"The real voyage of Discovery lies not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes"
Marcel Proust

Saturday, January 7, 2012

I-55 By Train; Springfield to Chicago

The week between Christmas and New Year’s my family visited the Windy City. In order to offer my daughters a new traveling experience, my husband and I took them on their first train ride. They were seasoned veterans on airplanes, buses, taxis, vans, and rental cars, but a ride on the Iron Horse was a new adventure.

I pulled out my nearly complete I-55 manuscript to see the highway from a different vantage point. Initially, I got a radically different vantage point. When the train started rolling towards Chicago I realized I was rolling backward. A trip to the snack car and a seat at a dining table remedied the situation. The White Castle burgers weren’t bad, either.

Northbound by Day
Checking my manuscript by the comfort of train was not only relaxing, but enlightening. I noticed details not seen as clearly from the road. The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of Illinois and I point out in the book that at mile 161 north, in Bloomington-Normal, you’ll see ISU’s mascot, Reggie Redbird, on a water tower. Well, on my train trip I was surprised to see another Cardinal mascot painted prominently on the water tower in Elkhart. Ah, Redbirds rule along this route!

By train, I feel like I get a sneak peek behind the scenes of everything from commerce and industry to the privacy of someone’s backyard. We rolled past the back of Sangamon Center Shopping Center, past the Indian Hills subdivision and out into the cornfields. As we caught up with I-55 just past Sherman we started racing the cars next to us.

From 55 you see the grain elevators off in the distance—the tall castles of the open prairie-- but on the rails you roll right next to them and glimpse them as would a freight engineer ready to fill up their car with corn or soybeans. 

I smiled with sentiment as I rolled past the entrance to Funk’s Grove, seeing the Maple Sirup store, hidden by trees from I-55’s view. I was closer to the prairie that I helped plant here in 1995 than I had been in years. It felt intimate rolling right through Isaac Funk’s grove rather than alongside it.

Intimate. The rails pulled me right into the small towns which I talked about from the road. With each station stop, I saw the downtowns which all look the same and all look different. Cozy diners with cozy names you’d never find in a shopping mall. Small lamp posts lining the street like decorative candles. American flags and old brick buildings. Here I was at each town’s doorstep just long enough to say a cordial hello and be on my way again. 

I rolled right past the entrance of Exelon Corporation’s Braidwood Generating Station, the largest nuclear power plant in Illinois, through the tranquil wetlands of the Des Plaines Conservation Area, and into the suburbs of Chicago.

Southbound by Night
We pulled out of Chicago at 5:15p.m. and sadly watched over our shoulder as the city’s skyscrapers disappeared from view. I was clever enough to score some seats facing the right direction this time even though most of the trip would be through darkness.

But the most fascinating thing I saw on the ride home was a spectacular light show right in the middle of the dark fields near Dwight. It’s not uncommon to see red lights blinking atop towers here and there, but I took a double-take when I saw my entire window light up with red dots at the same time and then go completely black again, then fill with red dots for miles and then go black in one blink. When I realized we had just passed Dwight, the light finally went on inside my head. We were passing the huge wind farm and fields of wind turbines.

Upon closer inspection, I could see that the red lights were in different spots every time they lit up. The blades were turning and the red lights were rotating in the sky. If it weren’t for my phobia of the germs that travel on public transportation I would have had my face completely pressed up against the window. The interior light of the train was reflecting my face back onto the window and distracted me from the total light show experience. As it was, I was pretty close to the glass and must have looked ridiculously like one of the kids we saw in Chicago who was attached to one of Macy’s department store windows. I do know that my older daughter responded with annoyed protest when I kept telling her to “Look! Look! The lights keep going on and off again! They’re red like Christmas lighting up an entire field! Isn’t that cool?” I’m sure she hoped that no other sane person on the train could hear my giddy glee.

The girls gave their new train expedition two thumbs up. The 9-year-old spent most of her time finding any reason to travel between rail cars and experience the fun-house-effect of the floor swinging one way while her upper body swayed the other. All to just have one more thrill walk from car to car, she’d throw away our dinner garbage one sugar packet at a time, use the bathroom, and offer to check the price of coffee in the dining car. The people in the cars between us must have thought she was a very small train stewardess.

The 12-year-old saw the ride as an uninterrupted luxurious reading session (except when her sister attempted to throw away her paper bookmark).


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    The State Street subway was completed in 1943; the Dearborn subway, on which work had been suspended during World War II, opened on February 25, 1951. The subways were constructed with a secondary purpose of serving as bomb shelters, as evidenced by the close spacing of the support columns (a more extensive plan proposed replacing the entire elevated system with subways). The subways bypassed a number of tight curves and circuitous routings on the original elevated lines (Milwaukee trains, for example, originated on Chicago's northwest side but entered the Loop at the southwest corner), speeding service for many riders.
    Come aboard Amtrak® for a northern adventure! Travel from the West to the East on Amtrak. Starting in Seattle you'll experience the grandeur of Glacier National Park, the friendly hospitality of the Twin Cities, the charm of Chicago, and the hustle and bustle of New York City.

    1. Jackie,

      Thank you! Our latest family adventure by train was this summer on the rail from Boston to Manchester-by-the-sea, for a day at the beach. The scenery on that trip went from drastically different, traveling on the water, to scenes of fields that could have been in Central Illinois.

      My co-author and I are in the process of publishing our next book about the landmarks and landscape as you are driving I-55 between Saint Louis and Chicago. Thanks for your interest! - LuAnn

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