Category Archives: Road Trips

Across Kansas on Interstate 70

IMG_9831People generally don’t seek out the opportunity to take a road trip across the state of Kansas.  It is certainly not on the list of scenic drives in the United Sates, and will never compare to the majesty of places like the Pacific Coast Highway, Yellowstone, the Adirondacks, or the Grand Canyon.  Getting across Kansas on Interstate 70 takes, at a minimum, five and a half hours, with each mile often looking quite similar to the mile before it.

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However, this is still a heavily traveled road.  In fact, each year more people end up passing through Kansas along this route than end up visiting some more scenically spectacular, but far more remote, places like Crater Lake or Big Bend.

Each year, millions of Americans end up traveling across Kansas on I-70, or along similar routes across the Great Plains, mostly passing through on the way to some other destination.  After all, Kansas is the site of the mid-point of the continental United States.  It is naturally going to be on the way to and from a lot of places.  Any cross-country road trip does require trekking across the Great Plains.

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Frequently in life, people will look at what is directly in front of them, whether it be their homes, their jobs, a social situation, or even a specific event, see it as less than ideal, and insist on remaining focused on what makes the situation, well, less than ideal.  This is the easy way of handling such situations.  It is a trap I often find myself falling into.  However, while it is comforting to endlessly lament a circumstance, it is not productive.  It does nothing to improve the situation at hand.

Kansas itself, in a way, knows what it is.  It is not the peaks and valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park, the majestic maple trees of New Hampshire in autumn, or the amusement parks of Florida.  Most people here are driving through, and most of the accommodations along the interstate are clearly geared at travelers.

And, occasionally to people who need to get out of the car and explore some things along the way.

Kansas also seems to be a place that embraces what it is.

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As well as what it once was.

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Even if in many cases its significance then is no different than its significance now; a place people generally pass through on the way to somewhere else.

In my own experience, what typically happens on drives like this is strikingly similar to what occurs in the process of meditation.  As is the case when I attempt to rid myself of unnecessary distractions, turn off all forms of entertainment, and reconnect with my own mind <link to disconnect to connect blog>, I get anxious at first.  I long for something, anything to emerge to entertain me.  I need to adjust.  To let go.  And after that process, I get to a place where I can finally see the beauty of the surroundings.  After driving across this landscape for a couple of hours, I saw this place for what it truly is, actually quite beautiful.  As was the case on previous trips, I spent some time just soaking it in.

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I am reminded that, when we embrace our situations for what they are, even if they are not what we had hoped for, we can often still find some beauty in it.

It may not be what we had hoped for, but, as long as we continue to move, our destination will eventually be reached.

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And, sometimes even the journey to the destination gets a bit more interesting.

One thing many do not realize is that the section of Kansas that follows the Kansas River, from Manhattan, through Topeka and Lawrence, and into Kansas City is far more lush and hilly than other parts of the Great Plains.  The area ends up feeling way more like the Midwest.

48th State

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Arizona is the third most recent state to join the Union.  The only two states admitted more recently are Alaska and Hawaii.  This means that, when it comes to mainland U.S.A., this very much was the “final frontier”, an area that remained wild and unsettled for over a century while areas were being converted from frontier, to small villages, and eventually into powerhouses connected by networks of trails, ports, and railroads.

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The primary cultural image of Arizona is the “Old West”.  Cowboys roaming around wide open spaces.  Small isolated towns where outlaws and town sheriffs fight a continuous battle that resembles the internal conflict we all have between the innate desire for freedom and the desire for justice and order.  Crazy games of poker in whiskey salons that often end in guns being drawn.

Historically, it is correct that Arizona, like much of the west, is the site of many epic battles that often lead to gunfire.  This lead to places such as Tombstone, and Rawhide, being depicted in numerous Western themed movies and TV shows.  Tourists today can relive the experience of the wide open, unsettled, west by visiting these places.

However, movies and TV shows can frequently lead people to inaccurate perceptions.  Films and shows are designed for entertainment purposes, and therefore must focus on the interesting aspects of life in a specific place, like a shoot-out between two gangs.  Anyone that compares their lives to those of characters from TV and movies will often come out feeling that their life is uninteresting.  After all, no movie will show someone sitting at a cubicle for six hours, or doing laundry and ironing shirts.  They focus on the parts that will, well, entertain the people that watch them.

