Postcards from a trip across America

Paddle from the Rocky River in Cleveland into Lake Erie.

Our only mistake so far: A sign on Highway 20 showed the way there The world’s largest popcorn ball in Sac City, Iowa. Unfortunately, with an 11-hour drive to Denver ahead of us, we moved on.

That misjudgment aside, our road trip across America has been one wonderful surprise after another.

  • In Cleveland, this quintessential Rust Belt town, we went kayaking on Lake Erie.
  • In Humboldt, Iowa, we sat in (but didn’t drive) a huge tractor on a corn and soybean farm.
  • In Denver we went to a youth hockey game (my grandnephew scored two goals).
  • In Salt Lake City we toured a ski factory (where my son works).
  • In otherwise barren eastern Nevada, we hiked the lush Ruby Mountains and watched mutton busting (a rodeo event where children cling to the backs of sheep) on the TV at the bar where we ate dinner.

I’m not usually much into road trips. Driving bores me. Sitting annoys me. Seeing something interesting through a car window just teases me: I’d rather be out in the open where I can have a good look at it than speed past it.

Not taken the road: Sac City, Iowa, home of the world’s largest popcorn ball. Photo by Travel Iowa

But we had a wedding and a few reunions in California, and as we made our plans we found that the airfares were obscene, the airlines were increasingly unreliable, and the rental car rates were astronomical. Even if a gallon of gas threatened to cost as much as a half-gallon of Peachy Paterno, driving the 2,700 miles to the West Coast seemed like the best option.

The key: having friends and family to visit (and stay with) along the way, and not being in a rush.

Not being in a hurry meant making the four-hour drive from State College to Cleveland and staying two nights in some places so it didn’t feel like we were staying in our car.

Before we left, Facebook teased me with snaps of friends living their best lives. It’s hard to look at posts from Bali, Paris, Lisbon and Amsterdam when you’re mowing your lawn at state college and about to go to The Mistake on the Lake.

Down on the farm in central Iowa.

It turned out that I was enormously impressed with Cleveland and would not have changed places with anyone during my 10-day trek through this troubled country. Time and time again, I felt like I was seeing America’s best self—a country of homes and gardens on tree-lined streets (Cleveland, Evanston, Illinois, and Humboldt, Iowa); of urban parks (Cleveland again) and majestic mountains (Rockies, Rubies, Sierra); from 21St Century (the ski factory in SLC) and the ageless wisdom of sowing and reaping (Iowa).

If I could ignore the news and the biased perspective I was getting (I haven’t seen any of Cleveland’s more deserted neighborhoods), I would say that rumors of our country’s impending demise are grossly exaggerated.

I know it better.

This was a vision, a reminder of what America could be like if we were all a little less greedy and xenophobic. We often speak of State College as a bubble, with Penn State’s dependable engine keeping the community solvent enough to pursue dreams of a better world.

On this trip, I realized that when you live in a bubble, you tend to travel in a bubble: everyone we visited was just as wealthy as we were. Every bed we slept in was comfortable, every towel soft, every home cooked meal a feast.

Some observations along the way:

  • Though we’re still averaging more than 100,000 cases a day, America is done with COVID. If I had kept a list of mask wearers seen at rest stops and gas stations from Keystone State to Golden State, I doubt the number would be much higher than a dozen. Even more people I know have contracted COVID in the past few weeks than in the past two years.
  • In Denver, we watched with ecstatic relatives as the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup. It was the only hockey game I watched all season. In the end, I appreciated the ritualized interaction of the opposing teams even more than the game itself. The players hugged and shook hands. The two coaches engaged in what appeared to be a cordial, extended conversation. Remember when sportsmanship was a core American value? No matter how much it hurts, our coaches taught us to accept defeat and congratulate the winners on being the better team, at least this time. Modern Conservatives have thrown their support behind a sore loser who has tried, and is still trying, to lie, cheat, steal and bully his way back into the presidency – all of which sounds like a wholesale rejection of conservative values. I hope some of these people picked up the end of the avs lightning game and got a break.
  • In case you’re wondering, the world’s largest popcorn ball is 8 feet tall and weighs 9,370 pounds.

The only problem with driving off-road: we have to drive back.

About Stephanie McGehee

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