Starting in the Midwest, finding America on the roads east
As we stared at the juggernaut skeleton, we wondered how such a huge vegetarian found enough to eat.
“They traveled,” said an enthusiastic student serving at the Joseph Morris Museum on the campus of Indiana’s Earlham College.
The Earlham College Museum houses interesting prehistoric relics, including “Randolph”, the juggernaut unearthed in Randolph County north of Richmond, Ind. (Rich Patterson)
It took a lot of needles and spruce leaves to feed a 6,000 pound animal, so the behemoths had to keep moving. For more than a hundred thousand years they traveled roads that took us to the museum in Richmond, Indiana, nearly seven hours east of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Engineers plotting modern highways owe thanks to these long-extinct elephants. Forest mammals effectively used topography to create easy travel routes from place to place. Their tracks were used by Native Americans and eventually by horse-drawn wagons. Some of the paths have evolved into today’s modern roads.
People claim that America’s best engineering project was the interstate highway system that makes driving fast. Others counter that the massive roads have destroyed regionalism by spawning gauntlets of restaurant and hotel chains.
Whether going through Muncie or Boise, the view on the road is monotonous.
We often drive east to visit relatives. Tight deadlines force us to follow fast highways, but we’ve learned to escape boredom and discover varied landscapes, quaint towns, and local restaurants and accommodations that retain local charm. To find them, we leave the highways blazed by the behemoths and follow modern versions of deer trails.
Unlike wandering elephants, deer are homebodies who spend most of their lives in a small area they know intimately. Their narrow paths wander towards food and shelter. Winding secondary highways from interstate exits resemble deer trails leading to overnight lodges and local restaurants.
Our recent trip on Interstates 80 and 74 took us to Indiana, where we exited on a winding “deer trail” road to Indiana’s Turkey Run State Park west of Indianapolis. After checking in, we crossed a suspended walkway and were surrounded by a deep, steep canyon reminiscent of Utah. Far above the common tall hemlocks further north.
“The park is an ecological relic. It retained a cool, humid climate as the surrounding area warmed and became a forest of oak and hickory,” said park naturalist Aaron Douglass.
If the behemoths were still alive, they would find familiar vegetation at Turkey Run.
After driving along Indianapolis, we left I-465 to follow America’s most historic road. Parallel to Interstate 70 is US Route 40, the state highway. Designed by Thomas Jefferson, it was the first highway built by the federal government.
Construction began in 1830 and spanned 620 miles connecting the Potomac and Ohio rivers. In 1830, nearly a century before cars, the road was paved with the new macadam process.
Thousands of people destined to settle in the American Midwest followed the national route. Instead of dragging ourselves in a horse-drawn cart, we followed the road in a comfortable car. The road passed through towns with the charm of the early 19th century.
Approaching Richmond, Ind., we veered half a mile to see the juggernaut skeleton on the Earlham campus.
Motorists passing Richmond on Interstate 70 miss more than a museum. The mid-sized city has a rich musical, automobile and railway history.
Renowned Starr pianos were made here, and the town was once THE magnet for dozens of famous musicians. Songs recorded at Gennett Studio have thrilled listeners around the world. Eventually the company was purchased by Decca Records. Today, a series of medallions along the Gennett Walk of Fame on the Whitewater Gorge Trail feature Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael and others who recorded there.
After visiting the once bustling Pennsylvania Railroad Depot, we noticed that Roscoe was nearby. While sipping a coffee in this decidedly wild restaurant, we met Thomas Hill.
It helps with trail development and promotes cycling and walking on the Cardinal Greenway which runs northwest to Muncie, part of the American Discovery Trail.
“A century ago, Richmond was a musical city. Now it’s a city of trails,” he said.
If we hadn’t paused to sightsee, we would never have heard of the city’s “borrow a bike” program. Anyone, including passing motorists, can borrow a cruiser bike from the Cycling and Fitness Warehouse and pedal the trails radiating outward.
We passed the Ford Model T Museum, a gathering place for classic car enthusiasts. On display are some of the oldest and newest Model Ts, manufactured between 1908 and 1927.
A few hours after leaving Richmond and heading east on I-70, we needed a break from weaving through Interstate trucks. Half a mile after exiting, we sipped coffee in downtown St. Clairsville, Ohio.
Following a deer track route from the exit brought us to two delights. One was a delicious cafe in Aquila, tucked away in an eclectic boutique with enchanting trinkets. The other was looking at the beautiful downtown courthouse. Again, a little detour allowed us to experience Americana without wasting much travel time.
Back on the Interstate toward snowy Pittsburgh, we exited downtown at the Heinz History Center Museum. We especially enjoyed memorabilia from the Steelers, Pirates and “Mr. Rogers neighborhood.
Looking for a motel with local charm at an affordable price, we lucked out. Our cell phone guided us to Lenape Heights Golf Resort, off the deer trail, Highway 28 connecting Pittsburgh to Interstate 80.
Blowing snow is not golf weather, so the inn, perched high above a valley, had a vacant spot with a delightful view of the distant hills. The off season rate compared to the big box motels along the freeways, and the experience was much more fun. Information: lenapegolfresort.com.
Although we had to make a quick trip to New Jersey the next morning, we spotted Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on our map. Driving to this famous groundhog town didn’t add many miles to the day. We enjoyed the Punxsutawney Phil statues before hopping on I-80 for a quick ride through Pennsylvania.
guide to the 21st century
Our recent trip was not unusual for us. When we need to drive somewhere fast, we follow the roads of the highway behemoths, but allow time to divert the roads from the deer trails to nearby places bypassed by most high-speed drivers.
The behemoths and deer relied on instinct and experience to find the best routes. On the other hand, our mobile phones guide us to interesting places on the next outing. We follow the deer trail roads to a state park or town. There, we savor a non-existent regionalism near the highways. Coffees are our favorite. Usually owned by locals and always individualistic, they offer an opportunity to meet locals and enjoy great coffee and sandwiches. And, pit stops.
Stay in classic lodges
We spent the first night of our recent trip at Turkey Run State Park Lodge in Parke County, Indiana. Built in 1919, it exuded rustic charm and uncluttered comfort. The furnishings and decor reminded us of the iconic lodges in Yellowstone National Park. The experience was very different, but the price was comparable to a chain motel.
Other state park lodges we’ve enjoyed include Pokagon in Indiana, Punderson in Ohio, Custer in South Dakota, and Fort Robinson in Nebraska. All are historic, comfortable and practical.
Not all lodges are in state parks. We have spent the night several times at the Lied Lodge of the National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska. Our recent night was at the Lenape Heights Golf Resort in Pennsylvania. Advance reservations are often not necessary out of season, but we call ahead when we have an hour or two left.
The fastest route from the Corridor to New Jersey is to follow I-80 for approximately 1,000 miles. It takes us two days. Instead, our recent trip along a more southerly route added about 150 miles and a half day, but it left us with lasting memories of Richmond’s jazz history, behemoths, a slot canyon and a pleasant stay on a Pennsylvania hill.
Rich and Marion Patterson have a background in environmental science and forestry. They are co-owners of Winding Pathways, a consulting firm that encourages people to “create wonderful work sites”.
The dramatic architecture of the St. Clairsville, Ohio Courthouse is visible from the highway and worth a stop. Use eagle eyes to spot Cafe Aquila across the street. (Rich Patterson)
When Rich and Marion pass by unusual sights, they take the time to greet them, including Marion Patterson standing next to Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, PA (Rich Patterson)
Google Maps helps find unique stays like Lenape Heights Golf Resort, which features European flair in every room and has an excellent restaurant and walking trails. (Rich Patterson)