Archive for the ‘Midwest USA trips’ Category

It was time to get back on the road. I had been thinking of bicycling from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan for several years. I knew almost nothing of the area, other than there is an easy direct Amtrak train the two hundred miles from Grand Rapids MI to Chicago. Why not fly to Chicago, bicycle to Grand Rapids over several days, then return to Chicago by Amtrak?

My friend Lyman was also chomping at the bit to bicycle somewhere. He lives in Austin TX; I live in Chapel Hill NC. Whatever the weather was like in Chicago and Michigan it certainly had to be cooler than the summer furnace climates both of us live in. We both were drowning in unused American Airlines frequent flier miles and there are nonstops to Chicago from both cities. This would be my first airplane ride since Covid began a year and a half ago.

Both flights were scheduled to land about the same time on a Saturday morning. We planned to meet at O’Hare airport at 10:45 AM, each of us having checked a Bike Friday in a suitcase. On arrival I exited my airplane, walking toward baggage claim. It had been weird to be wearing a mask for such an extended period.

All was fine until I received a text from Lyman, saying that his flight was still on the ground back in Austin TX. There was a mechanical problem with his airplane, and he would be at least two hours late.

What to do? Our plan had been to take the CTA subway to downtown Chicago with the bicycles still in the suitcases, then put the bicycles together downtown. Lyman had found a downtown luggage storage deal on the internet, to hold the empty suitcases for five days. By the time I learned of his delay I had already passed through security and I was lugging around a suitcase-with-a-bicycle-in-it. I learned (later to be confirmed by a Yelp search) that there is almost nowhere to eat or drink at O’Hare airport except on the airplane side of security. The difficult exception was the on-airport O’Hare Hilton Hotel. Getting there was a bit of a hike with a heavy suitcase but once in the basement of the Hilton a huge chicken sandwich washed down with a beer really hit the spot.

Finally Lyman did indeed show up. I had saved half of my Hilton chicken sandwich for him, and he made short work of that. We found our way to the on-airport CTA subway to the city. The CTA turnstiles now accept a credit card just by waving the card above the turnstile checker. It took about twenty stops and forty-five minutes but we walked above ground into central Chicago, looking for a sidewalk spot where we could put the bicycles together.

There is a bicycle in each of the large suitcases.
the Bike Friday emerges, piece by piece, photo by Lyman Labry

It took about half an hour for us to put the bicycles together and be ready to go. We dropped off the empty suitcases at the storage spot, a Seven-Eleven (!). We took off by bicycle, first eastward towards the lake, then south along the lakefront. We each were carrying a small trunk bag as our luggage for five days. Lakefront Trail is a godsend for bicyclists. On other trails in other cities I have noticed constant near collisions between pedestrians and cyclists on these paths. Along the lakefront Chicago has constructed separate trails for walking and bicycling. They prohibit pedestrians on the bicycle trail.

We headed south. We soon stopped near the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, just south of downtown, and checked in with our friend Bob. Bob and his wife Helena normally live in Tampa FL; his wife Helena grew up in Hyde Park. Bob and Helena were in town to fix up the apartment she had inherited from her late parents and Bob met us at the lakefront. He showed us the spot where Helena has done long distance swims in the lake. We chatted for half an hour, but Lyman and I had to get pedaling. It was about 5:00 PM and we still had a long way to go.

Bob
Lyman and Bob

Downtown Chicago is often called The Loop, and the Indiana state line is about seventeen miles south of it. We had booked an Airbnb in central Hammond IN, about ten miles further south of the state line. The Lakefront Trail allowed us to bypass sketchy south side Chicago neighborhoods, before we had to turn inland to cycle around various small bodies of water that protrude from Lake Michigan. This South Side lakefront landscape had miles and miles of former industrial sites, many now totally empty.

This is the ride we were to take over the next five days.

After the Lakefront Trail ended we jostled through southern suburbs. In both Illinois and Indiana we bicycled past bungalows and worker cottages, most built in the distinctive Chicago style.

We cycled up to our Airbnb at about 6:30 PM. It was nicer than it looks from the outside; a basement apartment of this house in a conventional neighborhood in Hammond IN. There were two double beds and essentially two bedrooms in the basement. We had been cycling in light drizzle with the temperature was in the low seventies. We felt relieved to be at our day’s destination.

Lyman and I enjoyed meeting the Airbnb proprietors, a couple and their young daughter. After we had showered and gotten our stuff together, we got back on the bicycles to cycle one mile to go out to eat. The proprietors were hanging out on their porch.

Dinner at the very old school Freddy’s Steak House in central Hammond IN was only just OK. In hindsight we were too creative with our orders (grilled lake perch was fresh tasting but not filling enough; Lyman’s steak sandwich was leathery.) We should have split a large steak instead. The universal first course of bean soup was likely out of a can but still satisfied on this chilly evening.

The shelves of our Airbnb basement were filled with books I would not otherwise have known about.

The proprietors had strongly recommended we visit Les Cafe Pancake House for breakfast the next day. It was filled with families and what looked like church groups on this Sunday morning. Inspirational bible verses were on the walls. Breakfast was pleasantly filling. Banners of military veterans labelled as Hometown Heroes lined the streets of town.

I had spent half an hour in my bed that morning plotting a route to bicycle across the infamously decrepit Gary IN, a town famous to me because of the song in The Music Man, as well as the birthplace of Michael Jackson. Further mapwork revealed a surprisingly thorough network of paved rail trails across northern Indiana, a network that was too nice to pass up. We would have to miss Gary and pass just south of it. Cycling on rail trails without car traffic is indeed relaxing as we ambled across northern Indiana.

