Great American Road Trip (08/2009 – 09/2009) [Part 3/3]

2009 December 8
by Jon

TUE 09/08/09 – SAT 09/12/09
Written 11/01/09 – 11/15/09

Tuesday, September 8 - we climbed out of bed into our hot and stuffy room a little after 7, having gotten the worst night’s sleep on the entire trip. As we got ready to go we left the door ajar to let in some air from outside, which did little to help. After getting the standard mid-range hotel breakfast in the lobby among a small group of bikers I told a middle-aged woman at the front desk that our room’s A/C didn’t work, to which she gave me a blank stare.

“So… you might want to put in a work order to have that fixed.”

“Oh, right, I’ll put in a work order for that.”

“You do that,” I thought. How much you wanna bet she did exactly nothing about it? No takers? Smart people.

We had a relatively short day’s driving ahead of us but we wanted to be at our destination by mid-afternoon and as such we wasted little time either getting on the road or dilly-dallying while driving. Fortunately it’s easy to cover lots of ground quickly in Wyoming, what with the lack of stuff and people and all. After a good long shift driving we put in for a stop in Laramie, WY around 11:00:

Day 11 Stop 1 - Laramie, WY
Daily total distance: 215 miles

Laramie is perhaps most famous for being the name inspiration for the brand of cigarettes smoked by residents of Springfield in The Simpsons, something which completely makes sense when you see it in person. We stopped at a Sinclair station, mostly so Becky could hug a friendly brontosaurus:

However, inside was something else entirely. The owner appeared to be in possession of more guns than most of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts combined and looked all to be the sort of man who would use them at a moment’s notice. He was Murka if a Murkan was ever Murka. Becky decided to get some of the finer offerings from his store, including pamphlets on hunting in Wyoming and a bendable rubber figurine of an Injun princess who was, until Becky’s purchase, encased in a dust-encrusted and thoroughly yellowed-to-the-point-of-turning-brown plastic mold. They are what she has to remember Wyoming by:

I named her Princess Smoking Star, in honor of both Princess Shooting Star from Becky’s old home-town of Algonquin, IL (visited on Day 2) and Laramie being Flavor Country. She is part of our family now.

Around 11:45 we hooked around onto I-25 South off of I-80 East around Cheyenne, WY and entered Colorado shortly thereafter. Northern Colorado is quite empty and full of rolling plains fields, not at all like the perpetual mountainous terrain I imagined. Oh, sure, the Rockies were ever-present in the distance, but the entire time we were there we didn’t really go through them. Putting off stopping for a formal lunch, we instead decided to head off the highway and around to our first planned stop in Boulder, CO:

Day 11 Stop 2 - Boulder, CO
Daily total distance: 350 miles

Why were we in such a hurry to get to Boulder? Why, to go to the daily brewery tour at the Boulder Beer Company, of course. This was unabashedly a gift from me to me on the trip but Becky was nice enough to indulge me. She’s the best.

Boulder Brewing Company

They only run one tour a day – at 2 PM – so I didn’t want to be late. We got to the brewery’s pub at around 1:15 – a relatively small place in a completely unassuming building in a business park a bit off the beaten path from the University of Colorado – and took a seat. After confirming that the tour was at 2 and started there (in fact, just behind where we took a seat) we settled in and ordered an appetizer sampler for a light lunch. I also enjoyed a brewery-fresh pint of Hazed and Infused:

Waiting for the tour with a Hazed and Infused

It was good to relax for about 45 minutes after having rushed all morning and afternoon to that point. We examined their map with pins from visitors while we were waiting, noting that our visit seemed not all that out-of-the-ordinary as the entirety of the Northeast appeared to be blanketed in a lawn of push-pins. Oh well, at least we knew how far we’d traveled to get there. Despite the relief at getting there on time, I still wasn’t 100% at-ease until the tour guide got our group of about a dozen together – us, another couple, a few college kids and a small group of dudes one could peg as beer geeks from a half mile away (more folks than I’d imagine on a Tuesday) – to start the tour:

Boulder Brewery Tour

There’s our tour guide standing in front of the mash tun – the same one they’ve been using for about 25 years for all their production-line beer – at the start of the tour. The mash tun is where the water and barley are first mixed without the yeast to create this slurry called wort.

Inside the mash tun

The wort is then piped over to the sterile brewing kettle where it’s heated up and yeast and hops are added, thereby turning it into (as-of-yet unfiltered) beer:

Inside the brewing kettle

This is, in a nutshell, how beer is made: four ingredients, two kettles, one of which has to be free of bacteria as it interferes with the process of sugar metabolism into ethanol by the yeast, and that’s it. It’s pretty elegant and simple, which is why it’s been around for so darn long. However, there’s a lot more than that to making good beer. Which is where we went next.

Malted barley for brewing

Barley grains

That’s the malted barley grain they use for most of their pale beers. It’s kind of interesting because you can see how it confers some of the taste of the beer, especially the chocolaty overtones from roasted barley in darker beer. That said, it’s not nearly as interesting as the other main ingredient:

Hop fridge

Hop pellet

That’s a pellet of hops in my hand and it smelled like I was holding a pitcher of Mojo IPA right in front of my nose. Hops add the characteristic bitterness to the beer as well as any number of other taste overtones depending on the variety of hops. Good hops run around $30-40 a pound in amounts for home-brewing purposes, so figuring that refrigerator room contained about a half-ton of hops it would put the market value of the contents of the room at around $40,000. Expensive little flower.

