Saturday, July 12, 2008

There's No Place Like Home

Well, we're home now and a little sad to be off the road. We've covered 5,800 miles, averaging 225 miles a day. Some days were longer and some places we lingered, but the pace was reasonable for us. It was a great adventure and we loved just being together for such an intense period of time. We know from experience that the best way to recover from a great trip is to plan the next one. We've been talking about flying back to Chicago to do the last leg of America, West through the Dakotas, Montana, Utah, and Idaho to Oregon. In fact, we spent a brief moment at O'Hare considering this option -- just before we checked our bags. Maybe next year.

With some relief we return to the farm which is beginning to look like that film of what would happen to the earth if humans cease to exist. The house is full of dust bunnies to which we've added piles of dirty laundry. The grass is knee high and the blackberries are trying to take over the back porch. Our cats don't know us and skitter away when we pull in the drive. They come back at dinner time and we renew our bonds. Everything is safe and sound and we happily turn in for the night, snug in our own beds. Instantly, it feels like home and almost like we never left.

Epilogue: Here's our day-by-day rundown for anyone interested in details.

June 5th - test interviews in Portland; 3 consumers -- successful test
June 6 - 12th -- close up the farm; pack; dog to the kennel; etc.
June 12 -- kids' last day of school; fly to Los Angeles, pick up Honda Pilot, drive to Hollywood
June 13 -- tour the Petersen, do 3 consumer interviews, drive to Barstow; USA Today Interview
June 14 -- drive to Needles, take a left and end up in Las Vegas (Venetian)
June 15 -- leave Las Vegas, see Hoover Dam and sunset at the Grand Canyon
June 16 -- drive through the Painted Desert and visit the Petrified Forest
June 17 -- leave Albuquerque and stop in Amarillo to graffiti the Cadillac Ranch
June 18 -- arrive in Dallas, tour TX Motor Speedway
June 19 -- Good Morning TX T.V.; 3 consumer interviews, kids visit friends, drive to Oklahoma
June 20 -- see Spider Bug, Purcell OK (nice town) and eat at Van's - the best ribs in the U.S.
June 21 -- hike in the Ozarks, tour the American Old Timey Auto Museum, Memphis Dreamtown ribs
June 22 -- Tupelo Buffalo Park; Elvis Birthplace -- where the kids play guitar on the porch
June 23 -- tour Honda Manufacturing of Alabama; 3 consumer interviews in Atlanta
June 24 -- a day on Lake Murray, SC -- everyone is sunburned. Ribs from Piggy Park.
June 25 -- Blue Ridge Parkway; Luray Caverns; walk on a rickety bridge over a river -- yikes!
June 26 -- Philadelphia: Liberty Bell; Independence Hall; South Street; Arts District
June 27 -- Gran Arlene visit begins; 3 consumer interviews in Freehold NJ; videographer :)
June 28 -- New Jersey Boardwalk Extravaganza at Seaside Heights -- world's best pizza
June 29 -- Sea Island State Park NJ -- beautiful day on a beautiful beach -- more pizza
June 30 -- Hackettstown NJ - Steve's Soccer Trophy at North Warren High School; Miss Belvedere; Birch Beer; Blairstown Diner; Schooley's Mountain General Store
July 1st -- Punxsutawney PA; Groundhog Winery Trail; Amish Butter; drive to Detroit
July 2nd -- Henry Ford Museum; awesome middle eastern food
July 3rd -- Fox 2 Morning News in Detroit; Business Week Interview; 3 consumer interviews
July 4th -- Chicago! Navy Pier Fireworks
July 5th -- Chicago! Wrigley Building; Chicago Art Institute; scooter/wave board the city
July 6th -- Chicago! Architectural Boat Tour; Field Museum; head to the suburbs
July 7th -- Schaumburg Illinois; 3 consumer interviews; kids play at amazing waterpark
July 8th -- kiss the Honda Pilot goodbye! sniff. Fly to Portland

Ode to the Pilot

We drove a 2009 Honda Pilot, Touring Edition, on this road trip courtesy of American Honda Motors. They asked nothing in return other than our opinion. We'll be preparing a full report for them on that, but thought we'd share some of our impressions with you as well.