We had come north from North Carolina and Texas to get away from the summer heat and we certainly had succeeded. Skies this day were overcast and drizzly with a temperature that leveled off at about sixty-five all day.

wet but otherwise delightful rail-trail in northern Indiana

It was over forty miles to Michigan City, Indiana where we knew there were hotels. The map showed rail trails almost the whole way. Unknowingly we were succumbing to the frog-in-boiling-water trap. We cycled through an hour or more of drizzle so light as to be barely noticeable. That transitioned to light rain, we pretended not to care. By the time we had cycled into more remote wooded areas the light rain transitioned to heavy rain. Lyman had on a nice Showers Pass brand jacket of Gore-Tex like fabric and I had just a cycling shirt, but both rainwear strategies were failures. We both got very wet and were overcome with shivering if we stopped exercising. I could no longer take photos because I had to keep my phone and camera dry.

In the rain we transitioned into Indiana Dunes National Park, expecting sand dunes and the continuation of the smooth paved trail, as the map showed Calumet Trail just inland from Lake Michigan. Calumet Trail turned out to be a rutty dirt road next to some woods and under a power line, surfaced with two or three inch bumpy gravel, almost impassible with our narrow high pressure bicycle tires. Every few hundred feet there were giant rain-filled potholes. Soaking wet and shivering, we struggled along for about five miles before finding an off-ramp where we could cycle in the rain on a conventional highway. We were at our wit’s end as we limped into the town of Michigan City, Indiana at about four or five in the afternoon.

We thought we would have to subject ourselves to further danger and humiliation by having to cycle two miles on a major highway in the rain out to the Interstate Highway interchange, where the only motels on the Hotels Dot Com app were clustered. Michigan City, Indiana is a faded lakefront industrial town about five miles from the Michigan state line. Its claim to fame is that it is the home of Indiana State Prison. Standing under a restaurant overhang to stay out of the rain, at the last minute I located one possibility on Google Maps in downtown Michigan City, the Bridge Inn. I phoned from a few blocks away. Yes they had one apartment suite left, two single beds. They had no office but the guy would meet us in the parking lot. The room suite and the hotel turned out to be quite nice. I took this photo the next morning after it had stopped raining.

Our luck improved further when we learned that the hotel owners, three sisters, also owned the Bridges Waterside Grille across the parking lot. After cleaning up and drying out, we found seats at the Caribbeanesque outdoor bar. It was still drizzling, with temperatures in the sixties. People in this part of the country know to always bring a jacket, even in the summer. Everyone was drinking hard liquor.

I sat next to the couple on the far left in the above photograph. They live in Crawfordsville IN, a hundred miles to the south. The two had been travelling whenever possible the past couple years, looking for a place to retire. Their list of places to retire included the entire state of Florida, coastal South Carolina, and Michigan City, Indiana. (!)

We also met people who had come to Michigan City just to vacation.

Lyman got a cheeseburger, as I recollect.

I took the recommendation of the bartender and got the fried lake perch dinner, served drunken, which meant the addition of a spicy heavy coating. It ranks among the best fried fish I remember eating.

We cycled out of post-industrial Michigan City the next morning.

Looking out of our hotel room window at the Michigan City “yacht harbor” an Amtrak train passes every day over this incredibly rusty swing bridge.
Brutalism, downtown Michigan City IN

This video by Lyman Labry is only seven seconds long.

Cycling northward we discovered that there is a whole world of vacation towns along this shore of Lake Michigan, stretching northward. For the next three days, in the post-pandemic summer pandemic rush, everything, especially hotels and restaurants, were extremely crowded.

From Michigan City north to the Michigan line and beyond we cycled along the road accessing miles of lakefront vacation homes that front Lake Michigan and the sand dunes.

Lyman always wants a protein filled breakfast but on this day we had delayed it by ten miles; waiting to eat until we arrived in New Buffalo, Michigan, which we discovered is very much a tourist town, with yacht harbors and t-shirt shops.

At 10:00 AM on a Monday there was a wait for a table at Rosie’s, named after my dog back in Chapel Hill NC. I worried a little about Covid even though both Lyman and I are fully vaccinated. On hears about parts of America being vaccine hesitant and inside Rosie’s all the people were maskless and jammed together. I forced myself to ignore this and enjoy the breakfast.

I got the chorizo and eggs

Back on the bicycles we headed northward. When possible we stayed on the residential street directly along the Lake Michigan shoreline, looking at rich people’s houses facing the lake.

Owing to the rain the previous day we had not seen much of a Lake Michigan sand dune in Indiana Dunes National Park, but we certainly did this day in Michigan’s Warren Dunes State Park, which also had a public beach.

Those tiny specks in the above photo are people walking up the dune
Lyman and Lake Michigan

About twenty miles further was the double city of St. Joseph / Benton Harbor MI where we had decided to spend the night. St. Joseph had a busy downtown with souvenir shops; the Lake Michigan beach nearby down a steep hill.

We had a beer on the sidewalk of St. Joseph MI and looked at the tourists (were we one of them?). We searched on my phone for a place to spend the night. There were two hotels in St. Joseph that had rooms, but each cost over three hundred dollars for a two double bed hotel room. Furthermore, we decided the vibe in St. Joseph was just a little too cutesy for us. Only a couple miles away, on the other side of the St. Joseph River, was the city of Benton Harbor. I had heard the name Benton Harbor because I knew from somewhere that it was and is the headquarters of appliance maker Whirlpool. Airbnb offered a what turned out to be a really nice full apartment in downtown Benton Harbor. We accepted online and biked over there.

