One night, when I was out dancing, I had a particularly good dance with a particularly fun partner, who afterwards floated the suggestion that I join her at another dance… in New York.

Now, the Book of Bokonon tells us,
Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.

And I have always viewed this as wisdom.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, I found myself on a MegaBus at 5:45AM one morning heading to Chicago.

MegaBus had, since the last time I'd rode it, got TVs to play a safety video in which a beautiful girl smiled at you and explained in no uncertain terms the rules of the bus. At first her smile was alluring, but I quickly found myself wishing the TV would break as her voice and too-numerous fake expressions grated on.

Eight hours later, I strolled through Chicago to Lou Mitchell's. This place always has excellent food, lots of bubbly conversation, and good, quick service. After finishing my fried egg sandwich, I chuck my stuff in one of Amtrak's finger print lockers and head out to stroll around Chicago.

I follow the river down and around, crossing the scary metal bridge with the trains on top. Seagulls are flocking and I hold my finger up like a sausage, trying to lure them into landing on my hand… alas, none of them take me up on the offer, though—happily—I don't lose my finger either.

I'm essentially walking on air, so happy am I to be out and traveling, and am all smiles, but none of the Chicagoians return my smiles—many look rather grim.
The Dancer—Steo—had bought train tickets long before inviting me along, and since the train is expensive and people deserve to have their own adventures (it was her first train trip), I'd left her to do that leg of the journey on her own. When we'd discussed meeting in Chicago, I had told her simply that I would meet her at the Bean and we did not discuss any further details of when, where, or how that meeting would take place.

But I'm familiar with some of Amtrak's schedules and have curved my walk towards the Bean to arrive at the earliest time Steo could possibly make it there. As minutes crawled by, I amused myself with reflections, deciding that it would not be so bad if she never showed and this all turned out to be an exceptionally elaborate plot to dump me. Although, if it were such an awesome plot, finding her would have become necessary.

Fortunately, she strolled up from an unexpected angle several minutes later and we took to exploring Chicago via a meandering route over bridges, under bridges, and through buildings, ending eventually on the L, heading South. I'm impressed by this: we agree to meet in some distant city she's never visited at a landmark with name which doesn't suggest it is a landmark and that meeting has taken place with no requests for clarification or mix-ups.

As the train clickety-clack-rumbles southwards, I explain that I've never quite got this part right. I'd come here once with my family many, many years before and then, in 02006, found my way back with Anwa based largely on memory without problems using foot and train. When Stecla, Bripi, and Rewil had come to Chicago with me to see the Phantom of the Opera, I'd tried to go again… but the lay of the land had somehow changed and we spent almost an hour trying to find the right station to head south. The transit people kept saying it was one line. I could have sworn it was the other, and told them so. They looked at me and flatly refused to tell me how to get to the station to catch the line I wanted. In the end we gave in and took the line they told us to, and it deposited us in an area with broken glass littering the streets and empty lots. A place with aged brick apartment buildings with boarded-up windows. More wandering ensued before we got to the restaurant. At dinner, our waiter told us how two burning bodies had been found in an abandoned lot by the station we'd gotten off at.

But things weren't always bad. Dirk and I had made it there in his car without problems, as had Tegal, Jusko, and I on another occasion.

The train squeals southwards and Steo and I disembark. Sure enough, there's the broken glass and sketchy, over-grown lots. We stroll across them into a large park, meandering through it under the light of a slivered-moon. We pass by a used bookstore and narrowly avoid being sucked in. Steo says a big, glowing sign for pizza and looks at me; I shake my head---we haven't come this far to stop in a place with a sign like that. Just shy of it, I take her elbow and we dodge a quick right into a narrow entryway.

Inside, the pizza place looks like it's organically grown from some wood-font and then been successively carved away by generations of people leaving their initials and more. The pizza is deep-dish, and tasty! We split a couple of personals: garbage and marghareta.

The hour waxes late, but, nonetheless, we're drawn to the U of Chicago campus and take a hurried walking tour through its libraries and a few of the other buildings. They're massive, ornate stone affairs with insides of plaster, thick beams, and impressive chandeliers. All libraries should be like this: temples, if you will. By this point, we've about forty minutes before the train leaves and begin to get a bit worried. We run from the campus to the L-station, only to see one train pull away as we arrive.

Waiting upstairs on the platform, we have a chance to enjoy the warmish night and a good view of the city before the other train pulls up. On-board, we're both immediately considering what the fastest way to the Amtrak station is from the L. Problem is, the L's wall-map doesn't show the Amtrak. After discussing it for several minutes, Steo recalls she has a street map of the city. Right then, disembark at the first station inside the Loop, and transfer.

We jump off of the train and wait as another two go by. When the third train isn't the one we need, we simultaneously make a dash for the stairs and begin hailing taxis. Luckily (well, it is Chicago), one pulls up almost immediately and ferries us to the station. The finger-print lockers we got turn out to be right next to each other and, after a momentary scare, I even manage to find my ticket. (Though it's beyond me why you need a ticket and a finger-print!) We dash across the station and make it to the train with exactly five minutes to spare.

Sleeping on Amtrak (or trains in general, really) has never been easy for me and this night is no exception. After staying up until perhaps three talking, there's probably another two hours of uneasy sleep before my exhaustion becomes sufficient to keep me under.

Waking up the next morning, that part of New York State which isn't New York City is swishing by the windows. You can immediately see that the towns and villages we are passing through are economically depressed. There are an assortment of lakes, leaf-less trees, and a lot of wet bogland. Just the sort of terrain which appeals to my sense of aesthetic. Later, at home, I'll look at satellite maps of the area and discover that you can see the imprint of the glacier which rode over this landscape.

