Saturday, April 11, 2015

Walking the Windy City - Part 2

Part 2

This is part two of a nine-part series; for week one, click here.


Up, up, and away!

We climbed out of the airport and past downtown effortlessly; the calm morning welcomed us smoothly into the sky above the city.

No matter how many times you go up, they always look like models all the way down there, huh?  We glided across the still river a mile below on our way up to 28,000 feet.

Over my years of flight research, I discovered a pattern: when flying on a short-range route, your cruising flight level often matches the distance traveled.  For example, Chicago is 280 miles away from Louisville, and our flight level was planned around 280 (pilot-speak for 28,000 feet.)  If you flew to Chicago from the much closer South Bend, just eighty miles away, you'd only reach flight level 80, or about 8,000 feet.  Anything longer than 400 miles voids the formula, as few jets ever go above 40,000 feet; even the longest flight in the world, from Dallas to Sydney, rarely cracks 39,000.

We'd glided through flight level 90 (9,000 feet, right!) when I experienced an undeniable Lion King moment.

These pictures were taken just forty-one seconds apart, which will tell you how fast the sun was rising.  When you’re climbing, you’re speeding up the process even more as you effectively raise yourself above the horizon to which you’d normally be bound on Earth. 
About ten minutes later, we’d leveled off for the flight, and we’d only be cruising for about fifteen minutes before starting our approach into Midway.  With the glaring sun and haziness of the window, it was impossible to get much of a picture, so I grabbed the inflight magazine and flipped to the crossword in the back, wondering how much of it I could accomplish before it’d be time to bring out the camera again.

Quite a lot, it turned out.  Despite the small amount of sleep I’d gotten and the loud din of the engines, I was able to pound out a whole crossword in half the time it normally takes.  Maybe it was the lack of distraction that helped; I’m no crossword pro.  As I finished the last word (ELMO, which was nearly solved anyway), I slid it back into the seatback in front of me.  I’d take it with me, but every bit of storage in my swollen camera bag was already earmarked.

“Were you in town for the truck show?”

I turned towards the aisle.  The man sitting a seat down, perhaps late forties, gave a smile with his small talk.  I told him no, that in fact, I wasn’t aware of a truck show.  He shared that the Midamerica Truck Show was a trade show that’d taken place in Louisville for years; he worked for an outfit that sold alternative fuels for trucks, each with their own three-letter abbreviations that I’d never hope to remember.  Turns out he was from Chicago himself.  I told him about Miles By Foot and the walk I had planned for the day.  He had a property not far from my starting point, an old Frank Lloyd Wright kit house to be exact.  I tilted my head, and he explained that in the middle of the last century, Frank Lloyd Wright “kits” were developed, allowing portable modules by the eponymous architect to be transported all over the country and built on site.  He was trying to sell it, and he showed me a picture of it on my phone.

I felt the plane's nose turn down as we began our initial decent, and the flight attendants confirmed this hunch. 

He seemed intrigued with my walk and joked about the cold weather.  If a Chicagoan says it’s going to be cold, it must be unusual, right?  Those crazy folks stand a foot of snow and -20° weather all the time, right?  I felt prepared, but now I was nervous. 

Oh, look, it’s Chi-town!  We were probably still thirty miles out, but there it was.  Even with a 200mm lens, I could only get so much through the cloudy porthole, but I could pick out the iconic black Willis Tower on the left.  My guess is the tall, silvery one in the middle is that Trump property they’d recently built.  The vast Lake Michigan spread out behind it.  Maybe it’d be icy.

We dipped below 6,000 feet and the flaps dropped down a bit, slowing us considerably.  I turned to Truck Show and told him that I was wrapping up around Wrigley Field and if he had any suggestions for where to eat there.  He thought about it for a moment, then offered El Jardin, a Mexican Restaurant right along Clark Street in Wrigleyville.  Wrigleyville…sounds like something out of a Disney theme park.  I always like spicy food, and on a chilly day like today, it might be just the thing to warm me up.  I thanked him and he gave his name: John.

We lined up for what I thought was our final approach towards 31C, Midway’s main southeast-to-northwest runway, but we banked left, slowed some more, then banked right, lining up on 4R, perpendicular to the runway I expected.  I packed up everything but my camera, and the metallic whir of the landing gear heralded our final approach.  We skimmed the tops of the trees and glided gently to our destination. 

After touchdown, we slowed, took one right off the runway and were at our gate, B7, within moments; the whole landing and taxi took two minutes.  A quick check of my phone’s clock, now adjusted for Central Daylight Time, put us down at 7:24. 

