Transnational Movement, Part One: The Midwest is Flat

As I’ve mentioned a few times recently, I’ve lived in California almost one year.  Whether or not that was a good decision remains to be seen, but it certainly made for an adventure getting myself out here from the cold reaches of the Northeast.  This is part one of a to-be-determined (let’s say, three?) part series documenting as much as I can remember about that week-long voyage across the land.

What I woke up to on my last day in WNY

In the weeks prior to my move I had all of my stuff packed in boxes in piles in my bedroom, downstairs, and in the garage with the larger items filling up what was once empty space in the family room.  I put it there when I came home from college and it stayed there for just over two months during the summer.  The summer in which I did basically nothing but marathon HBO, eat at Wegman’s and wait patiently by the phone/email for interviews/job offers to come.  My last day living in Western New York, my dad and I loaded all most of my earthly possessions into a 200 cubic foot box with wheels and attached that bad boy up to my (well, it wasn’t mine at the time) little four-cylinder Saturn.  With everything ready to go, the next day couldn’t come soon enough.  And so it did, and I said goodbye to the place that was my home for 18 years (and a little bit during college too).

I should mention that I did not make this journey alone; my mom came along to help with the move and driving because she’s a pretty awesome mom.  Plus who would pass up an opportunity to drive across the country?  Oh, also in addition to the trailer, my most valuable (read: fragile) belongings were in the car itself, so as it were, there was the two of us in the front seats, cameras and snacks within reach and the backseat filled up to head level with carry-on luggage and other random stuff.  So at around 7:30am on a sunny August 4th, 2011, we set off for the Golden State. We headed up the 400 expressway toward I-90, our home for the next 11 hours.  I-90 west along Lake Erie is nothing notable;  earlier that summer I traveled to West Virginia on a whim so that stretch of highway was familiar and went by quickly.  The New-York/Pennsylvania border is only an hour and a half from home, and the crossing of Pennsylvania took only about 45 minutes.  We made a stop for gas early on in Pennsylvania.  I don’t recall where exactly, but I remember the station being across the street from a somewhat forested area screaming with cicadas.

From a brief stretch in there Lake Erie was clearly visible, covered in haze on a humid summer morning.  As Pennsylvania faded into Ohio, so did the hills fade into farmland and flatness.  The trees became more sparse and homesteads and barns became more visible.  The very familiar suburban rust belt environment of Northwestern Ohio grew dense as we approached Cleveland, the first city of several that we would drive through on the trip.  There’s not much to say about it really; Lake Erie is right there, it’s got some nice shiny buildings, Progressive Field is visible next to the highway, and we crossed over some neat bridges but I was more excited about the signs pointing toward Chicago.

The most exciting part of driving through Cleveland

After Cleveland, the farmland became all there was for hundred of miles.  We stopped for lunch at a travel plaza briefly and in my growing boredom with Ohio decided to start the game of looking for different states’ license plates.  I drew a crude map of the country from memory (something I’ve gotten better at since) and started crossing off states I’d see on the road.  This kept me alive, awake, alert, and somewhat enthusiastic as we drove off across the two-dimensional landscape.

At one point we crossed a bridge over the Maumee River and down it I could see the skyline of Toledo.  Neat!  Finally after a long 5 hours, we crossed the border into Indiana.  I don’t remember much about Indiana since being almost the same as Ohio, I just tuned it out.  About halfway across the state though we briefly hopped off of I-90 heading north.  I had planned into the trip slight detours that would enable us to hit as many states as possible on the way;  the first was Michigan, a state lying about a quarter mile north of I-90 at Indiana State Route 9.  After five minutes off the highway and having nabbed a photo of the state welcome sign, we were back on our way once again.

The most notable thing about the drive through Indiana was the time change.  Near the western half of the state lies the divide between Eastern and Central time.  I made sure to get a photo of the sign there as well, though not a good one as it snuck up on us. (and it was in the median! What the hell, Indiana?)  In this area, the geography became once again more populated.  Lake Michigan was just north according to my maps, but I couldn’t see it over the suburban developments and trees.  It’s probably a good thing that these developments also blocked my view of Gary, Indiana.  Near Gary the roads get a bit congested, not with traffic (yet) but with other roads.  I-80 merges with I-90 and I-94 (kinda) and I-65 starts there and heads south nearby as well.  There were a lot of confusing interchanges and concrete mazes to navigate.

