Part 1 – The Start of the Road. Chicago

The Mother Road, Will Rogers Highway, The Main Street of America, Neon Highway – whichever name you call Route 66, it still remains an iconic road, a dream for many a traveler around the globe, and a fantasy destination for bikers, car enthusiasts, and even your garden variety of tourist looking for adventure.  Stretching across a good two thirds of the North American Continent, covering 2,448 miles (3,940 km) and connecting Chicago in the state of Illinois to Los Angeles in California, Route 66 is one endless treasure hunt, where you move from one wacky sight to another, remembering books you read and movies you watched, and marveling at the little gems and time capsules you encounter on the way.

Like many idiots before us, we fell under the spell of Route 66, and doing the whole road on the bikes have been in our plans and dreams for quite a while.  Spoiler alert – even after having done the route from Chicago to LA in torrential rains, gale-force winds, snow (!) and (only at times) heat, we were not disappointed!!!!

I got the Route 66 bug by accident, during one of my first ever road trips that started as an innocent desire to see the Grand Canyon, and then spiraled out of control, turning into a mad Christmas dash across half of the US and back.  Ever since the stay in the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, I was dreaming about getting back.  Not necessarily to the motel itself, but to the idea of Route 66, well embodied and represented by numerous street murals and a random assortment of derelict motels of Tucumcari.  I longed to come back on a bike, in sunny warm weather, rolling in like the queen of the road.

That’s the problem with dreams – the reality never manages to live up to your imagination, and nobody really dreams about dragging one’s sorry and wet ass through 8 states of the North American Continent, looking like an out-of-luck water rat…  And what’s with all the movies and TV commercials, where women bikers take off their helmets, swing their heads from side to side, showing off free-floating and perfectly styled hair????….  Unless your head is clean shaven (in which case the whole free-floating and perfectly styled picture just does not come into equation), nobody (and I repeat – nobody!) who has spent a couple of hours in a motorcycle helmet, looks cute the moment they take it off.  Nothing is free-floating or looking perfectly airbrushed – at best you look like you’ve been dragged through the hedge backwards.  In most cases, you look like you’ve done that while suffering a severe case of leprosy.  Bandanna on the head is not a fashion statement, but a much needed accessory that allows one to re-enter society after taking the helmet off, and not be immediately sent off into a CDC quarantine.

But I am straying away from the subject and getting ahead of myself.  The trip was yet about to begin, we had high expectations of the weather playing along and contributing to the “rolling in like the queen of the road” scenario.  Having already experienced a heat stroke while riding through the desert into Las Vegas in July, I made sure to plan for slightly milder temperatures (which was not really easy, as with the plan of covering almost 4 thousand km, we were bound to run through some quite diverse climates), and finally decided on the end of April-beginning of May for our trip.  I imagined the desert in bloom, cities and towns warmed up by the late spring sun, and riding through the continent in but a T-shirt, getting a nice tan on the way.  Yeah, right!!!…  Literally, NONE of the above happened, but one can dream, right?!….

Chicago

Chicago skyline

Route 66 starts in Chicago, and we planned in a couple of days for exploring the city into our agenda.  Besides, Google maps showed us that the town of Milwaukee, the birthplace of Harley Davidson motorcycles, boasting the Harley Davidson Museum, aka “The Mothership” and motorcycle Mecca, was only an hour and a half away from Chicago.  Not to be confused with the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, also known as “The Mothership”! The latter one was Nic’s.  The Milwaukee one was mine!

Chicago is widely known as “the windy city”, and this we expected.  What we did not prepare for, was the fact that the whole rainfall of April decided to pour down on the city during the 2 days we were there.  Wind and rain is not a very fortunate combination, and although Chicago still made an impression, we admired it during quick dashes from one covered and warm place to another (it would not sound surprising that many of these places happened to be pubs), all the while looking like two drowning rats.  At some point I seriously considered putting on my biking waterproofs and exploring the city in full rain gear.  Nic went further than just thinking and did just that (he’s always been the quicker of the two!…)

We did make good use of Chicago’s public transport (Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA), which was fast, reliable, relatively cheap (and dry!), if only a little convoluted.  Taking the CTA train from the airport, we did research the area, but failed to notice that several different lines within city center would have identically named stops (Chicago, Grand, Western and Pulaski being only a few examples).  This added to the excitement of arriving in Chicago late at night, but the hotel was just a quick cab ride away, anyway.  Throughout the next days, we made sure to note not just the station name, but the color of the line it was on.

