The Best Way to See Chicago
How to Get to the Lake
If you are ever in Chicago in the summer, preferably before it becomes heat-stroke-inducingly hot, please do this: Rent, borrow or steal a bike and head east from wherever you are. Find an intersection. If you are facing a sign which says “X N.”, e.g. “Division, 1200 N.”, turn right and look for addresses. They best be going down mother-scratcher, or you best turn around. Properly oriented, keep going till you hit Lake Michigan. (The Division example gets a bit interesting around 1000 West, but if you want to buy crack this route is primo and you might have the experience I’m extolling in a completely different and better way.) If the sign you are facing says “X W.”, e,g, “Ashland, 1600 W.”, you are either going the dead right or dead wrong direction. The next sign you come to should be less west. If it is, Carmen Sandiego, you’re on the right track.
Be careful, Speed Racer. Urban bike riding is treacherous stuff. You might want pads and a helmet, but you also might want your dignity. Also, some streets do feature handy bike lanes, especially good is Milwaukee. However, Chicago is no Madison, and as our distended, polish-sausage-eating asses attest, exercise isn’t the prime concern of the Daley regime or his average subject. Furthermore, Milwaukee runs NW/SE, and will probably confuse you and you’ll end up in Skokie. So be a man and take a non-bike-laned street and head east like I told you to!
“Holy shit! Cars and busses are nigh 1 foot from my spindly and prized left leg and arm!” I know. Don’t panic. Keep your glassies open and pay attention. Part of the quality of this experience is its potential to end your life. Look at the mirrors of the cars to your right. If you see a change in the light in one of these mirrors, react! That’s a door opening, and it can be your ride ending if you slam into it. The attitude of Chicagoans to bikers ranges from blind indifference to outright malice, so they won’t be checking for your presence and they might be trying to lay you low. It’s up to you to remain uncrippled.
Also, mind the busses. They are the drunken, malevolent dinosaurs of the urban roadscape, and they veer right to devour and regurgitate people at nearly every block with no regard for your presence. Similarly, if you get clever and try to pass a stopped bus on the left, they might well career drunkenly into your usually safe right side. Achtung! Busses are your sworn enemy. Avoid them with sidewalks and with valor.
Now you’re gliding along east and you’re paying attention. Hopefully your muscles aren’t atrophied to the point where you are currently a sweaty, pathetic, aching walrus. If at any point you feel arrhythmia or similarly imminently life-threatening symptoms, wait for your enemy at a bus stop. They will pick your walrus ass up and you can stow your steed on the front bike rack. Navigation of the CTA is beyond the scope of this node. You’ve failed, and now you’re on your own.
To those fleet and lithe few who’re able to navigate Scylla and Charybdis, after about 15 to 20 minutes of riding east you should start to slip into a zen-like trance. It’s really amazing how much is going on in a big city that is usually dampened by the vacuum-seal of your car. Bike-riding : driving :: actually going to Florence : Rick Steves telling you about it. Oxygen starts coursing through your brain. What’s that thudding sound? That’s your heart beating, Ulysses, that’s being alive outside.
Note the wind wicking your sweat, note the architecture of our fine city. Look at the tops of the buildings. Stonemasonry is a lost art and it’s on display. The neighborhoods will generally change from the lower ends of the socioeconomic strata to the higher as you get closer to the lake, and you might notice Spanish signage resolving into comprehensibility. Depending on how far north or south you are, you might pass through the ritzy North Shore. Or Little Vietnam. Or the bustling business center of The Loop. You might see yuppie 20-somethings emerging from gyms and Starbucks in Lincoln Park. If you find yourself on Chicago Avenue, you’ll cross the intersection with Michigan Ave. where all the tourists come to spend profligate amounts at Ralph Lauren and Saks Fifth Avenue, you’ll see an old-timey fire station with firemen lazing outside, smoking. You’ll see the two enormous antennae of the John Hancock building mainlining the sky. You’ll see my school. From pretty much anywhere in the city, within 30 minutes you should arrive at Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan is a big-ass beautiful lake in the summertime, with the sailboats and the dancing light, with the cool wind and the blueness. There is a bike trail that runs north and south along it for 20 miles called, aptly, the “Lakefront Path.” For your last obstacle before arriving at the lake, you’ll have to cross Lake Shore Drive (Just slippin’ on by on LSD, Friday night trouble bound… – SING IT ALIOTA, HAYNES, AND JEREMIAH!). Do not try to cross this road! It’s a highway and will make you dead. Look for a pedestrian underpass, walk your bike down the stairs, disregard the pungent smell of urine, and emerge to the Lakefront Path. You’ve arrived, Sportsfan.
