Wednesday, the 1st of August – The First Wave

After getting stuck on the Dan Ryan Expressway (ha!), getting lost, and spending a good while wandering around, trying to decide why Barnes and Noble stores appear to outnumber houses in the northern Chicago suburbs; I arrive at the Hilton, Saint in tow. We arrived just in time, in fact, to rescue Luthien from taking a grievously mis-scheduled nap!

We checked in, moved our stuff up, and I went down to the basement to meet with the event people, where I wrote checks that made me cry. I returned to my room to find that there had been some sort of coup in my absence, and jincey and Balin had made themselves quite at home. Introductions were made, jincey tried to squeeze me half to death, and we discussed the first order of business: dinner!

We settled on a place called The Ram, a brewpub that turned out to have a fantastic prime rib. We chatted for a couple of hours, and set to table with a vengeance. I devoured my prime rib, and a good portion of jincey’s as well – a pleasure, as we both like our beef prepared the same way, it seems: in such a manner that a skilled veterinarian may be able to restore the cow to life.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel, splitting up for the evening. There were thoughts to think, and Saint and I were hitting Six Flags on Thursday… roller coasters ’til ya hurl!

Thursday, the 2nd of August – Everybody Get Together

The official first day of BarliBash. And it was raining. Hard. They said that the northern suburbs (where, of course, we were) got four inches of rain on Thursday morning. So, Six Flags was nixed, and we went down to breakfast.

The usual deal, breakfast…we ordered, and Luthien proceeded to eat everything that went untouched for more than thirty seconds. No idea how that young lady stays in such good shape – she eats like a linebacker, but entirely fails to look like one.

It turned out that the weather had bunged up the incoming flights – typical delays were about three hours, which put most of our folks arriving in the late afternoon. So, we went to Barnes and Noble. Yes, that’s right – in the midst of one of the nation’s largest, most interesting cities, we went to a bookstore. For nearly three hours. Sad, isn’t it? =]

We returned to the hotel, with nobody new having arrived, and went to our rooms for a bit. Not fifteen minutes later, the deluge began. Tookish, Thorongil, and Corvar arrived practically at the same time; rapidly followed by Ringlass, Opus, Zorina, Balin, and Gamgee. So, to kill time while waiting for the reception to begin, what do you think we did? That’s right…went to the bar! The rest of our crew (Arathorn, PipeSmoke, Pippin_Took, and samgamgee7) arrived while we were getting warmed up for the evening, and the gang was all there!

We made for the reception, and proceeded to spend a very brief three hours talking, laughing, and drinking Mormegil’s kind, kind donation. Somewhere along the line, things got a bit out of hand, and the munchies (thoughtfully provided by Zorina) began to be hurled about the room. Let me tell you, a macadamia nut to the back of the head smarts a bit. =]

Following the reception, some of us went swimming. Some of us (myself among them, because I was exhausted) went to bed. And the rest? They huddled together in jincey’s room, basking in the soft glow of an LCD screen, and dropped by Barli’s!

Friday, the 3rd of August – Chicago, Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town

As a result of the hotel’s shuttle availability, we woke revoltingly early on Friday. A few of us went to breakfast, then we boarded the bus for the train station. Most of us were still only half-awake on the train ride into the city, and it was a fairly quiet journey. Then the skyline came into view, and the buzz started. We left the train, threaded our way through to Union Station’s Grand Concourse, and out onto the street. We headed immediately for the Sears Tower, taking some pics along the way, and waited a good forty minutes in line to find out that visibility was zero, due to the morning haze. =[

Upon this disappointment, we decided to deal with our fates as only Hobbits can (yes, Hobbits…why not?) – by going to get something to eat. Nothing terribly interesting this time – McDonald’s on Jackson, except for Tookish, who stopped for a bagel – but enjoyable nonetheless. After all, what’s the food matter when you’re in the company of magi and kings, elves of might, Hobbits and Maiar, and even a wayward dwarf or two?

During breakfast, and afterwards (and, to be honest, for some time prior), we’d been discussing what various folks wanted to do with their mornings, and whether to split off into groups. As it happened, a near-consensus was reached, and the majority of the group headed off to the Adler Planetarium, to watch jincey drink water and smirk knowingly at references to the planet Saturn.

Your intrepid chronicler, on the other hand, had already been to the Adler Planetarium this year. It had been several years, however, since I’d stared, awestruck, at Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”; or spent a half hour trying to absorb Pollock’s “Greyed Rainbow”. So, I went to the Chicago Institute of Art, and did those things. I also spent some time in the Institute’s drool-worthy collection of medeival armor and weaponry, and visited Picasso’s “Old Guitar Player”, who always looks like he could use the company.

