Monday, August 20, 2012

A Midwestern Peregrination


The Route That I Took. A journey across The Midwest.

- Cincinnati's Union Terminal rotunda at night.

We were flying down Fort Washington Way, the city skyscrapers on our right and the home of our beloved Redlegs on our left. The night air was rushing through the open window at the back of the SUV around the three of us crammed on the floor with our luggage while the other two guys sat up front. Ryan Texas Ranger dropped us off at Union Terminal as we walked into the building and under the darkened rotunda. A worker was buffing the floor, the customer service kiosk was closed and the lights were dim. The terminal's museums and food court were long closed for the day. It was nearing midnight as we walked back to the Amtrak waiting room. We picked up our tickets, checked our baggage and were then informed that our train, "The Cardinal" bound for Chicago, would be delayed an hour for arrival due to flash floods in Kentucky.

- The Union Terminal clock passing 1 A.M.

To kill the time we dined on vending machine fare and waited by the fountains out front as the clock on the building's facade turned to 1 A.M. Originally one of the busiest and grandest train stations in the United States, Union Terminal is now home solely to one train - a thrice weekly service of the Federally run Amtrak railroad. The Cardinal runs through Cincinnati with main destinations to Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York. At 1:30, the train finally arrived and we boarded through the crowded waiting room.

- Amtrak waiting room at Cincinnati's Union Terminal station.

On the station platform, a friendly train attendant named Rob apologized for the delay and gave out the basic information before assigning seats. Since it was so late at night, most of the people already on board were soundly asleep.

- Boarding The Cardinal at Union Terminal.

We boarded and the train began a smooth and steady ride northwards out of the city. We started passing landmarks I knew, but never had any idea were next to the Amtrak route. Under 275, past the Tri-County Mall, up through the industrial monotony of my hometown of Fairfield and across the bridge through Hamilton. Maybe it was the excitement of finally being underway on a long planned trip or the constant snoring of the other passengers on the crowded train, but my friends and I hardly slept. We were headed to Chicago where we would transfer to a train bound for Milwaukee (which is actually pronounced Mill-e-wah-que and is Algonquin for "The Good Land").

In Milwaukee we planned to catch the Reds in two games against the Brewers, then hop a train back to Chicago for part of the Reds and Cubs series before boarding our final train back home to Cincinnati - all within a week. The trip was an idea hatched between some of my best friends and I to travel the midwest for baseball, beer and good times - an idea I found way more appealing than "finding myself" while backpacking across and Europe or taking photos at a resort in Myrtle Beach and then adding sappy quotes about friendship to said photos on Facebook.

Taking Amtrak had its advantages. Cheaper than flying, no hassle of driving, no gas or parking costs, time to read/watch movies/catch up with each other and it was all a new experience since none of us had taken it before. All we needed was what we could carry and we'd use public transportation and cabs to get around the cities we were visiting. It offered a chance to see a new view of the Midwestern landscape we were a part of, to see the cities, interact with people and avoid the isolated monotony of driving in a car. I wouldn't have had it any other way and in my mind, Amtrak ended up being the right choice.

Our train made good time getting to Indianapolis where it stopped to add on two more cars. The break allowed for us to stretch our legs and get off the train to have a conversation that didn't involve whispering. The Indianapolis station though, was a far cry from our hometown Union Terminal. The dark platforms, dirty tile walls and doorless bathroom stalls set the scene for the evil lair of a 1980's Ninja Turtles villain. Paired with a greyhound station, the amount of people sleeping on the floor due to a lack of seats made the whole place look more like a post-apocalyptic refugee center rather than a transportation terminal.

- Entrance from the station platform to Indianapolis Union Station aka "Shredder's Lair."

We waited in a line to re-board our train. The man taking the tickets was clearly in a bad mood. The first indication of this was when he rudely shouted at an old lady when she cupped her ear indicating she was hard of hearing. He also chastised nearly every passenger who was boarding for not having signed their tickets (despite the ticket and our previous station never indicating you had to). Worry began to set in, were we getting on the wrong train? This guy made it seem like we were bound for 1939 Berlin. Luckily, "Adolf" was the exception and not the rule as every other railroad employee we encountered turned out to be awesome.


At 6:30 A.M. the dining/lounge car opened for business. We were the first in line to purchase breakfast. Since we had slept most of the day and been up all night, we took advantage of the fact that the dining car will sell you beer with your knock off Egg-McMuffin. The friendly Amtrak employee became our rolling bar tender. Some of our fellow passengers scoffed at our early morning libations while we stuck playing cards under the tab of the Budweiser in the middle of our table in a game of "kings," others laughed and conversed with us as we enjoyed a few more beers.

- Breakfast of champions.

At around 10:30 A.M. our train rolled into Chicago's Union Station. We had a few hours to kill and took a look around the city outside as we enjoyed the first cigarette break since Indianapolis. We decided to check out "The Ledge" at the Sears* Tower which allows you to walk out on clear glass and look 1,353 feet straight down from one of the world's tallest buildings.

