Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Walking the Windy City - Part 1

Walking the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois
Saturday, March 28, 2015
16.3 Miles / 5:30 / 09:00 – 14:30

Part 1

You don’t have to go very far to find an adventure.

Walking around Louisville is great; we have lots of charming, historic areas of town, natural beauty in the form of parks and the river, wide and gentle (usually.)  Our skyline, with the Mercer Tower, Galt House and Lighthouse Towers, is nationally recognizable.  There’s plenty here to keep us occupied, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get the urge to leave the city limits. 

I’d already done it once: St. Louis.  With a drive to Owensboro, a quick flight in a glorified general aviation aircraft and a speedy walk through a diverse economic and cultural landscape, I’d proven the concept of a one-day, flight-included excursion.  After St. Louis, I was already on to thinking about what I could do next. 

Part of what I do for fun is, frankly, a bit embarrassing.  If given a bit of time, I will go onto Expedia, Orbitz, or a specific airline’s website and just, well, look up flights.  “I wonder how much it’d cost to fly to San Fransisco?” “I wonder what they connections would look like from here to Paris.” “How expensive would it be to fly from Barrow, Alaska to Antananarivo, Madagascar if you had to leave today?”  These are all actual questions I’ve asked myself while browsing travel sites, trying to sate my journeyer’s fix.  (Hint: the answer to the last one is a lot.) 

Over the course of the last couple years, I’ve learned the ins and outs of most flights from Louisville as a by-product of searching for more ambitious trips to international.  Through that research, though, I discovered that the cheapest final destination, by far, was Chicago.

Chicago’s just about five hours up the road, or four if you floor it.  It’s a huge city, full of all the big-city fun that places like New York, Los Angeles, and international cities have to offer, but it’s so close.  For roughly the same time it takes to watch the extended edition of Return of the King, you can be in Chicago from here by car, and you can do it even faster by plane.  As such a cheap and frequently-flown destination, the flexibility and potential was pretty high. 

If I do it, where do I walk from?  St. Louis was easy; the Gateway Arch is an internationally recognized symbol of St. Louis and the Midwest in general.  But Chicago has plenty of landmarks too: the Willis Tower was at one time the tallest building in the world, and its distinct shape is just as indicative of Chicago as the Arch is to St. Louis.  Neither of Chicago’s two major airports really lent themselves to a direct walk there, though, so I considered something else I’ve always identified with Chicago: sports.

Between the Cubs, the Bulls, the Bears, and the accompanying legendary Saturday Night Live skit, I’ve always considered Chicago the world capital of sports nuts.  My best friend growing up was a diehard Cubs fan (I’m not sure there’s any other kind of Cubs fan), and the sports legends Michael Jordan and Walter Payton played there for decades. 

The best sports-related landmarks I could think of were Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, and Soldier Field, host of the NFL’s Bears.  I plotted the distance and the methods of conveyance to and from there on Google Maps, but was dissatisfied by the lack of diversity en route and the shortness of the trip, about nine miles or so.  Even moving farther south to the White Sox’s Comiskey Park (or U.S. Cellular Field, as they call it now), only added a couple miles and didn’t seem ambitious enough to warrant getting on a plane.

Chicago also has some great museums, so I considered starting at the Museum of Science and Industry on the South Side, but the distance seemed too great at about eighteen miles or so, especially with as many diversions as I wanted to have available.  Finally, after seeing some pictures of the variety of architecture at the nearby University of Chicago, including their attractive, brutalist library, I decided to start there, with a solid sixteen-mile walk between there and the ivy-covered Wrigley Field.

With the walk in mind, I had to decide a time of year to go.  Chicago, God bless her, is a fickle lady.  With frequent snowstorms, world-famous winds, and extreme temperatures, I had to find the perfect window to go.  Although summer or even spring seemed the most obvious options, ticket prices rocketed up after April.  After doing some research into the city’s weather and precipitation history, yearly almanac, and meta-data on the best days to book, I determined that the best balance between potentially nice weather, cost, and flight availability was the final week of March. 

So, with some Christmas money in hand, I booked the first flight of the day out and the last flight back on Saturday March 28th, 2015 to give myself as large a window as possible.  I booked each one as a one-way seat, which not only made them cheaper, but it let me fly back on two different airlines from each of Chicago’s airports.

Now we were committed.  I continued refining the path, planning out the day, scoping out the potential diversions, making contingency plans in case my flight in was significantly delayed or weather interfered with certain routes.  I did this trip up right, pouring hours of prep time into literally every minute of my limited time in Chicago to make sure I saw as much as possible and walked a clean a walk as I could.  In total, I had mapped out 17½ hours of scheduled preparation, travel, and exploration.

After months of waiting and planning, the week of the trip rolled around.  I scrutinized the weather daily, watching with dread as the forecast changed from beautiful and balmy to snowy and dreary.  A day out, it settled on clear but cold, which is a fine compromise.  Friday night drew to a close, and the day of adventure was here.

