Week TEN

Bom Bom ... Bom ...
Bom Bom. Chika Chika. Bom Bom.

As we pulled in to Syracuse, New York, we saw something a little unusual, a 1930's Ford, a classic street rod. When you drive enough, you see a fair number of classic cars, so we didn't remark on it too strongly. Then we noticed another strange thing: people sitting in deck chairs on the sides of city streets. Even Syracuse isn't boring enough to have people watching traffic for fun. When we saw the third strange thing, we began to suspect that we were in trouble. The sign on the Days Inn marquee read "Greetings Syracuse Nationals." We had pulled into town on the first day of the largest classic car show east of the Mississippi. Over 6,000 street rods and classic cars had arrived to strut their stuff and compete for prizes. Make that 6,001, since the Shark had arrived as well. People lined the streets to watch the cars drive by. Hotel parking lots were full of classic cars. Amazingly enough, we found a room at the first hotel we tried. I think if we had gotten there an hour later we would have been out of luck. Our parking lot contained fourteen regular cars and twenty-two classic cars. The Shark, for once in its life, blended in, almost inconspicuously. The next day, we went to the show on the Syracuse fairgrounds. Instead, we got to enjoy forty-five minutes of the worst 50's/60's tribute band I have ever heard. I don't think "Barbara Ann" was ever intended to be covered as an atonal round. I don't know what they were even thinking. There were very few 50's cars there; maybe one Bel Air and one Caddy. Every other car was either a street rod (which usually either uses a 30's car body or is completely custom) or a muscle car (1966-1972 at best). Who in either of these sets would listen to 50's music?

The show was not bad, but car shows do require a certain mind set to enjoy. I guess you have to be a car nerd, and the process of buying the Shark had turned us into them. I think if we had had a couple of hours to prepare ourselves– detailing the car and so forth– we would have competed favorably. We certainly would have won "farthest journey to the show" at least. But, we had other places to be.

Oooh. Awwww. Pretty.

I don't understand why people go to Niagara for their honeymoons. Sure, the falls are pretty and everything, but apart from that, it's just another run of the mill tourist trap. Maybe it made more sense in earlier times when the world was smaller and people were more easily romanticized.

Everyone says that you should go to the Canadian side of the falls, as the American side is less impressive. I can't speak to that, since we only went to the Canadian side. This is the side you see in the movies. We didn't see anyone go over the falls in a barrel, but we did get pretty wet from the spray.

Those of you who are playing along from home might have picked up on the word "Canadian" in the previous paragraph. That's right: the great American road trip included a visit to Canada, or as Homer Simpson memorably called it, "America Junior". We would have seen more of Canada, but our attempt to go from Niagara down to Buffalo on the Queen Elizabeth Expressway was foiled by the devious Canadian road signs, and before we knew it, we were going back across customs. We figured that security would be much tighter after September 11th, so we had our passports out and everything, but they pretty much waved us by. Canada, on the other hand grilled us for at least ten minutes before letting us in, and we were forced to surrender our pepper spray "to the Crown" (i.e., give it up). I can't even remember the last time someone blew up something in Canada. Maybe there's a correlation?

Once we got to Buffalo, we attempted to find a hotel room. Despite the fact that Buffalo is a major city, and there was nothing major going on, we couldn't find a hotel room until we got about fifty miles outside of the city. No authentic Buffalo wings for us. It's a mystery why major cities like Buffalo and Burlington run out of hotel rooms on a whim, but small cities that have had their populations tripled by a major event have plenty of space.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is actually in a nice building.

Contrary to popular belief, Cleveland doesn't really rock. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is open from 9 - 5:30. These are not rocking hours to keep. I don't think David Lee Roth and Steven Tyler are even awake during these hours. Then again, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has some confusing entries. I think I have a pretty good knowledge of most rock and roll stars. I certainly would not argue about Elvis or the Beatles. The Mamas and the Papas on the other hand, are only remembered for a bad cover of a Beach Boys song, for crying out loud. But the worst entry has to be the Moonglows. Who the hell are the Moonglows?

These people take themselves too seriously. Can you name more than two popular music stars from the 1800s? I've got Caruso, and Sarah Burnhardt, and ... I'm done. And yet they enter six or seven names a year into this "Hall of Fame". I like Sam and Dave as much as the next guy, but I bet not many of you know who they are (hint: "Soul Man"), and I doubt very much that people in fifty years will remember them outside of the fanatics who in this day and age can name everyone in Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens.

Some things can go home again.
Don't order the grilled cheese sandwich if you like grilled cheese sandwiches.
Oh, for the days when a sack of cheeseburgers was a balanced meal.

Since one of the points of the trip was to visit all (or most) of Carina's hometowns, we thought it would only be fair to take the Shark to its hometown. So, we wandered up to Pontiac, Michigan, to the General Motors plant where the LeMans was born thirty-one long years ago. The GM plant (plants, really) covers six or seven large city blocks, and is a really large beast. Sadly, we got there on a Sunday, and the plant was deserted. I was hoping to find someone who had been there for thirty-one years, to show them that some people still care about their handiwork.