Recent studies have indicated that, while these high profile gunfights did occur in the old west, they were the exception rather than the rule.  Some studies (although not all) have even suggested that the western frontier of the later 19th century was actually a safer place than America today.  There is speculation as to why the “Old West” is depicted and thought of in the manner in which it is, leading some to entertain conspiracy theories.  Regardless of what the reality of what life in this time and place know as the “Old West” was truly like, it is encouraging to see people look at it statistically, as opposed to based on anecdotes and catch phrases.

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Arizona may have grown up late, but it grew up fast.  Based on the 2010 census, Arizona is now the fourth most populous state west of the Mississippi River.

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Growing up in the middle to late 20th century, Arizona grew up in a manner that is very car-centric.  Depictions of present day Arizona life, in movies like Bad Santa, commonly show life in car-centic suburbs, with winding subdivisions, malls and such.

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There is also no forgetting Arizona’s position along the famed Route 66, which took countless motorists between Chicago and Los Angeles during the middle part of the 20th century.  In popular culture, the Arizona stretch of this major historic thoroughfare is amongst the most celebrated, providing the inspiration for the setting of the Route 66 based movie Cars.

The most high profile destination in Arizona is the Grand Canyon.  After all, the state’s nickname, which is labelled on all Arizona license plates is “The Grand Canyon State”.  However, by taking a road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, one will traverse the landscapes that cover a much larger portion of the State.

Passing through the Sonoran Desert, which includes Phoenix and much of the surrounding  area, one will encounter hills covered in sagebrush and cactus plants.

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Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.

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Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.

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Two developments made Arizona’s rapid expansion in population possible.  First, is the much discussed invention of, and subsequent proliferation of air conditioning.  This, of course, made living in places prone to hot weather more desirable.  The second is the creation of dams, canals, irrigation systems, and water pipelines, which facilitated supplying these dry regions with the water resources needed to sustain life.

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The Hoover Dam, located at the border of Arizona and Nevada, is one of many places throughout the west that diverts water resources from a major river (the Colorado River) to major metropolitan areas.

 

As is the case with the idealized image of the rugged individual of the “Old West”, present day life in Arizona, when discussed, elicits some divided responses, as well as some different interpretations.

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This is very much the image of standard life in Arizona.  A house in suburban looking neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, mountains, and, in many cases, golf.  Some love it.  Some see it as the natural culmination of the “American Dream”.  Some can’t wait to get away from the frigid winters many experienced in other parts of the country, move down here and enjoy the life.  Others, and particularly those concerned with the environment, feel it is irresponsible for so many people to be living comfortable lifestyles, with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and golf courses in a climate this dry.  People here seem to adhere to the “haters gonna hate” mentality.  The knowledge that people in some distant land are disapproving of their living, eating, hiking, and golfing in the desert does not seem to phase them.

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Road Trip to Santa Fe

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I spent about half a decade working in the Insurance Industry, an industry with a significant presence in Bermuda.  At workshops, conferences, and in meetings, I would regularly interact with people who lived there.  The place certainly has its draw, and with the right opportunity, a person with experience in the industry could make a really good life there, despite the high cost of living.

I often imagine what it would be like to have a totally different life, in a totally different place, particularly when traveling, or when I meet someone from somewhere far away.  While working in the insurance industry, although I never seriously considered up and moving to Bermuda, I did imagine what it would be like a couple of dozen times.  Each time I imagined it, I would always end up dwelling on the lack of room to roam around there.  The island is only 20.6 square miles, and getting anywhere else requires a flight.  I pictured myself moving there, getting my swimming trunks out, snorkeling, attending a few parties and such, but then, eventually, just getting restless, and missing something I love to do here in mainland U.S.A.; taking a road trip.

There is something I really love about road trips.  When I refer to road trips, I am not talking about simply driving somewhere.  A lot of people drive to work every day, or to a relative’s house every other weekend, and those drives don’t feel like “road trips”.  I’m talking about driving somewhere a significant distance away that is not a routine trip; somewhere that is somewhat unknown.  On road trips, we have somewhat of an idea as to what to expect, based on what we have heard, read, or researched, but we do not know it intimately.  We have not experienced the towns we will pass along the way, which exits have the best deals on gas, and where the best restaurants are.  In other words, there are still some surprises, and we are still going to encounter something unexpected.

