Monday, January 25, 2010

Table of Content: The Wrapup

Notes From Lynn:

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

– John Steinbeck, “Travels With Charley”

Dear Reader:
Roadside attractions tend to blur in our minds after three months of driving. To refresh our memory and to devise something like a table of contents, or table of content, this is a listing of most of the places we visited from California all the way to, uh, California. (At right, Kenny and Margo, in Oberlin, Ohio. Below, Lynn studies history at the Oregon beach where Lewis and Clark found the Pacific Ocean.)

We tagged most of these thumbnail items with the title of the article. If more than one refers to the same article, we put the tag at the end of the string.

You can read individual reports by checking the “Blog Archive” column on the right side of this page. Or you can go to the search box on the upper left and write a word, such as “Havasu,” and a click will send you to the report entitled “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Speaking of cities, at the end of this report is a list of the cities on our circuit around most of the country. In a separate report, "What We Learned," we got into the practical side of our journey. It list the friends and relations we visited as well as campgrounds and motels where we stayed.
If you have questions:

Thanks for joining us in this adventure.

Lynn Ludlow
Margo Freistadt

A Dogged Journey

(In order of appearance, West to East and back again)

The Sundial Bridge, Redding, Calif.: In a riverside park in a city with ambitions to attract tourists, strollers can cross the spectacular one-tower suspension bridge (at right) that anchors the Turtle Bay Park project on the broad but surprisingly fast Sacramento River.
(See “Seeking the Yreka Bakery in a Toyota,” Sept. 24)

Crater Lake, near Medford, Ore. (National Park): The water reflected the blue of the sky as we shivered a cold blue breeze. We needed the park brochure to remind us that the lake (at left, with Margo) goes down 2,000 feet, deepest in the U.S. (Its average depth is third deepest in the world.) But, like the Grand Canyon, the beautiful scene is as quiescent as a painting. We kept going.
(See “Rogues,” Sept. 21)

Dee Wright Observatory, Willamette National Forest (State Route 42, McKenzie Pass, Ore.): Despite the name, it’s not for stargazing. The tower of rocks is built on an ancient river of lava. Apertures in the walls allow you to see the Three Sisters and other peaks.
(See “Roadside Distractions,” Sept. 22)

Ida Ludlow’s home, McKenzie Bridge, Ore.: We searched for the home of Lynn’s grandmother. The nearby Forest Service camp is a gem of large sites by the lovely river (at right).
(See “The Land of Aasland,” Sept. 24)

Kennedy School, Portland, Ore.: An amazing demonstration of imaginative reuse of buildings otherwise threatened by the demolition ball.
City of Books, Powell’s Books, Portland: It’s so big that Lynn got lost. Powell’s sells 4 million books a year. Susan Sontag called it “the best bookstore in the English-speaking world.”
Chapman School, Portland: The inside of its chimney becomes a roost for thousands of swifts every September.
Glenwood Community Church, Vancouver, Wash.: Rev. Richard Schwab, Lynn’s uncle, was the pastor. Now retired, he is still active in Bible study and scholarship. Sunday attendance: About 1,400 in two services.
(For all four, see "The City of Books,” Sept. 27)

Fort Stevens State Park, near Astoria, Ore.: From the Civil War to the start of the Cold War, it was an Army base at the mouth of the Columbia. It could have become an industrial park or a seaside city, but the state of Oregon stepped in to change the swords of defense into the plowshares of…camping. It has more than 3,700 acres, nine miles of bike trails, six miles of hiking paths, three lakes, miles of beaches and, for us, our pick of more than 500 campsites. Then the minivan’s side door wouldn’t shut. Dang.
Astoria Column, atop Coxcomb Hill in Astoria, Ore.: Climbing 164 spiral steps inside a Trajan-type column bedecked on the outside with murals, we stood on the observation deck to gaze west at the mouth of the Columbia River (“the graveyard of the Pacific”) from the South Jetty at Fort Stevens State Park to Cape Disappointment. To the east, we saw the panorama of the cities of Astoria and Warrenton, the Cascade Range in the distance and the Astoria-Megler Bridge (at 4 miles over the river, it’s the longest truss bridge in the nation). An unexpected treat.
Fort Clatsop (National Parks), near Astoria, Ore.: An adroit reproduction of the little fort that housed Lewis and Clark and the Corp of Discovery in 106 days of unending rain in 1805.
(For these three, see “Graffiti,” Sept. 28)

Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, Ore.: No hard rains or ocean spray hit us when we boarded the Columbia, the last seagoing lightship on the Pacific Coast. It is now on permanent exhibit, berthed at the museum. With seven galleries and narratives about the great river’s shipwrecks, salmon and sailing vessels, the nonprofit museum is one of the best we visited.

7th Street Theatre, Hoquiam, Wash.: The grand old movie house, a temple of entertainment when built in 1928, is being restored for drama, concerts, and old movies. It’s also a demonstration of what volunteers can do to preserve our past.
Olympic National Forest (National Park, National Forest) Forks, Wash.: It was raining in the rainforest.
(For both, see “Rolling Minivan Gathers No Moss,” Sept. 29, and "Wet Spot" in "The Guppy Chronicles, Jan. 24.")

Royal Museum of British Columbia, Victoria, B.C.: The First Peoples Gallery includes the transplanted home of Jonathan Hunt, a Kwakwaka'wakw chief from Tsaxis (Fort Rupert) Other exhibits show the imaginative masks of the Haida, a tribe nearly extinguished by smallpox. Totem poles grow among the flowers (at left).
(See “Darth Vader Plays the Fiddle,” Oct. 2)

University of Montana, Missoula: Lynn’s parents met in the late 1920s at the university where in 1956 he spent half a year on the GI Bill before returning to California. It looks pretty much the same, although the city has blossomed with new subdivisions, population growth and a welcoming attitude toward writers. In any of the coffee shops, expect to stand in line behind at least two novelists, an unpublished poet and a laid-off newspaperman. At the university, we saw a traveling exhibit of Pulitzer Prize photos. Included was a great shot by our colleague and friend, Kim Komenich, now teaching at San Jose State.
The Mission Range, St. Ignatius, Mont., and Flathead Lake, Polson, Mont.: This spectacular range (below) is north of Missoula. We stopped to gaze. Then we came to Flathead Lake, which at 30-by-60 miles is half the size of San Francisco Bay, bigger than Lake Tahoe and not nearly so crowded. Sheltered by the Mission Range, the area’s climate is just right for cherry orchards on the east and grape vines on the west.
Corvallis, Mont.: Lynn’s mother, Melda Schwab Ludlow, is buried in the Corvallis cemetery along with her father, stepmother and other relatives. It’s situated in the foothills of the Sapphire Range and looks down at the Bitterroot Valley where her son was born in the Schwab farmhouse.
(For all three, see “The Montana Ludlow Legacy Tour,” Oct. 7)