The Lake Itself
“I thought Chicagoans had distended asses?!? I feel wildly unfit amidst this swarm of hardbody hotties. Who are these people? Extras from Gattica?” I know. The people on the Lakefront Path, running, biking, walking and rollerblading by (What’s the hardest part about rollerblading? Telling your parents you’re gay.), are extremely pulchritudinous as a general rule. They hide somewhere underneath the city during the year and only emerge in the summertime to flaunt their physical prowess along the lakeshore promenade, making the normal feel woefully inadequate. In any event, they don’t care about you so don’t worry about looking like an invader from Corpulencia. Narcissus’s downfall was not due to looking at and mocking the unbeautiful. Enjoy the navel-gazers as scenery.
Now you can choose where to go, north or south. There is an excellent riddle that comes to mind: You arrive at a fork in the road. Twin sisters are standing there. Lost, you ask them for directions. “One of us always lies and the other always tells the truth. You can only ask us one question each, but it has to be the same question.” What do you ask them to find your way? Sorry (the answer is at the end).
Your choice here is of much less moment, north or south are both fantastic rides. I would recommend you look around. Where are the tall buildings at? If you are looking out at the lake, and they are far away to your right (south), riding towards them offers what I think is the most startlingly beautiful view of the Chicago skyline. However, if you go left (north), you’ll find far fewer crowds and lots of cool parks with the occasional tai chi practitioner and a quiet beach or three. If you are closer to the big buildings, heading right (south) will bring you past Navy Pier, a big somewhat cheesy place featuring a Ferris wheel and stuff of that sort. Resist its touristy siren song. You’re better than that. Continuing south will bring you past the new, improbably modern architecture of Soldier Field, and the monolithic black steel and glass behemoth that is McCormick Place. Farther south is The South Side, which is humongous and about which I know little. Sticking to the trail, however, you are in little danger. Of which we cannot speak we must remain silent.
One stop that I would fervently advocate making would be the chess pavilion by North Avenue Beach (1600 N.). Finding this location or any other on the path is made easier by the addresses painted on the path itself every couple blocks. If you have the remotest interest in chess or psychopathology, you should really check this out. The structure itself is a large metal awning shaped like an open clamshell that covers some 20 or so chessboards that are wrought into upraised concrete slabs that serve as benches and tables. During the summer, there are always throngs of spectators and players, some of whom are very good, and some of whom will put their money where their mouth is. This way lies penury unless you, too, are very good (1800+ USCF). You’ll find homeless savants, Russian émigrés, loudmouthed Filipino impresarios, and smarmy businessmen getting robbed blind. Most of the games are speed chess, and the click, click, click of the clocks being punched is cacophonous. If you are female, the environs might also feature an unwanted aside or two about your beauty. It’s generally good-natured and usually subsides shortly, so don’t let this dissuade you from checking it out. A few players play for play, so have yourself a game. It’s probably the coolest place to play chess I’ve ever been, and it’s literally 20 feet from the lake which sprawls out as far as you can see.
Hopefully you remember from where you set forth upon this journey and you can navigate your way back. I hope that after this trip you are uninjured, juiced with endorphins and Vitamin D from the sunlight and exercise, and edified by the mad beauty of Chicago. After a few hours of riding, nothing surpasses a few cold beers and some grilled meat with compatriots. Don’t worry, your computer and television will be waiting for you with open arms on your return.
If you don’t want to know the answer to the riddle, please don’t read further.
The answer to the riddle
Ask them this question: “Which way would your sister tell me to go?”