Updated: Mar 28
“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, To gain all while you give, To roam the roads of lands remote, To travel is to live.”
– Hans Christian Andersen
June 6, 2013
Just as dawn was breaking over Oscoda, Michigan, Lola and I were waking in our comfortable beds at the Rest-All Inn. At this point in our cross-country adventure, we had put six days, three time zones, eight states and 2,567 miles behind us. It was already the furthest east I had ever traveled across country by car from my home in Washington State. And yet, with all the miles we had driven and all that we had seen along the way, practically speaking, we had really just begun our travels. More than two weeks worth of unexplored roads and highways, unvisited towns and cities, and a raft of new experiences still lay in front of us.
From our hotel room window, we could see for the first time that we were actually just a stone's throw from the shore of Lake Huron. We had arrived so late the night before, exhausted from a full day of driving, that we didn't even notice that the hotel was situated right on the beach. After breakfast, we hiked out to the shoreline. The weather was cool and windy, and the early morning, moody cloud cover cast a flat gunmetal gray over the surface of the lake. It was all very beautiful and serene, and the lake's vast horizon, oceanlike, was unbroken by ships or islands or even a hint of Canada. We were the only souls standing on the shore. It was as if Mother Nature crafted this moment in time just for our enjoyment. Scattered all along the wide, sandy beach were the discarded shells of freshwater mollusks, propping up the illusion that we were actually standing at the ocean's edge.
After our brief walk out to the beach, we wasted no time packing up and getting back on the road. Our goal that day was to get to the town where Lola spent the first few years of her life, and where many of her cousins, aunts, uncles, and relations still live -- DuBois, Pennsylvania. Once back on the road, we soon connected with Interstate 75 southbound toward Detroit, and at 70 mph, we zipped through places like Bay City, Saginaw and Flint. This was my first ever visit to Detroit -- a city that was ranked fourth in size in the U.S. when I was a kid. Today, as a result of massive migrations out of the city due to institutional racism, a bankrupt city government, loss of auto-industry jobs, and spikes in crime rates over the past few decades, it ranks #24 after El Paso and Nashville. We got off the interstate and drove through the downtown streets just long enough to get a flavor of the city's core and see some of the great architecture and grand public spaces along Woodward Avenue. Unfortunately, none of our photos turned out well.
The Sprint to Pennsylvania
An hour or so after leaving Detroit, we were crossing into Ohio and into Toledo.
On the other side of Toledo, we merged onto the Ohio Turnpike. In order to shorten our travel to DuBois, Pennsylvania, we made a series of zigs and zags on our way eastward across the state. We exited the turnpike at Norwalk, headed south on U.S. 250, then east on U.S. 224 until it connected with Interstate 76 just west of Akron. We sailed through Akron, then switched to Interstate 80 at Youngstown, just minutes from the Pennsylvania state line.
Just as we were crossing into Pennsylvania, the weather turned dark and wet. The sky opened up and turned the interstate into a two-lane, high-speed Slip And Slide. The windshield wipers were going at full tilt, and we could barely make out the road in front of us. To compound our anxieties, the car was fishtailing badly on the layer of rain now swallowing the asphalt. At first, we just chalked it up to excess water on the road surface, but every other car on the interstate was moving at the speed limit. We, however, were forced to slow down to 50 mph. It was the maximum speed we could travel without losing control. This white-knuckle driving scenario went on for about twenty minutes before we emerged on the other side of the storm. We found an exit where we could get a bathroom break and check the tires. The driver’s side rear tire was almost completely bald. Fortunately, there was a tire center in DuBois that quickly (and inexpensively) replaced all of the tires and provided us with peace of mind for the many miles still ahead of us.
We arrived in DuBois (pron. DOO boyss) in the late afternoon. That evening, we stayed at the house of Lola's Aunt Annie and Uncle Lloyd. They were both so happy to see us and so amazingly hospitable. Annie fixed a nice supper for us and set us up with a comfortable guest room. After dinner, we played Farkle and card games in the garage where Uncle Lloyd taught us how to play 31.
June 7-8, 2013
Over the next few days, we moored ourselves in DuBois at Annie and Lloyd's house, choosing time with Lola's extended family over travel. Originally, Lola and I had planned on a day in DuBois, but once we got there, we realized how little time there was to see everyone. I was meeting everyone for the first time, but for Lola it was a long-overdue, sweet reunion with loved ones. We shifted things around on our itinerary and ended up staying two and a half days. We broke away for a few hours one day to make the half-hour drive down to Punxsutawney and see "Phil" the groundhog who divines the fate of winter every February 2nd. When he's not predicting the official end of winter, he's holed up in a plexiglass-enclosed burrow at the nearby library at the edge of the town square so adults and schoolchildren can coo over and adore him. Here's Lola and myself posing with a cartoonish casting of Phil himself decked out in a tux and top hat.
