It was 11pm. I was in downtown Chicago, near Union Station, attempting to hail a cab, and balancing my (always) unusually large suitcase and multiple extra bags in the process. The specific cab I was allowed to hail was nowhere to be found. I was not supposed to be here.
Minutes before I was on the Amtrak train that I had taken from Salt Lake City to what was supposed to be Springfield, Illinois. After a short layover I was supposed to be on a short connecting bus, and then on my way back home to Austin. As usual, the travel gods had other plans
.A day or so into the first train, it was clear that our timeline had been a bit...drawn out. As a seasoned cross country train traveler, somehow my schedule had always worked itself out. If a train was late, it would make up speed. The connecting train or bus was always made (sometimes by the skin of our teeth.) Not this time. Hours before we were supposed to arrive, the announcements started. Many of us were told to gather in the observation car to hear the news. The train was officially, totally and completely delayed. Passengers hoping to meet connecting trains were going to be bused as a group to catch the moving train at another train stop. Some were given the seal of approval- the train they were going to catch was going to be delayed as well, so they would make the connection. As for me? My connecting bus had left long before I was planned to arrive. I was being sent to the place where half the trains in the US begin or end. I was going to Chicago.
I've never been a big fan of change. As a traveler I am a meticulous planner. For our trip to Yellowstone National Park I researched everything we could possibly need in order to survive. Socks of various layers- oh yes. Every type of bear whistle, spray, bell? I've got it. I would print numerous copies of my train tickets and put them in different pieces of luggage and have them additionally sent and stored my phone. I packed 3 pairs of headphones, just in case. A random change of plans was not what I had prepared for. Before I began my Salt Lake City 3.5 day journey (to be blogged about soon), my best friend told me- "Why worry? The thing that will go wrong will be something you haven't even planned for." How right she was.
Once the Chicago announcement was made, I began to plan. I knew Amtrak would put us up in a hotel somewhere in the city and give us taxi fare to get there, and maybe a tiny food allowance. I also knew that if I was going to be in Chicago for 24 hours (when the next train to Austin rolled through,) that I was going to try to make the most of it. And so my first layover as a solo traveler commenced.
I've been to Chicago before- which helped- so I knew what I wanted to see, who I wanted to try to visit, and that I was going to turn this lemon into some serious lemonade. My first night found me literally walking in circles, unable to follow google walking directions to save my life, I somehow stumbled into a gluten free vegan pizza place (thank you Chicago) and returned back to my hotel to make a serious AM to do list. Lots of places to walk, lots of things to see. I woke up at 6 am, and as soon as it was light, power walked to Millennium Park, passing tons of early morning work goers. I saw the bean and took pictures. Met a dancer videoing herself doing complicated jumps, catching her reflection in the light. Met some bikers who were traveling cross country to get the word out about the election. Saw my favorite art installation- Life sized photos that "spit" water, creating a splash pad. Last time I visited it was packed, kids and teens running in and out of the water. This time I had it all to myself.
I power walked to meet an old college friend for breakfast, now a Chicago resident, and caught up on his life over vegan pancakes. I took a lyft to the beach and spent an hour sitting and listening and reading and selfie-ing. (Anywhere I go, I must find the beach.) I asked strangers to take my picture with the Chicago skyline behind me, a celebration of my first solo adventure. I took a winding path through Chicago parks with a dying cell phone to visit the pop-up Luke's diner to celebrate the return of the Gilmore Girls (miraculously no line) , and drank coffee from funky baristas, and took photos with Luke's cut out and attempted (although it failed) to charge my phone. With the last of the phone battery I had, I lyfted back to Union Station to grab one final meal with my Amtrak voucher. I rolled out of the station, on time, with my final meal- a Chicago hot dog, sans bun, but with ALL the pickles, peppers and condiments I could try. One final taste of my first successful layover.
Looking back on the Chicago photos months later- at the words I wrote on the sand- at my face- triumphant at having found the beach- it's clear that this layover came my way for a reason. Stretching my solo travel muscles is hard- but gaining confidence in strange cities, in my ability to navigate, and in the memories I can find and make for myself is worth it.
I settled in for the night. And the train rolled on.