3,768 Miles Of Backroad America

by Katy Tahja, August 9, 2017

I’m weird. I admit it. I go on a 3,768-mile car ride through Eastern and Midwestern back roads and I find the strangest darn things to get excited about, or question. After two weeks on secondary highways and trains what do I carry away with me as my #1 best memory? Collecting petrified wood in the most absolutely godforsaken “it’s not the middle-of-nowhere but you can see it from there” location in central Wyoming’s Shirley Basin. (but more on that later…)

This year’s road trip idea came from the overwhelming desire of my train-loving hubby to see three geared steam locomotive engines, a Climax, a Shay, and a Heisler, and one 2-4-2T rod locomotive built by Baldwin. These engines just happen to be 3,000 miles away in New Hampshire. So if that’s where we start what else, and who else, can we visit between here and there? That is where the excessive mileage begins.

We flew a red-eye special through the middle of the night from Sacramento to Boston and picked up a rental car promising unlimited mileage and headed north. We were on our way to the Clark’s Trading Post in Lincoln, NH. to ride a train. Folks raised in the East may know about summer roadside attractions. This place has train rides, bear shows, boat rides, a Segway racecourse, climbing walls, a shooting gallery, food, and every kind of tourist souvenir you could imagine. It was exceedingly clean and 100 local folks of all ages had summer jobs.

Since my hubby volunteers with Roots of Motive Power in Willits he already knew a lot about steam engine operations and with correspondence done in advance he had the chance to spend the day in the cab of the locomotive as it traveled through White Mountain forests. So many old steam engines are stationary objects in parks and museums finding a century old one in operating condition is a treat.

While he rode the train I talked to employees about exhibiting bears. Most of us might think…”OMG…poor bears…what a cruel life…” but I’m telling you folks, these bears have a good easy life. Clark’s is so well respected having dealt with bears for 60 years that the state wildlife department turns to them with questions about bears. Bears that have passed away are buried on a lawn with headstones over their graves. There are enclosures for retired bears away from the arena and for performing bears there is adequate space.

The instrument for training a show bear? An ice cream cone. I kid you not…the handler has an ice cream cone and a spoon. A trick is done right and the bear gets a spoonful of ice cream. Happy bears. I watched the bears being washed and groomed for a show. The hair that is shed is collected for weavers, who spin it into yarn to be knitted into hats and scarfs. Those bear hair adornments are donated to local non-profits to be auctioned off as fund-raisers.

Headed to New York after NH we realized there is just about no place in the USA without a microbrewery. Woodstock Inn Brewery was the first one we hit in NH and Kannah Creek Brewery in CO was the last. We had a chance to visit one of the last survivors of my father’s generation and heard stories of families long gone. We headed west through the Catskills and took a road across Pennsylvania just below the New York state line. When we hit Erie PA we dropped down into Ohio.

Now I freely admit to being a back-to-the-land old hippy, and in Ohio, in the midst of their Amish country is Lehman’s store in Kidron. If any of you are old enough to remember the Sear’s Catalog imagine a modern day print catalog of everything you could ever want for your off-the-grid homestead out in the hills. It was like a Walmart for hippies…building after building all connected, full of practical stuff you can actually use productively.

Take dehydrators for example. We own a 20 year old Excalibur and they not only had the replacement parts for all of it they had five different models, along with solar ones. Aladdin kerosene lamps? A museum of them along with replacement shades, wicks and mantles. There was a whole building of wood burning heating stoves and kitchen ranges and many Amish workers of all ages working and answering questions and providing great customer service.

From Ohio we drove into Indiana to go to Gene Stratton Porter’s cabin. A famous writer a century ago her books include “Girl of the Limberlost” and “Freckles”. A conservationist before the word was popular she wrote detailed accounts of man and nature. She built a lovely home by the Limberlost swamp only to have developers move in and log the swamp and drain it for farmland. Heartbroken she moved north to Rome City and later California. Lands surrounding her home-site are now parklands and being returned to a natural state. Visiting author’s homes is what makes this librarian’s heart go pitty-pat.

We drove north through Ohio and Michigan and crossed the Straits of Mackinac to the Upper Peninsula. There’s a huge Finnish population around the Houghton/Hancock area and we stopped at the Finnish American Heritage Association to see if our last name was in their database. I pointed out I could name about 20 people in CA, WA, MN, and CO and they asked that I send information for their genealogy files.