Big Hole National Battlefield (National Park Service), Wisdom, Mont.: Unlike the Civil War battlefields crowded with monuments to the slain, the scene is much the same as it would have appeared in 1877. The Nez Perce warriors, still asleep when the 7th Infantry hit their camp and killed many families in their burning teepees, fought back with such ferocity that the soldiers retreated with heavy losses and cowered in rifle pits until it was safe. Col. John Gibbon called the battle a victory.
Gibbonsville, Idaho: Named for the boastful colonel at Big Hole. A boomtown in the 1890s before the silver mines played out, the hamlet was the home town of Lynn’s grandmother, Lillian Hull Schwab.
U.S. Highway 93 in Idaho: No Regret, Mt. Corruption, the Riddler and, at 11,850 feet, the Devil’s Bedstead. Some of the West’s most beautiful mountains overlook this road with some of the West’s most memorable names. Starting with the Salmon River Scenic Bypass, the highway heads south between the Sawtooths on the west and the Lost River Range on the east. More than 100 peaks in Idaho are higher than 11,000 feet. From U.S. 93 we could see Borah Peak, named for the isolationist senator. At 12,668 feet, he looms over the Lost River Valley. (We couldn’t see the river because, of course, it had gone underground. After 100 miles under the lava beds, it percolates upward as springs below Twin Falls and flows into the Snake.)
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (National Park Service), near Arco, Idaho: If the surface of the moon is anything like this park, tell the astronauts to drop you instead in Kauai.
(For all four, see “The Indian Hater,” Oct. 10)

Dinosaur National Monument (National Park Service) near Jensen, Utah.: Forget the fossils. (View from the campground, at right.) Enjoy the palette of red, orange and beige rocks in shapes arranged by Mother Nature the Artist along the Green River – which is really green. Just outside the park we saw hundreds of sandhill cranes snacking in a newly mown field of corn.
(See “Old Bones,” Oct. 12, and "The Guppy Chronicles," Jan. 24.)

Frasier Meadows
, Boulder, Colo.: It lacks meadows, but almost everything else is available at this not-for-profit retirement community where Rebekka Struik, Margo’s mother, is now a resident. She likes it. More than 250 clubs, committees, social and recreational activities are available for lifetime members in apartments for independent living and separate centers for assisted living, skilled nursing and hospice care. We stayed two nights in one of the guest apartments, ate well in the in-house dining rooms and met some of Rebekka’s friends. Some, like her, are retired professors. Several others are old friends from her many years in Boulder. She has abundant opportunities to pursue her activism for progressive issues.
(See “Pine Beetles,” Oct. 15)

Red Cloud, Neb.: Hometown of Willa Cather. Her family's home (at right). Her bedroom.
Polk Progress, Polk, Neb.: We visited the late Norris Alfred’s now-shuttered print shop.
Platte River, near Central City, Neb.: We saw prairie falcons on Alfred’s “birding road.”
(For all three, see “Progress to Polk,” Oct. 18.)

Poor Ralph, Polk, Neb.: Across the street from Alfred's print shop, we found his former columnist, Marsha Redman and her husband, Ralph.
International Quilt Study Center and Museum, Lincoln, Neb.: It’s the world’s largest collection: More than 2,300 quilts. Plus a “virtual gallery” of 800 quilts that have been digitized and displayed on a big screen.
(For both, see “Quiltish,” Oct. 19)

Sauk Centre, Minn.: Hometown of Sinclair Lewis and "Main Street." His home. The cemetery. His job at 17.
Bemidji, Minn.: Alleged home of alleged Paul Bunyan and alleged Babe the Blue Ox, both memorialized with wooden statues.
(For both, see “The Mainstreeters,” Oct. 23, and "The Guppy Chronicles," Jan. 24.)

Ishpeming, Mich.: We found the former home and department store built 100 years ago by Lynn’s great-grandfather, Frederick Braastad.
(See “Oberlin and Ishpeming,” Oct. 28)

Saugatuck, Mich.: Art Lane, alumnus of the late, great Champaign-Urbana Courier, proved that owning and editing a small-town newspaper can be immensely satisfying.
(See “The Carmel of Lake Michigan,” Oct. 29)

Oberlin, Ohio: We found Kenny and her roommates and her friends from San Francisco. Lynn asked each, “How do you like Oberlin College?” All gave the same answer: “I love it.” We stayed in the Victorian home of Maryann and Clyde Hohn. We played a few tunes with Clyde (at right, Kenny, Lynn, Anabel Hirano). Because the town could be taken for Bedford Falls, we expected to see Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed strolling down sidewalks warmed by autumn’s yellow-red maple leaves.
(See “Oberlin and Ishpeming,” Oct. 28)

Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, Ont.: This would be one of the rare occasions when clichés are apt. The waterfall is awesome. Totally. It's the bomb, doozy, cat's pajamas. Blew us away. Whatever. On the Canada side, the vision is corrupted by a helter-skelter amusement district with rides, cotton candy and schlock curiosities.
Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum, Niagara Falls, Ont.: Just up the hill from Niagara Falls in Canada, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane in 1814 was one of most vicious in the War of 1812 (or, as the Brits say, the Anglo-American War) It wound up with heavy casualties and a standoff between U.S. forces and British regulars with Canadian militias. As a strategic victory for the redcoats, it put an end to invasions of Canada by the U.S. The Canadians celebrate the battle, which today is all but forgotten in the U.S. We celebrate instead the Battle of New Orleans a year later. It put an end to invasions of the U.S. by Britain, where today it’s all but forgotten. At Lundy’s Lane, the history is interesting; the little museum is pretty lame.
(For both, see “Niagara Falls,” Oct. 30, and "The Guppy Chronicles," Jan. 24)

George Eastman House and International Museum of Photography of Film, Rochester, N.Y.: As you would expect, the museum holds one of the world’s best collections of Brownies, Kodaks, Instamatics, Speed-Graphics, an Edison Kinetoscope, a daguerreotype outfit, an 18th century camera obscura etc. etc. Margo took a look at the palatial 37-room mansion of the bachelor founder of Eastman Kodak Company.
Erie Canal, New York: We climbed the “Flight of Five” locks at Lockport, N.Y., and visited “Long Level” near Syracuse, N.Y., where Ann and Dale Tussing live in the historical ambience of their 200-year-old house.
Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.: We walked around the little lake, its glassy surface broken by a rowboat. Would a boat intrude on the reflections of Henry David Thoreau?
The Semitic Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.: This fascinating array of exhibits from the ancient Near East includes a glimpse of the forgotten civilization of the Hurrians. The free museum’s chief exhibit is a life-size reproduction of an Iron Age home in ancient Israel, a “pillared” house of mud bricks over a stable.
(For all four, see “The Big Stone House,” Nov. 2)

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (National Park) in Hyde Park, N.Y., near Poughkeepsie. Margo hiked up to Val-Kill, the country retreat now open as the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site. We saw the typescript of FDR’s message to Congress on Dec. 7, 1941, in which he took a pencil to the unremarkable opening line –“a date which will live in world history” and changed it, memorably, to “a date which will live in infamy.” Wow.
Walkway Across the Hudson, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. : No longer a railroad bridge, it spans the river as a perch for hikers and falcons.
(For all three, see “First Lady of the World,” Nov. 6)

New York, N.Y.: Our explorations included the Main Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grand Central Station, New York Times newsroom, New York Daily News newsroom and the cold but fascinating sidewalks of New York.
Liberty State Park, Jersey City, N.J.: Originally sloughs and then oyster beds, the tideflats had been filled for railroad yards that turned into toxic brownfields. The state of New Jersey began to reclaim the wastelands in 1976 for a 1,200-acre park with bike paths, walkways, a golf course, science center and the Statue of Liberty overlook. As Margo and Dan North inspected the birdlife, we reflected on the possibilities of a landscape ruined by industry, the military and neglect.
(For both, see “Not-a-New Yorker Muses on the Big Apple,” Nov. 18, and “Escape from New York,” Nov. 13, and "Antiques Roadshow" in "The Guppy Chronicles," Jan. 24")

Dover, Del.: The Green’s carefully preserved buildings illustrate the history documented in the nearby Delaware Public Archives.
(See “Not-a-New Yorker Muses on the Big Apple,” Nov. 18)

