Last (?) Road Trip to Chicago

About ten years ago our youngest son moved to Chicago to get his Master’s degree at DePaul University. He met his future wife there and they settled down. We visited probably once per year. And then our grandchildren were born. From then we visited two or three times a year and in every season. In summers we often drove taking many routes: Interstate 80 through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa; the Mt Rushmore route through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana. Heck one time we even took Route 66: Portland to Santa Monica, California, then through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri.

Carla and I often shared our dream of the family moving to Oregon to be near family, but let it go because they were building a nice life for themselves in the Midwest. And then! This past spring they told us they were looking for jobs back here in Oregon! After a lot of work our son received two job offers and is now a middle school math teacher in the Beaverton School District.

Naturally we jumped at the opportunity to help them move. They put their house up for sale and wouldn’t have a place to live until it sells, so we spent two months cleaning and clearing our house to share with them for a couple of months. On August 7 we flew back to help pack and then drive home.

Chicago is a great city with lots to do in the city and the surrounding villages. But it was a stone drag to have to travel so far to see the kids and grandkids for just a week or so at a time. Nevertheless, the silver lining to that black cloud is the railroad activity. The BNSF Transcon is just a 15 minute walk away from their old house and I spent hours getting pictures of trains almost every visit. I knew this week would be busy so the first evening I headed trackside for one of my last visits.

Short CSX consist of autoracks rolling through Riverside, IL
Outbound BNSF Metra on a summer evening. Riverside, IL

The good news: In a wonderful coincidence our oldest son was in Chicago for a conference. He finished up at noon on Thursday, August 8. The bad news: he had to be at work on the following Monday. After stopping at our youngest son’s house for a glass of water and a change of clothes, he and Carla hopped in one of the cars and headed. The first night they made it almost through Iowa. Friday they had a long 14+ hour drive through Nebraska and most of Wyoming – three miles from the Utah border. Saturday brought a shorter-but-still-long drive through Utah, Idaho, to Pendleton, OR. Sunday was a quick drive home.

Meanwhile my job back in North Riverside was to entertain the grandkids so my son and DIL could pack. Being in Chicago, we had to grab some Chicago style dogs so we headed to the local Portillo’s to scratch the itch.

In line to order hot dogs at Portillo’s.

The inside lighting is mostly red which is terrible for photography. But I was able to adjust some picture of the kids enjoying their hot dogs and French fries.

Hot dog with some ketchup for the dippin

I’m already missing Portillo’s.

While we were out on our adventure movers came to pack everything in a PODS container for shipment to Oregon. The two on the left brought things down while the man on the right packed it all in. He must be dynamite at the game of Tetris.

Packing the PODS container.

Most everything was packed so we ate the rest of our meals out. One stop we had to make for the kids was Junction Diner. It’s an old school diner with an O-gauge railroad running around the circular counter. When your food is ready, it is placed on the train flat cars and delivered to your seats! (I planned to insert a video of the train but after 3 minutes of exhaustive research I couldn’t figure out how – so here’s a picture of the 3 year old. I have a similar picture of the older one at the same place a couple of years ago but I can’t find it!) He loves trains as much as I do.

The POD was packed and the house cleaned out and up so Monday it was time to head out. My son took his wife and kids to the airport for an early flight to Portland where Carla would pick them up. The PODS people picked up the container but seemed to have lost track of what they were doing with it – they were planning to put into local storage in Chicago. I started the drive home while my son talked for an hour and a half with various people at PODS. It took more work than I would have thought to fix things up.

We wouldn’t need to rush home quite as fast as Carla and my older son, but four nights was still pushing it. I figured we might bet lucky to visit a few train sites long the way. First up was the Rochelle, Illinois railroad park. This is a spot a couple of hours west of Chicago where the Union Pacific and BNSF lines cross. The city put up a web cam and a little covered picnic area. I visited here back in 2015. We met a small family that was touring the Midwest for 10 days stopping at railroad sites.

Union Pacific and BNSF crossing diamond in Rochelle, IL

The folks who were there said there wasn’t much activity and the traffic monitoring system showed it was unlikely we’d have much action for at least an hour. It was preparing to storm so we hopped in the car and headed west toward our stop in Iowa City. We were still driving in the dark when a thunderstorm surrounded us. While the lightning wasn’t terrible there was more than enough rain. We agreed we wouldn’t drive that late the rest of the way.

Our destination for the next night was North Platte, Nebraska.

Nebraska farm land.

News flash: there is a lot of corn in the midwest. I was talking with a friend who grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa (I’m looking at you Jan!) who told me the cool, wet spring meant soy beans couldn’t be planted. Instead of a mix of crops, we saw more corn that we normally see.

Nebraska corn

I was impressed by the size of weather fronts. We drove for hours under this weather system. Excuse the poor photo quality, but I love that big arc in the front.

Weather front in Nebraska

It turns out we should have gone a little farther but those clouds reminded us of our prior day’s experience. Fortunately, North Platte is a nice spot for a railfan to stop. We stopped here in 2010 and 2016. There is an eight story Golden Spike tower just next to Bailey Yard – which is an enormous classification yard for the Union Pacific.

Union Pacific Bailey Yard seen from the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, NE

You also get a different view of the cornfields up there.

Cornfields next to the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, NE

We didn’t want greasy travel food for dinner so tried a little restaurant in North Platte that serves “Eccentric Food”. We had hummus and falafel. I guess calling it Middle Eastern food wouldn’t be a help in the center of the midwest. The hummus was okay; the nan was very nice but the falafel and fresh vegetables were on the lower side of so-so.

We were up and ready to go early the next morning. Our destination was Evanston, Wyoming, which is 3 miles from the western border. We took a short detour into Green River, Wyoming to check out the rail yard. Carla and I stopped here back in June 2016. There is a long pedestrian bridge over the half dozen or more tracks. I saw a train on the far side so had to get over my fear of heights to get over to the other side.

Proof that I was up on the bridge.

Your correspondent on the pedestrian bridge over the railyard in Green River, Wyoming

One of the trains we had been playing leap frog with was temporarily stopped but before long it moved west.

Westbound container train in Green River, Wyoming
Westbound container train in Green River, Wyoming

This was our last train viewing stop of the trip. We were tired after our 576 mile trip into Evanston so fell asleep a little early. The next day – Thursday – would be our longest drive – almost 600 miles – to Pendleton, Oregon. That would leave us a short drive home so my son could see his family before bedtime.

We stopped for lunch at Hanson’s Cafe in Glenn’s Ferry. It’s a fun little place we try to stop at whenever we go by. You can see some interesting pictures of the interior in this post from 2015.

Hanson’s Cafe. Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho

We passed through Boise at 80 MPH. I had harbored thoughts of stopping to visit friends but the extra miles we had to travel dashed those hopes: family before friends.

We were up Friday morning anxious to get home. But the family was at the Oregon Coast when we arrived. They were delighted to see Papa.

The trip was over 2,100 miles. Google Maps says it is a 32 hour trip but it’s really more like 42 hours. Google is okay for local trips but for long distance it assumes you are going exactly the speed limit the entire time, with no stops or slowdowns.

The road home

We’ve enjoyed our trips by plane, train and car to Chicago but I think we are done.

I worked to get back to a normal schedule so went out to breakfast Tuesday of the next week with my buddies. We normally go to Fat City in Multnohmah Village. The chrome of the counter seats reflects the floor – and you can see me if you look closely.

Fat City Cafe – Multnohmah Village; Portland, Oregon

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