Looping Through the Midwest

Sunday, 19 January 2014 15:30
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Lots of this out thereA big loop through the Midwest to pick up the states I was going to miss.


At the urging of many friends and blog readers, I had decided back in Florida that I’d make a loop through the Midwest to pick up the states that were missing from the original trip route plan and thereby get all 48 states (plus seven Canadian provinces) on the trip. This plan received a little further modification in Huntsville, AL when I received an invitation from Nissan US to stop by their headquarters outside of Nashville, TN for a little meet ‘n greet plus a factory tour, which was far too amazing of an offer to pass up. The one coordination snag was that many of the Nissan people were currently at the auto show in Detroit, so it would work out better for all involved if I could delay my arrival at Nissan by about a week. Since I had that big ‘ol Midwest swing to cover anyway, it made sense to head straight up to Louisville (skipping Nashville for the time being), head west to St. Louis and Kansas City from there, then loop around back east through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, ending up back at Nissan outside of Nashville, so that’s what I set out to do.

The first stop was Louisville to visit a couple of old friends (and check out some of Louisville, naturally.) For sentimental reasons, I got a room at the Seelbach, an old turn-of-the-century hotel where I’d stayed during my first-ever visit to Louisville while I was out in a Broadway tour many years ago. It was pouring down rain as I arrived, but the Seelbach hadn’t changed much—just as charming and vintage as ever, with a really lovely lobby. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

After a good night’s rest, I met up with my friend Robert in the morning, and we went off on a little walking tour of downtown Louisville. There was a bit of debate as to whether Louisville was a “southern” town or a “midwest” town, and the consensus was that it’s sort of got a foot in each camp. It was on the confederate side in the Civil War, but the layout, key industries, and architecture mark it as much more of a Midwestern town. It makes for an interesting mix.

Some of the nice older homes in Louisville Some were fancier than others A set of four terracotta homes called the "Four Sisters"

We made a quick stop at the Louisville Slugger baseball bat manufacturing location and museum, then wandered through some of the historical areas for a bit, and then swung by Churchill Downs before taking a quick tour of Robert’s shop where they make and rent performer flying equipment. After a quick lunch, we parted ways, and I headed a bit west of Louisville to catch up with Joe, another old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, which was really great. He had a pretty nasty case of the flu, but he dragged himself out of bed and out for coffee, and his daughter (who I hadn’t seen since she was a toddler) tagged along as well, making it one of the trips best catch-up visits.

Thinking about giving the Roadster the 'ol pomegranate treatment... Making bats at the Slugger factory Home of the Kentucky Derby

Walk softly and carry a big 70' bat

After coffee, we went outside and Joe checked out the car for a bit, and then I headed off for points west. My destination for the evening was Owensboro, KY, for no particular reason other than it was at a good distance for a rest stop, and that it’s the home of 2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden (as well as his AMA racer brothers, Tommy and Roger Lee .) It’s also the home of the next stop on the great BBQ sampling adventure—Moonlight BBQ, where I got some pretty awesome Kentucky bourbon-style BBQ.  I crashed at a hotel for the evening, then headed out for St. Louis in the morning.

The ribs and pulled pork at Moonlight BBQ Moonlight by moonlight  Outside of motorcycle racing, this is the Hayden family business

As usual, I stuck to the back roads, which carved through mile after mile of post-harvest corn stubble landscape, taking me through western Kentucky and into Indiana. I was using my secret GPS weapon for finding off-the-beaten-path locations, which is a Garmin Nuvi that’s set to “Avoid Highways” and with maps that are at least a good five years out of date. That combination makes for a GPS that spends most of time being mildly confused about where it’s going, so a bit northeast of Evansville, IN, that led me to New Harmony, where the GPS thought we’d use a bridge there to cross over the Wabash River. Since we were driving the Roads of the Future as far as the GPS knew, it had no idea that the bridge was actually closed and blocked off, so I ended up wandering around the charming little town of New Harmony for a bit. It turns out that New Harmony was the site of a couple of attempts at communal living for an entire community, hence the “harmony” part. Neither of these social experiments worked out, but the name stuck. The town was tiny, with a two block main street, but like a lot of the small mid-19th to early-20th century towns I’ve visited, those couple of blocks had everything. There were two banks, an opera house, a school, a fire station, several dry goods stores, and the ubiquitous Odd Fellows hall. None of these were still serving their original purposes, but they were all still standing, making for a pretty quaint little place.

