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TODAY

Sunday, December 15

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Airbags

One of my goals in life is to produce children who will know how to travel. I want them to know how to plan and budget for a trip, research their destination and route, pack and travel lightly, negotiate the unfamiliar, be safe and have fun. I myself have done very little world travel, so perhaps that is why I want my kids to know how to get out there and see the place.

With that goal in mind, my friend and co-leader Tina and I recently took 9 Girl Scouts, aged 9-12 on a weekend jaunt to Milwaukee. The girls had sold the cookies, counted their profits and knew what they wanted to do: road trip/cute outfits/fancy dinner. We scouted around looking for the perfect destination, and Milwaukee was the obvious winner. If ever there was a training ground for future travelers, Milwaukee is it. Easy to get to, walkable once you are there, lots to see and do, but not overwhelming and scary. There is a distinctly different vibe to Milwaukee. It's got a mellower brand of city energy — sort of small town, sort of funky and old fashioned. The cool thing is that, despite this other flavor, you feel right at home, because in Milwaukee, the lake is always east, the perfect place for lakes.

We started out walking through Logan Square where we boarded the Blue line and took it downtown. Right off the bat we were beset by our first hurdle, the goddamned fare cards. When traveling via CTA with children, the Kids don't Ride Free, but do get a half fare. So in order to make that happen, we had to give every girl a fare card, and insert each one, with $1 for their half fare. In order to break our twenty we had to buy a couple of packs of gum from the cranky shop owner (who saw it coming a mile away) to get enough singles. Because of course you can't get singles, or pay for your entire group at the booth where there are CTA employees sitting around watching our little three ring circus, unable to do anything helpful.

Lesson 1: Get your ducks in a row. Take care of details, like having enough small cash on hand to get 11 people onto a train before getting to the train station.

Down to the platform we went, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 girls, a count that Tina and I would obsessively do every five minutes for the next two days. The fairly crowded train arrived, and we boarded and squished into hobo corner, letting a family with smaller kids, obviously in from out of town, take the available seats, while our girls hung on and took the opportunity to perform for the crowd, a little act called "we couldn't care less what anyone thinks of us, we like to sing!" When the girls started getting squirrelly(er), and were lurching towards the giant pile of bags lying on the floor, out-of-town Dad shouted, "BE CAREFUL! THAT BAG HAS $5000 WORTH OF CAMERA EQUIPMENT IN IT."

Lesson 2: Don't advertise your valuables.

First of all, would you leave $5000 lying on the floor of the train? Wouldn't you want to strap that to your body? That's what we advised him to do, and he said, "Well, more like $4500." Ok, let's not quibble about the price of your expensive cameras. The point is, shut up about it already before you find yourself sans $4500 worth of camera equipment.

Lesson 2 was clearly not yet learned however, as once we arrived at the Amtrak station, there was much interest in the items in the vending machines. Girls with spending money in their pockets want to be sure to get the spending under way as soon as possible. There was much talk of buying $3 frappachinos, Skittles and Sprite. Pretty soon the bench in front of the pop machine looked like an off track betting parlor, with bills of varying denominations being spread liberally about. Before our spending-crazed Girl Scouts could be parted from their dollars, either by vending machine or small time crook, it was time for us to board our train.

I'm no cheerleader for Amtrak, having been trapped for two days in a so-called sleeper car on the way to West Virginia, but taking the train to Milwaukee was an absolute delight. We were there in less than two hours, everyone was happy drawing and talking and having the snacks we brought for the train. Best of all, I didn't have to drive! The pressure of driving, especially other people's children, can be exhausting. Driving a van filled with beautiful other people's daughters is a job I take extremely seriously, and generally by the time we've arrived at wherever it is we are going I have a headache that starts in my shoulders and ends at my eyeballs, so it was absolute luxury to sit and laugh hysterically while someone else did the conducting.

Lesson 3: Cars optional.

