Day 36: Rochester, New York to Cleveland, Ohio
A sign at the city line read: “Buffalo: An All America City”. I thought about this strange play on words for a while, and couldn’t understand it. A slogan should be noticeable, and understandable, and meaningful; this just seemed incorrect.
I stopped to get a coffee from a shop in the services area, which was attached to a McDonalds with an ice cream store in the middle. Although both looked clean and open for business, there was no one staffing the ice cream or coffee shop. After waiting a few minutes, I grew impatient and went to the McDonalds to ask if someone there could help. The woman behind the corner turned and bellowed, “you have a customer!” The young woman mopping the floor of the back of the McDonald’s hurried forward, wiping her hands on her apron. She was very nice, and seemed a little beaten up by the McDonald’s people, like a poor relation come to visit who is made to do menial chores. I asked for skim milk, and they only had whole milk. I left without coffee.
We stopped at a dog park in Erie, PA, and the park caretaker was excited about the trailer, the trip, and the fact that we stopped at his park. In addition to the dog park, he had just completed a project dedicated to veterans: a series of ADA-approved walking trails in the woods surrounding the dog park.
Day 37: Cleveland, Ohio
Chesky went to Camp Bow Wow to give me a break and returned exhausted. I could barely rouse him to eat dinner.
I spent some time in a Starbucks to get work done, and ended up sitting next to Sales Guy: the one who lives on the road peddling foot cream or whatever and conducts business from the Starbucks common table. The one who calls his assistant “sweetheart” and talks non-stop. I sat at the table with him for an hour until I wanted to pull out a fingernail to give myself something else to focus on rather than his voice.
There are several types of people at Starbucks. Me, the Watchful Typer and the majority of patrons. The Silent Couple, who arrive together and sit near enough that you know they are a pair, but who ignore each other completely. The Job Interview, which is usually a pair of varying age, one dressed in a suit, and they always sit at a table. Thunder Lungs is generally a sturdy, big-chested woman with a voice loud enough to call in air strikes during a bombing campaign from a moving helicopter. Thunder Lungs likes to tell stories but is unfailing pleasant to others and thus hard to hate. My favorite is Sales Guy 2.0, who steps outside to take phone calls. These personalities exist in both genders and in all races and seemingly across America.
Day 38: Cleveland, Ohio to Holly, Michigan
Toledo, Ohio gets an enormous dog park “fail”. What if publicly funded playgrounds only let in kids who had pre-registered and paid a fee? This is only the third city in America where I have encountered this in addition to Rochester, New York and Millbury, Massachusetts. It seems like private and exclusive use of public space should be illegal. What annoyed me even more about Toledo was the acres and acres of open park next to the locked dog park. It was carefully mown and completely unused. A playground sat off to one side, bereft of children and silent in the sun.
Disgusted with Toledo, I moved on as quickly as possible to Ann Arbor and the large and free Swift Run dog park. Despite all the reasons Toledo had posted for why their dog park was exclusive use only, Chesky was not attacked by rabid fighting dogs and did not contract any diseases. In fact, he had a great time and we met some really nice people. Before leaving Ann Arbor, I made sure to buy gas and food in support of the local economy.
This was my first time in Michigan. As might be expected from the American car manufacturing capital of America, the vast majority of cars on the road were American-made. I was driving a Toyota and felt a little sheepish about it.
Closed gas stations stood like ghostly sentinels at street corners in memory of a better economy and higher gas prices. The roads had heavy bulging seams, potholes filled with sinking asphalt, and were bumpy and unpredictable even on the highways. Maybe that explains why American cars focus so heavily on suspensions.
It was too soon to vote on the worst road in America, but Route 23 between Toledo and Flint was a front runner: bumpy, with heavy volume, lots of 18-wheelers, and people driving with a frustration level I had only seen in the greater New York area. The bridges spanning the highway were literally crumbling, pieces of concrete falling onto the highway and rebar exposed, bent and rusting. Signs repeatedly warned it was a prison area and not to pick up hitchhikers.
Day 39: Detroit, Michigan
I needed a new passport for an upcoming international move, so I went to a post office in Dearborn, a city within the greater Detroit area. In addition to accepting passport applications, Dearborn is home to the largest population of Arab descent in the United States.
The streets looked like anywhere else in the midwest, but the post office line was a showcase of diversity that reminded me of a London bus: people of all colors and shapes and sizes from all over the world speaking a variety of languages. When I closed my eyes, it felt like I could be anywhere in the world. I was probably the only one who had a great time waiting in line.
Day 40: Flint, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois
I spend eight hours on a car-crammed, bumpy, construction-filled toll-ridden interstate highway, and it was exhausting. Was there scenery? I don’t know; I was too busy white-knuckling my way down the highway and worrying I wouldn’t have enough cash to pay the toll monster every ten miles. This was my least favorite day, but that shouldn’t necessarily reflect on the region, just on my choice of roads.
I stopped in a dog park in Indiana and was forced to pay a $3 entry fee on the honor system. It was a nice park, but I felt cheated in having to pay for a public service in a public park. Even on a Saturday morning, the only people in the park were dog owners: the playground was empty and the fields deserted.
The positive thing about today was that highway driving gets a lot of notice for the trailer and the trip. I gratefully received a few supportive notes. Messages always arrive when I need them the most.
Day 41: Chicago, Illinois
I went for a run with Chesky in the Marengo Ridge Conservation Area, which had a beautiful campground. I yearned for the privacy, the spread-out campsites, the forested atmosphere. Marengo was a hunting area and it was bow season, so I kept Chesky on the leash. When he’s leaping through the woods, he looks just like a deer and I don’t have an orange vest for him.
Route planning has become difficult: many campgrounds are closing as October ends and the danger of freezing increases. I am concerned about where I will sleep in North Dakota and northern Minnesota.
Day 42: Chicago, Illinois to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin
We stopped at Palmer Park in the enlightened Janesville, Wisconsin and Chesky got to run off-leash for two hours. Dogs are allowed loose in the woods between 15 Sept and 15 May. It was a reasonable, useful use of the park and I applaud Wisconsin for it.
Route 16 to Wisconsin Dells is a straight, flat and sparsely trafficked road and probably the same one Steinbeck used 56 years ago. It was a gloomy gray day, but the clouds refracted the light in a pleasant way and the colors were pretty: the gravel on the side of the road shone pink, the corn stalks were browning in the fields, and the leaves were yellow and flickering. Long wild grass with fluffy white tops shone in the gloom, like magical clusters of brightness.
Everything seemed a bit foreign and otherworldly, as if I had stepped into a early twentieth century fantasy. I saw a rusty old farm cart with a tree growing up through the middle of it. A horse trailer passed me with a zebra inside. Harley riders filed by, their engines humming, and several gave me a thumbs-up. None of them were wearing helmets.
Around Wisconsin Dells, signs advertised ghost tours and river trips, and there was a few small motels with drive-up access. The area had a mix of light industry and tourism: storage, propane, and auto shops sat next to marinas, resorts, and restaurants.
That evening, even after his long walk, Chesky still had energy to burn. I drove him down to Sparta where I found a sad little dog park in a neighborhood that looked like the kind of place the government built in the 50s to perform nuclear tests on.
The states this week, in two words:
OH: Flat industrial
MI: American cars
IN: Nickel dime
IL: Flat farms
WI: Enchanting light