Chicago 2011: Take 2

Well, because I clearly didn’t have enough fun the first time around, I decided to take a second trip to Chicago, only three months later. This time, I went AGAIN for a concert, or three, and traveled with different friends, Tom and Mindy. Oh, and I mean different as in, not Kelly, not different as in, unusual or strange.

Also different, this time we road tripped. I think gas was fairly reasonable way back then (only six months ago, now!) and we borrowed my mom’s car. Yes, three adults who own 3-4 cars between them borrowed a car from my mommy. It’s odd, get over it.

There’s something bizarrely enticing about a road trip, even just a straight highway shot to Chicago. When I picked up my travel companions that first morning, Mindy said to me “would you mind if Tom drove?” I was so relieved. I thought that because it was “my” car, they’d expect me to drive. I couldn’t have wanted to drive any less. Tom was happy to drive and off we went.
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Not only was he happy to drive, he actually drove the whole way, there and back. It was awesome. For most of the ride, Mindy and I cuddled up in the backseat, laughing and talking, while Tom had sole control of the radio. It was perfection for us all. We actually got a later start than anticipated, and we stopped for lunch at Applebee’s in Wisconsin Dells. Mindy and I had a beer, while our chauffeur had coffee. Life’s unfair sometimes.

On our way out of the Dells, we did stop once to take this photo.
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It was just so over-the-top that we couldn’t help ourselves, plus, who doesn’t want to stop at a place called the “Goody Goody Gum Drop”?

We drove on, laughing and talking, when suddenly, in the middle of Nowheresville, WI, we were hit with a beautiful weather phenomenon.
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If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know how much I enjoy rainbows. I take pictures of them every time I see them, even if I’m driving a car. This one was especially vivid on that gray day, but then, we went around the curve and found:
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Yikes, right?!? You can actually see every single color. (note the green trees)

But, as we kept driving:
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BAM! We could suddenly see the whole thing. It was so beautiful. Boded well for our trip, I think.

Planning on our part wasn’t so stellar, because the concerts we were attending were both on Friday night and we were still driving. Then, of course, we rolled into the outer limits of Chicago just in time for rush hour.
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Yes, I know that pic is terrible, but we could finally see the skyline and it seemed so close. I think it was about an hour later we actually hit the city limit. Chicago’s big, y’all.

By the time we found the hotel, got checked in, it was time to go. I dropped my things, slapped on some deodorant, changed my shirt, plopped the cowboy hat (that I had bought three months earlier, the first time I was in Chicago)
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on my head and ran out the door. I was a bit behind schedule. Seems to be a Chicago thing. I was attending a Christian Kane show and Tom and Mindy were headed to the Avett Brothers. My concert started first and it was only an opening, but it was at a bar, so I was hanging there until they showed up, after their show. I took a cab ride to the venue, my first ever cab ride by myself. Crap! That’s not true. I took a cab in Prague from the airport to the hotel. Never mind. However, I was plenty nervous, and it didn’t help that my cab driver didn’t speak English and seemed confused by my requesting to go to this bar. We started to drive and the neighborhood got worse and worse and worse and I started to think I was going to become a headline on the Chicago morning news.

I distracted myself, thusly:
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and, again, I know that photo sucks, but there was no light in the cab or on the streets of the rundown, shoddy neighborhoods we were driving through.

At this point, I’m going to jump ahead in time, the concert itself will be a separate post that I will later link back to, here.

Once Tom and Mindy met up with me, HOURS later, I was pretty, um, happy? Many beers had gone into making me this way and the three of us chatted, talking about our respective shows. It was wonderful (and a long, long, long time since this has happened) that they didn’t have to get up to kids and the three of us could be out on the town.

We left Joe’s Bar and headed back into town, finally stumbling into this Irish pub. It was packed in there, but we squeezed into a spot by the bar. I asked if I could buy the round, to thank them for traveling with me and Tom for driving. No problem. They said I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. *Note to self: If you’re going to generously buy drinks, don’t offer in the heart of Chicago* We each got a beer and a shot. Three beers, three shots, total. Price? $55. When the girl said the price, I said, “what?” thinking I hadn’t heard right, because it was loud in there. Oh no, I heard right. Honestly, if each item were $8 a piece, which is very high, that would only be $48, so…wow. Just wow.

We had our drinks and took our shot (it’s tradition) and then we were all starving. The bartender gave us directions to the only place left in all of Chicago that was still serving food. (It was maybe 1:00am at this point). We walked and walked and thought we got lost, but suddenly, there it was. An all-night diner. There are few things in this world more delicious than drunk eggs and hash browns, I promise you. After breakfast/midnight snack, we were suddenly exhausted. Of course, it was almost 3 am! We headed back to the hotel to crash.

