Saturday, January 10, 2009

A car-free excursion to Glacier National Park

Josh at Gun Sight Pass

By John Greenfield

When we talk about the different forms of green transportation available in Chicago, we often forget about one of our town’s greatest assets. Since the city is the hub for Amtrak passenger rail, you can catch a direct train from Chicago to most places the system serves across the nation.

Sure, Amtrak is less flexible than driving and slower than flying, but it’s a green, relaxing, friendly and memorable way to travel. You don’t have to worry about getting in a car crash, it’s easy to strike up conversations with fellow travelers, and you can do work and enjoy fun perks while you travel. Plus, you get breathtaking scenery you can’t get with any other mode.

Western Montana as seen from the Empire Builder

A recent trip I took with my biking buddies Josh, Kevin and Todd to go backpacking in Montana’s Glacier National Park shows how convenient and fun an Amtrak vacation can be. It amazes me that you can board the Empire Builder train a block from the Sears Tower and have it drop you off the next day in West Glacier, Montana. There you’re walking distance from the large national park with its soaring mountains, plentiful wildlife and eponymous frozen rivers.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon I leave my apartment in East Garfield Park with my loaded backpack, walk a few blocks to the CTA’s California Green Line stop and catch the train to the Clinton station.

From there I follow a bike lane a few blocks south to Union Station, where I meet Todd and Josh for pints of Goose Island at the Metro Deli and Café, adjacent to the Great Hall. It’s a good strategy to make sure we’re there early enough not to miss the train (which wouldn’t be a first for me.)

We board the double-decker train and find seats in coach, since we’re going no-frills for the outbound trip. The train soon rolls out north along the Chicago River, providing a view of the skyscrapers that line Wacker Drive, then heads through the North Side and the North Shore.

The guys and I soon make our way to the observation car, with lounge seating and curving glass walls that provide panoramic views. It’s a good place to have a snack and read or chat with your neighbor while enjoying the views.

Volunteer docents give running commentary on the sights. “We have the power to make it get dark outside,” joked one of them, right before the train enters a tunnel. I meet Mary, an empty-nester from Park Ridge who visiting her mother in Minnesota, and Pete, a young college drop-out who’s heading to Missoula, MT, to pick up his girlfriend and then continue to San Diego.

We stop in Milwaukee, whose modest skyline conjures memories of my four-day hike from that city back to Chicago last summer. The big, bowtie-shaped sign for the Miller factory is prominent. The conductors invite us to leave the train for a smoke break so I hop off for a few minutes of “fresh” air along the platform.

Back on board, we start rolling northwest towards the Mississippi River and a docent soon mentions we’re passing through Sparta, WI, the “Bicycling Capital of America.” This iffy claim is due to the fact a couple of bike trails converge in the small town, and there’s a huge fiberglass statue of a guy on a high-wheeler bike in the village square.

We cross the Mississippi into Minnesota and soon pick up Kevin in Winona, a college town where he’s been researching the operations of the local food co-op. He’s helping to open a new co-op in Chicago that will be called the Dill Pickle. Several Amish or Mennonite folks in old-fashioned work clothes and bonnets get off the train at this stop.

That night I sleep curled up on a couple of coach seats, then wake up in the morning as we sail across the plains of North Dakota. We stop to refuel again and stretch in Minot, “the Magic City,” so called because the town sprang up almost overnight after it was announced that it would be a service stop for the railroad.

As we cross into the eastern Montana “Big Sky Country,” the scenery becomes dry and dusty. “Dad, where are we?” asks a little boy. “Montana,” says the father. The kid responds, “Montana looks dirty.”

We’re close to the Canadian border at this point and INS agents board at the next stop. We tell them we’re U.S. citizens and they proceed to the next car. “That was a close one, eh?” I ask my friends in my best Bob and Doug McKenzie imitation.

Heading into western Montana the scenery grows spectacularly mountainous. Near the end of the trip Kevin befriends Rachel, a young scientist who’s moving to Portland Oregon and they sit on the floor near some restrooms, taking turns playing songs on her guitar.

