As many times as Anna and I have driven by Chicago, we have only visited the city once. In the summer of 2012, during our Washington, D.C. to Washington State cross-country move, we spent three days camping on the beach at Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago. Owen was two-years-old and it was a HOT and HUMID summer. Because of the weather, and the fact that it took about an hour to get into the city from our campsite, we spent most of our time lounging on the Lake Michigan beach. The time we did spend in the city was great and it whetted our appetite for future visits when Owen was a little older.
When we started discussing our timeline and route back to the west coast, we realized that there was nothing stopping us from actually spending some time visiting Chicago. Camping options around the city are fairly limited and we decided to give urban boondocking at McCormick Place’s Truck Marshaling parking lot a try. We had read several reviews and figured for the price and its location, dry camping in a city parking lot made a lot of sense.
Since our plans were a little dynamic, we didn’t make our McCormick Place on-line reservations until the night before our planned arrival while we were staying at Indiana Dunes State Park. I made reservations for three nights, paying $31 parking fee, plus a $4 convenience fee, per night. While we were planning to spend four nights, with overcast skies, cold wind, and plenty of rain showers forecasted, we weren’t sure how enjoyable our parking lot boondocking experience would be. If things were going well, we could always add another night or two onto our stay.
We left Indiana Dunes State Park at about 10:00am on a bright and sunny Friday, November 3rd morning[i]. We hoped this would be early enough to enjoy seeing some of the city that day, yet late enough to avoid the worst of the commuter traffic. We followed all the on-line advice to get to the Truck Marshaling yard and, other than the ample traffic dodging and weaving around us as we approach the city on I-94, it was very easy to navigate to the lot. We pulled into the well-marked lot and encountered the big monkey wrench in our Chicago stay.
We sat at the gate for a few moments before the gate attendant walked out of the main building and into the guard shack. He looked at our reservations and asked if we had also paid for parking for our truck? I said no, we only paid the $35 per day RV fee. In my mind, our truck and trailer constituted a single “RV.” He asked us to hold on and called his boss to confirm. The answer from the main office was that we had to pay an additional $23 per day for our truck (in addition to the $35 per day we paid for our trailer, for a grand total of $58 per day to boondock in parking lot between an expressway and a busy set of railroad tracks).
Groggy and dazed from our drive into the city, and not wanting to forfeit the $35 per day we already paid (the website makes a pretty big deal about the fact that there are NO REFUNDS), I proffered my credit card to pay the difference. Once we got parked in our spot and I had time to think through the gate interaction, I started to get angry. I also managed to meet and talk to some of the other RVers in the lot (all in Class A motorhomes with toads) and discovered that they had paid only the $35. Needless to say, I was pretty hot. I decided to make a phone call and ask some questions. Not wanting to waste everyone’s time in my Don Quixote’ish quest, I sent Anna and Owen into the city on the Metra Train and said that I would meet them in Millennium Park once I got to the bottom of things. After getting the run-around from the guy on the phone, I saddled up my Duramax-powered Rocinante and headed to the main office to speak to the manager.
Walking in to the main office, I managed to interrupt five employees who were obviously quite buy sitting on their asses butts, thumbing their cell phones, and eating chicken wings. I politely stated my case and asked if there was a mistake? The gentleman, who apparently was the boss of the operation, pulled a chicken wing out his ample maw and explained that there was not a mistake, their policy is that a tow vehicle and trailer are counted as two separate vehicles and therefore require two charges. I mentioned that this goes against the evidence on the ground and on the Internet. The boss’s response was a slack-mouthed shoulder-shrug and that there must have been a mistake by the cashier at the gate—he clearly indicated that the mistake was NOT his problem. After a little more back-and-forth with the staff, I eventually realized that I was tilting at a 350 pound buffalo sauce covered windmill and gave up. On the drive back to the trailer I decided to roll with idiotic punches and not let it ruin our Chicago weekend, but I’ll be goddamned if I was giving these fuckers parking professionals another dime of my money.
I sulkily returned to our rig, buttoned everything up, and walked down the street to the Metra Station feeling unsatisfied and angry, but resigned myself to make the best of the situation. By the time I got to Millennium Park, I was still irritated about the additional $23 per day, but the three stop train ride had cooled me down quite a bit. Although we planned on adding days to the back-end of our reservation, we now planned to relocate on Monday. Either we’ll move to a county park a little further outside the city and accept the commute, or if we were done with Chicago we would head south to Springfield and our next stop.[ii]
We had a pretty full schedule of events planned for our stay in Chicago. We knew wanted to visit the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Adler Planetarium, and the Shedd Aquarium. As a bonus, all but the Shedd Aquarium are ASTC.org members, which meant we wouldn’t have to pay general admission fees, but would have to pay for any special exhibits we wanted to see. Luckily, even with our detour at the Parking Lot front office, we still managed to have a full afternoon and evening to explore Chicago. We started out with Millennium Park.
