North By Northwest

I’m happy to report that I survived the 750-mile road trip from my parents’ house in Asheville, NC back home to Chicago. If you think that doesn’t sound like an accomplishment worthy of recognition, you obviously don’t know how much I abhor road trips, a decades-long aversion which I directly attribute to haunting childhood memories of “vacations” spent touring the country in our wood-paneled Ford station wagon. Try to imagine me – a scrawny, pig-tailed girl, innocent as can be and perfect in every way – sandwiched between my two older brothers for hours on end like a pathetic slice of bologna in a sub roll. All the while, the pestering brothers incessantly poking, prodding and provoking me, and each other, until my dad turns around and whacks one of them or I plead loud and long enough to be allowed to enter the safety zone of the front seat. The mind-numbing memories of hell on four wheels were permanently and deeply etched into my psyche early in my formative years. I could go on and on about the pop-up campers in tow and the miserable state of the campgrounds, but I’ll spare you the details.

To this day, the thought of a road trip still makes me break into a cold sweat. But sometimes out of necessity, opportunity is born. My parents are currently in the process of downsizing from their house of the past 12 years to a much smaller condo which means that they will no longer have the basement and attic spaces to store non-essential items. Mike and I agreed to fly down to Asheville to help them pack and to bring back some of the family keepsakes to store for future generations. We knew it would be too much to ship or to take on a plane, so driving was the only answer. Knowing my distaste for road trips, Mike took it upon himself to plan a route home that would pique my interest and make me forget that we were driving for 3 straight days.

Mike is brilliant at planning trips. It’s not uncommon for him to research for days, even weeks, to come up with the most interesting and memorable itinerary possible. He makesnit a personal challenge. In this case, he outdid himself — talk about making silk out of a sow’s ear. We’ve made the journey from Chicago to Asheville before, and trust me when I tell you, it’s one of the most boring drives known to man. Last time, out of respect for time, we stuck to the major highways, past seemingly endless miles of man v. nature agriculture without the slightest hint of elevation for as far as the eye can see.

This time, Mike planned a more scenic route, adding several hours to the trip but also adding immense visual interest. Heading due north out of Asheville on Interstate 26, we took an astoundingly beautiful serpentine route through the Appalachian Mountains which were especially pretty this time of year as the maples were starting their colorful transition to crimson.

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From NC, we crossed over briefly into the northeastern-most corner of Tennessee and then into the southwestern-most point of Virginia. Captivated by the extraordinary natural beauty, I completely forgot to be bored. Hours passed before we realized that we hadn’t even bothered to put on any music. All those playlists we had prepared for the road trip seemed unnecessary, a bothersome distraction from the masterful composition that surrounded us. As the road meandered through the mountains, I couldn’t help imagining what it would have been like to be one of the early pioneers forging their way through the mountains on horseback or by horse-drawn wagon. Now, that’s a hell of a road trip!

 

Eventually, we made our way across the Kentucky border towards Pikeville, our watering hole for the night. Four states in one afternoon – it was time to chill.

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Pikeville is a small town of approximately 6,900 residents. Located in a pretty little valley at the foothills of the Appalachians (pronounced apple-a-chins with a soft ‘a’ in the middle, for those of you who are not from the South), one might expect Pikeville to be a charming little mountain town. Based on the quaint riverside downtown area, I’m certain that it was at one time charming and strives to be again. But unfortunately, with a busy, four-lane highway running through town, the most prominent feature of present-day Pikeville is the astounding abundance of fast food restaurants.

Eager to find something other than fast food for dinner, we consulted Yelp only to learn that the only local restaurants to receive five-star ratings were, what else, fast food — Subway and Captain D’s Seafood (kin to Long John Silvers). Wisely we decided to take our chances with a mere 4-star-rated restaurant called The Blue Raven which showed potential. Our bravery and resolve was rewarded with an unexpectedly exceptional meal the likes of which could compete for attention in a much bigger market — see my separate post at Kentucky Pride. [Thank you to my reader who wrote to me and confirmed my impression of The Blue Raven. You’re lucky to have Chef Corbin in your area, and I promise I won’t “steal him away.” I think it would be too cold for him here in Chicago anyway.]

A Pikeville native, Chef Corbin left briefly to attend culinary school but returned to his roots to enhance the area with his progressive regional fare prepared with locally sourced ingredients. The result of his training showed in the creative and well-prepared dishes his kitchen turned out. I was a bit surprised that the Pikeville market could bear the slightly elevated price points (reasonable, yet disproportionately high for the area) and wondered how the restaurant had been able to stay in business for so long in a town that clearly has little appreciation for chef-driven cuisine. But we were happy to do our meager part in helping to continue the forward momentum he has created. With a good meal under our belts, we returned to the roadside Holiday Inn to rest up for Day 2 of our road trip. Thankfully, I had requested a room on the backside of the hotel (a so-called “river room,” even though there’s no apparent view of a river), instead of a room alongside the highway that never sleeps.

It was a foggy morning as we were wheels up out of Pikeville, but it wasn’t long before we had emerged from the fog-socked valley and continued our trek through the sunny Appalachians with our sights set on the Ohio River which would become our compass point for most of the day’s journey. The rural route took us through some of the most beautiful parts of the country but also some of the most financially depressed. As the mountains faded in our rear-view mirror, we wound our way out of Kentucky and met up with the Ohio River at the 3-state crossroads where West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky intersect. It’s an anomalous feeling to be within reach of three states at once. Prior to that moment, I had always thought of each as having its own distinct persona — Kentucky, I thought, was beautiful horse country with rolling verdant hills; Ohio was a football-loving agricultural state; and West Virginia was a mountainous mining region. But suddenly, straddling all three with only the width of the Ohio River as the boundary, I understood that, at this central junction, these neighboring states and their inhabitants have much more in common than I ever realized.

