There is a controlled chaos on the Tri-State Tollway, the 78-mile toll road that wraps around the western side of Chicago.
Cars and trucks vie for position, often barreling along at an 80-mph clip, zipping between each other, doing two- or three-lane shifts and being motorized versions of angst and anger. Drivers swoop among lanes, doing a dance of mayhem to get ahead of the slower cars ahead of them, to make their exits or to reach the cash lanes of the three toll stops.
More than 1.4 million motorists dare the stretch each day, according to the Illinois State Highway Authority.
I've been on the tollway, or “the 294” as some locals call it, 12 times now. It's the last leg of my journey to visit my Illinois girl whom I've written about here a lot lately. After a lengthy 7.5 hours on the road that leads to the entrance of the 294 off of Interstate 57, it wakes me up. You have to be alert to navigate the 294. And, on the inverse, the first stretch of my return trip is on the tollway and it keeps the sadness of parting with her at bay for about an hour. The sorrow of leaving her hits hard when I see the large green highway sign indicating the exit for I-57 and Memphis is a quarter mile ahead and the frenzied pace of the tollroad is over.
I'm not a veteran of the 294 and I've not driven the entirety of it. It begins at Interstate 80, some three miles south of where I join it. And it ends at the Wisconsin line after becoming I-94. I exit about 10 miles south of its conclusion. Despite its name, the Tri-State does not cross into Indiana or Wisconsin.
l don't have the battle scars of those locals who use the toll road each day — the dented fenders, the refillable prescriptions for xanax or the handful of gun misdemeanors in Illinois district courts. But since I've logged more than 750 miles on the thing so far, I feel compelled to discuss it.
I've driven the 294 in sunny weather and at night. During sleet, snow and rain. I was on it during the Groundhog Day Thunderstorm on Feb. 2 this year that knocked out power at the Waukegan police station and made the Chicago news that night. On that same run, a tractor-trailer rig caught on fire in the southbound near where 94 becomes the 294. Traffic backed up for an hour in heavy rain. At least the truck driver had the decency to pull over into the emergency lane before the cab of his vehicle totally burned. I can see the 294 drivers, though, as they pass by: “Pull off the road, why don'tcha,” they'd snarl as they zip by.
It's a far cry from the roads we have in Arkansas. Sure, we have concrete, but I don't know of anywhere in the state more than three lanes of road exist. The 294 has a minimum of four lanes and at times, near the O'Hare Airport and the Willow Lane exit, for example, there are six lanes. Cars swirl around, looking like the hovering dances of hummingbirds at feeders. The last time I was on it on Monday, I saw two trucks move from Lane 3 to Lane 2 while a car switched from 2 to 3, threading between the two trucks. It was death defying and a daring display of driving deft.
For those uninitiated with the tollway, you can simulate the experience. Sit in your car and imagine passing 30 orange Schneider trucks on the right and left, and clench your butt so tight you could break 10-penny nails. Constantly check your rear view and side mirrors, Twist your head back and forth like a maniacal ventriloquist doll and still doubt any moves you may want to make. But don't hesitate. Hesitate and you're a goner, stuck behind some ol' truck creeping along only at about 55 mph.
The cash lanes are also a pain to contend with. There are three toll stops along the stretch, each offering either the I-pass lane that allows motorists to buy their way around the booths or the traditional toll booths. Drivers have to pull off the 294 to the right, drive down a 100-yard wide concrete apron and chose a booth lane to pay the $1.50 to continue. If you're trapped in the outside lanes when the cash exit approaches, you must maneuver to the right. (I later learned after making such a maneuver to make the cash lane that had I missed a payment, I could later pay on line. This was after I nearly cut off a semi and made a Lane 3 to 1 shift quickly, yet smoothly.) The toll booth operator raises the gate and the driver is off, immediately revving up to 70 mph or so to gain the proper speed to access the 294 again. It's akin to a pit stop during the Indianapolis 500.
So, it's controlled and chaotic. I've done it a dozen times now and I'm sure I'll do it dozens of more times. Even the hotel where I stay when visiting my Illinois girl sits beside I-94. The whine of the tires is endless and at times, while in my room, I can hear the road beckoning for me to get back on it and negotiate the lane changes, the tolls and the insane drivers.