Once we arrived in Milwaukee we consulted our map and set off walking to our hotel, The Hampton Inn and Suites, about 6 blocks away. Last spring we took this same group of girls on a road trip to the Milwaukee Hilton for a night. There is a water park in that hotel, and it's a pretty good package deal, but we didn't exactly experience Milwaukee because we never left the building, focused as we were on getting as waterlogged as possible.

The Hilton, we discovered on this trip when we walked past it, is also walking distance from the Amtrak. Last year we drove, got turned around in Milwaukee construction and then had to deal with parking the vans overnight. Everyone on that trip packed all sorts of junk as well, including clothes, sleeping bags, pillows and stuffed animals. We had coolers of food and so much stuff that we needed a giant rolling hotel cart to get it all into the building.

On this trip each girl had a backpack with a change of clothes and their toothbrushes. Traveling light is so much easier. There is less stuff to pack up, less stuff to get lost, and with few belongings, a beginning traveler can more easily take responsibility for her own stuff.

Lesson 4: Bring only what you need.

I packed slightly heavier than the girls, being accustomed to my life as a pack mule/Girl Scout leader. I included a well-stocked first aid kit, a bag of chocolate covered almonds, plus a trashy magazine for the train (Dwell, a.k.a. hipster house porn) The first aid kit came in handy, of course. There was a wipe out on the sidewalk which involved a scraped chin and hands. We saw the accident happen, and both of us thought the same thing when we saw the girl do a face plant: her teeth! We both, I'm sorry to say, laughed with relief when we saw that it was only a scrape, albeit a good one. We whisked the patient back to the hotel, cleaned her up, and when she turned completely white and was on the verge of passing out, we tucked her in bed. All the other girls gathered round her pale form, whispering their concern. We fed her chocolate covered almonds. Soon we saw the shift from injured girl to Academny Award winning actress, and knew that we were out of the woods.

Lesson 5: Be prepared. Not just a cliché, but a motto!

The one requirement I had for sleeping overnight in a hotel with the Beautiful other people's daughters was that we have adjoining rooms, so that there would be no need for any girl to leave the hotel room unattended. Despite having stressed this point, and being assured that our rooms would adjoin, we arrived at the hotel to find that we did not, in fact, have adjoining rooms. The Hampton Inn and Suites turned out to be pretty swank, and the staff acted accordingly. I was prepared to do battle Chicago style, and demand this and assert that, but the woman behind the counter didn't bat an eye. She just arranged for adjoining rooms, and gave us a little price break as well, all while being super friendly, stylish and cute. We ended up getting the rooms for less than when I booked them, and the rooms were completely great.

Lesson 6: Leave the cranky attitude at home.

We ate our packed lunches and headed for the streets of Milwaukee. We were heading east on Wisconsin Avenue, bound for the art museum. It was early Saturday afternoon, and downtown Milwaukee was pretty much a ghost town. We had the joint to ourselves, pretty much, aside from the occasional homeless person, and the goofy Milwaukee college boys dressed like they had stepped from the pages of the Preppy Handbook. (Were they being ironic? I don't know. It is, after all, not Chicago and I don't know all the customs of the native folk.) It gave all the girls plenty of time to practice their patented walking formation: two groups that stretch across the sidewalk and walk increasingly slower until at last coming to a dead halt until the phrase "Let's Go Girls!" is heard.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is great. Designed by Calatrava, the building is a work of art, a cathedral to modern architecture. Obviously I'm no architecture critic. The girls were all free admission, so we splurged and got the extra tickets for the Francis Bacon exhibit. May I just interject and say that every single girl was absolutely not enthusiastic about Francis Bacon? In fact they could have done without the art musuem entirely, and would have been just as happy spending the day in the hotel room, bouncing from bed to bed and playing "American Idol," but there would be plenty of time for that all night long.

The girls liked some of it, but for girls aged 9-11, a little mid-century modern art goes a long way, and there is plenty of it to be found at the Milwaukee Museum of Art. The opinion I have about seeing art, even art that might bore you to tears when you are a kid, is that when you see something you've never seen before, those images will get into your eyes, your brain, your thoughts, and swirl around in there for the rest of your life, and have affects on you that no one can know.