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Driving south along I-25, the first indication that one is reaching the Southernmost portion of Colorado is the Spanish Peaks.  While visible farther north, they take prominence south of Pueblo. The Spanish Peaks are nowhere near the tallest features in Southern Colorado.  In fact, within 30 miles or so, there are 5 mountains taller than 14,000 feet (14ers)!  But, since they are relatively isolated from other natural features, and can be seen quite some distance, they are a prominent landmark toady (an entire region is named Spanish Peaks country, as well as the names of countless business in the region), and were a prominent landmark on the old Santa Fe Trail.

Approaching Trinidad, CO, the last town before the New Mexico border, the Spanish Peaks disappear from the horizon as the highway enters a much hillier region approaching Raton Pass.  It is here that the path of Interstate 25 joins with the old Santa Fe Trail, which it will more or less follow for the remainder of the trip to Santa Fe.  This trail was first pioneered by the Spanish and later played a pivotal role in American history including westward expansion, and the eventual conquest of the Southwest from Mexico.

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I had mixed expectations of Raton Pass.  Many years back, I was on a ten-day storm chase. Our group was situated in Clovis, New Mexico, which is quite close to the Texas-New Mexico border.  We were discussing the possibility of chasing upslope storms roughly an hour northeast of Denver the following day.  Some of us brought up the possibility of driving west to Raton so we can take the Interstate to our target destination, but the group leader balked at the idea, instead suggesting driving up 385, as he felt it might be risky to take a large convoy of chase vehicles over Raton Pass.  We ended up deciding not to drive up to Northeastern Colorado, as, in the morning, the storm outlook had weakened, and we no longer felt it worth the drive.  By the way, this is common on storm chases, you really never know where you will end up going.  However, ever since then, I had kind of wondered what it was like to drive over this pass.

As the photos indicate, the road gets windy as motorists climb from Trinidad, at roughly 6000′ in elevation, over Raton Pass, which tops out at 7834′.  It’s definitely not nearly as rough as heading over the Rocky Mountains along I-70 or I-80, but definitely is a much more major incline than anything a group of people that drives largely in the Great Plains from Texas up to South Dakota would typically experience.

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Oh, and in one of the strangest of coincidences, the top of the pass is right at the border of Colorado and New Mexico.  This is odd as, first of all, the Colorado-New Mexico border is defined as the 37th parallel, and has nothing to do with where any mountain pass is located, and roads through mountain passes are built to take the safest and most effective route.  The fact that the place where this road crosses the 37th parallel most effectively happens to also be the high point seems to me as a pure coincidence.  Maybe someday I will read into this, the story behind the road and such, but I have yet to do so.

After a descent into Raton, the road reaches a segment that is long, flat, open, and rather empty.

I switched the music on the radio to classic rock, The Clash, Ozzy, Queensryche and such.  For some reason, there is something about the sound of guitar rock that makes more sense while driving through scenery like this than many other forms of music.  As the afternoon passed along this landscape, cloudy skies gave way to peaks from the sun only every once in a while.  A few periods of gentile, chilly rain fell from the skies.  In some ways it reminded me of a storm chase gone horribly wrong, the day slowly but surely slipping away with no prospects of favorable storm conditions developing.  However, in other ways, the drive was relaxing, allowing me to think without any distractions.

After passing through a town called Las Vegas, NM (which I assure you is nothing like the Las Vegas in Nevada), the highway turns West.  It kind of loops the last 60 or so miles into Santa Fe, even heading back northward for the last ten miles, following the route of the old Santa Fe trail.  However, unlike the previous 100 or so miles, this part of the trail, and the drive, is far from flat.

To the right, is the southernmost part of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and an area now part of the Santa Fe National Forest.  It is these mountains that the trail routed 19th century pioneers around.  To the left are a series of bluffs which, luckily, the trail did not have to also bypass, as it would have added many more miles to the journey.  The road itself slowly climbs over Glorietta Pass, descending only slightly into New Mexico’s Capitol City- Santa Fe.

