Rail life drama: moving times on Amtrak (Part Two)
Words by April Siese
(READ PART ONE HERE)
Summer in Chicago is a seriously magical time where a seemingly overwhelming amount of activities dot the city like roving extracurricular handouts. Thanks to the free and informative Summer Dance in which dancers learn a new move every night to an accompanying style of music, I not only learned to do the Charleston (poorly) but found out all about the city's competitive ballroom dancing circuit. My partner, a short but passionate guy named Dave, pointed out rivals, showboats, and seriously uncoordinated movers and shakers who make the live band-backed activity their outdoor practice space.
Just a few days later and in that same park, a free live show took place, followed by Taste of Chicago, a food-backed effort to prove that, like Indiana's atrocious tourism slogan, there's more to the Midwest than just corn.
My Swahili doorman at the hotel I was staying at naturally highly recommended the corn on a stick, though. It's been over three years and I still have the pixelated grayscale image of an oud he printed out for me; a reminder of a more familiar culture, albeit one with decidedly less corns on sticks.
Imagine the single room occupancies seen in The Blues Brothers, take out a train platform, paint the walls and call pest control, and you've got the Holiday Inn Magnificent Mile, all former SROs turned luxury. A self-imposed vacation brought on by the fact that my USA Rail Pass was nowhere to be found led me to this strange slice of gentrification right across the street from a Trader Joe's.
If you're not a train enthusiast, (or a Mennonite; those folks love their rail cars!) then you've probably missed out on the mildly affordable USA Rail Pass, that allows up to five full train trips across the country. For someone traveling on two lengths and with the type of wanderlust better reserved for a flight attendant, purchasing the USA Rail Pass was a no-brainer.
And so was losing it.
The most specific memory I have of that experience is the underside of a hotel bed in the South Side of Chicago. The most I found was a few dust bunnies, all of them harmless, and none of them with rucksacks.
Somehow I ended up with a ticket back to New Orleans, miraculously “found” at the train station, sans USA Rail Pass. I'd be lying to you, lovely, sensible reader, if I were to tell you I'd been continuing that frantic search in between running around the city with 150 lbs. of stuff and a homeless man, enjoying wine and pork belly with a random woman who wanted to set me up with her nephew, (“He's a good man! He's a doctor! He's just busy, I swear!”!) and happening upon a historic book store, then eating sushi & walking five miles. There's a good reason I live in New Orleans and its serendipity definitely vibes with my recklessness. So did this unexpected Chicago adventure.
My last hurrah was a few minutes of one of the world cup qualifying matches and finally making it to the train station, lunch in hand. Like most places and more so because of Chicago's deep dish reputation, pizza can be one of the ultimate unifiers.
I shared a slice with a man named Billy and the rest of the night train to New Orleans. We talked about everything: his life in Tennessee, the life I was continuing in my new adoptive home. We still do talk, though it's become a rarity as he's in the military and I'm perpetually knee-deep in new adventures. For all the logistical issues and miles of tracks, that move was the best derailing of best laid plans that I could've hoped for.