Observations from I-90

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We captured the welcome signs to each state. The blurry one is of Ohio, if you couldn’t decipher it, taken by yours truly. Leah put the collage together.

Not everyone gets to drive cross-country with their daughter. I’ve gotten to do it twice! Leah went to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. She began the program in September 2011. She drove the first part of that trip from Albany by herself, visiting friends along the way. I joined her in Minneapolis. The remaining journey went fine, but it was a tense time for Leah and the stress took its toll on us. While I have some fond memories, I’m not sure that either one of us would describe it as an enjoyable venture.

Now that she was done with her program and earned her PhD (I proudly think of her as Dr. Leah), we had a chance to do it again. After considering a number of options, from renting a U-Haul to hiring movers and flying, Leah decided to ship much of her stuff, sell or give away other things and pack up her Honda Civic with the rest and drive. Casting caution to the wind, I offered to share the driving and she welcomed the company. I flew out to Seattle.

I like road trips. Always have. Some people get antsy in the car. I don’t. Between music and scenery, I’m usually good. The only issue for me, as I get older, is that getting out of the car brings an unpleasant reality: after a couple of hours of sitting in a car my hips and lower back scream in protest when I climb out. But even with that, I still enjoy the trip.

I arrived in Seattle late on Saturday evening. We started out at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday in a light rain. Our arsenal for the trip included our smart phones, podcasts, audiobooks, music, a map of America, a triptik from AAA, a charger that could accommodate two USB connections (keeping phones charged was key!), patience and a sense of humor. Oh, some cash and credit cards helped, too.

Success in planning a cross-country trip depends on managing expectations and making sure your travel companion is on the same page. Leah and I agreed to take a middle ground where we would try to be efficient (cover a long distance each day) while taking a bit of time to enjoy ourselves. Not surprisingly, enjoying ourselves usually meant finding good food for lunch and dinner. We used Yelp and/or Google to find a good lunch spot in a town off the road. No McDonalds or Burger King at a rest area.

With the wonders of the World Wide Web available to us (cell service was pretty consistent), we found quirky cafes and burger joints. We had some excellent lunches. Only once did the apps fail us. The #2 rated place in Butte, Montana, for dinner, which was walking distance from our hotel, was a disappointment. The fact that it was a Mexican restaurant in a small casino should’ve been a clue, but we ignored that. Afterwards we agreed that Taco Bell probably would’ve been better.

That first night on the road in Butte, before turning in, we stopped at a Walgreens so I could pick up breathe-right strips. I don’t want to believe I snore, but Leah tells me otherwise and we were sharing a hotel room. Leah has trouble falling asleep under the best of circumstances, all we needed was for her to be kept awake by my snoring. I decided discretion was the better part of valor, swallowed my pride, and bought the strips. Why do we view snoring as a personal failing? Just wondering.

Other than the Three Amigos (yes, that was the name of the Mexican restaurant in Butte), we did quite well with our meals. If you’re ever in Billings, Montana, check out Burger Dive. It was a truly excellent, award winning burger (see picture below) and the restaurant itself was comfortable and decked out with funky, odd pieces, like a reclaimed Blockbuster video store sign. The service was friendly, too. Look at me becoming a restaurant critic! Leah and I returned to the road fortified and happy.

Lest you think the only places we saw were the inside of restaurants, we did make a couple of other kinds of stops. Based on a recommendation from the woman at AAA we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. This is one of those ‘only in America’ kinds of places (see pictures below). We also had a fine lunch at Teresa’s Café (I would never forget a meal!).

The Corn Palace features ‘mosaics’ made of corn kernels. Each year is a new theme – 2016-17 is rock-n-roll.

We stopped at another oddity (again based on a suggestion from AAA) in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Just off I-90 there is a 55-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant. Blue Earth is the home of the brand and the humongous green statue is an homage to the partnership between the town and the company. It was good to get out and stretch our legs, take some fun photos, and hop back in the car. There is a museum, but it was closed; we were not heartbroken.

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Me in a power pose with the Giant – photo by Leah

The only ‘real’ tourist destination we visited was Mount Rushmore. I had been there 44 years ago on a trip with my parents. While the huge sculpture of our presidents carved into the mountainside has not changed, the area surrounding it has. Now there is a four level parking garage, a huge plaza, a walkway lined with each state’s flag, an amphitheater, and café. We arrived just before sunset on Monday, March 27th – hardly a peak time for tourists. Almost everything was closed. The gift shop was still open – fortunately for me since I collect magnets from places I visit. Other than a few hearty souls, we had the place to ourselves. It turned out to be a beautiful time to be there. The setting sun, the tall pines and Black Hills against the baby blue sky were lovely. The faces of the presidents are illuminated at night and we saw the lights come on and then we got back in the car and headed to our hotel a few miles away in Rapid City. Exiting Mount Rushmore we drove through a faux old western town. It was a tourist attraction made of up shops and motels. Off-season, empty and shuttered, it looked like a movie set.

