We’re back! We had a fantastic road trip adventure. We drove to Michigan and back with many exciting stops along the way. I can’t tell you how many miles we drove, but I can tell you we listened to 15 hours worth of audiobooks (a straight drive to our destination is 11 hours one way, so we didn’t listen all the time), counted 37 different U.S. license plates, went to Tim Horton’s 3 times, and bought many souvenirs. Here’s the day by day travelogue of our family vacation road trip:
Day 1: Saturday. We left NJ and headed to Pittsburgh. I lived in Pittsburgh for the year I went to library school (at Pitt) and loved it. I was pretty excited to see it again and reconnect with a library school friend. I’d done this drive many times and good grief Pennsylvania is a wide state. It’s a six hour drive across it. Unfortunately, part of the highway was closed, which added a fair amount of time to our drive and took us through rural mountainous PA. We also started the trip off on the right foot with a spontaneous stop at Roadside America, which I’d seen the signs for years and years. It’s a dim and dusty Pennsylvania Dutch tchotke place and we didn’t bother seeing the miniatures as we didn’t feel like paying admission. The reason it’s so notable from the highway is the gigantic farmer statues. I think they used to be attached to a wagon-hence the hunched posture.
Finally we made it to Pittsburgh and went out to dinner with my friend and her family. We ate a restaurant that I’d eaten at often and it was just as tasty as I remembered. Then we headed out to the Duquesne Incline, which is a fabulous car that goes up the side of Mt. Washington. Though I’d hoped for a nice daylight family photo, it was pretty awesome to see Pittsburgh twinkling and spread out below at night. The rivers look lovely, Point State Park fountain is lit up, and there was a Steelers game in progress lighting up the night. Through the binoculars we could even see a ref and some players on the field!
Sunday: The next day was hitting all my favorite places and showing the city to Paul, Clark, and Tabitha. I drove them through my old neighborhood, pointed out my favorite cafe, my apartment building, and places I used to go. We had breakfast at an awesome breakfast place (which has apparently gained a bigger presence in the 15 years since I lived there and has several locations.) But the real eating highlight was eating Burnt Almond Torte from Prantl’s. It’s a heavenly concoction that this bakery is famous for and I ate it many times. I’ve tried to recreate it myself, even. Conveniently it turns out that they now sell a bite sized version. So, while we waited for our table for breakfast (which was next door to Prantl’s) we stood on the street and I finally was able to bite into some real burnt almond torte. I nearly swooned it was so delicious. Oh, those crispy sugary almonds! Look how excited I was in anticipation!
We parked by Phipps Conservatory-a beautiful botanical garden, and walked over to the Cathedral of Learning. The Gothic architecture in Pittsburgh and the historical buildings are really amazing.
The Cathedral of Learning is owned by the University and does hold classes and lectures in it. But what is of note are the “international rooms.” These are rooms that completely-from floor to ceiling to doors to windows-made in styles and from materials native to particular times/places.
(I’ll add here that I was excited to see all this, but grouchy because a. my camera battery died b. my phone died. so, c. all pictures were taken with Paul’s phone and d. I was wearing my prescription sunglasses and accidentally left my glasses in the car so e. had to keep squinting at things/wearing dark glasses indoors.) From there we crossed the street to visit the Carnegie Museums of Natural History and Art.
I had the fondest memories of these museums and very high anticipation. My bus stop was in front of the museum, the library is attached, and I bought a membership and would often visit just one or two special things to see. Two things I especially fondly recalled were miniature rooms and a diorama of a lion attacking a camel and the Bedouin fighting it off. Both were still there, though there were far fewer of the tiny rooms than I’d remembered!
The kids loved the dinosaurs and rocks and minerals and really, it’s just a terrific natural history museum. Then, through a hallway and you’re in an art museum with a fantastic collection. Tabby exclaiming that she could totally make a Jackson Pollack:
Paul and Clark discussing one of my favorite Van Gogh paintings.
I flitted around happily seeing all the things that had been favorites and was thrilled that both kids were pretty wowed by the enormous Monet waterlilies. We stayed until closing and then had the rest of the night just eating dinner and at the hotel. I would have loved to have just walked around my old neighborhood, but the kids weren’t up for it, so that was the end of our Pittsburgh time.
The next day, Monday, was our drive to Pittsburgh. Waiting for us at the end of the drive would be our good friends, the Parks, who had moved away last August. We’ve missed them very much and couldn’t wait to see them again. They live in the thumb of Michigan and our route took us through Toledo. Clever Paul found that a highlight of Toledo is to eat at Tony Packo’s, which was apparently made famous by Jamie Farr on M*A*S*H. They serve a Hungarian style hot dog with a chili sauce, which you can also get atop spaetzle.
It was all incredibly delicious. And for a famous place, not to big, delightfully uncrowded, and we availed ourselves of their gift shop. Oh, and the thing there is that when celebrities visit (as they do) they sign hot dog buns. Hundreds of buns were on display.
Finally we arrived in Michigan in time for dinner. Hooray! You might wonder what we did in the car all those long hours of driving. Well, I’m very fond of car games-I’m thinking of animal, I’m thinking of a person, etc. We only did a little of that because everyone else is hooked on audiobooks. So we finished listening to a wonderful book called Liesl & Po, then listened to another that I wasn’t that into, then we listened to a 10 hour book called The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, read by Bronson Pinchot. It’s quite amazing. Even if you don’t follow the story Pinchot gives Jim Dale a run for his money in terms of being the world’s best audiobook reader. His voices are incredible and hilarious and great for this series. I also occasionally embroidered, we had ample drawing books and colored pencils, and we counted license plates (37.)