Washington, D.C.: Margo visited the Smithsonian Institute’s array of museums (Air and Space, American Art, the Freer and Hirshhorn galleries, African Art, American Indian Art, American History, the National Portrait Gallery) She looked at the White House (from outside) Lynn emerged from his sick bed to wander through the National Museum of American History, which may account for his grumpy comments about Dumbo. We had the opportunity to tread sidewalks trembling with emanations of power.
(See “A Hick in Washington,” Nov. 21, and "The Guppy Chronicles," Jan. 24")

Luray Caverns, off Skyline Drive, near New Market, Va.: Proprietors of this for-profit natural wonder aren’t content with spectacular wonders like Saracen’s Tent (a translucent drapery of flowstone), Titania’s Veil (a stalagmite of crystalline dripstone) and the Washing Well (a 6-foot pool with a mirror surface broken only by the splash of coins for charity) They have added a golf course, a wonderful vintage car museum, a one-acre maze of hedges, a carillon tower and miles of hiking trails. With other tourists, we heard music from the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The console, sort of a player piano untouched by human hands, is wired to little rubber-tipped mallets. They tap dozens of stalactites with just the right resonance. It sounds like the ultimate basso aria in an opera for whalefish, a cross between a sousaphone and Harry Partch’s marimba eroica. We learned that it takes 120 years, according to the geologists, for drips to form just one cubic inch atop a stalactite. At Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, where nobody is allowed to touch anything, the rangers must shudder when told about the Luray’s bonus attraction. They might even stop dusting for lint.

Blue Ridge Parkway (National Parks), western Virginia: After a hundred miles of the same scenery, we cut over to the Interstate (U.S. 95). We don’t remember anything. This highway could be anywhere. (At left, a Fern Bar.) Next time we’ll try to see the back roads of Tennessee.
(See “Heading Home,” Nov. 21)

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, Tenn.: We live in a world where Conway Twitty gets more gold-plated status than Michael Tilson Thomas or Bix Beiderbecke, but this gilded shrine to the accomplishments of public relations is a lot more entertaining than, say, an afternoon in Costco.
(See “Nashville Dreams,” Nov. 25, and "Beaten to the Punchline" in "The Guppy Chronicles," Jan. 24")

Madisonville, Ky.: The sign called it “The Best Town on Earth.” We hurried past Innovative Hair Design and the Giggles and Grins consignment shop. We had been urged to buy lunch across from the courthouse at the Dinky Diner. It was dinky enough but, sadly, closed that day.
National Quilt Museum, Paducah, Ky.: Billed as a “portal to contemporary quilt experience through traditional and non-traditional quilt exhibits and quilt workshops.” Three galleries. Until 2008, it was the museum of the American Quilters Society.
New Madrid, Mo.: The site of the nation’s worst recorded earthquake back in 1815, the Mississippi River town gets no respect. No tourists. No hotels. No cable cars.
(For all three, see “Palooka from Paducah,” Nov. 30)

Walton 5 & 10 and Wal-Mart Visitors Center, Town Square, Bentonville, Ark.: In a canyon a few blocks from the tidy Town Square, cranes and construction crews are building the $400 million Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It’s a hobby of Alice Walton, the billionaire daughter of Wal-Mart’s founder, Sam Walton. She lives near Dallas, Texas. Strangely, only two other people were visiting Sam Walton’s first store, a museum and shrine. (We never saw a Wal-Mart that didn’t have parking lots crowded with cars. We ventured inside only once – to use the lavatory – but took note of all the happy shoppers who might otherwise have been buying stuff in the vanished haberdasheries, shoe stores and dress shops in downtowns that are now, in a word, kaput.)
(See “Mister Walton’s Store,” Dec. 7)

Hot Springs National Park (National Park Service), Hot Springs, Ark.: They call it The Golden Age of Bathing, when eight luxurious bathhouses pampered men and women in what the park historians call “an era of leisure and grace.” It’s not likely that John Muir would have regarded Bathhouse Row as the equivalent of Yosemite and Yellowstone, but in 1921 it became a national park. When people stopped coming, the great bathhouses fell into disrepair, leaving only the Buckstaff in operation. The Park Service is now restoring the others, but not necessarily as temples of curative waters. The Quapaw reopened in 2008 as a bathhouse, but the Ozark is to be an art museum. We walked through the Fordyce, the park visitor center. We found a museum of empty bathtubs, massage tables, hydrotherapy gear and a billiard table, not exactly what the Sierra Club envisioned.
Notable: The Park Service’s only public campground, in nearby Gulpa Gorge ($10), doesn’t have showers or water hookups. That’s odd. The 47 springs produce about 700,000 gallons of hot water every day for the bathhouses and fountains in a resort with too many innkeepers and too few tourists. It’s a mystery. Not really.
(Unblogged: We didn’t write a report on Hot Springs or the next item, the Cabildo.)

The Cabildo: Louisiana State Museum., the French Quarter, New Orleans, La.: The scene of the Louisiana Purchase ceremonies in 1803, the Cabildo kept us until closing time with fascinating exhibits, historical paintings and well-written background statements.

Café Du Monde, New Orleans: Like other tourists, we stopped for beignets and coffee. The obligatory street band (black and white with a Vietnamese trombonist) tuned up on the sidewalk while we brushed away the powdered sugar. The buskers told the obligatory jokes and performed the obligatory tune about the saints. They were pretty bad. In their humble way, the musicians showed why trad jazz, even its birthplace, is as dead as Jelly Roll Morton. Entertainment: B minus. Jazz: F.
(See “We Didn’t Learn Our Lesson,” Dec. 5)

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans: Four years after Hurricane Katrina brought catastrophic flooding, we saw scores of houses still unoccupied and many a vacant lot where people once lived in their own homes. The issues of rebuilding and blame are too complex for us to discuss intelligently, but even a tourist can be appalled at the evidence of boondoggling at every level of government.
(See notes and photos at the end of “Mister Walton’s Store,” Dec. 7)

Acadian Culture Center
(National Park Service), Lafayette, La.: It’s one of six sites of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Missing from our schoolbooks: In Nova Scotia, cruel British and rapacious New Englanders in the mid-18th century expelled about 20,000 prosperous French-speaking Acadians, burned their communities, crammed thousands into pesthole ships (thousands perished) and scattered the broken families throughout the colonies, Canada and France. As the new planters stole farms and fisheries, they of course bad-mouthed their victims. Many survivors were welcomed in the former French colony of Louisiana, where the Acadians came to be known as Cajuns.
(See "Long Waltz Across Texas," Dec. 8)

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, Austin, Texas: In spite of giving the impression that Texas and the Confederacy won the Civil War, this well-organized museum helps visitors with imaginative displays, useful timelines and vivid biographical sketches.
Joyce Gross Quilt History Collection (currently seen at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, Austin): Put together over the years by a woman in Mill Valley, her collection and library somehow wound up at the Center for American History at the University of Texas. More than 170 quilts and hundreds of written materials document the history of quilting in 20th century America.
(For both, see “Austin City Limits,” Dec. 12)

Roadrunner, Fort Stockton, Texas: A dinosaur-sized statue of the cartoon character greets motorists.
(See “Race Across the Desert,” Dec. 16)

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (National Park Service), Carlsbad, N.M.: In a word: Unforgettable.
(See “Carlsbad Caverns,” Dec. 14)

London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Ariz.: We saw an artificial span on an artificial canal next to an artificial lake.
(See “A Tale of Two Cities,” Dec. 23)

