Flatlander

IMG_2877Chicago 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.

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Stormy

Snowflakes Snowfall Winter Snow Blizzard FlakeWhen mom and I travel we attract the attention of the weather gods. Perhaps we send a ripple through the cosmos because we always make it snow. We visited New York one fall and they had an early freak snow storm that coated all the branches and downed trees in Central Park. We visited St. Louis in the spring and were hit with a one day white out – fat wet snow flakes and rotten visibility for site-seeing.

Is Mother Nature telling us to stay home? Maybe it’s just the times of year we end up traveling, maybe it’s global climate change, or maybe it’s a co-dependent superpower. A power only invoked when we’re together and have not packed boots. A trip with a light coat turns into a battle against the driving snow and rising drifts. Cute little flat shoes prove to be thoroughly inadequate in a slush puddle. Umbrellas turn inside out.

Of course we may be invoking the gods accidentally by awakening ancient knowledge as we remark on the interesting architecture we see. Driving by old buildings we call out: Corinthian columns! Egg and dart! Romanesque arch! Broken pediment! Oriel window! Inside buildings, we see piano hinges and mortise joints. In churches we recognize the apse, the transept and the narthex (gesundheit!). These terms, called from a far-away art history lesson, begin to float before our eyes, a swirling cloud that is picking up speed.

When you’ve planned a vacation, you can’t let bad weather get in the way. Instead, we laugh hysterically as we cross the parking lot with snow blowing in our eyes, and remark that the rental car didn’t come equipped with a snow scraper.

The day we fly out the sun is shining brightly, but there’s snow in the forecast where we’re headed. Mother Nature knows we’re coming.

Travels With…

IMG_2773This weekend I’m in St. Louis with my mom. It’s a modest trip with a few ideas researched in advance, and we have adventuresome spirits. I titled the preliminary itinerary, “Thelma and Louise” and for a hot second I considered renting a convertible.

Mom and I are good travelers. We can get everything we need into one bag, aren’t afraid to wear the same outfit more than once, and are unashamed to be tourists. Everything in a new city, no matter how mundane, is interesting to us. The buildings, the street signs, the sidewalk cafes, the grocery store. Then there are the landmarks that brought us here: Wash U, Union Station, and a Frank Lloyd Wright house. We keep seeing the Arch as we drive to another destination (we wave), and are delighted to stumble upon something we didn’t plan.

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is a tremendous building but the outside didn’t prepare us for what we’d see once we went through the door. The floor plan is fairly standard with a cross shape, colonnades running parallel to the main aisle, and domed ceilings over the altar, the apse, and the transepts (I have the advantage of a brochure from the cathedral to refresh my memory of all of this architectural terminology). Our eyes adjust to the low lighting inside. We admire the the marble floor and soaring columns, and as we look up, we see glittering mosaics covering every inch of the ceilings, and parts of the walls.

Most churches I’ve visited have stained glass windows and painted walls and ceilings. While mosaics may be used in a small way, I’ve never seen a church like this. The mosaics are made of small tiles, but the large scale of the images is stunning. Scenes with Jesus and Mary; angels and apostles; figures from St. Louis history. A couple of the installations fooled us by looking like fabric – a woven rug hung like a tapestry, and a lovely green drapery. There are curlicues, cherubs, deer, birds, vines and flowers. We have to sit and rest our necks while we continue to gawk.

I learned that some parts of the mosaics are done in the Italian style, some in the Byzantine tradition; there are 83,000 square feet of mosaic art created by twenty artists and installed over 75 years. Some of the mosaics were designed and installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Absolutely amazing. My personal favorite is the red ceiling in one of the side sections. The glistening color is somehow the last thing I’d expect to see in a cathedral.

Tomorrow we’ll continue our adventure and may even get to the Arch. In the land of Anheuser Busch and Cardinals baseball, who knew we’d find such a dazzling surprise.

Sweet Dreams

White-pillowsI’m accustomed to seeing all sorts of behavior in public spaces. People talking on their phones; cajoling or scolding children in the grocery store; singing or eating or applying make-up in the car next to me in traffic; even the occasional argument. But sleeping? We usually save this for home, on the couch in front of the TV, but some people pull it off in public.

Years ago, during a bus commute to work, I fell asleep and was then rudely awakened as I caught myself from falling in to the aisle. Blinking and wiping the drool from my lips, I realized I had passed my stop. Sleeping on public transit is so easy when you’re tired, warm, and rocked by the motion, but I try not to do it. Since most days I have to stand on the train, it’s not a problem.

Some sleeping commuters seem to have thought ahead – they have their possessions between their legs on the floor, or in their lap, straps and handles wound around their wrists. Some have rolled up a shirt to cushion their head against the window. Others are sprawled out across three or four of the molded plastic seats. It doesn’t look comfortable. In the Pedway system that adjoins the train stop there are more sleeping men who have piled up their bags to form a barrier between the nook they’re found and the passersby.

Sleep is a vulnerable state. Our bodies lax, our minds working through dreams. We see infants and children sleep in their strollers or car seats, but normally we don’t see adults we don’t know sleep in public. This week’s prize winner of Public Sleeping with Abandon was a large man in the train. Sitting up, sprawled over two seats, his mouth hung open and he was snoring to beat the band. He’d snort, flop around with the train movements, and sounded like he was sawing wood. If my husband were making that much noise in his sleep, I’d poke him to see if he’d change position. No one was trying to poke this man. Instead, we were all calculating how many more stops before we could get off the train and leave him to his rest.

We watch another commuter eat their breakfast on the train, but somehow it’s hard to watch someone sleep. If they’re quiet, you hope they wake in time for their stop. If they’re noisy or agitated, you hope they won’t fall or lash into whoever is closest. Apparently they trust all of us to protect their sleep. Maybe this is the best, warmest place they can find today. Maybe they’re been working the night shift and are on their way home. They deserve the rest and sweet dreams.