Todd on the sailboat American Excess.
[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]
It always bugs me when people say Chicago’s a great city but complain that there’s no access to natural beauty or outdoor adventure here. True, there are no mountains or saltwater for hundreds of miles, but we have ocean-like Lake Michigan close at hand, making this one of the few major U.S. cities where you can work in a skyscraper and easily take your lunch break on a sandy beach.
And this is great place to live if you want to commune with nature without polluting the environment to get there. The South Shore Line electric railroad takes you directly from Millennium Park to the campgrounds of the picturesque Indiana Dunes. The bicycle-friendly Metra commuter rail system means that you can get to state parks likes Illinois Beach, Fox Lake and Kettle Moraine via a relaxing train ride plus a bit of pedaling, instead of fighting traffic jams. And since this is the nation’s rail hub, and Amtrak lines within the state accept un-boxed bikes, it’s easy to take a journey in the mountain-like hills of Southern Illinois or along the mighty Mississippi. So having a good time in the great outdoors near Chicago is really just a matter of attitude.
Case in point were a couple of car-free excursions I took on Labor Day weekend. That Saturday night I bicycled up to Ravinia, the lovely outdoor music venue in Highland Park, to see the legendary pop duo Hall & Oates. The roughly 18-mile route I took from Logan Square was 80% off-street paths, which made for a mellow cruise through the North Shore. You can check out a Google map of the route at tinyurl.com/hauling-oats. Although the last outdoor performance of the season has already happened, if you want to try this ride yourself, next month there will be a few classical concerts in one of Ravinia’s two indoor concert halls, starting with cellist Sebastian Bäverstam on Saturday, October 13, at 8 pm.
North Shore Channel Trail.
Departing from the eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument under leaden skies. I pedal north on Kedzie then soon detour onto Albany, a quiet side street that takes me all the way up to Lawrence and the start of the North Shore Channel Trail, a multiuse path. For most of the ride out of the city the path hugs the east side of the waterway, with viaducts that allow seamless passage under the major east-west streets. But just north of Lincoln, the trail ends abruptly.
The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) was supposed to build a bike bridge that would safely take rider to the west side of the channel, where the path resumes. But feisty 50th Ward Alderman Berny Stone vetoed the span under mysterious circumstances. Last year Stone lost to Debra Silverstein, who wants to build the bridge. Once CDOT finishes a preliminary design, there will be a public meeting to discuss the proposal, says spokesman Pete Scales.
Crossing instead via hectic Lincoln Avenue, I continue north on the trail into Lincolnwood and Skokie, where the path becomes an undulating greenway lined with wacky public art, like the sculpture that’s a hodgepodge of street signs welded together at odd angles. It’s a fun section to ride and it would be fantastic, except for the many major street crossings where bikes have an interminable wait for a signal. And even when it’s finally your turn to cross, you still have to worry about getting struck by autos making fast right turns.
Public art along the trail in Skokie during the winter.
At Golf Road the trail veers northeast, so I take McDaniel Avenue, a tranquil side street, a few miles north to the Green Bay Trail, another path that runs alongside Metra’s Union Pacific North line – another option for getting to Ravinia without a car. Eventually the paved path gives way to a crushed limestone trail through a green tunnel of vegetation, which takes me a few more miles to the gates of the venue.
Billed as the oldest outdoor music festival in North America, Ravinia originally opened in 1904 as an amusement park with a baseball diamond, an electrically lit fountain and a casino; in 1911 changed formats to become chiefly a music venue. Nowadays it’s a lush green space, which takes on a magical, Midsummer Night’s Dream quality on hot August nights.
Hall and Oates put on a stellar show. Although they’re both in their sixties they have energy to burn and look weirdly youthful, perhaps thanks to plastic surgery. Daryl Hall’s voice is still strong and supple and John Oates, widely viewed as the group’s second banana, turns out to be a soulful lead guitar player. Backed by a slick sextet they blaze through a set packed with hits like “Maneater,” “Rich Girl,” and “Kiss on My List,” encoring with “Private Eyes,” with the whole audience joining along on the chorus’ trademark single/double handclap.
Photo by Ray Conrado.
The duo has had a resurgence in recent years partly due the Internet comedy series Yacht Rock, featuring hilarious fictionalized accounts of how smooth hits by artist like Hall and Oates, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Toto and Steely Dan came to life. Portrayed by actors wearing thrift-store wigs, fake mustaches and sailing caps, the musicians are shown hanging out a boathouse in Marina del Rey, California, speaking in nautical clichés. “I think Yacht Rock was the beginning of this whole Hall & Oates resurrection,” Oates said in a 2007 interview in the Seattle Weekly. “They were the first ones to start to parody us and put us out there again.”
In keeping with the boating theme, two days later on Labor Day I join my friends Todd, Mark and Hui Hwa aboard their 27-foot-long sailboat. The vessel, a 1976 Catalina, was originally called “American Express.” But when Chicago Critical Mass cofounders Jim Redd and Michael Burton chipped in on the boat with friends from the ride in the late Nineties they renamed it “American Excess.” To them, sailing was just another form of sustainable transportation. Over the years ownership of the boat has circulated among members of the local bike community. If you’re interested in getting a taste of wind-powered boating yourself, Chicago Sailing, based in Belmont Harbor offers lessons, private charter trips and sailboat rentals stating at $55/hour.
After I pedal downtown to Monroe Harbor my friends, who arrived earlier and raised the sails, steer the boat over to the concrete walkway to pick me up. The ramshackle craft has a minor spider infestation, but as we pull away from the marina it’s a gorgeous scene. The sky is cobalt, the lake is turquoise, sparkling with two-to-four-foot swells.
We put the Beach Boys Pet Sounds on the ship’s radio and my schoolteacher friends, fresh from a rally in Daley Plaza, discuss the impending strike as we sip PBRs and “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” drifts over the waves. We sail as far south as McCormick Place, and then “tack,” switching the direction of the mainsail, and heading east away from the shore until the skyline is tiny and shrouded in mist.
I can’t even read on the ‘L’ without getting nauseous, so I took Dramamine an hour earlier, but the batch is several years old and apparently not very effective. Feeling somewhat queasy I excuse myself to go lie on top of the center of the bow to minimize the sensation of motion. With my eyes closed I concentrate on the sound of the waves and the clanking of the rigging.
About four miles out we tack again and head north. I join my friends again in the stern, have a bite to eat and soon feel ship-shape. After we tack once more and return to shore the skyscrapers get bigger and more distinct, and soon we’re back in safe harbor. Mild seasickness aside, this sailing excursion has been both nautical and nice, further proof there’s no need to jet across the country for an adventure in nature. Chicago has a watery wilderness right in its own front yard.