Sunday, June 27, 2010


One of the things I started doing on road trips is rating rest stops.  Bathrooms are crucial when traveling by car, and your whole attitude toward a state can change for better or worse based on your experience at a rest stop.  My rating scale is thus:

4 toilet brushes -- amazing.  Immaculately maintained, thoughtful design and decor, free wifi along with a good variety of vending machines and tourist information.  Give me a bed and I'd sleep there.  These are extremely rare; I found one on I-40 in Texas on my first big road trip.

3 toilet brushes -- above average.  Well maintained, more than adequate facilities.  Good vending machines and tourist information.  A good place to stretch for a few minutes before switching drivers.  Iowa ranks high in 3-brush rest areas along I-80.

2 toilet brushes -- average.  Clean, but showing its age.  Not necessarily maintained more than once or twice a day.  Little to no tourist info; probably a pop machine.  This describes most rest areas on the Interstate System.

1 toilet brush -- below average.  Not well maintained, despite heavy traffic.  Bathroom facilities are often dirty and lacking supplies.  To be used only if necessary.

No toilet brushes -- avoid.  Get off the Interstate and find a McDonald's.

Today's rest area in Minnesota rated 2 toilet brushes.  The Blue Earth rest stop is a pretty place with a nice picnic area and dog run.  Of greater interest, it had an historical marker.  Like the spot where the Union and Pacific railroads met and were joined with a  golden spike, two squares of gold-tinted concrete on the shoulder of the highway commemorate the completion of I-90, the longest Interstate in the country, stretching from Boston, MA to Seattle, WA.  It was completed outside of Blue Earth, MN in 1978, 20 years after the project began.  Sadly, I couldn't get a picture of the golden concrete without risking life, limb, and body damage to the car.

TMEDA Day 2: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Sioux Falls, SD

22 June 2010

This morning started warm and humid in Madison.  By 9 a.m., it was 70 degrees.  We pulled out around 9:30 and spent about an hour on US 12.  It tickled us, since US 12 runs about 5 miles south of our house in Michigan.  It was really nice not to start right off on the Interstate, and we got to see some beautiful rolling green Wisconsin farmland.  We thankfully drove right past -- i.e. didn't stop -- the exit for the Wisconsin Dells.  From what I've read, I'm picturing something akin to Niagara Falls, Canada:  a beautiful natural wonder commercialized and carnival-ized into a tourist trap.  Not on this trip, thanks.

We crossed the Mississippi as we drove into our fifth state, Minnesota.  Lunch was a quick stop in Austin, home to Hormel and the Spam Museum.  I briefly considered a visit, but ruled it out since I've never eaten Spam in my life.  Mom continued her flagrant disrespect for law enforcement officials by making fun of the county sheriffs that were eating at the Subway we stopped in, asking me if I thought she should inform them that having the license plate read SHERIFF is redundant on a marked car.  It reminded me of the time in Oklahoma that she wanted to go over to the table of Oklahoma State Police and ask how fast she really could drive on I-40.  I share Mom's sense of humor, but I'm fairly certain that law enforcement officials would not.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Most Excellent Dakotas Adventure

21 June 2010

Today marked the beginning of another of Mom and my epic road trips. This year we're heading for the Dakotas. Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands are the first things that come to mind, but the best thing about any road trip are the things you discover along the way.

We made excellent time to the west coast of Michigan, then time seemed to slow as we hit the toll road in Indiana. I-90 is our main route on this trip, and I was reminded of how spoiled we Michiganders are with no toll roads in our state. I think it even grates on our nerves to have to pay a toll to cross bridges like the Mackinaw and the two international bridges, the Blue Water and Ambassador. It was a relief to cross from Illinois into Wisconsin and leave the toll booths behind. I wonder if we'll encounter more tolls on I-90 as we head west.

Our stopping point today was Madison, and thanks to The Beer Mapping project, dinner was excellent at The Great Dane brew pub in Hilldale.  I sampled the Scotch Ale, the Imperial IPA, and settled on the APA. I liked the Scotch, but was in the mood for something drier. The Imperial was very, VERY hoppy -- even more so than Bell's Hopslam or Stone's Arrogant Bastard -- and felt like I was breathing fire. The APA was very pleasant and cut nicely through the rich, creamy Cheddar Mac I enjoyed for dinner.

Our evening ended with tornado warnings for our area. It was a very impressive storm, and luckily, Madison had no confirmed touch downs. With a glance at tomorrow's forecast for Sioux Falls, SD -- tomorrow's destination -- I'm guessing that tornado warnings will be our evening's entertainment again.

Friday, February 19, 2010

We Interrupt This Blog

This post will not be about beer.  Or travel.  Or even about Blue Man Group (though that blog is overdue).  This post will be about man’s inhumanity to man.

You know, that high school Lit theme that your teacher dragged out to describe just about any depressing novel or short story you read?  I’m no Joseph Conrad, but I had a small taste of what he wrote about.  No, I wasn’t purposely targeted by another human being for degradation or humiliation or plain old pain.  Nope.  Nothing that fancy.  I was simply ignored when human contact was needed.

As most accidents are, mine was unplanned.  (See the definition of “accident”.)  I’d need serious psychological help if I planned to throw myself down a set of concrete steps in a train station.  But down the steps I went, tail over teakettle, as my Anglophile friends would say.  Was I drunk?  Not on one Swiss beer.  Was I paying attention to where I put my feet?  Probably not.  And so I missed a step and suddenly felt the world flashing by in a tumbling motion.

