Monday, September 11, 2006

I Think I’m Alone Now …

Saturday, September 10th

So it finally happened, I have been abandoned to my own devices. Admittedly I was exceptionally lucky to have company throughout so much of my trip, and excellent company at that. But as of the MOA (Mall of America), I am on my own - and it in this state that I head off into the land of hokey accents, cousin-lovin' and moonshine ... the South.

But before I got down to the South, I first had to get through Chicago, obviously stopping in Madison on the way to pay homage to what I would discover to be one of the greatest university towns in the universe. I leave the warm embrace of the Casa de Ahlquist and head off to Chicago on I-90, stopping briefly at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border to take in the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge, staring mostly at the beautiful Mississippi, which cuts a metallic blue swath through the green plane of trees as far as the eye can see as it winds its way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Its kind of incredible that the land is downhill all the way to the Gulf, firstly that it is downhill so far and secondly that it is so shallowly downhill (most of the time - there was a three day period in 1811 where the river actually flowed backwards, apparently most people thought it was the end of the world), as there are no waterfalls on the Mississippi.

About 2 hours later, I arrived in Madison, and following Millers rather obscure directions (which he is conveying to me on the phone while I drive and walk), I managed to get to a parking garage, park and get myself to the Great Dane. The Dane, a Madison institution, is a rather large brew pub near the capital building with typical but excellent pub fare and a nice selection of beers brewed on the premesis. I walk in, tell the I want the typical pub experience, describe a night at the Dane Miller once conveyed to me and am whisked downstairs to a pleasant outdoor garden in the back. I am soon set up with a tower glass of crop circle wheat beer and some fish and chips, both of which are excellent. I chat up the waitress for a while, hearing several rather lurid stories about her nights at the Dane, finish a second glass of a Czech type beer and head off to walk down state street to the Union.

State Street, which heads in a straight line from the capital to the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is lined with a plethora of bars, restaurants and clothing stores, all of which seem to be selling some sort of red badger gear. The street and the capital and in fact the whole town are also covered with interestingly painted life-sized cow statues, which I am told to be an art project for the beautification of the city. They are new as Miller and Ahlque, who are now taking turns talking me down the street, have never seen them. While walking down the street and gawking at the college students as they ARE SO YOUNG, I develop a theory about college age girls, which goes like this.

There are only four types of college age girls in America (as during an after college they expand into the numerous types of girls that continue to confound me today), and they can be identified as follows

a) California - Dressed in something hip/trendy and small but not chic, heavily made
up in proportion to their dress, with some kind of fancy flip-flops, these girls are
generally all smiles and are not very interested in long conversation unless its on a cell phone

b) Granola - Often coming from the Northwest, Idaho or Montana, these girls wear
functional garments made from some sort of non-standard plant, often wearing long sleaves underneath short sleeves, are outdoorsy, possibly in a hardcore rock-climbing/biking/I could eat you for breakfast sort of way

c) East Coast - Identified by the slight scowl on thin lips that are firmly pressed
together, these girls are very fashionable, wearing things that I still could noafford
now, and are required to wear some sort of uncomfortable looking shoe and carry some sort of useless accessory, like a small animal or tiny handbag that cannot carry any more than a pocket

d) Midwest - All genuine smiles and slightly plump, wearing outfits that seem
thrown together and are not that flattering of figure but attractive none-the-less, the girls generally look like they are looking for a party or the next beer

This theory allows for geographic transplantation or other influence to affect type, thusa girl from California who moved to Wisconsin might wear a no so trendy thrown together tiny outfit with flip-flops as she develops the where is my next beer look.

Obivously, to develop this theory I did a copious amount of field research as I walked to the Union, an altogether pleasant activity. The Union, Madisons student center on the shore of Lake Mindota. Here I had some of Madisons excellent ice cream (which they make at the college but is so good they ship all around the country) and read one of Madisons school papers, the Onion (which if you have not heard of it you are missing out - while listening to a live Jazz band and marveling at the fabulousness of this place. UCSD was great for academics, but in Madison it seems like the university really understands that college is for all sorts of education. What a great town.