When the Institute started getting busy, and I could no longer stare at a painting without looking at the back of five peoples’ heads, I began to make my slow, meandering way back to the rendezvous site – the Sears Tower. During my trek, I stopped in and browsed a bit at Tower Records… listened (and gave) to a number of fine street musicians… almost got de-incarnated by a taxi, because I wasn’t paying enough attention… and had a very pleasant snack. Then, as I was enjoying my post-snack pipe, preparing to wait the next twenty minutes or so for the group, who should come trundling towards me but Saint, Gamgee, Pippin_Took,and Arathorn.

We discussed our respective mornings (I still like mine better than theirs), sat a spell, and decided it was time to take an elevator better than a thousand feet into the air. After we ate, anyway… Sbarro beckoned! What could be better than hot, greasy food before making one’s way to look at the world through a piece of plate glass nearly a quarter-mile above the concrete??

At various times surrounding our meal and ear-popping elevator ride, we ran across the rest of our party, and found ourselves standing once again on the sidewalk, in front of the Tower, again deciding what to do. The general consensus was that it was too late to head for any other attractions, so we decided to make our way back to the station, and head for the hotel.

As we walked, Luthien decided it would be amusing to accost me with her water bottle. I hear the sound of scrunching plastic, and feel water on my face, and wetting my shirt. I try to grab the water bottle, and Luth darts away. So, I did the only thing I could think of – ran up to her, grabbed her by the arm and leg, threw her over my shoulder, and continued to walk towards the train station with my burden. =] After much merriment and picture taking (if you haven’t already, you should be able to find at least *one* picture of me and Luth’s flailing legs), we conga-lined onto the train, and headed for the Hilton.

That train ride, on that pleasant Friday afternoon… things got very interesting! We experienced the spectacle of Luthnana – the photographs don’t do it justice, and I am not going to explain the entire incident. We learned that Tookish does a great faux-French accent, and enjoys sharing bread with others. We spent twenty minutes trying to get jincey to raise her face above the level of her seatback, and stop screaming every time she saw a camera. Simply put, we had a great time – and it was just beginning.

When we got back to the hotel, we suffered a loss. Luthien, who’d arrived a day early to spend time with the rest of us who’d come early (yeah, yeah, there’s no accounting for taste), was leaving us. We said our farewells, and sent her to the airport in the capable hands of Thorongil, assisted by the rather more active hands of Saint.

While Thor and Sainty were taking care of Luth, the rest of us were making dinner plans. Corvar recommended a surf’n’turf place called Bob Chinn’s Crab House (the waitress t-shirts read: “I got crabs at Bob Chinn’s”). We said, “Steak and seafood? Sounds like a plan!” So, we made our way up the road to the restaurant, where we ordered a pitcher or two of Mai Tais, and started browsing the extensive menu…extensive, at least, if you like steak and/or seafood. As it happens, I do. As it also happens, so does jincey. Never, *never* get between jincey and a plate of shrimp. The doctors were able to reattach Balin’s finger, but they say the nerve damage may be permanent.

At one point, Corvar, Gamgee, Saint, samgamgee7 and myself left the table to enjoy some Old Toby at the bar. I was expecting crab cakes to be waiting for me upon my return, and was quite looking forward to them. When I arrived back at the table, I found the crab cakes… or what was left of them. A plate, covered by a lettuce leaf, with a few crunchy bits and smears of dipping sauce. I was floored. They ate my crab cakes! Those… those… those…* Curunir sighs. What, I decided, can ya do? I laughed, said, “Ah, well… were they good?” I was informed that they were really fantastic… and was presented with my appetizer by Tookish and his grinning co-conspirators, jincey and Thorongil. I will, someday, get them back. 😉

We settled the rather extensive bill, waddled our bloated carcasses to the cars, and drove back to the base. Within a half hour, most of us had gathered in the bar, to have another drink and talk long into the night. By one in the morning, we were down to a bare handful – myself, Saint, Wesley (who had mystically appeared shortly before dinner), Gamgee, Thorongil and Corvar. We discussed film, we discussed the mechanical quirks of VCRs, and we laughed. A lot. It was a good end to a good day, surrounded by good people.

Saturday, the 4th of August – Every Which Way

We were in no rush – it had been a late night, and there was nothing particularly urgent to attend to. By the time those of us who were staying behind woke up, the GenCon-ers were already long gone. Staying in the hotel for eight hours didn’t seem terribly appealing, so Arathorn, Gamgee, Opus, Pippin_Took, Saint, and myself piled into the cars, drove to the train station, and went back downtown!

First stop: the Rock’n’Roll McDonalds. Double quarter pounder with cheese, while listening to Buddy Holly on the radio and staring at rock memorabilia that’s probably worth more than the property!