Mojo IPA banner

Aside from being filtered, most beer is allowed to age in large cold barrels for normally 3-6 months in order to confer proper taste, consistency and carbonation:

Cold aging tanks

As well as tasting right, beer can be said to be “ready” based on its specific gravity; its density as compared to water:

Measuring specific gravity

Like any scientific process there are, of course, SOPs:

Beer SOPs

All this is occasionally quality-checked by a microbiologist who – in the case of Boulder Beer – works out of a converted closet near the loading dock:

Doing Beer Science

All things considered, except for the digs it’s still not all that bad of a gig, I think.

Once the beer is ready it’s sent out to be bottled, which is the final step in the process:

Bottling floor

Cleaning kegs

From there the kegs (seen above being cleaned and re-used) or bottles are sent to a cold room on the loading dock to be shipped out to be enjoyed throughout North America:

Storage cooler

Cold Hop, Mojo, Hazed and Infused and variety packs

Green Reaper of Death

Thus concluded the part of the tour where we learned stuff and commenced the part where we drank stuff!

Sample pitchers after the tour

Becky with beer

They gave us one pitcher of each variety they had on tap: roughly 10 pitchers between 12 people. At 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday that was a lot of beer, especially considering that stuff like the Mojo clocks in around 8%. All for free. This made Jon a very, very happy boy. Of course I had to hold back as we were far from being done with our adventures for the day, but dang was it all tempting. I sampled a bit of several varieties and we said goodbye to our fellow tour-mates, picked up a 6-pack of the Cold Hop in the store for some of my beer geek friends back home and headed out to our hotel. Though our hotel was all the way on the other side of Denver from where we were, fortunately pre-rush hour traffic wasn’t too horrible and we got there with little trouble, checking in around 10 of 4:

Day 11 Stop 3 - Denver, CO
Daily total distance: 380 miles

The room was a substantial improvement over that of the night before. I’d gotten a 50% off deal on a suite that normally went for $250/night and – though I tried to keep our average hotel fee to about $80 throughout the trip (mostly by alternating cheaper $60 rooms with nicer $100 rooms), I decided to spring for one a little over that price range for this stay and, man, am I glad I did. It was great to have a wonderful, large, clean room, complete with functional Internet and ice machine as well as a small back patio from which we could see jackrabbits sniffing through a nearby field. Really, it made the experience all the much better and it helped us re-charge for the rest of the trip ahead. We took some time to relax and to use the city guides in the room to look up interesting things to do before heading back out for our 6 o’clock dinner reservation at the famous Buckhorn Exchange:

If you’re a sensitive vegetarian-type you might want to skip ahead a bit because the next several pictures are all about dead things, whether in edible or mounted-on-the-wall form. We got there a bit early (traffic was, again, not as bad as I feared it would be) but they still seated us, as the place had yet to fill up.

Buckhorn Exchange

Buckhorn Exchange

Buckhorn Exchange

As you can plainly see, most every square inch of the wall-space not covered by something formerly furry and living is painted in a lovely crimson. I mused on how the amount of dusting that must need be done on a weekly basis to keep all the taxidermy heads clean must be just astounding.

After getting our drinks from our waiter with one of the most genuine mustaches ever we started off with some delicious rattlesnake cheese dip:

Rattlesnake cheese dip

As in, that meat was rattlesnake. Surprisingly delicious. Becky got some quail for dinner and I got a special of elk and buffalo:

Elk and buffalo steaks

The elk was a bit tough but very flavorful and the buffalo was just fantastic. All told, at about $70 per person it was the most expensive meal we’d ever gotten for just the two of us but, as we didn’t go to a big expensive dinner on our wedding anniversary, we agreed that this meal covered us for that. After settling up the check we went to look around the tavern upstairs, proud owner of Colorado state liquor license #0001:

Buckhorn Exchange

Nazi Injun

Buckhorn Exhange: come for the steak and taxidermy, stay for the Nazi Indians with Matrix glasses.

Upon heading out we decided to just drive around town and burn the remaining daylight by seeing all the outdoor sculptures Denver has to offer:

Art for Ransom

World's largest broom and dustpan

Feeling the spirit of the buffalo

Though I enjoyed feeling the spirit of the Mighty (anatomically correct; what’s the West’s obsession with sculpting ruminant gonads?) Buffalo as it put me in touch with the Mother Earth Goddess Earth Mother, it was nothing compared to this big ol’ voyeuristic fellow:

Voyeuristic Blue Bear

Of course, it allowed us another opportunity to stand underneath an enormous statue’s crotch:

Becky underneath the Big Blue Bear

As the sun had set by this point we decided to head back to the hotel, turning in a bit after 8:

End of Day 11
Cumulative total distance: 5710 miles

Feeling full of delicious beer and delicious meat, we relaxed in our bed and read and watched TV before drifting off to sleep a couple hours later. It was quite an excellent day and much needed after such a trying previous day. The next day would bring us from West to Midwest as we would cross through Corn Country from Nebraska into Iowa. In other words, there was still plenty of America left to go.