Ludlow, Calif.: A mini-hamlet on old Route 66 in the Mojave Desert.
(See “Race Across the Desert,” Dec. 16, "The Castle and the Ghost Town," Jan. 25, and "The Guppy Chronicles," Jan. 24)

California Valley, near Bakersfield, Calif.: A 7,500-acre scam.
(See “A Tale of Two Cities,” Dec. 23)

The Cities – Small and Large – We Visited

Oroville (Calif.); Medford, Bend, Portland and Astoria (Ore.); Vancouver, Olympia and Port Angeles (Wash.); Victoria (B.C.); Missoula (Mont.); Salt Lake City (Utah); Boulder (Colo.); Red Cloud, Lincoln, Polk and Brownville (Neb.); Des Moines and Boone (Iowa); Sauk Centre, Gully and Bemidji (Minn.); Appleton (Wis.); Ishpeming and Saugatuck (Mich.); Oberlin (Ohio); Niagara Falls (Ontario); Rochester, Lockport, Niagara Falls, Syracuse, Pleasant Valley, Poughkeepsie and New York City (N.Y.); Boston (Mass.); Jersey City (N.J.); Dover (Del.); Washington (D.C.); Nashville (Tenn.); Maddisonville and Paducah (Ky.); Rogers, Fayetteville, Bentonville and Pine Bluff (Ark.); New Orleans, Algiers, and Lafayette (La.); Austin and Pecos (Texas); Carlsbad and Deming (N.M.); Sun City and Lake Havasu City (Ariz.); Ludlow, Buttonwillow and California Valley (Calif.).

Game of the Name: The Wrapup

Notes from Lynn:

Thrilled as bird watchers at a warblers’ convention, we spotted side roads on the Blue Ridge Parkway for Fancy Gap, Deep Gap, Roaring Gap, Horse Gap and, near Roanoke, Va., a town named Low Gap. It wasn’t chance. Any experienced name dropper knows how to mine the nation’s two-lane highways for rare collectibles among the names of places, plants and players.

Let’s start with towns. Every state has specimens suitable for framing. In California, we’ve got Shrub (near Shingle Springs), Teakettle Junction (Death Valley), Cabbage Patch (near Bear Valley) and Hellhole Palms (near Borrego Springs), but these are blinks on the road. They should be thrown back as too small to be netted for the National Museum of Rare Nomenclature.

Our road trip around the U.S. convinced us that the natural state of Arkansas is the nation’s leader in notable names. Sure, we’ll get objections from place-name curators in Kentucky (Rabbit Hash, Do Stop, Beaver Lick, Oddville, etc.) and downstate Virginia (Goosepimple Junction, Goochland, Bumpass, etc.). Let them sue. No other state can match the Arkansas gallery of Old Alabam, Hogeye, Blue Balls, Possum Grape, Turkey Scratch, Bald Knob, Toad Suck, Greasy Corner, Okay, Ash Flat, Snowball, Birdeye and Cotton Plant. Besides, Arkansas stamps its license plates with a one-of-a-kind motto: “The Natural State.”

After studying the map of the Natural State, we hoped to visit Morning Star, Evening Star, Red Star and Star City. No such luck. Same with Ben Hur, De Queen, Sunset, Bull Shoals, Marked Tree and Gin City (the cotton machine, not the main ingredient in a martini). We also yearned to experience Delight, Heart, Amity, Economy and Friendship. A route along the state’s southern counties could have given us Hope – Bill Clinton’s home town. It’s not too far from Smackover (“Home of the Buckaroos”).

Instead, we drove from the state’s northeast corner and found that it’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go, at least 10 miles off our route on U.S. Highway 62. With regret, we passed up the chance to take a swing through Knob and Hooker to get to Tipperary.

After a motel night with Pocahontas, we headed across the north tier of the Natural State on Ozark roads that took us through Flippin, Snow, Little Flock, Gassville and Yellville, the seat of Yell County. By two weeks we missed Yellville's annual Turkey Trot. It's true: Live turkeys are dropped from low-flying airplanes. Considerably less messy are the National Wild Turkey Calling Contest and the Miss Drumstickz Contest (the judges see only the legs).

Next came Pea Ridge, site of a bloody but largely forgotten Civil War battle. War and peas.

Next time we’ll take State Route 12. That would be Best.


As for botany, our visit to Red Cloud, Neb., allowed us to add Purple Poppymallow to our list of lovely weeds with seductive names. Ms. Poppymallow, whose name leaves no doubt as to gender, is a neighbor to Rough Fleabane, Dotted Gayfeather, Slimflower Scurfpea and Butterfly Milkweed.

Together with many others, they grow wild a few miles south of town at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. The author, who grew up in Red Cloud and reproduced her hometown in many of her novels and stories, once wrote, “The shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.”


As we drove by Jefferson High School in Portland, we spotted a banner: “Home of the Democrats.”

We braked in Nebraska for Republican City, population 200, which moved to high ground in 1950 after the old site was drowned by a reservoir. The town was named for the Republican River, we are told. French traders in the 18th century believed, incorrectly, that Pawnee Indians had a republican form of governance.

We kept Republican City as a trophy to begin our collection of place names like Tennessee's Bucksnort and Sweet Lips, or Oklahoma's Bowlegs and Slapout, or Pennsylvania's Scalp Level, Gobblers Knob, Fear Not, Intercourse and Virginville, or... We a have lot of collecting to do. We did the same for the Jefferson Demos, a key acquisition for our proposed Mascot Hall of Fame.


Our interest in another author, Sinclair Lewis, coincided with the search for team names. Our relentless itinerary, sad to say, kept us from tarrying in the writer’s birthplace in southern Minnesota. Although he was an unathletic loner who despised all sports, we dearly wanted to attend a football game in his honor so we could shout “Go Mainstreeters!”

Thus do the people of Sauk Centre celebrate the iconographic Midwesterner who in 1920 wrote “Main Street.” This is a surprise. His novel indicted the fictional city of Gopher Prairie as typifying the meanness, smugness and bleakness of small town America. But everybody back in Sauk Centre knew that the acne-spotted boy called Red had dunked his home town in the toilet.

“Main Street” scorned the city’s fathers, businessmen and social upper crust for their “unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable.” Half a year went by before the weekly Herald even mentioned the national best seller. Offended, Sauk Centre’s poobahs of 1920 never considered a welcome-home celebration until Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930. He stayed away for many years. Librarians in a nearby Alexandria banned the book, and students in rival high schools began to refer derisively to the Sauk Centre teams as the “Main Streeters.”

In “Travels With Charley,”John Steinbeck wrote, “I had read “Main Street” when I was in high school, and I remember the violent hatred it aroused in the country of his nativity.”

Never underestimate the power of tourism.

When we drove into Red’s home town, we soon discovered that Sauk Centre had anticipated Howard Gossage’s maxim: “If you have a lemon, make lemonade.” The townsmen (Lewis had called them “the quiet dead”) turned the Minnesota town into a tourist stop. We drove past Main Street Real Estate, Main Street Auto, Main Street Coffee and the Main Street Theatre on what’s been renamed as Original Main Street. The Chamber of Commerce made a cottage industry out of the hometown ingrate who, when he went off to Italy to die of a heart attack, left word that his ashes be buried in Sauk Centre’s cemetery.

For me, the highlight was learning that the high school football team adopted the epithet hurled by opponents.

Mainstreeters rule!