The area of Pennsylvania where DuBois is situated, in the west-central region dominated by the northern Appalachian range, is perhaps one of the most picturesque and lovely parts of the country I have visited. It is a landscape characterized by gently rolling hills of farmlands, pastures, woodlands and fields of brilliant color. The Amish can be seen driving their buggies along the country roads nearly everywhere. They have set up amazing roadside markets and stores where you can buy an impressive array of handcrafted items, among which you'll find exquisitely made quilts and furnishings. Here's a lovely snapshot of the green and undulating landscape that was taken from a hill just above U.S. 322:
If you drive a few miles west along U.S. 322 from DuBois to the town of Reynoldsville, stop at Sarah's Soft Serve & Food where you’ll be treated to the best burgers, chili cheese fries, dogs and soft serve ice cream around. It also happens to be owned by Lola's cousin, Sarah.
Later, Lola took me on a tour of downtown DuBois which resembles many Appalachian towns with its quaint, narrow, crooked streets, brick-and-mortar turn-of-the-century buildings clustered within a densely packed business district, and older neighborhoods that lift up from the prime real estate of the town center into the surrounding hillsides. The residential streets are a maze of narrow, one-way lanes that climb and plunge against the topography. Just before downtown, we spotted this very curious, if not slightly oxymoronic business sign:
On our last night in DuBois, just as the sun was setting, we joined some of Lola's cousins at a bonfire at their home along U.S. 322. Someone introduced me to a local summertime treat known as Mountain Pie. It’s basically two pieces of white bread with pizza sauce, cheese and what I think was a slice of ham in the center, then placed in specially designed toasters on tongs that you hold over a campfire. I can’t say it was especially tasty, but it was a new experience.
June 9, 2013
That morning, we had to bid farewell to Annie and Lloyd, and Lola's cousins who lived in houses just 150 to 200 meters away right on U.S. 322. This was the day of our final leg to New York City. On June 6th, when we saw our first New York City reference on a mileage sign along the interstate as we were passing through Youngstown, Ohio (see below), it was just a semi-distant idea still days away from becoming reality. On the morning of June 9th, New York City was just a few hours away and much more than a reality to me -- it was the culmination of years of dreaming of a day when I would be able to drive from Seattle all the way across the continent and cross the George Washington Bridge onto Manhattan, realize a dream, and claim victory once and for all. The amount of adrenaline in my body that day was off the charts. I could barely contain myself with the excitement bubbling up from within.
Road Trip Games
Before closing the final miles to New York City, I wanted to stop to share one of the many pastimes Lola and I cultivated while speeding eastward on this journey to entertain ourselves. These are our unofficial "road trip games" for which we take full creative credit, including their unique branding and general lack of taste.
Singing games. These are not your ordinary "singing along with the radio" distractions -- they have special qualifiers and rules. The first type of singing game is called “Lisp Singing” (sounds dangerously close to "Lip Synching"). The way it works is you have to hold your tongue with your index finger and thumb while trying to sing the lyrics of any given song on the radio. We piloted our game to the lyrics of the Beatle's “Here Comes the Sun” which in turn led to other songs. With practice, each new song got easier to lisp sing along with. We also developed the art of "Lock Jaw Singing" which is just like it sounds -- singing without moving your jaw. We tried this while singing Elton John’s “Rocket Man”. Entertaining, yes -- plus, from a purely artistic point of view, it reveals something new about the song when sung with the bottom half of your mouth frozen. (Insert grin here.) A third type of singing game we played is more mundane, but still fun -- changing the lyrics of songs to make them funnier.
Keeping a Tally of Sights Along the Highway. There are all kinds of variants to this road game. Some people make a game out of counting how many Volkswagen bugs they see, or how many different state licenses plates they can spot on the highway. Our version of the game was a bit more morbid. We kept track of every road kill we spotted, making hash marks in groups of five on a pad of paper we kept in the cubby of the center console. We also counted how many times we saw ads for Cracker Barrel restaurants, and how many times we saw pro-life billboards.
In-Car Aerobics. When you're stuck on the highway and driving for hours at a shot, you don't have time to get out and exercise. So to compensate, we developed dance contests -- with just our arms, hands and face. The winner is the one who gets the dirtiest look from a passing car. Sometimes we just improvised on the exercise by "acting out" the lyrics with hand gestures and facial contortions. Lola brought extra-long bread sticks along for the ride. These turned out to be props that we used not only to amuse ourselves, but also for the passing motorists who occasionally glanced inside our car out of boredom and stared quizzically at us. We pretend to smoke them, holding them between our fingers, hoping someone will pass by on the road and give us a stupefied, puzzled look, and if we’re lucky, a smile.
New York City or Bust
On Sunday, June 9th, we packed up the Hyundai, made turkey sandwiches for the road, said our goodbyes and slipped back onto I-80 heading east. It took just four and a half hours to cross the rest of Pennsylvania and close the distance. First we passed into New Jersey, the final state before reaching our destination.