It's awesome.

The basics: handling, breaking, no squeaks, etc. Really tight ride. Stylish inside and out. High quality leather.

The luxuries: dual front seat climate control, deluxe sound system, rear entertainment with wireless headsets and their own remote control (front seat parent override), bluetooth phone, Stella -- the navigation queen, cool looking gauges. A nice little shelf above the glove box for girl stuff. I put my lotion, lipstick, tissues, etc. here. A conversation mirror so we could yell at the kids without turning around!

Over the top: A two-prong household outlet! A backup camera so you can see what's behind you! A rear hatch that opens with a fob button and slowly rises and the kids can close it by pushing a button on the hatch which closes slowly; abundant rear cargo or third row of seats that fold separately, so you have can have a little of both if you like (handy for separating kids who are tired of each other). Navigation system that made us fearless: helping us find every hotel, restaurant and gas station on this tour (we had no reservations and only scant directions for every destination on this trip). Oil gauge that clocked 30% more use from the oil which hadn't been changed in 5,800 miles! Gas mileage as promised 23 - 24 mpg highway and over 21 city. Finally, this car is so well insulated that it didn't get to an extreme temperature no matter where we parked it -- and we were in the Mojave!

All in all, an impressive ride. We miss it already.

Smelly Onion

The word Chicago is derived from a Native American word for “smelly onion” or garlic. This is the only fact that sticks in my muddled brain from an architectural boat tour of this beautiful city. The sun is warm on my face and I crane my neck at one building after another, obediently, but my brain is shutting down. I think it’s that we’re all road weary. We’re in the home stretch as Chicago is our final stop before flying back to Portland.

The film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a huge hit the year Steve and I got married. It had a lot of influence on our trip planning for Chicago. In the film, the characters go to the Chicago Institute of Art and are struck by one particular work: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, painted by Georges Seurat in 1884. We decide to show this to the kids since they love the film too. They cruise a good length of Michigan Avenue on their scooter (Gillian) and wave board (Collin). This includes the hotel lobby, sidewalks, a few parks we’re asked to leave and even the lobby of the Chicago Art Institute. They’ll wrap up this trip by gliding through O’Hare’s underground tunnel and lights that connects terminals B and C. See photos above.

We try to see a ballgame, no dice. We try to see a play, sold out. But, you know, this city rocks even without big plans on your schedule. We go to Navy Pier for spectacular Fourth of July Fireworks, eat terrific Italian food at a sidewalk café, and read hieroglyphs with a docent at the Field Museum.

The kids scooter and skate around the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, then we take them to Walgreen’s next door to buy gum. I think about the chompers on the T-Rex at the Field and wonder how much gum it would take to give him chewing satisfaction. That could lead to entirely new savory, meat-flavored Orbit offerings, like Dangerous Diplodocus and Maiasaur Madness. This convinces me that I am definitely road fatigued and ready to sleep in my own bed. Chicago is great, but there’s no place like home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Motor City

You just can't do a project on the automotive lifestyle without visiting Detroit. But, I have to say that the condition of the roads in this city are a little surprising for a town built on the backs of America's drivers. They are very bad. We do have sympathy for the harsh winters and what this can do to a road, but come on! This is motor city for crying out loud.

On the other hand, this city does quite a few things right and one of the best is The Henry Ford Museum. In this place, great train engines sit side by side with the first Mustang to roll off the assembly line more than 40 years ago. You can see the T-bird driven by the engineer who designed the T-bird, the limousine JFK was riding in when shot and the first Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. It's a whiplash riddled ride through history all under one roof.

What catches my eye is an area devoted to how the automobile spawned other industries. People would "auto camp" along the roadsides, free to stop and set up camp wherever they pleased because there were very few hotels. In fact, the word "motel" wouldn't exist without the car. Roadside diners, amusements, and outdoor advertising were born out of this early automotive consumer behavior.

