What Was It Like?

Now that I am home, my friends ask me two excellent questions:  What was it like to be alone?  And, what was a highlight of the trip?  Here are my answers:

Being aloneThe first day or two, I was frustrated by the extra work it took to be alone.  There was no one in the passenger seat to plan routes, get directions, arrange hotels, locate the next restaurant.  This annoyance faded once I got used to it.  I loved long quiet stretches to think and listen to music.*  Sometimes friends met me, and sometimes loneliness did take over.  To fight it, I took advantage of everyday human encounters.  Since I was honestly curious about places and people, I tried to turn random contacts into conversations.  With a grocery clerk, I cheered about the local football championship.  With a waitress, I discussed the finer points of smoking pork. A B&B owner told me about renovating her Victorian guest house. I learned to value people I might otherwise have quickly forgotten.  This has lasted:  Since I’ve returned, I pay better attention, chat more with strangers, and feel extra invested wherever I am – even Concord, where I’ve lived for 35 years.

Standin’ on the Corner in Winslow, Arizona

Highlight of the trip. This was unquestionably the small towns I visited and the people who made them tick.  Along the two-lane highways of the country, communities survive in spite of enormous changes in the economy, transportation and industry.    Westward migration, passenger railroads, manufacturing, mining and small farms have all given way to superhighways and mechanization.  But against all odds, residents invent new dreams, and fight to make their towns thrive.

Winslow, Arizona, population 9500, median income less than $30,000, has created Standing on the Corner Park, with a statue of Jackson Browne, whose song “Take it Easy” immortalized Winslow.  The tiny park is a photo op destination and the center of a fall festival.

La Posada

The park lured me to Winslow, but La Posada kept me there.  A local entrepreneur has refurbished the old Harvey Hotel, originally built to entertain travelers on the Santa Fe railroad.  The freight train that passes right behind its garden is irrelevant now, but the hotel is an architectural gem, with a fine restaurant and gallery.

Another example of the small town will-to-win is Council Grove, Kansas, 50 miles of cornfields west of Kansas City, Missouri.  In the mid 1800s, Council Grove was the jumping-off-point for the Santa Fe Trail.  At casual glance, the town is not lively, and only a little picturesque.

But its 2200 citizens are configuring Council Grove as a day-trippers’ destination.  There are an old soda fountain, a short riverwalk, and statues commemorating pioneer women and Native Americans.  The town has 13 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Post Office Oak, where migrants left mail to be carried on by others. 

One local couple has made the restoration of an 1861 home into their personal mission.  They run a tiny restaurant in its parlor to defray the costs of restoration, where I had delicious home-cooked beef stew.

1861 Terwilliger House

So, how was the trip?  Well, fantastic.  But when it was over, I wasn’t ready.  I wanted to keep on driving.  And, I think that was the right way for it to end.  One of these days, I’ll hop in the car again and find out what’s waiting along another road.

Fran & her car blowin’ in the wind, Old Route 66

*Thanks to all my friends who contributed music to my Road Trip Play List!

Afraid of the Dark

(To friends and subscribers:  I’ve been home from my cross-country road trip for a year now, and I’m just now uploading two more posts.  Hope you enjoy them.)

Several people have asked me, were you afraid on the trip?  Here is one story: 

I am driving west on I-40, through the rangeland of the Texas Panhandle, at 10:00pm.  As I finish a long phone conversation with my son, my cell connection fades out and cuts off the call.  For the first time in an hour, I look around to get my bearings.  All I see is flat black night.  I vaguely remember driving through Amarillo, the only sizeable city on the Panhandle.  But its glow has disappeared from the rear-view mirror.   There are no towns, no neon, no streetlights, no moon, not even reflectors on the Interstate. I am in the definition of darkness.

I start to feel a bit uneasy.  I need to find a place to eat and spend the night.  I could turn back to Amarillo, but I’m falling asleep at the wheel.  Here I am, driving late and alone, with no hotel plans, not much gas, and no knowledge of the area.

My handy iPhone app will tell me what is up ahead, if I can get a connection.  I slow down, capture a single bar of cell signal, and pull into the breakdown lane to stay in range.  I put on the emergency blinkers.  And I lock my car doors.

