Hi,

Well, we’re back in Washington DC after a driving trip across the northern-ish and central slice across the middle of the United States. Our travels took us through 19 states and the Province of Ontario

We did learn a few things.

64 or 76 Days

We were on the road for 64 or 76 days, depending whether you count the dozen or so days that we spent on the “Shakedown Cruise” in New York State and Ontario, Canada last July. Let’s count them; they were pretty wonderful days.

Our method of planning the route was both simple and effective and I don’t hesitate to recommend that you consider a similar approach on your next outing.

Friends, Books, and Websites

Our travel was more or less informed by three websites, two books, and the suggestions of a couple of dozen friends. We read several books, including Least-Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways” and the ever-popular (if inaptly named) 1,000 Places in the United States and Canada to See Before You Die. Lots of friends and more than a few strangers also offered suggestions, many of which we took. In addition, we looked at the “Roadside America” website and made late reference to a few more sites on the Internet. Here are some URLs for future reference:

Roadside Attractions: http://www.roadsideamerica.com
National Geographic Drives: http://traveler.nationalgeographic.com/drives
Road Food: http://www.roadfood.com/Restaurants/

This research generated a list, which we turned into a spreadsheet and sorted by state. We next put adhesive dots on a road map for each state that we planned to visit. The clusters of dots on each map influenced both our decision about where to enter and exit any given state and our direction of travel within the state. Very few dots were actually determinative of our travel, but all were suggestive–as were people and signs encountered along the way.

I’ve put a photo of our actual trail up on the blog site: www.elotrowa.com. You can see that our overall route is nothing like an efficient line.

The Outset

Perhaps you recall how I was favorably impressed with Canada and Canadians we met on our shakedown trip, and how I wondered if middle America and Americans would measure up? As it turns out, I needn’t have concerned myself. We’re just fine, if a little quirky. Eh?

13,000 Miles, and More…

Just over a decade ago we bought a new car for Denise. It took us five years to put 13,000 miles on that car. This year we managed to rack up that many miles on the replacement in just a couple of months.

Let me say this about that: 13,000 miles is a long distance. More to the point, 64 or 76 days is a long time. Accordingly, you would be well-advised to enjoy the company that you’re keeping on such a journey. You will do well to remember that your companion is seldom further than an arms length away. This is the true for the duration.

It is fortunate that Denise and I consider each other to be pretty bright and reasonably funny. This is no small part of what makes our lives usually interesting and generally enjoyable. I can tell you that it’s an absolute requirement when attached at the hip as we were for so many weeks.

As I’ve suggested in previous notes, intelligence, insight, and the ability to integrate the two are pretty important components of a successful road trip but, in actual fact, a sense of humor is probably more important when one is crawling out of the tent at 2:30 AM and wondering where to take a leak in a 30 mph wind. Of course a bit of intelligence and a modicum of insight is also welcome at such a time…

Byways, Roads, and Highways

Despite our effort to avoid major highways and cities, maybe 1200 of our miles were on the Interstate Highway system or the Provincial equivalent thereof. Of that number, most were driven as we accelerated towards home from Wisconsin. You who live in North America know that these big national roads are mostly all the same, no matter the region. The only real variation is when you near a major city and the pavement goes to hell and traffic comes to a crawl.

For the most part we did manage to avoid these very big highways and–discounting a few minutes in Seattle–we didn’t encounter stop-and-go traffic until reaching the Beltway, 15 miles from home. We did not miss this.

Surprisingly, we drove nearly 1,000 miles on gravel or dirt roads. Many of these miles were on well-maintained and arrow-straight gravel roads across the Midwest. You can drive these roads at 50 mph as long as both you and any oncoming traffic agree to dive for the shoulders as you converge. Even a unilateral failure to do so brings an instant reminder in the form of a barrage of flying rocks swirling in the wake of the opposing vehicle.

We also spent hundreds of miles on Forest Service roads, logging roads, and other little-traveled tracks across territory administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Our trusty sedan didn’t get high-centered or stuck once–although on more than one occasion we did wonder just what in the hell we were doing so far from pavement.