We had codes to get into the apartment but we ran into the proprietors and enjoyed chatting with them. Downtown Benton Harbor looks essentially abandoned but these guys told us of several restaurants. I have since learned from Wikipedia that Benton Harbor’s population is 89% African-American, although I saw no African-Americans in my brief stay in its downtown.

our Airbnb proprietors
The Airbnb was on the third floor of this nineteenth century building
Interior of our apartment. I slept on the sofa in the living room.
I told Lyman he could have the bedroom

The apartment had a great television and was really spacious. It even had a fully stocked kitchen for us to make our own breakfast the next day. It turned out that the two restaurants those guys had told us about were really the only places to eat dinner in Benton Harbor. This must say something about America. The one restaurant that was open was Houndstooth, a fancy place with entree prices over thirty dollars. It sounded good but we were just not in the mood for Big Food, at least not this day. The other place The Livery which features pizza, sounded great but was closed on Mondays. We had to carry the bicycles down the stairs to the street and cycle a couple of miles to the restaurant of a hotel in St. Joseph. It looked out over the harbor. It was crowded, with a long line to get a table. We discovered almost no one was at the bar around the hotel swimming pool, where we learned we could order food. A shared charcuterie plate really hit the spot.

From our pool bar vantage point we enjoyed watching a huge Great Lakes freighter departing from the harbor. We did not know but wondered what specific cargo this Canadian flag vessel had discharged here. We imagined the ship must look a lot like the Edmund Fitzgerald, in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, also a huge single purpose vessel built to carry one bulk commodity on normally flat seas.

The next morning we took the opportunity from the Airbnb and cooked our own breakfast but we had to use the ingredients we were given; Oatmeal, then Eggo waffles, bacon, and eggs.

The cycling this day went through a landscape that was more wooded and less populated, interspersed with a couple of the resort towns that line the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Our day’s halfway point would be the town of South Haven. The last five miles into town were on this excellent bike trail.

Van Buren State Park Trail

South Haven MI was the most touristy spot we had seen on this trip; people were all over the streets of town, apparently just wanting to walk around the streets.

There was a coffee place downtown and we got lattes. We also found a bike shop for some chain lubricant. We wanted some kind of light lunch. What to look for? Tacos, especially since Lyman came here from Texas, seemed destined for failure. Why not that Midwest standout, the hot dog? A walkup hot dog place in Saugatuck had all sorts of styles, each with the same price of five dollars. Lyman got the Detroit style (chili and onions), I got Chicago.

Chicago style hot dog, but in Michigan

Back on the road heading north we were in lovely wooded terrain.

We rolled into Saugatuck MI at about four in the afternoon. We still were not sure if we were going to continue on to the the larger town of Holland MI; twelve miles further north. Saugatuck MI was at least as crowded as any of the coastal resort towns we had visited but had a more upscale feel. Cape Cod or Nantucket on Lake Michigan.

Although we had no idea where were going to sleep that night and we already knew that all the hotels and restaurants were pretty full, Lyman and I responded by looking for a place to get a beer. We found The Mitten, a brew pub in an old house, named after the shape of Michigan on a map. We were able to get a seat because we were standing there when they opened at 5:00 PM. They had excellent pizza and beer. We could watch the scene walk by on the street.

View from the front porch of The Mitten

I had wanted to keep cycling the twelve miles to Holland MI but it became clear that it made much more sense to go to the one motel that we had found on my phone; their last room, out on the highway about two miles back in the direction we had come from. I hate going backwards, but whatever.

It was actually a pretty good motel. Standing and looking out the window of our room in the twilight we could see rabbits running around on the grass underneath all the fireflies.

photo by Lyman Labry

My original idea of this trip was to cycle to Grand Rapids MI in the allotted five days. To keep this plan and our airplane and Amtrak reservations we would need to cycle more than fifty miles the next day.

Our motel just south of Saugatuck had free pre-packaged bad breakfast, and after packing up we cycled back through Saugatuck and then the twelve miles to Holland MI, arriving there mid-morning.

Holland MI is aptly named, as it was settled by Dutch religious fundamentalists (also described as Dutch Calvinist separatists) starting in the 1840’s. A significant percentage of the population of the Holland / Grand Rapids area still claims Dutch heritage and religious tradition, including Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I had heard that Holland MI has such a vibrant downtown that many people come to visit just for the urbanism. We cycled into downtown Holland and found this pleasant looking local coffee place. We stopped and got a latte, sitting outside in those wonderful plastic Adirondack chairs.

We started cycling again.

Modernist bank branch, Holland MI

It was still almost forty miles cycling to Grand Rapids MI. Some of that Dutch cycling aura must have rubbed off on planners around here. In grids of farm roads through the Michigan countryside, in an area where bicycle paths are not even really necessary, there were enough bicycle paths that we were able to bicycle most of the way from Holland to Grand Rapids on separated paths.

bike path in rural Michigan

Grand Rapid’s city population is only 200,000 but it felt like a much bigger city. I have learned that for a Midwestern city its economy has been doing quite well, home of several major industries, including furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller, and Amway, seller of questionable dreams. Over twenty years ago, we had friends in Carrboro/Chapel Hill NC who had to move to Grand Rapids for family reasons. They described Grand Rapids as having “the charm of Charlotte with the weather of Buffalo.” I found it nicer than that.

Our accommodations showed the strengths and weaknesses of Airbnb. Each Airbnb has its own story; read the descriptions and reviews carefully. Here in Grand Rapids for the price of a nice hotel we could get an eighth floor two bedroom, two bath apartment in a new-looking building with an outdoor balcony in a good location. Once inside we found the apartment practically perfect.

Downsides: I had to sign all sorts of non-Airbnb legal release forms my cellphone. I had several tense texts with a non-Airbnb “customer representative” who had a San Antonio, Texas area code, and she gave us special verbiage to use if anyone asked why we were in this building. When finally approved for occupancy I was given the combination to a lockbox to pick up a key, which turned out to be almost two miles away, and I had to bicycle there in the heat of the day through traffic up a steep hill, after I had already bicycled more than fifty miles that day! The entire process did not involve any person to person contact.

bizarre “boxes” in a hipster looking part of Grand Rapids, where I chose “my box” and entered a combination, in order to retrieve a key to an apartment two miles away in a high rise.