A little later on in the morning we head back to the dining car and have a table to ourselves. The waiter, a tall black man in an immaculate suit with an expressive voice, asks us what we'd like and then whether we would like grits, oatmeal, or fruit with that. Steo and I look at each: grits? Seeing our bemusement the waiter says he'll get us a sample… and then returns with two heaping bowls.

Grits, I decide, do not taste that good. But our waiter's okay with that and fruit comes forth with giants omelletes. Half-way through the omelets, we've finished our oranges when the waiter appears with a big bowl full of more oranges! Delicious!

By afternoon we've traveled across most of New York. I've spent part of the trip working on a logo designer for EWB-USA and much of the rest of the time talking. During the “smoking breaks” we disembark to run the length of the train and back for exercse. Finally, we leave the train in Rochester. Karen picks us up, informing me that the cost of this ride is a waltz, and then we are positively consumed by Rochester's mass of bridges and intersecting highways. Finally, we pick up Whit at the bus depot and begin trekking North for Saratoga Springs.

iPods abound and, since share a common folk-music interest, it isn't too difficult to find good tunes. I've never heard Stan Rogers before, but Barrett's Privateers and Northwest Passage get stuck in my head during the ride and have not left since.

We have a hotel room somewhere outside of the city. Four thousand some people come to this dance, so hotel rooms are scarce and expensive throughout most of the surrounding area and it's good that we have one because quality sleep will be important! The desk clerk lives in the town and knows about the Flurry (how could he not?) but has never gone, we urge him to do so, but he's non-committal in the way that all people are probably non-committal when hardcore religious evangelicists come knocking on the door.

We drop our things off, take quick showers, and head directly to the dance. On the way, we stop at the Subway for vegetarian patty subs. I'd never known these existed before and used them for the next year as sustenance on average of once per week. Arriving at the city's convention center, we find a sea of cars being fed by the congested arteries of an under-exercised traffic circulation system. Several several blocks from the entrance, we congeal to a parking spot and make our way back through the crisp darkness.

Inside, it is chaos. There are people everywhere. Having successfully purchased wristbands, we join a river people heading in what we hope is the right direction.

The hall opens into a kind of atrium filled with an eclectic mix of jam sessions, people sitting and resting, people sitting and talking, people eating food, people going somewhere or other on important missions, and people wandering. Through a series of doors comes the sound of music. We walk in, and this is what I see:

We dance for a few hours and then take a break because there is a shanty singing in another room. Steo, it turns out, not only has a good voice, but spent several months learning these songs with a shantymaster while sailing historic tallships. After a good hour of singing, we return and dance until about one in the morning, head back exhaustedly to the hotel, and then return the next day.

Rather than going directly to dance, as you might expect. We drop by a shape note singing meet-up. The room has enough people in it for this to be a convention, rather than just a one-hour sing at a dance festival—although, as I have discovered, this is no ordinary dance festival. I decide that I like this festival sing. In shape note we generally rotate through a different leader on every song and that person chooses what they'd like to sing. All the songs are good, of course, but we do have favourites; the people leading the songs sometimes choose these favourites, but often go in for more obscure pieces fitting their mood. At this singing, the only songs sung are the favourite songs and the person leading the lesson has collected pieces from a variety of sources so there are many I've never sung before, including one which is so good that I'm still searching for it.

After shape note we dance essentially without stopping until 1AM again, though with regular breaks to visit the Ben & Jerry's ice cream stand.

This was probably my favourite dance of the whole weekend. You spend about three-quarters of the dance getting as far from your partner as possible and then, in a series of tight maneuvars, fly back for a brief meeting before repeating the whole procedure. We danced this while the group Atlantic Crossing was playing. In order to survive the weekend, I'd purchased jazz shoes before leaving Minneapolis. Light-weight with a piece of plastic strategically placed to minimize friction during spins, the shoes were a life-saving miracle! I can't imagine how I danced for so many years without owning a pair. Nonetheless, we still became fatigued as the day went on. However, Atlantic Crossing had a remedy for this. In the middle of a lengthy, energetic dance, as we were all wearing down, one of them would suddenly pull out a trumpet and you would hear two thousand people spontaneously cheer and double tempo.

All too soon, it was Sunday afternoon and we had danced for over twenty-four hours out of forty or so.

We had a bit of a wait in the train station, but that was okay: it was quite safe.

The train goes quite close to Ann Arbor, where Tegal & Jusko are living. As we leave New York, I text them to see if they can find me in Toledo around six in the morning. They're excellent people and, having known me for a while now, are not too surprised by the possibility of a sudden appearance. Alas, as I work it out on the way home, I realize that I'd only be able to visit for a day because I have arranged to rendezvous to meet with a theoretic ecologist from Seattle as he passes through Minneapolis. And so I stay on the train and travel a quarter of the way across the country for a half-hour conversation.

But, when it happens, it is a good conversation.

Continuing my journey with Steo for a few more hours is also good and we arrive in Chicago a few hours before her next train. When it comes, we'll part ways, as I will be taking the bus.

Breakfast is, of course, at Lou Mitchell's with all the usual fringe benefits of milk duds and donut holes.

We walk around Chicago for a while, taking direction from homeless people we meet and then repair to the Great Hall. There isn't much time before the train leaves, but it's enough to play pennywhistle while waltzing about the floor drawing looks, and then quiet applause from the travelers arrayed on the benches.

But the waltzing has its cost and we have to run through the station. Steo's the last passenger to the train and the ticket ladies give me a hard look and say, “Get her here earlier next time.” while waving Steo past. She tells me later that they purposely never check to see if she has a ticket.

I head to the MegaBus stop where I discover that the ticket I purchased earlier in the day shortly after our arrival in Chicago was, in fact, for the wrong bus! Just before the bus leaves, the driver waves me on and I make the trip home without incident.

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