The weather was glorious all the way in. It's a short drive across the northern tier of New Jersey before you get to the New York City exurbs. Before we arrived at the George Washington Bridge, we could see the NYC skyline, punctuated by the distinct, pointed spire of the Empire State Building. It was one of those trademark "you've arrived" signs from the margins of the city. The toll on the George Washington Bridge was a whopping $13. It didn’t seem to matter; it was all in service of dream fulfillment. I had been thinking of this morning since I was a pre-teen, fascinated with New York City as a young boy, captivated by its colossal collection of skyscrapers and high-rises and streets like canyons cutting through a thick, vertical jungle of concrete, steel and glass, traffic lights adorning nearly every conceivable intersection. The GW Bridge:
Once we crossed the bridge into Manhattan, we had officially completed our cross-country trip, making it all the way to the East Coast.
When I told people I had planned to drive around in Manhattan, I got bewildered looks and comments about how crazy I was to even consider it. None of that dissuaded me. One of the things I've always wanted to do is drive the entire length of Manhattan along Broadway, from the northern tip at 220th Street in Inwood to the bottom of the island at Battery Park. I was determined to see it through, all 11 miles of it. We got off the GW Bridge and onto 9A which is a parkway running along the Hudson River. We exited at Dyckman Street which was our official introduction to the New York City street grid. To orient ourselves at the top of the island, we turned north onto Broadway and drove over the bridge into the Bronx, then did a U-turn and started heading south until we crossed the bridge again back into Manhattan, heading south, officially launching our top-to-bottom transversal of the island.
Contrary to what I had been told, the traffic was fairly easy to navigate. Though it was fast-paced and moving in all directions, it was not intimidating to me. We sailed right through the first 100 blocks moving south. As we approached the Upper West Side, the traffic started getting a little thicker. We drove past Lincoln Center and Columbus Circle, heading into Midtown. Here's Broadway approaching Columbus Circle:
I had to cut over and make a left turn onto W. 47th Street in order to continue heading south on 7th Avenue, since Broadway was cut off at Times Square.
Times Square -- the most exciting part of the trans-island journey -- was also the most congested, and for Lola, the most anxiety-riddled part of the drive. There were moments when she closed her eyes to shut out the craziness of the traffic and the aggressiveness of some drivers, including my own driving. I soon discovered that, in order to get through the clot of traffic in Times Square, you have to be aggressive. The flip side is, if you don't take advantage of opportunities, no matter how small or ephemeral, to turn, merge or react quickly to a changing light, you can almost count on getting honked at.
Soon we were below Houston and heading into the Financial District. We drove by the new Freedom Tower, by Wall Street and then finally we arrived at Battery Park and the end of Broadway -- the end of Manhattan. And to put the cherry on the sundae, there was a parking space waiting for us right across the street from Battery Park. We got out, walked to the park, stretched our legs, and shook off some of the residual stress of driving in Manhattan. We got great shots of the Lower Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, New Jersey across the Hudson (I assume Jersey City, but cannot tell for sure) and Ellis Island.
We soon got back into the car and headed up West Avenue which turns into the West Side Highway, which in turn becomes the Henry Hudson Parkway. It was a quick way to get back uptown without having to navigate the treacherous surface streets of Manhattan. We exited at W. 79th Street, which is where our hotel was located. We were staying at the Lucerne Hotel at the corner of W. 79th and Amsterdam. Parking is a major challenge in Manhattan. The doorman said they could valet park our car for us for $51/day, but if we wanted to park it ourselves, it would only be $38/day. I chose to save the extra $13/day and park it myself at a garage located two blocks from the hotel on W. 77th Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway.
Our room was on the 11th floor of the building with a view of Amsterdam Avenue. The accommodations were amazing. It wasn't a large space, but it was extremely comfortable and clean and stylish. And we had air conditioning! I got a recommendation to stay at the hotel from a co-worker who gushed on and on about it. It turned out to be everything I had heard it was and more. We really couldn’t have chosen a better property or a better location.
After unpacking our things and getting ourselves reorganized, Lola and I ventured outside. We couldn't wait to get out among the people and onto the city streets where we would be free to wander, explore and find a place to have dinner. Central Park was just two blocks from our hotel. We made our way to the park, going around the American Museum of Natural History, and then plunging into the park's lush, green pathways weaving between exposed bedrock, ponds and trees. It was a perfect June day in New York City. Temperatures were in the mid-80s, and it was sunny with a slight breeze. The park was wonderful. Every turn revealed something new and photo-worthy. We walked past the Boathouse Restaurant, went to Bethesda Fountain, made our way over to the Alice In Wonderland sculpture and then back to the Belvedere Castle where a wedding was underway.
We soon found ourselves back where we entered the park -- at W. 79th and Central Park West. We circled back around the museum and wound up at Planet Sushi on the corner of W. 78th and Amsterdam. We were seated outside on the sidewalk at a table situated in the very corner of the block -- prime people-watching location. We had both Thai and Japanese fare, and toasted our arrival with pomegranate martinis. (The restaurant has unfortunately closed permanently due to financial impacts from the pandemic shutdown.)
It was a lovely end to a lovely day.
Next Time on "Road Trip 2013" ...
I'll pick up the story next week with more Tracy and Lola adventures in New York City and beyond. Until then, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!