See the USA in a Dodge Van, Part 2

O the miles we’ve traveled and the sights we’ve seen since I last wrote about the April leg of our American journey!

I write to you today from Chicago where Kay and I are resting a few days while visiting my family. Soon, we’ll be on the road again to complete the journey.

During the month of May we passed through Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Along the way, we’ve enjoyed reunions with friends and visits to destinations new and old.

These states are all large and beautiful. The many hours of driving were relieved by the stunning landscapes of the mountains and valleys we traversed.


I can’t stress enough how nature has blessed our country, no more so than in the great expanses of the western states. The spectacle is free and only requires enough time and a good vehicle to see it.

By now, what we aim for in travel will be familiar to those of you who follow our adventures: besides the pleasures of the natural world, there are art, history, food, and the chance to reconnect with our far-flung friends and family members. Sometimes, these attractions combine as they did one day at Fort Vancouver, just a short drive from Portland over the state line into Washington. This magnificent setting, located on the bank of the Columbia River, was a 19th-century fur trading post that became the headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company’s Columbia Department. Goods shipped from London arrived to be traded for fur pelts. The fort became a U.S. National Monument in 1948.

Grant House at Fort Vancouver

It was at a restaurant in one of the Fort’s historic houses that Kay and I lunched elegantly with friends before touring the extensive grounds.

Food-wise, a great discovery was Saul’s, a Jewish delicatessen with a difference, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Saul comes from South Africa and on his first visit to Israel, he was smitten with the food. His restaurant with its forthright and friendly wait staff put us immediately at ease, and a quick perusal of the menu revealed items very different from the old-fashioned and clichéd offerings of the New York delis of our past. For one thing, there were dishes spiced with seasonings like za’atar and sumac popular throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Different kinds of smoked fish caught our eye, along with herring in different kinds of preparations.

One ingredient stood out above all. Schmaltz is chicken fat, and if the prospect of eating it seems off-putting, wait until you taste one of Saul’s brisket sandwiches on a fresh baked Kaiser roll that you’ve dipped in schmaltz. It is a wonderful thing. Among other charming items at Saul’s was a container of the Bazooka bubble gum that I loved as a child and Dr. Brown’s Root Beer, Cel-Ray, and Cream Soda in the drinks case. During our four days in Berkley, we ate at Saul’s three times.

Though I’m often put off by the sameness of the food offerings as we travel, I do admit that it is still possible to find and experience regional delights.

Shrimp & Grits

Thus, we ate oysters baked with spinach in Oxford, Maryland; collard greens and a filet of trout over Carolina red rice in Charleston; shrimp and grits in Shelbyville, Tennessee; fish tacos in Seattle; walleye in Minneapolis; and sauerkraut balls in Appleton, Wisconsin.

One of the most interesting meals of the trip came in Rapid City, South Dakota. At Tally’s Silver Spoon an Indecision Menu is one where the chef decides what to serve and what wines to pair with the courses. First up, for us, came a Peruvian-inspired dish called Nikkei named after the Japanese Stock Market Index, containing small pieces of Spencer steak in a spicy sauce garnished with nasturtiums. With it we drank a Bread and Butter California Pinot Noir. With our second course, a salad of green papaya garnished with a coconut-avocado mousse and cashew dust, there was a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. The final course, small pieces of halibut steak with confit potatoes cooked in duck fat and sugar snap peas, came with a Chardonnay.

Restaurant meals are one thing, but food served in the homes of friends is often healthier and more delicious. I have in mind a single day in Los Gatos, California when we lunched on focaccia sandwiches with melted cheese and ham, cole slaw, tomatoes and avocado; then, hours later dined on tri-tip steak, mashed potatoes infused with lemon zest and fresh oregano, asparagus, and laughter.


We love cities, and on this leg we visited two that we knew slightly but not well enough. I had been to Seattle three or four times in the past but those were short work trips, and I never ventured far from the waterfront. This time, we took in a couple of the city’s major attractions.

Pike Place Market

Pike Place Market on the waterfront has been there for years and serves the city’s population as well the many tourists for whom it is a magnet. Vibrant and crowded, it offers the most beautiful flowers and many different kinds of produce and fish.

Pike Place Market

It is a covered market arranged along a long corridor hung with colorful neon signs. Our fish tacos at a venerable restaurant named Lowell’s came with a cup of kidney and white beans in broth. The windows gave us partial views of Puget Sound.

Seattle Art Museum

Seattle’s excellent art museum has extensive collections of modern and contemporary art along with smaller groupings of artifacts from widely diverse cultures.

Seattle Art Museum

There are totems and masks from the Indian tribes of the Northwest, Japanese screens and scrolls, aboriginal art from Australia, a few Old Masters, and a really amazing porcelain collection that fills the vitrines of a large gallery from floor to ceiling.

Near Pioneer Square

The streets around Seattle’s original neighborhood, Pioneer Square, are the city’s oldest. Many of the buildings there are in the Romanesque Revival style of architecture associated with Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886).

It was at Pioneer Square that we signed up for a tour of its underground sidewalks. The story is that, early on, when the city realized it couldn’t build sewers because the land by the bay was too flat and the water table too high, it decided to raise the streets of the fledgling town by filling them with tons of earth. The second floors of the buildings along the streets became their new ground floors, while the original ground floors were then underground. Our tour guide’s remarks taught us a lot about Seattle history, including details of the devastating fire of 1889 that destroyed 30 city blocks of wooden buildings. In the aftermath, the insurance companies demanded a building code that replaced lumber with brick as the principal building material.

