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,

Sarah

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),

Sarah

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,

Sarah

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Starting the trip back east: Oregon to South Dakota

I'm getting totally overwhelmed with the blog. Sarah is better at filtering. We can't possible mention all the things we see and do, not even all the fun or interesting ones. There are just too many. So as you read, keep in mind that there's lots we haven't said. With that in mind, please see a couple new old posts below that I recently finished (Lakewood Church and California: the other blue state), they were posted in a funny order.

From California, we drove from the redwood forests up the coast of Oregon, catching a herd of Elk along the way, and many many miles of New England type rocky shores. In fact, much of Oregon looked just like Cape Cod or Maine. Sarah loved it; to me it was ordinary. But the sea cave full of sea lions (a different species than previous sea lions) was cool.

We stayed in Portland for a couple nights, where our friends Ruth and Dustin showed us around. Portland was cool and trendy, much as I imagine Seattle to be. There's this famous bookstore there, Powell's, that one could spend hours in. And cool public art that you can play with. The last morning we had to wait around a bit for my contacts to get shipped - let me explain.

In California, we hiked along the Big Sur river down to the ocean. It was a hot day, so despite the near ice cold water, I jumped in to the river at this point where it curved and made a whirlpool and deepened to more than 10 feet. You could jump off the rocks along the edge into what had previously been a very shallow river. Two other people were swimming too, though most people just sat around and watched as I stripped down to bikini underwear and jumped in. I was so excited, I forgot that I was still wearing my sunglasses, which were gone when I bobbed back to the surface. Then swimming through a couple more times for fun and to search for my glasses, which I eventually found, I managed to lose my contacts. Being late on a Friday, my optometrist was already closed, so I went nearly blind for the next five days, ordering contacts to be over-nighted on Monday, which didn't arrive till Wednesday. Ahh what a pain. Anyway.

So leaving Portland, we saw several really cool waterfalls, then drove through a lot of nothing until Spokane, Washington, where we had dinner. This reminds me. Road Food has failed us. It's biggest slight was in California, where the author insisted on "ordinary" food. We started realizing that she didn't necessarily pick the best food available, just the most edible ordinary American diner-type food. This works great in the middle of nowhere, but in cities and blue states, there are better options. And it plenty of middle of nowhere locations, she's left us high and dry, having not covered the regions we traveled, or naming once place over two day's worth of travel. Anyway.

We stayed the night in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which pretty much started the wide open beauty of the US, in my humble opinion. I mean, the spaces just get enormous, and there's a disproportionate amount of beauty, especially in Wyoming. Between Coeur d'Alene - a beautiful lake resort community - and now - near The Badlands, South Dakota - we've seen the most beautiful, and the most boring, stretches of nothing in the US: Montana and the rockies, Yellowstone, grasslands, the Big Horn mountains, Mount Rushmore, and The Badlands, just to name the highlights.

The Badlands, which we just finished seeing tonight, are rather similar to the geological formations we'd seen 8 years ago in Cappadocia, Turkey. And the most interesting part for me is coming to understand, at least in part, why some people think it's not worth leaving the US. There really is everything available here. I mean, if you'd seen the Badlands, don't go out of your way to see Cappadocia. It's almost the same, minus the fairy chimneys.

Well, since I could go on for hours, I'll just stop now. Some little things though. I'd rather live in Montana if I had to live in an empty state. The people there are pretty cool. Wyoming gets the prize as the most empty state, which incidentally also has both extremes of the most beautiful and most boring landscape. And lastly, I'd highly encourage that everyone take a few months or more visiting the US, not just for the beauty, but also for all the different types of people and things. Some of it will be boring, but it's exciting even in the boring parts. Like the random Devil's Peak in the middle of grasslands in Wyoming. Wish I'd had time to do some climbing.

the true middle of nowhere

First, Michael says that he is no longer going to blog. He says he is too tired of traveling in the evenings to write about it afterwards, and I rush him too much in the mornings. Which is true, I do rush him. We certainly do not agree on how best to use the hours between 9 and 12.

Yellowstone is a very cool park. There are so many bison and elk that you literally become tired of them. At one point, there were bison all over the road and caused a big backup, and we got out and walked to see what it was. As I was walking back alone (Michael stayed with the bison), car after car asked me what the hold-up was. "Bison in the road" elicited huge signs of disappointment. Who wants a bison when they can have a bear?

We didn't see any bear, but we were lucky enough to see a wolf on our way in. He was white and out alone in the snow. You probably can't see him very well in the picture.

Some of Yellowstone is closed because there is still a lot of snow, but our timing was perfect: the road to Old Faithful opened the day we got there. Geysers are not as cool as bears, but they are cool. Some of them are really beautiful, with tons of colors around them. Old Faithful was faithful and shot off on schedule. It was the only geyser we really saw erupt, so it was cool.

We also drove over to the canyon, which was full of snow so we couldn't get too close. It was really beautiful, with tons of colors. The first waterfall took me totally by surprise--everything is so still in the snow, and so I totally didn't expect it. It gave that feeling of an early explorer encountering a waterfall--as opposed to our modern version, where the waterfall is marked on the map and we are waiting to be impressed.