An Eerie Feeling on Guanella Pass

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Those that love to travel, whether they be the rare few, the people who get to travel for a living, or those who find a way to travel as much as possible, understand that Planet Earth is full of amazing places!  One of the things that makes traveling interesting is the wide variety of types of places to visit, all of which will produce different scenery, and different experiences.  It is nearly impossible to describe or capture the true range of experiences one could theoretically attain through travel, but the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth Series does a pretty good job.

When people come to visit me here in Denver, I typically take them, in some capacity, into the mountains.  I will particularly ensure that a trip to the mountains gets on the agenda if I get visitors from places like Chicago, which couldn’t be further from any kind of mountain range.  After all, one of the reasons we travel is to see things we do not typically see.  From Denver, it doesn’t typically take too long to get somewhere spectacular.  About half an hour west of downtown, there is a segment of I-70 where the full prominence of the Central Rocky Mountains suddenly appears in quite spectacular fashion.  I remember being amazed by the view that pops out in front of me the first time I traveled up I-70.  Many photographs have been taken from this location, and it was even noted as a point of interest at the History Colorado Center.

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Now that I have lived in Denver for over three years, a short excursion into the mountains typically takes me to a place I have already been, sometimes even a place I have been numerous times.  However, as is noted by the Planet Earth video series, these places often look quite different during different seasons.  Those that visit Colorado in the winter or spring will see mountains covered with snow.  This view, from I-70 near Genesee, will look significantly different, likely in just a few weeks.

October is sometimes a tricky time of year to determine activities in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  It is that transition season where often times conditions are no longer favorable for summer activities (and many of the seasonal roads have already closed for the season), but a significant snowpack has yet to develop.  This fall has been anomalously warm here in Colorado, and the extent of the snowpack that has developed in the mountains appears in this picture below.

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However, according to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC), by mid-late October, the typical snowpack over the high terrain of the Central Rocky Mountains is still less than a foot (and not consistent year to year).

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This map displays snow depth anomalies for Sunday, October 18th according to the NOHRSC.  The actual snow depth, across the entire region, was zero.  The anomalies show just how far below normal this is, which, in the highest terrain on this map, falls into the 4 to 8 inch range, indicating that even at locations above 14,000 feet, there is typically not too much snowpack by mid-October.

Knowing that most seasonal roads would still be open due to the lack of snow, but with somewhat limited time for an excursion into the mountains, we opted to take a trip over Guanella Pass, which is still less than an hour’s drive from Denver.  Despite having been there several times, the experience for me was already new, as a new paved road had just been built, connecting the town of Grant, along highway 285, with Georgetown, along I-70.  This new road is likely to get mixed reactions, as traveling along it is now much easier (and now possible without AWD).  However, there are sections of this pass that are popular among campers, particularly people looking for a quiet camping experience.  On Sunday’s excursion, I encountered several groups of motorcycles.  The prevalence of motorcycles, and the noise they make, could possibly make some of the Guanella Pass campers seek a more remote experience elsewhere.

Without having to focus on driving over rocks and bumps, I noticed places I simply did not notice on previous drives up Guanella Pass, like this waterfall.

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However, that was not the full extent of the new experience I had on Sunday.  The final approach to the summit took me above the tree line, where I suddenly got an eerie feeling from what was around me.

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It’s hard to describe.  It felt almost like I was on another planet.  It was isolated.  Most of the time that we stopped at the summit, we were the only ones there, and my car was the only one on the road.  The sagebrush of the alpine tundra had taken on brown color that I am not accustomed to seeing.  Some combination of the sun angle, unusual ground color, and isolation definitely gave me a really strange feeling.  It was eerie, creepy, out of this world, I really did not know what to make of it.  It was just, well, strange.

However, I came back feeling glad that different seasons can create different experiences out of the same places.  Typically, when I make the trek up to elevations just above the tree line, there is one of two experiences.

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The alpine tundra is white in winter (and often still white well into the springtime), and green and lush in the summer.  In October, though, it took on a whole new color, one I had not seen before.

This planet has plenty of places that are unique, unlike any other place on earth.  Some of them even feel out of this world.  Sunday’s experience at Guanella Pass reminded me of two things.  A lot of these unique experiences that we plan trips to get to are seasonally dependent.  And, sometimes these experiences can happen unexpectedly.