Wednesday, September 9 - after a good night’s sleep following our day in Boulder and Denver we got up bright and early to head back out at 6:30. We gassed up and just grabbed some doughnuts from a 7-11 down the road to get a jump on things a little over an hour later. I wanted to get an early start to the day as we’d lose another hour to time zone switching relatively early on and we had a rather substantial distance to go. Thankfully, we had very little trouble in getting out of the Denver area to the northeast and hit I-76 East on our way back up to I-80. We passed through the grassy high plains of northeastern Colorado and – a bit after 10 – into Nebraska, meeting up with I-80 East just a few minutes later. It wasn’t long before we hit our first stop, unpronounceably scenic Ogallala, NE:

Day 12 Stop 1 - Ogallala, NE
Daily total distance: 210 miles

Perched in the armpit of Nebraska’s panhandle, there isn’t much to Ogallala. For one, there’s a gas station that claims to have the cleanest bathrooms on I-80. Having used them, I can assure you that’s almost certainly true, as they were quite clean and that is otherwise a relatively low bar to achieve. Other than being known for their sanitary facilities, the people of Ogallala also enjoy tourist trap frontier towns:

Howdy howdy!

Old timey town

Old timey town

But we weren’t there for their undertaking or tonsures. Rather we stopped for the world-famous Ogallala petrified wood museum:

Old timey museum

The petrified wood comes from a huge deposit of the stuff located near Lake McConaughy just north of Ogallala. It was largely collected over the past 60 years by two brothers, at least one of which was still alive and shuffling about the museum, dumping a bucket full of unpolished petrified twigs into a bin in the gift shop as we were there. The woman who worked in the gift shop was about the same age, too, making it seem as if all the citizens of Ogallala were well into their 80s. Though another, middle-aged couple entered several minutes after we did we were the only ones there on a late Wednesday morning when we arrived and as such she had no compunctions with giving us the full story of the museum: about the brothers, about where the petrified wood came from, and about how they used them to make painstaking models:

Petrified wood town

Rough and Tumble Past

Life Was Tough

And yes, every model they made was of frontier town life and were named with epithets of such. It was all incredibly endearing. Of course, it wasn’t everything they had, though. They also had psychedelic petrified wood:

Psychedellic petrified wood

…petrified pine cones:

Petrified pinecones

…petrified iconic Indians:

End of the Trail in arrowheads

…petrified polar bears:

Polar Bear petrified wood

…and, finally, fossil evidence that early Nebraska Man engaged in an activity now known as “Mario Kart:”

Fossilized Mario Kart

Finally, it wouldn’t be the Great West if there weren’t plenty of Injun statues around:

Big Chief Crosseye

I believe that displaying an Injun statue is sort of a legal requirement for pioneer heritage museums; sort of like liquor licenses in bars.

After purchasing some of our very own petrified wood goods in the gift shop we decided to hit the road and continue eastward toward our next stop. At 11:40 we crossed into the good ol’ Central Time Zone – unseen since Day 3 – and it became 12:40. Even though we were still far from home, being in the Central Time Zone made me feel like we were at least close to being back East. As for the scenery, well, imagine what Nebraska must look like. That’s what Nebraska actually looks like. So there you go.

Snacking on some fruit and crackers as we went along, we continued on until 2:25, making our next stop in Kearney, NE:

Day 12 Stop 2 - Kearney
Daily total distance: 360 miles

Our destination was the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument (or GRAMbLA):

Great Platte River Road Archway

Great Platte River Road Archway

Great Platte River Road Archway

The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument is an arch spanning I-80 erected as a monument to the enduring pioneer spirit. Or a celebration of being as far away as possible from coastal liberal intellectual elitists:

Equally far from Boston and San Francisco

Take your pick. We seemed more West than East still, though, as there were still oversized bison roaming about, encased in metal:

Becky loving the giant buffalo

Just as well; real buffalo are really smelly and drooly.

Like most of Nebraska, apparently, the Archway was staffed chiefly by retirees. And mostly visited by retirees, too. We bought our admission tickets and patiently indulged them as they gave us the entire talk about how the museum works: sets of headphones guided you from display to display. All things we were perfectly capable of figuring out on our own but since technology doesn’t agree with everyone we understood why they gave us the talk. Finally, we rode the escalator up and into the museum:

Welcome to the escalator!

“Welcome to the escalator!”

The museum went in rough chronological order over the past 180-or-so years, chronicling the trials of all those who did not settle in Nebraska, but rather passed through it on their way to presumably more fertile ground. See, Nebraska’s cool with being the middle-man. It’s just happy to be part of the game. It’s sort of a junior-varsity state. I mean, sure, it might not get the girls and glory of that starting QB state California, but California’s at it’s peak now, right? It’s all downhill from here: it’ll blow out its knee in college, drop out, get fat and wind up being a local cop, right? Nebraska’s time is still to come! It just needs to keep with it and follow that enduring spirit! Goooo Pioneers!

I really gotta kind of feel for Nebraska. It wants to be a good guy, really. It’s got corn. Everyone likes corn, right?

