The official user's manual for sunshine

Mellow Michigan Meanderings: To Harbor Country and back by train, boat, bus and bicycle

Bicycling, Memoirs & Miscellany, Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips, User's Guide to Summer 1 Comment »

michigan1By John Greenfield

On a hot August morning, I load my bicycle with camping gear and catch Metra up to Kenosha, Wisconsin. As usual I’ve stayed up late packing and haven’t slept much, so I snooze during most of the hour-and-a-half train ride.

Taking a combo of Route 32 and bike paths I ride thirty-five miles to a dock on the south side of Milwaukee for the high-speed ferry to Muskegon, Michigan. The main function of the ferry is a shortcut for drivers who want to avoid Chicago congestion, and the lower deck of the boat is packed with cars, RVs and motorcycles—mine’s the only pedal bike. Read the rest of this entry »

Urban Jungles: Sampling Chicago’s natural and manmade wonders by the dozen

Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips, User's Guide to Summer No Comments »

By Shelly Ridenour

The hunter, weary from hacking through the road-rage safari that is Lake Shore Drive, scans the familiar terrain of the concrete jungle. Towering above and blocking out all traces of sunlight  are not trees but the massive monoliths he has come to know as “skyscrapers.” The natives scurry along, careful never to make eye contact lest they are accosted–not for their scalps, but for spare change. It is a sensory overload: the sound of honking cabs, the smell of bus exhaust, the occasional sight of a disarmingly domesticated pigeon. From tiny speakers hanging above the store windows of Marshall Field’s, the call of the wild blares forth; today it’s Toni Braxton, mooning over a broken heart. Donning his bravest gameface, our modern Hemingway takes a deep breath and reinforces his resolve. Today’s holy grail: to bag a restaurant wait time of less than thirty minutes.

Just another day in the Chicago “wilderness.”

The term may seem about as relevant as “jumbo shrimp,” but there actually is such a thing—at least according to the Chicago Wilderness consortium. Recently, the granola league came up with what it calls the Twelve Natural Wonders of the Chicago Wilderness. No, we’re not talking Sears, Hancock, Monadnock, et al; this is a serious collection of classic Midwest landscape–prairies, savannas and woodlands. Since we love dirt and plants as much as the next person, we couldn’t resist the temptation to check out this list. We even came up with some wonders of our own.

So, whether you’re itching to get back to nature or whether the very thought of purple loosestrife makes you itch; whether you’d rather hike a trail or a sidewalk; whether you’re into the song of the dunes or some honest-to-God Chicago blues, we’ve got the perfect summer day escapes—a combination of Chicago’s twelve natural wonders and their dozen man-made, citified parallels. Read the rest of this entry »

Yellow Brick Road Trip

Road Trips No Comments »

Who goes to a Judy Garland festival? Naturally, “we get quite a few gay men,” John Kelsch explains, “and we get the families that are traveling, mostly from the Twin Cities area–but we get people flying in from Alaska to see the ruby slippers. Last year we had people from Belgium, and the fan club in England usually sends a delegation.” Kelsch is executive director of the Judy Garland Children’s Museum, located in the town where she was born, Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The restored Garland homestead, which added a memorial garden last year, lies two miles from the museum. “The garden was a $40,000 project,” Kelsch says. “It includes fifty Judy Garland roses. It’s an orange rose with a yellow tip.”

More than 3,000 fans made the trip last year. “They’re not all there at once, they kinda come in waves, don’tcha know,” Kelsch says in his “Fargo” accent. Most visitors tour the house and museum, which includes Garland memorabilia such as signed checks, a Dorothy dress, her Tony award and the carriage she rode through the Emerald City. Read the rest of this entry »

Hail centurions: Pedaling the Midwest’s home for hundred-milers

Bicycling, Road Trips No Comments »

By Mary Wilds

The bicycle museum and former railroad depot in Three Oaks, Michigan, has the dubious distinction of having been built, in part, to honor the third American president to be assassinated while in office. Michigan Central Railroad built the depot in 1898 for the then-princely sum of $4,200, lavishing some extra care onto its brick walls, stone trimming, beveled lead glass windows, tin ceiling and slate roof because the president was said to be coming to town. Ironically, President William McKinley did not come to town to see the depot, but rather to dedicate a cannon slated to be placed in a Three Oaks park. Even more ironic was the fact that the cannon didn’t arrive in time for McKinley’s visit. The president had to dedicate the mound of earth where the cannon would sit. McKinley would die in Buffalo of an assassin’s bullet three years later.

Today, the cannon still sits on the mound of earth McKinley dedicated, across the railroad tracks from one of the more intriguing little tourist attractions in southwest Michigan. Today, the Three Oaks Bicycle Museum celebrates railroad, bicycling and local history in a fully restored train depot, but the place has changed hands more often than a water bucket at a fire. Michigan Central operated the depot through the late 1950s. Since then, it has opened and re-opened in various incarnations, including a used bookstore, a grandfather-clock-and-picture-frame store, an antique shop and a Secretary of State’s office. A Chicago SEC broker, John Keeley, bought and restored the building in the mid-1980s. Read the rest of this entry »

The Plain Truth: An Amish settlement Disney could love

Road Trips, User's Guide to Summer No Comments »

By Mary Wilds

If the briskness in her voice is any indication, the woman at Elkhart County Visitors and Convention Bureau takes no prisoners. “What dates will you be staying?” she barks at a caller requesting information. “What were you planning to do while you’re here? Do you prefer a bed and breakfast or a hotel.”