By now it was about 5pm and we were approaching Chicago.  Bad news bears.  As soon as we crossed the border, we became lodged in a veritable vehicular logjam.  Obviously I was bored stiff since we were not moving, but I think the worst part may have been the fact that I couldn’t even find any new license plates because we were surrounded by the same freakin’ cars the whole time.  Sometime later, I don’t know when, we started going again and eventually it seemed most of the traffic headed north to Chicago whilst we stayed going due west on I-80.  Around the interchange of I-294 I somehow found the Sears Tower (what are you talking about, Willis?) barely through the haze.  It came and went from my vision, but I know it was there.

Once out of the Chicago metropolitan area, the amount of corn I could see from the highway increased exponentially.  Still driving on perfectly flat land, there was nothing to see but stalks of corn (and wind turbines on the horizon!) for miles in every direction.  The sun was setting in our face as we approached our first major turn, I-39 north toward Madison, Wisconsin and we decided it would be a decent time to stop for dinner and lodging.  The first exit with a hotel was for the small town of Mendota, Illinois.

Main street, Mendota, Illinois

Growing up in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York near farms and whatnot, I thought I had an idea of what a small town was.  Nope.  This place was about the size of the town I worked in during high school, but condensed into a few square miles with nothing but corn surrounding it.  And somehow, they still had a Chinese buffet!  (aside: According to Wikipedia, in 2000 the town had 7,272 people and an Asian contingent of 0.45%, or roughly 32 people.  I’m sure they were all in that restaurant.)  My new idea of a small town would later be obliterated, but I’ll get to that eventually.

After dinner it became dark quite quickly and we called it a night at the local Comfort Inn.  Being the adventurer that I am (also paranoid, since my life was in a trailer), I slept in the car that night while my mom took a nice room in the hotel.  Wait a minute, didn’t you say earlier that the car was full of stuff?  Why yes I did.  With mom’s carry-ons in the hotel, I moved my stuff to the front seats and made myself a bed in the back with a couple pillows and blankets.  My six-foot frame was a bit scrunched, but I made it work.  The hot, humid night made sleeping interesting, but I survived the night out there in the parking lot.

Day one: Elma, NY –>; Mendota, IL. 628 miles.

The next morning we watched the sunrise over the corn from the hotel, grabbed a quick continental breakfast and set off on Day 2.  Since my mom powered through 12 hours of driving the first day, I took the wheel.  Heading up I-39 we spotted wind farms amongst the corn, giving us basically the only excitement of the morning.  I couldn’t wait to get to Wisconsin for a change of scenery.  Luckily, the hills began to roll around Rockford and the farms became slightly more wooded (as in, there were some trees now).  The highway snaked around Rockford, connected to our old pal I-90, and headed north toward Madison.

As we entered Wisconsin, the geography began to change into rolling wooded hills dotted with farms very much reminiscent of home.  About the state though there isn’t much else to say.  Madison is a small city, much greener than I would have imagined, and once past the forests began to spring up.  We passed several water parks (like, three in a row) and campgrounds, kind of like those near Lake George.  This went on for a few hours.  I continued to scan for license plates, I let my mom look up stuff on my Droid, and eventually we turned west yet again.  Fast approaching was the Mississippi River and we both got our cameras ready.  As it turns out, I-90 crosses the Mississippi at a series of shrubby islands, so there wasn’t anything to see at all.  I did spy a riverboat but we were unable to capture its soul in film.  The Mississippi is of course the state line here, so we were now in Minnesota.  The west bank is adorned with steep cliffs and the highway started snaking through a deeply cut river valley.  I was excited; having never been to Minnesota, I imagined much of the state to be like this.

Minnesota, in a cornshell.

Nope.  A few miles later and we were back to corn and flatness.  Both of us growing bored of this, we decided to break for lunch and gas at the next exit.  Enter, Stewartville, Minnesota, another small town just south of Rochester.  Having some decent foliage masked the size of the town, which was about the same size as Mendota, but it seemed bigger to me.  We ate in the center of town at Subway, which was just like any Subway I’d ever been to, except this one was full of strange looking old people.  Minnewegians or something.  To fit in, you betcha I tested out my Minnesota Nice, complete with exaggerated accent. (Ahh, geez)  Small town Minnesooota was fun while it lasted, but I was always anxious to get moving again.