We stayed at a lovely hotel, the Allerton, right on Michigan Ave. In fact, this hotel:
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is directly across the street from this building:
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which I had learned, the first time I was in Chicago, is the only store along the Magnificent Mile that actually turns a profit. The rents are so high on that street that all the other businesses are just for show or just used as advertising, the companies lose money on them. But, Apple, makes money. Shocker. I shared my knowledge with my travel companions, who wanted to know how I knew so much about Chi-town, I explained the beauty that is the trolley to them. The morning after the concerts, they were up with the sun. Seriously, I got up at 10am and they were up, dressed and had been out for coffee already. They wanted to tour, but I didn’t want them to wait for me, so I sent them off to buy trolley tickets while I got ready. We agreed to meet up for lunch.

Lunch. You wouldn’t think this would be the highlight of the trip, but it’s damn close. I am going to call upon all of my expertise in prose to give this the credit it is due. We were talking about where to go for lunch. Before leaving for this trip, Tom’s cousin, Rocco, had made him a list of places to eat in Chicago. Apparently, Rocco visits regularly and was full of tips. Tom read us some options from the list and Mindy and I both agreed that a hot beef sandwich sounded good. Tom looked up the recommended place and said we could walk.

We should have taken a cab.

It was very, very far, but we still walked and walked. We were headed to a hole-in-the-wall called Al’s. Now, I happen to be the progeny of a lifelong hole-in-the-waller (thanks, Dad!), so this does not surprise me. In fact, I’m acquainted with the loosely held secret that dives often have the best food, and they are not expensive. We finally arrived at Al’s and it was tiny. Miniscule. So small I couldn’t believe it was actually the place. We went in and read the short menu. Our options were limited. I went first and ordered a traditional hot beef sandwich. Dude behind the counter said, “you want peppers?” I, of course, had no idea, so I asked what was usual. He nodded and said, “yep.” And that’s how I got a typical hot beef sandwich. Tom and Mindy ordered the same. I don’t remember if we got sides or not. Literally cannot remember. Granted, it was a while ago, but mostly it was because this sandwich eclipsed memories of all other food.

Here’s the skinny. They take a hoagie roll. They dip the roll itself in hot au jus. They pile on beef that has been soaking in au jus. They smother it in peppers and more peppers and then they give it to you. It comes out in a wrapper, hot and steaming, but a soggy, drippy, soaky mess. Sounds appealing, right? No, of course not. It sounds, and frankly, looks, disgusting. I distinctly remember saying, “I don’t know how to eat this.” The bread gets so soggy from the au jus that the meat is falling out and it’s so hot it is steaming and I picked mine up and it started to fall apart. Wonderful.

Then, before we could take a bite, Tom wanted proof we’d taken one of Rocco’s recommendations, which is how we got this:
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And that is one of maybe three tables in this giant restaurant. No bites had been had yet, we’re just holding our sandwiches and it was burning my fingers it was so hot. Finally, I just took a huge bite.

Never had I had a sandwich like this. It was…delicious is too tame. Magnificent? Superb? Incredible? Delectable? Mouthwatering? Scrumptious? Yes, that’s it. The sandwich was scrumptious. All the individual parts combined to make a sandwich bursting with flavor, the peppers made it hot, but not too hot to eat, they actually added flavor. It was so good, I wanted another, even though it is a TON of meat and I was full. It was so good that, all these months later, I’d drive back to Chicago just to get one. I rarely make sweeping statements like this, but it was truly one of the best things I have ever eaten.

You can ask Elena, later that day, I talked to her on the phone and treated her to a detailed description of how perfect this sandwich was. I think my parents also got the full version. If you ask me about this particular trip, that’s the first thing I’ll tell you about. In fact, I’ve elevated this sandwich to such proportions that it’s become synonymous with Chicago in my mind. I love Al’s hot beef! (That was ridiculous, right? Who waxes on about a sandwich? Trust me, it was that good. If you’ve eaten there and had one, I want to hear from you!)

After that, we decided to cruise the city, doing the tourist bit. Unfortunately, Tom and Mindy had bought passes for the trolley, so they were excited to use them. I planned on about 2 more hours in the city before leaving for my next concert, so I wasn’t wasting my money on that, but we wanted to hang together. So, after much discussion, we decided to sneak me on to a trolley. No kidding, we had an actual conversation about how it would work best. It ended up going like this. We step on in a line, Mindy in front, me in the middle, Tom in the rear. Mindy flashes her pass, I am studiously looking in my bag, like I’m searching for mine, and Tom stays close and then flashes his pass. The hope was that if we kept moving, the driver won’t notice us and just catch the passes flashed his way. We tried…and it worked! I got on for free.

