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Speed limit in Chicago is apparently warp speed

Columnist Dan Conradt says it's surprising how clear the pictures taken by the toll booth are.

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We were trapped in the center lane of a seven-lane superhighway, boxed into the middle of a convoy of semi-trucks doing 75 miles an hour.

Thirty-nine to Chicago, the sign said, and my fingers were already cramped from gripping the dashboard.

Carla was doing an admirable job driving. At least, it seemed admirable during those brief moments when I actually had my eyes open.

Our Chicago relatives had said we’d miss the really heavy traffic if we arrived after 6 o’clock, as we’d planned; it was 7:30 p.m., and the traffic had been a high-speed bumper-to-bumper nightmare since Milwaukee.

Think NASCAR with Kenworths and SUVs.

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The suburbs were giving way to factories and outlet malls, and we were picking up speed. The maps app on my phone said we were still 27 miles from our exit; at this rate we’d be there in about eight minutes. Any faster and they’d stop measuring speed in miles per hour and measure it by warp factor.

On the plus side, we wouldn’t have to go all the way to The Loop — unless we weren’t able to escape our big-rig escort and couldn’t exit until we got to Gary, Indiana. Or Pittsburgh.

The normally staid British “maps” voice was starting to sound testy. At one point I thought I heard him ask “Are we there yet?”

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I grew up in a town where you could play touch football in the middle of Main Street after supper and never have to move for a passing car. I was thinking fondly of those nights as a mini-van with a White Sox bumper sticker flew past in the slow-speed lane at Warp Seven.

“Toll booth … two miles, on the right,” I announced.

The semi-trucks still had us hemmed in: “I can’t get over,” Carla said.

Minnesota Nice doesn’t work in Chicago traffic.

For a moment the only sound was tires whining on asphalt. Then, red and green neon became visible in the distance.

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“Toll booth in one mile,” I said.

“Can’t make it,” Carla said.

“What do we do?” I asked, small-town naivete surfacing from beneath my usual slightly-larger-town worldliness; I envisioned a fleet of toll-booth enforcers just itching to track down anyone who failed to toss 75 cents into the plastic basket.

“We drive past it,” Carla said as the lights flashed by in a technicolor blur.

Thelma and Louise ... that’s us.

We covered the final 21 miles to our hotel in 17 minutes and blew past all five toll booths on the way. I was relieved when no one in DayGlo orange followed us into the parking lot.

“What do we do about the toll booth charges?” we asked our relatives over breakfast the next morning.

“Go to their website and create an account,” we were told. And with a smile that comes from experience: “They know where to find you.”

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Traffic was only slightly better when we headed for home Sunday morning. We drove past the toll booths then, too.

The bill arrived in the mail a month later with a surprisingly sharp picture of our license plate.

The finger marks still haven’t come out of the dashboard.

Next time, we take the train.

Dan Conradt, a lifelong Mower County resident, lives in Austin with his wife, Carla Johnson.

Related Topics: PEOPLEDAN CONRADT
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