Downtown New Harmony The roadster, enjoying a little harmony More main street
Harmonists Getting a little culture Sadly, I could not enter Illinois this way

I kept heading west across the cornfields and got to St. Louis right around sunset, where I got a hotel near the Gateway Arch on the west bank of the mighty Mississippi River. It was a really clear night, so after checking in I walked over to the Arch and checked it out. I’d only seen it driving by on I-40 on some cross-country blast before, and it was pretty cool to be able to walk up and touch it. The thing is huge—it’s a parabola that’s 630 feet to the vertex at the top, and all clad in stainless steel. It’s actually part of the National Park System, and the Gateway Arch is just part of the “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial”. (By “expansion memorial” they don’t mean it’s an expansion of the Jefferson Memorial, they mean it memorializes the role Jefferson played in the westward expansion of the United States.) The Arch itself symbolizes the ‘gateway to the west’, and it looked pretty great at night, especially with the full moon that evening.

Moonlight arch It's very shiny You can get dizzy looking up at it from some angles
The moon was pretty cool that night More shiny vertigo Another arch view

It was a very clear day the next morning and not all that cold for a change, so I put the top down on the car and drove back to the Arch to take the trip up to the peak. There are these cool little pod elevators that track up the inside of both sides of the Arch, sort of like little enclosed ferris wheel gondolas. These leave every 10 minutes from the base, and you can stay up on the little observation deck at the top for as long as you want. It’s a great view of the city from up there, even though the windows are little gun slits; maybe 6” high and 14” long.

Looking at the Arch from the Mississippi River Sneaking the roadster down to the river road Another swoopy view (with polarizing filter)
Looking up from directly below the vertex The view from inside of the top Powell was always a good one for hardcore adventuring and 'westward expansion'

Looking down on St. Louis from the top of the Gateway Arch

After the trip to the top, I sort of snuck the car down onto the closed-for-construction riverfront road to get some pictures, then made another stop on the Midwest BBQ Tour at “Pappy’s” to try out a little St. Louis BBQ action. This was easily the best stuff in the Midwest so far. There’s probably rules to all of this somehow, but I think American BBQ falls into three categories that can’t really be compared to each other—you’ve got the Carolina pulled pork version, the Kansas City/Midwest version, and the Texas version. I’ve already been through several versions of the Carolina BBQ, but still have some ground to cover on the other two.

St. Louis Old Courthouse and the Arch Some really detailed terracotta work downtown The Old Courthouse, site of the historic Dred Scott trials
Roadster on the Mississippi levee A little more levee action Watching the barges move down the Mississippi
On the side of the Union Electric Light and Power building Union Electric Front of the Union Electric building, with tiny roadster
The menu at Pappy's Pork platter with slaw, sweet potato fries, and a local root beer Cookin' the BBQ on the curb outside of Pappy's

After Pappy’s, I really didn’t have a plan for the evening, so I randomly chose Washington, MO as a good place to crash. It was unremarkable, but fine—quiet and cheap, which are generally the things you’re looking for in random places to crash. I continued the westward progress the next morning, and stumbled across another interesting little town on the way: Hermann, MO.

Getting into historic oil country The boom days are over, but oil still supports a lot of businesses Some local terminology...a concrete is frozen custard, not sure what a turtle is. You can get them with pop, too.
Breakwaters along the Missouri River levee, site of some epic floods Somebody's been chunkin' some punkin's into the Missouri It's warmed up a little, but still plenty cold enough for big ice
I spent a lot of time following the Lewis and Clark trail, as well as Old Route 66 Outside an old theater in tiny New Haven, MO This will all be corn a few months from now, probably as high as an elephant's eye

Hermann was pretty neat—it’s basically a little German town in the middle of the Missouri prairie, and it’s also apparently the center of the Missouri wine region, which was something I didn’t even know existed until about 10 minutes after I got to Hermann. The Missouri River creates a little microclimate in the area, and they grow a few different varieties of grapes there, including a couple of American cultivars like the Norton . As it was a winter weekday, the town was basically deserted, but there was one winery that was open for tasting, so I stopped in to find out what Missouri wine tastes like. There was only one guy taking care of the place and he seemed pretty happy to have anybody stop in there to talk to, so I got to taste a little of everything they had for free (I did buy a couple bottles, though.) It wasn’t what I’d call great wine, but it was interesting. The whites were all fairly sweet and fruity, and the reds (like that Norton) were all very earthy, so they definitely seemed like wines you’d want to have with food if you were going to have them. Still, pretty neat to do some wine tasting in the middle of the prairie.