Also true:

At northern Idaho’s Clearwater River, we stopped in Orofino. We didn’t know then that the local high school is represented by the Maniacs. When we visited our daughter at Oberlin College in Ohio, we were reminded that its players are called the Yeomen – and that her mother, the alumna, once played basketball for the Yeowomen. (“Yo! Women!”)

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we passed up the chance to shout, “Go Hematites!” The Hematites, who sound like one of Assyria’s ancient tribes, play for my grandmother’s alma mater, Ishpeming High School. The name is a mineralogist’s term for iron ore. The mines died years ago, but the name didn’t.

We have been to Sonora, a mining town in the Gold Rush, where students at Columbia College root for the Claim Jumpers. In a visit to Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., our daughter learned the teams are called the Hustlin’ Quakers. At UC Santa Cruz, of course, it’s the Banana Slugs.

A fat file of whimsical high school nicknames beckons us to towns we’ve yet to visit: The Battling Bathers of Mt. Clemens, Mich. (a former spa); the Fighting Grape Pickers of North East, Pa.; the Fighting Cocks of Cocke County, Tenn.; the Screaming Penguins of Bellingham, Wash.; the Awesome Blossoms of Blooming Prairie, Minn., and the Headless Horsemen of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

As aficionados of the name game, we’re all too familiar with the hundreds of team mascots christened unoriginally as Panthers, Falcons, Bobcats, Tigers, Lions, Bears, Wolves, Huskies, Buffalos, Wildcats, Jaguars, Grizzlies, Hawks and just about every other ferocious beast or bird in the zoo. Even a couple of Rattlers.

So far, no Vampires. But we exulted as giddily as claim jumpers when we drove through the desolate Carizzo Plains west of Bakersfield. On the outside of a 46-pupil K-8 school, we saw a banner that says with pride, “Home of the Polecats.”


Mainstreeters gets our nomination for the first annual team award of the American Academy of Mascots. Polecats is a strong second choice. We haven’t yet documented third place, but we hope someday to sit in the frozen bleachers of a tiny southern Montana town, Belfry, where we can shout “Go Bats!”

The Castle and the Ghost Town: The Wrapup

Notes from Lynn:

When a few years ago we arrived in a quaint English town, the first in the world to be named Ludlow, we stayed in a B&B over a pub. Margo signed the register with my name. In a weary voice, the burly bartender/landlord asked only, “Couldn’t you be more original?”

When we arrived in mid-December in an unquaint Mojave Desert town, the last in the world to be named Ludlow, we stopped at the only restaurant. I told the sun-dried waitress my surname. But in a weary voice, she asked only, “What would you folks like?”

This is a message to all Ludlows:

1. Go to County Shropshire in the west of England. And if you do…

Find the ruins of a Norman castle atop a hill. It’s surrounded by picturesque Ludlow, described by Country Life magazine as “the most vibrant small town in England.” Before it grew, it was a medieval walled town. A lot of history. Two Michelin-starred restaurants. Cobbled streets. Half-timbered Tudor buildings. At the historic St. Laurence Church, the poet A.E. Houseman (“A Shropshire Lad”) is buried next to the stump of a cherry tree.

They say the castle is alive, in a manner of speaking, with ghosts.

The town, according to several sources, was named by the Britons for “hlud” (meaning “loud”) and “hlaw” (meaning “hill”), as in “hill by the loud river.” Hludhlaw, its name changed by the Normans to Ludelowe, goes back about 1,000 years, give or take a century. The population today is about 10,000.

Victor L. Ludlow, Ph.D., a professor at Brigham Young University with a Mormon fascination for genealogy, writes in his website that one of the denizens in the 12th century town moved out and settled elsewhere in County Shropshire. Believed to be a sheepman, he would have been called “de Ludelowe,” meaning “from Ludlow.”

A footnote: “As can best be determined by Ludlow family historians, almost all individuals throughout the world with the Ludlow surname are one extended family descending from this common progenitor.”


Sheepishly, let’s quote Cole Porter: It’s delightful. It’s delicious. It’s de-lovely. It’s de Ludelowe.

(Note to “the extended family”: According to the phone books of County Shropshire and San Bernardino County, neither of the Ludlow towns has anybody listed by the name of Ludlow.)

Shopping tip: Buy souvenirs, such as Ludlow Castle coffee cups, to present to Ludlows who stayed back home.

2. Don’t go to the Mojave Desert. But if you do…

Find Old Route 66 and the ghostly town of Ludlow about 50 bleak miles east of Barstow. Find the ruins of wind-tattered barns, abandoned gas stations and tumbledown stores. Find wooden crosses leaning crazily in a forgotten cemetery.

The town with my name was founded in 1882. It’s popular with photographers. They must like shooting a moody picture of a godforsaken gas station with a huge batwing canopy in a land of little rain and lots of sun.

With creosote bushes in front and the Sawtooth Mountains in the background, Ludlow-of-the-Desert is the bipolar opposite of Ludlow-of-the-Castle.

The crossroads hamlet was founded in 1882 as a railroad water stop on tracks laid by the Southern Pacific but soon leased to the Atlantic & Pacific, a subsidiary of what would become the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad. The station was also a depot for the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, which hauled borax from Boron from 1907 to 1940.

I once liked to speculate that the town’s name came from a drunken ancestor who fell off the train. Instead, the dubious honor goes to William B. Ludlow, a master car repairer for one of the railroads. His name has disappeared from the records, but he was probably too wise to move eponymously to a forlorn crossroads so isolated, unshaded and cheerless that the average desert rat would prefer to go north to Death Valley.

In 1898, a roadmaster with the A&P searched for springs in the hills to find water for his steam locomotives. He failed. Instead, he found copper and gold. Prospectors and miners showed up by the hundreds. A spate of prosperity came to Ludlow, along with nearby Amboy, Bagdad and other railroad towns. (At right, Ludlow a century ago.) The rail yards were home to the Ludlow and Southern, Tonopah & Tidewater and the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. The town in the early 20th century had two general stores, three cafes and saloons, a pool hall, two rooming houses and a barber shop, but water had to be delivered by rail from Newberry Springs.
It took decades, but the mines eventually gave out. They left hundreds of holes in the hills (in all of San Bernardino County, about 22,000). The railroads withered.

Most of the West celebrated when Congress voted for the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921. Five years later, work began on a paved highway on a diagonal course that tied together hundreds of isolated towns from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Inhabitants of Ludlow didn’t rejoice. The new U.S. Highway 66, soon known to all as Route 66, missed their town by more than 1,000 feet. That was enough to cripple the old town by the tracks. Ludlow moved up to Route 66 to see what could be mined from the new bonanza of cars and trucks. (Included in the westward migration were many if not most of 200,000 refugees from the Dust Bowl’s parched fields, failed banks and Simon Legrees. When John Steinbeck wrote about them in “Grapes of Wrath,” he called Route 66 the Mother Road. The name stuck.)

In 1940, the Tonopah and Tidewater went out of business. The tracks were torn up in 1942. Up on what old-timers called “the hard road” motorists could stop at the Ludlow Café, buy gas, look for a motor court and replace the radiator. By 1941, Route 66 carried 7,500 trucks a day and became a legend.

Bobby Troup wrote the song. He sold it to Nat King Cole:

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, the highway that's the best.
Get your kicks on Route 66!

Starting in 1960, Tod (Martin Milner) and Buz (George Maharis) climbed into their Corvette for weekly adventures in the CBS series, "Route 66." (Buz is on the right, Tod on the left.) When ailments forced Maharis to drop out, Lincoln (Glenn Corbett) took over. The show lasted until 1964. It was the heyday of the highway. In his Road Wanderer website, Guy Randall describes Ludlow as “a welcome stop for the tired and thirsty traveler, a place to get away from the heat of the Mojave Desert.”

