Travel Essay: The South Shore Line

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Happy new year one and all. For the first post of the year, I would like to share the tale of a journey I made with my father-in-law over Christmas holiday. Enjoy.

Each year this Atlantan finds himself shivering in his thin jacket somewhere in the icy midwest. The occasion is the Christmas holiday, and my family and I celebrate it as many do, with a trip to a faraway place to catch up with relatives over plenty of coffee and an array of coffee cakes that have no business being called breakfast.

In our case, the trip often takes us 600 miles to the north and about 100 or so westward, where my clan in-law descends on a family-owned reunion house for a few days of Christmas cheer and hubbub.

My wife approaches the week with a mixed bag of excitement and apprehension, the former because she adores time with her family and the latter knowing that my restless self will be wiggling in my armchair, hungry for something to do that is slightly more engaging than watching 12 nieces and nephews run around the circle from kitchen to common area to hallway to kitchen, and around again.

For the 50 plus other weeks of the year, my wife embraces my spirited quest for adventure, often joining me in cramming maximum fun into tiny allowances of free time. But Christmas — and the clockwork northbound trip it brings — whets her tastebuds for a slower pace, spending lazy hours flanked by quietly-reading and iPad-surfing kin on the taupe common-area couch.

Not me. For better (my opinion) or worse (often my wife’s opinion), I am ready to explore this, swing over there, visit hither and eat thither from the moment I turn into the gravel drive. The retreat house is perched on a large tract of land in Sawyer, Michigan, a small, somewhat depressed vacation town on Lake Michigan’s south shore. Sawyer and the surrounding locales offer a surprising amount of charm and kitsch to wintertime visitors, who can pass the time rummaging through countless antique stands, chomping on soft-serve cones of ice cream, taking a spin on a yesteryear carousel, and even careening down snow-covered sand dunes aboard brightly-colored plastic sleds.

I am prone to explore the touristy nooks and crannies wherever I happen to find myself, but the bug jitters all the more at this annual gathering of family, where adults are settled into couches like doughnuts in a box and children are bouncing off the walls like popping corn.

In many ways, my father-in-law Mark (Dad, as I have come to call him) sets the tone for the reunion — at least as far as the adult contingent is concerned. He is the president of a well-known publishing firm, and he adores reading and contemplative rounds of Scrabble. He has quietly imparted his love of words and language to his family, and most at the gathering delight in similar pastimes.

Mark is a quiet, steady man, offering only carefully selected thoughts (and even words) into the conversation. He enjoys a good laugh but is just as content to inhabit a calm corner of the house, novel or smart phone in hand. In contrast, I am generally a person of many words, thriving on social interaction and lacking the ability to sit still for more than 30 seconds. Needless to say, when seated next to Dad, I sometimes find myself searching for meaningful ways to converse.

Christmas Eve was a few days ago, and I was in the throes of one such conversation scavenger hunt as Dad and I played tricks of Hearts with two others at the vinyl card table. I decided it was time for my annual comment about how much I liked the artwork hung above the mantle — four antiquated South Shore Line advertisements, each beautifully illustrating the fun to be had in this beach locale, all accessible by the famed train line running from Chicago’s downtown to South Bend, Indiana.

I ran through my usual litany of artwork compliments. “My how I love the colors,” “The prints are reminiscent of old-timey theater one-offs,” “Those black wooden frames are the perfect counterbalance to the vintage color palettes and letterforms,” and onward. But a new angle came to mind this year, “When did the South Shore Line stop running?”

After a brief pause, Dad spoke in his quiet baritone. “It still runs.”

With those three words, Dad planted the thought of spending a day riding those rails with no purpose other than experiencing the adventure itself. That germinating seed, however, did not bring with it the hope of a traveling companion, mostly because I could not imagine another person in the room that would want to sign up.

A couple of days later, I had all but forgotten about the matter when Dad invited me to take the railroad to Millennium Station in Chicago, make a mad dash across the Loop to the Ogilve Transit Center, catch the train to the west suburbs, and pick up an extra car from his house in Wheaton, Illinois (to transport a few relatives who had recently arrived by plane). The plan seemed an inefficient one, especially considering my preconceived understanding that its offerer would enjoy nothing better than paging through another novel on his Kindle.

But I saw in Dad’s eye a familiar glint — a sparkle that often dances in my own corneas — revealing a belief that the journey is as important as the destination. Without thinking much about it, I agreed, not certain of what to expect.

That night, I pondered the dawning day-long jaunt seated next to my quiet, steady father-in-law, and I decided to add two paperbacks to the water bottle and Zip-Loc baggie of Cheez-It crackers already in my black canvas travel bag. The morning came quickly and I found myself shivering on a concrete platform in Michigan City, Indiana, with large flakes of snow clouding the view from my glasses.