Hewing Hotel


The second city we explored is Minneapolis where we stayed at the elegant Hewing Hotel, a recent creation in a repurposed warehouse in the North Loop District. Timing can be fortuitous; we were lucky enough to get accommodation at the Hewing for a price we could afford.

Hewing Hotel Lobby

As I took in the details of the Hewing conversion, I become more and more impressed with the architects’ work. They’ve kept the bones of the warehouse construction visible in the great ceiling beams and the wooden supporting columns. They’ve also left some of the brick exposed together with the steel plates that connect the timber. The high ceilings are of the original wood, and there is no attempt to hide the electrical conduit and sprinkler pipes. In the lobby, where the ceilings are about twenty feet, the pipes and ducts are visible and colorful. There is an openness to the lobby and the sleeping rooms that makes them comfortable and not at all fussy.


Minneapolis is a bike friendly city with designated lanes everywhere downtown and in the North Loop. Early in the morning, I rode through downtown before rush hour, along the Mississippi, and over a great suspension bridge. It was an urban pleasure.

Wanda Gág -Stone Crusher, Lithograph, 1927

Among the 20th-century works in the Minneapolis Institute of Art were several by a Minnesota artist named Wanda Gág, an impressive printmaker whose favorite drawing surface was sandpaper. She published a very popular children’s book named Millions of Cats.

Evening at the bar of the Monte Carlo, a restaurant across from the hotel that has existed since 1906, I ordered a Sazarac cocktail while Kay discussed gins with the bartender. While we were drinking, two middle-aged couples came up beside us, and we began to chat. When they learned that we were on a three-month road trip, they asked where we had been. I mentioned Red Cloud, and astonishingly one of the men said he and a friend planned to go there soon. We share an interest in Willa Cather. We gave him our impressions of the town and made some suggestions. It is these kinds of brief encounters that make independent travel so surprising.

Grand Coulee Dam

Across the large northwestern states, we took advantage of our drive to look at some famous American icons. Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River in Washington State, is one of the largest concrete structures in the world. It contains 12 million cubic yards of concrete, enough to build a highway from Seattle, Washington to Miami, Florida. To my casual observer’s eye, it seems in remarkably good shape given that it was built during the Great Depression in the early 1930s.

Grand Coulee Dam

It is the largest hydropower producer in the United States, generating more than 21 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, enough to power 2.3 million households with electricity for one year.

We didn’t stay long at the dam, just long enough to marvel at its size and take a few pictures. The weather was fine for our visit; however, back on the road we quickly ran into a heavy rain shower, a real cloudburst.

Devil’s Tower

In Wyoming, as we approached South Dakota, we detoured to take a look at Devil’s Tower. You may remember that national monument from its role in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sitting like a piece of sculpture atop a steep-sided and forested hill, it is a sight not to be missed. The hill is what is left of magma that forced its way to the surface 50 million years go and then gradually eroded to reveal the formation of igneous rock that is the tower, rising 867 feet above its base.

Mount Rushmore

Though Kay had seen Mount Rushmore once when she was eleven years old in the course of a family vacation, I had not visited Rapid City and Mount Rushmore before. What impressed us this time was how well organized are the parking and viewing structures. They have been built to handle the yearly onslaught of 3,000,000 visitors.

Corn Palace. Mitchell, SD

The third attraction that we stopped to see on our drive east is Mitchell, South Dakota’s Corn Palace, the only one of its kind remaining from several that once celebrated the agriculture of America’s corn belt.

Corn Palace. Mitchell, SD

Each year, those who maintain the palace renew its exterior with thousands of ears of different color corn, using them to create murals on the façade and the sides of the large building. Each ear is split in half lengthwise and nailed into place. The yearly cost for doing this is $130,000.

The performance art that we enjoy most does not flourish in many of the smaller cities and towns we passed through on this leg of the journey. However, here are some exceptions:

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

In southern Oregon we watched an excellent production of Henry V offered by the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. A young Daniel Jose Molina played king Henry faced with the need to inspire his countrymen fight the French while, at the same time, dealing with traitors close to him. He certainly had the voice and energy for it.

The director, Rosa Joshi, did an admiral job of staging the play against a wall of grey boxes that looked like Legos together with other boxes that the actors moved and used in a variety of ways. Some had hinged tops and contained certain props. Red one-piece underwear was used to symbolize the dead in the battle scenes. Business with the boxes helped move the action forward during some of the longer speeches. Jose Molina spoke the great speeches in such a way that he seemed to be inventing them on the spot. The short scene describing the death of Falstaff was moving, as it always is. Kay and I, starved, as we are, for English-language theater, thoroughly enjoyed this production.

Portland, Oregon is an excellent city for serious music. One evening with friends we attended a concert of short pieces entitled Hope in the Dark. All the compositions that made up the evening’s program arose out of the 20th century’s great humanitarian tragedies: the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, that of the Armenians in Turkey, etc. The music was meditative, sad, and moving. The excellent musicians performed both as soloists and in ensemble. My favorite composition was Dark Vigil, a string quartet by Kevin Puts.

On another Portland evening we drove to an industrial building turned performance space and attended an evening of dance by the company Body Vox. The program consisted of short pieces by well-know singers and songwriters, all of who are women. Much of the chorography was acrobatic, and the young male and female dancers performed it with great energy to the music of a rock band and two female vocalists. The fourteen dances were divided into two acts with an intermission Dance Party where the audience was encouraged to dance to recorded music provided by a DJ.

A journey of this length and complexity has ups and downs. On balance, we’ve maintained our health and sanity and are pacing ourselves for the final weeks of visits and driving.