Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Chicago, Chicago...

Whenever I mention it, a lot of people have had a hard time believing I'd never been to Chicago. It's right there, just a few hours drive away from Cleveland, and apparently if you've been to four continents it's assumed you've already hit up the major cities near you. Dunno why, but that's the way it is, and fact of the matter is I never got around to visiting Chicago until last weekend.

I will say though, now that I've been I'm very happy I have. It really is a lovely city, filled with wide streets and impressive skyscrapers combined with one of the nicest waterfronts you're likely to find anywhere. If you get the chance to spend some time there, you really should.

But anyway, we spent our day starting off at the waterfront of Lake Michigan, admiring the clear skies and skyline. Our first stop was at the Art Institute of Chicago, but there was a line literally wrapping around the block for tickets so we just admired the outside briefly-
And then, realizing there's only so much to do on the outside of a museum, we wandered over to the world-famous Field Museum of Natural History a bit further down the lakefront. As we were all geeks anyway, this was not a problem, but I don't think even non-geeks would have an issue with the Field Museum as it's a magnificent place.
The entrance hall to the Field Museum, originally built for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (yes, the same one in Devil in theWhite City). It's impressively large even today.

This dinosaur is Sue the Tyrannasorous Rex, who lives in the main entrance hall. Sue is the most complete T-Rex skeleton in the world (~90% has been found), and she really is a lovely old gal... We spent most of our time wandering around the plant section, resulting in many "oh, so that's what tea looks like when you grow it!" moments (ok I won't lie, we were most interested in the section on hallucinogenic plants), but what impressed me most was the exhibit covering 4.5 billion years of life on Earth. They redid it just a few years ago, combining the world-class fossils the museum has with some new graphics, and it has to be the most impressive such display I've seen anywhere.
Basically, the display starts you off with the origins of life- nothing too exciting, just single-celled organisms, except this is the Field Museum so if you pay attention you'll notice they have the oldest rock with amino acids on display and the first fossils showing multicellular growth. Sweet! Then life evolves, and you get treated to a view of what the pre-Cambrian ocean would have been like (shown above) along with the fossils laid out below so you can match pictures with fossils and really get a sense of things. Whenever you're done you just walk on, and as the display is linear you eventually reach other eras, ranging from dinos to the first mammals to the first humans... you get the idea. You pass through the extinction zones too, which are rather interesting in their own way because it gives you perspective on how things fall into place.
An example of one of many wonderful fossils they have at the Field Museum. This thing is perhaps six feet tall and tell me, have you ever seen a perfectly preserved palm frond with fish randomly added in anywhere else in the world?
A giant sloth that's part of the exhibit. I never really thought I could find something scary that's stupid enough to grab its own arms thinking they're tree branches and fall to death (no really, they do that!), but this guy would scare the hell out of me...
The last Field Museum picture, coincidentally also the last from the evolution display, which is a montage of images around Charles Darwin's famous quote, "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." That sums it up wonderfully...

Anyway, we left the Field Museum and headed towards Michigan Avenue, slowly making our way north toward the John Hancock Center...
If you ever want to study skyscraper architecture, by the way, Chicago's got to be the best place in the world to do it. Skyscrapers really are, for the most part, an American thing and if you go to a place like New York City they're not as well spread out to be admired (as Manhattan's only got a set amount of space to work with), but in Chicago everything is a clear and glittering work of steel and glass. They're still building gigantic ones too, like the new Trump Tower, which is impressive in itself as most cities in the USA haven't done such a thing in several years.
If you ever plan to go to the West, take the highway, that's my way, that's the best...

For some odd reason, I have a mild fascination with Route 66- I think it has to do with the romantic idea of the road, coupled by the fact that everyone I know from outside the US thinks it's a big deal whereas everyone from the US knows it's been decommissioned years ago as an actual highway (and that no one within the US really bothers now that the Interstate exists, including Okies). So there was a disproportionate amount of happiness on my part to discover that Historic Route 66 begins just across from the Art Institute on a side street if you're walking up Michigan Avenue, to the point that it merits mention here.
Another stop was in Millennium Park, which is a bunch of outdoor art done at the turn of the millenium. This picture is of "the bean," a giant shiny stainless steel sculpture which reflects the Chicago skyline and the numerous tourists around it. Unfortunately this is the best picture I got, as my camera started getting rather finicky and stopped taking pictures for a few hours, but you get the idea.
Anyway, we wandered north on Michigan Avenue, stopping to sample some famous Chicago-style deep-dish pizza (verdict: it's awesome if you're ravenously hungry, which we were), heading towards the John Hancock Center. The Hancock Center is the second largest building in Chicago after the famous Sears Tower of course, and we heard that firstly the view is better from up there and secondly it's a lot cheaper. As it turns out, the Hancock Center has a lounge area on the 96th floor, so you can go up for free (as opposed to paying $11 for the observation deck) and have a drink instead, which we figured would work out cheaper and better so that's what we did. It ended up that we spent so much time admiring the view from various parts of the floor (there are several different sides, the one in the picture above is facing north) that we decided to leave without said drink and we got to admire the skyline for free!
The John Hancock Center from below. I consider it to be a modern marvel in itself that I took this picture and the one preceding it no less than five minutes apart!

And after that, as it was getting late and we were still driving back to Cleveland that night, we headed out on the El to our car and began the long ride home (and it should be noted that I've now been to more than half the states even by the most frugal estimates, as we passed through Indiana as well). Chicago really is a fun place to poke around, and I'm glad I got the chance! Perhaps I'll pass through it again in a few months if I end up driving out to San Francisco.


66 Productions said...

For more information on Route 66, head here. There's also a group on yahoo devoted to it with somewhere around 1300 members last I checked, including many international members. The group includes noted authors and photographers as well as many business owners and museum curators. Currently there are Route 66 associations in all eight states that the road passes through, as well as a national association. There's even an historic roads conference held every other year to bring preservationists and transportation specialists together to discuss how to accomodate both groups needs on our nation's historic highways.

By the way, I'm a native of Willoughby, I've been to Chicago numerous times, and I currently (for another month or so) live in Pasadena just two blocks from the "Mother Road." It's a fascinating highway with a lot of history, and with approximately 90% of it still traversible in an every day automobile.

Anonymous said...

You got to see Route 66! That's awesome! I've wanted to roadtrip the whole length of it for years now!