Hanging out at the concert hall in Hermann, MO Frene Creek, which locals said was the "real" dividing line between civilization and the frontier for parties traveling west One of the German beer halls in town
A little morning wine tasting at the Hermannhof Winery Barrel cellar at Hermannhof More barrel cellar, mostly Norton in here

Moving on, I crossed over the Missouri there in Hermann, and continued across the prairies to Kansas City at the Kansas/Missouri border. Naturally, I found another BBQ place to sample so I could add Kansas City to the BBQ list, stopping in at Arthur Bryant’s for the best ribs I’ve had so far. I wasn’t planning on staying in KC that night, so after filling up on ribs I continued south for a bit to the westernmost end of my Midwest loop, Independence, KS, where I got another cheap but cozy hotel for the night.

Kansas City style ribs--dry rub with sauces on the side When the guy making your BBQ is named Woodrow Bacon, you know it's going to be good Out in the Kansas countryside

While it may seem like I’d been blitzing through these towns, I’d actually managed to burn pretty much the entire week I had to get back to Nissan in Nashville, so I found myself waking up Wednesday morning around 600 miles west of where I needed to be Wednesday night (I was meeting with Nissan first thing Thursday morning) and still a couple states short of finishing the loop (Oklahoma and Arkansas). On the plus side, I didn’t really have a plan, so my options were open. I decided to still do some sightseeing during the daylight, driving south into Oklahoma to Muskogee (again, a random pick, this time due to a Merle Haggard song  ), then blasting eastward across the rest of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee on I-40, hopefully making that little stretch the longest time and distance I’d spend on any interstate for the whole trip.

We're not in Kansas anymore, but only by about five feet They may still use the Pony Express out here Oklahoma was the end of the Trail of Tears for those who survived the walk from Georgia

I made a quick pit stop outside of Independence to visit the “Little House on the Prairie”, which was actually a tourist trap; somebody had just built a little cabin “that resembled the cabin from Little House” in their backyard. There was plenty of authentic prairie around, though. From there, I drove out of Kansas, into the Cherokee Nation, then south to Muskogee, hopefully to see some Okies from there. Like a lot of towns that share a similar size and history in middle America, Muskogee has definitely seen better days. There were unmistakable signs of a once-prosperous city, but things were in pretty poor shape, including the resident Okies.

Fireproof! The Best Show, In the Best Town Not sure when anybody last accepted Green Stamps...
 Welcome to Muskogee  Not such a great place for an Okie anymore  5 cent biscuits

Night was falling by this point, and I still had about 600 miles to cover, since all I’d accomplished since Independence was to drive south, actually putting me a bit farther away. I topped off my gas tank, got on I-40, and got going on my 75mph interstate drone to Nashville. A couple of tanks of gas later, I saw the Nissan building in Franklin, TN at about 2:45am, grabbed a nearby hotel, and got a few hours of sleep before my visit with the Nissan guys.


Next: Adventures at Nissan US Headquarters



#1 lectacave 2014-01-20 13:46
Wow, just fantastic pictures of the Arch, and I LOVE the shot with the bat! Great shots, great commentary. Fascinating.
#2 jhump 2014-01-20 14:38
I'm sure enjoying your trip Scott. Be safe and keep the pictures coming.
#3 laceytrynn 2014-01-20 14:55
love the pomegranate car and the arch pics… BBQ pics making me hungry!
#4 Mom 2014-01-20 15:22
The pics that stood out to me were different from the others, although I agree with Tray about the pomegranate car. That is all I have been eating lately(pomegran ates). I love the Fireproof Hotel, and the Post Office building out in the middle of nowhere.
#5 Merv 2014-01-20 18:07
Here's to the midwest! And I'd still consider Louisville a southern town because (from what I remember) when you order "tea" it comes out sweetened, which is an automatic socio-cultural trump card IMHO. Speaking of beverages, save some Norton wine for me --I'm all too curious. When is your LV ETA? Should someone start planning a party?

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