Going on holiday without a car. To me, it’s not a particularly radical concept. You know, it’s not going away on your own, or with very little money, or to somewhere that the locals claim is far, far too dangerous. (Which I’ve done.)
And life without a car in Chicago is perfectly fine. As with living in any city, we sometimes wish we had a car to do those across-the-spokes-of-the-wheel trips, or to go and buy furniture. But the combination of El and Metra trains, city buses and Northwestern shuttles mostly gets us around just fine. Snow isn’t a serious problem, at least so far, despite reaching depths of about 4-5 inches: it gets cleared late at night or early in the morning so the roads and crucial pavements are walkable. El platforms even have these wonderful heat lamps to make your wait bearable.
But going on holiday by bus is extreme and eccentric.
We decided to go to Galena, IL, a 19th century town in a distant corner of Illinois, for a few days of snowy walks, pottering around museums and houses and eating far too much food. Burlington Trailways does the bus trip from Chicago to Galena daily, and it’s meant to take around 3-4 hours, including refreshment stops. When you get there, the whole town centre is arranged in a circle of about a mile diameter, with our Farmers’ Guest House at the edge of downtown. (I am very proud of this, my first ever Google map, so please hover over the markers with abandon.)
Ulysses S Grant’s House: about 3/4 of a mile away. The furthest end of the high street, with the estimable Fritz and Frites: a mile to the east. McDonald’s, where the bus rather inelegantly stopped: a mile to the northwest. OK, so this is walkable, right?
Wrong: at least with luggage. Because this town performs that neat rural American trick of dispensing with pavements on useful roads. So when you try to wheel your case down the road from McDonald’s, you realise that: 1) the ground is deep in snow, making wheeling impractical; 2) there is no pavement and you are walking down the interstate highway with all the trucks of America; 3) you are causing alarm to everyone who sees you.
Which brings me to the good bit: in four days we were offered no fewer than four rides, twice by perfect strangers, once they realised we didn’t have a car. A woman with her daughter and two granddaughters in the car drove us down the hill to our B&B (I sat in the boot). The owner of the outdoor shop drove us to what she thought would be a nicer bit of the Galena River Trail for us to snowshoe. When I slipped on an icy pavement and my head hit the ground with a great thwack, a man stopped with the apparently sincere offer to drive us ‘anywhere you want to go.’ And when Galena’s only taxi firm failed to pick up the phone all day, a friend of our B&B’s owners drove us up the hill to the bus stop once again. It is genuinely touching how kind Americans can be, and how willing to give you rides in situations where British people would never think of offering. (There is another great example of this in Kevin Connolly’s piece for the BBC about his time over here, which my Mum pointed out to me.)
But apart from this it seemed kind of sad. When we met the female owner of our B&B, she said she’d heard about us from her husband: ‘You’re the people who came without a car!’ Her British expat friend said: ‘Oh yes, the Brits do that’, as if public transport was a form of morris dancing. The other guests in our B&B were driving the half mile to their restaurants and back every evening – one of them remarked at the wine and cheese hour that now she’d had two glasses she probably wasn’t ‘safe to walk’. Oh, and they were running the car for 10 minutes or so before getting in, to warm it up. I don’t know… it just all seemed a bit hopeless.
However. After we waited at around 0 degrees F (I am not exaggerating in the slightest, and I would have taken a more accurate reading, but I did not dare to deglove my hands in order to check my iphone) at the Greyhound station in outer Chicago for an hour in the pre-dawn, our toes numbing, our noses burning, I started to question the wisdom of travelling by bus. And after waiting in McDonald’s for two hours for the return bus, which showed terrible Disney family films on a loop and then deposited us back at the Greyhound station approximately in the middle of nowhere, I heard myself say: ‘Next time, let’s hire a car.’