Dinner that night was delicious, although I was suspicious of any restaurant with that names itself the French / Italian bastardization “Bistro Bella Vita.”

The restaurant had a huge open interior space, full of people eating, which is a good sign, and it had outdoor seating available, which made us more comfortable in these Covid times. Lyman really wanted the steak frites, even though the price of $52.00 was, in my mind, insane. We told the restaurant we wanted to split the steak frites and it was actually perfect, both portions plenty to eat and nicely presently as if ordered separately. With a split fried calamari appetizer and a split $ 36.00 bottle of pinot noir, the whole meal was not ridiculously expensive.

For dessert we got Asian ice cream takeout and sat on our balcony, listening to the roar of the nearby freeway (a real downside to this apartment if you lived here full time) and looking at the city.

Looking the other direction, the city’s Van Andel Arena, named after the Dutch surnamed man who co-founded Amway, a company characterized by many as a pyramid scheme.

The Grand Rapids Amtrak station was only about a quarter mile from our Airbnb. We cycled there at 5:30 AM for a 6:00 AM departure. Other than having to wear a mask the whole time, the four hour train ride was great. This particular train took full size bicycles, no need to fold, for a $10.00 fee.

We got to Chicago early enough that we could cycle around Chicago for a few hours, including cycling the six miles from The Loop north to Wrigley Field, then back along the Lakefront.

We had a healthy $ 7.00 Middle Eastern lunch downtown at a place called Oasis Cafe, in the back of jewelry store, of all places. My eggplant sandwich was delicious. We retrieved our suitcases and put the bicycles in them before taking the CTA subway back to O’Hare for the flights home late that afternoon.

Who in North Carolina goes on vacation to bicycle around Cincinnati OH?   During a pandemic?   Tootie and I wanted to get away to somewhere cooler while still staying safe and socially distant.   I had never been on the seemingly nice bike trail that connects downtown Cincinnati with much of Ohio;  I only had been to Cincinnati for essentially the first time less than a year ago.   By car Cincinnati would be an eight hour drive:  from Chapel Hill NC I-40 to Winston-Salem then I-77 through Charleston WV, then I-64 West, then Kentucky route 9.

We threw two bicycles in the back of the Prius and left home about 7:00 AM on a Saturday morning.   I took the Surly Long Haul Trucker, Tootie has a Cannondale.   We stopped for coffee at the Starbucks at the Elon College exit on I-85 and the drive was quite painless.  Newport KY is directly across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati.  Reser Bicycle Outfitters in downtown Newport had helpfully advised me by email that parking downtown was free, even for several days.  They advised we were taking our chances parking in this somewhat poor neighborhood.    Whatever.   Our 2005 Prius is not worth much.  We pulled in about 4:00 PM.

 

We had bags on the back of the bicycles with our changes of clothes.   For the first night we left the car in Newport KY and set out to bicycle the short distance across the river to Cincinnati, then through downtown to an Airbnb.

This is essentially the bike ride we did in one full day and two part days.

Newport KY is almost as old a town as Cincinnati.

 

 

 

We bicycled across the Ohio River on this former rail bridge, originally built in 1872.  It was redone several times before being converted to pedestrian only use in 2001.

Over The Rhine neighborhood is just north of downtown Cincinnati.    Poor and decrepit until relatively recently it has lovely nineteenth century buildings.

We pulled the bicycles up to the address of our Airbnb on a delightfully urban block.    Tootie watched the bicycles while I used the key code we had been given to go inside and check it out.

Once inside the Airbnb one bedroom apartment was quite nice but first we had to carry the bicycles up a steep set of stairs.   It felt very nineteenth century.

 

 

 

 

A little later was strolled around the neighborhood, looking for a safe space to order a drink.  We found a bar/restaurant that was selling drinks out of the window and where we could sit, spaced out, on the sidewalk.  It was fun to watch the world go by.

 

On the way back to the Airbnb a mini-mart was closed to normal sales but was selling tacos outside on the street.  We thought about getting some but passed.

 

There were a few restaurants that had some kind of outdoor seating but we felt safer, and thus more comfortable, watching TV in our Airbnb eating Middle Eastern takeout from the Ohio chain Alladin.

Thankfully our bedroom was in the back and away from the street.   Until the early morning hours there was always something noisily going on across the street at a mini-mart.

The next morning I walked five blocks to Coffee Emporium on Central Parkway and got a cafe au lait, an almond milk latte, and a blueberry muffin and walked them back to the apartment.  Somewhat later we carried the bicycles downstairs and loaded up to head out.

 

Our destination for the day would be the small riverside town of Milford OH, maybe twenty miles away.   We wanted to get there by threading through the often hilly city streets.

Downtown Cincinnati and the Over The Rhine neighborhood are on a flat area near the Ohio River.   The rest of Cincinnati, even many older neighborhoods, are in the steep hills north of Downtown.

 

 

 

This area is called East Walnut Hills, a streetcar suburb from the late nineteenth century.

 

We stumbled onto a delightful east-west rail-trail several miles long, the Wasson Way.

 

We passed through several more neighborhoods and towns like Evanston, Oakley, and Madisonville, with startlingly different economic situations in each; some rich, some poor.

 

The hills were becoming unpredictable and oppressive so we turned south to finish our ride to Milford along the Little Miami River and its attendant bike path.   We stopped for lunch at the Fifty West Brewery and Burger Bar.  It is interesting to see some restaurants actually doing well during this pandemic.   Fifty West has a huge lawn including multiple beach volleyball courts that have been converted to socially distanced seating.   There were hundreds of people here but it seemed reasonably safe because it was so spread out, and everything was outdoors.    We split an Ohio Burger; cheeseburger with Cincinnati chili,  plus an order of fries.  I got an IPA, she got root beer.