Josh and I get wind of this, as does a strapping youth named Cody, and we all move to an empty café car for a five-person song circle. Josh, Kevin and I try to sing as many train songs as possible, like “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotton, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash and “Driver 8” by R.E.M. Nearly all of Cody’s songs are dirty, and extremely loud.

We reach West Glacier in the early evening and Tracey, a staffer from the nearby KOA campground, picks us up in her truck. We take advantage of the 10 pm sunset (due to our northerly latitude and westerly longitude) to pitch tents at the campground and heat pouches of Indian food over a campfire.

In the morning Tracey drives us into the national park where we check in at the backcountry permits office. Ed, an elderly ranger, lectures us on grizzly bear safety. We’ve already brought along bear spray, basically a big canister of pepper gas, on the recommendation of my landlord T.C., who carries a can of it with him to ward off muggers when he walks his dog in Chicago.

From there, we take advantage of Glacier’s free shuttle system which conveys visitors along the park’s main highway, the aptly-named Going-to-the-Sun Road. This 53-mile highway ascends thousands of feet into the mountains and then drops down again to exit the park; it’s an iconic route for touring bicyclists.

The route is broken into segments so we have to transfer buses twice to get to our trailhead at the Jackson Glacier lookout. Our last driver, another older man named Ed, gives me the lowdown on the shuttle system. The free buses began running three years ago and so far only have federal funding to operate in the peak months of July and August, so our car-free visit was well-timed.

Kevin on the Glacier shuttle bus

Ed, who used to drive a van for a state veterans home has been driving the Glacier shuttles since their inception. “It’s a good job,” he says. “You’re your own boss, footloose and fancy-free until you park.” He says he gets to meet people from all over the world on his shuttle, from Canada, Europe, Russia, China and Japan.

As we climb towards the snow-capped mountains with only a low stone wall between us and oblivion, an old-fashioned, red-and-black “jammer” tour bus passes the other direction. “They’re pretty wide, aren’t they?” I say. “Yeah, they gotta watch their mirrors,” says Ed.

He’s seen a lot of animals on the road, from grizzlies feeding on small trees to a yearling moose running down the highway looking for its mother. “When they get old enough the mother just abandons them,” Ed explains.

We pass patches of snow, pointy pines and roaring waterfalls, including a wide swath of flowing water right next to the road called the Weeping Wall. A baseball-sized rock falls down the mountain and rolls in front of the bus. “That wasn’t too big but it could do some damage,” says Ed.

(A kid from Minneapolis is in the back)

Ed drops us at the trailhead and we begin trudging with our heavy packs, singing songs about bears as we walk to alert any stray grizzlies of our presence. After a few hours we come to Gun Sight Lake, a mile long and cobalt blue, ringed by tall, snowy mountains. We set up at the nearby campsite, buzzing with mosquitoes, then bathe in the icy water.

Because of bear issues, as well as warnings from the rangers about other salt-starved animals chewing sweaty pack straps and leather boots, we cook in a separate area from the campsite and hang our food and most of our gear at night from a high pole provide by the rangers.

The next morning we take a challenging day hike up one of the mountains to Gun Sight Pass. The steep path has zigzagging switchbacks and at points we have to carefully maneuver across snowfields. Purple and orange wildflowers enliven the trail and we spy big squirrels and furry marmots, which look like giant groundhogs.

Leaving my pack in a small stone hut at the top of the pass, I take Todd’s challenge to go investigate a snow cave we see in the distance. “Walk across slippery wet rock to get there?” says Josh. “No thanks.” It is extremely treacherous navigating the slick red stone and if we slip there’s a steep drop-off that would mean a sprained ankle, at best.

But Todd and I make it and are rewarded with a surreal view of the 15-foot snow wall close up. Our retreat from the cave is a nail-biter, though, with a couple of scary slips. When it’s time to return to camp, Todd suggests we leave the trail and shortcut across some of the snowfields. “That’s OK,” I say. “I’m through taking risks for the day.”

We make a memorable Independence Day dinner of deep-fried falafel, hummus and couscous, followed by whiskey and cigars with our campsite neighbors, folks from Missoula, MT, Cody, WY and Holland, MI. One of the Michiganders is wearing a pair of nylon “adventure pants” with a seat held together with duct tape. He’d left the sweaty garment out to dry for a half hour, and salt-hungry marmots feasted on them.

