escape from michigan

I don't know what it is with Michigan and $200 airfares. Until Wadstock 2000, a small gathering of online friends from Ontario, Michigan, and the East Coast, I had never intentionally visited Michigan. Instead, I had always ended up there courtesy of Northwest Airlines, stranded for hours at Wayne County Metropolitan Airport (DTW). DTW is a horrible place for hours-long involuntary layovers. It has narrow corridors, harsh florescent lighting that flickers, low claustrophobic ceilings, and--of all the random things--auto parts strewn throughout the place in glass display cases. Considering the airport, I didn't assume the city would be much of an improvement, so never ventured further.

So you may wonder what this has to do with $200 airfares. Etheric is tremendously persuasive when it comes to people going to Wadstock, which is a party he throws every year. For weeks, he hounded me to go. Eventually, I ran out of every excuse why I couldn't except the cost of flights. Detroit is a Northwest Airlines "fortress hub," along with Minneapolis and Memphis. They control the majority of the gates at DTW, along with most of the takeoff/landing slots, making it very hard to fly there on other airlines. The lack of competition results in higher airfares than in cities where there is more competition, such as Seattle, Las Vegas or New York.

Cost seemed like a worthy excuse for me to avoid Michigan. "It costs a fortune to fly to Detroit," I told Etheric. "The standard 21-day advance fare to there is $338. If I can go for $200, I'll do it." Etheric called my bluff. "Check Expedia and Travelocity," he said. "Maybe you'll find a deal." I checked, and to my dismay, there was, in fact, a deal--a $200 fare on Sun Country Airlines.

Sun Country exists today solely as a charter carrier, although they're testing the waters with a "scheduled charter" service along the lines of the business model Canadian carrier Canada 3000 followed into bankruptcy. At the time, they were in a two-year stint providing scheduled service between their Minneapolis hub and a handful of cities across North America, operating one or two flights a day. I'd never heard of them, but their $200 fare was good for any day of the week, with a 7-day advance purchase, and every other airline charged the same as Northwest--$338 for a 21-day advance purchase fare, good only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. So, the cost argument having been defeated, I booked the flight.

I shed no tears for the end of Sun Country's scheduled service. The flight to Minneapolis (MSP) left Seattle an hour late, but it didn't matter, because the connecting flight to Detroit left Minneapolis over 2 hours after my delayed flight arrived in Minneapolis. Sun Country operated out of the cramped Hubert H. Humphrey (HHH) charter terminal at MSP, which isn't part of the rest of the airport, so I couldn't even wander around the terminal. They did give me a meal coupon, which was nice, but it was small consolation for the delay. If the HHH terminal wasn't bad enough, the International Terminal at DTW was. Like the HHH terminal, the DTW International Terminal isn't connected to the rest of the airport, and the courtesy phone for the rental car company didn't work. I had to use a pay phone, call the #1 Club Gold desk at Hertz (I don't normally pay for extra travel amenities, but #1 Club Gold is worth every penny), and have them contact the local Hertz office to pick me up. This introduced yet another delay, and I ended up arriving at Wadstock about 6 hours late. By the time I was through, I'd almost rather have spent the extra $138 to fly Northwest. And, for what it's worth, Detroit was every bit as terrible as I expected it to be, good company notwithstanding.

Two years passed, and my friend Dknight called me. "I'm getting married!" he exclaimed. "I'd really like you to come to my wedding!" Dknight had been engaged for over 2 years, maintaining a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend while she attended medical school. I was glad that he was finally taking the plunge, in a literal as well as figurative sense (he's deeply religious). However, the wedding was in Michigan, and I had a lot of travel planned for the summer (conventions in New York and Las Vegas), and I was also planning to buy a piano; as such, I wasn't sure if I could cover the expense.