Of course, being a pioneer isn’t easy. That’s what it’s all about: enduring hardships for a better tomorrow! I mean, there were women pushing covered wagons:

Women's work

…funerals of lost loved ones, presumably taken by dysentery:

…and, of course, Mormons:


Not to mention the sock technology, far lagging behind the advanced mustaches of the time:

Sock technology was lacking

And don’t even get me started about the villains always tying fawning women up to train tracks:

Evil hipster

Of course, things didn’t improve much later on as the 20th century presented its own, unique problems such as crazy women drivers:

What’ll they think of next, amirite?

We pressed on our journey through time. Fortunately, there were helpful signposts along the way:

Boston's this way

Not to mention roadside diners run by sassy waitresses with hearts of gold:


In Flo's Diner

As we got closer to today, we saw some Internet bison:

Internet Buffalo

And an example of an endemic problem to the early 90s, a Hipster Hole:

Hipster Hole

He is, of course, down there working on the Series of Tubes:

Working on the Tubes

As we reached the end of the museum we looked over the modern Great Platte River Road that is I-80:

View from atop the Archway

…and took the escalator back down:

Becky leaving the Archway Museum

But what’s that in the background? Why, it’s a 9/11 Blanket:

9/11 Blanket

And yes, that eagle appears to be adorned with a grenade bandoleer. It’s so America it made my eyes bleed.

We got some sandwiches to go at a nearby Quizno’s for a late lunch and got back on the road around 3:30. As we drove Becky had fun with her candy:

…and we saw one of the final vehicles we strongly suspect came from Burning Man:

Around 5:45 we pulled in briefly to take some pictures outside the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland near Lincoln:

Day 12 Stop 3 - Ashland, NE
Daily total distance: 510 miles

Becky has fond memories of visiting the museum as a child with her family. So, even though we missed the closing time by nearly an hour despite making excellent time that day, we decided to stop quickly to take some pictures outside:

Strategic Air Defense Museum

Strategic Air Defense Museum

Becky outside the Strategic Air Defense Museum

It sure was strategic! Unfortunately some workers were installing glass panels as we arrived and, as such, we couldn’t walk up right to the museum. Oh well, maybe we’ll return to see it on the inside one day. In the mean time we pressed on, across the mighty Missouri River and into Iowa around 6:15. Much like Nebraska, Iowa looks like one imagines Iowa to look. Except there are apparently an abundance of airstrips:

We continued on as the sun set, reaching our hotel – an EconoLodge outside Des Moines – around 8:

Day 12 Stop 4 - Des Moines, IA
Daily total distance: 675 miles

Des Moines doesn’t look so appealing after dark. The whole area had a sketchy vibe set off by a gang hanging outside a Bennigan’s (of all places) up the road from the hotel posturing with their suped-up cars. The sort of thing that makes you think of LA, not Des Moines. The hotel lobby wasn’t much better as the man behind the desk – who’s nametag identified him as “Justus” – gave me a stern, no-nonsense check-in that made me believe he hated me and my East Coast Kind. That said, the room was perfectly fine, especially considering it was one of the cheaper ones on the trip. So I guess as long as we didn’t go outside it would be okay. And there was a bunny hopping about in front of the lobby to compliment the hare from the previous day in Denver. So it wasn’t all bad.

Becky was in the market for View-Master reels to show off our journey. In Oregon her mom had suggested that we try looking for them at a Cracker Barrel, which was a good idea, I thought. Figuring if there wasn’t a Cracker Barrel in Des Moines then there was something severely wrong with the world, we grabbed the room’s phone book and, sure enough, found one about 7 miles down the road from the hotel. At quarter of 9 it was far from busy but the food was just as deliciously unhealthy and it definitely sufficed for dinner. As I had already used my country fried steak card back on Day 2, I opted for the chicken-n-dumplins instead. Not that that was much better for me, but hey, on vacation.

Unfortunately the gift shop did not have View-Master reels, though, in Becky’s mom’s defense, it really looked like it should have. Oh well. We returned to the hotel and bedded down a bit before 10:

End of Day 12
Cumulative total distance: 6400 miles

After finagling the old, cheap TV’s cable connector a bit we were able to get in Discovery Channel fairly clearly and watched a Mythbusters before turning off the lights around 10:45. Though Day 13 was initially supposed to be boring and routine as we made our way through the Midwest, we planned out one previously-unscheduled stop that would brighten the day immensely. And so, with only two full days left, we looked forward to that as we went to sleep.

Thursday, September 10 - we woke up at a perfectly decent 7 AM and got yet another typical mid-range hotel complimentary breakfast in the lobby. We’d had so many of those by that point that I honestly don’t recall this particular one. What I do remember, though, is this wonder up the street from the hotel:

Go through it with me now. A monster truck. Smashing a stock car. With a banner on it advertising chocolate-covered bacon. On a stick. I know I must have said four or five times already on this journey that something I saw was the most America thing ever but I think this one takes the grand prize. If Hunter S Thompson came up to me saying he was in search of the American Dream I would have pointed him to the stock car-crushing chocolate bacon-on-a-stick-advertising monster truck in Des Moines and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would have been a lot shorter because that, my friends, is it. Right there. We could go home now.

In the process, the rest of Iowa looked a lot like this:

Never would have guessed that that’s Iowa, would you?