We stay up late with a handful of the campers, waiting for the moon to rise over the mountains as the night grows chilly. To pass the time we sing patriotic songs and songs about the moon in barbershop quartet style. The satellite never does appear before bedtime, but the low clouds, lit up golden, are a good substitute for Fourth of July fireworks.

The next day is our “death march” day since we need to hike back to the road from Gun Sight Lake, catch a couple more shuttles and then climb three more hours up Flat Top Mountain to another campsite. (Since backcountry campsites are in demand and pre-booked, there isn’t space for us to stay a third night at Gun Sight.)

The hike up to Flat Top is rainy and gruelingly steep. We see bear scat and paw prints, so we make sure to call “Hey bear” every few minutes. When we arrive at the top we’re the only campers, not surprising since the swampy location is ridiculously infested with mosquitoes.

We have different strategies to deal with the bloodsuckers. Josh and Kevin retreat to their tent to drink Jim Beam and play cards. Todd covers his head with a mosquito net and dons heavy clothing and garden gloves and collapses on his ground pad, exhausted from the climb and soon covered with insects. I apply a 99% DEET solution called Jungle Juice that seems to do the trick; the mosquitoes generally leave me alone. I try not to think of the future health consequences of soaking my skin with the deadly chemical.

Blessedly, the bugs vanish at sunset as we eat quinoa, beans and avocados for dinner, although a particularly bold young deer attempts frequent raids on our campsite, looking for salty gear. Kevin, a mellow vegetarian, finds himself hurling rocks at the animal.

We’re in an area that was burned by a forest fire several years ago, so we’re surrounded by tall, gray, dead trees as well as smaller green ones. As the yellow full moon rises in the purple sky, the setting becomes eerie and our packs swinging from ropes high above us look like hanged witches.

In the morning we hike down from Flat Top in a light rain that eventually becomes a downpour. Josh, Kevin and I make it back to the road before our clothing gets saturated, catch a couple shuttles back to the park entrance and warm up over bowls of soup and bottles of Moose Drool beer at a diner. Todd, slowed down by blisters, shows up two hours later, soaked and shivering but in good spirits.

We dry out at a cozy motel across the street from the depot and catch the eastbound Empire Builder the next morning. This time we’ve splurged on roomettes in the sleeper car. These are small, modular spaces where you can work or relax in private by day, convert into bunk beds at night, and then shower down the hall in the morning. It’s a pretty civilized way to travel, and a real pleasure after roughing it on the trail.

Hungry from our hiking, we take full advantage of the three tasty, complementary meals a day we receive in the diner car as part of the price of our roomettes. A special treat is a free wine and cheese tasting for sleeping car passengers that afternoon, MC-ed by a male conductor with a heavy Wisconsin accent who complains that all the cheeses come from the West Coast.

I win the remainder of a bottle of Syrah, one of four varieties we tasted, by answering his quiz question: “What TV series had seven characters based on the Seven Deadly Sins?” Answer: “Gilligan’s Island.”

The next day we wake up back in the Midwest, with only a few hours and a couple more meals left until Chicago. After a large group of people boards at the Wisconsin Dells stop, the conductors are trying to make room for them all. “Sir, I’m going to need you to move that bag,” says a stout female conductor to a guy who’s laptopping.” She addresses the whole car, “We’re going to need all available seats. The train is to make friends - be friendly.”

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Chicago's dumbest intersection?

By John Greenfield

[This also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

At Randolph and Michigan, why is it such a hassle to walk from the Chicago Cultural Center to Millennium Park?

Nowadays you have to cross the street three times to get there - north across Randolph, east across Michigan and south across Randolph again. But you used to be able to walk there directly in a marked crosswalk. The white lines are still faintly visible and many jaywalkers still follow this direct route, say Traffic Management Authority aides.

The City removed the crosswalk, along with another crossing at Washington, in August 2004, a month after the park opened, says Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele. At the time Mayor Daley was thinking about moving into the Heritage at Millennium Park condos, just west of the cultural center.

Steele says the area was flooded with visitors to the new park and traffic engineers studying the intersections observed many conflicts between turning motor vehicles and pedestrians. “It was creating a lot of safety concerns,” he says.