We rode inside, because it was full, but eventually made it up top. Here’s a bit of a tip: weather in Chicago is vastly different between June and October (it was actually October 1st that day) and it was FREEZING up top. But you can’t really see anything from inside, you can only hear. We huddled up top, like it was the dead of winter, it was that cold. Walking around on the ground, it was jeans/sweatshirt weather, but atop a moving bus? Damn cold.

We visited the start of Route 66, and got our pictures taken. Somehow, we got a lovely photo of:

Tom and Liv Route 66

That’s right, Tommy and me. I’m not sure how, but there is no picture of Tom and Mindy at this site. It’s strange and one of only three pictures (that I know of!) in existence that contain only the two of us. Maybe we’ll add to our collection at my party this weekend! BTW, I really love this picture, in case that wasn’t clear.

We stopped at the architechtural museum and I showed them the scale model of Chicago. Like the first time, I still thought this was pretty cool. Then, we walked over to the Bean. I kept telling them how cool it was. Of course, you can’t really understand it until you’ve seen it. No amount of describing or pictures make it as cool as it actually is.
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Directly underneath the Bean.
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Underneath with zoom.
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Underneath, but looking at the sides, not straight up.
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A shot of the three of us.
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My favorite Bean shot, because it *almost* looks like a real photo and not a reflection.
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Cool angle from the end, with the buildings in the background.

Okay, maybe this is my favorite Bean photo…
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With the exception of the statue glinting off Tom’s head, that’s pretty perfect!

When we were walking through the gardens, on our way back from the Bean, Mindy mentioned she wanted a nice picture of her and Tom, obviously. Now, Tom is fairly notorious (according to Mindy) for not smiling in pictures. I never seem to have that problem with him. (see: all the pictures of him in this post). So, I positioned them in a lovely garden and told Tommy, “smile”:

Tom and Mindy Chicago

Isn’t that fantastic? Mindy said it is one of her favorite pictures of the two of them. It even made their Christmas card this year. I am so honored.

After that, I mentioned I should be heading back. I said I was going to take a cab. Tom said “let’s just walk” and I said it was a long walk back to the hotel. They said they were ready to go back. Mindy suggested taking the trolley back, because there were things they hadn’t seen. I was hesitant, but it was an hour before I thought I needed to leave, so I hopped on that transporfuckingtation one more time. You’d really think I had learned something the first time as it took over two hours to get back to the hotel. WTF?

On the way, though, I did get a clear shot of Buckingham Fountain, which I missed the first time around. For those who don’t know, this is the exact fountain filmed at the start of the credits for “Married…With Children”. Remember it now?
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We were riding up top of the coldest bus on earth (why not go inside? because you can’t see, damn it, and we’re Minnesotans) and I was getting increasingly more agitated. Not only was I on a time schedule, but I had a 3.5 hour drive before getting to my concert and I didn’t know where I was going. If I got lost…I’d miss the show. Can you imagine going all that way and missing the show?

However, when we finally got to our stop, there was a bit of a surprise.
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A giant statue of Marilyn Monroe. Now, you can see from the people how big that thing is. It was not there the first time I passed through, three months earlier. Weird? Yes. The driver was actually telling us why it’s there, but I was so focused on getting back to my hotel I didn’t hear a word.

When I got in the door, I grabbed my stuff, threw it in bags and was running out the door. It was about 4:30pm. The concert started at 8pm, 3.5 hours away. You do the math.

Then, they had to bring my car from valet. It took almost 15 minutes. Then, the valet guy wants me to pay for it, right then. I refused. I tried explaining that I wasn’t leaving permanently, just for the night and my party was staying at the hotel. He wasn’t buying it. Then he called my room to verify and there was no one there! Turns out, after I left, Tom and Mindy switched rooms to a king sized bed, rather than two queens, so it looked like we checked out and were scamming them. Of course, I was about to lose it and I practically yelled at this poor guy and then got in my car and drove away. Why bother me? Our room was booked with a credit card, it isn’t like they can’t just charge that if I never come back?

I was on my way…it was 5:00. Then I missed my exit to get to the freeway. I had to double back and try again but through Chicago traffic. Then I was finally on the interstate and missed my exit to change freeways and be in the right direction – as it was, I was headed to Nashville, completely opposite of where I was going (Illiopolis, IL). I turned around again and got it straightened out. Once I was on the road, officially, it was 5:30pm.
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It was a beautiful night for a drive, I can’t really argue with that. This was 5:30 pm.

Three hours and 15 minutes, according to the GPS, provided I didn’t get lost or miss any more exits. And only 2.5 hours until the show. NOT GOOD. I started driving like a bat out of hell. No kidding, I was driving 95 mph for most of the drive. Not even being dramatic. I figured I’d rather get a $300 speeding ticket than miss this show (I know, nice logic). I was shaking and tried hard to calm myself down. I talked to Elena on the phone (yep, while speeding down an unfamiliar highway at tragically high speeds) and she calmed me a bit.
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6:30 pm.
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7:30 pm.

