Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
When I travel, I like to remind myself of the interesting people and stories from those locations. Recently I visited Chicago and while trotting around, head craned to look up far beyond my normal range of vision at the dozens of buildings scraping the sky, made a mental list of famous writers associated with the city. Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, Sandra Cisneros, Gwendolyn Brooks, among others. I’ve read something from most of these. But reality doesn’t always match my imagination. It’s disconcerting to have an image in my mind about what a setting looks like, then run smack dab into reality. Hint: I saw few broad shoulders in Chicago despite what Sandburg claims.
Should I blush to admit the author I first associated with Chicago was Veronica Roth of the spec fiction book and movie Divergent fame? This dystopian novel, set in an undated future in Chicago, is sprinkled with landmarks that exist now and, one assumes, in that time to come. Somehow for me, it’s easier to envision something set in the future than the present or past. I’m constantly cross-checking details in books from those other times to see if they agree with my knowledge about them. “Lincoln Street wasn’t one-way in the 40s,” I’ll think, or “Two loaves of bread only cost twenty-five cents in the early 60s,” editing the writer as I read along. Believe me, this isn’t an entertaining way to absorb a a novel.
Roth’s book features a Chicago with a dry waterbed, the outlines of which I spotted during my river tour. It boasts the large Ferris wheel the characters in the book climbed, and slings a zip line down what I believe is the Willis Tower. Numerous warehouses, basements, streets and even the L or El, the elevated train, are part and parcel of the action. Seeing these was like spotting an old friend.
My trip brought to mind lots of other writers I’d love to revisit. I also discovered a small treasure, the American Writers Museum on North Michigan Avenue. Activities encouraged me to write a few lines and learn a whole lot about various writers, including Bob Dylan. But the benefits of travel to Chicago went far beyond writers. I love that the lake and shore are so visible. Denver has nothing approaching the division between land and water. I rediscovered Jean Dubuffet, a French artist whose immense white and black sculpture enlivens the James R. Thompson Center.
I returned home even more convinced of the truth of Twain’s lines. It may take some effort and money to travel, but the return on the investment is priceless.