But that was before the arrival in 1984 of the Interstate and the dismemberment of the Mother Road.

We had driven through Needles, headed for home, when we pulled off the four-lane freeway to explore a stretch of Old Route 66 that hadn’t been covered by U.S. Highway 40 (the Interstate). We drove past the ruins of Bagdad, a hamlet turned into dust when bypassed by the Interstate. In Amboy, they say Roy’s Café, once a familiar landmark, is being reopened by the investor who now owns the entire town. (Amboy’s population was about 700 in 1950; today it’s about five.)

As we approached Ludlow, we stopped to look at an abandoned gas station with a soaring, 1950s batwing canopy (see above). The old Ludlow Café is boarded up. Half a dozen other structures, their original functions now difficult to diagnose, stand empty.

The Ludlow Motel appeared to be closed, but it’s the slow season.

We didn’t have time to do more than a quick look, but we saw a couple of trailers, industrial-type properties and the A-frame of the area’s only restaurant. It was renamed the Ludlow Coffee Café after the first Ludlow Cafe down the road went, so to speak, belly up. We stopped for lunch. The décor included rusty farm tools and horseshoes on the walls, but there was nothing rusty about the service or the food. We had escaped for a half hour from the world of Applebee's, McDonald's and Denny's. In the spirit of Route 66, we could glimpse the variety of life outside the berms of the freeways and the interchanges with self-serve gas stations and "food marts" that look the same from the Mojave to Des Moines.

Installed in front of the restaurant are relics from the Ludlow Mine and a brass plaque engraved with the history of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. The plaque was contributed by E Clampus Vitus with the approval of the Knoll Family. A stroll through the Internet tells us that the family owns most of Ludlow, including the restaurant (see below, left). At the nearby Ludlow Exit from I-40, the Knolls are listed as owners of the two new gas stations on either side of the freeway.

In “Travels With Charley,” John Steinbeck wrote, “And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition.”

That being true, except when it’s not, someone coined a slogan for Ludlow: “The ghost town that refuses to die.”

Maybe so. Senator Dianne Feinstein submitted legislation in December to create, among other desert-related proposals, the Mojave Trails National Monument. It would ban most development, including solar and wind farms, from 914,000 acres of land along 105 miles of little-used Route 66 from Ludlow to Needles. (Wildlands Conservancy bought the railroad land with private donations; the rest is federal, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.)

A National Monument? Who knew?

Most motorists speed past without looking back at the barren landscape around Ludlow, but Feinstein’s words would make the town’s ghosts burst into spectral tears. “This magnificent land and its lonely beauty are a significant part of our history,” she writes, “and we shouldn’t give it up.”

Shopping tip: Buy “Julie,” a video recording by an Atlanta-based pop rock band called Last November. The performance was taped in beautiful downtown Ludlow, with derelict buildings and barren hills as backdrops. To save a trip to the ghost town that refuses to die, you can watch the show on YouTube:

What We Learned – and Spent: The Wrapup

Notes From Lynn:

Anyone to the east of San Francisco could have told us lunkheads that car camping on a cross-country road trip is difficult in late fall and winter. It’s not because it’s too cold inside the warm bed of the toasty minivan. It’s because the outside is too cold. And too dark.

We haven’t been winter camping even in California ever since Kenny began to play sports. Weekends were out. Accustomed to the relatively warm nights and long days of summer camping in California, we forgot that the winter sun declares curfew at about 5 p.m. (At left, the blogger with mandolin.)

Even if we could find a campground that wasn’t shuttered for the season, we faced up to 14 hours of darkness. After mid-October, it was too cold and too dark to fix dinner at the picnic table. We would make sandwiches in the heated car. We would crawl into bed in the van as early as 7 p.m., read with a night light, fall asleep by 8 p.m. – and wake up at 3 a.m. Unable to go back to sleep, we would try to read until dawn.

When rain thrummed on the tin roof of the Toyota, the predawn trip to the restroom made us long for home and the bathroom down the hall. At first light we would shiver while making coffee and fixing breakfast – or we would just break camp and head for the nearest coffee shop. (At right, Margo rigged an awning for our breakfast at Fort Stevens.) If we weren't staying with family and friends, we headed for campgrounds or rest-stop parking lots until November. We would pull into one of the franchised service centers that pop up every 20 miles or so on the toll roads in the East.

A 24-hour restaurant, usually a McDonald’s, would beckon with restrooms, coffee and Wi-Fi. McDonald’s planners specialize in inoffensive architecture, the bland leading the bland. No doubt they want to induce us to order inoffensive food. We would skip the food and buy coffee at the McCafe (not bad). We could plug in our laptop at one of the tables or just read a book for as long as we wanted. But it’s not what we had in mind. We wanted to see, hear and smell the quirkishness of America.

In November and December, we rented rooms in motels (see the list below) if we weren't enjoying the hospitality of friends or relations. Budget motels aren't all that expensive, but on a long trip the credit cards became a bit worn from overuse. Fees for campgrounds ranged from $5 (with a federal Golden Age Passport) to $15. We paid more than $30 for our first (and only) overnight amid the giant mobile homes in an RV park (at left) near Portland. Motels charged anywhere from $40 to $75. We spent one comfortable night in a luxurious B&B in Victoria, B.C., which cost us $150, but it was worth every penny because of Shelagh's hospitality and her bountiful English breakfast.

Our Visitations with Friends and Family:

The asterisks mark names of our hospitable hosts.

*Hans and Sherry Freistadt, Oroville, Calif.
*Dorothy Kantor, Medford, Ore.
*Duane and Marilyn Aasland, Bend, Ore.
Barbara and Hector Leslie, McKenzie Bridge, Ore.
Barry Locke, Portland
*Richard Schwab, Vancouver, Wash.
Jamie and Joe Brand, Hoquiam, Wash.
*Mark Ludlow, Olympia, Wash.
*Emily and Mark Lennon, Missoula, Mont.
*Perry and Maria Francis, Polson, Mont.
*Conrad and Joy Ludlow, Salt Lake City
Jenna and Elliot Ludlow, Salt Lake City
Lauren Ludlow, Salt Lake City
*Rebekka Struik, Boulder, Colo.
Linda Slobodin and Kevin, Arvada, Colo.
Jean and Al Slobodin, Westminster, Colo.
Harold Davis, Brownville, Neb.
Marsha Redman, Polk, Neb.
Amahia Mallea, Des Moines, Iowa
*Bob and Jeannine Schaub, Boone, Iowa
*Karen Mallea, Trail, Minn.
Judy Canter, Appleton, Wis.
*Art Lane, Saugatuck, Mich.
Kenny Ludlow, Anabel Hirano, Will Rubenstein, Oberlin, Ohio
*Clyde and Maryann Hohn, Oberlin, Ohio
*Dale and Ann Tussing, Syracuse, N.Y.
Anne Macchi, Arlington, Mass.
Rick Macchi, Belmont, Mass.
Zoe Marmer and Maya Sussman, Tufts University, Boston, Mass.
*Kathy Podmaniczky, Pleasant Valley, N.Y.
Bill Hutchinson and Lisa Amand, Brooklyn, N.Y.
*Dan North and Tara Levy, Jersey City, N.J.
Marlene Bagley, Jersey City, N.J.
Mireya (Mia) Navarro and James Sterngold, New York City
*Tibby Speer and Alex Neill, Washington, D.C.
Bud Liebes, Bethesda, Md.
*Sheila Downey and Jack Desrocher, Rogers, Ark.
*Curt Feldman and Megumi Ishiyama, Algiers (near New Orleans)
Marion Freistadt and son Shafir Wittenberg, New Orleans, La.
Jim Wittenberg, Metairie, La.
*Kathy Macchi and Faye Rozmaryn, Austin, Texas
*Ingrid Wiegand and George Dolis, Austin, Texas
*Norma and Jerry Bowkett, Sun City, Ariz.

