When passing through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I stayed at Shady Oaks Farm Bed and Breakfast, which I think may have been for sale.
The house was large with an impressive dining room fireplace, but what I loved most were the rooms. To get to one of them, you went down a few steps, then up a few steps into the next room, all connected, set up for children. I can’t get enough of houses with oddities like this — multiple levels on one floor, attic rooms, mysterious little slanted doors or floors that sort of thing.1
As a farm, Shady Oaks featured horses, with two or three in a pasture and a pony in the stable. The B&B could accommodate travelers with horses too. On their website, they warned fussier visitors that theirs was a working farm, so there might be equipment, hay, etc., about the place. People had complained. Between the horses and the comfortable porch overlooking the pasture and the long drive ahead, I found Shady Oaks very hard to leave.
1 My favorite was my aunt’s second floor apartment in Altoona, Pennsylvania. When you walked through her bedroom and maybe down a step or two (memory fails), you found yourself in another bedroom — in another house. Those houses have since been torn down, and I doubt their like will be seen again in our present-day bland, cookie-cutter modern housing.
Once or twice a year I travel by Amtrak from Chicago’s Union Station — not cross country, just to Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Capitol Limited, Pennsylvanian, and Wolverine routes pass through cities, small towns, farmlands, and rusted sections of the Rust Belt. I ride the Wolverine during the day. The journey east on the Capitol Limited is all after dark, but on the return west we are in Indiana when morning dawns.
Steel and power
Amtrak passes through northwest Indiana, where in the late 1800s and early 1900s much of one of the nation’s most diverse ecosystems, the Indiana Dunes, was bulldozed over or carted off (see Hoosier Slide). Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability shows the making of places such as Gary, Indiana, and the long-term costs of short-term gains.
I’m not sure Amtrak goes through Gary, but it stops at Hammond-Whiting, where the view from the train overlooks like an industrial post-apocalypse. That’s the nature of trains — industry and train tracks go together like chips and salsa.
If you were to travel through only northwest Indiana by Amtrak, you’d think the world is made up of industry, utility poles, and casinos. By car, you’d also see billboards for fireworks and adult stores, and countless personal injury and illness attorneys.
On the train, I sleep sporadically. One early morning I woke up to find the train stopped near this structure and garish lighting in Cleveland, Ohio. What could be more representative of industrial eastern America?
Weeds flourish, trees struggle, oily water lies in pools, buildings and train cars rust aggressively, and stuff is strewn everywhere. Human beings seldom appear, although parked cars indicate their presence. In black and white, in color, in summer, in winter, the view is bleak.
A bit of nature
I’m fascinated by where cemeteries appear — sometimes unexpectedly in the woods or at state parks like the Smith cemetery at Kankakee River State Park, Illinois or the Porter Rea Cemetery at Potato Creek State Park, Indiana. This one is on Mineral Springs Road in Indiana, where I94 passes over the train tracks. I couldn’t tell at the time, but it belongs to Augsburg Church, a Lutheran church in Porter. It’s about two miles from Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, which are part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, past most of the worst of the industrial areas.
When I see puffy clouds, an eggshell sky, and verdant trees on a June day in Michigan, I can’t wait to get to my destination to soak it all in.
Whether you call it Cellular Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, or Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox is sometimes a surprise highlight for Amtrak passengers. If you look at the satellite view of the ballpark, though, you won’t believe the number of train tracks to its west. On the starboard side of the train, eastbound Amtrak passengers can enjoy the view of Universal Granite and Marble.
Apparently a scrapyard in Michigan City, Indiana, has mastered Monty Python’s art of “putting things on top of other things.”
I couldn’t figure out the purpose of this attractive building with cupola, but was surprised to realize later it’s in Michigan City, Indiana, not far from the Old Lighthouse Museum. The Hoosier Slide mentioned above was across from the lighthouse on Trail Creek where it empties into Lake Michigan, near this building. That would have been something to see from an Amtrak train. Now the Hoosier slide site is covered by a NIPSCO coal-fired plant. Progress. Rest in peace, Hoosier Slide. May we not forgot what we have lost and never known.