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The western part of the United States is such a contrast to the east. The landscape in the west ranges from long stretches of amber fields of grain where the only signs of life are cattle, to other stretches that feature granite, snow-capped mountains that look like painted backdrops. Eastern Washington state and central Minnesota had vast areas of plains dotted with wind farms. Leah and I agreed that the sculptural white windmills were whimsical and graceful – they weren’t a blight on the scenery. I wondered why South Dakota and Wyoming didn’t have them, too. The common denominator in those western states was the wide-open space.

Borrowing from a Jackson Browne lyric, the road and the sky collide on long segments of I-90. At one point it all became indistinguishable. In South Dakota the slate gray skies, pouring rain and copious amounts of road spray made for a bleak scene. Passing an 18-wheeler under those conditions was a white-knuckle experience. We were quite lucky that didn’t happen much during our five days on the road.

As we moved east the landscape became increasingly congested. While there was farmland in every state we drove through, we simply didn’t see the awe-inspiring views in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. As we drove through Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming we couldn’t help but break out in song – The Sound Of Music, America the Beautiful, Home on the Range and Country Roads spontaneously burst forth. The bad weather, increased truck traffic and flat, uninteresting landscape cut down on our spontaneous singing once we arrived in the Midwest. We were left with On the Road Again each time we returned to the car.

With all those hours to pass we listened to a 7-part podcast called S-Town (or Shit Town). This was a fascinating deep dive into a Southern town with a focus on a particularly eccentric individual. The series wasn’t entirely satisfying in that it was advertised as a murder mystery, but didn’t exactly fulfill its promise. However, it was still well worth listening to as a character study.

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Aside from the many hours of distraction, the podcasts provided lots of fuel for discussion for Leah and I.

Our fourth night on the road found us in South Bend, Indiana. That day had been the most stressful, with almost constant rain and Chicago-area traffic. We were so relieved to get off the road, we just ordered pizza to the room and called it a night.

We studied the maps and the weather forecasts. Our plan had been to ease up and complete the last part of the trip in two days by stopping in Buffalo the following night. We considered taking the northern route from South Bend and crossing Michigan and part of Ontario, instead of continuing on I-90. The weather forecast was bleak so we decided to stick with what we knew. Leah went to college in Ohio so the trip from Cleveland was well known to us.

The uninspiring portion of our trip.

The Ohio Turnpike gets the award for the best service areas. At this point in the trip, with the weather so miserable, we weren’t feeling adventurous. We opted for convenience and in Ohio the food choices on the turnpike were much better than what one typically finds. We had lunch at Panera’s at the Vermillion stop. We warmed up with some chicken noodle soup and then got back on the road.

We crossed the New York State line at about 3:00 in the afternoon. I was behind the wheel. “Maybe we should just go the distance and get home. We have a lot of daylight left and the weather may be worse tomorrow,” I suggested. We knew that the next day’s forecast called for a wintry mix. Leah’s eyes lit up, she liked that idea. We got a second wind. I drove through some more rain and we didn’t stop until we got to a service area outside Syracuse (our first Burger King of the trip). Leah took over the driving. I played DJ and we powered through the rest of the way listening to Springsteen and Billy Joel.

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Home sweet home

At 8:30 pm, tired but happy, we greeted Gary and our two cats, Roger and Raffa. This had been a far better trip than the one we took almost six years before. Leah and I chatted easily, sang, enjoyed listening to S-Town and took in a lot of America. I will treasure my memories.

5 thoughts on “Observations from I-90

  1. Reminds me of our trips to Daddy’s schools. Remember Nana coming out with a box of donuts at 5 in the morning in case we got hungry? I remember singing We’re off to See The Wizard every time we started our summer trips. They were good times

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  2. A tremendous undertaking well accomplished and simultaneously a great memory created. I wonder if you would have felt better about the eastern part of the trip if it had been sunny. After all, at least there is something there. In any case, the drive also serves as a marker of transitions, especially transitions for Leah who is moving on to a new position as a PhD in a new city. Thank you for sharing the memories and the photos.

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