I started looking for tickets online at Dknight's urging. Predictably, the cost of flying directly to Michigan was stratospherically high. The normal $338 21-day advance purchase fare to Detroit was, of course, available; however, most airlines have now taken to publishing the base fare, and showing the full price (with taxes) only when you go to purchase the ticket. This adds about $50 to the price of a ticket, after you add the $5 federal "segment tax" (charged on each segment of your flight, meaning that if you pay the tax again each time you change planes), the $2.50 federal "security tax" (ditto the segment tax), the $3 per airport "user fee," and the 10% federal sales tax, which--incredibly--is based on the fare plus some of the other taxes (so you pay tax on tax). The price of tickets to Lansing, where Dknight's wedding was taking place, was even worse at about $450.

However, I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve. Travelocity will allow you to search for the lowest fare between two destinations, and then allows you to select the dates and airlines where the fare is available. One of the lesser-known sub-features is the ability to search for lower fares to and from surrounding airports. When I used this option, I discovered that there was a $203 fare (including all taxes) between Seattle and Chicago's Midway Airport. Before I booked it, I called my friend cstone, who lives in the area. "You don't want to fly to Midway," he said. "The traffic to there is awful, and it's even farther away from everything than O'Hare." A quick check of rental car rates indicated that O'Hare was also a much cheaper option--by about $10 a day--from that standpoint.

Unlike United and American Airlines, who fly nonstop between O'Hare and dozens of North American destinations, Northwest will often match competitors' Midway fares into O'Hare as well (I guess their reasoning is that they require a connection to get to Chicago anyway, so it doesn't hurt them to charge the same fare into both airports). However, when I used the Chicago-All Airports search code (CHI), I could only turn up Midway fares. The story changed when I visited Northwest's Web site, however. The $203 fare was widely available to O'Hare.

It's not especially convenient to fly to Chicago on Northwest, because you have to traverse their hubs in Minneapolis, Memphis or Detroit. The schedules through Minneapolis and Detroit all departed pretty early, between 6 and 8 in the morning. Northwest's Web site didn't list any itineraries through Memphis, but since they allow you to build an itinerary flight by flight, I tried an option through Memphis at the more reasonable hour of 9:50 in the morning. Bingo! The $203 fare displayed for a Friday morning departure, with a return flight through Minneapolis on Sunday evening. It would have been nice to just book a flight to Chicago through their Detroit hub and discard the Chicago half of the itinerary. This is called a "hidden cities" itinerary. However, this doesn't work predictably, because if you don't show up for the originating leg of your flight, they can cancel your entire itinerary. Even if you can get away without that happening, you can't check any baggage (or it'll end up in the wrong city), and airlines absolutely have a cow if they catch you doing this. Northwest, if they catch you, will void your ticket. They'll also close your frequent flier account with them, if you have one, and you'll forfeit all the mileage you've accrued in your account. And yes, I understand and agree that none of this makes the slightest amount of sense, but this is the airline industry we're talking about. Normal rules of common sense don't apply.

I used MapPoint to verify that Chicago was at least reasonably close to Lansing. It's about a 4 hour drive, which for a savings of $250 was definitely worthwhile. So I purchased the ticket for the day before dknight's wedding, booked the car, found a reasonably priced hotel in Lansing, and I was all set.

The flight through Memphis was a breeze, as usual. If you fly Northwest, try to use their Memphis hub. Due to its geographic location, it's less prone to weather delays than Minneapolis or Detroit, and the Memphis airport is not only smaller (meaning you won't have to walk a mile to your connecting flight, unlike in Minneapolis), but it has better food--including authentic Tennessee bar-b-que. The Northwest terminal at O'hare is similarly situated to their Seattle terminal; it's in a far-flung corner of the airport, and I had to hike a bit to get out of there. Like in Las Vegas, rental cars are all offsite in Chicago; unlike in Las Vegas, it takes forever to get a shuttle to the rental car lot. Eventually, though, I arrived at Hertz to find my usual car, a Mazda Protege, waiting for me.

