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Crossing the US West to East

Utah

My good friend Salman's company is at the forefront of economic trends, downsizing not only by laying off employees but also by closing an entire office.  Unfortunately for Salman, the office to be closed was Salt Lake's – where he works.  He was smart enough to make himself appear indispensable and was offered a comparable job in the company's main office just outside of Boston.  Everything fine and dandy except he had to get there.  Weighing the possibilities, a cross-country trip in his trusty Accord came out on top.  2400 miles are sure lonely, so I volunteered to be good company.  This also gave me the opportunity to stop by Iccha's for tea and dinner.  And I would see for myself the much ridiculed Midwest.

Departure was a bit slow, as the night before was filled with gaiety and merriment, gallons of beer, and heaps of mediocre bar food.  Finally, around 9:30 we were on the road and on our way to Wyoming.

Wyoming

Since we were doing the entire trip in four days we did not have too much time for sightseeing or cultural experiences.  It basically boiled down to a lot of driving and stopping for gas, food, coffee and leaks.  Nevertheless, we pursued two strategic goals on the trip:  Finding good coffee shops and avoiding fast food at all cost.  Our first stop was in Cheyenne, and it was a hit.  Cheyenne is a good example of a small western cowboy town that got stuck somewhere in the past and is now developing not only slower than other cities, but also at a simpler level.  The Sunday afternoon was very quiet.  There was almost no one on the wide streets, which together with the low buildings gave the city an airy feel.  We found one lonely pedestrian who was happy enough to give us directions to the downtown coffee shop, located in the City News Building.  Inside, it looked like some sort of bookstore, but the focus is clearly on magazines.  There were more racks and shelves full of them than I had ever seen.  We had a coffee and a piece of cake and contemplated the plan for the rest of the day.  Somewhere in Nebraska…

Nebraska

The state is completely covered with plains, sometimes somewhat rolling, that are used agriculturally in their entirety.  We spent the night in North Platte in an exceptionally nice Ramada Inn where we seemed to be the only guests.  The town of North Platte is very near the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers and is famous for hundreds of thousands of cranes who gather there every year during their migration for elaborate mating rituals.  Imagine spring break for birds.  We did not come as tourists and did not have time to see the spectacle.  But if anyone ever comes along the same path, be advised to stay in North Platte over night.  The abundance of cheap, well-kept motels is remarkable – and maybe you'll see the cranes.

The next day, we stopped in Omaha to have lunch.  We walked around downtown and I was immediately exhilarated – to live in Salt Lake, which is a much more lively and happening place than Omaha.  Or so it appeared at first glance and after covering the two by three blocks that constitute downtown.  There were mostly banks, offices and some apartment towers.  Not many restaurants, though, which led us to ask for directions for an Indian restaurant.  We had to walk five or six blocks away from downtown along increasingly desolate buildings with boarded-up windows and fewer and fewer people on the sidewalks.  Then we got to the Old Market District.

Old Market is an urban revitalization project that exudes an aura of authenticity that is not encountered often.  The district is slightly dilapidated betraying persistent efforts to resist complete gentrification.  Here, history is not in polished wooden beams and cute little plaques, but in old windows, walls and brick-covered streets.  The ground level was full of restaurants, bars and little shops with no sign of corporate America – national chains were conspicuously absent.

We found the Indian Oven, and its interior showed a degree of decrepitude and shoddiness that matched the outside.  Next to wood carvings and pictures, the walls proudly displayed examples of all the curries and chutneys on the menu – as small spots close to the tables.  Service was down to the same standards.  Tables were set upon arrival of guests.  Our server did not write down our orders and later came back to ask whether Salman had ordered the Tandoori chicken, which he hadn't.  But what matters most in a restaurant is the food, which was marvelous.  We both savored scrumptious meals and had not much reason to complain in the end.

After lunch we did not just leave Omaha but strolled over to the coffee shop we had seen on our walk down to the restaurant.  It was called Delice, and that just about sums it up.  Just speak the word several times and enjoy its ring, the sweet sound of its light vowels, resonating delight.  We ordered a coffee and cake and kept the picture of our server and her lovely smile in our minds for the rest of the trip.

As if that wasn't enough, there was another experience to make the brief sojourn to Omaha entirely unforgettable.  We needed gas, quickly.  The place to satisfy our needs was Kum & Go.  No kidding, there is in Nebraska and Iowa a regional chain of gas stations by this promising name.  And, making good on the name, Salman was in and out of it in no time at all, and the smile on his face lingered for almost an hour.

Iowa

We crossed the Missouri without noticing it, stopped for a leak, crossed the Mississippi, and were in Illinois.  No kidding, and nothing missed.

Illinois

Since it was getting dark, we stopped for the night in Peru.  What made us leave the freeway was an auspicious sign advertising the Tiki Inn.  We were thinking South Pacific, drinks, sun, and bikini-clad company.  Bliss, to put it in one word.  We were to be disappointed bitterly.  The motel was cheap and sucked.  Smelly, plasticky and slowly decaying, it was not the place to make memories.  Thinking we would survive, we decided to spend the night there anyway.  Peru offers nothing besides an atmosphere very favorable to raising little rednecks.  After dinner at Mi Margarita, the local Mexican cantina, we returned to the inn to discover a bunch of jolly ladybugs and other critters crawling and fluttering around in our room and attacking our luggage.  That was too much then.