We spent the vast majority of our drive on the old secondary and tertiary road system with the occasional foray onto the pre-war primary highway system, mostly when approaching middle-sized towns.

As I mentioned to you once, and remarked to Denise repeatedly, these highways are generally in quite good repair, discounting the universally crumbling bridges and the deteriorated pavement near population centers.

Zero Tickets and Other Automotive Details

I’m pleased to report that neither of us got a speeding ticket, despite traveling through several of the less-populated states at 85 or 90 mph.

I’m even more pleased to report that almost all of the drivers we encountered were of the reasonable and prudent variety. Perhaps the more self-important assholes congregate near the freeways, much like the “love bugs” that concentrate seasonally over I-95 in Florida.

We passed surprisingly few speed traps, or any sort of police patrol for that matter. I suppose that the constabulary were mostly busy policing the self-important idiots barreling down the Interstates?

We didn’t get any parking tickets or untoward scratches or dents, either.

We got zero flat tires and changed the oil only once. Tires and engines are much better now than in my youth.

The cheapest gasoline that I recall seeing was $2.32 per gallon (US). The most expensive was $3.09. The least expensive gasoline that I ever did purchase was $0.19 per gallon in Georgia during a gas war in 1969.

We averaged 26.8 miles per gallon.

Where We Did and Did Not Sleep

We never slept for even a moment in the car. I don’t know why I feel that it’s important to mention this, but that is how I feel; so there you have it.

We did sleep in one of two tents about half of the time. The other nights were spent in the homes of family or friends, or in one more-or-less acceptable motel or another.

Our average housing costs began to climb as we moved indoors for the final couple of weeks, finally averaging about $40.00 a night.

I’ll tell you a tent story because it sort of bears telling, but mostly because I think I owe it to REI.

Somewhere in the El Otro WA website (www.elotrowa.com) is a photo of a blue tent. It’s a three-person tent, nominally of the back-packing variety. It’s comparatively small, although a serious hiker would hoot at that description and point out that it’s both big AND heavy.

Twenty-five years ago this tent was good for snow camping and shorter expeditions into the summer woods. At the outset of this trip in 2009 it was also well-suited to car camping, this even despite the Traveling Companion’s objection to the close quarters it imposed. We both thought it would suffice nicely for the duration, until one of the aluminum shock-corded poles failed from metal fatigue at one connection.

It was clear that a jury-rigged repair wouldn’t suffice for the remainder of the trip and so I called Recreation Equipment, Incorporated to see if they could replace that section of the aluminum pole. It turns out that, twenty-five years after the date of original purchase, they COULD replace the affected section of the pole and–given three weeks–they would be happy to do so at no charge.

This was big “I” impressive.

Of course, it was our intention to sleep in the tent that evening, and more or less every subsequent night for the next six or seven weeks. I asked the fellow in the repair department if he had any other suggestion for me. To my astonishment he recommended that I RETURN the tent for a refund. This despite the fact that I’d owned it for more than 25 years!

Long story, short: we turned in the direction of the nearest REI store where we negotiated something approximate to the as-new purchase price of the 3-person tent, applied as a discount on a somewhat larger tent and walked out with our housing problem resolved.

This new domicile is orange and gray and is somewhat larger; Denise can stand up in it. It also displays the REI logo in large black letters on several surfaces of every side. You can get a look at this tent somewhere in the El Otro WA website, if you’re burdened with too much time or curiosity.

Anyway, the only thing we need to know about camping gear for the foreseeable future can be expressed with three letters: REI.

Four Pieces of Pie, One Frozen Custard, and a Fast Food Hamburger

Middle America, I thought, seems like a good place to find pie and perhaps excellent frozen custard. As it turns out, this is only sort of true.

The quest for good pie began almost immediately with the result that I consumed several pieces of mostly glutinous fruit pie in West Virginia, where all of the pie ladies were indolent looking and sported serious-looking prison tats. On the way west, Ohio wasn’t much better. All of the waitresses in Ohio were tired-looking and had maybe forgotten what good pie tastes like. (Ohio would redeem itself months later, as we traversed the state moving east.)