I immediately left Chicago for Lansing, because I had a 4 hour drive ahead of me, would lose a time zone in the process (Michigan is in the Eastern Time Zone), and dknight's wedding was at 9:00 the following morning. I'd timed my arrival to miss rush hour traffic, and this proved to be a good decision. Traffic was heavy, but still moved at around 60mph. I stopped at a miserable little town just inside Michigan, filled with nothing but strip malls and auto dealers, for food. To my surprise, Hardee's has apparently merged with the California chain Carl's Jr., and adopted the same menu and restaurant decor. I ordered from the rudest woman I've ever encountered working at any retail establishment, waited for my food next to a man who was carrying on a detailed and gruesome conversation about guns with his son, and burger in hand, walked to my car under the hateful glare of an grizzled factory worker. It was around this time I realized that I was driving the only Japanese car in the lot.

Back on the freeway, it was another 2 long, boring hours to Lansing. Eventually, however, I arrived, and the hotel was exactly where MapPoint said it would be. When I checked in, the young lady working the desk asked me about the shirt I was wearing, which bore the logo of the company I work for. When you work in the technology industry, you become accustomed to being asked technical questions by total strangers. "I have an AOL account, and when I go into chat rooms, I get all these nasty messages! I'm there to chat, not to talk to some 14 year old hussy who wants an older man to bang her! I'm not even a man!" I assured her that she was probably talking to overzealous law enforcement officers, and not actual 14 year old girls.

Predictably, the next morning sucked hardcore. I woke up, ironed the suit I'd purchased for the occasion (dknight insisted that I wear a suit, because the family of his spouse is very traditional), and fired up MapPoint for directions to the church. The directions were correct, but the signage in Lansing is very poor and I took a couple of wrong turns on the way. I'd left early enough, however, that I arrived exactly on time.

Dknight and his spouse were married in a traditional ceremony. Nothing I'd ever want to be a part of personally, but they seemed happy enough, and that's all that mattered. They had a nice reception afterward, with a buffet luncheon; to my body, it was slightly after 8 in the morning, so it felt a little odd eating lunch, but I was hungry enough that it didn't matter (there had been no time for breakfast at the hotel). Dknight's relatives prattled about Toledo and American cars, and after enduring it for a reasonable amount of time, I excused myself politely and drove back to the hotel.

On the way to Lansing from Chicago, I had seen an exit to the Indiana Dunes National Recreation Area. I'd asked some of the people at the wedding about it, and they recommended that I visit, telling me that it was one of the prettiest places in the Midwest. I really didn't want to spend any more time in Michigan, not having any more positive an impression of the place than the first time I visited, so I checked out of the hotel and headed west to Indiana.

The staff members at the Indiana Dunes visitors center were very friendly, and gave me a trail map along with some suggestions on what to see. At one time, the shores of Lake Michigan were covered with sand dunes, but the Indiana Dunes is one of the last stretches of coastline that has been kept free of development. The white sand beaches of Lake Michigan reminded me of the Mediterranean sands of Santorini. Like the Mediterranean, the lack of tidal activity surprised me; Lake Michigan was almost still. Unfortunately, signs of human activity are still evident. Immediately next to one of the most popular beaches, for example, is a nuclear power plant.  Nonetheless, the weather was nice, and I was feeling really tired from the jet lag, so I stretched out in the sun and took a nap.

I'd made plans earlier with my friend cstone to meet him in the Chicago area, so I confirmed the plans with him and headed west. Not far from Chicago, I noticed that I was nearly out of fuel. I saw an exit marked "Gary - Riverboat Casinos," and surmised that where there are casinos, there was probably both easy access and tourist facilities.