We entered and exited Yellowstone through Montana, as those are the only entrances/exits that are open. This meant that, when we re-entered Wyoming, we were left feeling that it is the poor step-child of US beauty. That first stretch of Wyoming was the most dull landscape we have seen. But then the rocks started getting some iron in them, and when we turned onto a scenic road running through the Bighorn National Forest, almost immediately the landscape became quite pretty. Not the most spectacular in the country, but it held its own.

On the other side was the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, which seems never to have moved out of the 1950s. It was complete with drugstore cum soda fountain, and had a store called "The Office" in place of a Kinko's. No Walmart. In fact, Wyoming is the first place we haven't seen a Walmart. It's really like the world has forgotten Wyoming.

Since we weren't sure how we would spend a Saturday night in Buffalo, we went on to Gilette. I was concerned Gilette might be a large city, but that was a silly concern. We spent our Saturday night with the local ladies playing Bingo. Wyoming is also the first state I can remember in a long time without a smoking ban. And also the first without any immigrants, although there are a lot of Native Americans.

With love from Gilette,

Sarah

Friday, April 18, 2008

winding our way through the Northwest

At the risk of a laundry list, I will try to describe what we've done since I last wrote. I'll post lots of pictures to make it more interesting.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, it's hard not to like it. I managed to get my only sunburn of the trip there, as the weather was hot and sunny. We walked a ton, probably because I was desperate to avoid the car. We had a great time at the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building, eating very well at all the stands. Then we walked through the center of town, through Chinatown and Market Street, and then took a bus out to the other side and laid in the grass with a view of the Golden Gate. It was kind of a lazy day despite the walking.

We stayed with a cousin of Michael's dad, who has lived in California for years. I'm not sure that I had ever met him, but we had a really nice time with him and his wife. They cooked us dinner, which is always appreciated during our long travels.

The next day we headed up the coast to see the Redwoods. We first stopped in the Humboldt Redwood Forest, and wandered among the trees. The trees have a way of dampening the sound and it feels very relaxing among them. There's also that inevitable feeling of being small around something very big.

We camped that night in the Jedediah Smith Redwood Forest. What we saw of it was less impressive than Humboldt, but it was nice (despite my whining about camping) to sleep in the forest.

Then we drove up the Oregon coast. Apparently I am a true girl of the Northern coast, because I really loved that drive. The rocks and the waves and even the grey weather were much more my style than the California coast. I told Mike I wanted to spend the rest of the trip there and then just fly home. (I had gotten very sick of driving by that point.)

We ended up in Portland, which sadly is not on the coast but is really a nice city. We have close friends from New York, Ruth and Dustin, who were from there and have moved back. They toured us all around, but mostly we just hung out the way we used to do in New York. Lots of coffee shops and good restaurants. It was a nice change of pace, and great to see them.

After a slight delay while we waited for a new pair of contact lenses to arrive by DHL (Michael had a slight mishap in the Big Sur River), we finally headed east. We took I-84, which I liked since we had been on I-84 in Massachusetts/Connecticut. I84 goes through the Columbia Gorge, into which drop some really beautiful waterfalls. Then it heads into the nothingness of Eastern Oregon, and then we headed north into the nothingness of eastern Washington. We managed to not take a single picture during our short time in Washington.

We spent the night in Coeur D'Alene (pronounced Core Dalaine), Idaho. There's a big lake there, surrounded by mountains. I can't say it looked that different from something in New Hampshire, but it was our one taste of Idaho so I tried to make the best of it. We also drove I-90 East, thus making it to my own personal "Mother Road" (just 3000 miles to Boston!).

The ultimate goal was Montana. I'm not sure when I got it in my head that it would be cool to drive across Montana, but that was an important part of this trip for me. As it turns out, Montana is not a long string of amazing mountain vistas like I'd thought. But it is extremely cool to be in a series of big valleys and crossing huge mountains, and the only cities you cross are less than 50,000 people. Mostly, actually, we passed towns of three or four buildings only. We had a nice first glimpse of the Rockies, which I realized I've never seen before. We also drove through a preserve for Bison, which are very very cool animals. They stand around like cows but they run like slow horses, and they are huge and look so cool!

Mentioning the bison reminds me that there were sea lions and elk on the coast, but it's starting to get difficult to remember everything.

Tomorrow we're headed to Yellowstone, so we drove as close to the park as we had time for. We're staying in ski country but the season is over, so I'm not sure there's more than one other person in this huge hotel.

With love from Big Sky,

Sarah

Sunday, April 13, 2008

charismatic megafauna

What's cool about California is that it's an open-minded, cosmopolitan state with the natural wonders of a back-country. After driving up the coast from LA to San Francisco, I can see how, if you grew up here, you would think all other places are lame. Since I didn't grow up here, I would not agree that the California coast is the most beautiful in the country. I happen to be quite partial to Maine. But the combination of things here is hard to beat.

The highlight for me is definitely the marine wildlife. While I knew of a few places where the seals etc. hang out, the first ones we saw were at the recommendation of a sign on the road. The elephant seals were sleeping all over the beach, and the young ones were swimming near the shore. My New England mind still has trouble grasping the idea that no one feeds these animals in order to get them to put on a show for tourists.

We also saw sea lions (and maybe seals?) in Monterey, hanging out on the support beams under the docks. Little groups of them would show off in the water, but the big lazy ones would just hang out. I think people do feed these guys to get them to put on a show, but at least they're still wild.

We're in a bit of a rush this morning, so I'll leave it at that for now.

With love from San Francisco,

Sarah