In This Vail

of Toil and Sin

Your Head Grows Bald

But, Not Your Chin

Burma Shave

Hardly a Driver

Is Still Alive

Who Passed

On a Curve

At 75

Burma Shave

In a small display case I notice a give-away from an early gas station. It's a crude, pop-up folded paper cup in a tin. The copy reads: "For picnics and motoring -- travelling too. I hope these cups will be useful to you." It's a good thing to hope for, utility.

We wrap up the visit by sitting in a Model T that is disassembled and reassembled every day at the museum with the help of visitors. We missed this but talk with the curators as they explain the process and let the kids honk the horn. It takes two people 45 minutes to assemble. A far cry from the dozens of people it takes to put together cars at the Honda Plant in Alabama, but then again we don't have to hand crank the Pilot tonight when we leave. And, that's a good thing.

A Model T

the Building is Easy

but Cranking the Engine

Makes us Queasy

Burma Shave

Go Carts in Sandusky, Ohio.

Fruit Wise

We stop for sandwiches at a small roadside grocery in Michigan. Inside we spot a display of a product I worked on years ago for Quaker called "FruitWise." This feels pretty random. Gillian poses next to it for a picture. After lunch, both kids play guitar in the gazebo. It's a good stop.

Amish Butter

Driving the dirt back roads of Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, we see a small sign that brings us to a skidding stop. A cloud of road dust engulfs the car. When it clears, we pull into the adjacent driveway next to a sign that reads “Amish Butter for Sale.”

We pull in to a roadside barn, open on one end, where two Amish men are shoeing horses. There are several beautiful, full muscled work horses tethered outside and just as many two-passenger buggies nearby. The men are tall, with beards but no mustaches, dressed exactly alike with bright blue shirts buttoned to the top and broad, flat straw hats worn even though they are hard at work and indoors. They wear suspenders.

Steve approaches the younger of the two men and asks “Do you have a dairy here?”

With a wary smile, the man says in a slightly clipped accent “No. We just have the one cow.” He pauses. “Butter’s $2.50 a lb.” I notice his eyes are a piercing blue, enhanced by the color of his shirt.

Steve hands him some money and he heads up the hill to the house with a long, loping gait. He is graceful. They are spare with words. Steve asks the older of the two about what look like oil wells in the fields. They’re natural gas pumps and pipelines he explains. It’s weird to think that this land is supporting such an old way of life while undermined by a network providing energy for modern conveniences they do not use.

I see a child on a high bluff overlooking the barn. He looks just like his father without the beard. Bright blue shirt buttoned all the way up, broad flat straw hat, piecing blue eyes and he even wears the same suspenders. I smile and wave at him. He does not flinch, but looks are us warily and blows a large bubble with his bubble gum.

“How old are you?” I ask carefully.

“Eight” he replies.

I put both hands on Gillian’s shoulders and turn her to look up at him. “She’s eight too. Her name’s Gillian. Would you like to come down and say hello? Would that be okay?”

He backs up, disappearing into the foliage.

Moments later he appears through a side door of the barn. He continues to blow bubbles, keeping his distance. He and Gillian don’t speak but eye each other intensely, unmoving.

The man returns with the butter. It’s cool, but not cold, tightly wrapped in plastic. It still bears the fingerprints of the hand labor that prepared it. We thank them all and take off in search of crusty bread worthy of this culinary treat.

Groundhog Day, Everyday

Ever wonder what goes on in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania when it’s not Groundhog Day? We learned that it’s pretty much Groundhog Day everyday in what the locals call Punxy. This pretty little town is overrun by groundhogs. Not furry, smelly live ones that might make a good stew, but rather large fiberglass interpretations in all manner of garb dot every street corner in the classic small town.

Every shop window is infested with tourist trappings that feature the little rodent. It permeates the surrounding area as well with the Groundhog Wine Trail, which we followed into Amish Country where we pick up a couple of bottles of local wine, mercifully not fermented from groundhogs. I wonder if the local kids get sick of the intensity of the theme and move away as soon as they can. Many hours later, back on the highway, we do see a groundhog digging by the side of the road. He’s pretty far from Punxy. Maybe he got sick of seeing his likeness like a worn out celebrity. Or maybe he just wanted to keep his shadow to himself.