We were up to the gate, and although the tone sounded for us to take off our seatbelts, we couldn’t deplane quite yet, as the jetbridge wasn’t ready.  We were too fast, I guess.
As we all awkwardly stood up to collect our belongings in the cramped cabin, John turned around to a man and woman sitting behind us.  The fellow was wearing a Cummins hat, and John asked if he worked for them.  He said he didn’t, and they shared a conversation about the truck show.  When John asked what the man in the hat did, his wife spoke up; she was actually the one in the business.  She owned some kind of supply company for them, and John audibled quickly to her.  I’m not sure if he just assumed the guy was the one in the industry, but the little faux pas interesting nonetheless.

I slid my headphones on in the meantime.  As an aviation guy, the fact I was visiting Midway and O’Hare in the same trip was a conscious decision; I hadn’t been here for years and wanted to walk every concourse before beginning the day’s official walk.  I had planned out every minute, as I had to be out waiting for the bus that would take me where I was going at 8:10.  Another check of my watch read back 7:28.  The cabin door opened, and the first few rows filed out.

Heart and music pumping, I followed them out into the concourse.

Literally within one minute of my planned emergence into the airport!  It took a lot of things going right to make that happen, but here I was.  I got my bearings; I was in Concourse B, the longest concourse, and I had to get down to the end and back before walking Concourses C and A, then I had to get to my bus stop by 8:12, the scheduled departure time.

The concourse, it turns out, was pretty easy to walk, despite the thousands of people moving through it.  About three minutes later, after making a bee-line for the end, I could slowly work my way back to the front of the concourse, examining each area with a bit more breathing room. 

The concourse was cleanly divided into alternating modules.  One module would have several gates on either side...

...then you'd have a small, low-ceiling module that contained shops, food outlets, and restrooms. 

Then you'd alternate, and then, I assumed, you'd get to the main transfer area.  I used the moving sidewalks where I could, as there wasn't much variation in the modules (and why would there be,) and I wanted to see as much variety as possible. 

Speaking of variety, Midway is, by and large, homogenous.  Southwest has nearly a monopoly on the traffic in and out of the airport, and if memory holds, this is their largest hub outside of Dallas, where they're based.  Still, you've got a Volaris plane here, holding out.  Volaris is a Mexican airline, so that flight was probably headed to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta (one of my favorite Mexican place names to say), or Guadalajara.  Southwest flies to a lot of those places, too, but Volaris does have a bit of a home-court advantage. 

And hey, even Frontier's got a toe in!  Southwest is, honestly, a pretty conventional airline price-wise these days, but Frontier actually is cheap.  Sometime soon, I want to take their nonstop flight from Indianapolis to Denver.  They’ll charge you for every extra they can; while most airlines these days charge you to check a bag, Frontier even charges you for a carry-on, but for me, that's a challenge, not an obstacle.  I think for a brief time, Frontier even flew to Louisville, but that's been long gone if they did.

Here's where Midway's three concourses converge, which is to say, here's where you inevitably go when you're catching your next Southwest flight. 
Midway Airport is shaped kind of like a claw, with a base and three angled phalanges.  I just came out of Concourse B, and Concourse C, to my left, was my next stop.

It turned out to not be much of a stop.

The "concourse" had three gates clustered together, set aside for charters and Frontier flights.  It gave me a flashback of Owensboro's tiny little airport, to be honest.  Although there weren't many gates, there was a USO lounge nearby, and several servicemen and servicewomen were, well, lounging after what might very well have been a lengthy flight.  They'd stashed themselves all over in uncomfortable positions, trying to get a bit of sleep as the rest of the world woke up. 

In less than two minutes, I was all done there.  I had about twenty minutes to cover the last concourse and head out to catch the bus. 

Now, I'm no art critic, but I'm really not sure what's going on here; this is either a bizarre sculpture or some kind of construction scaffolding.  Either way, really.  It was in a prominent enough location that I felt like it had to have been intentionally placed, but it could just as easily been a leak catcher.

OK, one last concourse; a small history exhibit prefaced the concourse entrance, complete with a fully constructed Dauntless bomber.  It was a naval bomber that was, you guessed it, integral in the Battle of Midway in World War II.  After glancing around for a second, I saw that all the displays had to do with that battle.  Although I thought it was just a coincidence, the airport is specifically named for that battle in the Pacific. 

As much as I wanted to gawk, I had to press on and walk the rest of it before starting the real walk of the day.

Concourse A was much quieter.  The carrier selection was more diverse, too; a small Canadian airline had a flight going to Toronto's secondary airport nearby.  This terminal followed the line of the road outside, so the gates were only on the western side of the terminal for a while, then it took a bend about halfway down, angling in towards the airfield.

Concourse A was also considerably shorter, but it followed the same module pattern as Concourse B.  I was at the far end just five minutes later, putting the terminal length at roughly a quarter mile.  If I was laid over for a while, this would be my preferred walking terminal, as there was less traffic and noise, and the planes were more varied. 