Minnesota, like Illinois, was as I mentioned covered in corn and wind turbines.  I-90 goes through town after town, each separated by tens of miles, rinse and repeat.  Speaking of rinse, one of these such towns is Austin, Minnesota, a place I would like to avoid driving within 100 miles of again.  See, Austin is the headquarters of the Hormel Corporation, famous for their delightful meat-like substance SPAM.  You better believe the whole town smells like SPAM. Ohhh youuu betcha it does.  Windows up, AC on recycled air.  Once past, windows down and let that fresh air in.

Minnesota is not a small state.  We spent over four hours crossing flat farmland on a straight highway at 75 mph.  Fortunately, we eventually came to another one of my detours.  I-90 is routed across southern Minnesota where it heads over into South Dakota.  However, there’s a nearby state that I really really wanted to visit and it was only ten miles south: Iowa.  Hopping off at US-75 south, we drove through corn fields until we reached a rather sharp S-curve.  According to the map, this curve was right on the border of Minnesota and Iowa.  Sure enough, there was the welcome sign halfway across.  We pulled over, took some pictures (because Iowa. Crazy!) admired the corn, and headed on again.

Future birthplace of James T. Kirk

A right turn near Rock Rapids and we were on the way to South Dakota.  I still can’t believe I drove through South Dakota.  I always think of it as being so far north, but it really isn’t. (Hey, maybe that’s why it’s called SOUTH Dakota, dummy)  Anywho, we get into Sioux Falls, a nice little city that for some reason also reminded me of home, and head up I-229 back toward I-90.  Maybe it was the light at this point, but South Dakota definitely seemed browner and more grassy than Minnesota.  Perhaps I’m confusing my memories with another later state, but that’s what my brain tells me.  Still flat, but less corny (Hallelujah).  The highway continued on straight.

For the past few hours, we had begun to notice an increasing number of motorcyclists on the road passing us heading west.  I know I didn’t think much of it initially, but as we approached Mitchell, South Dakota, things got interesting.  We decided to stay the night there, but upon reaching some hotels, we were shocked to find them all booked solid.  See, in early August there’s a motorcycle rally out in Sturgis, South Dakota.  It’s called the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (go figure).  A sizable population of bikers heading there decided it would be nice to stop in Mitchell for the night, getting there just before we did (not really, but that makes it more dramatic doesn’t it?).  We spend a good half-hour looking around Mitchell before we find a place to stay that doesn’t completely suck.

It’s a palace… made of corn!

During our exploration we wandered past the Mitchell Corn Palace.  I heard it was something I should see, but I didn’t really care much.  Plus, corn.  We’re all sick of corn now.  For dinner we hit up a nearby Chinese restaurant and ate our fill before heading just down the street to our hotel motel.  I planned once again to sleep in the car, which we had parked in a grassy lot behind our room.  However, and I still don’t know where it came from, there was just an awful smell hanging in the air.  It was like garbage mixed with body odor, and it wasn’t coming from inside the car.  I tried to see if it would be tolerable, but alas I decided it best to sleep in the room that night.  My streak (of 1) was broken.  That day I drove a good 12 hours and as soon as my head hit the pillow, it was lights out.

Day two: Mendota, IL –> Mitchell, SD. 640 miles.

(Continued in Part Two)

Stats at the end of Part One:

  • Days: 2
  • Total days: 2
  • Miles traveled:  1,268
  • Total miles traveled: 1,268
  • State count:  10 (NY, PA, OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MN, IA, SD)
  • Total state count: 10 (same as above)
  • Time zone count: 2 (EST, CST)
  • Total time zone count: 2
  • Notable license plates in this part:  Washington DC!
  • Total times eaten Chinese food: 2
  • Continental breakfasts: 1
  • Amount of corn seen: too much
  • Motorcyclist density: increasing
  • Notable cities: Cleveland, OH; Chicago, IL; Madison, WI; Sioux Falls, SD

State Welcome Sign gallery:

PennsylvaniaOhioIndianaMichiganIllinoisWisconsinMinnesotaIowaSouth Dakota

Central Standard Time… it’s in there, trust me.

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