Feature photo by John Picken

Namedropping often gets the buzz, turns heads, impresses in the purest sense of the word. And so: Rick Steves.

His name is synonymous with travel and touring. Hosting a televised travel show – Rick Steves’ Europe – on PBS long before The Travel Channel was conceived, Steves paved the way for travel to be showcased on the medium of television.

While this foray into TV changed the way we approach the concept of tour guide in that Marshall McLuhan “medium-is-the-message” type of way, Steves was also iconoclastic for touring itself with his “through the backdoor” philosophy of travel. Typifying the idioms of “off the beaten path” and “getting your hands dirty,” Steves continues to capture the attention of millions of Americans.

Several years ago, a woman who had once upon a time worked as a Tour Guide and Guidebook Researcher of what is not only the bestselling international guidebook on Italy but bestselling tour guidebook period – “Rick Steves’ Italy” – quietly moved to Chicago, attended a M.A. program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago with a focus on architecture, urbanism and Chicago history and opened a touring business. As you might imagine, her tour is as iconoclastic to the idea of “Chicago tour” as Steves’ was to the idea of Americans touring Europe. And so, another name drop: Amanda Scotese.

Launched in July, 2010, Scotese’s business goes by the name of Chicago Detours and currently offers as its winter tour of 2011, “The Loop: Explore Without Freezing.” A brief synopsis found on the website explains all the necessary details involved with this tour including use of iPads.

The About section highlights the mission and philosophy of Chicago Detours. What’s not found on the website, of course, are all the minutia catapulting this tour into something that’s altogether different, something that evokes in us a curiosity we didn’t even know we had.

Henry David Thoreau is most well-known for getting away from the hustle of busy American life to observe not just the majesty of his surroundings but then to examine how such a revolutionary act transformed himself. His impact was so great that his name and the place he retreated to – Walden – now represent more of the idea of what he did rather than person or place.

Very few of us will ever have time to get away as Thoreau did. Very few of us will ever be able to experience the richness of our surroundings and more importantly, have the time to reflect on such an experience in any meaningful way. We go on vacation, bask in the vacation buzz for about a week or so after coming home, and then it is gone as the routine and comforts of our familiar life snuff out any vacation change.

Such is a bleak but honest rendering of an ordinary process we all experience. What is also honest but much more hopeful is the idea of the revolutionary act that changed Thoreau happening to us without getting away. Said in a different way, what if we could experience the change vacation brings to us without ever having to leave? What if that change was located as close as the Loop?

During the two hours of a Chicago Detours tour (at least for The Loop tour), the familiar places of cityscape quickly become unfamiliar as the small group – 8 or so people – is shepherded by either Scotese or one of the Chicago Detours guides who most often have Master’s degrees in fields deemed complimentary and are actually paid for their work.

In the safety of the group, we are all challenged to literally stop and take a good look around. During these pauses, we are not lectured at but invited to see the world differently. Studs Terkel whispers in our ear his musings of these “eight blocks by six blocks.” Images of what used to be the busiest street intersection in the world happen to magically appear for us to see and not just to imagine while we’re standing at that very same intersection now quieted and restrained with nothing more than three colors of lights and hidden public transport. The significance of department stores and women’s liberation are pointed out to us in the very space it happened, where women were allowed to roam free amid the safety of clothing and hangers and purse strings. And then we plunge into the bowels of the pedway, an underground labyrinth of halls and shops and government offices that still remain much of a mystery to many. On a side note, Chicago Detours will be publishing a new and improved map of the pedway that promises to revolutionize the way we understand such a useful invention in this place of weather extremes.

Hindsight has yet to afford consideration space for Chicago Detours and what Amanda Scotese is attempting to do; her business is not even a year old. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why you leave the tour exhilarated, as if someone suddenly exposed a plot twist that casts a glow on everything before you. Said in a different way, Scotese’s approach to the Chicago architecture tour is novel and will most certainly change our expectations of what a tour means.

Learning the history of a place does not produce this effect. Systematic analysis of a place does not produce this effect. And yet, this is much of the tour. The execution, however, is entirely novel. Perhaps McLuhan was right: the media is the message. It was the iPad all along. Perhaps. A more likely explanation is the masterful curation by Scotese (and her team) borne out of education, experience, and ultimately, love for Chicago.

Check out their website about upcoming tours involving a bus tour and jazz as well as good times on the Michigan Avenue and even arranging private tours!

See Slideshow on Flickr

Update: “The Loop: Explore Without Freezing” is now renamed “Inside the Loop” and will continue throughout the summer.

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