Pennsylvania’s Lincolnway

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Nearly a decade before the much celebrated route 66 was commissioned, the first cross country automobile route, “The Lincolnway”, was developed.  This cross country route from New York to San Francisco, first labelled in 1913, roughly follows what would later become U.S. highway 30 through much of the country.  Although less songs and movies have been written about “The Lincolnway”, it is just as historic.

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Accessing the Lincolnway in Pennsylvania is quite easy.  In fact, from the Southeast, it can be accessed without even exiting the highway.  In a town called Breezewood, PA, all Interstate 70 traffic comes to a grinding halt.  In order to continue on I-70 westbound, one must make a right hand turn, followed by a left hand turn, and enter the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where I-70 shares with I-76 for about 86 miles.  This is the only place I know where interstate highway traffic must actually come to a stop at a traffic light.  In many other places, following an interstate highway requires exiting and merging onto different roads, but I don’t know anywhere else where traffic lights are actually part of the main interstate highway route.  As a result of every I-70 traveler having to stop here, Breezewood is mainly just a bunch of gas stations (truck stops) and hotels.

The road that motorists encounter when I-70 comes to a halt is actually the Lincolnway, U.S. highway 30.  Since I have some extra time on my journey, and some level of disdain for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I decide to follow the Lincolnway through much of Pennsylvania and check out some of the sights along the way.

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After bypassing the larger towns of Everett and Bedford, I make my first stop at a place called Shawnee State Park, roughly 5 miles west of Bedford.  I have always been kind of impressed with Pennsylvania’s State Park System.  I do not ever recall being asked to pay to enter a state park here, which is quite common in other states, and most of these state parks are well kept, even having recycling bins at some places.  The parking area here, less than mile off the Lincolnway, looks like the kind of place where one can relax, do a little hiking, and have a nice picnic.  After less than ten minutes of walking I discovered something truly amazing!

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Lake Shawnee actually reminded me of what I would consider one of my dream vacations.  One of the things I would love to do most is get somewhere between 8-14 fun, energetic people and go to a cabin or campground near a lake just like this one.  It would involve boating, swimming, beach volleyball, a little bit or partying, and some hiking, all of which seem readily available at this place.  In addition, this state park is well out of the way of most major cities, and the lake area is also out of the way of any parking lots, which would make for a true escape from day-to-day life.

It was already closed for the season by the time I arrived, but I could imagine this place in summer, with people swimming, boating, and just relaxing.  Well, not relaxing the way many of us think of it.  I will refer to it as “relaxation for the active”.  For those of us that would not necessarily enjoy a full day of just sitting around and watching T.V., this would be our version of relaxing and getting away from it all.  For people with very fast paced lives and/or high intensity goals like training for a marathon, it would still represent a slow-down of sorts, and I would still consider it a way of recharging.

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A few miles farther west, the Lincolnway enters a section of Pennsylvania referred to as the “Laurel Highlands”.  I am not sure if this is an official region, or some kind of a tourism marketing strategy.  There was a section of brochures dedicated to this part of the state at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center.  Upon entering the Laurel Highlands, the highway actually ascends up a fairly steep slope, going from basically sea level to periodic summits between 2600 and 2900 feet in elevation.

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One of the main points of interest in this region is the United Flight 93 memorial near Stoystown, PA.  On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked this plane as part of a four plane attack on the United States.  Two of the planes were flown into the World Trade Center, and one was flown into the Pentagon.  This flight was headed for the Capitol Building (most likely) when the passengers and crew on this flight mounted a plan to retake the plane.  Their plan caused enough confusion to prevent a fourth strike that day, and the plane instead crashed in an empty field in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  All of these passengers, as well as the flight crew, lost their lives that day.  All 40 of them are buried and memorialized on this site.  I don’t know the names of these people, nor will I ever.  But they are people who truly embodied the word courage, and made an unexpected sacrifice for their country.  In a strange way I felt their presence here as people who have earned, and deserve all of our respect.  I would never had thought of this had I not traveled through this area, but I am really glad that someone decided to put up a memorial to these 40 heroes of recent American history.

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For almost all of this stretch of the Lincolnway, the towns I go through are really quite small.  In fact, they are smaller than I expected.  Finding even your basic road trip mainstays like McDonalds and Subway was quite difficult.  One could also see some remnants of the pre-interstate days on this road much the same way they could see these remnants traveling route 66.  Some of these motel signs even contained some outdated advertisements, such as “Color TV”.  I have a DvD series at home about route 66, which discusses all of the famous stop-off places along that route.  I wonder if anything similar has been done for the Lincolnway.