I’m usually quite brave. . . but not tonight.  This afternoon, my friend, a criminal court judge in Tulsa, told me the story of one of his recent cases.  A woman had been kidnapped and stabbed, barely escaping being murdered.  My friend’s parting text message is in my phone:  “Be safe, Fran.  I am uniquely aware that there are bad people out there.”  Maybe there is someone lurking in the brush.  No one knows where I am.  If I were in trouble, where would I turn?  The few car lights on the highway seem sinister, not comforting.

My mobile app informs me that Vega, Texas, is my only alternative for the night.  It’s a few exits ahead, with one hotel and one restaurant.  Except for Vega, there is nothing for 80 miles – no restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, hotels or even rest stops. And when I take the exit, there is no sign of a town.

Day’s Inn, Vega TX (imagine it in darkness)

There is only a Days Inn at the base of the ramp, flanked by a two-pump gas station.  As I approach, the gas station turns out its lights, leaving the hotel surrounded by darkness.  The dim light at the entrance makes the gray stucco building look deserted.  In the parking lot, there are two eighteen-wheelers and two cars.   Who would stay in this forsaken place?  Would they be upright and trustworthy, or would they be hostile?

To buy time, I find the Boot Hill Saloon, the restaurant shown on my app.  During the four block drive to the restaurant, my headlights illuminate only empty parking lots.  Then, the clapboard restaurant looks dilapidated, with nothing out front but a single motorcycle. I see a television glimmering inside and think:  This is a place for late-night drunks.

I turn back to the hotel and have trouble taming my thoughts:  This hotel will be grubby and bedbug-ridden.  Someone will try to get in my room during the night.  I will go to bed hungry.  If I drive back to Amarillo, my car will surely break down on the way.  But the only thing worse than sleeping here would be sleeping in the car – so while my mind tells awful tales, my feet take me into the lobby.

Boot Hill Saloon with “vintage” storefronts

And – there was nothing to fear.

The hotel manager, a cordial Pakistani gentleman, gave me a clean room near the lobby, assuring me that the Boot Hill Saloon would be a safe restaurant for a single woman.  Back at the Saloon, the cheerful young blond behind the bar kept the place open until 1:00am for my very late dinner. The motorcycle out front belonged to the cook, who made a mean chicken salad, and actually apologized that he hadn’t cut the chicken into perfect cubes.

Vega’s open territory and wide sky, so mysterious at night, were stunningly beautiful the next morning.

Beautiful sky, distant farmhouses, Vega TX

The Saloon had only seemed rundown, because it’s embellished with fake vintage storefronts.  The intimidating empty parking lots belonged to churches and schools. The town center, a short distance away, was lovingly maintained, though not prosperous.  Residents said hello and waved from their trucks.  And one empty storefront had a homemade sign: “Vega – The town you never want to leave”.

Vega’s handmade storefront signs

So yes, I was afraid on the trip, that night and a few other times.  But I also found that every time I trusted people – or fate – things worked out fine.  I wrote an observation in my notebook and it became a kind of mantra:   Remember Vega.  Don’t believe you’re in danger, when you’re really just afraid of the dark.

October 6, 2011

9/19-21: Interesting People Along the Road

This has been a trip full of serendipitous meetings with fascinating people.  Is it their friendliness, my interest, or just good luck?  Here are three from early in the trip:

Jeff.  It was Monday evening and pouring rain in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  Needing clean clothes, I splashed to the Laundromat.  DiMarco’s Bistro – brown booths, beige walls, black chairs – looked like an acceptable, nondescript place to pass the wash time.  Drenched, tired, hungry and unsociable, I made a beeline for a small booth in a dark corner.  My waiter intercepted me. “Sit in the middle of the room – the light’s better,” he commanded.  He was a tall blond 20-something, earringed, tattooed – and inherently conversational.  Beginning by extolling the virtues of my iPad, he learned I was driving cross-country, quizzed me for travel recommendations, described the motorcycle accident that kept him out of the army, got a résumé of my career, told me the ups and downs of his experiences in nursing, and elicited my suggestions for his UPenn major. He gave me an extra dish of his favorite pasta, guarded my gear while I started the clothes dryer, and, on the side, flirted with the dark-haired female cashier.  All this while serving six tables full of customers.  In the face of his attention, I gave up my dark mood, decided that I was going to meet some interesting folks on this trip – and even noticed that DiMarco’s also had bright Italian pictures on the wall.