This wavy fence in Michigan City, Indiana, baffled me. I’ve seen them elsewhere, I think, but I don’t know the purpose other than aesthetic.
There may be millions of nondescript, decaying buildings across the U.S., but I haven’t spotted many more nondescript than this one.
The appearance of this building belies its message that Dowagiac, Michigan, is the “Grand Old City.”
I noticed this long red building on the edge of a small stand of trees in Parma, Michigan, east of Battle Creek. In the satellite view, a dirt road from another building, likely a house, is the only access to it. I’m intrigued by the tall chimney.
With no immediate neighbors, this house, likely part of a tree farm, looks lonelier than it is.
Farm buildings dot the back roads, and rails, of middle America.
Some houses in Pennsylvania towns like Johnstown are spaced closely together, with nearly touching side walls or an alley almost too narrow to squeeze through.
These houses on a hill are farther apart. I wonder if they would have been high enough to escape the Great Flood of 1889—or any since. The area’s geography makes it prone to flooding even without breaking dams.
Johnstown, too, has nondescript commercial buildings.
Some Amtrak stations, like the modern monstrosity in Ann Arbor, are cold and utilitarian. Next door, Ann Arbor’s former station has been converted into an upscale restaurant, Gandy Dancer.
Old school stations remain in use in Michigan and Indiana.
Often there’s not much to see in the dark, but I spotted the same rotting cars from the EB Capitol Limited. Nearby I found a National New York Central Railroad Museum. If they’re intended to be exhibits, they may use a little work.
Coming and Going
The morning Dan Ryan Expressway from Amtrak.
This is what you, and New Buffalo, Michigan, look like to an Amtrak passenger.
As children, we liked to watch for the caboose at the end of long freight trains. When the news pronounced the demise of the caboose, I was distraught. When I can, I watch the scenery recede from the last car of the Pennsylvanian, unimpeded by a caboose, remembering the miles of track and the cities, towns, stations, farms, taverns, fields, rivers, creeks, houses, plants, and stores behind me — and ahead of me on the return.
Finally, all journeys must have an end. Mine passes over the Calumet River through Chicago’s steel history.
It was still overcast with on-and-off rain in Maumee, Ohio, where, still reluctant to return, we visited Georgette’s Coffee and Gift Shop (which carries, of all things, Solmates socks). We couldn’t leave without a walk around Fort Meigs in Perrysburg, which is closed on Mondays. Curses.
When Fort Meigs was built in 1813, it was the largest wooden walled fortification on the continent. As with Fort Massac in Metropolis, Illinois, Fort Meigs is a replica — for different reasons, wooden structures seem to be doomed to an early demise. Fort Meigs looked interesting, but its location and layout was no match for my favorite, Fort Niagara on the Niagara River at its mouth on Lake Ontario.
Back in town, J. spotted a purveyor of vintage candy that carries variations on the traditional Mallo Cup, so he picked up a lot — the Mallo Cup is a rare sight in the urban Midwest, or at least in the Chicago area.
At last we left the Maumee/Perrysburg area and drove through more on-and-off rain, with breaks at rest stop or two. At one we were able to get Hershey’s ice cream one last time (reminder: not affiliated with the candy company). Finally, we collected Petunia at the Hyde Park Animal Hospital. During her lengthy stay, she’d developed symptoms of feline herpes, a chronic respiratory illness, so we picked up L-lysine for her. We should have gotten a poncho for me, given how many times she was going to sneeze wetly on me in the next ten days. Home, sweet home. Chicago.
After taking Petunia to the Hyde Park Animal Hospital and chowing down on burgers and fries at Five Guys, we made it to South Bend, Indiana, before calling it a day. When I was a child, I was drawn to the Fighting Irish brand (without knowing that’s what it was), but the luster had worn off by my late adolescence. I didn’t see much of South Bend, just a bit around the airport and can’t tell you if it’s a quaint college town or a modern, efficient one that looks like a 1950s architecture nightmare.
