelled at stunning mansions and delicately preserved brownstones, and then embarked on a tour that put a smile on my dial for days. The brilliant 1980 John Landis film ‘The Blues Brothers’ was set in, and mostly filmed around, the city of Chicago. The film is peppered with Chicago references, and I was determined to hunt some of them down.

To my great pleasure, Chicagoan Kevin Forsyth shares in my and millions of others’ love of this film, and has a website (http://kevinforsyth.net/film/blues.htm) describing the scenes and locations Jake and Elwood made famous. I’ve been in contact with Kevin and encouraged him to set up a Blues Brothers bus tour. Maddy and I worked out the whole concept – complimentary sunglasses and hat, showing clips as you approach a new location, sing-alongs with the soundtrack. The first-class tour would be in a Bluesmobile. OK, so maybe it would interest only a handful of die-hards (not nerds, if you don’t mind), but we set the wheels in motion by putting the soundtrack on the stereo, cranked it up and headed towards Elwood’s apartment at 22 W. Van Buren. There were major road-works going on right there, so we were unable to get a good look, but we moved on to the Richard J Daley Plaza (its actual name at 50 W. Washington – I was tempted to drive up onto the plaza itself but thought better of it) and the ‘Penguin’s’ St Helen of the Blessed Shroud orphanage, at 18th and Normal St, that perhaps ironically has an obvious Jewish connection.

(Pic: We’re at the Daly Plaza – “Hut, hut, hut!”)

(Pic: Scene of the ‘Penguin’s’ orphanage – “Get out, and don’t come back, until you’ve redeemed yourselves!”

Further south we found the site of ‘Ray’s Music Exchange’ (300 E 47th St, now a pawn shop) and the ‘Illinois Nazi’ rally bridge (between East Lagoon and 59th Street Harbor). To my horror, though, I had previously discovered that the area around Maxwell St, once a hub of Jewish businesses, African-American soul-food diners, music stores and markets, has now been cleverly transformed into bland and repetitive student housing. A once bubbling and bustling cultural treasure is now saccharine suburbia. When will they ever learn? These were only a handful of sites we could have visited, but we again needed to hit the road. Nevertheless it was a blast – and a great way to meander through the streets and suburbs of a city. “C’mon, baby don’t you wanna go?”

(Pic: “I hate Illinois Nazis!”)

(Pic: Ray’s Music Exchange. Shake your tail feather)

We headed round the bottom of Lake Michigan, which we had hoped would provide us with some more neat neighbourhoods, towns and vistas of the lake to large to see the opposite shore, but it instead was a gritty and potholed freeway derby through an industrial landscape along the I-90 and into Indiana and then Michigan. From there we turned off the main road as quickly as possible and soon found ourselves traversing quiet two-lane roads through farmland (corn and cows, and tobacco, for good measure) and forests. This was more like it. We skirted lakes and rivers and finally followed signs that led us along dirt roads outside of Homer (yes, lots of “Doh!” references) to yet another idyllic campsite on the edge of a river. We chose our site and immediately everyone took on tasks to get the tent set up and dinner on the stove. In the morning three deer splashed through the river just up from our site, while birds called and fish jumped.

(Pic: Maddy and Raffy at Homer, Michigan)

The next morning we continued north and headed for the Canadian border for the second time. After the carnet was stamped and signed, and again we weren’t searched, we headed towards our hotel in downtown Toronto. Surprisingly, Toronto didn’t stir us like other Canadian cities, such as Vancouver. It presented itself as a large, sprawling metropolis that invited weather that drizzled. Maybe it reminded us of the worst of our hometown, Melbourne. However, to make up for its normalness was a museum that was far from average. The Bata Shoe Museum sounds like a poor excuse for someone to display their embarrassingly offensive collection of footwear, which in and of itself got our own Imelda Sandy champing at the bit, but instead it provided the history of shoes from the dawn of time, with foci on fashion, art, production and Native American culture, all tastefully displayed and set out in an enormous purpose-built complex. Sandy naturally began doing the mental arithmetic of a career in museums plus quiet obsession with heels, buckles and leather equals dream job, but we moved on.

On our final morning we went and met Rosa, a first cousin of my maternal grandmother. It took almost half an hour to arrive at her suburban home, but after immediately alighting from the truck we felt like we were in any borscht-belt location. The street was thick with the scent of frying onions, and the main road littered with advertisements for Jewish schools, clubs and the supposedly imminent arrival of the messiah.

