The Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) in Chicago is one of those buildings that always captivated my imagination. Touted for its height – it’s the tallest building in the United States and the western hemisphere – it upped the ante in 2009 when architects added four retractable glass boxes that allow visitors to stand on nothing more than a plate of glass 103 stories above the ground.
I was in Chicago with my family for Thanksgiving, and the Chicago Christmas market was one of the things my mom most wanted to see, but for me, the tower reigned supreme.
On Thanksgiving Day, the wait to get to the top was more than an hour, and as we wandered around after deciding to wait until another day, we realized it had worked out well after all, as it was already getting dark, and we wanted at least the chance to see four states from the tower (Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana).
On Black Friday, we started the day by heading to the black Sears Tower (I still think of it with the old name). We entered from Jackson Street and descended into the building’s subterranean level to wait in line and purchase tickets. When crowded, visitors can purchase fast passes, but we bought the general admission tickets and were at the top – via the freight elevators – in less than 30 minutes.
I’d marveled at the Chicago skyline for two days at that point, and seeing it from the top gave more perspective. I’d flown in and out of O’Hare International Airport numerous times, but I’d never been to Chicago before, and I was surprised at how many skyscrapers it has. But then, it is the birthplace of the skyscraper (the first skyscraper was a 10-story building in Chicago).
I took in the views over the massive Lake Michigan on what turned out to be a gorgeous if freezing Black Friday. Growing up in California, I’ve always disdained places that are far from the oceans, because I am fortunate enough to live within two hours’ drive from the Pacific. Even from the 103rd floor, Lake Michigan stretched to the horizon, and I realized that the Great Lakes really are more like small oceans (Lake Superior being the largest).
But I was dawdling.
Why? Because it’s fun to stand in a building that’s been standing for a decade longer than I’ve been alive. It’s new enough for me to know that it’s not built on antiquated technology, so it’s solid, and it’s old enough for me to know it’s withstood the test of time. I’m not afraid of heading into tall buildings or flying in rickety aircraft, but I have a healthy aversion to heights.
And that’s why I was nervous – I was working my way to the glass ledges.
A throng of people stood in what was supposed to be three lines behind each of the four ledges but which ended up being four globs of humanity.
They looked like lemmings running off a cliff (even though I hear lemmings don’t actually do that). So of course I had to join them.
I took the middle line on the right side of the building (I later realized I should have gone to the left side, because they have a photo station set up with a better camera angle than you can get by standing. I usually don’t buy souvenir photos, but this would have been the exception).
Finally it was my turn to go out on the ledge, and it seemed like the whole world opened up before me. My mind flashed back to when I first saw pictures of the Skydeck ledges and thought, “Oh no way. Only idiots would do that.”
But it was there, so I had to.
The glass looks like it’s an inch or two thick, and it’s bolted on with some pretty heavy-duty hardware, and it’s been three years since they were installed, so why not?
And in reality, it was far more cool than nerve-wracking. They felt every bit as solid as the interior of the building (they might even be more solid).
I walked to the edge, my feet over nothing, and stared out at the city, 4 feet away from the walls of the building behind me. I felt like I was calmly levitating, even though a small part of my mind was shouting at me, reminding me that the building sways about 3 feet from side to side in windstorms.
I took several photos, and my sister joined me on the ledge. We admired the scenery and then stepped off to give my parents a go.
For me, that was one of the highlights of the trip, which also included an awesome Thanksgiving buffet, a bout tour of the architectural sights and, of course, a meal at Pizzeria Uno, where deep-dish pizza was invented.