After a crew ground out the thermoplastic lines, many peds continued to use the same crossings, says Steele. Workers fenced off the curbs with bollards and chains and added signs: “NO CROSSING – PLEASE USE OTHER SIDE.” The fencing cost taxpayers $51,000, according to CDOT records.

Asked whether the City considered the inconvenience to walkers when it removed the crosswalks, Steele says, “Point A to point B is not always the safest route. In return for the extra activity, pedestrians are in a much safer situation.”

Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, which also advocates on walking issues, isn’t convinced. “The answer that we’ve heard from City is this was done to protect pedestrians, but the overwhelming message is this was done to ensure the flow of car traffic,” he says. “Michigan Avenue shouldn’t be a high-speed corridor; it should be an opportunity to stroll and explore.”

North American Cycle Courier Championships

by John Greenfield

[This piece also runs in this week's New City magazine,]

Sweaty and breathless, the bike messenger strides up to the desk to deliver a package and politely asks for his manifest to be marked. “Drop your bag, drop your bag,” yell the staffers. “Sign the log. Where’s your ID? Security!”

It’s not an uptight mailroom in a Loop office building. It’s a checkpoint on the racecourse for the NACCC, the 11th Annual North American Cycle Courier Championships held in Garfield Park last weekend. Over 200 messengers from as far away as San Francisco, Montreal and Copenhagen have converged on the Windy City for a weekend of competition, camaraderie and tomfoolery.

“It’s great that we could finally bring this to the Midwest,” says co-organizer Augie Montes of the Chicago Couriers Union. At the end of the weekend New York’s Kimberly Perfetto and Austin Horse will earn bragging rights as the fastest couriers on the continent. At 5th place Andrew Nordyke is the top Chicagoan.

In addition to the checkpoint race, the champs include a bike polo tournament, trick riding contests, a labor forum and the Messenger Prom, which packs the Bottom Lounge with partiers wearing everything from cocktail dresses and leisure suits to giant banana and Mr. Peanut costumes. A prom king and queen are crowned with headgear fashioned from bike chains and cogs.

The race, simulating a typical day of two-wheeled delivery work, has participants picking up and dropping parcels at nine stations on a City-sanctioned, car-free course throughout the lush West Side park. To keep things realistic this checkpoint, sponsored by Chicago’s 4 Star Courier Collective and NYC’s Breakaway Courier, incorporates many of the headaches and hassles messengers face on a daily basis. There’s even a dude in a rooster suit “stealing” unlocked rides.

“It’s almost like a real mailroom because there’s so much confusion and animosity,” says veteran local courier Brent Olds, sipping a PBR as Public Enemy blares from the sound system of the Chicago Cuttin’ Crew racing team’s school bus. Sunshine glares off the gold dome of the park’s fieldhouse on this hot, gorgeous day.

Nicole Brewer, an ex-messenger who’s working the checkpoint, says Chi-Town couriers have more security hoops to jump through than anywhere else in the country: using alley entrances to buildings instead of the front door; signing building logs and leaving ID; and leaving their bags with building guards to prevent them from stealing fax machines. “Chicago’s all freaked out ‘cause they think a terrorist is gonna fly a plane into the Sears Tower,” she says.

Couriers zoom around the park’s curved roadways on single-speed, fixed-gear bicycles with three-foot-long mailing tubes in their bags, their bodies and bikes banked at steep angles for speed. Locals are barbecuing near the racecourse to sounds of Z. Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues” and teenage girls saunter obliviously across the cyclists’ paths.

“I like having all the racers out here,” says Garfield Park resident Joe Davis, 68, straddling a Trek. “It’s good for people to see this is a beautiful park and they don’t have to be afraid to come out to the West Side.”

A mellow, multi-modal Michigan meander

By John Greenfield

One reason I’m glad I cycled 5,000 miles coast-to-coast last year is now I feel like I’ve got nothing to prove when it comes to bike touring. As long as I’ve got my bicycle with me and get a few miles of pedaling in it doesn’t matter what other non-car transportation modes I use – it’s a bike trip. Or at least a trip worth taking.

