Camping in downtown Chicago

I’ve been towing this 30 foot Airstream around North America for 12 years now and we’ve pulled it through 48 states, so we’ve certainly passed through a lot of major cities. As a general rule, born out of several heart-stopping experiences, I avoid going through major cities like New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago. When I have to go through one of those places I try to time it to miss the worst of the traffic.

This is one of those times. The story starts with our recent purchase of a replacement Mercedes GL350 to tow the Airstream. In the previous GL we used a clever aftermarket gadget that puts the view from our Airstream trailer camera on the dashboard of the Mercedes LCD screen. This little interface box isn’t hard to install but it does require removing the factory radio stack, and half a brain.  I was able to find the first requirement among the automotive electronics installers available to me in Vermont, but not the second.

The result was an inoperable camera, and no way for me to fix it without a greater set of electronics skills than I have. So I decided to head directly to the manufacturer: Mid-City Engineering in Chicago IL. Because they needed to have both the Mercedes and the Airstream in their shop to get the camera working properly, I had to face the terrible reality: we would need to tow the Airstream directly into the heart of Chicago, a place as clogged with traffic as your heart would be after a Quadruple Bypass Burger from Heart Attack Grill. For a family towing a trailer, this is not friendly territory.

Chicago McCormick truck yardChicago McCormick truck yard2

There are no campgrounds in Chicago. The only place to park overnight with a trailer is the truck marshalling yard at McCormick Plaza, nestled in the bosom of 53-foot trailers, flanked by a busy rail line and four lanes of traffic on Lake Shore Drive. Overhead, jets and an occasional helicopter pass by. It’s kind of like the worst Wal-Mart you ever spent a night at, without the rotisserie chicken and coffee.

There are no services for the RV’er, so you have to arrive prepared for a siege: full fresh water, empty holding tanks, fully charged batteries, and plenty of food.  Getting off the property on foot is difficult due to fencing and minimal sidewalks, so calling a cab is the best choice. But for all the inconvenience (and $35/day) there is a major compensation: you’re practically in downtown Chicago, and that’s pretty special.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon to avoid most of the traffic, which worked (mostly). Unfortunately we hit a pair of hot days with suffocating humidity and of course we had no air conditioning. On Monday with the temperatures soaring fast we pulled up the Uber app and got a ride north to Lincoln Park Zoo.

Chicago E&E lakeshore downtown

The plan was not to visit the zoo, but instead to ride the Lakefront Trail south all the way to the Museum of Science and Industry.  This would bring us past most of the downtown sights. Since it was so brutally humid, we brought out electric transportation: electric unicycles for me and Emma, and an electric scooter for Eleanor. All of them were easily capable of riding the 13 miles of trail, plus a bit extra for side trips.

(If you’re wondering where all this stuff goes: Eleanor’s scooter folds down for storage. We carry it in the back of the GL, strapped down with two bungee cords. The two unicycles go in the Airstream in padded 22″ cymbal cases.)

Chicago Millenium eclipse

With the wheels we made quick progress to downtown, and then detoured for some exploring around Maggie Daly Park, Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park and Millennium Park.  (We had to walk the wheels through Millennium Park; they were showing a live eclipse feed on the big screen.)

Chicago Buckingham fountain pano

In the photo above you can see the orange Segways of a group tour.  We kept passing these tours in the parks. Segways are close relatives of our unicycles, using the same basic technology, but of course much easier to ride.

Chicago Chris family downtownIn downtown we met up with a new friend, Chris, for lunch.  A fellow electric unicycle rider, on this day Chris was sporting a fashionable purple cast on his wrist. This was the result of a recent fall, so he couldn’t join us for a ride. However, it says a lot about the addictive nature of electric unicycles that he is still looking forward to getting back on his wheel ASAP. We’ll probably meet up in Phoenix this December for a group ride.

From there we rejoined the Lakefront Trail and continued south, checking out all the major sights and beaches.

By 4 pm everyone was starting to feel the strain of a very full day combined with near-90 degree temperatures and sweltering humidity, so when we at last reached the Museum of Science & Industry there was really no debate whether to go inside. We called for a ride and headed back to the Airstream.

Chicago lakeshore trail beach

Of course being in the Airstream was not exactly a relief from the heat.  We’ve been using the tricks we have learned over the years for staying cool in uncomfortable heat, but the ultimate solution will come from nature when a cold front passes through and dries everything out on Tuesday.

We’ll make a decision on Tuesday afternoon, after our service appointment, whether to buy a couple more days of parking in the truck lot or head west to other destinations. Either way, this has been a pretty fun visit to a big city and I guess I’m glad we went through the trouble (and the noise) to be here.  It will seem almost surreal in a few days when I contemplate it from the open spaces of the west.