I left Madison and jetted down to Chicago, skipping Milwaukee on the advice that there is really nothing good there, and set up shop at Millers sister Rachels place for a few days. Rachel, a DO, was on a 24 hour shift when I got there so I went to visit her at the hospital with her husband Jonathan, a very cool guy. It was really interesting to see Rachel at work, it felt kind of like I was on the set for Scrubs or something as she and other residents babbled on about babies heartbeats, contractions, labor and other baby stuff (obviously, Rachel is an OBGYN).

The next day Rachel got up late and we headed into Chicago and went on an architectural cruise on the Chicago river through the center of what is known as The Loop, ot the central business district where the loop of cable cars used to run. The tour was fascinating, with dozens of truly imporessive skyscrapers to look at while we listened to a very knowledgeable woman leading the tour discuss the history of each building, as well as pointing out the buildings unique features and such. I don’t much like skyscrapers, but I was fascinated, I never noticed the way one building has a particular type of corner while another has a special kind of moulding or window inset. I know, sounds dull, and writing it now I am not sure about it, but I know during the tour it was enthralling. Plus we had perfect weather, which is always nice.

After the tour we walked around Navy Pier and then went and picked up some pizza to eat with some of Rachels friends. The pizza, from a place called Art of Pizza, was truly epic. It was 39$ for 2 medium pizzas (I know, I know) and each pizza must have weighed in a around 300 pounds. We had to pull the car up to the door of the resturant to get them in … pizzas must have been 8 pounds each and turned out to be some of the best pizza I have ever eaten. Zagat gives Art of Pizza a 25 and it is supposed to be the best pizza in Chicago ( I cannot testify to its comparison with other Chicago pizza, but it was damn good).

The next day was simply grand. I woke up reasonably early, ate some blueberries and then drove over to the el, parked and headed into the city. It was a gorgeous day and I spent it wandering the loop and other parts of the city, looking at the insides and lobbies (whcn I could get in) of the buildings I saw on the tour the day before. The buildings are huge, its like hiking in a wilderness of metal and glass complete with vistas, valleys, plains and peculiar wildlife.

I did not go up to the Sears Tower Lookout, as the line was 2 hours long … imagine standing in line that long just to say you did something, because although the view is supposed to be good, its simply a view of 7 flat states and a big lake … 2 hours, ridiculous. After some more wandering, I managed to find a sandwich store that was open (seems about half the city was closed on Sunday), had a fabulous pickle with my sandwich and continued wandering.

I wandered through Millenium Park, the cities gift to itself on the Millenium (alas, this park was only finished last year, but when you consider the length of a millennium, 5 years is not so long). This park is pretty cool, with several cool outdoor stages, fountains and other venues for entertainment and play, as well as a gigantic, metallic kidney bean, which was clearly the most popular thing in the city judging by the throngs of people around it. After the park, which is quite close to the Shedd aquarium, I walked out of my way 2 miles away from the Shedd aquarium so that I could walk 2 miles back to it … such are my fine map reading skills. This time I did wait in an hour line to get into the aquarium, entirely worth it as Shedd was amazing. Aside from the standard giant tank full of sharks, turtles, etc … there was an awesome amazon exhibit, a shark and ray area and a great deal of information about climate change and environmental issues.

After the aquarium, I got ahold of Nate, a friend from Scripps who had just started medical school in Chicago, and we met up in the Loop somewhere and had some excellent ribs and beer. Turns out Nate is going to the same school Rachel just graduated from , crazy small world. Following dinner, we say goodbye and I take the El back to Skokie, get some sleep and wake up bright and early to head out to Kentucky. Rachel is just getting back from her second 24 hours shift in 72 hours and was understandably fublunged, but we said goodbye and I drove off into the rain on my way to Gary, Indiana.

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