By now you probably read about my small (read: big) obsession with Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 3 and how ORD decorates it for Christmas, just like in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (Terminal 3 is seen in the original Home Alone, but without holiday decorations). I shared a glimpse of my early-December trip to Chicago before Christmas, highlighting these decorations at O’Hare. Today you get to see my entire journey to Chicago in December, not just the Christmas portions.
This was actually my second time to Chicago for a photography assignment at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in two months - my personal photos from my ATL-ORD-SFO trip in October are in progress; work assignment photos always come first. You’ll see the photos from that trip at some point this Spring, so you’re seeing these trips out of order. In October, due to the logistics of my photo assignments, I only had an evening free in Chicago before flying to San Francisco for the next photoshoot, and I was lucky to even get that. This time, in December, ORD was my only airport to cover, so I was able to schedule an extra day in case of weather or scheduling issues, allowing me to explore a city I’d never truly seen before.
Day 1: Arrival
All journeys have to start somewhere, and Dulles’ slogan is Your Journey Begins With Us - Steve and his team always deck out IAD with new additions every year. There was new colorful LED uplighting inside Eero Saarinen’s Main Terminal Building this year, but I never got to see it in person this year, departing in daylight. Here is Dulles’ Main Terminal AeroTrain station all set for Christmas!
I think everyone does this, but it’s always fun to spot places you know or frequent from the air. Living so close to Dulles, on this pattern I always see a shopping center I visit, but got to see my old high school from the air lit up for football thanks to a banking turn.
I always prefer a window seat anyway, but by far Chicago is one of the prettiest cities to see from the air at night. If you ever visit this city, you must get a window seat and arrive at night. Chicago is the only city I’ve truly been excited to specifically see from the air. This, my second time taking in Chicago’s sprawl, I was joined by a British Airways flight abeam my plane also on final. For about 5 minutes until we landed simultaneously I spotted the BA flight appearing and dissapearing in and out through the low cloud-cover above the peach glow of the sea of sodium lights below.
The Grid; a digital frontier. Maybe one day I’ll photograph the moonrise along the Chicago skyline in tribute to the masterful work of Ron Fricke and Godfrey Reggio.
My flight on United arrived in Terminal 1, and since it was nighttime upon landing and my photoshoot the next day was in the morning, I took an extra hour to walk all the way over to Terminal 3, stand in awe of the beautiful light display, take pictures of it, and walk all the way back to Terminal 1 to exit and claim my bag - this way I was sure to get photos of the decorations during night and daylight. Totally worth it, and a huge airport bucket-list item checked off. These lights are seen adorning walkways between Terminal 1 and 2.
Made famous in Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Terminal 3 is where the McCallisters perform the McCallister family travel tradition of springing to their gate. The McCallisters fly out of the K Gates in Home Alone, and the H Gates in Home Alone 2, while Kevin gets separated at the Y-split, boarding his flight to New York out of the K Gates. A fun factoid if you watch the movies closely is the Terminal 3 Christmas decorations only appear in Home Alone 2.
My travel days mostly only consist of traveling and getting settled in upon arrival. Before heading to the hotel to settle in, I got to say hello to the O’Hare dinosaur, watching over the silent Terminal on my way back to baggage claim to head to the hotel. I chose a different hotel this time because I had nothing but logistic problems with the hotel I stayed at in October. Not only did I get a deal on the room, but this one was much closer, and on the off-chance their airport shuttle didn’t run like the shuttle at my previous hotel, this one has rail service and is only one stop from the airport. This hotel was much more convenient and gave me reliable and quick transportation.
Day 2: Photoshoot
During my photoshoot the next day, I got to see Terminal 3’s decorations in daylight; I’d expected and looked forward to this, becuase Christmas lights turn me into a wide-eyed little kid. It’s beautiful at night and during the day for different and unique reasons.
Day 3: Downtown Chicago
The day after my photoshoot was free for flexibility or inclement weather, so I decided to go downtown and explore some of the places I didn’t get to in October. This time I had a few destinations in mind, but was content to explore without a rush. In contrast to having only a handful of hours beginning at sunset in October, I had an entire day, which let me explore in daylight. The sun did nothing, however to counteract the single-digit temperatures I was braving this time around.
A few blocks from the subway, my first planned desination was the Christkindlmarket Chicago; a German Christmas market serving German food and selling German Christmas wares.
After eating some bratwurst, a stuffed pretzel, and some hot chocolate with Krampus, I set off toward Navy Pier, and decided to stop by Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate along the way; I’d photographed Cloud Gate at night in October (one of only three stops I had planned and successfully squeezed in in October), but decided to see it in daylight as well since I wasn’t too far from it.
My impression of Cloud Gate is that it is more beautiful on a clear day like this one, but the experience is more enjoyable at night due to much fewer people. Millenium Park also had sections blocked off for Christmas light displays which hadn’t been present to obstruct some views whe I was here in October.
The reflection of the skyline is mesmorizing. Going underneath “the bean” absorbs all the city din, only reflecting echos of gabbing passersby.
Obligatory selfie reflection on “the bean.”
I noticed the fancy scroll architecture in October, but didn’t wander over to see what it was; I imagine seeing a concert here is like across between Wolf Trap and Merriweather Post Pavillion.
Also of interest was stumbling onto the NBC building in Chicago; I didn’t know they had one, but it’s interesting to me since I’ve been inside 30 Rock and toured sets of some of their shows including The Doctors, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live.