It happened so quickly; I felt pain and heard myself yell, “Oh, my God!”.  Then I was at the bottom of the stairs, lying in a heap.  I was stunned, not able to move, but I saw a youngish man walking away from me, quickly, pretending he hadn’t seen or heard me.  But a young woman stopped and looked at me, waiting to see what I’d do.  She just stood there.  Never mind the language barrier; if I’d seen someone fall, I’d be over to them in a flash to see if they were okay.  I lay there, collecting my wits and trying to make sense of what happened; she walked away a few steps, then turned back again.  I was trembling, and trying to get up, and still she made no move towards me.  Finally, as I struggled to my feet, she walked away.

Oddly enough, as I sat down on a nearby bench to figure out what to do next, I tweeted about it.  What that says about me, I don’t know; maybe I was just trying to reach out to any human, anywhere.  I needed someone to say, holy crap!  Are you okay?  As it turns out, I was very, very lucky.  My right forearm is mighty swollen and scraped, and the elbow is very sore; I don’t want to see what my left leg looks like when the bruises start to bloom.  I didn’t break anything, sprain anything, or hit my head on the concrete.  My guardian angel was with me Wednesday night.

The whole incident makes me wonder what the hell has gone wrong with our society.  My favorite cultural commentators, the Blue Man Group, have had a decades-long  running theme about urban isolation and how we’re reaching out to connect with people across the world, but not the ones right next to us.  Are we so self-absorbed that we can’t stop our busy lives, even for a second, to help someone in need?  Are we unable to see outside our own self-centered worlds to notice that people right here need help, not just in Haiti or Darfur or the next third-world disaster site?

I hope not.  I’d like to think that had it been earlier in the day, not 10:45 p.m., with more people around, that someone would have stopped.  Regardless, it’s enough to give me pause when I realize that’s a danger of traveling alone that I hadn’t taken into account.  It’s not enough to stop me from traveling, but I certainly will watch where I put my feet from now on.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Buses, Cable Cars (the aerial kind), and a Really Big Ferry

One of the things I like to do in a completely unfamiliar place (particularly where I don’t read or speak the language) is to take a city tour.  Yes, I know, it’s touristy, and I’m not a fan of being herded on and off buses and other forms of transport.  But to get a sense of where I am, nothing beats a tour.

The Best of Switzerland 4-hour Zurich and Surroundings tour was okay.  Not exceptional; the tour guide didn’t point out much other than the tour book highlights – I’m pretty sure I could have identified the Grossmünster and the Fraumünster all on my own – but it did show me the layout of the city, and as a bonus, got me up to the top of Felsenegg, a nearby mountain.

Okay, at 800m, it’s a stretch to call it a mountain, especially while practically sitting in the shadow of the Matterhorn.  Not that I could see the Alps in the distance because of a fog that refused to go away.  The tour death march was at its worst here; we had 20 minutes total to hike down to a plateau to a chateau, use the toilet or purchase a coffee or hot chocolate in a take-away cup – not both, mind you – then back to the top of the mountain and catch the cable car back to the foot of the mountain.  I am NOT in shape.  Most emphatically not in shape – maybe that should be emFATically – and I really thought I was going to stroke out by the time I made it back up, even though I set out 2 or 3 minutes ahead of the group, knowing I was going to struggle.  The view was worth it, overall, even if my photos won’t show it.  It would have been nice to spend some time there, but in typical tour fashion, there was no time.

Digression:  I love the phrase “take away”.  You can so tell that the English translations here are dictated by UK English.  In the US, it’s “carry out” or “to go”.  It’s the little things that amuse me
After Felsenegg, our bus wound its way down to the shore of the Zürichsee.  Being from Michigan, I wasn’t impressed by their lake.  But it was a lot of fun to ride the bus onto a really big car ferry and ride across to the other shore.  You can do that when your lake is only 4km wide. ;)

Our tour ended precisely where it had begun, and I eagerly headed out to begin exploring Zurich on my own.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Travel is great, except for the other people

Okay.  I'm not anti-social...I value my peace and quiet and my privacy, but I don't mind being around other people.  Even when they're far too close, like when we're packed in like sardines in an aerial tramway heading up a mountain.  But some folks just forget or ignore public decorum and irritate others around them.

Such as the really loud guy in the lounge at JFK.  No one had the nerve to tell him to take it down about 60 decibels, even though many of us kept exchanging annoyed glances and eye-rolls.

Then there's the gentlemen who use the toilet on the airplane.  Hey, guys, other people -- female people -- use the restroom, too.  If you miss the target, WIPE IT UP.  I shouldn't have to clean the floor and toilet seat after you're done.

And the Brazilian couple on today's 4 hour tour of Zurich and the surrounding areas.  At least they sequestered themselves at the back of the tour bus, where their amorous activities didn't annoy others.  But guess who was less than 5 inches away from me on the trip up Felsenegg on that aerial tramway?  You got it.  Please try not to make out when your body parts are touching someone other than the one you're making out with.  Thankfully, they were on the other end of the car going back down...but I could still hear them.

Yes, I know we're all travelling.  We all deserve to do what we want to do.  But please, please, PLEASE consider those travelling along with you.  It'll save you some ugly glares and will lower my blood pressure.