Around 10:45 we crossed the mighty Missouri River and into good old Illinois, a state we hadn’t seen since Day 2. Shortly thereafter we left I-80 and exited onto I-74 East headed toward Cincinnati via Indianapolis. I-80 East continues to Chicago and, since we’d already been there, we decided to continue on a more southern route. About 20 minutes later we stopped to use a rest area before continuing through southern Illinois:

Day 13 Stop 1 - Outside Galesburg, IL
Daily total distance: 200 miles

We stopped quickly because we had places to go! A bit after noon we arrived at our one and only tour stop for the trip in Dunlap, IL outside Peoria:

Day 13 Stop 2 - Peoria, IL
Daily total distance: 270 miles

We were there for a stop I hadn’t scheduled on the original planner but, upon Becky’s recommendation after she looked up things along the route, I decided it worth a shot: the Wheels-O-Time Museum. And, really, the vintage 1997 website says it all.

It’s in a huge converted barn in what I would describe as definitively off the beaten path even by southern Illinois standards. As if to mimic the antique website, the museum curators – antiques in and of themselves – insisted we sign their guestbook after finding we’d come there all the way from Boston! We didn’t feel like explaining we were on the 13th day of a 15-day cross-country adventure and let them think that folks Back East are just giddy for Wheels-O-Time. It’s easier that way.

We entered the museum and were greeted by an octogenarian man (sensing a theme for this particular leg of the journey yet?) who was more than happy to demonstrate a bear-mounted player piano one is greeted with at the start of the self-guided tour:

Museum founder with player piano

He was also keen on showing us an automatic orchestra machine around the corner:

Becky with the frightening auto-band

When both of these were going at the same time it produced what I have ordained to be the very definition of the word “cacophany” in that it made me slightly distressed to hear. Old Timey Time sounds a lot more like the Residents than I imagined.

We continued on to the first section of the museum, a display of cars from throughout the history of American automotives:

Becky with old timey cars

Old timey electric car

Old timey 3-wheeled car

Barn find

Indy car

Okay, so the Indy Car isn’t old timey but – as you can see – it’s powered by good ol’ Illinois corn-grown ethanol, so it gets a pass. Hell, the Kid in the Helmet likes it:

Helmet Boy likes Wheels-O-Time

Though the Peanut Hipster seems indifferent:

But overall it must be okay, as it seems to have the tacit approval of Jamie from Mythbusters:

Jamie from Mythbusters likes old timey cars

We wound around out of the old timey car area and into the old timey mechanic’s shop run by Emo Phillips:

Old timey workshop

It featured a meter that measures how retarded something is:

Retard meter

You can tell this meter was constructed in the Boston area as it suddenly jumps from 7 to 30 on the high end: a region colloquially known as “wicked retarded.”

Just beyond that was the Hall of Things that Will Haunt My Dreams, starting with the Creepy Presidential Barbershop Quartet:

Their rubbery jaws slowly circled like cows chewing cud as they sang. We stopped for a listen:

Becky listening to the barbershop quartet

But wait, who’s that in the bathroom back on the right?

Silly Bubba!

Oh, that Slick Willy! Always the sly one!

That wasn’t all though. There was also the Sexual Predator Organ Grinder:

Creepy organ grinder

…accompanied by his companion, Bad Touch the Monkey:

Aaand let’s throw in an unsettling clown with a de-tuned calliope wagon just for good measure:

Excellent. That’ll do, Wheels-O-Time. That’ll do. And remember:

Dancing Permitted

But hey, we’re not done! We’re just getting started! After walking through a (not terribly-photogenic) section on old timey kitchenware, Becky was able to take a tenuously-perched quiz on what she just saw:

Kitchen quiz!

Man, they just don’t make ‘em like they did yesteryear.

We pressed on to the next building which contained – much to my joy – a ton of old timey scientific equipment, rife with steampunkery:

Old timey science

Old timey centrifuge

Old centrifuge

Old wet test meter

Old timey pH detector

Old timey petri dish holder

Why can’t I have a brass carrier for my petri dishs? Stupid plastics making everything more mundane. I feel like I need some velocipedes now:


That’s better.

Of course, the old timey science wasn’t limited just to adults! There were also some pretty fantastic chemistry kits for budding junior-high natural philosophers:

Old Chemistry kit

Old Microscope kit

I can’t imagine what sort of horrible mutagens were doled out to 13 year-olds in those kits back then. The 50s were awesome. But that wasn’t the real draw in that display case. From a distance I could see what everyone was waiting for:

Star Wars figures

Star Wars figurines

Star Wars figurines

While not in mint condition, it should be pointed out that Wheels-O-Time’s wookiee – unlike Ralph Wiggum’s – remains unbent.