Now just to swing back and –

Hmm, an extra claw.  A quick glance at my clock told me I had ten minutes to get to the bus.  Well, maybe a little longer.  I took the deviation, which hooked to the right, where a maintenance man was changing fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling.  He paid me no mind, but I glanced past him, and it was quite a walk to A4A and B.  I hadn't planned for it, though, so I had to walk away. 

After snapping a couple extra shots between the terminals from the far end of the transfer area, I had to be on my way.  I walked past the considerably long security lines; hoped it wouldn’t be that bad at O’Hare.  After wiggling through some temporary barriers, I arrived in the landside terminal.

Most counters, unsurprisingly, bear the blue, yellow, and red mark of Southwest's branding.  They certainly have laid a claim. 

At two minutes to eight, I wander out towards the buses, up an escalator and past baggage claim.

When I got to the platform indicated by signs throughout the terminal, I did see that there were buses, but they weren't the ones I needed.  The frosty wind blew by, rustling my hood and giving me a taste of the morning weather.  I went back in, but indeed, this was the only place where they were directing you for buses.  8:01.  Back through to where I came from, and back to the original bus stand.   8:04. 

Well, my morning kind of relied on getting there in a timely fashion, so I had to think.  I figured out my cardinal directions and got my bearings. I jogged into a parking garage east of the terminal.  I knew that if I kept going east, I'd hit the bus-conveying road I needed.  Sure enough, after darting through rows of parked cars, I found a road and saw signs again for the CTA bus (short for Chicago Transit Authority.)  I jumped a guard rail, not noticing the cop car behind me until after the fact, and stamped down a small incline, jaywalking across the road.  I followed the road out from underneath the parking garage and emerged at the bus stop.

Yep, this was the place.  I found the bus for me, the 59, and got my $2.25 ready.
It's true, the sun was out, but it was chilly.  My hat was keeping the terminal heat in pretty well, but I lacked a pair of gloves, and my hands found their way into my hoodie pockets and off my camera. 

About five minutes later, the driver pulled up.  I got on an empty bus and deposited my change.  I found a spot in the back of the bus and, while I waited, I pulled out my travel notebook to jot some notes while the morning was still fresh in my mind. 

Although I got a bit of a whirlwind tour of it (I generally prefer two hours or more to see an airport through and through), Midway was a nice airport.  It was compact, straightforward, and easily navigable.  The fact that I walked nearly every inch of it in thirty minutes while taking a few pictures is proof of that.  Assuming something doesn’t go terribly wrong, Midway seems to be a great place for a tight connection, as no gate is more than about ten minutes away from another.  Having not sampled any of the food or services, I can't speak to those, but it felt like a nice synthesis of a large city's bustling airport atmosphere and options with a small town's size, feel, and convenience.  Midway, in some ways, is Chicago's little secret, especially if you're not a big Southwest flyer.  O'Hare will be a whole different story, I'm sure, and I'll be there in nine hours, with much more time and ground to cover, to test that theory.

It wasn't long before we were moving, and soon, so was I.  I scooted towards the middle of the bus to avoid the nauseating sway at the back of the bus as the driver curled around corners.  Just a block or two out from the airport, we were already in dense residential neighborhoods with humble, but charming houses.  A Southwest flight roared overhead, which I'm sure the neighborhood’s late sleepers didn't appreciate.

I was warned by multiple mean-wellers about the safety of the areas around Midway; Cicero, Washington Park, and Oak Park were on everyone's no-go list.  Riding a bus through them was fine and, although certainly not the brightest and most inviting of Chicago's neighborhoods, these little boroughs weren't bad.  I was reminded of St. Louis, where I ventured last October; Chicago has had its struggles, too, but all in all, I didn't think it was bad.  There was still snow on the ground in the shaded parts of lots, and signs heralding the upcoming mayoral race between Rahm Emmanuel and Jesus Garcia dotted storefronts and lawns.

The folks who got on and off the bus along the way were all pleasant and diverse individuals.  One elderly man wore a Blackhawks jersey and sat quietly in the back, bobbing his head to inaudible music; he didn’t even have headphones in.  A couple teenagers talked about an upcoming school-related sports event.  People in "rough" neighborhoods aren't percentages; they're people, and I think if you treat them as such, you'll do just fine no matter where life takes you.

In this particular instance, though, life was taking me to 61st and Ellis, where my main walk would commence.  At exactly 9:00 AM, the bus passed a sign for the University, and I pulled the cord for my stop.  A shouted thank you, a quick alighting, and I was on my designated corner within seconds of my planned start.

Come back next week for part three, and until then, keep going!

- Matt

1 comment:

  1. Hi Matt, I recognize this posting is more than 3 years old but the image of the 'artwork' in Midway airport is a 3D bathymetry model of Lake Michigan - that big body of water you might have flown over next to the city. In a way I suppose the lake itself does catch 'leaks' every time it rains so you're not too far off. The more you know :)