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“By the time we got to Woodstock”: Celebrating Metra’s bikes on all trains policy, and Groundhog Day, in the town where the film was shot

The massive crowd this morning at Woodstock Square for the Official Prognostication. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

Yesterday Metra made its COVID-era policy of allowing bicycles on all trains permanent. The commuter railroad also also announced that it will install bike racks on 50 cars in the near future. Chicagoland bike advocates, who lobbied for the change for decades, rejoiced.

The morning I celebrated this development by doing something I've considered for years: a bike + Metra trip early in the morning to one of Chicago's outermost suburbs to catch Woodstock Groundhog Days. Located about 50 miles northwest of the Loop, this quaint town of about 25,000 people, the county seat of McHenry County, is perhaps most famous as the location where the hit 1993 movie "Groundhog Day" was shot.

The "Groundhog Day" movie poster.

The holiday itself comes from an old Amish notion that if a groundhog comes out of its hole on February 2 and sees its shadow, winter will continue for six weeks. But if it's cloudy, the superstition is that foretells an early spring.

The most famous Groundhog Day celebration takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where a rodent named Punxsutawney Phil does the weather forecasting. My hometown State College, PA, is 75 miles away, so Groundhog Day was kind of a big deal when I was a kid.

Woodstock filled in for the Pennsylvania town in the film, directed by Chicago native Harold Ramis. In the flick, starring fellow Chicagolander Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, Murray plays a misanthropic weather reporter who travels to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day. He gets trapped in a time loop, reliving February 2 every day until he finally frees himself by becoming a more optimistic and altruistic person.

The City of Woodstock has capitalized on that legacy by hosting an elaborate Groundhog Days festival, likely the biggest one in the Midwest. It includes walking tours of many still-existent filming sites, a dinner dance (like the one that takes place in the movie) and, of course, an Official Prognostication by a live groundhog named Woodstock Willie, around 7 a.m.

My route from Streetsblog Chicago headquarters in Uptown to Woodstock Groundhog Days by bike and the Metra Union Pacific Northwest line. Image: Google Docs

So how did I get from the Streetsblog Chicago headquarters, near Wilson Avenue and Clark Street, also about 50 miles away, to Woodstock that early without a car? Woodstock Square, where Willie does his thing, is only 0.2 miles away from the local Metra Union Pacific Northwest line station.

I could have easily caught the CTA #81 Lawrence bus, which currently goes down Wilson Avenue, a block from SBC HQ, to serve the Wilson Red and Purple Line station while the nearby Lawrence stop is being reconstructed. But CTA buses aren't particularly reliable nowadays, so I would have to budget lots of extra time to make sure I caught the 5:53 a.m. Metra UP-N from its station at the Jefferson Park Transit Center, which the #81 serves.

Passing by the Kimball Brown Line station on Lawrence Avenue this morning. Photo: John Greenfield

Bicycling there was more appealing because I knew the six-mile trip would take me exactly 36 minutes if I rode at my usual relaxed 10 mph commuting pace. And if I left the HQ a little late, like I usually do when I have to wake up early in the morning, I could make up for it by riding faster.

Iconic, currently closed, Marie's Pizza and Liquors, 4127 W. Lawrence, this morning. Photo: John Greenfield

That paid off, because it took me a while to fully caffeinate after rising at 4:00 a.m., and I wasn't pedaling until about 5:15. I took a simple route down Lawrence Avenue, which is in decent shape nowadays with smooth fresh pavement and non-protected bike lanes on much of the stretch towards Milwaukee Avenue. That strip has lots of diverse, interesting restaurants and shops.

Passing by the Jefferson Park Transit Center's CTA Blue Line station, on Milwaukee, a block north of Lawrence. Photo: John Greenfield

I made good time and arrived at the Jefferson Park Metra station several minutes earlier than the scheduled pickup time. The train was a few minutes late.

Underpass from Milwaukee Avenue to the Jefferson Park Metra platforms. Photo: John Greenfield

This run didn't have a dedicated bike car, so I parked my bike the old-fashioned way, leaning it against folded seats in the unused wheelchair-friendly section at the front of one of the Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant carriages. There was one other bike in that area which, like mine, was strapped to the wall of the car, in keeping with Metra rules.

Bikes in my rail car this morning. Mine is in the front. Photo: John Greenfield

I bought a $6 day pass using the Ventra app on my phone. (Metra also closed all its ticket windows in stations for good yesterday, along with implementing changes to the fare structure.)

The cheerful conductor who checked my pass confirmed that, even if the permanent bikes on all trains policy hadn't kicked in, our bikes would have been allowed, in keeping with the old practices. This was an outbound morning train, and fewer city dwellers ride Metra to jobs in the the suburbs than vice-versa, so capacity is usually not an issue on such runs.

Arriving at Woodstock station. Photo: John Greenfield

"By the time we got to Woodstock," as the same-named Joni Mitchell-penned song about the 1969 hippie musical festival goes, it was 7:09, three minutes later than scheduled. I then pedaled over to the square, which was packed with hundreds, maybe thousands, of early-morning revelers.

I later overheard that this especially large crowd was due to popular, recently retired Chicagoland weatherman Tom Skilling serving as the guest of honor. During his remarks, Skilling amusingly raved about how comfortable the bed was at his Woodstock hotel room, claiming he's planning on moving there.

Shooting a photo with Woodstock Willie, a live groundhog. Photo: John Greenfield

Then Mayor Michael Turner announced the prognostication on this cloudy morning as a groundhog trainer held the adorable, rotund marmot. Turner served as the animal's translator: "'I definitely did not see my shadow.' That's the official word."

Revelers walking to a tavern in groundhog costumes. Photo: John Greenfield

Before heading to a cafe to type up this report, I stopped by the Public House of Woodstock's outdoor fireplace patio. There Groundhog Day celebrants were making an officially sanctioned "Toast to World Peace" with sweet vermouth cocktails, just as Murray and MacDowell did at that tavern in the movie. That's certainly an apropos salute during these troubled times, and one I plan to make my default toast moving forward.

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