And that’s about all I can say about the magical experience that was the Wheels-O-Time Museum in lovely Dunlap, IL. I leave you with Marvelous Mike, Robot Farmer of the Future!:

TractorBot 3000

And that was about it for us. We got some Arby’s nearby for the road as a late lunch. The woman working the register told us the small sandwiches we got were “on sale” then. So that’s good, I suppose. For the prudent… uh… roast beef investor. With the car gassed up and our thrifty sandwiches in hand, Becky took over driving and took us through the rest of southern Illinois. On the way we crossed the mighty Illinois River – which looked a lot more like the mighty Mississippi should look like but doesn’t, complete with paddle boats and a hotel named for Mark Twain:

The mighty Illinois River

Mark Twain Hotel

Around Champaign we were stopped as a police escort led some sort of massive over-sized load truck traveling backwards along the highway. It looked sort of like a silo, but in one piece. Why they were directing it backward down the highway I haven’t a clue. Probably something to do with corn. After it passed we continued on and reached the Indiana border at 3:30, whereupon we officially entered the Eastern Time Zone for the first time since way back on Day 1, making it 4:30. Roughly an hour later we conceded that we weren’t going to make it through the thick Indianapolis rush-hour traffic and put in for a pit stop:

Day 13 Stop 3 - Indianapolis, IN
Daily total distance: 475 miles

Not very much about Indianapolis appealed to me. It seemed like it was crammed full of huge cars and the rednecks that drive them. I only point this out because, as Eli Lilly is based there, it’s one of the places I could easily find a job if I so choose. From what little I saw of it I do not choose, though. Maybe I’m wrong, but it didn’t seem like the place for us. A nice gentleman at the gas station asked me politely if I knew where the Holiday Inn was and I replied that I wasn’t from around there, to which he genially said he wasn’t, either, so I guess there are nice folks visiting Indianapolis, at least.

Getting back to the highway through the choking traffic was a chore but once we accomplished that the trip around the beltway wasn’t so bad except for the heavy construction, which by that point we were thoroughly used-to. And so we continued on through southern Indiana, exiting to I-275 East shortly after entering Ohio around 7:15. This was the opposite direction as our hotel, but we had another easy state to hit; we crossed over the mighty Ohio River heading south and entered Kentucky a slim 15 minutes after hitting Ohio. Nearly the very second we hit ground in Kentucky we saw a road sign advertising for a Creationist museum. Thereby confirming every pre-conception I have about the state. But, fortunately, we ordained that in order to have officially “hit” a state all we needed to do was make a planned stop, and so we did – just for dinner – before heading back across to Ohio. After driving for about 15 minutes more we found a patch of civilization that looked promising and so we stopped in Edgewood, KY:

Day 13 Stop 4 - Edgewood, KY
Daily total distance: 615 miles

We stopped at a local pizza chain called Garzelli’s, but to us it will always be known as Nders & Zza:

Despite the outside it was perfectly decent for a walk-in pizza place. Not gourmet but hell, it’s Kentucky, what do you expect? We shared a pepperoni pizza and, as far as I’m concerned, it hit the spot just right. It also didn’t take us all that long, which means we were able to get back out before it got too dark, crossed the mighty Ohio River back into Cincinnati and traversed the town all chock-full-o’ billboards for Skyline Chili (still pasta with beans in it if you ask me) up to our hotel, arriving just a bit before 9 to end the day’s travels:

End of Day 13
Cumulative total distance: 7040 miles

The guy at the front desk seemed like he fell out of a Judd Apatow movie, which was a bit funny, considering what a button-down conservative environment we’d passed through to get there. The room was just great: clean, spacious, well-cooled and with working Internet and cable. As it was one of the cheaper rooms that made it our best value room for the whole trip. The best overall was obviously the cabin in Oregon and my favorite was probably the one in Denver, but considering this was half as much money as the Denver room it definitely won on what we got for the price. We watched a show about mass extinction events (the Permian-Triassic, I think) and drifted off to sleep around 11. We had one last huge, full day left ahead of us: the day with the stop that inspired the whole journey. It was going to be a big one and we couldn’t hardly wait.

Friday, September 11 - we awoke at 7, finally back on East Coast time, showered, got yet another typical mid-range hotel breakfast in the lobby, checked out and hit the road around 10 after 8. We didn’t have very far at all to go to our first stop; it was just up I-75 North in Monroe, OH:

Day 14 Stop 1 - Munroe, OH
Total distance: 15 miles

It took about a half an hour to get there due to construction on the off-ramp but fortunately, our destination was clearly visible from the highway and therefore hard to miss: the Solid Rock megachurch:

The SRC is home to none other than Touchdown Jesus:

Touchdown Jesus

Not to be confused with that other one in South Bend, Indiana, this Touchdown Jesus comes with the benefit of appearing to be sinking into the marshy pond in front of him:

At 8:45 AM on a Friday there was no one around besides a farmer tooling around on a tractor cutting high weeds on the adjacent property, so we walked around for a bit and admired his 62-foot glory:

Becky praying to Touchdown Jesus

Becky with Touchdown Jesus

As you can see, Princess Smoking Star wanted to join in the celebration, too. Now, as obviously silly as a 62-foot statue of Jesus with his hands aloft while sinking into a pond and carrying a proportionately miniature cross seems at a glance, it also makes me wonder: Jesus is – most Christians agree – resurrected and all up in heaven now, right? So isn’t this statue of Jesus lifting his hands in exaltation not only of God the Father but also of… Jesus? So isn’t Jesus praying to himself there? Might that not violate a Commandment or two? I suppose if someone comes at you with the idea of building a 6-storey bust of Jesus and you say “right on!” then you’re probably not too worried about such semantics, anyway.