Wow, was I ever wrong! Gary, Indiana is a hellhole filled with crack houses and oil refineries. It rivals Boys Town in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico for being the most terrible place I've ever seen. Where I got off of the freeway, it was impossible to get back on. There wasn't any signage indicating how to get back onto the freeway, either. Since the area looked extremely dangerous, I wasn't about to stop, but as I drove, the area kept getting worse. Finally, I saw a sign that said Chicago, and followed it. A couple of miles later, I saw another sign. Eventually, I arrived at the gaudily decorated riverboat casinos, and with the needle riding on empty, spotted Last Chance Gas, located just on the Indiana side of the state line. I filled the car, headed into Illinois, and called cstone.

"You're where?" said cstone, his voice a mixture of confusion and concern. "That's the second-worst part of Chicagoland, and you don't even want to know about the worst part. Get out of there, now!" Eventually, cstone managed to direct me to a freeway, which was no trivial matter considering that 80% of Chicago roads appear to be under construction. Although I was 30 minutes away, at least I wasn't lost anymore.

Almost exactly a half hour later, I arrived at cstone's apartment, in an anonymous Chicago turn-of-the-century brownstone. He was glad to see I'd made it out of Gary alive. The first order of business for me was food; my jet-lagged body had decided it was time for dinner. By this point, it was rather late in the evening, so cstone directed me to the Lincoln Park neighborhood. On our way there, we saw a festival in progress on the Chicago waterfront. Just as we were thinking of stopping for a closer look, we saw the signs: "Christian Country Faith Gathering." We quickly decided to skip it, and proceeded to Philly's Best for dinner.

Philly's Best was both excellent and cheap. After dinner, I asked cstone if the neighborhood was safe. He assured me it was, and was amenable to walking around a bit. The only time I'd previously visited downtown Chicago was during a 1993 layover at O'hare, when I was on my way to visit Etheric in Toronto. I took the CTA elevated train downtown, rushed to the Sears Tower, hurriedly bought a ticket to the top, snapped a couple of pictures, and then rushed back to the airport just in the nick of time to make my flight. This time, I wanted to see a little more.

We walked a couple of blocks, and a car full of teenage girls pulled up next to us. "Are you gay?" one of them hollered from the window, speeding off without waiting for a response. "They think my standards are that low?" I mused, eliciting a pained "Hey! Well, um, wait a minute," from the completely straight yet still offended cstone. A couple of blocks later, and it all became clear. We'd stumbled onto North Halsted, also known as "boys town."

North Halsted is Chicago's gay ghetto, although it seems more oriented toward selling things to gay people than anything. Each block of the North Halsted district has a uniform yet completely hideous display of public art, which I took to calling "rainbow dongs." The area has a sleazy-yet-sanitized feel about it, somewhat like the Castro district in San Francisco. Among the businesses we encountered were Gay Mart, RAM-A Gay Treasure (I don't dare to hazard a guess what goes on there), and a really crazy bar full of drag queens. Completely randomly, cstone found a sequined tank top, adorned with the word "DIVINE" and roughly his size, lying on the sidewalk. "Maybe I can use this for a costume or something," he said, stuffing it into his knapsack after a careful inspection for signs of foul play. "May as well get something out of coming to this fucked up place." I nodded my assent.

The gayness was starting to get to me, and that's saying a lot considering I'm queer myself. North Halsted was like a real-life Jerkcity strip, except that the surreal bad dream didn't stop with the click of a mouse and the close of a browser window. This was real life COCKS and DONGS and GLORYHOLES and DICKLICKING HAUGHLAGHALGHAGLH. When an older man turned to me while waiting for a traffic signal, loosely gestured at the man accompanying him, and drunkenly lisped "you and he and me makes three," I knew it was time to leave immediately. It was a silent understanding between me and cstone, and we made haste to the rental car.

At this point, it was rather late. We decided to return to cstone's apartment for debaucherous pursuits. This mandated a stop at the corner liquor store, where we bought some cheap beer. I'd also brought some... er, other intoxicants with me from the green Pacific Northwest. We spent the evening getting thoroughly blitzed by indulging in both, while watching a marathon session of COPS reruns, which lasted for several hours, on the local FOX affiliate. Not normally something I'd watch, but when intoxicated, I assure you COPS is especially hilarious.