Benny.  I was in the farthest basement room of the Cincinnati City Museum, at closing time, when a distinguished gentleman strode through the room.  He was black with greying hair, erect and purposeful, and wearing a vintage blue Pullman porter uniform.  Surprised that anyone was still around, he asked if he could help.  I was intrigued by his uniform.  I turns out he is a retired engineer and re-enactor, telling stories about the lives of Cincinnati citizens for the Museum.  He was on his way to shed his costume and go home.  But twenty minutes later we were still talking.  We connected over storytelling, how our family stories are important to us.  We shared our experience of growing up white and black in the South, told family tales, compared being black and female in the mid-1900s. We talked about how prejudice had been bred into us, and found we were both embarrassed by that.  In Covington, Kentucky, law dictated that Benny sit in the back of the bus, and when he came to Cincinnati, where there was no such law, it bothered him that he had trouble shaking the habit.  I’m embarrassed that, as a kid in Nashville, I was unobservant, never really noticing inequality until high school, not getting active until much later.  Benny did not condemn me, he just listened.  When another staff member reminded us to go home, we were startled.  We shook hands.  “What a pleasure to meet you,” I said.  “You made my day,” he said.  And we went our ways.  But I think we’ll both show up in each other’s stories.

Ron.  The Sign Museum is tucked into a battered 1920s concrete structure in a marginal Cincinnati neighborhood.  After finally locating it, I was disappointed that it seemed to be closed.  Some of the signs were barely visible through grimy windows, but the iron doors were all locked.  As I was about to give up, two huge metal doors creaked open, and a tall lanky man with a craggy face appeared around the corner. “The owner’s out, young lady, but I’m Ron, let me show you around.”  Ron led me through the neon sign collection, and to make up for the fact that he didn’t have a key to the whole museum, he offered a tour of the building.  It had been a factory for dresses, then uniforms, then wrought iron.  Now it is a collection of small ventures – artist studios, bakeries, the Sign Museum and Ron’s own secondhand furniture shop.  It was clear that Ron saw this elderly factory building as his personal domain.  For my tour, he uncovered artwork stashed in remote hallways.  He gestured into the bakery, waving the scent into the hallway with a gangly arm.  (“They put everything in those health bars, smells awful, I’m not gonna eat it.”).  He pulled Bob Elkins, actor and acting coach, out of his office to meet me.  Bob acknowledged us both with chivalry. “Ma’am, you can trust what Ron says.  He knows everything about this place – if he can’t tell you about it, it didn’t happen.”  Ron grinned, complimented.  Then, pointing out the 1920s ironwork and original windows, he gallantly escorted me all the way to my car, inviting me back for the Christmastime Open Studios.  I’m tempted to go.

More interesting people to come –

9/22-30 – Akron to Kansas City, starring Karen and Fran

Karen S. met me in her home town, Akron, for a road trip week.  Her knowledge and feel for the Midwest made her a great partner – along with her enthusiasm, creativity, and willingness to put up with my quirks.

Karen and Fran’s Road Trip Awards, below, are her idea.  Here are our nominees and winners, with two split decisions:

Best Tourist Event (planned)

Best Entertainment

Best Serendipitous Event (unplanned)

Best Restaurant

Most Interesting Person  (We didn’t nominate people we already knew.)

We didn’t nominate a Best Day, but it was certainly our September 27 drive from South Bend, IN, to Chicago (see above for links).  The Studebaker Museum was the first stop, with a guide whose had recently made a motorcycle trip to Nashville.  On the way to Chicago, we spontaneously visited the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for an energetic climb, a chat with a group of young men running up and down the steep hill, a roll in the sand, and an interesting ranger conversation about the movement of the dunes.  We drove by five Century of Progress homes moved to the Lake Michigan shore from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

A smart Visitor Center employee recommended Bartlett’s Gourmet Grill & Tavern for a late lunch.  It looks like a dive from the outside, but is atmospheric and creative inside (duck tamale, for example).  That evening, Lester the Bellman offered good advice and thoughtful conversation as we checked in at the Chicago Travelodge.  Finally we spent the evening at Buddy Guy’s, sharing a table with Lisa the Pistol and listening to the best of the blues.  In this single day, there are seven award nominees and four winners!

Thanks Karen for a great week.

9/17 – Miniature Marvel

There is a tacky side to Eastern Pennsylvania – trinket shops, ubiquitous Pennsylvania Dutch hex symbols, billboard clutter.  So when we reached Roadside America’s building, labeled “World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village”, I winced. But this experience rises from kitsch to inspiration.

