As we were close (ish) to passing Niagra Falls on the way from Boston to Chicago we thought it’d be silly not to make an overnight stop, so after a very long drive across Massachusetts and upstate New York, we finally reached the falls as the sun began to fall.

We parked at a nearby casino and followed the path through town to the state park, listening carefully as we heard the crushing sound of water from afar. When we arrived we were immediately taken back by the falls’ astonishing beauty. What we hadn’t realised was that there are actually numerous waterfalls that make up Niagra Falls, and also a number of different standpoints available to visitors – all free of charge. We walked around the park for close to an hour, taking in the sheer magnificence of the cascades from all angles while trying to beat nightfall. After taking what felt like a hundred photos we returned back to the casino, just in time for dinner.

We’d read on a vanping forum that the casino offered a free buffet to new members. We thought this was too good to be true but given there was no joining fee we had nothing to lose. We signed up, received our membership card and were immediately given our coupon for a free buffet. How good’s that!? Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better we found out it was crab leg night, so were treated to all-you-can-eat crab legs along with everything else on offer at no charge at all. For two backpackers living on a shoestring budget and living in a van, this was the motherload. We ate until we couldn’t anymore, then crawled back to Fuego to sleep off our food-induced coma.

The next morning we rose super early to make the 10 hour drive along Lake Erie and through Cleveland to Chi-Town. When arriving I instantly fell in love with the city, understanding immediately why it was one of Anita’s favourite places when visiting last. It’s just an effortlessly cool city, and I felt it had a kind of welcoming warmth to it – even though it was bone-chillingly cold – like, four layers cold. By this stage it was late in the afternoon and we’d had quite a light lunch, so we thought we’d grab an early dinner at the highly anticipated Pequod’s Pizza – home of one of Chicago’s best deep-dish pizzas. After dinner we headed to what we knew to be a safe part of town, found a dimly lit and quiet street, and after a short stroll around the nearby shopping district retired for the night.

The next day was actually one of the nation’s biggest holidays, Thanksgiving. As most of the city shuts down and we didn’t have any friends or family to share it with, we decided to volunteer at one of the city’s many homeless shelters. It was over our regular morning coffee and free wifi at McDonalds that I received news that my grandfather of 97 years had sadly passed away. Given his age and deteriorating health I knew this day was coming, but it still came as quite a shock. Anita comforted me as I wept over my $1 cup of joe before pulling myself together and jumping on the train headed for the shelter. We spent a few good hours helping to chop vegetables, slice turkey and divide plastic cutlery, all the while getting to know the other volunteers who were from all over Chicago, USA and the world. We even met two Aussies! We’re seriously everywhere.

After our morning of volunteering we caught the train into town for a Thanksgiving lunch of our own. We discovered that barbecue joint Bub City was hosting an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving buffet for a very fair 25USD, so got there early to beat the crowds. Just as well because the place was packed when we arrived, but we were still lucky enough to get a table. It was such a fantastic spread of comfort food; everything from sweet potato mash, mac n cheese, stuffing, collard greens, salads, and of course a whole stack of meats. We were so very stuffed before realising the buffet included dessert too! After a generous slice of pie we stumbled out onto the street, deciding to take a walk around town to help burn off our lunch.

We walked along the Chicago River and past Willis Tower, Chicago’s tallest building, to the Cloud Gate for an obligatory photo with the iconic sculpture. After an hour or two of wandering we walked all the way back up to Park West where our trusty Fuego had a warm bed waiting for us, and jumped in to our cosy room on wheels.

On our last day in Chicago we headed back into town, stopping by the Blackhawks store to pick up some NHL merch before heading back out to Dick’s Sporting Goods for some additional presents for the family. It was only a quick trip to town that morning because we were continuing our way up to Milwaukee that afternoon, so after a typically-Chicagoan Italian beef sandwich for lunch we headed back to Park West, threw our bags in the back of Fuego, and hit the road north where we’d be meeting old friend Nick.

– Dek

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