Wheaton, Illinois is a postcard-worthy place. I’ve visited the friend that we’re staying with a few times before–using the biennial Redbud Writers retreat as an excuse to come early and explore. Kathy is always a gracious hostess, being sure to include stops she knows I would enjoy: a trip to the Wade Center where I saw C.S. Lewis’ writing desk or a visit to the Wheaton College library to see Madeleine L’Engle’s handwritten notes in the archives. This visit was no different in Kathy’s attentiveness, but with plans adjusted accordingly to it being my whole crew instead of only me. No need for quiet museums or archived stacks, today we walk a couple blocks in glorious sunshine to play on a giant trampoline with her granddaughters and then go out for deep dish pizza. Perfection.IMG_5313 (1)

During dinner I ask Kathy and her daughter Mindy to help me figure out a touring plan for tackling Chicago the next day. It’s so unlike me to not have this sort of research completed by now, but this trip has too many variables to account for all of them. I’ve found it better to talk to the locals whenever possible. Truth be told, I’m a bit anxious about having to use public transit. I’ve never taken a train before, let alone with four kids. Mike has limited experience. I listen intently as they tell me the best stops and must-sees.

IMG_5316The next morning, still full from breakfast, Kathy walks us to the train station and gives us specific instructions on purchasing our tickets. I’m especially grateful for the tidbit about where to put your tickets when you’re sitting on the second level of the train. I hate looking like a clueless tourist. When we all climb up there I lean forward and slip the paper tickets under the small metal tab. Walter is in obvious awe of the uniformed conductor and watches intently as he punches our tickets; Walt hands his faux child-under-six ticket to him and he punches it into a smiley face mirroring Walt’s wide grin.

After an hour we arrive in Chicago, hustled onto the platform in the large station, trying to keep track of the kids in the bustle. After the brainstorming session with Kathy and Mindy over pizza the previous night, we’ve decided to attempt to save the kids’ energy by using Uber, rather than walk the twenty minutes from Ogilvie Transportation Center to Millennium Park. Another first for Mike and I both. While getting into a complete stranger’s car feels contrary to everything my mother ever taught me, UberXL (we need larger cars for our crew) ends up being easy and surprisingly affordable. Chicago is gorgeous and the weather is apparently showing off for us Californians. I careen my neck to try to glimpse the tall stone buildings rising around us like a forest out the window.

IMG_5331At Millennium Park we follow the streams of tourists to The Bean. I don’t know why there is a giant metallic bean or what it has to do with Chicago, but we have fun making faces into it’s mirrored surface and viewing the infinite images underneath. Next, we happen upon a modern art fountain on our way to Buckingham Fountain. The kids strip off their shoes and socks and roll up their jeans, which almost keeps them from getting completely soaked as they splash across the water’s glossy surface.

day 17 (5)Shoes back on, and Walt is lagging behind as we walk through the city. I can never tell if he’s actually tired of walking or is succumbing to boredom. Fortunately, his energy spikes with the rest of the kids’ excitement upon seeing the enormous Buckingham Fountain. The water sprays dozens of feet into the air and is whipped across the esplanade by the wind. I puzzle over who would put a giant fountain here in “the windy city.”

day 17 (7)We can’t stop commenting on the vastness of great Lake Michigan across the street. “It looks like an ocean!” “You can’t even see the other side!” “There’s just no way that’s fresh water!” We cross at the crosswalk and sit with our legs dangling over the fresh, sky blue waters and eat a snack. I try not to panic when Lucy drops her goldfish bag and leans down toward the water to grab it. I fail, and shout a little too loudly to, “Hold still!” My kids look at me like the safety-freak this vacation is teaching me that I am. I grab the bag off the concrete step separating us from the deep water and make everyone scoot back a foot.

I summon another UberXL, not realizing there is nowhere for the driver to stop to get us. We cross the street to a slightly wider muddy shoulder and throw the kids into the minivan when it pulls up.

Next stop: The Museum of Science and Industry.

IMG_5343We shut. this. place. down. Even after four hours of exploring and playing with all the interactive exhibits, we still hadn’t made it to the top floor. We run up the stairs and try to take in as much as we can while polite-but-firm docents announce repeatedly that the museum is now CLOSED.

Now pretty much pros, we UberXL back to Ogilvie Transportation Center. There is one express train which leaves around 5p, skipping all the stops we waited through on the way out and only taking a half hour to get to Wheaton. I am determined to make this train. Upon entering the station, we realize that tourists are in the minority here as it’s obviously rush hour. We find the correct platform and walk further and further down the train only to see car after car packed to capacity. It would be difficult to find seating for a single, and we’re looking for space for six! We climb aboard and continue to walk single-file down aisle after aisle. Eventually we come to a car with one available bench seat. Mike squeezes the four kids onto the bench and sits next to a woman across the aisle. I sit next to a gentleman behind him and sigh with relief. I fish our tickets out of my jacket pocket and place them in the clip. Like. A. Boss.

Back at Kathy’s we’re spoiled with a rib-sticking home-cooked meal of crock-pot tender roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh baked bread, and green beans. Mike and I had skipped the awful, overpriced food court pizza at the museum and dig into the delicious dinner with vigor. This quaint home has become one of my happy places, always overflowing with stimulating conversation and hospitality. I sip my tea after dinner sleepy and deeply content.

IMG_5346Next morning I’m up early to sneak away for a couple hours to have coffee with some local Redbud writers–board members, actually. Time passes entirely too quickly–as it is apt to do when I’m immersed in friendship and caffeine and conversation–and it’s too soon time to leave. I catch a ride back to Kathy’s where the kids are just finishing the homemade cinnamon rolls they got to help make for breakfast. We thank Kathy for her warm hospitality and the gift of having a place at her table.

And the Marsden Expedition rolls on.IMG_5324

I’ll take a large Chicago vlog, please: (insert image of me laughing hysterically)

Some of Wheaton also on Day 16: https://youtu.be/fkZj7_kOdzY and Day 18: https://youtu.be/G4slqa9Midk