You’ll notice that at 30 minutes before the show, I was in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, the show was in the middle of nowhere, so it seemed like I was on track. I will be detailing the rest of the drive and concert in another post, here.

Let’s just say, that it was a good concert. I spent the night in a conference center in Decatur, IL. When I got back to my hotel it was 2am. I hadn’t eaten since the hot beef sandwich at 12:30, 13.5 hours earlier. There was certainly no time to stop on the hectic drive and the only “food” at the venue was dude out behind the barn, with grill, pulling meat out of coolers. Nope, you cannot make this up.

When I checked into the hotel I said to the girl, “is there ANY chance, that there is a place that serves food nearby? I will even settle for a 24-hour gas station, if they have snacks.” She said that it was a “college town” and that the local pizza joint delivered until 3am. Hallelujah! I found a movie on tv and ordered pizza. They delivered my pizza about 2:45 am. I had to walk through the whole conference center to the lobby to get it. This place was huge. No exaggerating, from the room, down the elevator, to the lobby, took me five solid minutes of walking. This place was HUGE.

The next morning, I was up at 7:45am to be on the road by 8:30. I didn’t want to drive so crazy on the way back and I needed to stop for gas and breakfast. It ended up that I got back to the Allerton just before noon to pick up Tom and Mindy. Tom agreed to drive (luckily, I was all “drive”-d out) and we started our six hour drive home. 2.5 days of travel and I spent about 20 of those hours in the car, driving. I’m such a trooper.

On the way home (and, dear GOD, if you’ve stuck it out this long, I’m impressed) we stopped for lunch at the MouseHouse Cheese House. Nope, didn’t make that up. It’s a real place in Wisconsin. Windsor, WI to be specific. It was one of the best parts of the journey. They had beer and wine for sale, souvenirs, both tacky and nice, and food. Lots of food. They had a full scale deli. They made their own cheese, dozens of flavors of cheese and they would let you sample anything you wanted. They made their own cheese curds, free samples. They made their own fudge, free samples. We spent a ton of time just sampling food. I was practically full just from the samples, and I still got a fresh deli sandwich, roast beef and onion with homemade horseradish mustard. It was wonderful. Not an Al’s hot beef, but still, the sandwiches on this trip really rocked my world. It was also good for souvenirs. I brought my folks different flavors of fudge and different flavored cheese curds as a thank you for letting me use their car.

Before we left, I had to get a shot of this place, because you’d never believe it otherwise.

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It was cheesy (pun intended) but one of the more entertaining parts of the trip. A classic example of why you should travel by car whenever possible. You’ll notice the things they are most proud of: Cheese Beer Gifts Fudge. Pretty much sums it up.

The rest of the drive home, the three of us just chatted in the car. We ended up talking about how Tom and Mindy’s relationship started. I met them just a couple months after they started dating, but they kept it a secret because they worked together. I knew the basics of the story, but this time around, I got to hear all the details. Mindy did most of the telling, but I kept interrupting to ask Tom questions. He was answering me monosyllabically and I finally said to him, “you don’t want to be having this conversation, do you?” And he replied, “do I have a choice?” Ah, it’s good to have smart friends. He did not, and after eleven and a half years of friendship (then – we’ll hit twelve in April!!!), I think it was high time I heard the nitty gritty details. It’s nice to learn new things.

Somehow, in the two days since we left, the trees had really turned (reference rainbow pictures above), which is how our drive home ended up looking more like this:
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and this:
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and it was scenically beautiful.

The friends, the conversation, the experience, and the fun were nonstop entertainment and I have so many terrific memories from this trip. I feel lucky to have friends like these two and that I am able to share these memories with them.

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6 thoughts on “Chicago 2011: Take 2

  1. Great (loooong) blog. That taffy shop in WI Dells is where my very best memories of my childhood are. To this day when my dad goes on a trip (anywhere) he ALWAYS brings me taffy from where ever he was because we’d stand and watch the taffy wind and wind on the big machines and get to buy it hot and fresh. My best memories. I hope you went in there. I look forward to going back to Chio-Town with someone who will appreciate all my knowledge as well.

    • Of course it was long, traveling is a detailed process. Ours would have been that long, but you’re so damn funny I decided to just focus on that. Plus, you detailed a lot and I linked to you. If Tom or Mindy blogged, it would have been shorter by far!

      • Mark just commented last night how loooooooong your blogs are. Clearly he’s not as patient as me. 🙂

      • That’s because when I’m around the two of you, you talk over each other so fast like you’ll never see me again. It’s hard to get a word in edgewise. Clearly, Mark has no idea I’m chatty.

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