The following day, I was due to depart from Chicago, but my flight wasn't until fairly late in the afternoon. The first order of business for me was obtaining some clothing more appropriate to the hot weather in Chicago. I hadn't expected it to be as warm as it was, and hadn't packed any T-shirts. Since I had an Old Navy gift card, cstone directed me to the local Old Navy store, where I somehow managed to find an orange T-shirt without OLD NAVY written anywhere on it (if you've ever shopped at Old Navy, you know that this can be a challenge). It was even reasonably priced, costing only $7. From Old Navy, we proceeded to a diner for breakfast, since it was relatively early (for us, at least--by now, it was about 2 in the afternoon). We just picked the place randomly, but it actually turned out to be pretty good--and the waitress even attempted to undercharge us by about $10 (honesty being one of my unfortunate faults, I made sure she corrected the error when settling the bill).

"Where do we go from here?" I asked cstone. "I have no idea," he replied. It was around that moment that I spotted a McDonald's restaurant. "Wait a minute," I mused. "Isn't McDonald's based here?" Cstone thought for a minute. "Yes, it is. In Oak something. Oak Lawn, Oak Park..." From my brain's "useless trivia" file floated the words "Oak Brook," for once yielding practical results. "Yes, that's it!" said cstone. "Oak Brook! Okay, here's how to get there..."

McDonald's corporate campus is impeccably manicured. Along with a really frightening sculpture of a picture-postcard 1950s "Leave It to Beaver" family, with the McDonald's version of Ward Cleaver returning home with a healthy meal of fried cow for the wife and kids, the campus sports a hotel and conference facility, a training center (called--I am not making this up--Hamburger University), and a man-made lake called (again, I'm totally serious) Lake Fred. It being a Sunday, there wasn't much activity, so we wandered around, explored, and took pictures--all under the watchful eye of the prominent security cameras. To warrant all of the extra security, I imagine that McDonald's headquarters must be either a target of mayhem unleashed by militant vegans or post-September 11th paranoia. I'm banking on the latter.

 "Wow, this is so wholesome and Midwestern," I told cstone as we were leaving. "Boring is more like it," said the ever-cynical cstone, as he rolled his eyes. "The only more boring place than Illinois is Wisconsin." My ears perked up. Somewhere even more boring than McDonald's headquarters?

"How far away is Wisconsin?" I asked. "Oh, about an hour... it's not too far past the airport," said cstone. "That's it! We're going to Wisconsin," I proclaimed, turning the rental car onto the freeway. "Oh, no!" said cstone, his voice a mixture of resignation and disgust. "Then again," cstone pointed out, "at least we won't get shot, unlike where you were yesterday!" Involuntarily, I shuddered, memories of the foul Gary stench permeating every corner of my brain until they were mercifully dissipated by the pleasant smell of fresh-baked bread wafting from a nearby bakery.

Wisconsin was, in fact, more boring than McDonald's headquarters. The state always seems eager to proclaim that it is the cheese capital of the universe, or at least the Midwest, for instance. Madison, Wisconsin is consistently rated one of the best places to live in the country. And yet, the first indication that you've entered Wisconsin is a nondescript sign on the side of the road that says "State Line," immediately followed by an outlet mall.

Somehow, I expected more. Wisconsin was a disappointment, a letdown. It drained all of the energy from me, or rather, allowed the fatigue of the past several days to catch up with me. I didn't feel like driving anymore; I didn't feel like doing anything but getting on a plane and flying home. The airport was nearby, and my flight was in 90 minutes, so cstone and I drove there in silence.

What a weekend. Crack houses, COCKS (HAUGHLAGHLAGH), Chicago, and COPS. I'd do it all again... except for Wisconsin.