- "The Ledge" of the Sears* Tower Skydeck.

The Ledge is definitely a cool experience, but not worth dealing with the obnoxious family portrait taking crowds who loudly wait for you to get out of the way of their turn - especially when you had beer for breakfast and only slept two hours. I maintain that the view and observation deck of the Hancock Tower is much better.

- Us standing on The Ledge.

We headed back to Union Station, clamoring through the throngs of people to board our train to Milwaukee. Within minutes of boarding we were underway and headed out of Chicago, bound for "The Good Land."

- Departing Chicago.

After a 1.5 hour train ride we arrived in Milwaukee. Milwaukee's Intermodal Station (MKE) is beautiful. MKE, along with Chicago's Union Station and Union Terminal put the dungeon-esque Indianapolis station to shame.

We walked a few blocks to our hotel, checked in, grabbed dinner and hopped a cab to Miller Park for the first Reds game against the Brew Crew.

The Reds lost.

We caught a public bus back to our hotel and enjoyed beers at the hotel bar, telling tales of being amusement park veterans to fellow hotel guests.

The next day, we took a tip from a local Reds fan and grabbed lunch at a joint called "The Safe House." Themed after the idea of being in a spy novel/movie ala James Bond, the place even has a secret entrance you have to find down a side street. After that, my friends broke off to go tour the Miller Brewery while I explored the city.

- View from Milwaukee's river walk.


- Chandelier structure over a street intersection.

- Bus stop/Wisconsin Worker's Memorial - two things Scott Walker hates.

- Hanging out under Milwaukee highways.



Milwaukee is a beautiful city and no matter how much trash you talk or how much out of town team garb you wear, the people are incredibly friendly.

I met up with my friends later at Miller Park, for our second time to see the Reds play the Brewers.

- Memorial to the three workers who were killed during Miller Park's construction.

The Reds, again, lost.

Beers and "super" long island iced teas were consumed, Drew Stubbs' name was cursed and the Reds once again fell to their divisional rivals. In spite of seeing two losses, you couldn't be in a bad mood - Miller Park is too cool of a place. Aside from the goofy slide that their mascot slides down, the stadium is immense and impressive.


They even carry food that caters to the visiting fans, in our case one concession stand offered Skyline Chili.

- Miller Park's take on Skyline.

The stadium is gorgeous, the sight lines are good and the hometown fans are welcoming no matter how many times you remind them that your team is still in first place. Despite the stadium being outside of downtown and the Brewers abysmal season so far - Milwaukee fans come out in droves to tailgate and party.

- Miller park.

We boarded the public bus one more time and accompanied other defeated Reds fans back to downtown. We gain took solace and refuge in the early 90's era bar of the Ramada before calling it a night.

- Milwaukee public transit.

The Reds had one more game against the Brewers, but we had to catch a train back to Chicago. After enjoying some street prepared hot dogs outside of MKE, we boarded a train headed away from The Good Land and bound for Chicago - listening on our phones as the Reds dropped a third game to the Brewers.

- Milwaukee Intermodal Station.

The trip between Milwaukee and Chicago is a little more pleasant than the ride from Cincinnati to Chicago. This train reached speeds (according to a phone app) of nearly 90 mph and stopped less.

- Departing Milwaukee.

- Amtrak train arriving in Chicago from Milwaukee.

Once again at Chicago's Union Station, we waited at the baggage carousel for our stuff. We were the only ones waiting, for some reason it seemed like no one but us took advantage of the fact that you can check your bag for free and not have to carry all your stuff with you.


With no one else around and the luggage carousels not moving, we thought maybe we were in the wrong place to get our baggage. We asked a friendly employee who informed us we were in fact in the right place. 15 minutes later, still nothing.

Panic began to set in - what if our luggage was lost? But how do they screw that up? It rides the same train you do! Is Delta Airlines actually running this show? Was our luggage on a different train?

We went to ask at the Amtrak desk. Remember how I said the gestapo guy in Indy was the exception? This is where it showed. The super nice lady at the desk offered us free souvenir maps while she made a call to someone and within a few minutes our bags showed up.

- Union Station, the main train terminal in Chicago.

We decided to hoof it a few blocks and across the river to our hotel just as a slight rain started to pour, indicative of our feelings towards the Reds losses and the probably-starting-to-strain nerves of four dudes who had all been sleeping in the same hotel room.

- Holiday Inn views.

Screw it! Tomorrow was a new day, the Reds are currently one of the best teams in baseball and they're about to play a team even worse than The Brewers. We sipped PBR in paper bags and broke out the cards while ordering up some Chicago pizza.


- The pizza.

I don't care what anyone says - LaRosa's Pizza in Cincinnati sucks. Go eat Chicago pizza and then try to digest the cardboard and spaghetti sauce that Cincinnati calls its own.

- The aftermath of the pizza.

