USA Trip: Day 24 – Chicago: The Cheesecakey City

USA Trip: Day 24 – Chicago: The Cheesecakey City

Milwaukee -> Chicago

Our love affair with the Midwest in autumn continued as we detoured west through the countryside on our way to Chicago. We could have taken the I-94 directly south to Chicago and been there in just over two hours but we weren’t going to give up on the rolling hills of Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. We passed through a beautiful picturesque town which reminded me of those around Lake Geneva. I did a double take when I saw the road sign declaring we were entering Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The town was one for the rich and wealthy, some of the properties on the shoreline were bigger than some of the hotels we stayed in earlier on the trip.

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As we crossed the border the scenery did not change, Illinois was just as pretty as Wisconsin. We eventually turned east and joined the hordes of vehicles heading into Chicago. Having not been in a big city for around two weeks the endless suburbs snapped us back to reality that we were entering America’s third largest city. We turned off the interstate shortly after O’Hare airport and followed the satnav to our first location in Chicago, Eli’s Cheesecake Company. While doing some research on places to see in Chicago I found this gem buried under the endless restaurants and bars. We were going for their free taster session and had no idea what to expect. We were a few minutes late so Emma bundled in while I parked. When I turned up we were the only people there and the staff were pleased to see us. The public part of the factory looked like a large shop with display cabinets full of sliced cheesecake ready to eat. Beside that were rows of fridges with whole cheesecakes of all flavours and varieties chilled for sale. It was heaven in the form of a factory cheesecake shop.

Eli’s Cheesecake

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The presentation the staff gave us was in depth and informative about the company, its history and the good work it does in the community. Eli’s Cheesecake is special with the ingredients it uses and with our taster slices we could tell this was something else. I had never tasted cheesecake like it, I wanted more, a lot more. President Clinton and President Obama both love this cheesecake and had Eli’s made their inauguration cakes.

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The cakes made for the presidents were massive and I would have just face planted them with no slight hesitation of embarrassment. The trick, the girl presenting told us was that they made their cheesecake with sour cream not heavy cream. For taking our time to go see them and with it being our honeymoon, the president of Eli’s Cheesecake Marc Schulman came out and presented us with a complimentary cheesecake. I struggled not to hug him on the spot. They let us decorate it with yummy sugary things and it went straight in Bertha’s fridge. We then bought and had posted a thank you cheesecake to Carl & Julia for hosting us three weeks earlier in California: http://restlessbackpack.com/2013/10/01/usa-trip-day-6-friday-night-lights/

Careful not to have anything squash the cheesecake in the fridge we drove slowly from there on into the city. Bertha’s air conditioning was leaking so it was windows down the rest of the way. We were due for a slice of Baseball history this afternoon with a stadium tour around Wrigley Field. The home of Chicago Cubs it is the second oldest MLB park in the country with lots of little quirks like a human operated scoreboard, the rooftop seats on the apartments opposite and an ivy covered brick outfield wall. The park is 99 years old and very few aspects have been modernised meaning we could get a real taste of what baseball was like before money was thrown at the sport. We had checked the Cubs website a couple of weeks before in Las Vegas and it confirmed that tours were still running and parked up with plenty of time to spare. The place looked quiet, a little too quiet for a place expecting visitors. We tried to find someone to ask but couldn’t, I resorted to phoning the main office and was told there would be no tours today, no matter who we were or how far we had come. Thanks Cubs, I hope the 105 years without a World Series continues for a longtime, out of spite of course. Now with time to spare we parked Bertha on North Clark Street and sought a couple of local places that had come highly recommended.

Bookman’s Corner

As we walked up to the corner I noticed the window display of the bookshop. The display was not neatly presented with large colourful marketing. Instead it was large 3 feet high pile of books threatening to break through the glass, most of them not showing their spines so flapped open. What was this place? Was it even open? It was and we walked into possibly the greatest bookshop on Earth. It took me a minute to realise the huge pile of books we were standing next to was in fact the front desk and hidden behind it was a grey haired man reading a book who gave us a cursory glance. I stood there a minute and looked around. There were random stacks of books in no particular order dotted all over. There was not a large amount of floor space, everywhere that wasn’t an obvious footpath had was a pile of books the same way a muddy path winds its way through the woods. The rows of ceiling high bookshelves were as close together as they could be without jamming people between them. Emma wandered down an isle and came across the science books. The books made sense in the way they were ordered on the shelves but I couldn’t look at anything. The minute I spotted a book down low; I bent to get it and knocked a large stack of books over. In the quiet environment of Bookman’s Corner I may as well have shouted my amateurish presence. The smell of old books and dust was phenomenal in a pleasant way. It didn’t smell old, it smelt read. After knocking over my second pile of books I made the decision to just look at books about head height.

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I asked the owner how he keeps a track of the books and how he prices them all. He said that he has a very good memory of what he has and the book prices get slashed if it sits there longer than six months. That way he can cycle through the stock without sales getting stagnant. We bought a book each, and got around a dollar back in change. I was that impressed with the place I told him to keep the change. He bluntly refused saying:

“No take it! Keep the change, as I have to turn it over to the government and they will just waste it.”