Our Campgrounds:

Thielsen View Campground on Diamond Lake, Umpqua National Forest, near Crater Lake, Oregon. (Most memorable: Morning mist shrouding the lake.)
McKenzie Bridge National Forest, Willamette National Forest, State Route 126, McKenzie Bridge, Ore. (A beautiful camp at the river’s edge.)
Fort Stevens State Park, Astoria, Ore. (Showers, big trees, nearly 600 sites on a former Army base. Raccoons.)
Willaby Camp, Olympic National Forest, near Quinault, Wash. (Rainy, of course.)
Dosewallips State Park, near Bremerton, Wash. (A big campground, lots of room, nearly empty. Frost.)
Fishhook Camp, Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Sacajawea, near Pasco, Wash. (Full, despite heavy rain. Only one slot.)
May Creek Campground, Beaverhead National Forest, near Big Hole National Battlefield, Wisdom, Mont. (Cold, traces of snow.)
Craters of the Moon National Monument, near Arco, Idaho. (No trees. Cold.)
Dinosaur National Monument, near Jensen, Utah. (At right, Margo packs the Guppy at Dinosaur campground.)
Stillwater Campground, Arapaho National Forest, at Lake Granby, west of Estes Park, Colo. (No trees, just stumps. Pine beetles?)
Harlan County Lake, near Alma, Neb. (Beautiful sunset.)
Pawnee Lake Campground, Army Corps of Engineers/State Recreation Area, near Lincoln, Neb. (Gunfire at sunset. Duck hunters?)
Brownville Recreation Area, Brownville, Neb., on the mighty Missouri River. (No facilities. One other camper.)

Our (ugh) Parking lots:

-- At a closed truck stop near Lena, Mich. (at right.)
-- At Service Centers with all-night fast-food stores on toll roads in New York State and Massachusetts.

Our Motels:

Namaste, travelers: Learn a few phrases of Gujarati. Astonishingly, 37 percent of America’s lodgings are owned and managed by networking Indian-Americans originally from Gujarati or its neighboring states in India. For budget motels near the highway, the percentage might be double. The phenomenon began in the 1940s, says a New York Times writer from India, when Kanjibhai Desai bought the Goldfield Hotel in San Francisco. As every traveler has noticed, the most common surname of the innkeepers, in a serendipitous rhyming with “motel,” is Patel. If you say “shub sham” instead of “good afternoon,” will you see a discount in the Total Patel Motel bill?

We stayed in 20 motels, and only six appeared to be in local ownership. We found only one that was an original. In Newfane, N.Y., the Lake Ontario Motel is about 10 long miles from Lake Ontario, but misleading motel names go with the territory. So to speak. The outside of the motel looks like a barn, but the rooms on the inside open into a central lobby/game room. We found our room on an upstairs gallery around the open lobby. It was ingenious, but the room was so small that the refrigerator and microwave stood just outside the door. It wasn’t cheap ($65) by winter rate standards. Complimentary breakfast? No. Go to the café across the road. About the other five non-chain motels, the best that could be said was that they were relatively cheap ($40 to $58).

We avoided upscale lodgings with the same fervor that kept seedy motor courts and hot-sheet motels off our shopping lists. As true-blue enemies of franchise chains and ardent supporters of local businesses, we made an uncomfortable discovery. When you’re on the road, just looking for a room with clean sheets, a good mattress, a shower and Wi-Fi, what you don’t need is architectural stimulation, stained furniture and noisy celebrants down the hall. We took a pass on the Plunk and Bunk (at right) and had already booked a room at the AmericInn before we noticed the Gopher Prairie Motel (at left), named for the fictional city of Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street."

It’s time to confess. Accomodations were much better in the budget chains: Econolodge, Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Best Western, Super 8 and our favorite, the slightly pricey ($77) but relatively luxurious AmericInns we found in Sauk Centre, Minn., and Thorp, Wis.

Our Minivan:

We lucked out. We scanned Craigslist for a month, looking for a camper van that would carry us around the country but wouldn’t cost a lot. If the transmission or the engine went out, we wanted to be able to walk away. After looking at VW Westfalias and various camper vans (Dodge, Ford, etc.), we settled on a 1996 Toyota Previa with a rebuilt cylinder head, 137,000 miles, good gas mileage (4 cylinders with overdrive and supercharger), new tires and everything else in good shape. The price: $3,900.

Margo removed the middle chairs and the rear seats. She built a bed on a platform with compartments for luggage, camping gear, etc. We carried a folding table, two folding chairs and kitchen stuff. A foam mattress was fitted for the bed, and Margo’s sewing machine produced a duvet and curtains. She tried to improvise an awning, but it’s a work in regress. We added wire baskets for clothing and storage, a rug and seat covers. We also bought a porta-potty and a frame for our laptop (we never used either one).

Altogether, Previa prep cost us about $710 – and about a week of Margo's labor.

Note to other Californians: To drive in other states is to get used to the alarming sound of a rumble strip. It emanates a racheting racket of grinding noises. It rattles the car with scary vibrations, as if you have run over a very large rock – a flash in the pan, perhaps. Rumble strips, from 4 to 8 inches wide, are corrugated belts grooved into the pavement on the shoulder, or the stripe down the middle, or athwart the road at a railroad crossing or intersection – or all of them.

In Astoria, Ore., the sliding mechanism broke on the side door. It cost us $326 and took four days for delivery of the broken gizmo. In Golden, Colo., we needed a new battery ($100). Oil changes and other maintenance brought the upkeep budget to $767.

We decided to keep the Previa as Margo’s work car.

We had a flat tire. But it wasn’t ours. At about 75 mph on I-10 in the sagebrush flatland of west Texas, we saw a tire come off the car ahead. It looked like a wheel, coming right at us. I had a split second, not even time to duck, warn Margo or contemplate might happen to the windshield (and us). We heard a loud thud. I hit the brake.

It wasn’t a wheel. It was a shredded tire. It had sloughed off the wheel like the hide of a rattlesnake in molting season. Squished by the bumper, it thumped and passed below the minivan. The only damage was to the Buena Vista PTA Alumni license plate frame. We lent our jack to the driver of the sedan. He replaced the wheel, and we continued onward. We were lucky, and we knew it.

We checked our mileage only once. It was good but not great, about 23 miles to the gallon. Highway speed 55 to 80 mph. Freeway/toll road (approximate): 75-80 mph. The statements for our debit card show that we spent $1,600 for gas at 42 filling stations, averaging about $38 per fill up. We put about 13,000 miles on the odometer. The cost of gas per mile: 8 cents. The price per gallon varied from $2.40 to $3.20.

Rumble strips warn inattentive or drowsy drivers. They help drivers stay on the road during bad weather. They also generate acronyms, as in: DOTs report a high B/C for CSRS (SNAP) to reduce ROR (DOR). Translation: State Departments of Transportation report a high benefit/cost ration for Continuous Shoulder Rumble Strips (also called Sonic Nap Alert Problem) to reduce Run-Off-Road (aka Drift-Off-Road) accidents.