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On the other side of the main summits in the Laurel Highlands, I stop at one of the State Parks, a place called Linn Run State Park.  This one, several miles off the Lincolnway, is quite different.  It is far more of a rustic fishing and hiking state park, with some really beautiful fall colors at this time.  The main odd thing I saw here were little homes, most likely people’s second homes, inside the park.  I did not know State Parks allowed people to build homes in them, but apparently this one does.

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Continuing west on U.S 30 the drive got a little bit frustrating.  Just past the town of Ligonier, the road opens up into a multi-lane highway, but it does not take long for the road to become suburban in nature, with lots of traffic lights, shopping malls, etc.  Traveling roads like this does take significantly more time than traveling on an interstate.  This is why nearly everybody that travels long distances across the country takes almost exclusively interstate highways.  However, I have noticed today, traveling along the interstate does often mean missing some great places along the way, and I truly enjoyed having the time to take this route.  On the interstate, travel is quite monotonous.  Every exit seems to largely have the same places, the same gas stations, the same fast food, etc.  This is especially true of roads like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where exits can be over 20 miles apart in places, and most of the eating/fueling is done at rest stops, which are designed to all look the same.  Travel on state and U.S. highways, and one can see what makes each town unique, and see spots that they cannot see anywhere else.  This is why I enjoy traveling on roads like this when not in a hurry.

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My final stop-off was somewhat of a disappointment.  In the travel guide I picked up at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center, I saw an advertisement for a Big Mac Museum.  I immediately thought it was a neat concept.  I wondered how much material there would be about one single sandwich, but was intrigued by the idea of a museum dedicated to one sandwich.  However, this museum was not really a museum.  It was just a McDonalds with a giant plastic Big Mac and Big Mac related newspaper clippings behind some glass thrown periodically throughout the restaurant as decorations.  It is really no more special than the “Rock N Roll McDonalds”, and if this can be considered a “museum”, than every single Five Guys can be thought of as a museum to their burgers.

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Knowing that the Lincolway was about to go through even more suburbia and then downtown Pittsburgh, I decided to finally hop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  I got on at exit 76 and followed it the final 76 miles to the Ohio border.  This cost me $4.80 in tolls, which reminded me of another reason I dislike traveling on this road.  However, more important than the price of toll roads is the opportunities provided by other roads.  By traveling the Lincolnway across part of Pennsylvania, I got to see some magnificent state parks, some interesting towns where I could picture the day to day lives of people much different from me, and part of our nation’s history.

A Drive Across Virginia

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Virginia is a very pretty state.  It is kind of an overlooked state when it comes to natural scenery.  At least it is from the perspective of someone who has spent most of their lives in the Midwest.  I know Shenendoah National Park can be quite nice, but I did not set aside time to visit on this road trip.  Instead, I chose to go straight from the Great Smokies to Farifax Co./ the DC Metro area.  This made for a long drive, nearly 8 hours, but it was a very pretty drive too.

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I spent most of the day on Interstate 81, which I was on for 300 miles from the TN/VA state line to Strasburg, VA, where I turned onto I-66.  Through the Southwest part of Virginia, I was able to see mountains on both sides of the highway, but without driving up or down any major terrain features.  This differs greatly from many of the scenic drives I have taken across the state of Colorado, which typically involve driving up and down mountains.  The mountains here, while legit, also seem to be spread out a bit more, making for a scenic, yet still relaxing drive.

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It was also nice to have relatively cheap gas.  I filled up in Wytheville (which I am told is pronounced with-ville), a town that is kind of in the shadows of a couple of fairly major mountain peaks.  Later that day, we would actually have a fairly in-depth discussion about some of these strange pronunciations of place names, and how they effective act as a manner in which people use to identify outsiders.  If I were to have talked to any local, I would have tried to pronounce the name of this town the way it is spelled, making it clear that I am not from here.