After introductions and brief updates of extended family members and negotiating familial connections – often known as “mishpachology” – we were taken to a local Jewish deli, where we tucked into cheese blintzes among the hustle of dozens of patrons patting each other on the back and wiping kids’ mouths with damp handkerchiefs. “Not as good as Babcia’s”, Maddy noted in comparing the thin, sweet pancakes with her great-grandmother’s.

From Toronto we ducked back down past Lake Ohio and into what was one of the most surprising places we have struck in North America – Niagara Falls. This fabled natural wonder was one we had been looking forward to, but naively I had assumed that it would be found in an environment akin to the Grand Canyon. That is, a huge, awe-inspiring organic spectacle surrounded by that which nature intended, and respected by the recently arrived human folk. Instead, we found ourselves crawling down Clifton Hill, which has no resemblance to Melbourne’s own, and cowering from all the glitz, glam, gaudy and downright gross that the free world can offer. Lights, neon, crap music pumped into the street. Hamburger chains, wax museums and freak-show attractions. For flip’s sake, there’s an Imax theatre showing footage of – you guessed it – Niagara Falls. It got me thinking of the classic Leunig cartoon of a man showing his son a TV program about a sunset when the real thing was happening outside their window in all its glory. The newest inclusion to one of these freak-show disgraces was a mechanised electric chair, where, for a couple of bucks, you could watch what was described as an accurate representation of a man frying to death. The local paper was up in arms, but it seemed it was a good business decision.

(Pic: At Niagara Falls)

And the whole time we were thinking “What? Like, there’s NOTHING ELSE TO SEE HERE?” I was dumbfounded that the custodians of at least the Canadian side of one of the world’s most extraordinary natural wonders must have suddenly sat bolt upright at the earth-shattering realisation that they needed to provide more things for the punters because the Falls simply weren’t good enough. It obviously wasn’t enough that a million bathtubs of water cascaded over the cliffs every minute in a horse-shoe shape that could not have been better designed by humans, that were close enough to almost touch, creating a mist and a racket that was almost beyond comprehension, so obviously they just needed to Build More Stuff.

(Pic: It’s a lot of water)

“Get cracking, people,” a Mayor must have said, “we’ve got all these people milling around and they desperately need something to do, lest they take up pitchforks and torches and climb the steps of City Hall.”

Nevertheless, the Falls were exceptional. We walked the boardwalk alongside the mighty torrent of water and watched the foolhardy take boat rides into the abyss down below. We felt the mist in our hair and the rumble of the water through our feet. We wondered about the possibility of capturing only a couple of hours’ worth of that water for Australia to break the drought, and I remembered a good friend of mine who told me that he conjures visions in his mind of these very falls if and when he gets stage-fright at the trough in the gents – and now I can see why. In the morning we headed for the US border again, which was effectively located over the river in sight of the falls.

Unfortunately we had run into Labor Day weekend, which meant that everyone else was trying to get to some place else. As we waited in the long, snaking line of vehicles crawling towards the Rainbow Bridge border Sandy made better headway with the Carnet by foot. She returned promptly to report that this border crossing couldn’t process the Carnet, and we would instead have to continue along the Canadian border to the Peace Bridge crossing at Fort Erie. Sandy was told that it would be quieter there as well, so we chucked the proverbial U-ee and headed towards the next border town. There, we joined an equally long and stagnant flow of every kind of vehicle on wheels. For almost an hour we crawled along. Thankfully, much of the road was downhill, so I simply rolled the truck down by car-length degrees. We chatted to a few fellow drivers and listened to music, eventually getting to the border.

(Pic: Many rivers to cross… border crossing from Canada to the US – again)

The Canadian stamping of the Carnet also took place on foot with Sandy dashing through the stationary cars to the customs building and back while the rest of the family sat in the car queue to get into the States. On the other side, the US border guard processed our passports quickly and pointed us to a building to get the Carnet sorted, while handing us a small and somewhat unsophisticated receipt for the Carnet that would be waiting for us in the Customs building along with the passports. We parked the truck and walked over to the building, only to be confronted with what looked like a third-world embassy scene. Dozens of people were slumped on benches inside the doors and against walls and on the ground outside, trying to shelter from the now blazing sun. Every once in a while a name would be called over the PA system and a family would shuffle in. These were people who, for one reason or another, had issues with their passports, visas or perhaps identity. It was evident that many of these people had darker skin and exotic names. Did someone say ‘racial profiling’? All four of us had to be there because our passports were with the Carnet.

And we waited.

And waited some more.

Tough guys refused to sit on the ground and instead held the walls up. Women fanned themselves with old newspapers. Children grumbled. One well-dressed man from the sub-continent was attempting to placate his family that just because they had overstayed their time in the US by some years that everything would turn out all right. Good luck, mister.