Anna and Owen left the parking lot about an hour before me, but we were able to quickly link up at the Cloud Gate statue. After walking around the park and taking the requisite selfies in front of the bean, we headed over to Revival Food Hall for a delicious late lunch. With our hunger satiated, we grabbed an Uber to the Field Museum for a few hours prior to their 5pm closing. Although we only had about 2 ½ hours at the Field Museum, we still managed to see everything we wanted and didn’t have to fight the mid-day crowds too much. We left the museum at 5pm and walked to the Museum Campus Metra stop. The McCormick Place Metra stop is the closest stop to the Truck Marshaling lot and is only one stop out from the Museum Campus stop. Walking back to the parking lot from the Museum Campus was an option[iii], but we already had about 6-miles of walking and we know Owen’s limits.
Since we were dry camping and the temperatures were expected to drop into the low 40s, earlier in the week we decided to pick up a supplemental heater to keep the trailer warm without running the furnace. The furnace is a notorious amp-hour hog and with cloudy skies forecasted for the duration of our Chicago visit, we wanted to preserve as much battery power as possible and minimize the running of our generator—we knew we would need to run the Yamaha generator, but wanted to limit operation to an hour or two in the morning and a few hours in the evening so that we could spend the bulk of the day exploring the city. While we hate the small green Coleman gas bottles, after a little research I decided that the Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Heater was our best option. I considered the bigger Mr. Heater Big Buddy with the built in fan, but because space is a premium I opted for the smaller one.
We used Mr. Heater in the evenings and mornings when we were up and moving around the trailer—we don’t use it at night while we’re sleeping and instead use the Airstream’s LP furnace. Using Mr. Heater in this way saves us 4-5 hours of battery usage when we aren’t bringing in solar and does a good job of warming up the inside of the trailer.[iv]
Saturday’s forecast showed cold rains all day. Since getting to/from the Museum of Science and Industry by train isn’t super-convenient, we decided to drive to the museum and park. Getting to the MSI from McCormick Place is a quick trip down South Lake Drive and we were in the museum 30-minutes after leaving the trailer. We spent all day at MSI and had a great time. Owen is a nerd, just like Anna and I, and we were all in heaven wandering around and exploring the numerous exhibits. We paid extra for the permanent Robotics and the U505 exhibits, as well as the temporary LEGO Brick by Brick exhibit.
By Sunday morning we had managed to cross-off several things from our Chicago to-do list. All we had left were the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium. We decided to get moving early and knock them both out that afternoon.
We hopped on the Metra and spent the morning at the Adler Planetarium. After a couple hours exploring the cosmos, we grabbed lunch at the Planetarium Café and strolled over to the Shedd Aquarium. Because we had to pay for the Aquarium, and the fact that I wasn’t that thrilled about visiting, we decided that Anna and Owen would do the Aquarium and I would walk back to the trailer to check on Dash.
Somewhere earlier in the week, we suspect at Indiana Dunes State Park, Dash had picked up some type of gastro-intestinal bug and had been sick during our entire stay in Chicago. In fact, we had spent several hours between midnight Saturday and 7am Sunday, walking him around the cold, foggy inner-city parking lot because he was feeling the call of nature. We were concerned about leaving him alone too long.
Anna and Owen had a wonderful couple of hours exploring the aquarium and I had a quiet couple of hours at the trailer. By Sunday night, we had all reached our museum saturation point and were ready to hit the road for points south.
After a relatively quiet night (other than the frequent freight trains that shook our trailer every few hours as they rattled by, 10-feet from our rig), we hitched up in the bright, brisk morning sunshine and left Chicago in our rearview mirror as we headed to Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois.
[i] Once we were settled at Indiana Dunes State Park, we realized that the commuter train stops just outside the State Park. According to the South Shore Line website, the commute is about an hour. We briefly considered staying here for a couple of days and commuting to/from the city, but decided against it in lieu of our McCormick Place plan.
[ii] The positives of parking at McCormick Place can be found on any number of RV Parking review apps and sites, and they are all true. We had no problem finding a level spot to park and it is an easy walk to the Metra Station at McCormick Place. Although, while this is a wonderfully convenient place to stay during your visit to Chicago (two Metra stops to the Museum Campus stop and three to Millennium Park), I’m not sure the $58 per night cost is worth it. Maybe we were just super-unlucky. Maybe they changed their policy the day we arrived. Maybe we just got ripped off…but this was our experience. The bottom line, if you get the right cashier at the gate and they only charge the $35, then it’s a great place to stay when visiting Chicago. But, if you don’t get lucky and get the folks we had, then I’m not sure $58 per night is worth the convenience.
[iii] I walked back to the Airstream from the Shedd Aquarium on Sunday afternoon and it was a leisurely 2.35-mile walk past Soldier Field on Museum Campus Road that took me approximately 45-minutes—I did get a little lost walking through McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center and trying to figure out how to get over Lake Shore Drive.
[iv] With no sunshine for our solar and running the furnace at night, we were constantly playing catch-up with the generator. By running for a couple of hours in the morning and 3-4 at night (there were no generator hours at McCormick Place, but we didn’t want to run it all night), we usually managed to get into the mid- to high-80% range by 9pm when I would shut it down. We ran the inverter for a few hours each night and went to bed with the batteries somewhere between 80-85%. At 8am Saturday morning, our battery capacity was in the low 70% range. On Sunday morning, we were 61%. We never dropped below 60% battery capacity during our stay in Chicago. Had we not had the Mr. Heater, I’m confident that we would have been down an additional 10% each day.