Considering how the government shutdown had affected our trip I found this highly amusing.

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On the way back from Bookman’s corner we stopped off at the second local joint recommended to us. We had been on the road a month and I was in desperate need of some grooming. We walked into the Corner Barbershop and I was immediately put in a chair by a biker looking guy. Like Bookman’s Corner this corner shop was a step into the past. I asked for a trim up top and my beard to be neatened with a clean neck. Over the next 45 minutes I was treated to an experience by a man who took his craft seriously. He spent longer on my beard than anyone who has ever trimmed it including me! By the end I looked in the mirror to find every hair perfect. It was the best my beard had ever looked and I guess it was down to him being a fellow beard wearer knowing how important it is to get right. We tipped well and left to get Bertha and head across to the lakefront.

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Lincoln Park Zoo

The car park alone offered a great view of The Loop (downtown Chicago). We parked Bertha with her backside poking out beyond the other cars and made our way to the Lincoln Park Zoo entrance. At nearly 150 years old this zoo has been entertaining Americans for nearly as long as the city has been around. The zoo itself is on public property meaning it is open 365 days and is free for everyone. Certain buildings had opening hours which meant we headed straight to the big cat building as it was due to shut in 20 minutes. We walked straight up to the lion enclosure and I stood looking at a large lion for a couple of minutes. It was quite intimidating and continued to stare straight down the camera lens when I took some photos.

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I turned around and went to walk away and as I did I passed a tall young guy with a familiar face. He looked at me and had the same puzzled expression as I must have been showing. Simultaneously we did recognise each other. His name was Pete and we used to be on the same American Football team years ago in England. We even went to the same University and were taught the sport by the same coaches. And here we were in a big cat building in Chicago walking right by each other. We were both on our honeymoon and still very baffled we made some small talk about Chicago and the trips we had taken. After catching a foul ball, getting on stage with Penn & Teller and now meeting Pete thousands of miles from home I was all about worn out of coincidences. After catching up we bid farewell to Pete and his new wife Alice and continued on through the 35 acre zoo. To my surprise the zoo was pretty void of people, maybe the novelty wears off having a zoo on your doorstep. The biggest thing I found is that the larger animals don’t have enough space to roam.

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We went to the black bear habitat as I had never seen a bear up close. When we got there the bear was pacing up and down the thick glass of his enclosure. All the glass in the zoo had huge white soapy sponge marks on them so the birds wouldn’t fly into the glass. The bear was pressed up against this glass and pacing left and right to each corner of the enclosure and then back. He had done this so much the white soap had been rubbed off. Having us standing just inches away didn’t bother him and he continued to pace. We stood there for about five minutes watching the bear pace left and right turning at the same points with an OCD-esque drive. Emma has a friend who works with animals and studied zoology at University. She said that pacing an enclosure is often a sign of boredom and/or unhappiness with the settings. Bears are known roamers, it even says so on the Lincoln Park Zoo website that they like to cover large areas of ground. The bear’s enclosure seemed too small and all I wanted to do was smash the glass with a brick and let the poor sod out. But as this was America it would only end up with both of us being shot. A similar situation was observed at the Polar bear enclosure though we didn’t stay too long there as there was a crazy woman talking to the polar bear. That might be the real reason why the polar bear didn’t want to come out.

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We left the zoo on a bit of a low note. The majority of the large animals seemed to have too little space and the bear had struck a cord with us both. Dinner tonight was a Chicago pizza pie and there is a chain of restaurants serving them called Giordanos. I had the addresses of two of these restaurants out of the city centre where they should be parking. We tried for 30 minutes to find a parking space big enough for Bertha but couldn’t squeeze her in anywhere without running the risk of having her towed and as she is our home too we didn’t fancy being stuck on the street all night. The Chicago suburbs are rammed full of cars with nowhere near enough space for everyone. It is worse than London for needing to park somewhere without a permit. We were hungry and tired, in the end we headed out of the city. I had a backup place in mind halfway to the the final KOA campsite and noticed that nearby was a Hooters restaurant. I spent the entire drive telling Emma how much i loved Hooters and couldn’t wait to chat up the waitresses. She was ready to hurt me as we drove by Hooters and straight into the Cheesecake Factory car park. It was then she realised it had all been a big wind up. As a fan of the Big Bang Theory she had wanted to go to a Cheesecake Factory restaurant but had resigned herself to doing it on ‘the next trip’. Giordanos’ loss was Cheesecake Factory’s gain and we rolled out of there (literally) with a box of leftovers and set off for the campsite. We drove an hour to the Northwest Chicago KOA for the final night in Bertha. Unfortunately it was the worst presented KOA we had been to and Bertha stood guard all night with her wheel jack ready to swipe at anyone who came near. It wasn’t as bad as the independent Milwaukee RV park but we had come to expect the best from KOA sites and I suspect the poor showers and run down look was due to the fact it was so close to the end of season and its off-season renovation. We sat in Bertha packing our clothes ready to vacate her the next day sneaking spoonfuls of free cheesecake. A pretty good day in the end.

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