 

The Little Miami Scenic Trail comes right up to Fifty West and we bicycled the four miles further upstream to Milford OH, population 2,000 and likely to remain that, because the town in wedged in between the river and steep hills.   It seems to function as a touristy getaway.

It had several antique gun stores.

 

 

There was a store selling lawn ornaments.

 

Our Airbnb was quite nice, an inexpensive clean and modern two room apartment above a downtown store called Harvest Market.   Later on we walked down the street to Little Miami Brewing Company, another establishment that has enough outdoor space to accommodate a large crowd that can stay socially distant.   We watched overweight people on kayaks on the river below.

We enjoyed our beer but had had enough of even the idea of crowds.   We walked back to the apartment and ordered takeout pizza from a place called Padrino; we set up a nice dinner in the apartment which had a table and real plates and silverware.

The next morning we headed back towards our car in Newport KY.   First we biked south on the Little Miami Scenic Trail, part of the statewide Ohio to Erie Trail system.

 

 

Google Maps shows a continuous trail to Downtown Cincinnati along the river.   On the ground it is more complicated, the trail stops and starts.   We bicycled by Cincinnati’s general aviation Lunken Airport.

Much of the way into Downtown Cincinnati was along Highway 52 along the Ohio River, passing through industrial areas.

Interesting new public school, specially designed for the Ohio River floodplain.

There is a park on the riverfront in Downtown Cincinnati, people were playing pickleball.

 

Riverfront construction

The pedestrian bridge over the Ohio River to Kentucky was once again a delight.

Our car was still there in Newport KY!   We left about 11:00 AM and got home to Chapel Hill NC in time to make a late dinner.

High on my bucket list was to bicycle to Columbus, Indiana to see modern architecture.  More on that later.

Searching for a way to Columbus IN without taking the airplane, the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati OH are an eight hour five hundred mile drive from Chapel Hill NC, about my limit for a car ride.   This would give me a starting point where we could bicycle the hundred miles further to Columbus IN.     Also, I had barely ever been to Cincinnati, I was sure there would be something to see there.

My favorite retired architect, Lyman, from Austin TX really wanted to go on this trip.   Purchased a month in advance, Lyman got a ticket from Austin TX to Cincinnati on Southwest Airlines for $ 134.00 round trip, luggage included, changing planes in Baltimore.  Amazing.   Some kind of fare war is going on.   Air fares are all over the map these days but that is an amazing deal.

It was a little late in the season to be bicycling in Ohio and Indiana but we had to hope that the weather would cooperate.

I got up early and left Chapel Hill NC before 6:00 AM, driving our Prius mostly through West Virginia with my Bike Friday in the back.   I picked up Lyman at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport at about 2:00 PM the same day.  (He had gotten up even earlier than me; his flight had taken off from Austin at 5:35 AM!)  We drove a few minutes to an airport parking lot where we would leave the car for a week.  He had already put together his folding Bike Friday which he had brought in a suitcase.    We left his suitcase in my car and pedaled away from the parking lot towards the Ohio River, about two miles away.   At the top of a hill we could see the river below.

Although we were only about ten miles from downtown Cincinnati the landscape felt like a backdrop for Huckleberry Finn.

We took the privately owned Anderson Ferry across to the Ohio side.  It costs five dollars per car, one dollar for a bicycle, cash only.  They claim to have been doing this since 1817!  The crossing takes about five minutes.

 

 

Once on the Ohio side the landscape became urban fairly quickly.   While Cincinnati is still a large city, back in 1850 it was the sixth largest city in America, right behind New Orleans.   Cincinnati has miles of nineteenth century buildings, including some here upriver before we had even gotten to the city limits.

We crossed into the city limits.

It was an industrial area along the river.

In that same area we stumbled onto our first big architectural find, the 1931 Cincinnati Union Terminal, done in the Art Deco style.

On several occasions in the late 1960’s my mother took her four children by train from Norfolk VA to Texas to visit family, each time changing trains at this station in Cincinnati.    I do remember the building.  It was nicely restored in 2018,  having been converted to the Cincinnati Museum Center, as well as serving the few Amtrak trains that still call.   We biked up to the building and walked around inside.

 

We were impressed.   Back on the bicycles, it was two miles further to the Over the Rhine neighborhood where we had booked an Airbnb.  On the way we passed through several modernist public housing complexes.  In talking to locals later I learned that much of Over the Rhine was semi-abandoned until as recently as 2009.  I do not know the effect the current gentrification has had on the lower income people who are being pushed out.

 

 

Even now, the northern part of the neighborhood is still undergoing renovations, seemingly block by block.   I have learned it is one of the largest concentrations of intact mid-nineteenth century buildings in America.

 

This was the block that contained our Airbnb, sitting across from Washington Park.

 

For less than $ 150.00 per night including tax we got a stylish two bedroom apartment, accessed by an intricate interior staircase.

 

By this time it had gotten dark, bicycling for the day was over.   We went out for a drink.   Just around the corner in this newly trendy neighborhood there was a pretentious place with $12.00 cocktails.  Why not?  Just one.

 

Finding dinner was more problematic.   There were lots of restaurants but we could not seem to find something that looked appealing.   We ended splitting a big hamburger seated at another newer bar, it was all quite good.

The next morning we headed out by bicycle, destination Columbus, Indiana.  We hoped to make it in two to three days.  First we had to cycle through older parts of Cincinnati.

 

Because of our route heading west we were skipping huge parts of the uptown parts of the city, such as the area around University of Cincinnati, the upscale parts of Cincinnati.  Instead we headed through several miles non-gentrified areas.

 

 

Just before crossing Mill Creek we passed this place.   It was not lunchtime and we did not stop.  Cincinnati chili is the most famous local dish.  On further reading I understand it is NOT the Tex-Mex dish eaten all over America.  It is more like tomato meat sauce, often eaten on spaghetti.