So on we went to Duluth MN to meet some of the extended Tahja family. My son Matthew Tahja had met another Matthew Tahja from Duluth so we arranged to meet his family. A dozen Tahja’s turned up to meet us and we learned we were not related by blood, but by taking a place name as a last name when the families immigrated to America a century ago. It was another great afternoon of storytelling.

West across Minnesota we drove all the way through North Dakota. Jamestown has a buffalo museum with a real live white buffalo. They have a hundred acres fenced with prairie, streams and woodlands and brown buffalo to keep the white one company. Only problem (to me) was the interstate freeway that formed part of the border of the enclosure…hard to look at something you want to be spiritually inspiring with freeway noise droning in the distance.

In Montana we visited the Little Big Horn Battlefield and it pleased me to see the native side of the conflict had as much information as the traditional white man’s version of what happened. The visitor center was staffed by native people and half the gift shop dealt with native culture.

Wyoming was driven north to south and on a dirt road off of a back road south of Casper we went rockhounding. Envision flat prairies, nothing growing more than six inches high, blue skies, bright sun, and cow flops. The farther you walked from your parked car the bigger the pieces of petrified wood became. No one around for miles. It was lovely.

From Laramie we dropped down through Saratoga and the Sierra Madre mountains into Colorado. We visited a friend, turned in a dusty bug splattered rental car, and jumped aboard AMTRAK’s “California Zephyr.” That 1,000 mile ride was relaxing, the food had improved, and it arrived in Sacramento ahead of schedule.

I journal as I travel because aging brains can’t remember everything and I constantly write down questions that arise when I look at a landscape. Then when I get home I look up answers on the internet. Is the fennel plant naturalized in New England? Yes. Do cormorants live in North Dakota? Yes. What were the Farm Rescue billboards for? A non-profit that plants and harvests crops and does haying for free for families with major injuries, illness of natural disaster effecting them.

Is there a rule that all big barns have four lightening rods? Don’t know. We saw a VFW/American Legion Hall with an old freestanding big square mailbox painted bright red in front. It said “Flag Drop” so you could respectfully dispose of a worn flag. Do other military veterans groups do this? What was electric fence doing around beehives in pastures? To keep bears away?

I’m a map junkie and love place names. On this trip I passed Norway, Lisbon, Rome, Greenland, Cairo, Paris, and two towns in separate states named Scranton, Cleveland, Woodstock, and Boston. Also passed another Albion and Eureka. There was a town called New England ND and Midwest WY. Cementon NY was indeed named for cement manufacturing plants.

I find vocabulary on road signs different from CA. There are Registry of Vehicles locations. “No horses or snow machines on highways.” Rest stop sign said, “Rest Stops are Text Stops” and in PA “Buckle Up the Next Million Miles.” There were road crossings signs for moose, deer, elk, bear, turtles, fawns and slow moving horse drawn buggies.

Small town America is alive and well and full of good food. Main Street Station in Plymouth NH served me Eggs Benedict with the contents of a Philadelphia Cheese Steak on top and in Marmarth ND the Past Time Café served my hubby cottage cheese with fruit arranged as a happy face on it. Dinner for $25 for the two of us was not unusual.

Every little town had something to be proud of and had a cannon or a tank on the courthouse lawn. Maybe it was the $1,500 prize for the Catfish Derby or that the town had a Corner Bar, a Nu Bar, the Old Bar and the Other Bar. There are “World’s Largest Statue of…” all over the place. In small town truck stops I found coconut flavored sunflower seeds and pipe tobacco in one-pound bags and nightcrawler worms for bait.

I noticed cattails grew in every state we were in. I discovered Lake Superior seagulls sound nothing like ours out west. You can drive through clouds of butterflies in the Midwest. I saw nothing but huge round hay bales until we reached Colorado where square hay bales rematerialized. I questioned if folks would drive 10 miles off a secondary road in southwestern North Dakota to view a burning coal seam.

Coming home to Comptche we discovered at 6:30 a.m. that our neighbor had started a timber harvest. Yep, the whine of chainsaws and the thump of trees hitting the ground. The dogs are barking and the goats are spooked. Vacation was good while it lasted.

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