Roadside America is a throwback, a work of art, an education and a hoot.  It’s a scale model of small-town America, but that understates how awesome it is and how much fun we had.  For sixty years, the late Laurence Gieringer hand-carved a miniature world representing American life, pioneer days to the 1960s.  His villages, ranging from a mid-century town to an American Indian encampment, are detailed with 4,000 little people, 300 structures, 10,000 trees and much more.  They inhabit a room the size of a small ball field, with walkways all around.

One town showcases architectural periods in a series of perfectly-crafted homes.  Churches from a variety of denominations, with appropriate lighting and music, dot the landscape.  We kept pointing out vignettes to each other – an organ grinder entertaining children, a policeman resolving a fender-bender, a working oil drill, a fox hunt, a circus parade.  Eighteen trains, street cars and trolleys winds through the scenery. Underground passages show Luray Caverns, mining operations and, whimsically, dinosaurs in lieu of fossils.

Plus, the whole set-up is a mechanical fantasy.  Nothing sits still, and visitors can control it.  We pushed buttons that activated machines, water, figures, lights and transport.

The presentation is idealized – no crime, porn or poverty – and its outlook is decidedly Christian and patriotic.  Every half hour, lights go down, and a presentation mixes the Status of Liberty, Jesus, and Kate Smith singing God Bless America. I felt a bit uncomfortable thinking of the visiting international families – but somehow, Roadside America comes across as a tour de force, quaintly dated rather than awkwardly sentimental.  Roadside America is so convincing that I started seeing it as real, and the real world as fantasy – for hours afterwards, distant houses and towns appeared to be hand-made miniature figures.



PS – Thanks to Paul, Carol and Zander for the adventure, and for a couple of these pictures.

9/16 – City to Country

Rob showed me the Williamsburg neighborhood this morning, featuring food  – Egg white frittata at the Rabbit Hole, a dark-wood 20s-style bistro; a “compost cookie” at trendy Momofuku Milk Bar and Bakery; and coffee at Oslo Roasters, with massive Metropolis-style doors masking a comfy-messy interior.

Lasting vignettes:

  • Ian Crowther (Rob’s friend from high school) starting a design business in an antique brick warehouse
  • Young professionals at sleek cafés watching an anti-gentrification demonstration
  • A young woman, conservative white dress over abundant tattoos, leading her daughter to church
  • Hebrew-labeled yellow buses collecting Hasidic children for yeshiva school.
  • Locals leaning against a “Street Closed” barrier, admiring the giant crane and bemoaning the new building

By dinnertime, I was in Pennsylvania Dutch country for a major change of pace.  Square stone 18th century houses, farm fields, horse-drawn Amish carriages and the feel of a step back in time.

Sister Carol, brother-in-law Paul and nephew Zander met me at the 18th century Edges Mill Inn, stuffed with collections for every enthusiasm – perfume bottles, teddy bears, Christmas figurines, dolls, china. . .  We showed up for dinner in West Chester, a classic Colonial town, to find that half its restaurants were closed for a power outage.  But of course we four lucked out.  While college students and families waited hungrily outside other dark restaurants, Landmark Americana came to our rescue.  Power came on just as we showed up, and we were first in line when they opened their downstairs dining room.

A grand day of family and my birthday on the front end of a grand adventure.

So Many Places, So Little Time

My summarized itinerary follows.  But first, here’s a picture of my real working document.  I did my trip planning on a huge US map.  For months, I’ve unrolled it every night and add more Post-Its.  Purple for tourist sites, yellow for 1914-1939 (see my first post), red dots for cities and towns. Lots more fun than spreadsheets or travel planning websites.This list has the places I plan to spend nights, but I will stop many times along the way. I’m interested in your suggestions – Sights to see? People to meet?  Restaurants? Detours?

  • September 15 – Brooklyn
  • September 16-17 – Pennsylvania Dutch country
  • September 18-19 – Western PA – Fallingwater
  • September 20-21 – Cincinnati, OH
  • September 22 – Ohio Lakes Region
  • September 23 – South Bend, IN
  • September 24-26 – Chicago, IL
  • September 27-28 – Des Moines, IA
  • September 29-30 – Kansas City, MO
  • October 1-2 – St. Louis, MO
  • October 3-4 – Tulsa, OK – Route 66
  • October 5-6 – Amarillo, TX
  • October 7 – Albuquerque NM
  • October 8-9 – Santa Fe, NM
  • October 10 – Northwest NM – Navajo Nation
  • October 11-13 – Moab, UT – Bryce, Zion, Arches
  • October 14-17 – Sedona, AZ
  • October 18-19 – Phoenix area, AZ
  • October 20-21 – Palm Springs, CA
  • October 22 – outside Las Vegas – Area 51
  • October 23-26 – Los Angeles, CA
  • October 27 – home to Concord, MA

This plan’s already changing.  I find that driving time, decision-making, booking hotels, and getting lost take more time than I expected.  Also, I like to spontaneously stop in interesting places, something that can make a hash of my schedule.

