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Discoveries On 8,000 Miles Of Back Roads

After three weeks on the road, 3,000+ miles by rail on AMTRAK and 4,996 driven in a rental car what did we learn wandering around Americas in mid-summer? It’s green, it rains, and there is more corn and soybeans growing than we ever expected.

Yes, I remember from grammar school geography that the Midwest is the bread basket of America growing grain crops, and yes, I remember that it rains in the East, South, and Great Plains in the summertime, but I’d forgotten over the decades. Rain especially was appreciated. Hubby and I both more than once said, “Look! A puddle!”

As seniors we came to the conclusion that if we wanted to do another “Wander America” trip we’re not spring chickens and we’d better do it while our health and finances permitted. So with a little planning off we went. We each had a bucket list of things we wanted to accomplish. Hubby’s featured tourist train lines and rail museums in PA and WI. He recommends the narrow gauge East Broad-Top Railroad in Rockhill Forge PA with a steam locomotive at the head end and a turnaround using a wye. Mine was visiting authors homes and scattered friends and I wanted to visit Alabama and Mississippi. These last two states were what I needed to claim the honor of visiting all 50 states in the USA.

We’d traveled the Southwest before by train but never the South so on AMTRAK’s “Crescent” from New Orleans to Baltimore we saw that world out the train window. AMTRAK can provide touching sentimental moments. In the cafe car as Hispanic elder and his middle age son sat across the table from each other softly singing Hispanic songs. They sang La Bamba, Guantanamara, Oye Como Va, Day-O (Banana Boat song) and harmonized and smiled and laughed together for an hour.

In Baltimore we rented a car and drove back west avoiding turnpikes and thruways and driving back roads. While I could go on for pages on what we saw and when we did it I wouldn’t want to bore readers. Hubby and I did increase our tourist train ride and railroad museum list to over 50 attractions around the USA. It took us 45 years to do this. For details you can invite me out for a cup of coffee.

Instead I chose to look at what we saw that was different from what we see day to day in California. Like…place names. I’m a huge fan of place names and when I was bored I’d browse a state highway map (on paper) and look at what names people put on the land. 

Take these Pennsylvania towns and guess where the settlers came from…Aleppo, Athens, Berlin, Boston, Bristol, Dublin, Mexico, Milan, Rome, Scotland, Sweden, Ulster and Valencia. Explain to me how the state has names for towns that didn’t exist early on and are thousands of miles to the west? There is California, Denver, Dallas, Reno and Wyoming all in that state. There are plenty of places named after common animals, but want to live in Chinchilla, PA? Or how about the unusual Brave, Dry Tavern, Cranberry, Good Intent, Hometown, and Nanty Glo, which in Welsh means “Ravine of Coal”.

Wisconsin place names were fun with Albion, Altoona and Philadelphia (borrowed from PA), Athens, Belgium, Cuba City, Genoa, Holland, Jerusalem, Stockholm and Wales. It had one of the longest place names I saw anywhere…Fontana-on-Lake-Geneva. Indiana contributed Asphaltum, Cuba, Buddha, Ireland, Mecca, and 20 place names starting with Saint.

Traveling unfamiliar roadways the signs on billboards and upon buildings can cause laughter. “Troubled,? Call Jesus. Phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx.”(I never knew Jesus had a phone number-no disrespect intended). Adult fantasy stores were next to a Pin-Up Girl Costume Shop and a Gentleman’s Club. There was a “Touch of California “ Marijuana Dispensary we passed. “Do not apply vibrator to any part of the car body” it said on a freight train car. There was a Honey Farm, Pistachioland, Stump Dumps, Pizza and Trout Ranches, and in Amish country “Water and Shade for your Buggy”.

Unusual work or product offers we don’t see here? “Now hiring deck hands and captains”. Car washes had dog washing stations. Saddlery shops were downtown businesses in the west. “Holy Smokes BBQ” was right next to a church and Horse Hotels were offered. People were trusting as stands at the end of driveways offered firewood, floral bouquets, eggs, nightcrawler, and goat milk with a coffee can to put your money in. We saw archery stores, Tap& Sap Maple Sugar shops, trading posts, fireworks emporiums and aircraft disassembly operations. All flea markets were also artisan or creators markets too.