An interesting fact about the Detroit area of Michigan is that they're obsessed with Coney Island. Everywhere we went, it was "Coney this" and "Coney that". Oddly, they weren't even all hot dogs. I have no explanation for this. We did not find out, though, because we had two more important culinary landmarks to visit: Big Boy and White Castle.

There's not much to write about the Big Boy, except that he's alive and well in Detroit. We didn't see them before Detroit, and we haven't seen them since. I think there are a few in southern California somewhere. The food was some of the worst diner food we've had yet, but the ice cream shake that Dirk had was pretty good. He says that Big Boy was only ever known for their breakfast bar and ice cream anyway, but we were there in the middle of the afternoon.

As to White Castle, it can be summed up once you realize that you order their hamburgers by the sack. Yes, sack. Apparently, they expect you to eat ten or twenty at a time. If you've never seen them, you might be relieved to find out that White Castles are quite small -- maybe a third the size of a McDonald's burger. Real restaurants would probably call them sliders. I call them White Castles, because White Castle was the first hamburger chain, and deserves our respect even if they're not as big as they once were.

Picture Henry Gibson in front of this: "We'll get those Blues Brothers, if it's the last thing we do."

After driving through some lovely Michigan countryside, we drove through Indiana. There's not much to say about Indiana. It's pretty nondescript, and we didn't see much of it.

Although we had already been to Illinois once before, we had to go through it again to get to Madison, and it wouldn't have been a comprehensive trip without seeing Chicago anyway. We started off with a trip to Gino's Pizza, which seems to be considered the finest deep dish in the land. It was tasty, but true Chicago-style deep dish pizza is pizza in the sense that North Carolina-style BBQ is real BBQ. The pizza slices are probably three inches tall, and it is inconceivable to think of eating them without a fork. Jay Leno is a fan of their pizza, as are many other stars that fill the walls.

The next day, we got up early and headed back into town for another fine Chicago specialty: the Italian beef sandwich. Picture a French dip sandwich with some hot peppers, and instead of serving it with a small dish of jus, you just soak the entire sandwich and serve it dripping wet. That is the specialty of Mr. Beef, which is actually just a block from Gino's. Jay Leno likes this place, too, and I can understand why. This sandwich was one of the highlights of the trip, and was everything the Philly steaks should've been, but weren't.

The weather was beautiful during Chicago that day, and there was a game on at Wrigley field. It would've been nice to stay and sample some Chicago-style hot dogs, except that we would've rather poked at our eyes with sticks than watch an entire baseball game sober, and we had a lot of driving to do. So we headed out to Madison.

Carina's home in Wisconsin.
Carina's sixth grade school.
Carina's seventh grade school.
The apartment where Carina's seventh-grade best friend lived. This tour is scintillating.

We took Route 12, which runs more or less directly from Chicago to Madison. All the way through Illinois, the traffic was horrendous. Not as bad as Annapolis, but grueling nonetheless. Then we crossed the state line, and it was like a magical traffic fairy had waved her magical traffic wand, and all the evil cars were banished to a faraway traffic dungeon. This is just one reason why Illinois sucks, and Wisconsin rocks.

We went down to State Street for dinner (for those of you not familiar with UW-Madison, State Street is their version of University Avenue, only geared more toward actual students and less toward Ethan Allen-buying, Bill Blass-wearing 30-somethings). We planned to go to Rocky Rococo's Pizza for dinner, which is just a mediocre Wisconsin pizza chain, but it's one of the only restaurants I remember going to in Madison. This turned out to be an exercise of the You-Can't-Go-Home-Again variety, as the Rocky's on State Street has been replaced with a Starbucks. I hate Starbucks.

The next day we had lunch at a different Rocky's, and later, dinner at a place called Culver's, because they had something called a ButterBurger. We were disappointed to find out that this is not a hamburger with a stick of butter on it. It's just got a buttered bun. In between lunch and dinner, we went boating. I'm sure you will all be greatly entertained trying to picture us rowing a boat across an idyllic Midwestern lake. After dinner, what could be more Wisconsiny than bowling? Wisconsin has lots of bowling alleys, but we have discovered their best-kept secret: nobody bowls there. The parking lot of Badger Lanes was completely filled with cars, but do you know what they were doing? Not bowling! They were all in the bar, dancing. Dancing badly to some horrible, Rap Lite-style dance pop music. There were at least a hundred people at the bowling alley, and we were the only people who bowled. So if you ever wonder what all the hep cats in Wisconsin are doing at ten o'clock on a Wednesday night, they're all at the bowling alley, dancing.

Naturally, I scored a perfect 300, as I always do when I bowl.

We drove by the old house on Jacobs Way; I can't imagine why they painted over the delightful mustard-yellow color it used to be. The house is also for sale– if I just had $142,000, I could buy one of my own childhood homes. The driveway is still cracked and broken, and the house next door is still olive green.

On the way to Prarie du Chien, where we would cross the Mississippi River for the ninety-third time (into Iowa this time), we stopped at the Wisconsin River for some photo ops and bug bites. Although half our blood was drained by mosquitos, we saw a bald eagle, so that was cool.