More tomorrow about Day Two.  Here’s a suggestion for anyone planning an US road trip:

Road Trip USA, by Jamie Jensen, has eleven itineraries, dense information and just enough outspoken attitude.  I’m not following any single one of his itineraries, but am borrowing liberally from several of them.  This is one of the few books that I’m carrying with me.

9/15 – Late Night in Brooklyn

I started my road trip late in the afternoon, much later than I had planned.  My destination was Brooklyn – but my first stop was just a mile from home, to see Nancy, a friend in the hospital.  Nancy is a member of my parents’ generation, and has known me since I was in grammar school in Nashville. When I told her that I was driving across country, she said, “That sounds like great fun.  I’d love to go with you.”  I told her that she would be there in spirit – a very true statement.  Thinking about this afterwards, I realized that, as my own personal tribal elder, she had given me a blessing for the road.

Son Rob and his girlfriend Lauren were waiting for me in Brooklyn.  But I got lost in the maze of highways around New York City.  Finally, at 10:30 pm, I arrived, embarrassed and oh-so-happy to be finished with driving.   Thank goodness they had a loving welcome, lively conversation and super dinner choice waiting for me!

If you’re in Brooklyn, go to Traif – generous tapas plates with inventive food and creative spices.  Glazed Brussels sprouts, bacon-wrapped goat cheese, tuna tartare, cheesy chorizo terrine.  Of course, spending the evening with Rob and Lauren made the food taste even better.  He’s a film editor and she’s in design and branding, and they are some of the most animated people I know.  This was a kickoff to remember (and a lively night-before-birthday dinner).

My hotel was chosen for its closeness to Lauren’s apartment, and just happened to be in the middle of Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhood.  I was plopped down in a culture unfamiliar to me – just the thing to set the tone for the trip.

Getting ready to leave these last weeks has been crazy, hectic, overbooked.  Hopefully it gets calmer from here.  I have promised myself to awake early morning and arrive at my destination early evening for this trip.  You who know me:  I can hear you laughing.  Let’s see if I can keep that resolution!

Onward to Pennsylvania tomorrow. . .

Out the Door

September 15, 2011.

This is the first day of my cross-country road trip.  I’m Fran.  Information about me will come bit by bit, but for now, it’s all about the trip.

How the day begins.  After the planning, the organizing, the errands, the packing, and the goodbyes, the actual act of leaving is surprisingly simple.  I close the back door, get in the car, and am on my way.  It feels a bit anticlimactic – no blare of cosmic trumpets, really no different than a trip to the grocery store – except this time, I’m going to keep on driving.  I’ll be gone for six weeks, and my destination is Los Angeles.  First stop, New York City.

Q&A.  I’m going to start by answering the questions I’m asked most often:

“Why are you going?”  I have wanted to make this road trip for years, but I have become passionate about it during two years of transitions – divorce, downsizing, slowing down one business, starting another.  My life is very good now, but I need to put it on hold for a while – to clear my head, gain perspective and rethink what is important.  Beyond that, I want to immerse myself in the US.  I want to see the places and meet the people that make this the most diverse, most inspiring, most challenging country imaginable.  And, from a historical perspective, I’m particularly interested in World War One and the Interwar period, so I’ll watch for museums, buildings and stories that illuminate this period.

“Are you going alone?”  Yes, and no.  I will travel alone for more than half the trip, but friends and family members are meeting me, or hosting me, along the way.  I look forward to their company, but I also look forward to long quiet stretches of thinking and writing.

“How will you stay in touch?”  I love my friends and family.  I want all of you to (at least figuratively) join me on the trip.  You will be on my mind throughout, so this blog is for you.  Please tell other people about it, post comments, make suggestions and ask questions.

What’s next.  This blog will contain my daily reports, observations, adventures and enthusiasms.  I will include links, books and other resources that I have found useful.  In the next few days I’ll post my planned itinerary, map and first pictures.

Come along!