With hindsight, planning an entire day around doing things that required looking long distances was probably putting all of our eggs in one basket. Inspired by yesterday’s ground-level adventures, we had intended to visit Willis née Sears Tower and view beautiful Chicago from the glass Skydeck, then wander uptown to the Hancock Tower and view beautiful Chicago from the intriguing “Tilt” experience. But all of these plans to see beautiful Chicago were somewhat ruined by the impenetrable fog that had descended on the city overnight and didn’t relax its grip all day long.
“It’s zero visibility folks, I’m obliged to tell you that”, the Willis Tower guard informed us as we tried to soldier on regardless, “those folks had their tickets pre-booked so don’t have a choice”, he added, pointing at a group of glum-looking school children being ushered through security for perhaps the most pointless elevator ride of their young lives. We decided to take his advice and not waste forty dollars, and headed back out into the city for another day at ground level.
Somehow, our first port of call turned out to be a yarn shop, suggested by the I-can’t-believe-it-really-exists Yarn Store Finder app. What the app failed to tell us, however, was that the yarn shop didn’t open till eleven. So rather than spend an hour hanging round a neighbourhood that the Yarn Store Finder app charitably described as “sketchy”, we decided to wander somewhere else.
Unfortunately, the thick fog served to confuse any sense of distance, so getting to our next destination – the Aquarium – turned out to be a ridiculously long walk along a very busy road. This, along with the disorientation caused by wandering through Silent Hill on the PS1, perhaps contributed to us having our first holiday row – a perplexing set-to about the prevalence of silage use in the UK farming industry. Luckily, we soon realised that this was not the hill to die on for either of us, and put it behind us with a packet of make-up Pringles.
I’d like to be able to post a rousing summary of fish-filled antics at this point, but in what is turning into the running theme for this day, we never actually went into the aquarium. I’m not sure why, but we soon got sick of the queue, decided that we didn’t really want to see any fish, gave up and left. I blame it on residual queue-resentment from the airport.
Next, we wandered deeper into the murk to see Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. I use “see” in the loosest possible sense here, because what we actually saw was not the majestic home of a proud sporting franchise, so much as a vague collection of confusing shadows and looming structures. Even Michelle’s usually spirited trash-talk about her regional rivals was lacking at this point, and despair was beginning to take hold for both of us. So far, we’d wandered about five miles and earned precisely no tourist achievements. The day was beginning to look like a write-off.
With heavy hearts, we grabbed some lunch and tried to decide what to do next. Randomly, we settled on walking out to the Navy Pier, knowing only that it had a Ferris Wheel, and Ferris Wheels can cure even the deepest malaise. The walk to the pier was equal parts grim and terrifying, and only served to emphasise that Americans don’t expect to walk anywhere, but we got there eventually, and found one of the weirdest places on planet earth.
It started off odd when we entered the first part of the pier and had to step briskly aside to allow a security guard to run past to attend a trash can fire. We can only speculate that this act of arson was a desperate cry of existential angst from a tourist, similarly lost in the oppressive mist. We pressed on into the pier.
The Navy Pier starts off normally with a small collection of tourist shops and an Imax, which begin to thin out after several hundred yards. After the shops, and a half-hearted food court, the pier becomes an empty maze of abandoned rooms and corridors, with the occasional dead-eyed souvenir vendor. It looks like a place once frequented by people, but is now pristine and abandoned, like the Marie Celeste – a bar, with no people or staff; a mysterious and empty stained glass museum. The only other people at this level are other couples, similarly bemused and similarly desperate to find out what the deal is. Suddenly, there’s a fun house section, full of gleeful and terrifying children, running amok among distorting mirrors and flashing lights. The abruptness and juxtaposition of the abandonment and activity gives the place a nightmarish quality. The surreal feeling intensifies as the fun house gives way to a bank of parking payment machines – a single machine repeats the phrase “pay your parking fee now to speed your exit” in a dull, computerised monotone.
Suddenly, we’re outside, about half way down the pier and in an empty beer garden. There are no people, but the public address system blares out some bland techno-pop at a volume presumably intended only to disquiet. It’s working, because we’re disquieted and openly speculating whether we’ve died and this is some strange afterlife, existing in the recesses between realms of existence.
Eventually, the end of the pier looms out of the mist, revealing a single concrete mixer truck, just sitting there, mixing concrete. We paused only to snap a selfie and fled back down the levels of pier-hell to the familiar warmth of humanity. At this point, we decided to draw a veil over this weird day and went to see the Avengers movie at the Imax (pretty good, needs less bombastic fight scenes).
Tomorrow, the road trip begins properly as we pick up the car and drive up to Green Bay.