Case in point is a circuit of lower Lake Michigan I took last month. Although I covered a lot of ground with my bicycle in tow I didn’t actually ride much more than a hundred miles, but this actually enhanced the experience.

Instead of my usual death-march mileage, the relaxed pace left me time to take walks in the woods and hang out on the beach before hitting the road to the next destination. Of course, a truly pro cycle tourist would leave early and get the day’s pedaling done before sightseeing. Maybe next time I'll do it this way.

This excursion was inspired by a Time Out Chicago issue about Lake Michigan getaways and a yen to escape the big city and catch some sunsets over water. I was also curious to try the high-speed ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, MI. I’d already ridden the entire perimeter of the lake in stages before so this jaunt was about R & R rather than breaking new ground.

I loaded my bike with full camping gear and caught Metra commuter rail up to Kenosha, WI, early Monday morning. As usual I’d stayed up late packing and hadn’t slept much so I snoozed during most of the hour-and-a-half train ride.

Taking a combo of Rte. 32 and off-street trails I covered the 35 miles to the ferry dock on the south side of Milwaukee with just enough time left to catch the boat without panicking. Next time I’d book in advance, though, since tickets were almost sold out. The slower Manitowac, WI, – Luddington, MI, ferry further north was cancelled due to mechanical problems so the high-speed ferry was picking up the slack.

One of the main functions of the ferries are to serve as a shortcut for drivers who want to avoid Chicagoland congestion, and the lower deck of the boat was packed with cars, RVs and motorcycles – mine was the only bicycle.

If you take the ferry, take Dramamine if you’re prone to seasickness, since it’s a surprisingly rocky ride, and bring a jacket it you want to hang out on deck. The ship moves so fast, what seems like 80 mph, that it kicks up a powerful, chilly breeze and it’s hard to stay outdoors to enjoy the beautiful views. However, the large cabin was full of miserable-looking people with their heads in their hands since stuffy air exacerbates seasickness.

I spent a lot of the ride lying on the deck behind a low front wall near the axis of the ship to minimize the wave motion. But I had fun anyway, chatting with a middle-aged waitress from Ann Arbor and a grizzled Harley rider from Muskegon who was drinking High Life out of a plastic bottle, both of them on their backs as well.

Muskegon’s the largest city on the east coast of Lake Michigan, a down-on-it’s-luck paper mill town of about 40,000. The under-populated downtown is a little depressing but there’s a great bike path that rings much of five-mile-long Lake Muskegon, populated by a colony of swans.

On my way to a state park north of the city I stopped for a pint at the Bear Lake Tavern, recommended by the motorcyclist. Striking up a conversation about the Chinese Olympics with an old-timer at the bar who turned out be a Korean War vet, I received a fascinating lecture on the different styles of communism practiced in these countries, Vietnam and Cuba. He also told me about his experiences in the army during the early days of racial integration. This card-carrying NRA member had a pretty different worldview than me but I could have sat there and listened to his stories for hours.

The state park was full and the ranger was unaware of the rule in Michigan that touring cyclists can not be refused a patch of ground to pitch a tent, which has served me well on other occasions. But she sent me up the road to Pioneer County Park, which was just fine.

The place was swarming with kids and adults cruising around on bikes, the most I’d ever seen at a campground, including an older couple on a homemade, side-by-side recumbent tandem that seemed to be fashioned out of La-Z-Boy recliners. I made a b-line to the Lake Michigan beach just in time to have a pleasantly existential moment while watching the sundown and sipping Captain Morgan’s.

I spent the next day strolling on the sparsely populated shoreline and reading on the sand, although water temperature in the fifties made it pretty impossible to swim. That evening I headed back into the city to meet up with my coworker Doug and his girlfriend Jenny who were, coincidentally, doing a more ambitious two-week trip, pedaling north from Muskegon to the Upper Peninsula then south to Green Bay, WI.

Doug and I stocked up on bread, dry sausage and Tasmanian smoked cheddar at The Cheese Lady at 808 Terrace St., one of a handful of interesting new independent businesses that are helping to spark a downtown revival. Jenny met us at the Tipsy Toad Tavern, 609 W. Western Ave., where we watched another fine sunset from the excellent rooftop and sampled “jumpers” – chewy French-fried frogs’ legs.

