I have been thinking recently about taking time off from work. What used to be referred to as “vacation time” is now usually referred to as PTO, an acronym that stands for “paid time off”. This is just as well, since I’m still feeling a bit uncertain about traveling anywhere I can’t go by foot at present, barring any major medical breakthroughs amid the current pandemic. In years past, I have dreamed of a nice “staycation” in Chicago, as much as there is to do here, even in the northern part of the city where I live, near Lake Michigan. One problem is that the beaches are still closed, I still really don’t feel like eating out, and many entertainment venues like the Music Box Theatre, where I like to watch classic or foreign films, now require advance reservations in addition to other safety precautions. Escape into fantasy currently seems to require too much reality.
I’m sure I’ll be back at the Music Box at some point this year. It’s just that I’ve accrued all of these PTO days at work and haven’t taken any at all since this year began. I haven’t even been back to my home state of Michigan since last August, which will make for the longest stretch of time in which I haven’t back to the Mitten in well over a decade. My employer allows for only so many days to be carried over to the next year in a use-them-or-lose-them policy, so I’ve got to do something.
I have friends who have made nonessential trips by plane, car, and I’m sure a few other means. I’m just not there yet. I don’t want to go down the proverbial rabbit hole of discussing when it might be reasonably safe to travel for leisure again, but I mention all of this only because I recently came across these pictures I had taken while on a quick weekend trip to Michigan, and they triggered some memories and wishful thinking.
It was January 2015, and I had traveled back to my hometown of Flint to celebrate a friend’s birthday. It used to seem like the easiest thing in the world to bring my overnight bag to work on a Friday morning, then walk less than ten minutes after quitting time to Union Station in downtown Chicago’s West Loop district to catch the Blue Water Amtrak train for a lazy, five hour ride back to Flint. I would then take an 8:30 AM bus on Sunday from Flint to Battle Creek (which left an hour later than the train departing from Flint), where I would transfer to the Wolverine train from Detroit that would carry me back to Union Station by mid-afternoon.
I really miss long-distance train and bus travel. I have tried to nap before while en route, but it’s a struggle to do so unless I have a sleep mask for my eyes. The metronomic click-clack of the wheels on the track, combined with the muted sounds within the hermetically sealed train cabin provide the perfect amount of soothing ambient noise to promote dozing or napping. It’s just that I’m naturally curious about how other people live and find it hard to let all of the passing, beautiful, slice-of-midwestern-America vistas simply whizz by without wanting to inspect every little detail that catches my eye. This same principle was at work when I was a young boy riding in the family car at night, inspecting passing cars to catch a glimpse of a nameplate or other telltale detail.
The Illinois-Michigan train and bus trip is a visual feast of peaceful pastures, economically depressed areas (both urban and rural), industrial fortresses, and pretty small-town side streets. It’s a heartening and beautiful thing to observe in a single train trip that a certain joie de vivre seems to exist, at least from my external observation, within different kinds of people in dissimilar environments. Often times, I think I want to know something personal about these people from walks of life that are different than my own.
I want to know what kind of work they do, how they came to live there, what it’s like to swim in their above-ground pool mere yards away from the train tracks, and what they would think of me, or of someone like me, at first meeting. If they perceived me as being somehow significantly different than them, would they still be a friend if they sensed that I come in peace? Assumptions can fail us where only appearances are involved.
Downtown Battle Creek, Michigan.
Part of my observations includes the kinds of vehicles I see on the road at different points between downtown Chicago, through northwestern Indiana, through central and mid-Michigan. On country roads that look straight out of the pages of National Geographic magazine, American brands are the norm, and pickup trucks are king. In and around the college towns of East Lansing and Kalamazoo, Michigan, there are a higher concentration of imports and SUVs.
It was in the “Cereal City” of Battle Creek, Michigan that I spotted a beautiful, blue ’67 Mustang notchback, after I had deboarded the coach bus from Flint to make my transfer to the train back to Chicago. We were informed that the return train from Detroit would be delayed by an hour or so. Aside from previously having made transfers at this station, I had never spent time in Battle Creek, and I know little of its history aside from it being a cereal capital of sorts. Both Kellogg and Post appear to still be major employers in the area. In fact, a cereal plant sits directly across the tracks from the train station.
I decided to leave the station and take walk with my camera around the main street downtown, Michigan Avenue. I felt a certain sense of déjà vu, even though I had never been to downtown Battle Creek before. There was a beautiful tower in the Art Deco architectural style, now called The Milton (pictured above), not that far removed in appearance from the Mott Foundation Building in downtown Flint. There were the same kinds of storefronts, some of them empty, with commercial facades that appeared to originate from the 1960s and ’70s that pointed to what might have been a prosperous past. Nothing looked too far gone for me to imagine what a vibrant stretch of Michigan Avenue would look like in present day.
One of the things I have long admired about the Mustang’s first restyle was how well it adhered to the basic look, feel, and identity of the first edition and yet still seemed to genuinely improve upon it. There’s an instant familiarity in looking at a 1967 or ’68 model that make it unmistakably a Mustang. I had always assumed that because the ’67 restyle looked a bit more substantial than the ’65, with its more deeply sculpted front grille, body sides and rear panel, that it must have weighed more than the original. The increase in weight didn’t really start until ’69, as the three bodystyles of ’67s (notchback, fastback and convertible) very closely mirrored the base weights of the ’65s.
The horsepower ratings of the standard 200 cubic inch six cylinder and two optional 289 V8s were the same for the Mustang’s first three years of production, so if unless you wanted the 320-hp 390-V8 that was newly available for ’67 and would be happy with the 289, your choice of model year could simply be one of aesthetic preference. Regardless of what that preference would be, I can imagine that my first impression of the ’67 Mustang when new might have been not unlike meeting a person who resembles and reminds me of someone else I know and like, where I already have a mindset that I am going to like that person (or the new Mustang) simply by own positive association. Overall Mustang sales dropped by 22% for ’67, to about 472,000 units, though I do prefer the style of the ’67, even if not 22% better than the ’66.
And what about the owner of this Mustang? Michigan winters are notorious for being cold, snowy, wet, and with lots of salt on the road, and cars like this one usually don’t come out of the garage until April or May. Still, it showed pride of ownership, with its shiny, medium blue metallic paint and custom wheels. Maybe the owner was there to pick up his or her significant other from the station upon their return from Chicago. As I boarded the train after my own brief layover in Battle Creek, I thought about how nice it had been, even if only for a short while, to feel like I had just made the acquaintance of a car and downtown area I had never “met” before. The world is a mighty big place, even outside of the hundreds of miles of pavement and train track between Illinois and Michigan.
Battle Creek, Michigan.
All photos are from Monday, January 18, 2015, except for –
Amtrak station: Monday, November 19, 2012; and
Blue Water train: Monday, March 26, 2012.