We had followed the Reds across the midwest (and hopefully on a path to this year's World Series) and were now in "The Windy City." We grabbed some CTA passes and boarded the Brown Line with a transfer to the Red Line - riding the elevated subway out to Wrigley Field. The rain delayed the game, but soon stopped long enough for some baseball to begin. The Reds seemed reformed from their shellacking in Milwaukee and soon had a lead.

We sipped PBR (refusing to drink Old Style), cracked peanuts and ate hot dogs. Soon a well dressed man walked by and was mobbed by loyal Cubs fans. The man in question was Tom Ricketts, the owner of The Chicago Cubs. Despite us wearing enemy colors and rooting against his team, he was kind enough to take a photo with us.

- Nick, myself, Tom Ricketts, Matt and Greg.

Ricketts still chatted with Cubs fans near our seats as Ryan Ludwick hit a single and drove in another Reds run. What a great feeling - the owner of your rivals standing right next to you as your team drives in a reminder that his team has sucked for the past 104 years. He would get the last laugh as I imagine that he slowly smoked a cigar while he watched from his office window as we made our way out into the streets amidst the rain. I imagine this scenario, because The Reds ended up collapsing and lost to the lovable losers of Wrigley Field.

I abstained from the next day's game and instead decided to wander the city.

- Abandoned railroad bridge.

I checked out an abandoned railroad bridge and impulsively rode the Green Line out to the California stop before riding it back into the city.


I took a walk along the river and failed to find a pizza place that a state trooper and a man named "Greyhound" on the subway recommended to me.


I returned to the hotel room to find my friends, they too had decided not to risk seeing another loss. It seems the only way we were going to see the Reds win on this trip was from the television in our hotel room. As we sipped beer in the comfort of our Holiday Inn room, The Reds achieved the first victory of the road trip.

That evening, Matt and I had tickets to go see one of my favorite bands, the legendary Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Brown Line service was shut down due to a police cruiser crashing into one of the line's trains while pursuing a suspect. We hiked into the heart of downtown, hopped onto the Red Line and rode out to Wrigleyville for the show at The Metro.

- The Bosstones at The Metro.

- Front row for The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. 

The Bosstones have only played Cincinnati a handful of times and hadn't been in The Queen City since the mid-90's, so I had never seen them live. With only seven American tour dates, the Chicago show just happened to align perfectly with our trip. We arrived early, were right up front and held our spots while the crowd moshed behind us. Twice, lead singer Dicky Barrett held up his microphone to me and I got to sing parts of the lyrics to "The Daylights" and "Devil's Night Out." Guitarist Lawrence Katz threw me one of his picks after his solo in "Hell of a Hat" and they played my favorite song "Don't Worry Desmond Dekker." It was by far, one of the greatest concerts I've ever been to.

- Guitar pick from the Bosstones' Lawrence Katz.

Ecstatically blown away by the band's performance and putting the Reds losses we had witnessed behind us, we rode the train back to our hotel covered in sweat with hoarse voices. More pizza, more beer and more cards ensued. We checked out the next morning and headed for Navy Pier.


Chicago's equivalent of Newport on the Levee is fun for about ten minutes. After awhile the Jimmy Buffet cover bands, crowds of people who stop in the middle of the pathways and street magicians get to you. I split away for awhile to wander the city again.

I have no love for The Cubs, but Chicago is a wonderful place. Every time I visit I find something new that the tourist hot spots like Navy Pier don't offer. The city is urban, diverse, gritty, clean, crowded and quiet all at the same time. I walked to the beach on the lake, the theme to Family Matters playing in my head the whole time along with images of the show's Chicago skyline intro.


I regrouped with my friends and we fought a valiant battle against the other tourists for a cab back to Union Station. We boarded The Cardinal once more and settled in for the trip back to Cincinnati with episodes of Archer and NYPD Blue. As the sun set, we rolled past industrial Chicago.

- The industrial landscape of Chicago.

We made one last stop at Indianapolis' seedy underbelly station where we ran into Rob, our train attendant from nearly a week ago when we began the trip. He remembered us, asked how our trip was and gave us regular updates on the way back. We arrived in Cincinnati at 4:30 A.M., ending our excursion across the Midwest. We grabbed our luggage, exited the dark Union Terminal and found Ryan Texas Ranger outside with the SUV. We piled into the back one more time, popped open the window and drove along Fort Washington Way - the skyscrapers on our left and the home of our beloved Redlegs on our right.

- Great American Ballpark as seen from the back floor of an SUV.

*I have been informed that it is inappropriate to call the Sears Tower by its new name of the "Willis Tower."

Updates | Oct. 21, 2017:


  1. Sounds like a great trip! Enjoy that while you can! Less chances as you get older.

  2. Epic dude. The Bob Newhart show from the 70s is also an appropriate theme song to sing/hum/whistle while one is in Chicago.

  3. Great trip. Got to read about it from Pedal Wagon's facebook page link.

  4. Thanks for reposting this. I missed it the first time.