(Please pardon the primitive quality of these photos, taken with a borrowed camera-phone.)
As I’ve written before, I have a two-pronged strategy for enjoying Chicago winters. One aspect is indoor coziness and/or winter denial: Fireplaces, tiki bars, Jacuzzis, endless cups of Sleepytime tea, the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the 9th floor winter garden at the Washington Library. The other is getting plenty of outside time through bike commuting, long walks in the snow, ice skating, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Last Friday night in the midst of a blizzard that dropped six or eight inches on Chicago, some old Critical Mass buddies and I had a night of car-free fun that combined both approaches. It also involved another key to winter happiness: choosing the right travel mode for the weather.
I’m a fan of winter biking in general, and in Chicago, where Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection in 1979 when he failed to clear the streets quickly after a major snowstorm, this usually means cycling on clear, salty pavement. But I don’t particularly care for slogging through inches of slush during a fresh snowfall. That’s why I chose to take the Blue Line downtown earlier that morning for a meeting. After the snow started piling up and the Loop turned to chaos, I enjoyed a dry, civilized ride home on the train.
So that night, instead of fighting our way through the storm on two wheels to go barhopping, my friends and I met up on skis and snowshoes a few blocks from our homes at the new Albany / Whipple park, one of the easiest access points for the Bloomingdale Line. This dormant, elevated railroad right-of-way is slated to be converted into a multiuse trail and “linear park” by 2015, but it’s already a great place to stroll, jog and mountain bike. There’s a public meeting to discuss the design for the new Bloomingdale access park at Milwaukee and Leavitt this Thursday at Holstein Park, 2200 N. Oakley.
Iron fencing has been installed a Albany / Whipple, making it harder than it used to be to access the rail line, but someone had thoughtfully left a city garbage can at the base of the 5’ high wall where the fence ends, making it fairly easy to scramble up the wall. On top of the embankment, we found ourselves in a quiet, tranquil environment, elevated above the sloppy streets.
We strapped on our skis and “webs” (slang for snowshoes) and headed east through the fresh powder, crossing over busy Humboldt Boulevard, California Avenue and Western Avenue, trying not to peek in the windows of houses and condos we passed by. Here’s a Google map of the night’s itinerary. At Western the street below is visible through a 1’ wide hole in the rail bed. Maybe the city’s insistence on doing a thorough inspection of the Bloomingdale’s structural integrity is not such a bad idea after all.
We moved at roughly walking speed and stayed dry and comfy in our layers of wool and GoreTex. The other guys all are married with kids, and they seemed to relish this opportunity to take a break from family responsibilities and commune with nature. When we got to Damen Avenue, we unclipped and lowered ourselves down six feet from the north side of the train line to the sidewalk on the west side of the street.
We walked a block north to Lemmings, 1850 N. Damen, a scruffy tavern that I’ve been hanging out at since the early nineties. Unsurprisingly, the doorman was very relaxed about letting us lean our dripping gear against an inside wall, the bartender bought us a round of Zapp’s chips and the other patrons gave us a hero’s welcome. By coincidence, Evan Kuchar, author of the local bike blog Moving Together, happened to be drinking at the bar.
Refreshed, we headed back south to the Bloomingdale and, with a little effort, climbed back up to the line. Returning east, the wind was at our backs so the trip was even more relaxing, except that my snowshoe bindings kept coming loose, so I had to stop occasionally, tighten them and jog for a block or two to catch up with my pals. We returned to the Albany / Whipple trailhead, dropped down from the line and headed a couple blocks north to Dante’s Pizzeria, 3028 W. Armitage, for piping-hot pepperoni slices, then continued west another block to the Streetside Café, 3201 N. Armitage.
While we sat in that cozy saloon at 1:30 am, savoring pints of porter, with snow melting off our rain pants onto the hardwood floor, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” man came on the sound system. As my friends enjoyed the last moments of their night on the town before making their way back to their families, we crooned along with Reg, “I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife. It’s lonely out in space.”