I suppose she can’t be blamed—Amish Country in Indiana is a business. The visitors’ bureau serves thousands of tourists each year who come to see the plain folk in action. The bureau also sends a veritable avalanche of brochures to those who dare to inquire about visiting the region. To say that the Amish lifestyle in Northern Indiana has fallen victim to the Walt Disney syndrome is an understatement. The plain people of Northern Indiana are as commercialized in the same spirit as Epcot Center. Dozens of flea markets, erstwhile craftspeople, buggy rides, painfully quaint shops, carefully orchestrated harvest festivals are all here for the sightseer who wants a quick taste of the Amish lifestyle. Read the rest of this entry »

Sphere Carriers: Bocce ball brings a taste of Italy to the Northwest Side

Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips No Comments »

By  Sam Weller

Evenings in Hiawatha Park have a rhythm all their own. The setting sun blankets the area in a warm ember-glow that belies the early May chill. The crowd of bocce-ball regulars arrive from the surrounding neighborhood and adjacent ‘burbs, piling out of cars and appearing from quiet side streets, cowboys approaching a gunfight. Even greater in numbers are the spectators who gather here each evening from roughly 7 to 10pm. Some nights, it is said, the games roll on much later.

“You need to come out on a warmer night,” enthuses one gentleman in a throaty Italian dialect. “There’ll be fifty or sixty people here just to watch!” The park itself, at 8029 West Forest Preserve Avenue, is small and quiet, nestled cozily into a Northwest Side pocket where time has stood completely still in the very best way. You get the vibe that only after the dishes have been washed is it time to play bocce. Read the rest of this entry »

The Last Picture Show: Reeling in the state’s surviving drive-in theaters

Road Trips, User's Guide to Summer No Comments »

By Frank Sennett

The Skyview in downstate Litchfield is the drive-in of dreams. The screen backs out onto Route 66, where a hand-painted sign proclaims: “$1 per person at all times.” Past the short, winding driveway and small ticket-taker booth, a perfectly manicured gravel lot spreads out in the distance. Its darkest corners butt up against a railroad track, feed silos and the beginning of a business district that includes The Rural King (“For all your farm and home needs”). Red and yellow lights glow atop the speaker posts surrounding the low-slung concession stand, which has offered the basics—soda, candy, corn—along with a friendly greeting since 1949. On hot summer nights, patrons gather on the dozen or so benches arrayed in front of the snackbar loudspeakers; others spread out in the beds of their pickups while the kids run around on an expansive fenced-off lawn that’s overshadowed by the whitewashed, corrugated-metal screen. And when it’s all done, everyone wends out on a driveway devoid of gates and devices that cause “severe tire damage.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Complete Summer

Amusement Parks, Baseball, Food & Drink, Living Arrangements, Outdoor Concerts, Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips, Summer Romance, User's Guide to Summer No Comments »

Before you can say “cold front” it’ll be September and you’ll be wishing you hadn’t spent all summer watching reruns on TV. There’s a whole world around Chicago, and for three months, it’s not as icy, bitter and unforgiving as a jilted lover. The sun glistens of the concrete, steel and glass menagerie we call home. But since it’s such a pain to find out what’s going on, and to plan things, NewCity did the work. From hot air balloons to Binti the ape who save lives, we tell you where to go to make you want to sing like Brian Adams about the Summer of ’97. Read the rest of this entry »

Roadtrips to Weirdness: Mapping out a summer’s worth of festival fandangos

Living Arrangements, Road Trips No Comments »

By  Tom Clynes

Done all the local festivals? Looking for an excuse to roadtrip? Within a day’s drive of Chicago, the Heartland summer is heaving with festivals and celebrations. Here’s a sample of Midwest happenings:

• Madison, Nebraska’s Days of Swine and Roses combines humbuggery and haute pork.  Highlights include a hog-calling contest—and the related husband-calling event—as well as the challenging Farm Olympics and the breathtaking Women’s Chore Outfit Fashion Show. Stay downwind of the Smelly Boot Competition, but line up for the mouth-watering pork BBQ and the new Kiss a Pig Contest. Madison lies about 100 miles northwest of Omaha on U.S. 81; for information call 402.454.2251. Read the rest of this entry »

Small Town, Big Names: Discovering world-class architecture among the Indiana cornfields

Road Trips, Summer Romance No Comments »

By Mike Michaelson

Everyone loves an underdog. There are the unseeded tennis players who reach the Wimbledon finals and the amateur golfers who survive the cut in the Masters. There’s John Sayles making acclaimed films on a small budget. And tiny Oshkosh  with its massive air show. And then there’s Columbus, Indiana, David among the architectural Goliaths.

With a population of less than 35,000, this Hoosier town, surrounded by stubby cornfields, forty-five miles south of Indianapolis, has more distinguished architecture than cities fifty times its size. In 1991, when the American Institute of Architects asked members to rank U.S. cities based on design quality and innovation, diminutive Columbus came in sixth. It was exceeded only by, in order, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington. Pretty heady company. Read the rest of this entry »