Chicago is situated at the edge of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes formed by glaciers. While we are all enamored with the lake, and the beautiful soaring architecture, it’s easy to forget that the topography all around us is flat, flat, flat. Look to the horizon and it is a long stretch of streets in a grid. Drive to the suburbs and you see beehives of housing developments extending in all directions. But if you manage to escape the orbit of Chicagoland, as we have this weekend, you find that hills and valleys still exist.
As we trundled out of the city, we set our sights on Galena, a small northwestern Illinois town with some interesting architecture, and the home of Ulysses S. Grant. Not so far from Chicago, it’s a nice weekend trip. I imagine Chicago surrounded by a set of concentric rings, each with landmarks that signal our distance from the Loop. First we pass is O’Hare. After that, Schaumburg, the suburban shopping mecca. Next, we see the gleaming white castle of Medieval Times where knights on horseback joust to win the fair maiden’s hand while visitors eat joints of meat with their bare hands. Now we’re in the wilds of Illinois where the highway narrows to two lanes, but what surprises us is that the road begins to undulate. Pitching up and down as if our car was on a roller coaster track, we climb up, up, up and having reached the crest of the hill, point directly downward. Whee! I say, and try to throw my hands in the air.
The road rises again, and we round a curve to find that we’re higher than anything else. The valley is splayed out all around us. Farm land is sectioned off into discrete parcels, barns and silos glint in red and silver, black cows lounge in the grass. It’s breathtaking! While it’s not the Grand Canyon, it is still so different from what we see everyday, and marvelous.
With hands firmly on the wheel, we make it to our destination. This entire town seems carved into the hillside sloping down to the Galena River. There are stairs to take you from one street to the next, a cemetery where grave plots are set into the hill. I’m looking around for the funicular like the one we saw in a similarly hilly town in Italy. No, there is no elevator or train to take us up the hills. Instead, it is the perfect antidote to the generous meals, a distillery tour, and root beer flights we’ve enjoyed (who knew there were so many kinds of root beer?!). The FitBit must be happy, because we are getting in our steps.
So what makes a vacation? A warm weather escape, toes in the sand, a Disney character on your coffee mug? Sometimes all it takes is a new elevation and a view.