At 4:00 sharp, I snapped out of bed, my trusty alarm starting the day’s clock.  A bit of quick prep, some fresh contacts and clean clothes and I was on my way at 4:30. 

The weather forecast, while clear, did call for below-freezing temperatures, both here and in Chicago.  I decided on a sweater, a light hoodie, jeans, my stocking hat, and regular, non-wool socks.  Although it would be cold, I’d be moving the entire time, so I didn’t want to get overly hot.  The wind was gentle, but crisp as I walked to my car with nothing but a camera bag slung over my shoulder.  I’d eschewed a backpack, citing the thought that I would, in fact, need very little outside of my camera, some snacks, and a notebook.  When you’re carrying everything with you over lots of miles, you’ll keep it light, too, which is another reason I skipped the heavier coat.

My little VW pepped right up despite the “25°” emblazoned in blue on my digital thermometer.  I curved onto the highway and tootled three miles south to the airport on silent I-65, rounding the airport and finding a spot in the surface lot without incident.

My flight was at 7:15, and according to my phone, that gave me a couple hours to get some planespotting in.  At night, Louisville International Airport transforms from a passenger airport to a cargo hub for UPS; huge 747s and MD11s come roaring in from all over the world.  While a nuisance when we’re trying to sleep, I figured I could get there early enough to actually see some of these behemoths touch down. 

Hmm, well, maybe not.  It appears that the wind was coming out of the north; when this happens, planes tend to take off from the south.  Good news for my flight later, as we’d already be pointing the right direction, but bad news for planespotting, as the planes are often landing and taking off from the far end of the runway.  It’s just as well; the cold was getting to me.  I returned to the parking lot and walked towards the garage, which led to the airport terminal.

The newish parking garage is now all I remember being here; years ago, there was either no parking garage (which I think is right), or there was an old parking structure of some sort.  They built this thing long enough ago that I know it used to look different, but I don’t remember what it would look like even if it did.  Parking here is more expensive, so surface parking was the way to go; the garage is closer to the terminal, but I’m in no hurry.

The garage was little protection from the cold, but soon, I arrived at one of two tunnel entrances to the terminal. 

Lining either side of the moving sidewalk are stock photos of Kentucky, most of which feature horses, fences to keep in horses, or Churchill Downs, where they race horses.  They don’t really horse around with one of our leading industries.

I took the escalator at the end and, while riding up it, I had a thought.  Are these things on all the time?  If I came here three hours ago, truly in the middle of the night, would they be running?  Could I even get in the building?  Would anybody be here?  I always consider airports a twenty-four hour operation, but I don’t know for sure.

Over the years of my childhood, I spent hours sitting here, waiting for the luggage carousel to start so we could get our bags and go home.  Travel is pretty tiring for a kid who doesn’t really know what all’s going on.  Now the claim is still.  Kind of crazy to think they parade your possessions out there for anyone to take, now that I think about it.  Pretty heavily leveraged use of the honor system; thankfully, despite long waits and mix-ups, I’ve never been separated permanently from my luggage. 

Here’s what was leaving this morning.  Now, this is a bit misleading; we don’t have, say, a non-stop flight that goes to Burbank, Columbus, or Jacksonville.  These are direct flights, that is, they use the flight number (and often the same plane) to complete the rest of the journey, but they go somewhere else first.  My flight is on there: Southwest 2400 to Chicago-Midway.  The same number (and departure time) are shown to Newark, meaning that the same flight number and plane will go to Newark after landing in Chicago.  I wonder if they do that to make the numbers look better?  We only have about twenty unique non-stop destinations, so it might make the board look fuller.

It was just a bit after five.  My detailed schedule had me going through security at 5:40, about 40 minutes from now, but with things being as quiet as they were –

Well, maybe not that quiet.  Smart money’s on them going to Atlanta.

Louisville’s most popular route is Atlanta.  As the busiest airport in the world by passenger count, this shouldn’t be any surprise.  They used to say that when you die, whether you’re going to heaven or hell, you’ll connect in Atlanta.

The first flight of the day to Atlanta takes off in an hour, so I’m gonna say this whole gaggle of people is trying to get to the gate in time to get to ATL and onto their next destination.  Families, businesspeople, school trips, and couples comprised the line.  For 5:00 AM, they weren’t even in a poor mood.  It’s Saturday, so a lot of them were probably starting vacations or spring break today; all the more reason to keep the spring in your step.

Several months ago, I wandered out to the airport for some sunset shots, and I took this one, too.  While I don’t remember an airport without a parking garage, I do remember what the old terminal looked like: a collection of drab, orange-ish carpet and 70’s architectural styling against concrete.  It was definitely unique, but I understand why the city modernized it. 