It’s a lot easier to talk about Botts Dots, the device preferred in California and invented by a CalTrans research engineer, Elbert Dysart Botts, Ph.D. He died in 1962, never knowing that his successors would glue more than 25 million 4-inch “raised pavement markers” to California highways.

Botts Dots are unsuitable wherever winter roads need to be scraped with snowplows. That’s why rumble strips are preferred in most other states. Safety engineers were convinced in the 1990s of their benefits. They quote many studies, including a New York state report that showed ROR crashes dropped an astonishing 88 percent on the New York Thruway – from 588 ROR crashes in 1993 to 74 in 1997; from 17 fatalities in 1991 to 1 fatality in 1997.

What’s not to like about rumble strips? Ask the bicylists.

Our Food:

When contemplating this adventure, we never thought it would lead us to the best series of dinners imaginable. And I’m not referring to the myocardial infraction pastrami at New York's 2nd Avenue Deli or any of the fine restaurants we visited from Poughkeepsie to Jersey City to Fayetteville. Instead, the great chefs of our journey were our hosts. They welcomed us with hugs, hospitality and memorable dinners. If we named them, we would exhaust our stock of superlatives and, more to the point, subject them to pleading mobs of passionate gourmets outside their kitchen windows. (At right, Alex Neill and Tibby Speer with Margo in their home in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.)

On the road, we kept it simple. Dry cereal, milk and coffee for breakfast; sandwiches, milk and grapes for lunch. Until it turned dark at 5 p.m., we would get out the propane stove and fix dinner on the picnic table, usually pasta, salad, bread and a beverage. (I lost 12 pounds.)

Later, when we looked for motels, Margo would inspect the coupon books and linger over the word “breakfast.” To stay competitive these days, many motels have moved a step upward from the “continental breakfast” of rolls and coffee. At the AmericInn’s comfortable lobby, with leather chairs and a fireplace that’s almost real, a self-serve breakfast includes coffee, orange juice, a do-it-yourself waffle outfit, bagels, sweet rolls, toast, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt cups, three kinds of dry cereal, packets of oatmeal and copies of USA Today. We saw similar waffle layouts at Days Inn and Comfort Inn.

Rare is the budget motel that doesn’t offer at least a doughnut or two along with coffee in the lobby, but at the shabby Oak Tree Inn we were told to walk to the adjacent truck stop for coffee. It must be a motel without a Patel (see above).

We take for granted the presence of at least one Chinese restaurant with take-out delivery in any town, anywhere, with enough people to support a high school (that seems to be the limbo stick). It wasn't always the case. I'm old enough to remember when the only Chinese restaurants in San Francisco were in Chinatown. Half a century later, with hundreds of Chinese restaurants all through Frisco, we weren't surprised when we saw ads for the Great Wall and New China in Bemidji, a city of about 14,000 in the remoteness of the northwest corner of Minnesota.

But another culinary transformation has engulfed the towns and rural villages that we saw from Oregon to Louisiana. In Bemidji, T Juan's is the best known of the city's three Mexican restaurants. We drove past Hamilton, Mont. (4,500 population), where Fiesta en Jalisco offers an alternative to Bamboo Garden. In Madisonville, Ky. (18,000), it's El Bracero and China Jade. In Pine Bluff, Ark. (52,000), where we spent the night, Bei Jing leads the list of eight Chinese restaurants; El Matador is one of the newcomers in a city with eight Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants. And it seemed that everywhere we went, enchiladas and tostadas have joined General Tsao's chicken and mu shu pork in liberating the palates of middle America. But for immigration, they might still be dining on tuna casserole and Jello salad.

We stopped for take-out coffee in a doughnut shop in Pecos, an ugly little city in the sagebrush country of west Texas. We knew that Cambodian-Americans now dominate the nation's doughnut shops (2,000 or so in California alone). But in Pecos, nearly 80 percent of the 10,000 residents are Latino. Only one-half of 1 percent of residents are listed as Asian, and it's a long way from Ankgor Wat. Nonetheless, Margo smiled as she emerged with the coffee and said, "Cambodians!"

We thought immediately about how much we missed San Francisco and the Ankgor Borei restaurant on upper Mission Street (at Cortland Avenue) in what might be called Bernal Depths.
Let other Cambodian-Americans get rich with doughnuts. What we needed at that moment was clay pot shrimp, green curry and pan-fried fish fillet with garlic sauce. We ignored the billboard directing travelers to the museum for Judge Roy Bean. We headed west, imagining cashew chicken, Cambodian style.

As for dinner in restaurants on our trip, the low point came a few days earlier. It was Thanksgiving Day in northwestern Kentucky. We tried to buy lunch at the Dinky Diner. It was dinky enough, but closed. (At right, Margo measures it. Ten feet, exactly.) We went to the big city, Paducah. By the time we began to look for a good restaurant, the downtown district had shut down. Out on the highway, three miles later, we finally saw the lights on at Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar. The “neighborhood” is an unplanned highway mishmash of businesses and light industry, but we were lucky to avoid munching in Burger King on Thanksgiving hamburgers with all the trimmings.

At Applebee’s, I ordered “Margherita Chicken,” with bruschetta over chicken breast. How many other diners did the same in a worldwide chain of 1,997 Applebees? I had the distinct impression that the menu, décor, atmosphere, uniforms of the waitresses and even the recipes come from a computer somewhere in Kansas City. But I need to get rid of my snobbishness. Maybe big is, in fact, better. The Margherita Chicken was pretty good, a compliment to the late Queen Consort from Savoy. And who are we to question the corporate investors who bought the chain from other investors who bought it from other investors who bought it from a husband and wife in Atlanta? Pass the garlic.







MOTELS: $1,337


GRAND TOTAL: $11,485

Subtract Minivan: $4,810


Explanatory Notes

1. Miscellaneous: Admission to museums and
exhibits, groceries,coffee to go, books and
newspapers, gifts,postcards, postage,
sandwiches (approximate): $1,800

2. Transportation:

Repairs, oil changes, and maintenance: $767

Gas: $1,600
Train, Taxi, Metro, PATH, NYC subways: $125
On the Road total $2,492

The Minivan:*
Purchase of the Toyota Previa: $3,900
Registration, etc.: $200
Prep and camper conversion: $710


3. Motels and Hotels (Off-Season)
* Franchised or owned by chains

*AmericInn: Sauk Centre, Minn. ($76)
Sunset Motel, Ignace, Mich. ($45)
*Econolodge, Niagara Falls, N.Y. ($61)

Lake Ontario Motel, Newfane, N.Y. ($65)
*Quality Inn, Lexington, MA ($60)

*AmericInn, Thorp, Wis. ($77)
*Econo Lodge, Bellmawr, N.J. ($55)
*Comfort Inn, Dover, Delaware ($67)
*Days Inn, White Pine, Tenn. ($44)
*Knights Inn, Verona, VA. ($49)
*Econolodge, Paducah, Ky. ($45)
*Comfort Inn, Nashville, Tenn. ($72)
Cottonwood Inn, Pocahontas, Ark. ($56)
Redwood Inn, White Hall, Ark. ($55)
*Travel Inn (2 days), Metairie, La. ($101)
*Super 8, Beaumont, Texas ($55)
Oak Tree Inn, Pecos, Texas ($58)
*Best Western, Deming, N.M. ($66)
*Days Inn, Lake Havasu, Ariz. ($54)
Homeland Inn, Buttonwillow, CA ($40)

Cozy Cottage Bed and
Breakfast, Victoria, B.C. ($150)