Urban outdoor skating rinks resemble a mosh pit in reverse: a mass of people desperately trying not to slam into each other. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It’s five degrees on a Friday evening, even colder with the wind chill, and you’re shivering while in line to ice skate at Millennium Park. After the hour-long wait, you cough up 12 bucks to rent a pair of bladed boots that smell like a clammy YMCA, spend another ten overheated minutes struggling to stuff your feet into them, and then cram your remaining possessions into a tiny rental locker.  

You shuffle onto the rink’s surface only to find yourself in an arena of barely controlled chaos. It’s like a mosh pit in reverse: a mass of people desperately trying not to slam into each other. But danger looms as dozens of amateur skaters move at various speeds within the rink’s confines. You repress a feeling of panic as you dodge daredevil teens haphazardly zipping around like they’re being timed for Olympics trials and narrowly avoid a six-year-old who looks like he’s doing a Bambi impression—arms and legs splayed as he falls to the ice on his stomach. And holy shit, is that someone texting while skating backwards?

There’s a beautiful skyline in the background, but you’re too busy keeping yourself balanced on two thin rails of steel to admire it, let alone keep track of your date, who’s suddenly missing from view. One tumble could send you crashing skull first into the ice, your knit hat providing only the flimsiest of protection. After 20 minutes of etching circles onto the ice with your shoes, your feet ache, your face is numb from the biting lake winds, and your “apres-skate” hot chocolate tastes like powdered mud.

Why in the name of Michelle Kwan would anyone waste time and money on outdoor ice skating?

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Everywhere you turn these days, there’s a new slab of ice in Chicago you can pay to skate on. In addition to the ever-popular McCormick Tribune rink in Millennium Park, we’ve now got the winding, Mario Kart-like track in Maggie Daley Park, pop-up ice in Wicker Park and at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and a synthetic surface installed on the patio of Parson’s Chicken & Fish in Humboldt Park. At this pace, we’re a winter or two away from becoming a Canadian province.

Did the polar vortex freeze our capacity for rational thinking, or is the powerful opiate of Rockwellian nostalgia that surrounds ice skating causing mass delusion? I’d bet the latter. Close your eyes and ponder “outdoor ice skating”—you probably picture an old black-and-white movie with Cary Grant and an elegant woman holding hands while doing effortless figure eights in a snow globe. Or maybe you think of the grace and visual poetry of sequin-studded Olympic figure skaters.

In any case, it’s time to wipe the dewy romanticism from your eyes and face the truth, even if it stings like a late-January night along the lakefront: outdoor ice skating is a painfully tedious—and sometimes downright painful—winter pastime.