In Michigan we stayed with our good friends, Megan and David, and their four children. It was wonderful to be with them, and they are lovely hosts. The kids basically picked up right where they left off a year ago and spent a lot of happy time Minecrafting together and what-not.
Tuesday we went to Frankenmuth, which I had seen billboards for and heard about and was pretty excited to check out. It’s a Bavarian town in Michigan, and home of Bronner’s-the world’s largest Christmas shop. The town itself is very pretty-lots of flowers, fudge shops, etc.
And, oh my God, it was everything I could have wanted it to be. You’ve literally never seen so many ornaments in your life. And the organization! Unicorns over here, shop by color over here, desserts, fishing, camping, cars, professions, dogs, cats, angels, gingerbread, etc. We didn’t even see it all!
(We did have the unfortunate experience of accidentally leaving Tabby there. I was by myself for about 25 minutes, checked out, returned to the car where Paul was and he said “Where’s Tabby?” I replied “with you” to which he said “no she’s not.” Turns out that when I split from the group she came after me, but I didn’t know that, so Paul thought she was with me. She very cleverly remembered instructions and when we raced back inside we found her patiently sitting on a chair waiting to be found. Phew!) Outside the building are gigantic nativities, Christmas greetings in all languages, a “Silent Night Memorial Chapel”, and gigantic decorations. Since our travel souvenir of choice is a pencil and a Christmas tree ornament we were pretty set.
The next day we all went to a beach on Lake Huron.
For East coasters seeing a Great Lake is pretty mind-blowing. It’s so big it might as well be the ocean, but it’s not salty and there are no big waves. (and for me I had absolutely no worries about crabs or sharks.) It was so restful to just sit in the water because you are not buffeted by tide and waves.
It was a wonderful experience. After that we drove a little bit to Port Austin, which is on “the tip of the thumb.” (In case you didn’t know, Michigan looks like a mitten and there is a thumb.) There was a beautiful 1/2 mile breakwall that we all walked along.
Then out for pizza and gigantic ice cream cones (they scoop them big and cheap out there in Michigan!) and a geocache.
The next day our friends went to work and we took our kids into Saginaw to visit a Japanese teahouse. That was very enjoyable, but overall Saginaw was kind of down and out and depressing. We ended up doing a bit of back to school shopping at some outlets. This was probably the only day we had frustrating getting lost, not following directions, huffing about and switching drivers. But even that turned out ok because I felt bad that I was so tense that when I drove past a bakery with the best name ever-Butter Crust Bakery-I pulled in and got us delicious (and cheap!) baked goods. After dinner that night we all drove out to get up close with one of the many windmills dotting the landscape. Yes, wind turbines! Michigan was a big surprise to us–super flat, the roads are so long and straight you could see your turn a mile and a half away, and very remote. In the midst of the fields were all these gently turning, modern art looking, windmills. They were ENORMOUS.
Friday we bid a sad farewell to our friends. It was really great to just hang out with them, for the kids to play together, for the grown ups to stay up late watching movies and talking.
We planned our lunch time stop to coincide with driving through Ann Arbor, which I had visited once when I lived in Indiana. We thought we’d stop at the famous Zingerman’s, but quickly changed our minds when we saw the line. No worries, though! Ann Arbor is a beautiful, lively, college city with ample great eateries and shops. I wish we could have spent even more time there. As it was we ended up eating at a Vietnamese place where you ordered at a window and then hoped there was a chair available on the sidewalk. Oh my God, this was one of the best meals ever.
Then a little college town shopping, because where else can we get Clark a baja so he looks like a hackey sack player? Or a trio of instruments made in Bali, including a didgeridoo? (and yes, you do see that right-both boys are wearing Pokemon shirts.)
Finally we buckled back in and settled in for some serious driving, finally making it across Ohio and into Clarion, PA for the evening. We stayed at an Holiday Inn that features the at once best and worst hotel feature ever-a swimming pool inside that all the rooms face onto. Our room door was literally steps from the pool (which has a big dome over it, a “holi-dome”). Best because we immediately went swimming in the super heated pool. Worst because can you even guess how much sound carried and how incredibly noisy it was??
In the morning it was time to finally complete our journey and get home. But to the kids’ surprise (well, Paul told Clark) we weren’t quite done yet for half the way there we stopped for “lunch” but were really stopping at Knoebel’s Amusement Park! It’s an old fashioned amusement park in PA and really quite big. A lot of people camp at the campground that goes with it. And you don’t pay to go in just for the rides.
And apparently you can bring your dog with you because tons of people had their dogs walking around the park with them. (Note: it rained on us and I did NOT have ponchos this time!) Tabby rode her first grown up type roller coaster with me-a wooden one that was extremely thrilling. She LOVED it! (The last 20 seconds were marred for me because Tabby’s shoe came off and it was brand new and all I could think was “of course.” Shockingly, the happy ending is that the shoe remained in the car with us!)
We rode many other rides and had an especially happy ending of Clark (who is much more nervous about rides than Tabby and hadn’t gone on much) riding a rather terrifying spinning ride and ultimately loving it. So after spending the whole afternoon there we finally finished the last leg of journey and returned home Saturday night.
Phew! It was a long and tiring week, with many hours in the car. Except for a few rough patches, we had a really wonderful time. This trip probably exposed the kids to more different parts of the country than they had seen before. We all marveled at the flatness of Michigan, the wonder of a Great Lake, and all sorts of other charming regional things we discovered. Hooray for summer road trips!