Michael and Sarah's Great Cross-Country Adventure

This is a blog about our 6-week trip driving across the USA. We set off on March 18, 2008.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

the final stretch

We drove from Indiana into Ohio. On the way we stopped in the town of Columbus, Indiana. This is a town that has built a reputation for great architecture in its public buildings, mostly schools and churches. It started in the '60s (I think), and since then they have attracted all sorts of great architects. There are some very cool buildings, especially some of the churches. There is also a great Chihuly chandelier in the visitor center.

In Ohio we stayed in the town that hosts Kenyon College. We stayed with the parents of a friend of mine from New York, Aili. Kenyon is a really beautiful school by my standards. I think if I had ever considered going to Ohio for college, I would have really liked it. Aili's parents were really good to us and cooked us a great meal. It was really nice, especially since these were the people we stayed with to whom we had the loosest connection.

Kenyon is right near Ohio's Amish country. The Amish don't like you to take their picture, and frankly I don't blame them. I don't think it's religious, I think they genuinely don't like being treated like a tourist attraction. It was bad enough that we were driving around their neighborhoods and were clearly there to gawk at them and nothing else. But It's quite cool how they live back behind the main roads and have their own little world back there, nearly totally cut off from the country they live in. If we were in a foreign country, I would think of them as this cool sociological attraction. Somehow because they are American I have never thought of them as that exotic. But actually they are quite exotic, in their long black skirts and white headpieces out playing volleyball on Sunday afternoon.

We drove quickly through Cleveland, where we saw the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame building, designed by I.M. Pei and distinctly reminiscent of the Louvre. We drove up to Detroit, which I had wanted to see given my apparent obsession with rejuvenated factory towns. But Detroit hasn't rejuvenated. Downtown is quite poor and full of unhappy-looking people. But then the worst part is that there is this magic line to the north, and when you cross that line there is an immediate change, with manicured lawns and gigantic houses. Old houses, from the auto barons back in the day, but still inhabited by them. The only thing that's odd is that all these rich people don't drive expensive European cars, they all drive American cars. I've never seen so many American cars in my life. Our little Chevy Malibu finally fit right in!

This was the home stretch, and we weren't making many stops by then. We drove from Detroit to Buffalo, with only a brief stop at Oberlin (where Peter briefly went to school). In Buffalo we stayed at a hotel, but we had dinner with a long-time business associate of my dad's, plus his family. It was really kind of his to take us to dinner, especially considering he has no obligation to my dad. The coolest part is that he is a volunteer fireman, and he took us on a tour of his firehouse. It's all state-of-the-art, and we saw all the high-tech equipment and went in the fire truck and everything. He had Mike ready to sign up for duty.

The next morning we took a quick detour to Niagara Falls. I love it there, and Mike and I had gone together 10 years ago. As he said, it's been 10 years and it's still flowing. It's an incredibly impressive sight, even if the stupid Canadians have ruined the view on their side (for once the Americans are the ones with taste and preserved their side with a state park). It was an appropriate final tourist destination I think.

Even more appropriate was driving back through my own college town and along the scenic Mohawk trail on our way back to Boston. After everything we have seen, we both agreed that Rte. 2 really is one of the most beautiful drives in the country. Pretty amazing after all that. This picture doesn't capture it, but if you'd been there, you know.

We've now been back for over a week. There is so much to think about and more than 1,500 pictures to go through. Thank you to all of you who followed the blog, we were really happy to share it with you. I hope to see you all soon and get to talk about it in person.

With love from Newton,


Saturday, May 3, 2008

more states in the middle

We drove from Iowa along the Mississippi River to St. Louis. The part in Illinois was kind of dull, but the part in Missouri was really beautiful. All the trees are blooming, and it's all green rolling hills alongside the river. It was another surprise, like Kentucky - I had had no expectations for Missouri at all.

St. Louis was also a surprise. The arch is much prettier in person than in pictures. It really was worth seeing. We went up inside, which is cramped but a nice view.

The other very random thing in St. Louis is called the City Museum. It's not so much a museum as a gigantic piece of interactive installation art. An artist-sculptor-architect took a 10-story factory building and is still in the process of creating the ultimate jungle gym/sculpture/treehouse/everything else. It was Mike's dream, since he always wants to climb on things and crawl through things and normally it's not allowed. But even I found it very cool to explore and walk around (I didn't crawl so much). Even if you just stay on the stairs, it's worth visiting.