Even though midnight was close, we had to change motels.  Salman returned the key at the front desk and complained about the menagerie in the room.  Much to our surprise, the attendant showed no surprise at all.  She did not bother to apologize or offer us a different room.  No, our experience was probably one others had had many times before.  Now we were really happy to be out of that dive.  It only took two minutes to drive over to the Quality Inn.  Our room there was much nicer, though the coffee maker was still full of brew from the morning, and there was a letter on the table that the previous guest had forgotten.  It was too late for details and we went to bed.

The next morning saw us driving south of Chicago at a rather leisurely pace because right after getting onto the toll road, traffic slowed down to a trickle and we were left contemplating the virtues of congestion for a fee because the freeway had become a tollroad just when the traffic jam started.  The ratio of time per dollar was mighty high.

Indiana

Then we were in Indiana, and things started looking up again.  We still had to pay for the privilege of driving, but at least now we could take advantage of it, which we did until we stopped in South Bend, the home of the fighting Irish at perennially mispronounced Notre Dame University.  The town is good looking and well-maintained but devoid of attractions, attention grabbers, and life in general.

We were turned away from the Thai restaurant downtown because of the late hour and settled for Irish lunch, in retrospect quite appropriate given the location.  Then we grabbed a coffee at the coffee shop next to the Thai restaurant and were served by the chick that had turned us away from the restaurant not even an hour earlier.  It turned out that both places were owned by the same person.  The coffee shop had a decidedly post-modern look with clear lines, bright color, metal and glass.  It was filled to the brim with chairs but devoid of people.  The coffee and tea were good – but who placed stacks of Vogue and Elle on the tables?  Did that scare the locals?

Half an hour later, we were back on the road and on our way out of Indiana.  We did not see anything remarkable.  Our AAA guidebook did not know better either and mentioned the dome of Notre Dame University as the most visited attraction of the entire state.

Ohio

In no time, were in Ohio, which is similar to its western neighbor but slightly hillier and definitely more industrial.  Thanks to the ongoing decline in manufacturing activity in this country, the state looks historic, certainly past its prime, like a museum that no one has bothered to sweep in a while.  Yet, presidential elections are being decided here.  Go figure.

We left the road for dinner and ended up in Elyria, economically depressed and consequently slightly depressing.  The drizzle that draped everything into a shade of wet grey contributed to that.  Dinner was only remarkable for the size of the meal – very small.  This was fine with me because with sitting as the only activity I could probably get enough calories from just breathing.  Back on the interstate, Salman got a warning for speeding, we filled up on gas, and Ohio was history.

Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania the transition from plains to mountains concluded.  Trees became increasingly abundant.  The next morning we saw that all looked really nice, but that night we just wanted to do some more miles and then find a motel.  This we eventually did in DuBois where we stayed at a posh Holiday Inn, complete with hot breakfast and newspaper in front of the room.

Three quarters through Pennsylvania we finally left I-80 after three days on it.  We changed to I-81 and I-84, which we stayed on until Hartford, Connecticut.  Pennsylvania was the first state where I was thinking that it would be nice to spend some time in, if not live there.  The state must be very green (it was still too early to tell in March), and hills, mountains and sparse towns make outdoor activities seems like the logical choice.  Sean had also told me about great mountain biking and rock climbing in PA.  I saw no reason not to believe him.

New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts

New York annoyed us to no end with a state speed limit of 55mph.  It was probably warranted considering the shape the interstate was in, but my preferred solution is always fixing the road instead of lowering the speed limit.  We had lunch at an Italian pizzeria in Middletown and then set out on the remaining 200 miles to Amherst.

Before we got there, we got into bad traffic when we entered Connecticut.  It was raining very hard by now, and driving was very slow.  New York was raging in comparison.  In the end we got to Amherst two hours late but on time according to my watch, which was still set to Mountain Time.  Iccha had cooked Nepali dinner and invited a few friends, and we had a jolly evening.  The next morning, after breakfast in Amherst, Salman drove me to the airport, and I was on my way back to Salt Lake.  Good luck in Boston, Salman!!

Bottom Line

Contrary to what many say and most think, a quick cross-country drive does not have to be a horrible experience.  Ours was mostly pleasant.  Though the scenery cannot compete with Utah's, no part of the country is dreary and dreadful – unless it rains in Ohio.  Even Nebraska, probably the most boring state, wasn't all that bad.  The skies were always amazing, and we had fun making fun.

Sean had told me the few times that he had driven across the country he was always looking forward to Taco Bell for variety.  On our trip, in stark contrast, we ate American, Indian, Mexican, Irish, Greek and Italian, generously speaking.  We did not stop at any fast-food franchise.  That was by choice.  One can always leave the interstate, hit the next town, and have a decent meal.  That is not realistic on a two-day trip, but we took the extra time, and were rewarded culinarily.

The search for best coffee shop on the way was very cursory.  Omaha's Delice wins hands down, not only for lack of serious other contenders but for tasty coffee and treats in an inviting atmosphere with memorable baristas.  Cheyenne's City News was very good for a bookstore coffee shop, and South Bend's Cheesecake and Coffee had a promising setting.  There is no good coffee at the interstate, obviously.

Postscriptum

Half a year later, Salman bid another farewell, attempted the trip back out west, but overshot the target by a few hundred miles.  He's now converting buses from diesel to hybrid in beautiful San Diego.

second half of 2004