State Highway Departments wanted travelers to be safe so road signs we don’t see CA were evident. Both PA & IN had yellow warning signs for Amish buggies. Signs warned “Watch for Eagles on Roadway” and “Wild Horses crossing next 5 miles.” There were pictograph road symbols for kayak launching, and a laptop computer with wi-fi signal crescents on it for rest stop areas.

You can use a “Climbing Lane” but over the hilltop it says “Stay in Reduced Gear” and what is “Enhanced Friction Treatment Ahead”? Many states warn “No Cell Service Next — Miles Ahead”. “Drowsy Drivers Take Next Exit” and “Concentrate on Driving” is suggested. Roads are also parkways, thruways, pikes, trails, cut-offs, junctions, and bypasses. “Report Poachers…$1,000 Reward” the sign says. An Indiana sign claimed they grow more popcorn than any other state and a tourist shop had it in 38 flavors.

More odd observations…Nebraska ranchers make V-shaped wind barriers to protect cattle in snowstorms but Wyoming does not. Underpasses and elevated roadways in many states had playgrounds, skateboard parks and shade for the public, and often cops hiding watching traffic. What was NOT there was homeless encampments. Churches offered free bus rides to services. Anyplace that built little storage shacks also built hunting blinds on stilts and LOTS of people hunt. A&W fast food restaurants in Wisconsin serve deep fried cheese curds. Why does Wyoming make giant square hay bales when other states make them round? Barb’s Cafe in Florence WI had its own Little Library lending books for free.

Mother Nature was green and wet in most all places. We were in 23 states and got rained on in 21 of them. Sunflowers, hostas, Matilleja Poppies, chicory and Mullen grow all over the USA. Kudzu vines cover the earth in the South climbing guy wires to power poles, reach the top of the transformer, then cascade down in streamers and puts poison oak vines to shame. Functioning windmills pump water into stock tanks. Evergreen tree snow fences are replacing wood and metal ones.

What I liked best was lands untouched by the hand of man, and luckily there are still thousands of acres of it. What gave me the creeps from Mother Nature was a Mormon cricket invasion in Rio Blanco County in northern Colorado. Imagine something out of the old “Blob” movie of 1958…a moving mass of pulsating insect life flowing like lava across the highway. I kid you not, the roadway was red for miles from crushed insects. It was gross.

My literary treats on the trip were two homes in Indiana. One was of a woman author I love, Gene Stratton-Porter. She designed her own home, a cabin in the woods, and is buried there by Sylvan Lake and Rome City with her home a start museum. The second author stop was for a hometown. Wood block graphic artist Charles Surendorf is a man whose biography I have just finished writing. After studying the man for two years while writing the book I got to see the town where he spent the first 20 years of his life, Richmond, and visit the art museum that recognizes the value of his work.

In Indiana my husband discovered the Auburn Cord Duisenberg Museum displaying some of the most beautiful cars of a century ago. In Shipsawana IN I discovered a fabric store half the size of a WalMart that catered to the Amish and other serious quilters. I’m part of a quilters group in Comptche and we are always looking for chicken patterned fabric. I had my choice of 20 bolts of chicken designed cotton and I brought home an assortment to share.

The best unexpected discovery was a museum in Nebraska in the sand hills area in the northwest corner of the state. As a museum docent myself I am picky in my expectations for displays, management, research, etc. and this museum was a great one. At the Museum of the American Fur Trade in Chadron NB you not only learned how it happened, you learn about every country that trapped in the USA, where their trade goods came from, how natives used the trade items, and there was a whole room of firearms traded for skins. You could buy fabric in the gift shop with a reproduced pattern used by the Hudson Bay Company 200 years ago. You could buy a tanned beaver skin if you wanted one. (It wasn’t cheap). Their reference library had thousands of volumes on the subject and the museum site was chosen because a fur trading post existed there, and they rebuilt it. Worth a visit if you ever pass that way.

Travel is fun but homecoming is better. After wide open skies and land flat as a sheet of paper I was ready for the welcoming hills and vegetation of home. I put on a shirt with sleeves for the first time in three weeks, checked the 100 e-mails I’d been ignoring, and moved back into the flow of things.

PS, My personal opinions on AMTRAK travel and the best tourist railroads in the USA are available by inviting me out for a cup of coffee.

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