We drove from St. Louis to Bloomington, Indiana, where my cousin Allison is just finishing up college. We had a really nice time visiting with her, even though she had a final the next morning (yuck!). Indiana was also surprisingly pretty, and again very Eastern.

That's all for now.

With love from Hopkinton (again),


Friday, May 2, 2008

the real Midwest

I'm not sure if I'll say everything in this entry, or do it a bit at a time. We had several days without internet access, and then the trip was nearing the end and we just lost the drive to write. But I'm going to try to finish out the blog, since I think it's a nice record.

We drove from Wyoming into South Dakota. On the way we made a last-minute decision to visit the Devil's Tower, which is this big rock that juts out of the land in the total middle of nowhere. It really is quite impressive, and very bizarre. The rock isn't smooth, it looks like it is formed from columns of rock. It's quite large and very flat on top. We walked around it on a path. Mike thought it was much cooler than me, but both of us had kind of had enough when we were on the far side of it and as far from the parking lot as possible. I have to admit that the highlight for me was the prairie dogs that have built a city just inside the entrance to the park. They are so cute!

We drove into South Dakota and down to Mt. Rushmore. The hills around there, called the Black Hills, are oddly reminiscent of the monument, so at every turn you think you might see it. It seems like the sculpture was made to reflect the rocks around it, although I guess probably not. It's pretty impressive, but also kind of lame because it's surrounded by this horrible parking lot whose entrance looks like a toll booth on the highway. We parked on the side and hiked in the back, which you're not supposed to do but I would recommend (park in the lot for the "Washington profile view"!).

On the way there we also stopped to see the Crazy Horse monument, which is supposed to be bigger and better than Mt. Rushmore but is barely begun. I guess it's good that the Native Americans are being more ambitious and asserting themselves, but if your monument isn't complete, it just isn't as cool.

Then we drove down to the Badlands. I'm not sure what I expected there, and it's a really tough thing to explain. We went because our friends Sarah and Eric really liked it, but they had trouble explaining it too. It's rock formations, but in a really unique way, and with tons of colors from the minerals in the rocks, and right there at the edge of the prairie - there would be prairie grass right up to the edge, and then it would drop off in this ravine and a network of ravines and canyons ringed by peaks. It was a lot like Cappadoccia in Turkey, except maybe cooler. The thing is, my family flew all the way to Turkey, but it would never occur to my parents to say "kids, this year we're going for vacation to South Dakota!" It really made me think about all the natural beauty in this country.

We stayed that night in Wall, South Dakota, home of Wall Drug. I won't bother to explain what Wall Drug is, but it was worth a stop, especially in that land of nothingness. South Dakota is just miles and miles of prairie, which looks natural and kind of cool and doesn't seem to be used for anything. We mostly drove I-90 because it's the only road, and there were lots of exits straight onto dirt roads. It's a strange state.

The next day we drove into Nebraska, on the misguided assumption that there would be something more interesting there. Nebraska got both of our prize for most boring state. It's just grass, not even cool prairie grass, with some cows, and no interesting towns. There is no redeeming quality.

But we took our time because we decided to stop in Omaha to meet some of my mother's cousins. These are the children of my grandmother's favorite sister, but the their family and my mom's never really met. Four of the 8 siblings live in Omaha, and we met two. One of them, Marilyn, said she came to my house when I was little, but I don't remember. The other, Jim, has never met my mom. Jim's wife Nathalie made us dinner, and we stayed at their house. I have to admit to some apprehension ahead of time, but we had a good time and it was never awkward. It was a taste of America that we might not have had otherwise. These are real Midwesterners, Jim is an NRA member. They both voted for Bush both times. But their daughter is very liberal and is married to an African American from Alaska of all places. It was all a bit strange and random but nice at the same time.

The next day we had our next random encounter, with Mike's mom's roommate from college in Iowa. Jane and her husband Roger also cooked us dinner and gave us a flavor of the Midwest. But I have to say, I will no longer lump the entire Midwest in together. Nebraska is what I've been picturing all my life. Iowa was comparatively quite pretty and even interesting. There are green rolling hills and the population density was far above anything we'd passed through since Portland. Coming the route that we did, it felt positively Eastern.

We stopped in Madison County to see a bridge, which just looked like New England except people seemed to think it had a special significance because of the book and had graffitied the cheesiest romantic crap all over the inside. We also stopped in a series of little villages that are populated by direct descendants of the original German immigrants. Mike said there was something distinctly German about them, but I didn't really see it beyond the fact that they claim to still speak the language.

I'll leave it there for now, and will continue the journey as I'm up to it.

With love from Hopkinton,