Lesson 7: Allow yourself to experience things that are outside of your comfort zone.

That night for dinner we had planned to go to a little Italian cafe we found online, but on our walk to the hotel from the train, an eagle-eyed Girl Scout spied BeniHana, and all the girls clamored to go there instead. We are nothing if not easy going and flexible, so we agreed, thinking, "How expensive can it be?" Well, pretty freaking expensive as it turns out.

We were ushered to our seats, past a picture of Lindsey Lohan posing with her chef (By the way, what the hell was Lindsey Lohan doing at the Milwaukee Benihana?), and seated around the grill, and menu's were passed out. I did a spit take and just about passed out when I saw the price of the entrees. $40?? For stir fry? Plus, there was not one vegetarian item on the menu. So while I was hyperventilating and mentally preparing to march 9 hungry and tired girls out the door and find someplace else to eat, Tina spied the hidden kids menu. For $8 each, we could get the girls a plate of chicken stir fry, some salad, a soda and a dish of ice cream. Vegetarian stir fry is available by request, as it turns out. A little pile of stir fry wasn't really enough food, though Jose the theatrical chef was highly entertaining. While we were eating, Tina and I could see a little hole in the wall Thai restaurant just across the street: it would have made an excellent plan B. We would have preferred to take the girls to a locally owned restaurant, one not visited by the Lindsey Lohans of the world.

Lesson 8: Eat local.

We visited the Discovery Worlds Museum the next day, a museum that's not quite sure what it wants to be. The first part is an homage to technology, with hands-on exhibits in all manner of seizure-inducing, futuristic lights, sounds and materials. There are some cool things for kids to experience, but don't forget to pack the Advil. There are constantly changing workshops that kids can sign up for. We signed up to go into the working television studio and experience the wonders of green screen technology.

The next part of the musuem is a replica of an old wooden schooner, which has a perfect cabin with bunks and a kitchen, a hold with ladders and benchs, and it's positioned in such a way that if you are standing at the helm, the boat points straight out over Lake Michigan for a perfect view of sky and water. The girls were most happy to play on the boat, and we were all relieved to leave the flashy techno world behind us and pretend we were bound for a new life across the lake.

We then went to the third part of this bizarre museum, a lovely aquarium with a tank of pettable stingrays, which the girls petted for as long as their petters could pet.

Lesson 9: Allow for plenty of time to play.

After this it was time to walk the 1.5 miles back to the train station, where we ran smack dab into a traveling band of Red Hat Society ladies, on the tail end of their own adventure, awaiting their train back to their city of origin. I asked if I could take a picture of them, and without missing a beat they all struck a pose. Our girls were called over by the ladies who put them in red hats, posed with them for more pictures, and smiled and gushed over them. Too bad we didn't have a Girl Scout sash for a Red Hat lady to pose in. To find at the end of our trip a group of women who still enjoy traveling as a group, delight in being silly, and don't care what others think, because life is too short not to have fun, was serendipitous. Like all of that modern art that's now rolling around in the girls' heads, the image of 75 ladies, wearing red and purple and laughing their asses off in the Milwaukee Amtrak station will likewise stick with these girls.

Lesson 10: The journey is the destination. Have fun, enjoy the ride, laugh a lot.

This journey ended with another L ride. This time we got to share a train car with the drunkest bum in town. There was no question we were back in Chicago, and these hometown girls instinctively knew all about lesson 11: Don't look.

It was cold, and a little dreary as we walked back to meet all the parents. The girls had made up a song, sung to the tune of "Someday My Prince Will Come," which they were singing in what sounded like a warbling falsetto one might sing on the way home from a bar at 3am:

"One day the worms will come,
they will eat everyone,
and away to their burrows they'll go
and their king's name will be Bobo..."

Tina and I were working on our own act, stumbling along zombie-like, counting to 9 over and over again, until we made each other laugh so hard that we had to stop and hang onto each other.

And then it was over. Parents and girls were reunited, everyone went their separate ways, and just like any trip anyone ever takes, all you have left is what you remember.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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