The single-decker commuter cars rumbled into the station a minute ahead of schedule. Powered by pantograph, the polished steel carriages were emblazoned with a burnt-orange livery of two logos, that of the South Shore Line and the NICTD (North Indiana Commuter Transportation District), a company that now owns the original moniker a handful of bankruptcies beyond its inception in 1925 (Thank you, Wikipedia).

I was right to wonder how Dad and I would fill mile after snowy mile with conversation. It turns out we wouldn’t. We each turned to our reading material; Dad powered up the Kindle and I buried my nose in my paperback.

The train whispered through the bleak lakeside toward the Windy City without much fanfare. Aside from the typography of the station placards, each stop appeared no different than the last, with snowy covered brush on our side of the tracks and a grayish salt-peppered highway out the other fogged window. Cheery groups of city-bound families flung friendly banter across the aisles as the train glided through Gary, Indiana and neared the terminus.

There are different kinds of silence. I savor the quiet of a mountain retreat, black coffee in hand and nothing but stillness blanketing the morning. Less likable is lying in bed amid the icy hush of an unresolved spousal argument. Christmas visits with Dad are usually somewhere between the two, the quiet neither unpleasant nor inviting.

But there we were riding the South Shore Line, comfortably seated with no sense of rush and no possibility of productivity. And I found myself in no way eager to arrive at the terminus. The silence was steady. The silence was comfortable. The silence was delightful. Furthermore, after spending a full week with my cheerful, energetic three-year-old, an unfamiliar feeling came upon me: I began to relax.

The day held a litany of small treats. Dad purchased my ticket to ride the South Shore Line and I treated him to a Starbucks concoction once we arrived at the station. He furnished the whirlwind, guided tour of Millennium Park, and he instructed the conductor to punch his frequent traveler card an extra time so I could ride the westbound train without charge. And when we arrived at the Wheaton platform, chocolate shakes from the world-famous Seven Dwarfs restaurant and fountain were on me.

We returned to the vacation house in Michigan as the setting sun cast a dim, blue glow across the snowy landscape. The scene inside was as we left it nearly eight hours prior, with moms concocting baked goods in the kitchen, a litany of children running laps on the hardwood floor, and our cast of dutiful readers faithfully warming their respective couch cushions.

Though most in the room could not imagine why either of us would want to spend an entire day of our vacation traversing the rails of the greater Chicago metro area, Dad and I exchanged warm smiles and brief pleasantries about the fun we had.

The bonds of friendship are forged through shared experiences. And this Christmas, Dad and I both put a memory in our back pockets that we will carry with us forever. Next year, when he and I find ourselves trying to pass the queen of spades to an unsuspecting opponent, we will look at those four posters and remember the fun we had together.

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8 thoughts on “Travel Essay: The South Shore Line

  1. Excellent, Josh. A pleasure to read. I have a hankering for something similar, given this, my 3rd of 7 days, at the house… 🙂

    • Thanks for reading Archie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. If you need a little fresh air, here’s a couple of quick tips. Mario’s Pizza in Union Pier (two towns south) is incredible. The owner is from NYC and baked pies in the city before moving to the lake. (Ask for light cheese and heavy sauce.) The Antique Mall in Harbert (one town south) is one of my favorites along Red Arrow Highway. There are so many vendors and endless treasures from yesteryear — definitely a great way to spend an hour or more. Also in Union Pier is a tiny Tex-Mex drive-through called Rios. The asada tacos are huge and delicious — two will fill you right up — and they usually throw in some fresh-fried tortilla chips.

      Also, if you have not taken the kids to the Children’s Museum and the carousel in St. Joseph, you really ought to make the half-hour trip. The museum is small but well done, and the carousel is a blast.

      Enjoy the family trip, and hello to everyone there. Cheers, Josh.

  2. haha! Me too, Josh. Even though I’m a Taylor, and I love to read, I’m a little frenetic. I sandwiched this last visit to the Michigan house between two trips to Chicago first time was Shedd Aquarium, then a day simply tromping through the city in my duck boots, stopping for a Cuban cafe au lait and a long browse through a bookstore on Printer’s Row. But mostly Ben and I just walked around, looking at stuff and enjoying the time kid-free (my dad took our boys to Toledo for the day). While at the “Cottage”, we sledded down the dunes, and in the evenings I coordinated large group games for more than 15 people. Thanks for the post!

    • Great to hear from you Michael, and I am glad your sense of adventure keeps you exploring, even with kids in tow. I have never tried a Cuban cafe au lait (nor had I ever heard of one), but now that experience is on my to-do list. Thanks for that!

      I hope you had a nice time in Michigan, and I hope to see you again soon. Cheers!

    • And what a thrill to connect with readers like you. As you know, it is a lot of work to keep a blog going with new content all the time, but I am reminded that it is completely worth the effort whenever readers take the time to comment. I wish you all the best with your travels and blogging. Please keep in touch. Cheers!

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