Day 30 – View from the top

“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

“Hit it.”

Before visiting Chicago, my knowledge of the city was limited to basic pop culture. If I had made a list, what I knew about Chicago would have been pretty simple:

  1. The Blues Brothers;
  2. It’s where Ferris Buehler spent his day off;
  3. It has the world’s busiest airport and ex-world’s tallest building; and
  4. It was once destroyed by an angry cow.

Stuff like that. After actually visiting the city, the list is only slightly longer:

  1. The traffic sucks;
  2. Parking sucks;
  3. It has the biggest slum area I have yet seen.

That is not a very positive evaluation, I know. I am sure I would have a much more positive review if I had stayed there longer. In fact, one Midwesterner friend has chastised me for only passing through. In reality, I would have spent more time there if it had not taken so long to simply pass through. I spent 43 minutes parked downtown in Chicago, and 5 or 6 more hours parked on the tollway, stuck in traffic. And the freeway parking was cheaper; it cost $14 to park for those 43 minutes, which works out to about 3 minutes per dollar. Obviously, the per-minute rate gets cheaper if you park there all day, because otherwise no one would be able to afford to go to work. It would cost more to park than most people make at their jobs. I’ve never seen a place so proud of its parking spaces; Chicago parking seems like a good business to get into.

It may also be why people seem to prefer parking on the highway.

The traffic started as soon as I reached south or east Chicago. Traffic backed up over a very long bridge, meaning there was no way to get off the road and take an alternate route.

As I sat on the bridge, I looked over at some large mechanical structure nearby and saw the first signs of Chicago’s south side: graffiti on a steel beam. This steel beam happened to be at least 100 feet above the ground, though, which is a recurring theme I have noticed: graffiti artists go to extraordinary lengths to deface the most hard-to-reach places possible.

I continued to creep along the interstate, with the goal of reaching the Sears Tower. I knew from my map that if I took a certain exit, I would find the skyscraper. After a while, though, I decided it would be faster to get off the highway and just take side streets toward my destination. Sure, I didn’t know any directions for driving there that way, which is why I stayed on the interstate as long as I did. But then I looked off in the distance and realized, heck, I don’t need directions. It’s the Sears Tower. All I have to do is start driving toward the tallest building on the continent. It is not like it is hard to pick out from a distance; if you see any building that is taller, you are heading toward the wrong one.

So, after another 30 minutes of driving through slums and under the el, I parked at one of many equally expensive parking garages and walked across the street to the Sears Tower.

To reach the top of the Sears Tower, you must first take an elevator to the basement. There, you can buy a ticket (which is slightly cheaper than the parking) to the viewing area on the 103rd floor.

There were no lines when I was there, but the entire operation was obviously built to handle large crowds and extremely long lines. I passed through several empty rooms of rope mazes, designed to fit the longest possible line into the smallest possible space. It was frightening to think of how long it would take to simply reach the elevator if this place had as many visitors as it is designed to hold. I am not sure if the discrepancy between the sparse number of visitors and the long maze-like holding area was due to seasonal variations, overly optimistic planners, or simple good luck on my part. There is a chance that it originally was jam-packed with visitors, but that time and changes in the world since then had taken away much of its draw. Everybody (other than my acrophobic Mother) wants to visit the top of the world’s tallest building; it is much less noteworthy to see the top of the third-tallest building.

Before getting on the elevator to the top, everyone was ushered into an auditorium where a 15-minute History Channel documentary recounted the story behind the building’s construction. From this, I learned that the tower was originally designed to be a couple of stories shorter than the world’s tallest building. They were building it for a certain purpose, and it needed to be a certain size for that purpose. And then someone said, hey, since we’re close, why don’t we make it a bit taller and go for the record? So goes the problem with records: as soon as one is set, the next guy will know he just has to go one inch above that to break the record. So, the Sears Tower is now the third-tallest building, instead of the first. However, as they mentioned at the end of the video, the TV antennas on top of the tower are still taller than any other building.

We were ushered from the auditorium to one of the large express elevators to the 103rd floor. A TV screen above the doors played a silly computer-animated video as the elevator rose, obviously to distract everyone from the sensations and thoughts that come from traveling a vertical quarter-mile in the time it takes to watch a TV commercial. It did a pretty good job, too; the ride was surprisingly smooth and short, with barely-noticeable g-forces.

On a clear day, they say you can see 50 miles from the top of the Sears Tower. This was not a clear day (though, thankfully, it had finally stopped raining), so the visibility was a meager 15 miles.

It is always fun to look down on the roofs of 50-story skyscrapers. Here, such rooftops were not even close. None of the buildings around posed any threat to the Sears Tower’s feelings of superiority.

So, for anyone concerned about me not seeing much of Chicago, I actually did see the majority of it. It just wasn’t a very up-close look.


After fighting traffic for a few more hours, I stopped for the night at a rest stop somewhere in southern Wisconsin. A historical marker there proclaimed that Wisconsin was the birthplace of the circus. Most circuses, it turns out, at some time or another made Wisconsin their winter home base. Which brought a couple of questions to mind: one, is that something for a state to be proud of, and two, if you are going to have a traveling job that gives you every winter at home, couldn’t you find a better winter home than Wisconsin? There are warmer places, you know. Perhaps the bearded lady is bearded for good reason.


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