 

Cincinnati was originally built around the flood plain where where Mill Creek enters the Ohio River.   Once we crossed Mill Creek and a sea of railroad tracks the land quickly breaks into steep wooded hills, much of it the public park known as Mount Airy.  We climbed further uphill through rugged terrain and then through Ohio exurban countryside.

 

It was time for lunch as we approached the suburban town of Harrison just before the Indiana state line.   Businesses sometimes pay folks to stand on the sidewalk and wave a sign.   In the rows of strip malls we passed this guy.   Greek food, something vegetarian sounded great.   And it was!

 

After lunch we headed back on the road.   The town of Harrison OH was obviously not wealthy but attractive.

We crossed into the state of Indiana just beyond Harrison.   The countryside was lovely.

 

 

We had set as our destination that day the supposedly tourist town of Metamora IN.    We had cycled a long way that day and ten miles before Metamora we arrived in Brookville IN.  We found Coffee On Main off on a side street, in the lower level of a building functioning as a church.  Small independent coffee houses have been cropping up all over America.

The proprietor was friendly and professional, she runs the place with her three daughters, all of them working part-time while holding other full-time jobs.  I got my usual almond milk latte but she gave us free samples of her sweet coffee drinks.   There was Christian music playing on the video and the Boy Scout Oath on the wall.

We hung out a while enjoying the chairs and the coffee.   We pushed off because we needed to arrive at our day’s destination of Metamora IN before sundown.   We cycled through the darkening countryside.

Metamora IN bills itself to be a tourist town, the site of a nineteenth century stop on the Whitewater Canal.  It is a tiny town, lots of schlock gently spread around.

 

The Airbnb was right in town in an old building with an old fashioned decor.   What does a picture of a plantation home have to do with Indiana?   We got separate rooms; this was Lyman’s.

There were unusual reading materials on the shelf in my room.

 

There were only two other guests at the hotel, both of them bow hunters looking for deer.    The friendly father son team had driven from far upstate New York in their black Ford pickup, looking for different hunting grounds.

 

On the map this town of Metamora showed several restaurants, we found out on arrival that none are open after about 3:00 PM.   I had to bicycle in semi-darkness a quarter mile down the highway to a MiniMart for some sandwiches which I brought back to the hotel.

We were lucky that Lyman had brought along a bottle of expensive Scotch.   We broke that open and sat outside on the porch with our sandwiches.  It was raining outside.

 

The next morning it was cold and rainy.  The proprietor was going to cook us breakfast but we volunteered and cooked eggs and bacon for ourselves, using ingredients from her refrigerator.    We forced ourselves to go back to bed for most of the morning, waiting for the rain to stop.  I did some reading on my Kindle.

About noon the weather indicated we could push on and so we did!   Because of the rain we set our sights low, just somehow get twenty-five or thirty miles to the larger town of Greensburg where we knew there were actual motels.

The first part of the ride was climbing again through heavily wooded terrain, mostly uphill.  Eventually the land leveled out on what I presume is the start of the great American flatness.

 

 

 

Greensburg had a Quality Inn out by the highway with a very reasonably priced room with two double beds, so we settled in to get out of the cold.   We wanted to eat in downtown Greensburg that evening out of principle rather than eat near the motel at a chain restaurant.   We would have to bicycle a mile or two in the dark cold but it seemed worth the effort.   I have a new set of rechargeable bicycle lights that seem almost like those on a car.

 

The only restaurant open downtown that had anyone eating at it was the Beach Tiki Bar and Grill, in a turn of the (19th-20th) century building and nowhere near the ocean.  It fronted the courthouse on the main square, Greensburg IN.

 

We sat near the back at the bar.   I ordered their supposed specialty, the fried fish sandwich.   It was quite good, one of the best tasting pieces of fried fish I have had in a while.  I asked about its provenance, they queried the kitchen and were told it was Vietnamese catfish.

 

There were two other guys who sat alone at the bar.   The bartender, Lyman, those two guys, and I communally watched Family Feud on the TV, without the sound.

 

The next morning the rain had totally stopped but it was COLD!   Twenty-four degrees and sunny;  the weather was going to continue to be an issue.

Lyman is originally from New Orleans (not cold) and then moved to Austin TX (also not cold.)   He seemed mildly freaked out as he put on everything he had to stay warm.

 

 

The whole point of this trip was to visit Columbus Indiana, thirty miles to the west.

Columbus, Indiana is a small city (population 44,000) forty miles south of Indianapolis and a hundred miles west of Cincinnati.   It is the home of Cummins, a homegrown Fortune 500 company that is one of the largest manufacturers of Diesel engines in the world.

The man who brought Cummins into prominence was Irwin Miller (1909-2002), born and raised in Columbus IN but educated at Yale and Oxford.   As a hobby for fifty years, from the 1940’s to the 1990’s he funded the architectural fees for almost any public building in Columbus as long as the builder chose from his short list of world-class architects.

Columbus consequently has dozens of public buildings: schools, churches, bank branches that were designed by famous architects like I.M. Pei and Eero Saarinen.   People are now coming to Columbus IN from all over the world just to see the buildings.

Lyman and I biked off from Greensburg IN across mostly flat rural Indiana towards Columbus IN, trying to move quickly so we could stay warm.

At the Columbus city limits surrounded by strip malls we came upon our first distinctive building, this fire station designed in 1967 by Robert Venturi in early postmodern style.   It is notable enough that the building has a whole Wikipedia page written about it!

 

 

The largest concentration of interesting public buildings is in the downtown area.   My first shock was thinking about what was torn down so that these mostly modernist buildings could take their place.    This is one block that still exists.

 

This church across the street.

These are other notable buildings in the immediate area.