Waitpersons all across the country diligently argued the merits of their respective pie offerings and all I can say is that they all lie.

This was pretty discouraging, until we followed a third-hand recommendation in Illinois to the “Red Oak Comfort Food and Pie Company.” The Comfort Food and Pie folks did not look at all tired. They looked Swedish and caffeinated and they offered some kind of 4-berry combination pie of the sort that I ordinarily wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, except that they were out of nearly everything else. Maybe that was a good thing. In any event, it was very good pie.

The Pagosa Baking Company, in Pagosa Springs, Colorado provided two of the four good pieces of pie I was privileged to eat on the trip, one for a snack upon arrival and before dinner, and the second for breakfast the following day.

I think we can all agree that it’s a good day that begins with a predictable piece of pie.

And that’s also how I came to enjoy the fourth and best piece of pie: for breakfast at a friend’s house outside of Cleveland on the very day we returned home to Maryland. That final piece of pie went a long way towards assuaging my disappointment at week’s worth of over-hyped and underperforming pie across middle America.

Thanks again, Sandy. I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for tart apples when we’re all back in the Dominican!

Frozen custard is a somewhat different story.

It seems to me that I was told a few years ago that all custard mix in the US is from one of two, maybe three, suppliers and that nearly all outlets use the mix supplied by the biggest and most mediocre supplier. Sheridan’s Custard in Lawrence, Kansas apparently doesn’t subscribe to this practice and is worth a visit when in the neighborhood.

As a beneficial aside to those in Washington DC, there’s also good custard to be had at Dickie’s just off Farragut Square and at some poorly-remembered outlet in some anonymous strip mall across the river in Virginia. Come to think of it, it was in the strip mall shop that I first got the bad news about the dearth of custard suppliers.

The only fast food we ate on this trip was the very occasional McDonald’s hamburger. You may have noticed that they’re touting some new burger? It ain’t half bad, if you ask them to hold the salt and the tomato.

Hot Springs and Jails, 3 of Each

We were close to many hot springs, and patronized three: a very fancy one in Pagosa, a quite hot municipal one in Saratoga, Wyoming, and a pretty laid-back operation in Hot Springs, MT complete with an historic hotel. The place in Montana is for sale, if you’re looking for a new life.

We also stumbled across three very, very small jails, two of which laid claim to being the nation’s smallest. Two were maintained (one had hanging baskets of flowers, most likely a late addition) and the third was hastening to the earth from which it sprang in the 1890’s. Also in the realm of “threes,” we found the Fifth Third Bank in several places in Ohio. There are lots of 5/3 branches and it seems to be a going concern, so go figure.

Miscellaneous Quantities

We ate a couple of dozen ears of sweet corn, cooked in several the campsites and fresh from the fields. One of the dozen set us back a buck and a half.

We had several cans of Stagg Dynamite Hot chili over the 11 weeks of our journey. This is pretty good stuff, from a can.

We carried one aluminum serving of Jiffy Pop popcorn for 12,500 miles, in the belief that it would be convenient and fun in the campground some evening. I still believe this, and we still have the item, unpopped.

In every town and very nearly in every conversation people volunteered that the weather has been very unusual over the past couple of years.

We passed by hundreds and hundreds of vacant small to mid-sized factories, warehouses, and production facilities. We saw hundreds of vacant storefronts along scores of Main Streets, and one vacant Wal-Mart on the edge of a particularly hard-hit town.

We also spoke with scores of regular people, most of whom were generous with their time and thoughts and a surprising number of whom seemed to be preoccupied with safety and security, theirs and ours. That was unnerving.

The FOX television network appears ubiquitous in the homes and public spaces of middle America. That’s unnerving, too.

We returned home to 35 pounds of mail and 710 e-mail messages.

We’re scheduled to depart for Las Galeras in 18 0r 19 days, and intend to take two cats with us this time. Whooeee!

We’ll leave one friend to reside in our home in Maryland, and will return to the US in seven months, mas o menos.

Keep in touch.

Bill

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