It was now 2pm, the children were seriously hungry and there was no indication that we would be done in the next minute, hour or century. We had refrained from going back to the truck to prepare some food in case our name was called and not all of us were there, but now it was getting late. So, Raffy and I headed back to what seemed to be a now growing makeshift car-park to make some sandwiches, which was when The Man In Uniform #1 called out to us as I bleeped the truck’s alarm and reached for the back door.

“Sir, where are you going?” (Always “Sir”, as if to them it doesn’t mean “Hey, asshole.)

“Nowhere.”

“Then what are you doing here?”
“I’m making some lunch for my son.”

“Then you’re going somewhere.”

“No, I’m standing right here.”

“This your vehicle?”

(Tempted to answer: “No, just thought I’d take this one and drive it into Fort Knox”, but thought better of it.)

“Yes.”

“What do you need it for?”

(Again, tempted with “Burnouts, doughnuts and random acts of lunacy and carnage”, but refrained.)

“Erm, to make some lunch.”

“Why is it parked here?”

“We were told to park it here.”

“Do you have your passports?”

“No, we are waiting for them at customs.”

“Then you need to get them.”

“But I need food for my children…”

(Thinking that Abbott and Costello – the real ones – made a living out of such a routine.)

“What do you need in the back there?”

(Tempted to go with: “My castration tools as you really shouldn’t be breeding” but went with…)

“Erm, food for lunch…”

Normally I don’t take inane and pointless conversations lightly, but given we had been hanging around for hours and had taken some of that time to consider the entire border-crossing process that was ostensibly designed to weed out untowards as fundamentally flawed (such as the fact that our truck was packed to the gills with stuff that not one border guard or customs officer was remotely interested in), I was about to launch into a pre-rehearsed monologue about what’s wrong with America when Sandy and Maddy suddenly approached us, led by another, and significantly more helpful, Man In Uniform #2. It turns out that he had fast-tracked our Carnet and personally sought Sandy out from the throng of desperados. I can only imagine what the other people who had been waiting for hours longer that us were thinking. He escorted Sandy and Maddy to us, curtly dismissed Man In Uniform #1, wished us all the best, and waved us off. Welcome to New York State.

(Pic: Staying in Corning, NY)

Our scenic and for the most part solitary drive through majestic scenery and small rural towns took a somewhat confusing route, bypassing Batavia, Hamburg and Geneva, but through Warsaw, Cuba and Bath. Did the pioneers have a collective inferiority complex? On our arrival in Corning – and the Old Dart references were starting to come thick and fast – somewhat later than planned due to the hold-up at the border, we took a rustic cabin at the rear of a large campground surrounded by forest. After dinner and when the kids were in bed Sandy and I set about planning a rather convoluted, and yet what would be an enthralling, route into a place we have wanted to return to for eighteen years, and I have dreamt of driving into – New York City.

 

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5 Comments»

  auntiefranny wrote @

Hi DSMR having just read your last entry, I had the best “laugh out loud moment” for a long time! Enjoying every mile you travel.
The photos are fabulous too.
Miss you all
Have fun

Fran and fam xxx

  Hilary wrote @

sad to read that canadian niagara (which name israelis have appropriated – nia-garra, they say – to refer to the flushing reservoir of their toilets) has lost some of its simplicity. still, i bet it’s still way better than buffalo, on the new york state side, which i recall as archetypal tacky.
i also cracked up over your conversation with uniform #1, thinking at the same time of the poor souls with hungry kids whose passage was not as clear cut as yours.
can’t wait for tales from the big apple.
h

  David Taylor wrote @

Howdy Guys, just read your lasted blog. Fascinating reading yet again. The Blues Brothers descriptions where a hoot. Also, the falls. It sounds quite hideous. But, I guess, if someone can make a buck, they’ll do anything. Photo’s are great. Keep up the good work.
Hawthorn/Geelong Grand Final. Saints last night were never in contention unfortunately. Robert Harvey’s last game. He got a standing ovation. Beautiful day here 21C. No rain to speak of, just lots of talk about rain. I think the forecasters are using scripts they wrote 15 years ago. Heading up to The Basin to cousins place for lunch shortly. Should be a pleasant drive.
Take care all of you,
Enjoy and stay safe.
Love & Peace, David.

  Monique Plack wrote @

Hello family, what a fabulous blog. The photos are especially amazing and I can see that you are all traveling with adventurous spirits. I’m sorry for not making contact earlier, but you are all in my thoughts and I miss you heaps gorgeous Sandy.
Lots of love and light Monique xoxoxoxx

  Erin wrote @

Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Chicago and we think that this post is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from your blog (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise.
Thanks! 🙂


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