J. was sorely tempted by some roadside attractions, including a Studebaker museum, but it’s my unhappy job to keep us focused. Somehow — probably while in search of a coffee shop — we were pulled over the state line into Sturgis, Michigan, by the Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee Co. Outside Great Lakes, we found patriotically decorated bicycles serving as ads, although they were locked up like any other bike. While in Sturgis J. also spotted a Harley-Davidson dealership, which features its canine greeter on some of its wares, so we had to stop there too.
The rest of the day was a blur of travel plazas and flatlands as we made our way across Ohio until we arrived in the Cleveland area, where we detoured off the interstate. A turkey crossed the road in front of us as we were getting close to Shady Oaks Farm Bed & Breakfast. Once upon a time, it was a rare thing to spot a turkey, at least in Pennsylvania. Now I’ve seen them on roads in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
After checking in at Shady Oaks; helping ourselves to pita, hummus, and lemonade; and getting restaurant recommendations, we backtracked a bit to Brandywine Falls at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is the newest (2000) and third most visited national park in the system. The sky was overcast with a threat of rain, and the lighting was poor, but we got our first peek at this beautiful and surprisingly colorful waterfall. It’s hard for me to imagine that this lovely spot once belonged to a private individual, who ran a mill by the waterfall. Now millions get to enjoy it every year.
Our dinner stop was in Peninsula, Ohio, at the Winking Lizard, a local tavern chain with locations clustered around Columbus and northeastern Ohio — a comfortable and delicious way to end a great day of travel and anticipate the next.
May 21, 2015
Knowing that our first destination, Hamburg, New York, was only three hours away, we dawdled at Shady Oaks, where we savored a fireside breakfast and some quality time trying to get the attention of the resident horses and pony. Finally, after 11 a.m., we returned to Brandywine Falls, which had become more popular during the daylight hours. There was even a group of park-rangers-in-training, led by a sharp-voiced instructor who made it clear après-lunch tardiness would not be tolerated. Instead of peeking through dense foliage to see bits of the falls, we went down the steps to the viewing platform to take in the whole view, colorful minerals and all.
Our next planned stop was Blue Hen Falls, but first we detoured to the Conference Center area with what is called the Stone Cottage and then to the Boston Store Visitor Center. Although it’s not as obvious from the outside as from the inside, the Boston Store, built around 1836 as a warehouse (“store” as in storage) and boarding house, is a trapezoidal building that follows the lines of the neighboring Ohio & Erie Canal.
Further along we found Blue Hen Falls, a mystical little waterfall in the woods where, with more time and energy, I would have liked to to have found the way down and soaked my feet and soul in its watery goodness. Apparently, despite the “End of Trail” sign, there’s a longer, more primitive trail to Buttermilk Falls that involves some creek crossings. As we say in Chicago, maybe next time — if there is one.
J. sought out Hale Farm, which was closed, but we soon found ourselves at Everett Covered Bridget, built most likely in the 1860s and reconstructed in 1986 by the National Park Service after a 1975 flood lifted it from its sandstone abutments.
Our last Cuyahoga Valley NP stop was the Beaver Marsh boardwalk viewing platform, which had attracted a horde of student observers who would have scared off any wildlife for miles. By now it was overcast, which had drawn out some interesting water lilies.
Back on the interstate, we stopped at Pub Frato in Concord, Ohio, and at Starbucks in Erie, Pennsylvania. We detoured to drive down part of the long peninsula that makes up Presque Isle State Park, where the sun was setting and the wind was howling.
At last we crossed the line into New York, where there are few exits and fewer rest stops, but giant signs proclaim, “Niagara Falls!” as though the region’s big wonder is only a few miles away.
After we exited the interstate, or the New York Thruway, even in the dark I felt at home with the older houses separated by woods and big front yards guarded by trees that have been there since before I was born. It’s different from most of Illinois in a way I can’t describe.
Finally, after passing it two or three times in the dark, I got out of the car to track down Sharon’s Lakehouse, which really is directly across from the Lake Shore branch of the Erie County library system. I also remembered why walking along Rte. 5 in Hamburg is dangerous, especially in the dark. No one hit me, I survived, and, for the first time since 1987, I had returned to Hamburg with a little time to explore my hometown.