The move from the sanctity of my small beach town in West Michigan was not nearly as daunting as the decision to do so itself. But my strong senses of skepticism and adventure merged as my friend’s SUV (stuffed with poorly packed boxes) coalesced with the mass of cars on the I-94.
As we pulled into the concrete wonderland, I didn’t realize that Chicago was anything but. For as cemented as this city may be, I would shortly learn that if I stood still, I’d fall behind.
This was a pace that I wasn’t used to though.
For a vivacious eighteen years, the mitten was all I knew. I’d get lost in the wooded trails near my home–unregrettably scratching my knees on the stray branches of the too-tall trees that I’d attempt to climb. For my ambition tends to be greater than my upper body strength on most occasions.
I’d jump from the pier and make my way out of the water in hopes to catch the last bit of warmth that the sunset had to offer, and in hopes of drying the last bit of droplets that my towel just never seemed to catch.
I’d joyride down Lakeshore at night with my friends and exhaust our speakers with whatever beat we had found that day. We’d tune back into reality every few miles to let a family of deer cross the road – but immediately resumed our compact rave right after.
I’d venture to Grand Rapids often. For the unmistakably “big city” feel that it had, it had the small town appeal that still made me feel like I hadn’t even stepped out of my backyard. Accompanied by my height-seeking troupe, we’d scale the skyline for our next quest. We’d all discover our inner Peter Parker as we jumped fences that weren’t meant to be jumped and climbed ladders that weren’t meant to be climbed – at least not by a few teenagers hyped up on adrenaline and caffeine. We’d take turns being on lookout, while the others would look out into the complicated synthesis of architecture and art as playthings.
It was a view we had to work for; it was a view without comparison.
All of these magical Michigan moments won my heart, but a spirit called wanderlust would gently nudge me until it escalated into a shove. And that shove would take me to the South Loop of the second city.
The first few weeks felt like learning how to walk for the first time. I slowly but surely figured out that in this city, you don’t say hi to every person you pass on your morning run, and you sure as hell don’t leave your bike unattended – even if it is only for five minutes.
People seemed cold, but there were the select few who glowed on my radar of Midwestern hospitality – who would flash an acknowledging smile in passing. I started to feel right at home.
Though I didn’t know Chicago like the literal back of my hand (In case you’re wondering - Holland is about two and a half inches from the top of my pinky finger), I began to figure out my way around the city, which ended up being surprisingly easy. My typical pursuit was for a cup of coffee, and I was thankful to find a shop on every corner. The accessibility of everything I could ever want in one place elicited a waging war between my wallet and the shops and restaurants. ‘I’m not going to let you rob me of all that I’m worth, Chicago,’ I’d think to myself.
As if entering an entirely different realm of self-control wasn’t difficult enough, I had to learn how to use public transportation. I’d only ever taken a subway once before, luckily with a knowledgeable friend dragging me by the hand the entire way. The intricately weaved rails were intimidating to a degree, but armed with my trusty travel pass – the CTA trips eventually became as mindless as driving the Michigan roads to school, work, or the beach. The “L” grew to be more than a method of transportation. It was an adventure-mobile running on it’s own schedule – teaching me to be a vagabond.
I’d turn my moments of homesickness into seasickness and walk east to the lake, crossing an entirely different breed of Lake Shore Drive. I enjoyed the bitter irony of how these cars would never stop for a family of deer, for they could barely stop for the pedestrians at the crosswalk. But the multi-sensory view was enough to ease my mitten nostalgia. The sound of the waves was no different, just with a bit of traffic in the background. The smell of the water had a faint twist of smog, but barely deviated from the sea that I knew and loved. I thrived on finding such solace in unfamiliarity.
With every lesson and trial that the city threw my way, I fell in love with the tease and temptation and the stomach-lurching train rides. My muscles memorized the jolts and turns of the CTA and my feet grew to know the path from class to coffee without skipping a step. Chicago may suck the soul out of me, but it never takes anything that it doesn’t give right back.
Every once in a while, my heartthrob of a home state gets jealous and summons me back. I’ll get behind the wheel and forget which pedals do what. I’ll remember that even though I can walk from destination to destination, it will take me at least seven times longer than it would in the city. I’ll return to the city and wish the sand were as clean as the sand in which I grew up building tiny towns. I’ll miss the endless abyss of climbable trees that wreaked havoc on my knees and feet.
And everyday, I’ll know that Michigan has my heart and Chicago has my soul.
—story by KATIE SCHULTZ