Second stop: Virgin Records. I spent all of ten minutes browsing in the music section… I was caught up in the books. They had the best selection of comics and graphic novels I’d ever seen in one place – not to mention a section on movies and television that was very impressive. After wandering around there for an hour and a half, we started off towards our final destination.

We walked along Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile”, looking at the buildings, the Public Art that is so wonderfully common there. We listened to the music (Pippin_Took got yelled at for trying to take a picture of a street musician without making a donation) that seems to be everywhere there are people. Finally, we approached our destination – Gamgee took a picture of the sign, which declared that we were about to enter…

Third stop: FAO Schwarz, the world’s coolest toy store. Level one: stuffed animals big as your *car*. Level two: toys for small children. Level three: JACKPOT! Legos! Lincoln Logs! Star Wars and X-Men and GI Joe! Some sort of mirror that Saint managed to try to stick his head through on the escalator! This is a *great* level!

We wander around, playing with the display toys, drooling on the AT AT and Snowspeeder that fill the area from floor to ceiling near the Star Wars toys, and wish we had Bill Gates’ bank account info.

We left reluctantly, and hailed cabs back to Union Station. We had time to kill, as usual, so we sat and chatted for a while. We boarded the train, and chatted some more, and then I hit my head on the upper deck… for the second time that day. Such moments may not seem terribly interesting to those of y’all who weren’t there – but it was those moments that made the Bash truly enjoyable. The things we did were a lot of fun, but none of it would have mattered, if not for the people.

We got back to the hotel in time to get cleaned up and ready for the banquet. The bar was ready, the food smelled wonderful… there was a piano in the corner, for Arathorn and Opus. And best of all, the room was full of friends. We talked, and ate, and talked, and laughed. We listened to Ara and Opus play Chopin, Bach, Ravel, and Burt Bacharach. We drank a series of toasts with homemade mead, generously provided by Wesley – to absent friends, to those who work so hard to make Barliman’s such a great place, to the Professor. The group even gifted their unworthy organizers with beautiful volumes of the Professor’s work – a gesture that was very much appreciated, though the friendship I gained is more thanks than I ever could have expected. The sense of community was palpable, and wonderful.

It only got better from there. We adjourned to jincey’s hotel room, where we sat and talked more. We passed around our favorite editions of the books to be signed by one another – we got to sign a book that had been signed by Elijah Wood, even! From jincey’s room, we moved to Tookish and Gamgee’s, where we played late into the night. As Arathorn said in a channel topic, “We had glooooowsticks…” And did we ever! Cervante, another unexpected (but very welcome) guest, brought us piles of the things. We turned off all the lights, and waved them in the windows, making other hotel guests nervous. Tookish wedged two green glowsticks into his eyes and did a dancing high-step around the room, doing a hysterical Gollum impression – you had to be there, I suppose. =]

We stayed up, talking and playing and joking, being utterly slayed by Gamgee and Thorongil (two of the funniest people I have *ever* had the privilege to meet), discussing strange offshoots of Tolkien – Gollum at Christmas and “fell meats” come immediately to mind – until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. We finally started heading to our respective rooms around four AM, and tried to get some sleep to prepare us for the task to come.

Sunday, the 5th of August – The Road Goes Ever On and On

“There’s not a word yet, for old friends who just met.” – Gonzo, “The Muppet Movie”

We awoke, checked out, and headed to Denny’s. Who wants to travel on an empty stomach? A few of us had left already, but Arathorn, Balin, Gamgee, jincey, Opus, PipeSmoke, Saint, samgamgee7, Tookish and myself were still present. We had a leisurely breakfast, underscored by quiet conversation.

We gathered in the parking lot to say our farewells – a profusion of hugs and handshakes were given; open invitations (“If you’re ever in <Your City Here>, you have a place to stay!”) were offered, and goodbyes were said. Then, a la ninety percent of the people leaving the chatroom, the group moved about fifteen feet towards the cars, halted, and began to talk again. Finally, after another ten or fifteen minutes, we succeeded in saying “Namarie, mellon!”, and began to make our respective ways home.

In five years, I’ll remember this particular trip to Chicago not because of what I did – I’m a comparative local, and have seen it all before. I’ll remember this trip to Chicago, as we all will, because of the wonderful people we met; because of the wonderful friendships we found.

Barliman’s is a family – no doubt in my mind about it. We came to Chicago hopeful and expectant, thinking to meet new people and make new friends. We left as brothers and sisters, a surrogate family forged in the fires of LotR.

In another year or so, we’ll do it again – and we hope you’ll be there. Our family has room to grow – there is always a place for one more in the Pony. Won’t you join us?