Monkey Hotdog

The Blairstown New Jersey is famous for its role in the original Friday the 13th film. A young woman walks through it prior to meeting her predictable fate. But, it should be famous for its hotdogs.

We stop at the Blairstown Diner a beautiful, authentic roadside relic. After admiring the exterior, interior and classic counter stools, we settle in to study the menu. Gillian wants a hotdog.

We don’t eat beef. Not for health reasons, but for political reasons. We don’t like how the beef industry serves up contaminated foods from sickened animals with almost no oversight. We don’t like driving by feedlots that you can smell from miles away and think about the animals living inside. We know other animals are treated similarly, but think you have to start somewhere and for us, beef is it.

“Excuse me,” Steve waves down the waitress. “Can you tell me what meat is in the hotdogs?”

She looks puzzled. “Beef” she hesitates “and Pork, I think.”

I flip over the menu to look at the other kid selections and see that each meal is branded with an animal motif. There is the Giraffe Mac & Cheese, the Squirrel PB&J, and the Monkey Hotdog.

“Apparently, they’re made of Monkey.” I stutter, laughing so hard I can barely speak.

Not a moment later the cook hustles from the kitchen, package in hand. “See, it’s beef. All beef. Good no?” He says with a touch of broken English.

“Yes,” says Steve “Good, no.” We’re all laughing which leaves the cook a bit confused. He works his way back to the kitchen.

No one orders a hotdog.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Miss Belvedere

In 1957, a handful of enterprising Plymouth Dealers in Tulsa Okalahoma donated a brand new Plymouth Belvedere to the Tulsarama festival. The car was used as a time capsule, buried during the festival and the people of Tulsa had the opportunity to buy tickets guessing the population of Tulsa in 2007 when the car would be unearthed.

I only know about this because my good friend Mark sent the story to me when they unearthed it. I was studying purses and they put a woman's purse in the car stocked with typical items of the day. The Tulsarama folks couldn't tell me what was in the purse because when they dug up the car, the cement vault was full of water. The car, particularly the interior and contents, were virtually destroyed by a water main break that flooded the compartment years before.

The entire town was wracked with dissapointment. But the good people rallied as a New Jersey company, called Ultra One, volunteered to take on the task of removing the rust and build-up caused by the water. We wanted to see the Miss Belvedere in Tulsa, but since she's inNew Jersey, we saw her there.

I spoke with Dwight Foster, the owner of Ultra One, who said that the process will not restore the car, but rather will remove the damaging crusty stuff and "preserve history" as he put it. He plans to tour the Miss Belvedere to car shows and other venues before returning it to Tulsa and its rightful owners (those who guessed the population).

And, as a bonus, Dwight knew exactly what was in that purse from the records of the time capsule construction: a bottle of tranquilizers, an unpaid parking ticket, a comb, a compact, a lipstick, a lighter and cigarettes, a "rain chapeau," and $3.25 in cash. No credit cards in 1957 eh?

Seaside Chubba Bubba

The pungent aroma of sausage drives up your nostrils, competing with onions, peppers, sea air, and coconut oil for your undivided attention. The sound of coasters grinding on rails, kids screaming, and carnival barkers pull your ears into the mix. Your bare shoulders crisp in the summer sun and you feel the body heat of too many passers-by passing too closely by. You cautiously open your eyes and it’s a full frontal assault of color, lights, tattoos, cigarettes, bathing suits just a little too small and bare stomachs just a little too large. It’s the Jersey Shore and if it doesn’t knock you on your ass, stay home!

We’re in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, a frenetic beach side boardwalk. We stroll along with our Gran Arlene, a New Jersey Native just like Steve, taking in the sights and smells of the shore. The kids jitter with anticipation as the negotiation begins.

“Six rides! We want to do six.” Collin anchors his opening bid wisely on the high side.

“Two,” says Steve, as we all circle to watch the action. They compromise on three, but Steve gives me a wink that means he’s holding back a fourth as a bonus if Collin and Gillian work well together to decide what to ride.

They ride like champs, throwing their arms high on the giant plunges and screaming like mad – sometimes out of fear and sometimes just because it’s fun to scream. Of course, they get a fourth ride and everyone is high with carnival fever.

