Tag Archives: road trips

Why I Love the American West

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Eight o’clock rolls around. Along a wide open highway in Utah, bolts of lightning off in the distance illuminate the sky. Gentle rain taps on my vehicle. Yet, straight above, stars can be seen dotting the night sky in a manner that instills wonder into the hearts and minds of all who are paying attention to what is around them.

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I wonder too. The lights of the car in front of me provide tiny clues as to what is actually there, but reveal preciously little. The rest is left to the imagination of all who travel at night on an unfamiliar highway.

I imagine a scene that could be out of a movie. A ranch house with a gigantic yard and one of those large swirly structures that starts twirling in the wind, like the one in the movie Twister. Miles and miles of endless open range with a mountain range that can be seen off in the distance. A 9-year old boy with his younger sister looking out the window, with a sense of wonder, at the storm rolling through a typically dry place. Dogs barking at tumbleweeds. A community of people alone together in a dry, isolated place.

I typically would not chose to travel at night, especially in a place like this. Utah is a place of abundant natural beauty, always shifting with the season.

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In March, the spring sun at mid-day shines bright upon the white snow on the mountain tops, brown forests and red rocks below.

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The reddish looking glow, revealed by the headlights at night, gave but a small indication of what Utah actually looks like in the middle of March. Some combination of memory, imagination, and reasoning would lead anyone to conclude that the land was not dull, flat, barren, but how many would have imagined the cut out canyons, the rock structures, salt washes, and many viewpoints of unique natural features.

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The other thing lost in my imaginative narrative about the family on the ranch in the storm is the fact that, with the exception of the occasional small town, there are no people here at all. Sure, there are the people who are driving along the interstate overlooking the various features. Five miles in either direction, there are no farms, ranches, or even people, just rocks, sagebrush, and wildlife. Had my imagination been more accurate, it would have been a story about moose, bighorn sheep, or perhaps a family of black bears getting in an argument about when to wake up from winter hibernation.

Still, there is something to be said about leaving some things up to the imagination. Much of what we experience today; movies, art, and even technology, began in someone’s imagination. While some people are naturally imaginative all the time, and some people only resort to their imagination quite rarely, not having all the facts can help trigger people imagine more. This makes it ironic that some of our present day technology, born of imagination, actually causes some people to engage their imaginative abilities less!

My imagined scene, of a family in a ranch house near Green River, UT was not nearly as spectacular as what actually is Central Utah’s unique landscapes. However, that will not always be the case. Sometimes our imagined world is, in fact, better than the actual reality we are experiencing. And, sometimes, there is something beautiful about being given but a small hint and riddle to solve regarding what is in front of you.

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Sometimes, it is good to have the opportunity to travel at night.

 

 

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.

Interstate 65: The Raceway

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I designed a road trop that would mix the familiar with the new.  The first day of my road trip focused on the familiar, and few roads are more familiar to me than interstate 65 between Chicago and Indianapolis.  During my time living in the State of Indiana, people would often refer to Interstate 65 as “the raceway”.  This, of course, referred to how fast traffic would move on this highway.   Traffic most likely moves this fast on this particular road because the two cities it connects both contain a lot of fast drivers.  At the time when I was living in Indiana, the highway speed limit was 65 and traffic tended to move at a speed of about 80 mph.  Since then, the speed limit has increased to 70, meanwhile gas prices have risen substantially.  Still, with the exception of when trucks are slowing down the highway by passing one another, traffic moves at about the same pace.

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Most of this route would be considered quite dull by most.  It pretty much looks like this, open fields of corn and soy stretching endlessly into the distance.  And, there is little variance.  Nearly every highway I crossed would contain the same features, a few gas stations, and signs pointing motorists to both Chicago and Indianapolis.  For many, this is a dreadfully dull ride, but for me it is slightly differnt.  As I had spent a significant amount of time in the area, and gained a lot of interesting experiences here, the highway actually brought back a plethora of memories for me.  Many of the exits I encountered on this trip reminded me of interesting experiences I had years back.  It was almost like a trip through a period of my life, and almost like I was reliving many of these memories.

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I felt it appropriate to stop at Arbys, a staple of this region.  In fact, whenever I think of central Illinois and Indiana, I think of Arbys, as they are plentiful here.  One time, while driving interstate 55 from Saint Louis to Chicago, I decided to count the number of Arbys- there were 13, and that was only the number I could see signed from the highway.

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There is one place where the endless fields of corn and soy give way to a very different scenery; in the vicinity of the Wabash River near Lafayette, Indiana.  WIth dense trees, and even a little bit of terrain, this region is always a welcome break from the monotony of this trip, even when I am reliving memories from my past.  In fact, I recollect this area being one of the few areas I explored beyond the local fast food joints and truck stops on this trip.  I was hoping for more color, given that it is well into October, but I heard that the weather had just cooled down recently.  So, the colors will have to wait.

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Indianapolis is not a glamorous city.  In fact, it is mostly known for being quite affordable compared to most cities its’ size and larger.  I recall seeing lists that compare median income to median home costs, and seeing that Indianapolis is one of the easiest places for someone with the average paying job to afford a home.

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However, it is not without its’ interesting places.  The bike trails here are pretty unique, albeit they do not seem like they would be efficient.  In town, I got the chance to check out the Indianapolis City Market, which seems like the kind of place people go to eat lunch during an average workday downtown.  By the time we arrive there, around 4:15 P.M., most of the businesses seem closed.  However, there is one open establishment, called the Tomlinson Tap Room that serves beer from different microbreweries throughout the state.  They even serve “flights” on boards shaped like the State of Indiana, which I found to be a unique idea.

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Looking at the clientelle at this establishment, it appears to be one of those after work type of places that tends to die down around 8 or 9 P.M.  Plenty of these types of places can be found in central business districts of many large cities, as other districts are more sought after with regards to nightlife.

Although I can never think of a defining feature about Indianapolis, I always enjoy my trips here.  My last time here was in 2010, when I was Wisconsin defeat Michigan State in the inaugural Big 10 Championship game.  I remember getting pitchers of Long Island Iced Tea for only $7 at a place called Tiki Bob’s.  And this was on a Saturday night, and the night of a major sporting event.  There is something to be said about affordable cities, and even affordable neighborhoods of our own cities.  People here seem to be enjoying the same experiences for a fraction of the cost.  Sometimes I even wonder if the joke is one me, and others that chose cities and neighborhoods that are trendy or well known.  They are probably sitting back, enjoying their $3 drinks and $550/ month apartments wondering why we pay so much to be where we are and do what we do.