After wandering a little bit and stretching my legs a bit more, I decided to skip ahead and push through security.  One thing I’ve always been happy about is fast security in Louisville.  Even having to undress and get scanned and patted downed (I apparently always look suspicious), I was airside about ten minutes after getting in line.  I reassembled myself and marched to the gates.

Now you might laugh, but even these mundane moving sidewalks hold a particular memory for me.  The airport announcements that constantly repeat throughout the terminal used to be voiced by a friend of my mom’s, Jack Fox, a local speaker.  When we’d get home after a long trip, we’d hear his recorded voice come over the PA, announcing something about security or making sure you don’t leave your bags somewhere, and she’d often say “Hi, Jack,” as a way of feeling welcomed home after a long family trip with two kids. 

As you move to the end of the walkway, Jack’s voice would gently remind you, “the moving sidewalk is ending; please look down.”  Mom often replied, “the moving sidewalk is ending; please fall down,” as she and other travelers often ignored the warning and stumbled off the end of the walkway, heavy bags and purses in tow.  My sister and I would often goad Mom to say it when we’d ride the sidewalk, even if she was tired from the trip, and she’d always oblige.

Much like the moving sidewalks in the entrance tunnel, there are a combination of advertisements and the works of local photographers along the walls, interspersed between the broad windows that provided a view of the inky, nighttime tarmac. 

And hey, they even have an advertisement for my MBA program!  Just a few weeks left...

At the end of the walkway is a rotunda, bearing entrances on either side to the airport’s two concourses.  Up above, large, triangular kites had hung for as long as I can remember.  Before walking down each concourse, though, I wanted to head upstairs. Straight ahead, a set of stairs led to what I’d always wondered was a viewing area where you can look out and watch the planes.  I’d never really had the time to check it out, but I did today. 

It appears it was now a bourbon bar and wasn’t open to just come and sit, but it used to be an airport lounge.  Now, just a few chairs sat outside the glass door.

5:45.  An hour from now, we should start boarding, which gave me more than enough time to walk each of our modest concourses a couple times each.  This is typical; I love to see what’s going on throughout the airport, both in the busy and quiet areas, and enjoy long layovers for the same reason.  I sat for a second, adjusted my camera bag to be more comfortable and retied the loose ends of my camera strap.

When you enter the rotunda, Concourse A is on your left.  In front of it, the Starbucks line had built up beyond the frame.  I was half-tempted to get in line, too, as the three protein bars I’d brought probably wouldn’t be enough to tide me over till lunch time on the other side of my walk.

Concourse A is for Delta and United flights.  If you’re headed off to Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, Houston, Newark, or Denver, this’ll be where you go.  It stretches out straight with an elbow that bends left about halfway down.  The closest gates are Delta, while the United gates form a knob at the end of the concourse.  I started walking down the way, finding the concourse emptier the farther down I went.

Most of the United flights weren’t headed out until later, so the end of the concourse was tranquil.  One guy, perhaps about my age, was listening to music, but seemed oblivious to anything else, including me, snapping pictures right next to him. 

I walked along the concourse for a while, grabbed a bottle of water and broke a $20 bill into ones, then moved onto my concourse for the day, Concourse B.

Concourse B handles the other two major airlines: Southwest and American.  This concourse is a mirror of the other, with its elbow bending right.  The first few gates are used to be US Airways, but are now American after the merger, as are the middle gates, and the back gates are Southwest and American jumbled together.  Southwest gates are easily designated by their distinct boarding group poles.  I found my gate, which had moved, but there was a plane attached to it. 

Having gotten my walk in, I parked in a corner with a free outlet to charge my phone a bit more.  I wanted to have as charged a phone as possible, as I wouldn’t have much time to stop in Chicago to let it charge for a while.

The call for boarding came about ten minutes till seven, and I lined up in a pretty good spot, A32, thanks to an on-the-mark check-in exactly 24 hours earlier.  I walked down the jetway and chose an up-front starboard row, taking the window seat. 

The sun was coming up; I had checked the almanac and determined that both my inbound and outbound flights would be right at sunrise and sunset respectively.  I was grateful the flight was on time not just because of my strict schedule, but also because it’d mean we’d be climbing with the sun.

Literally within 30 seconds of 7:15, we pushed back.  Timely!  Most people would think this is leaving late, but in my experience, “flight times” include taxi, takeoff, landing, and destination taxiing, too.  Don’t bet on it, but it’s usually pretty close.

With a thud, the cabin door was closed, the attendants gave us our safety briefing, and the captain gave us our expected flight time, about 54 minutes.  We were on our way!

Sure enough, we were taxiing to the south part of the runway, indicating a wind out of the north.  It looks like there was some construction on the taxiway we might normally take, so we were taking one a bit wider from the runway.  We rolled up to the end of 17R/35L, hooked a right onto the runway, and the pilot lined us up.  With a swelling roar, the 737’s twin engines came to life, and we were off!


This is just part one of a nine-part series; please join me next Wednesday for the next installment!

Keep going –


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