Doug offers sausage to a two-dimensional Muskegonite

After a stroll through the town’s gorgeous little garden, which was supposedly inspired by the colors of a Monet painting, they retired to their B & B. I headed a few miles south in the dark towards P. J. Hoffmaster State Park through a surprisingly long stretch of auto-centric development which abruptly turned into silent countryside.

In the morning I checked out the park’s large interpretive center detailing the history of the Michigan Dunes, then climbed said dunes and took another long hike along the shore. Then I got back in the saddle and rode a few miles to Grand Haven, a tourist town of about 11,000.

At the local history museum there was a great little exhibit called “Circles in Motion: the American Bicycle 1860 – 2008.” The models on display included wooden “boneshakers,” high-wheelers, classic ‘50s cruisers and beefy WWI-era military cycles. Just the displays of cycling medals and head-plates were amazing. My favorite was for the “Lincoln” made by the Chicago Cycle Supply Company, featuring the image of Honest Abe standing solemnly in front of his chair.

I pedaled another 30 miles to Holland State Park, just west of the city of Holland, Michigan’s tulip growing capital, of course. Heading to the beach I had another Zen moment watching the sun sink over the water as a young park employee swept sand off a long walkway like a Buddhist monk cleaning the temple. A tourist came up and told her that it would be a lot faster to use an electric blower on the sand. “That would be too noisy,” she replied. “It would spoil the sunset,” I said.

As I was pitching my tent in the dark (yes, even the low mileage didn’t keep me from setting up camp late most nights), two parents from the Kalamazoo area came up and asked me to give some tips to their daughter. She was about to start community college and was interested in biking to school and doing some overnight trips.

I happily went into bike salesman mode explaining the features of my touring bike. I tried to be polite when the girl showed me her department store road bike which sadly looked unfit for any kind of utilitarian use – it’d be hard even to install a rack on it. Afterwards I made myself a delicious makeshift fondue, cooking the Tasmanian cheddar with white wine and sausage grease over my camp stove and dipping bread and veggies in it.

The next day while picnicking by the water in the small town of Saugatuck, I watched the Saugatuck Chain Ferry, an old-fashioned hand-cranked craft, carry passengers across the Kalamazoo River. I continued down the coast to South Haven, probably the most touristy town I passed through but fun nonetheless. The large beach near downtown was packed with skimpily-clad teens and college students. I strolled down the pier and took a dip in the water which, oddly, was comfortably in the 70s even though it had been freezing a couple dozen miles up the coast.

As Time Out suggested, I sampled the blueberry-flavored coffee at the Blueberry Store, 535 Phoenix St. and then hit the Thirsty Perch Grille, 272 Broadway St. As at the Tipsy Toad, I felt compelled to eat the eponymous animal (OK, they were frog, not toad legs) and ordered the perch tacos with portobello fries.

It was time to head over to the Indian Trail Bus Line station in a strip mall a mile west of downtown. Last summer when my girlfriend rode from Chicago to Michigan with me during my cross-country trip, she had no problem putting her unboxed bike on the Indian Trails bus home from Benton Harbor, just down the road from South Haven. I’d assumed I’d be able to do the same this time.

But the elderly, wise-cracking ticket agent, a former Chicago cop whose silver Rolls Royce was parked next to the station, insisted that I box my bike. Fortunately there was a small bike box in the office, left by another cyclist. I had to break down my bike pretty well to make it fit and since I didn’t have suitable tools with me for removing the pedals I had to cram it in there with the pedals on. It wasn’t pretty.

The bus ride itself was a trip. As the agent had warned me, the bus was overbooked and several of us had to sit or stand in the aisle. This had to be completely illegal and it made me feel like I was in Central America, minus the live chickens and goats on board. Fortunately, my iPod kept me entertained and I didn’t mind standing, so long as we didn’t crash.

After I assembled my bike at the Chicago bus terminal, found that even the fenders were miraculously intact after the rough treatment and pedaled a few miles back to my house, I deemed this multi-modal mission a smashing success. I wasn’t going to win any randonneuring prizes for it, but combining bicycling with train, boat and bus allowed me to cover a lot of ground in a few days with plenty of time leftover for some creative loafing.