 

 

My personal favorite downtown is likely the first church built with contemporary architecture in America, the First Christian Church, from 1942; designed by Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero.

 

The Cummins corporate headquarters, designed by Kevin Roche, from 1984.

 

 

Later on after checking into the hotel and resting we walked away from downtown, looking for somewhere to eat.   We passed this interesting bank.

We had beers at a brewery pub surrounded by friendly locals.

 

The beer was excellent but we wanted different food.  We walked back towards downtown and ate an an excellent Thai restaurant.   In a town otherwise 90% white, many customers in the Thai restaurant looked South Asian, as in Indian.

Eero Saarinen was the Finnish-American architect who designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Washington Dulles Airport, and the JFK TWA Terminal.  On the way back to our hotel we passed this Eero Saarinen design from 1954, the Irwin Bank, likely the first glass encased bank in the world.  It is now used as a conference center.

 

 

The next morning I was impressed that our otherwise very normal Hotel Indigo downtown had a dog who had been living in the lobby for thirteen years, a much longer tenure than anyone on the office staff.

 

We biked several miles from downtown through a 1950’s looking suburban area.

Our destination was the North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarienen, from 1964.   In this open area the building really awakens, I could see God in this.

 

The building was unlocked because of for some kind of church event and we were able to walk around inside. The sanctuary has essentially no windows.

It was time to leave Columbus IN.   Did the semi-suburban nature of Columbus’ downtown sour me on contemporary architecture?   Absolutely not.  It did underscore how completely wrong the city planners of the 1950-60’s had been with their idea that dense downtowns should be REPLACED by suburban looking ones.   Contemporary architecture needs to fit in with existing buildings.

The day we left Columbus IN the weather was almost perfect, sunny, with wind at our backs and a high temperature near sixty.   The day after that SNOW was predicted followed by temperatures falling into the teens.   There was clearly only one full day left of decent bike riding; we should bike as far as possible.  We would be heading back across Indiana towards Cincinnati but taking different roads.

Leaving Columbus IN we cycled through conventional neighborhoods sprinkled with Modernist school buildings and churches.

 

 

 

Out of town we bicycled across flat landscapes.

We stopped for lunch in Greensburg but kept going on a long successful day, all the way to the town of Batesville IN, population 11,000.

 


Batesville seemed like a North Carolina textile town except that it looked prosperous; not full of abandoned buildings.   The secret is apparently its major industry Batesville Casket Company.  The business of death.

 

Likely because of the health of its businesses Batesville has a downtown hotel and restaurant called the Sherman House, a rarity in almost any small town.  It celebrates the town’s German heritage.  It has a large bar in the back where we met the hotel’s most recent owner, an actual German guy who followed his Batesville-born wife back to her hometown.

He let us store our bicycles in a former factory that backs up to the hotel.

 

 

 

The next day we had a couple of hours to take a ten or fifteen mile bicycle loop before the snow started.   I had bicycled in the Netherlands the previous summer and suddenly it felt just like that, bicycling on an empty road across flat fields with absolutely no car traffic.   We even saw this poetic looking crossroads.

About noon we bicycled up to an Enterprise rental car office near Batesville and got a car for the drive fifty miles back to Cincinnati.  It started to snow while we were driving.   We spend that night once more in Over the Rhine.  The next morning we drove to the airport, looking at the snowbound landscape.

 

I made it home to North Carolina in time for dinner the same evening.  It had turned cold there also.

 

 

 

For the past few years l have been hearing about Kentucky from mine and Tootie’s Chapel Hill NC friend Maxine Mills, who hails originally from the Bluegrass State.    Previously all I had known about Kentucky were caricatures from the media.   The first forty seconds of this upcoming clip are the best.

My friend Dan and I knew very little about Kentucky when we wrote this song two or three years ago, words and tune by Dan Anderson, musical arrangement and guitar accompaniment by me.

Tootie and I had been very cordially invited to accompany Maxine and her relatives to a high-end horse race in Lexington, KY the first week of April.    I used to opportunity to fly to Lousville four days early and bicycle by myself across the middle of the state, from Louisville to Lexington.

I bought a one way ticket, checking my Bike Friday folding bicycle as luggage.   I took the advice of my friend Harvey Botzman and used a disposable cardboard box.  At 11:00 AM on a Monday morning I put the bicycle together in the baggage claim area of the Louisville airport.

 

Ready to go.

 

I cycled away from the airport and into the city.   My first stop was to visit a first cousin that I seldom see.    Dawn McMillion and her husband Paul recently sold their restaurant in Seattle WA and moved to Louisville KY.  They bought into a business that has a distillery and Prohibition museum with a separate bar next door.

 

 

 

 

We took a selfie.

 

Dawn and I walked down Baxter Avenue for lunch.   Taco Luchador definitely had its game on and we had a great time catching up with each other’s lives.   After lunch we walked back to the bar and I left Dawn to bicycle Louisville.   Unfortunately the cold, or something, that I had caught a few days earlier was really wearing at me.   I was sick, I needed to lie down.    This break ultimately helped me out;  by the afternoon of the next day I felt almost normal again.   I cycled over to my Airbnb a few blocks away.

It was in the back of a shotgun house.   For $ 72.00 including tax the owners had really gone all out.  They even provided me all sorts of food for breakfast, including fresh fruit and homemade jams.

 

I collapsed onto the bed and chilled for several hours.   Ultimately I got up and walked to find dinner.  My Airbnb was on the Wrong Side of the Tracks from anywhere to eat.   I had to walk through an underpass.

 

A place called Hammerheads is in the basement of a house and specializes in what I would call hipster barbecue.   I got something called a pork belly BLT.  I asked for wine, which they do not have, only beer, but a huge selection.    The sandwich was greasy but delicious.

 

It was all good and I walked “home” in the semi-darkness.   I was already starting to feel better.