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After my stop in Wytheville, the highway actually took me closer to the mountains, but still without a major climb.  This part of the drive is quite scenic.  The only thing I wish they had was more rest stops/ scenic overlooks like there are in other parts of the country.  But, with nearly all of this interstate being quite scenic, the people who designed this highway probably find little need to identify one specific spot as worthy of a pull-off.  Instead, I think the point of this experience is just to have a nice, consistent drive.

Also, at this point I got a pleasant surprise when the sun emerged and the clouds gradually dissipated.  By the end of the day/drive it would be completely sunny.  The sun made it pleasant, and warmer by my next stop.

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Virginia does not seem to me like the kind of place for the truly rebellious, anti-establishment types.  At least it doesn’t seem so from this particular drive.  Throughout the drive I continually saw signs indicating that the speed limit was enforced by aircraft, something I have not seen in any other place I have driven in recently.  The rest stops contained a lot of police related messages, and I did see a lot of highway patrol on the road, either pulling someone over, or waiting in the median, clocking people.

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The second half of the drive up I-81 drives around Shenendoah National Park.  I am not sure whether or not this particular feature I am looking at is part of the park or a ridge outside the park.  This is part of what happens when travels take you to a place that is unfamiliar.  If I were somewhere I currently, or have ever lived, I would be able to pick out all of the land features based on memory.  In places I have never been to, I am left with pure speculation, or the prospect of buying a map to figure it out.  With all of the drive along both I-81 and I-66 I certainly believe I saw some features from the road associated with the national park, but I am also left kind of wishing I had set aside some time to visit the park, or at least drive through.

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After a long day’s drive, I approached my destination glad I was traveling in the direction I was traveling in, eastbound on I-66.  The traffic going the other way was quite heavy, most likely people from the D.C. area headed out of town for the weekend.  Many were probably on their way to Shenendoah National Park to see it during the peak fall foliage season.  There also could have been some people who live that far away from the city, as I had already begun to see housing developments and such appear.  As a person who has always generally lived in a metropolitan area, there is something about the appearance of traffic, extra lanes on the highways and signs for park-and-rides that makes me feel at home after a long drive like this.

I had heard the Interstate 81 across Virginia was a pretty drive and I am glad to have done it.  I really appreciate how one can look at the mountains, off to both the left and the right, without having to traverse through anything majorly treacherous.  This combination of features made the drive unique, and kind of made it a relaxing drive.  Well, if it weren’t for signs telling me airplanes were tracking my speed in a state known to have a sizable military presence, it would have been quite relaxing.  Also, with Friday starting off cloudy, but clearing out sometime shortly after noon, I got to experience the scenery in both cloudy and sunny skies.  Maybe the features look slightly better in the sun, but the early part of my drive was still quite nice underneath a cloud deck, making it a drive that would be pleasant for many motorists in many different conditions.

Louisville Slugger and the Bourbon Trail

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How many people can name one company that manufactures baseball bats?

How about two?

There are probably a lot of people involved with the sport of baseball that can name two or more, but I would reckon to say that most people can name one bat manufacturer; Louisville Slugger.  The truth is, there are over 30 other bat companies, but unlike some other industries, like automobiles and soft drinks, there is a clear leader in this industry.  This is why the Louisville Slugger bat factory is a must see for any baseball fan.  My last time driving through this area, not seeing this bat factory was my one regret, so I have chosen to make this a top priority on this trip to Kentucky.

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Getting into Louisville was a little bit of a struggle today, as I hit some major traffic and had to take an alternate route.  But, after this minor delay, I was still able to make it in time to get a spot on the 10:00 bat tour.  This is one major advantage of traveling on weekdays.  In fact, time-off considerations aside, I would definitely recommend to anyone to travel in the manner in which I have, designating weekends for parties and such, and leaving the “touristy” activities like this one to weekdays where there will be less tourists.  When being a tourist, you do not want crowds, when partying, you likely want at least some crowds, or are at least less impeded by them- something to definitely consider.

The bat factory tour was well worth the $11 fee, which also included souvenirs, and a museum with exhibits about both the history of Louisville Slugger bats and the history of Major League Baseball.  I am quite astonished by the number of bats this company produces every year, and how quickly they produce customized bats for major league baseball players.  As I watch the World Series tonight, I realize that I will never look at something as simple as a player knowing they have another bat available to them after breaking one the same way again.  A lot of work goes into producing these bats, starting with trees being cut down in the forests of Pennsylvania and New York, followed by the wood being shipped to Louisville to be sorted, cut, and customized to everyone’s individual use.  It is strange to me how easily a ballplayer will throw a bat away due to frustration, slumps, etc. when so much effort was needed to produce that bat.