Feeling as if we had sufficiently seen God’s Country in all its glory, we continued up I-75 North for a short while, clipping along I-675 North to I-70 East. Around 11 – after successfully passing around Columbus without incident – we came to our first pit stop:

Day 14 Stop 2 - Outside Columbus, OH
Daily total distance: 145 miles

We just pulled off at a relatively nice rest area and hit the road back east as quickly as possible. Our next destination was some distance away and we needed to get there while there was still daylight. Becky took over driving and we left Ohio and hit the West Virginian northern panhandle around 12:30. We figured that, even with a requisite stop for lunch to count the state, we shouldn’t have too much difficulty traversing the 17-or-so miles to Pennsylvania. Oh how wrong we were. First, due to construction, we were diverted onto I-470, taking us away from the center of town of Wheeling, the only city of substance on the northern panhandle and where we planned to stop for lunch. After getting off of I-470 we drove around for what seemed like forever before finally settling on a dingy Chinese restaurant:

Day 14 Stop 3 - Wheeling, WV
Daily total distance: 240 miles

It was pretty typical for a road-side Chinese restaurant; the kind that if you’ve seen one of you’ve seen all of ‘em. Same goes with the food. Of course, back on Day 9 when we were at the Chinese buffet in Eureka, CA I hardly imagined we’d be re-visiting Chinese for lunch in Wheeling, WV but since we were struggling to find anywhere fast to eat and we were on a tight schedule, it seemed to do the trick. Cheap, too. Still, there’s something very depressing about Wheeling – slowly crumbling and slumping in its post-industrial mire – and the Chinese place was no exception.

You’d think our culinary mishaps would be the limit of our troubles in West Virginia, but oh no. After failing to find a gas station nearby I got back on the highway for a single exit to find one, only to discover after gassing up that I could not re-enter eastward from where I exited and had to travel several more miles on street roads to the nearest on-ramp. We finally entered Pennsylvania at 1:45, having taken an hour and 10 minutes for us to traverse the short distance in West Virginia. God, what a mess.

I-70 through western Pennsylvania is windy and treacherous as it careens around the woody mountains. That it was starting to sprinkle as we entered the remnants of a tropical storm didn’t make it much better. However, after about an hour of that wild ride we hit the merge with I-76 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, whereupon the road widened and evened out substantially, making our travels much less of a character-building experience. To compensate, the sprinkling became rain became an all-out downpour. At 4 we thought it wise to put in for another pit stop:

Day 14 Stop 4 - Central Pennsylvania
Daily total distance: 415 miles

We pressed on after the quick stop through some heavy rush-hour traffic around Harrisburg and exited onto I-80 North. After a short distance we took the exit to PA Highway 61 and drove 11 winding mils through two small, halfway boarded-up towns to our final tour destination on the whole trip – the one and only Centralia, PA:

Day 14 Stop 5 - Centralia, PA
Daily total distance: 555 miles

You can read all about Centralia on the Wiki link above or on any number of outlets on the Internet. They even made a documentary about it two years ago. For those who know nothing about it, though, here’s the basics: central Pennsylvania is the world’s largest deposit of anthracite coal, a very hard, rock-like form of coal that burns slowly and cleanly compared to the softer, more common bituminous coal that people traditionally think of when they think of coal. In post-WWII America small mining towns boomed throughout central Pennsylvania as the post-war economy that demanded a house in suburbia with a two cars in the garage for every family made America starved for easy-to-burn energy. However, anthracite is difficult to mine and not very abundant – even if it is cleaner than softer forms of coal – and so in the 60s mining moved on to bituminous and the even softer and less-efficient lignite – or brown – coal. The mining towns – mostly populated by poorly-educated eastern European workers – entered a slow, progressive decline that’s still going on today.

That explains most mining towns in Pennsylvania. In Centralia something else happened, though: in 1962 the fire department started a controlled burn of garbage at the trash dump on the edge of town. The fire got out of control and got into the mine shafts. The honeycomb-like structure of anthracite kept the fire burning slowly but surely underground. For decades the citizens of Centralia lived with the ground beneath them literally on fire, with toxic gasses leeching up out of pipes in the ground. Burning in environments with insufficient oxygen, the carbon in the coal produced far more carbon monoxide than it would have on the surface. Early efforts to put out the fire were bogged down in bureaucracy and came too little, too late. The fire smoldered on. Finally, in 1984, after an incident where a young boy was almost killed when he fell through a sinkhole that suddenly opened up in his back yard, a federal order was placed to evacuate the town. Slowly but surely, with little reason to stay, residents left. As their houses were bought up they were leveled to the ground to prevent the fires from having a means of getting above-ground. By the time the documentary was made Centralia had 9 official residents off the peak of 2,000. By the time of our visit that number had dropped to 7. All but one are elderly. Though Centralia was unincorporated and stripped of its zip code as it became the domain of the federal government, it’s speculated that the remaining residents are allowed to stay until they pass to prevent the negative media storm that would come with forcibly removing retirees from their lifetime homes. It’s not like the mine fires are going anywhere; the most conservative estimates have them burning for another 200 years. More generous ones have them going for 5,000 years before all the fuel is exhausted. Either way, 47 years after the Centralia mine fires were started, they’re nowhere near finished.