The Cloud Gate

The city of Blues, Al Capone, speakeasies and Batman, Chicago is the place where everyone can find something for themselves – from impressive architecture to fantastic restaurants and bars, the city has a lot to offer.  “Doing” Chicago in 2 days is an impossible feat, but we tried to cover the basics.  We started with the famous and wacky Cloud Gate by Sir Anish Kapour in Millennium Park.  At the size of 33 by 66 by 42 feet (10 by 20 by 13 meters) of polished steel surface, the sculpture looks like a huge drop of liquid mercury  accidentally dropped in the middle of the park, distorting the Chicago skyline reflected in it like a huge fun house mirror.

Navy Pier

Chicago Navy Pier was next on our agenda.  Even in the cold and wet weather there was a queue for the Centennial Wheel.  We waited for our turn surrounded by teenagers in down jackets and flip-flops (what the fuck?), who were obviously freezing, but weren’t giving up.  Luckily for them (and us!) the gondolas of the wheel were closed and heated, and the 5-minute ride offered us not only the stunning 360◦ views of Chicago skyline, but also the opportunity to thaw off and change our bodily colors from blue to semi-normal.

We had a quick bite at the Shake Shack – a burger joint that sprouted from a hot-dog cart in New York, and whose States-wide recognition sipped through to the European continent (the place was highly recommended by some of our foodie friends in Munich) and continued further on the tourist path.

Hancock Building

Next on the agenda was Chicago’s famous Hancock Building – the black tower with two white antennas that makes Chicago skyline recognizable on every postcard.  The John Hancock Center (official name of the building) has a height of 1,499 feet (457 meters) including antennas, and is the thirty-third tallest building in the world.  The Observatory on the 96th floor provides stunning views (from the dry and warm environment!) of Chicago, and also boast the fastest elevators in North America, reaching the Observatory in 38 seconds.  The voice announcement proudly states said fact when you enter the elevator, and the skeptics can also count the floors and seconds themselves on the screen above the door.  The reason we chose the Hancock Building, and not the much taller Willis Tower, was the “360° Chicago” experience with its TILT platform (it was also closer to our hotel, and meant spending less time in the rain…).  The platform is a series of floor to ceiling windows that slowly tilt outside the building to 30° while you are standing inside and quietly or loudly freak out.  Neither of us are afraid of heights, so we freaked out quietly during the couple of minutes it takes the platform to tilt out and back into the building.

The beautiful Lucent in the lobby of the Hancock building

We stopped at the Fado Irish pub (of course!) a glass (or two) of alcoholic beverages of our choice and a nice chat with a rosy-cheeked bartender.

We also signed up for the Speakeasy Tour. Unfortunately, quite fittingly to the occasion, I got drunk and did not remember much of it. What I remembered was great, though!

A secret door to one of Chicago’s many speakeasies

The Shedd Aquarium

On the following day we took it easy, slept in, and after a late brunch decided to check out the famous Shedd Aquarium.  Having walked to it under pouring rain through downtown Chicago, and spent less than an hour exploring the place, we can honestly say “Don’t bother”. True, at the time it was built, it was the largest aquarium in the world, but a lot has changed since 1930, and the Shedd has long since been surpassed by many other collections of sea and ocean life in the US and world over.

Dinner that night was at the Big Bowl Asian restaurant – another recommendation from a foodie friend, and a great experience altogether!  True, Chicago boasts thousands of world-class silver-service restaurants, offering one-of-a-kind dining experiences, but we weren’t in the mood of stressing over tuxes and ball gowns, so opted for easy and relaxed venues, focusing on the food rather than celebrity status or the quality of dining experience.  The Big Bowl did not disappoint – the food was superb, the service quick, and the atmosphere very down-to-earth in the best sense of the word.

The Bikes

On day 3 we picked up our bikes at the Eagle Rider well outside the city, and nowhere near where Google maps told us it would be, but I won’t waste time on this here.  As always, the bikes were a surprise.  Having rented bikes in the US three times over the past 5 years, we can speak from experience: no matter which bike you order, you will not get it.  Instead, you will have a free upgrade to whichever model/make is actually available from the dealer/rental place.  Nic fell victim to the Road King already twice and was dreading the repeat of the experience.  I did not have any preconceptions, and despite all previous experience was actually hoping to get the Soft Tail I ordered.  Guess what?…  The upgrade was inevitable, and I ended up with a Big Girl’s Bike!!!!  