Then, we hit the games where Collin is a basketball shooting star and Gillian a darts machine. Collin plays a game called “Shoot the Geek” where you basically paint ball a guy in football pads while he jumps around. Everyone wins except the Geek. We lug our stuffed booty into Three Brothers – the best, most authentic pizza on the planet. You may argue with me on this, and I know those of you from New York and Chicago will, but until you taste this pizza, I will not listen. The slices are huge, cut from pies the size of a tire. When folded, the grease runs down your arm and creates a puddle on the table. My eyes roll back in my head just thinking about it.

We walk some more. Three young men are patted down by five cops and escorted away for the night. We’ve paused to take this in when I glance to my right at a family on a bench looking a little like the three bears. Papa Bear is huge, in a tank top and shorts, black socks and sneakers. He takes a bite of sausage sandwich and pushes his glasses up the slick incline of his nose with two fingers of his other hand while the remaining fingers clutch a wad of napkins. Mama Bear takes a long hit on a drinking straw, sucking the life out of a giant Pepsi, her pasty skin singed a sickly pink. That’s gonna hurt later. But best of all is their daughter, a Seaside Chubba Bubba of the highest order (and I’m not thin, so takes one to know one). Smaller overall than her parents, but hefting impressive slabs of bright white thigh out of each leg of her too short shorts, she shoves a hot dog into her enormous gob. This causes an eruption of ketchup-mustard sluice from the other end that spews all over her leg in a giant yellow-red mudslide. This in turn makes her mouth yaw open wide, exposing hot dog, bun, mustard, ketchup, teeth, tongue and a terrifying “aauuughh” that turns heads for a hundred yards! It all happens in an instant and I am forced to squat so I don’t wet myself. This is why reality television is so compelling – because reality is compelling. You cannot make this stuff up. It happens all around you everyday and it keeps happening in those places you’ve been even when you’re not there.

We pile into the car and head home, satiated. All of our senses have been burned. We stuff saltwater taffy into our mouths, negotiating over who gets which flavor, and try to think of ways to talk each other into coming back to the shore tomorrow.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Philadelphia Pay Per View

I’m feeling a bit like a curmudgeon as I leave Philadelphia’s City Hall without seeing the view of the city from under William Penn’s shoe. Years ago I found this tower by following small signs painted on the floor of the massive 1870s structure that said “to the tower” with a line to follow. “Heck yeah,” I said in 1982 and followed it to a surprise and delight – a rickety elevator with a rickety elevator operator who said “you want to go to the tower? Well, okay.” And, off we went on a harrowing 548 foot high ride to see the city from a chain link cage – a real experience that is now a gift shop ticketed, scheduled, guided tour that costs $10 per person. Turning this oddity into an attraction, sanitized and tailored for tourism has stipped it of its charm and, for me, this turns it into a pass for this trip. Bummer.

We’ve seen this often on our cross country journey – state parks, national parks, and even monuments where you have to pay to see history that “we the people” already own. I know it’s more mature to think of this as paying for maintenance, but in our society of spoon-fed infotainment shouldn’t we encourage visits to places where you can actually learn about real, historic events without a financial disincentive?

Philadelphia still has two such gems: The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The Bell, once the Pennsylvania State House Bell is a man-made marketing hook for the new idea of liberty that our founding fathers were selling. This was a campaign whose success permeates our culture to this day. And, by the way, it does give you a little chill up the spine to see it up close – really, and I’m a skeptic about this type of thing.

Independence Hall is a hallowed place – protected from damage by guards and from ignorance by some of the most knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic park service employees in the country. Our guide engaged us in the torrent of this moment in history, peppered his tale with descriptions of the penalties for treason, and linked to our present experience by evoking the film National Treasure set in part in this room. And, that’s no small task because let’s face it, it’s a conference room – desks, chairs, books, pens, etc. A PC projector and some molding is all that separates this room from every conference room you’ve ever seen. That is, until you realize that George Washington sat in that chair while the framers decided there should be an executive branch. Though the cost of our freedom was high, the admission to this tour is no charge. And, that’s Priceless.