Chicago sure has a strong gravitational pull

Published 9:28 am Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

It takes about six hours to drive from Chicago to Albert Lea. It takes a little longer if the gravity of Chicago is stronger than on most days.

What do I mean “gravity”? You know, that pull that prevents anyone from leaving anywhere, temporarily or for good.

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There are the automobile-related factors: slow roads, tolls, heavy traffic, construction, likelihood of a collision, frequency of mechanical breakdowns, honesty of mechanics, quickness of repairs, skill of drivers, alertness of drivers, willingness to break traffic laws and probably some other out-of-the-blue factors I haven’t thought of, like the chance of a cattle truck turning over on the roadway.

There are other forms of transportation that would have their own factors: airplanes, buses, trains, motorcycles, bicycles, horses, wagons, walking and so on.

Weather is always a major factor for any form of transportation. There’s nothing like an ice storm to ground airplanes.

Then there are other human factors: homesickness, opportunity, love, curiosity and probably too many to list here. These are decisions that people make whether they decide to go anywhere, even if they don’t possess a car.

My family is finally reunited after an unexpected time apart that lasted longer than a month. My wife was going to be at her parents in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights for two weeks. She took our 6-year-old son, Forrest, our then-10-month-old son, Jasper, and even the dog. However, Jasper cried so much during the ride, partly because of an ear infection and partly because riding in a car seat gets uncomfortable, that she didn’t want to drive back. We decided she could wait until mid-July, when we were planning to go back out for a vacation week and go see a concert at Wrigley Field. I took an Amtrak train last week from Winona to Glenview, Ill. and stayed for a week.

We were slated to leave Sunday in our 2005 Subaru Outback.

Getting out of Chicago was difficult. There were the human reasons: We like being around family and miss them.

But then there were automobile factors.

The car broke down. It needed repair. But it was Saturday afternoon. No one could take it. We found a place open on Sundays. But they needed to speak to the auto repair shop in Albert Lea that had done the prior work. It wasn’t open until Monday. I called my work and said I couldn’t make it Monday. On Monday morning, the mechanics talked. The repairs could be made. We waited. Finally, they were done. The gravity doesn’t end there.

We loaded the car. We said our farewells. We drove onto a main road. We stopped for ice cream at Baskin Robbins. We drove back on the main road. Then we drove on a big highway. Then we drove on a bigger highway. It was a tollway — Interstate 90 — and it was jammed with cars going 15 to 25 mph over the speed limit. Then we encountered road construction. The speeding cars slowed down by 5 mph and squeezed like slot cars into two lanes. Then they slowed more. Then more. Eventually, we were creeping along. Soon, we went fast again. Then slow. Then fast. Then we paid a toll. This pattern continued for a spell until the entire highway stopped. We sat for about 20 minutes. Then we moved forward without any apparent reason for the delay.

By this time, we were near Rockford, Ill., where the tollway turns north. The road construction ended. Still, the road was jam-packed with automobiles. Who is driving northwestbound across northern Illinois on a Monday evening? The traffic count seemed to ease a bit after passing Beloit, Wis., but I would say nothing seemed normal — if normal can be defined as near Medford or even Elko on a typical drive on Interstate 35 to Minneapolis — until we were on the north side of Madison, Wis.

Finally, it felt like Space Satellite Engstrom was free of the gravitational pull of Chicago, which is a star in terms of size compared to the planets Minneapolis, Madison and Rochester. It seemed we were in the open space between them. I suppose Wisconsin Dells is some kind of attractive moon of Madison.

There ought to be some kind of rating for cities about how difficult it is to drive in or out of them. And perhaps there is one, and I just don’t know about it. The term could be called the escape velocity.

It’s good to be back in Albert Lea. Our escape velocity isn’t very high, but it always seems to pull us back anyway.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column usually appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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