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Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky, and it seems not too different from other cities of it’s size in the region, like St. Louis and Cincinnati.  For some reason they have this gold replica of the David Statue by Michelangelo.  I don’t know why this is here.  But, otherwise, it is just like any other downtown.  I see people in suits talking business.  I see science museums and performing arts centers.  Those sandwich shops where people go to lunch are there.  I even stopped at one.

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Kentucky is an interesting place.  It is definitely prettier than Indiana, with more trees and rolling hills.  I am glad they finally raised their state speed limit to 70 (from 65).  However, it is a place that is tough to categorize.  It is not quite part of the Midwest region, as it’s neighbors to the north are.  But, it is not exactly a true southern state either.  During the Civil War, Kentucky largely did not take a stance, as it was a “border state” that allowed slavery but did not secede from the union.  For this reason, and many others related to culture, climate, and geography, I can never figure out how to classify the state of Kentucky when I am describing the different regions in the United States.

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The state is also unique for several other reasons.  I head east to Frankfort, KY, the state capitol, to join up with the famed “bourbon trail”.  Here, I notice something I should have noticed before about the state; how old the buildings are.  Due to the fact that the easiest pass over the Appalachian Mountains was a place called the “cumberland gap”, near the borders of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, this state was settled earlier than states to it’s north and south.  Kentucky became a state in 1792.  Tennessee in 1796.  The states to the north and south would not become states until the 1810s.

In fact, given its’ size, the town Frankfort, KY most reminds me of is Annapolis, MD.  Throughout the center of town I see historic buildings, dating back to the later 1700s and earlier 1800s, and the buildings have that more colonial feel that is common on the east coast.  The road layout, and tree density all make me feel like I have reached the east, even though at one point in the early part of this country’s history, this was considered the west.

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My brief stint on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail first takes me to the Buffalo Trace distillery.  Here, I got to learn some strange facts that are second nature to bourbon enthusiasts, but facts I was unaware of, such as the requirement that a “bourbon” contain between 51 and 79 percent corn to be labeled as such.  From all of the spots on the tour out to the parking lot, the area has a distinct smell.  The smell is probably one that any employee of any distillery has become accustomed to, but it definitely smells strong and distinct.  All I can say is, I would not recommend anyone go to a bourbon distillery on a day in which they are nursing a rough hangover.

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My day ends in Versailles KY (which I am told is pernounced ver-sail-es, and not like the French city), home of the Woodford Reserve Distillery. This distillery produces some more high end whisky.  I drink it “neat” (i.e. no ice), which is what I was told is proper.  I’d say I am drinking it like a “real man”, but I also ordered a water.  So, if I was in an old western of sorts, this would not be acceptable.  Either way, I did drink it the real Kentucky way.  And, to add to the experience, I grabbed a few bottles of Ale 8 (a beverage that is unique to Kentucky), and mixed it with some bourbon for the last drink of the evening.  This gave me to total Kentucky experience.  Earlier this year, rapper Eminem said “Life’s too short to not go all out”.  I have taken a basic equivalent of this message to heart in many of the places I have visited this year, hoping to get the full experience of life in that place.  Heck, I even ate something called “turnip greens” and poured vinegar on them (which I think is the right way to eat them).

There is no real quick way to summarize Kentucky and what Kentucky is all about.  I’d come up with something along the lines of saying that it is like Virginia and Texas had a baby, but that would ignore many of the other unique qualities of this state.  Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon.  Whisky produced in other states takes on different forms.  Princes and kings from other countries often come to Kentucky for horses.  These qualities are not shared by neighboring states the way one can say Illinois produces corn, like Indiana and Iowa.

Perhaps Kentucky is trying to teach me a lesson.  Maybe it is time for me to stop trying to categorize states, and just visit places and take them for what they are.  Driving across endless seemingly identical corn fields in Indiana it becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that places are worth visiting because every place is unique, with a unique history, a unique geography, and a unique combination of influences that produces an experience different from other places.  The combination of rolling hills, bats, bourbon, and horses makes Kentucky a place like none other.