We arrived at the center of what used to be town at 6:40. Though the rain had slowed to a progressive drizzle we knew that we had little daylight to spare so we tried to look at a map I had printed out to assess where we most wanted to visit. Nearly all of the side-streets seemed inaccessible via the low-riding, tiny-wheeled Prius; they varied from requiring an SUV or pickup truck to traverse to being completely overridden with plants and impassable. Driving only a short distance out of town in any direction put one on miles of near-empty road before being able to turn around. Finally, we picked a spot near where one of the main limbs of the mine fire burned near the cemetery:

Tour a REAL coal mine

Centralia, PA

Centralia, PA

Do NOT back over with tour bus

Centralia, PA

That’s the cemetery in the distance. In the documentary the former citizens of Centralia note that the town’s dead now far outnumber the living. We continued to move around, carefully examining spots where toxic steam was still rising from the ground. It was an effort to continually wipe the rain off my camera’s lens, but I think the mood was absolutely perfect. I can’t imagine this place looking right on a bright and sunny day.

Centralia, PA

Centralia, PA

Centralia, PA

Centralia, PA

Centralia, PA

That house is one of the last left standing. It’s the home of the lone remaining young man living in Centralia, the main focus of the documentary. We thought it best not to pry.

There are no guards keeping people out of Centralia. There no fences keeping folks from walking about the areas affected by the fire as we did. Whatever signs used to be there have even mostly rusted out and fallen over. The only thing keeping ne’er-do-wells from putting their mark over what’s left of the town is its sheer distance from anything else worth seeing.

Centralia, PA

Hail Satan

Centralia Bitches!!

We walked over to the cemetery, long since divorced from the church that used to stand next to it. Though the rock wall containing the graveyard had fallen over in parts, the Orthodox cemetery itself was far better maintained than the rest of the town. Death, it seems, was more permanent than life in Centralia.

Orthodox cemetary

There was one last place we wanted to visit with the waning scraps of daylight: the abandoned stretch of Highway 61 that collapsed in the mid-90s:

Centralia, PA

It has been blocked off by mounds of dirt that prevent cars from driving down the road. That said, there’s now a well-worn footpath onto the road and, once again, the sign advising people not to walk onto the highway has long since fallen over.

Abandoned highway

The weed-plagued, cracked pavement offered a huge pavement for passing graffiti artists:

Welcome to Graffiti Highway

Welcome to... Hell (or SPARTA!)

It’s good to know that we were in Hell or SPARTA!


(Jeff is not a hipster)

It’s also good to know that Jeff is not a hipster.

By this point there was no longer enough light to take pictures and we decided to move on. It grew completely dark as we wound around the white-knuckle road back to I-81 through the rain. Hitting the Interstate didn’t improve things much in terms of my feeling of safety among semis barreling up and down hills at full speed in the dark. Needless to say, when we arrived at our hotel in Scranton around 9 I was greatly relieved:

Day 14 Stop 5 - Scranton, PA
Daily total distance: 640 miles

The hotel – like most of the part of Scranton we were in – was on a hill that seemed to go down at a 45-degree angle, such that we could only see the Days Inn placard from the road and not the hotel itself. After we found the sneaky hotel, though, we checked in and got a perfectly decent room. Having not eaten dinner yet, though, we immediately headed back out and settled on an Olive Garden down the road. It was quite busy for 9:30, but we got a seat and a waiter who was also far, far too peppy for 9:30 and stuffed ourselves. We got back to our hotel room at 10:30, ending a very long, wet day:

End of Day 14
Cumulative total distance: 7680 miles

Deep into a carbohydrate coma, we went to sleep almost immediately. We had a very short drive, relatively speaking, to go the next day, but I had a feeling we couldn’t easily make it back from Cincinnati in one day. I’m glad I decided to stop for the night as I was then exhausted. Our trip was nearly completely over and, though we had plenty of adventure over the past two weeks, we were happy to be nearly home.

Saturday, September 12 - we woke up on the day we’d head home at 7. Princess Smoking Star bid farewell to northern Pennsylvania:

We hit the road around 8:20 after one final mid-range hotel breakfast and swung around Scranton to hit I-84 East. We crossed the Delaware River into New York state at the very northwestern tip of New Jersey about an hour later and, about an hour after that, hit Connecticut. A bit before 11 we took a pit stop at Exit 32 in Southington, where I normally stop on the way back and forth from Jersey to visit the folks:

Day 15 Stop 1 - Southington, CT
Daily total distance: 180 miles

We got back on the road and, with no traffic issues, hit Massachusetts a bit before noon and I-90 a few minutes later, thereby re-joining our path westward for the first time. It wouldn’t last long; it was only 50 miles away from our house and, at 1:00 PM, we pulled in back home for the first time in over 2 weeks:

Day 15 Stop 2 - Somerville, MA
Daily total distance: 295 miles

So there you have it. This trip was an enormous undertaking for both of us. It required months of planning from each of us to pull it off, but we did it. 15 days on the road, coast to coast:

End of Day 15
Cumulative total distance: 8017 miles

That final distance is straight from my odometer. My daily distance counter wound up being off by 50-some miles, but over the course of two weeks I’ll take a margin of error of under 1% any day.

Was it all worth it? Of course it was. I’ve never had a chance to really go out and experience such a huge portion of America all at once and I’m immensely glad we did it. I feel like – aside from the mountains of memories we gathered that I’ve striven to record here – we learned a huge amount about where we are with respect to our lives now and what we want to do next by way of figuring out where we’d like to be. It was a one-in-a-lifetime experience I’m very happy we jumped at the chance to take.

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