The Street Glide proudly presented to me by a heavily tattooed guy with a kid’s smile looked too big to handle at first glance.  The color was right this time, though – black.  I skeptically walked around the huge motorized sofa standing in front of me, but the moment I sat down on it, I was immediately sold – the bike was simply too comfortable to complain!  So what that I could not always park it in and out myself?…  So what that for the first day I felt like I was piloting a mid-size plane?…  I was in love.  In hindsight, having crossed 2/3 of the North American continent on a Street Glide, my verdict did not change – the bike was a dream to ride and a bitch to park.  And I absolutely loved it!

Third time was the charm for Nic as well, and he did manage to escape the Road King – hooray!  He also got a Street Glide, bright red in color and with built-in navigation.  During our last US bike trip along the West Coast, we unanimously agreed on Garmin being the worst navigation for motorbikes on the market.  Turned out, Harley outdid them in this!  The built-in GPS in Nic’s Street Glide had a fare-weather attitude of a loose woman, and tended to change its mind about a hundred times during the day – about 3 times more often than Garmin.  All this said, we had to go with the hand we were dealt, and used the first day of travelling up and down the coast of Lake Michigan to Milwaukee as our training ground.

Milwaukee: The Mothership

The ride to the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee took about 1.5 hours of moderately straight highway, and in relatively good weather.  Huge fucking trucks, covering all lanes and readily overtaking anything and anybody on the right were a bit of a nuisance, but we sort of got used to them.  Naturally, by the time we reached Milwaukee, it started pissing down with rain – just our luck!

We are the only 2 bikes parked at the front

The holy grounds of the Harley Museum were empty – ours were the only 2 bikes parked up front, and although we did spend a couple of hours walking around the exhibition, all in all it was a bit of a disappointment.  The building and the collection inside was huge, but utterly disorganized, and not very informative.  We could not help, but compare it to the other “Mothership” – the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin we visited the previous year, and had to say that Harley could have done so much better!  The company that had such a cool history, reinvented itself many times over, and dipped their fingers in many different ventures, somehow failed to present itself for the wonder it was.  There should have been more on the history, more on their ingenious advertising (it is a statistical fact, that Harley Davidson makes more money on merchandise than they do on bikes), their world-wide reach!…  

The first ever Harley Davidson motorcycle

And the gift shop was a true disgrace!!!  The size of our living room, it could not stand comparison with your regular Harley dealer anywhere in the world…  And I was wrecking my brain all the way to Milwaukee how I could find the space in our very limited luggage for all the cool things I would undoubtedly be tempted to buy at “The Mothership”…  Turned out – no brain-wrecking was needed, as we bought zip.

All this said, we still enjoyed being there, and while we would hardly come back for a return visit, we kept fond memories if not of the place, but at least of the fact that we made it there.

Parking in Chicago

Having fought the rain and gale-force winds that were threatening to throw us off the road on our way back to Chicago, we realized to our disgust that parking the bikes for the night would be a problem.  Hotel parking did not accept them, despite us being paying guests, and strictly prohibited parking them outside by the door.  A quick chat with a doorman only confirmed our fears – for some reason bikes in downtown Chicago were frowned upon, and were largely associated with gangs, so very few parking places accepted them.  The few that did charged through the nose for a full vehicle each, despite the fact that the 2 bikes took only one parking spot.  A quick but exhausting run around the nearest car parks, located one that would take the bikes in at an extortionist price of $60 dollars for 12 hours (!).  Each (!!!!). We had no other choice, and were actually grateful to have found somewhere within walking distance, and not having to go all the way back to Eagle Rider in the outskirts of town.

The Purple Pig

After a quick wash that allowed us both to resemble relatively normal human beings again, we went out in search of food.  No recommendations this time, we relied on our luck alone.  Google maps showed a number of restaurants within walking distance from the hotel, and by chance only we ended up in The Purple Pig

Designer food at The Purple Pig

The place was crowded when we came, but we could wait for a table or a sit at the bar.  We quickly ordered a bottle of wine, and elbowed our way through to the bar, where the turnaround of customers should be quicker.  Mid-way through the bottle, we struck a conversation with a lonely guy from NY, who offered to free up some space for us. We ordered amazing designer food, and observed with growing astonishment the delicate and well-orchestrated kitchen ballet.  The kitchen chucking out the fantastic dishes everyone was enjoying was open and absolutely tiny.  Yet, it managed to accommodate at least 7 people, who were permanently cooking, moving over each other’s heads, shouting friendly obscenities at the waiters, and generally looking like they were having a good time and a heart attack simultaneously. 

Three bottles later, together with our new best friend from New York, we moved to a basement night club in the area, decorated with expensive whisky bottles and beautiful scantily (but expensively) clad women.  We left our new friend there, dragged our asses to our room, and fell into the bed.