If the Maggie Daley Ice Skating Ribbon had been open while I was there, I’d have actually considered trying a few laps on it. (Ice is how I dislocated my knee and tore my MPFL requiring reconstruction in 2017, so this is quite the statement). I’ve only been ice skating twice in my life, and I’ve alwyas wanted to try it again. Doing so alone in a city you don’t reside or even know anyone in would have been pretty risky, so in reality I probably wouldn’t have done it. But maybe I would have.
I’d been reccomended visiting Navy Pier; a contact from my photoshoot the day before, a life-long Chicagoan, told me there was lots to do at Navy Pier, likening it to Pier 39 in San Francisco (which a life-long San Francisoan from my photoshoot at SFO reccomended I visit). I was also recomended a few specific hot dog joints, but none of them were convenient to visit along my path.
Arriving at Navy Pier, it was completely deserted - it was single-digits out after all. It looked like the building itself was locked up to me, so it wasn’t until I’d walked halfway down the pier that I saw a small group come out some doors, showing me there actually was an interior I could get to (and more importantly, warmth!). I warmed up and continued to the end of the pier to see what was at the end; all I found was a kids’ Santa Claus event - Navy Pier had been made out to me to be a lot more with a lot more going on than it actually was; during the Summer I’m sure that’s the case, but not in early December.
I stepped outside at the end of the pier just in time for sunset.
Now that I knew there was an interior to Navy Pier, I backtracked in warmth, and found out there was a small mall section I’d completely missed. Staying warm a few minutes longer, I got my first bag of Garrett Mix.
Ready to brave the cold again, I head back West to Michigan Avenue. Given that I was cold and doing a lot of walking, I’d sworn off shopping this trip, but The Magnificent Mile is still a Chicago staple, nothing is stopping me from window shopping, and it was a direct route to the pizza shop I had planned this time around. That, and I wanted to see the Christmas lights along Michigan Avenue; this was the Christmas parade route, after all.
Since night fell, and the Christmas lights were on, I went into full Kevin McCallister mode and set out hunting Christmas trees. In doing so I passed The Wrigley Building, a huge Apple Store, and Tribune Tower, which has a fascinating history.
Finally, toward the North end of Michigan Avenue (and after a short trip through Water Tower Place), I hit the motherlode.
What I didn’t realize until I turned the corner is what building I was standing in the shadow of. I’d photographed it twice now already; Chicago’s iconic 875 North Michigan Avenue, more ubiquitously known by its former name, The John Hancock Center.
Visiting this tower wasn’t part of the loose plan I’d assembled, but that’s the point of having a loose plan - unplanned fun. Two months prior I’d gone up the 110 story tall Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower; the first and primary stop I had planned in my October jaunt downtown), but I found the view from the 100 story tall John Hancock Center more impressive.
And there is Navy Pier from 94 stories up; remember, I walked all the way from the end of that pier (and further to get there, actually; my only subway usage this jaunt was to get to downtown and to get back to my hotel in Rosemont).
Far and away the dumbest thing I heard was while photographing the Eastern side; two girls, about my age, were also taking pictures on their phones, and upon rounding the corner to the East side one exclaimed, “Oh my God, something happened! Something’s wrong with the city! This side of the city is has a complete blackout!”
You could hear she was scared; I didn’t say anything - I wanted to hear how deep this well of stupidity went. The other girl was confused at first too, but took about 60 seconds to realize, and explain to the first girl that, “I think that’s the water.”
Without missing a beat, she replied, “but where are the lights?!”
“I don’t think people live on the water.”
”But, shouldn’t there be boats? What happened to the boats? Look, everyone’s trying to get out of the city.”
No folks; it’s Winter, and sunset was around 4.30 - it’s just rush hour on a Friday in Chicago.
After that astonishing display of naivety, and walking the city all day with only light fare in my stomach, it was time to finish the last few blocks and hit my last planned stop: dinner at Lou Malnati’s. I needed food, and I needed it quick, becuase my cue to leave John Hancock Center was a quickly forming migraine, and I didn’t have migraine meds with me downtown. I was hoping food would stave it off, since I’m sure it was caused by dehydration and poor diet.
The pizza was fantastic, by the way.
And to finish my day off, the food did nothing to slow the migraine, and after 45min waiting to get into Lou’s, an hour and a half eating, 15min waiting for the train, and an hour ride back to Rosemont, my migraine was way beyond any intervention. It was the first migraine I’d had in over 2 months, and the worst migraine I had all year.
Day 4: Departure
I only managed about 2 hours of sleep; after at least 8 hours of excruciating pain in my pitch black hotel room, I managed to fall asleep, and woke up with the post-migraine haze I experience when the pain has passed, but I still have cognitive fog while the tail end of the migraine clears up.
The killer headache the night before meant I hadn’t packed, so after a shower I rushed to fit what is usually a 1hr organized exercise into a 20min disorganized frenzy to pack and catch the hotel airport shuttle... hopefully. Luckily I was right on time to catch it. And although I was arriving to the airport a full hour later than I normally would prefer, I still had a half hour to safely get something to eat near my gate. Among other things, I finally got my Chicago-style hot dog since I never got one the day before.
The snow-dusted Shenandoah mountains was a fitting sight to end my trip; I’d spotted snow flying over the Sierra Nevada mountain range on my return trip from San Francisco two months prior.