 

The next morning I cycled around the western side of Louisville before heading further out of town.    Louisville was a relatively large city in about 1900 and has its own architectural style.   Like New Orleans, there are block after block of shotgun houses, many with what New Orleans calls a camelback, a larger second story in the rear.   Unlike New Orleans, many of the Louisville shotgun houses are built of brick.   These three photos were all taken on the same street as my Airbnb.

 

 

Further west, away from downtown, the trend continues in the more prosperous neighborhood called Highlands.

In Highlands there are shotgun houses but also larger Victorians.  These houses go on block after block.

 

 

Maxine’s brother Russell Mills is a building contractor, sculptor, British car enthusiast, and all around good guy.   He lives on one of these blocks, the house at the right side of this photo.

 

Moving further west the houses get even bigger.

 

The house on the right is for sale for $ 880,000.00

There was a traffic circle that stylistically reminded me of Monument Avenue in Richmond VA.   This all must have been built about the same time, 1890-1900.   There was even a large statue of Confederate war “hero” John Breckinridge Castelman.   (Remember, Kentucky was supposed to have been on the side of the Union in that war!)   The statue has apparently been recently defaced.

 

I biked west. Louisville suburbs go west for almost twenty miles.   In the “town” of Hurstbourne, there are houses obviously built about 1960 with street upon street named from Robin Hood themes.   I mention this because both my wife’s hometown of Winston-Salem NC and my almost hometown of Norfolk VA have a Sherwood Forest Elementary school, surrounded by houses and streets of the same period with the same Robin Hood theme; houses in that early sixties style I really dislike: “colonial ranch.”   Here in Hurstbourne KY it was the same.

 

Up to this point I had seen nothing in Kentucky that indicated that horses were an important thing.   Passing through the Louisville suburbs into the countryside I started to see horse statues that anywhere else in America would be written off as kitsch.

 

 

I spent the night “in” Shelbyville KY, but really in a motel on the highway, three miles from downtown Shelbyville.   There was no place to stay in downtown Shelbyville, not even an Airbnb.    This Best Western was clean, spacious, and low cost, but the four lane highway vibe did not feel accommodating to a bicyclist.   There was a Waffle House across the street.

 

I had a decision.   Meals are important to me.  Really.   Should I bicycle three miles into downtown Shelbyville for a likely just O.K. dinner at a local restaurant, and then have to bicycle back on a highway in the dark?   Or should I bicycle just three quarters of a mile the other direction to the chain steakhouse at the Interstate highway interchange?    Yes, I am a food snob.   But after showering and recovering from the day’s ride, I chose the chain restaurant at the Interstate highway with a Texas theme: Cattleman’s Roadhouse.

It is easier to eat at the bar when solo dining.   The bar area of Cattleman’s Roadhouse was almost all guys.   There were lots of TV’s to watch.

You could even watch TV while you peed.

The dinner at this chain restaurant was almost perfect.  Salmon, cooked rare like I asked but not at all smelly or slimy, topped with a sweet “bourbon” sauce, and rice pilaf and green beans.   All delicious.   $ 17.95.    I could not have asked for more.   The local cable channel right-wing news accompanied my dinner.

 

It was mostly dark when I bicycled back to the motel along the highway.   I felt good, relaxed.

The next morning I bicycled further west and finally got to see downtown Shelbyville KY.

 

 

There was a modernist fire & rescue headquarters.

 

There was a perfectly preserved 1940’s-50’s gas station, just waiting for someone to adapt something to it.

 

In a dramatic change from the day before, this day’s cycling was chill, on country roads where a car would pass only every five or ten minutes.

 

 

And I discovered actual horse country!    Fences everywhere!

 

 

I am not knowledgeable about horses.  I thought they always stood up.   I guess not.

Frankfort is a small city that also happens to be the capital of the state of Kentucky.   I bicycled into Frankfort in time for a late lunch at Kentucky Coffeehouse Cafe.  I got their bean soup and chicken salad on croissant.

 

 

I stayed that night in the only hotel in downtown Frankfort and caught up on some reading.   Right near the place where I had eaten lunch I went out that evening to a combination fancy wine store, liquor store, and bar called Capital Cellars.   There was a convivial scene at the bar, and they encouraged me to buy takeout Mexican chicken down the street and bring that back for dinner.

There is obviously a lot of discussion in Kentucky about bourbon whiskey.  I waited until dessert to partake, when I sipped straight a half a shot of a higher end bourbon that the bartender recommended.

 

For my bike ride the next day I would need to be in Lexington KY by late afternoon to meet my wife Tootie and friend Maxine at her uncle’s house.    Because it was not very far I chose the circuitous route Frankfort /  Lawrenceburg / Lexington.

I first biked by the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kentucky, from 1910, on a otherwise regular street in Frankfort of houses from that same era.

 

Out in the country just south of Frankfort, on a side road, I passed the privately run Josephine Sculpture Park.  Open to the public.

 

Once again biking was excellent, on seldom used back roads.

 

I had a nice lunch in Lawrenceburg.    Later in the afternoon I headed out for the final twenty miles to Lexington.   There were all sorts of interesting things along the way.

 

 

Lexington and its surrounding county clearly have strict land use controls, as the final twelve miles to Don Mill’s house were all through pristine horse farms.

I am not going to attempt on this blog to document everything we did in Lexington with Maxine, her uncle Don Mills, brother Russell Mills, and all their relatives.    They showed us wonderful hospitality.   The next day Friday was the opening day at the Keeneland race course in Lexington.    Everyone was dressed up.   We all had a great time wagering, eating, and drinking.   It was fun to walk around and look at people.  These photos are of people I do NOT know.

 

 

The next day Tootie, Maxine, my bicycle, and myself all drove seven hours back to Chapel Hill NC.