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How Not to Take the Train to Chicago

I went to Chicago with friends this summer and in just 24 hours managed to squeeze in 16th birthday fun, a casual college visit, some amateur mycology, fabulous meals from three different cuisines, destination retail and a little light sightseeing. Also, we got Garrett’s Popcorn. Of course we got Garrett’s!

But I’m not going to tell you about all of that today. I’m just going to tell you how, even though I have successfully taken trains and public transit all over China, Europe and even Australia, I still manage to mess it up regularly. This day was an epic example of screwing up train travel and still having fun. In fact, all the fun we were having was responsible for a lot of the screwups, but it was all good.

Our day began at the Waukegan Metra station, just like our journey to Wrigley Field. The first challenge, when we arrived in Waukegan in my bazillion-dollar rental car, was the parking situation. You are allowed to park at the Waukegan Metra station overnight, but apparently the parking pass machines don’t work properly. I put my credit card in the machine and tried to request an overnight ticket, which should cost $10, but it printed out a $5 one-day ticket. So I put my card back in, thinking I had made a mistake the first time, and tried pressing a different button. Another $5 ticket printed. And because I’m really smart, I tried one more time, and ended up with three one-day tickets.

Fortunately, we had gotten to the train early, so I had time to walk into the station where we had just purchased our tickets, and ask the ticket lady what the heck was going on. She told me she had heard the ticket machine was broken and we should just purchase two $5 one-day tickets and put both on the car dash. Of course, they couldn’t put up a sign explaining that to people, could they? Of course not.

I ended up giving my third ticket to a group that was just leaving their car as I walked back out to put the other two on my dashboard. They were pretty psyched. So I guess that’s why Illinois doesn’t put up signs: They want us to meet new friends.

Once on the train and rolling through the tony suburbs of the North Shore, my traveling party — the friend I’ve known literally my entire life, two of her kids, Nutmeg and me — realized we had made a little error buying our tickets. We were meaning to buy tickets just to Evanston, since we were going to get off there, check out the campus of Northwestern, and have lunch with the birthday girl and family before continuing on to Chicago. But we had forgotten about that and bought tickets all the way to the Ogilvie Transportation Center in downtown Chicago.

Not to worry! A very nice train conductor took the time to write on all five of our tickets that we were authorized to transfer at Davis Street station in Evanston. He did it while the train was moving, not needing to hold onto the back of a seat or anything, and it was pretty legible. Impressive.

So we relaxed and went back to chatting and giggling. We relaxed a little too much, because at one station, my friend looked up and asked, “What station is this?” Most of the station names we could see from our seats, but for some reason this one wasn’t visible. I jumped up and walked to the doorway, just in time to see the doors closing on Davis Street Station.

Sadly, this train was not stopping at the other Evanston Station, so we had to ride all the way to the Roger’s Park neighborhood in Chicago. Like a lot of Metra stops, Roger’s Park is not staffed. We got off, walked down the long stairway to the street, walked up the stairway on the other side, and settled in to wait for the next northbound train. After awhile, a man yelled to us from the other side that we needed to come back and wait on the same side we had gotten off on. Because of track construction, the side we were on was not being used.

Again, Illinois. Signs. Heard of them?

So we went down the stairs, walked under the tracks, and walked back up the stairs. The guy who had advised us was not a businessman headed for the Loop. He was more of what you would consider Chicago salt of the earth. Like, when he first yelled out to us, we thought maybe he wants to panhandle or bother us. But no, super nice dude. He told us he was trying to get to North Chicago and then left us alone.

We waited. After awhile, a couple arrived on the opposite side of the tracks. The teens with us asked me if I was going to tell them they were on the wrong side. I was like, “I don’t feel qualified to offer advice!” Then the dude who had warned us shouted out to them, but they ignored him. So I had to shout at them. They paid attention to me, and I referred them to the dude.

I should mention here that the man who helped us was black, and I’m white. The folks on the wrong side were neither. Later, I thought about the situation, and reflected that it was kind of sad that people would listen to me shouting to them but not the black man. My kid told me that it wasn’t because of our race, it was because I look like a mom and people therefore listen to me. I hope that’s true.

We waited some more.

A northbound train finally came along. The helpful dude on the platform asked the conductor if this one would stop at North Chicago. It wouldn’t, so he would have to wait some more. But the conductor confirmed that yes, this one would get us back to Davis Street. We said goodbye and thanks again to the dude.

On the train, the new conductor accepted our explanation that we had gotten off at the wrong stop and were now backtracking, and didn’t make us pay for another ticket. We paid attention this time, and within 15 minutes we were in Evanston, happily walking towards Northwestern University.

Triumph at last!

After our campus perambulation and lunch, we looked at the time and announced we needed to dash to the Metra to make our train downtown. We had thought of trying to take the L instead — and we should have, as it turned out — but according to my calculations, the L would just take at least as long, plus we’d all have to pay again.

But we made a wrong turn when setting out, and I think we just missed our northbound train. While we waited, and waited, for another one, announcements on the overhead told us that various trains were delayed due to trackwork. We were confused about whether the trains they were talking about were our train or not. We consulted the Ventra app and decided they might be? It was a confusing time in our journey. We began to feel hot and sleepy. It was the moment that happens in a train journey when you say to yourself, “I should have just driven my bazillion dollar rental car.”

My friend never minds long waits for trains because she always has her knitting with her.

After an hour, a train finally arrived. We were worried it was going to take forever to travel the few stops to Ogilvie, what with all this talk of track work, but in the end we didn’t notice significant delays. The conductor accepted our palimpseste tickets. No one had lost theirs.

Before we knew it, we were downtown in Chicago, using our crappy navigation skills to try and walk the few blocks to our hotel. Our friends, who had sensibly driven their own bazillion-dollar rental car, were at the front desk already, trying to check in, but having a hard time because the reservations were in my husband’s name, and even though I had called the hotel to change the name of the check-in person, apparently that message had never made it onto the reservation.

So after all that, do I wish I had driven to Chicago, paid $30 to park at the hotel, and dealt with the stress of driving downtown in a major city? I dunno. Even though portions of our trip were a drag, during the other parts, we were able to face one another and catch up, instead of my staring at the highway while everyone else talked. Then there were all the people we interacted with and the little adventures we had. Some of the teens with us had never been on a train before. Because of that alone, I think it’s good we made the choice to turn a short road trip into an epic rail journey.