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We continued to follow the Ohio River north until it made a sharp left-hand turn just before Portsmouth, Ohio and aimed us northwest towards Cincinnati. The entire length of the river was dotted with industrial sites and power stations on both banks, their smokestacks billowing white froth into the blue sky. As we passed from one town to the next, we couldn’t help but notice the immensely bleak condition of these formerly viable communities.

 

Whatever industries had previously supported these local folks had at some point gone belly up (likely around 2008, but possibly even before), leaving thousands and thousands of people without work and visibly destitute. A majority of the homes were dilapidated and crumbling; most of the businesses were closed and appeared to have been insolvent for some time; in some cases, entire towns were shuttered and abandoned, the main street veritable ghost towns. We were seeing firsthand the impoverished condition that has resulted from America’s broken economy, a crucial and contentious issue of the current presidential race and the topic of many a debate.

As an outsider passing through, it was difficult to witness the hopelessness of the day-to-day situation for my fellow Americans. And based on the proliferation of Trump/Pence signs littering both sides of the street in every town, these desperate souls are hanging their last hopes on the self-professed business prowess of Donald Trump to lift them up out of the morass, a prospect which I fear is both frightening and misguided. I certainly don’t intend to turn this post into a political discussion, but clearly the chances of Donald Trump making good on his promises to “Make America Great Again” are remote at best. He has proven time and again, as he holds court on his golden throne in the penthouse of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, that he cares little for the common man (or woman), the hard-working people of America or small businesses, choosing instead to pad his own pockets and “fire” those who get in the way of his path to personal fortune. To be fair, however, it’s hard to imagine how either candidate could restore industry and commerce to these desperate rural communities. I can only hope that whoever takes the oath of office makes this crucial situation a governmental priority.

It’s important to mention the one diamond in the rough hidden amongst the thousands of tons of coal being transported by train to unknown destinations. Having been on the road since the wee morning hours, Mike and I were starting to get hungry for lunch but hadn’t seen any restaurants that were open for business in many miles. We had just passed through the tiny, desolate burg of Point Pleasant, OH (which happens to be the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant), and we were starting to give up hope of finding an eatery anywhere before Cincinnati, another 60 miles away, when all of a sudden we stumbled upon a pretty, little vineyard situated on the banks of the river. It was such an unexpected and welcome sight that Mike instinctively hit the brakes and pulled into the drive. Ironically, it turns out that he had read about this local vineyard/restaurant while researching our travel itinerary, and it had received some very positive reviews. How encouraging it was to see this thriving business and how lucky we were to discover it at that very moment!

The staff at Moyer Vineyard was nothing short of lovely and the food was plentiful and tasty, but it was the enviable position on the banks of the Ohio River that made the experience so memorable. Sitting on the back porch, sharing a bottle of Moyer’s house Chardonnay while watching the barges slowly glide upriver, was sublime. For a little while at least, we forgot that we were traveling through one of the most financially depressed regions of the country. It was uplifting to overhear one of the young servers proudly boast that she attends an area community college where she is studying to be a nurse. The beaming smile on her face exuded her pride and hopefulness for her own future.

After a satisfying and memorable lunch, we headed off towards Cincinnati and then on to Indianapolis for the night. The scenery and terrain shifted as we neared Cincinnati — from small town USA to developed and industrialized — and I was sad to leave the verdant beauty of the Ohio River behind. Now, we were inching dangerously close to revisiting the haunting memories of my childhood road trips with freeways being the preferred mode of transport.

Day 3 started out in the concrete jungle of commerce surrounding the Indianapolis Airport. We made a game of counting the number of fast food restaurants we passed. Every chain was represented, trust me. In an attempt to again bypass the interstate, we detoured to a rural route north towards Chicago. It was rural alright…incredibly isolated, but immensely beautiful — quaint farmhouses, tilted barns, livestock, and row after row of desiccated cornstalks. Often, we were the only car on the road. This was rural America at its best. We put on some music, absorbed the peaceful scenery and forgot that we were just supposed to be getting from point A to point B.

When all of a sudden, up ahead, rising out of the distance like the great city of Oz — a beautiful wind farm. Miles and miles of graceful, oscillating sculptures for as far as the eye could see, doing double duty by not only creating a magical sight for passers-by, but also creating clean, renewable energy — a welcome departure from the belching power plants along the Ohio River.

Unfortunately, that distraction was short-lived and before long we were forced to leave the rural highway and rejoin the interstate leading back into Chicago. But not before stopping for lunch at a very local diner (as in, I think we were the first travelers that had stopped there in months, if not years), called Babe’z Place (yes, with a ‘z’). The debate continues whether it’s pronounced ‘babes’ or ‘baby’s,’ but considering the cool reception we received upon our arrival, we thought better about asking. Not exactly a highly acclaimed restaurant, Babe’z wasn’t our first choice, but the previous restaurant we had seeked out (based on obviously outdated Yelp reviews) was boarded up tight, as was the entire town, not a single business remaining. Another disturbing reminder of the vulnerability and instability of our small, rural towns, even those a mere 90 miles from a major metropolis like Chicago.

As we crossed the threshold of Chicago’s south side and passed the newly vacated Cellular Field (which I still, and always will, call Comiskey), we knew we were home, and we looked at each other with a mutual feeling of disappointment. Not only had the road trip been an unqualified success, it was also a real turning point for me. All of a sudden, it was as if I had been rehabilitated and the demons that had haunted me for so many decades had dissipated.  I unexpectedly found myself enthusiastically talking about the next road trip and where we might go. Maybe we can do the loop around Lake Michigan? I hear that’s supposed to be nice.

 

 

 

 

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