As I review my journal accounts from our recent three-month road trip in the U.S. and Canada, I’m reminded of just how rewarding it was. For the most part, Kay and I structured our travel around visits to you, our friends and family. Staying in touch with you long distance via email and social media is one thing, but when we’re with you in person, face to face, and in your homes, we feel reconnected and our friendship renewed.
Because Kay and I, and many of you, are the age we are these visits were precious. How many more will there be, can there be?
For this reason, I made a point this time of asking you things about the past and your backgrounds that I had not known or had forgotten. As a result, I feel that I know some of you, even you who have been friends all my life, more fully than ever.
These things said, where to go from here? I’ll start with a few facts: Ours was a road trip through 17 eastern and mid-western states and one Canadian province. In total, our rental vehicles carried us 7,994 miles (12,865 kilometers) with me at the wheel and Kay navigating.
En route, we stayed in 25 hotels and guest houses and spent time in 24 towns and cities (more than once in a couple). I have no count of the number of restaurant meals eaten and the number of fuel and rest stops made. We were gone from home for 88 days. It would be false to say this was a non-stop pleasure trip. This length of travel, carrying all we brought from home, plus all we acquired along the way, was sometimes exhausting. To be worthwhile, the payoff had to be substantial, and it was.
One thing in our favor as travelers is our love of culture. In today’s International New York Times weekend edition (December 28-29) there is an article, citing a British study that suggests visiting an art museum or attending a concert, even once a month, results in a measurably longer life. For us, it certainly results in a more fulfilling one.
For Kay and me, museum visits trump most other attractions. Not only do we get a spiritual uplift from their collections, we enjoy their civilized galleries and their agreeable cafes and restaurants. This trip was especially rich in museum going: We visited twenty in all, a couple of long-time favorites, the rest new discoveries.
For instance, there is the Alcott House, once the home of Louisa May Alcott, her three sisters, her mother and Bronson Alcott, her father. His impressive ability as an inventor and liberal thinker was matched by an equally impressive inability at “money-getting.” It was up to the women of the family to do that. Luisa May triumphed when she unwillingly accepted her publisher’s entreaty to write something for young girls to read. The phenomenal success of Little Women (published in 1868) was immediate and enduring. It has never been out of print and been adapted for film, radio, television, and musicals countless times. A breathless guided tour of the old house, furnished pretty much as it was during the family’s time, gave us a full account of the Alcott family.
A Google search couldn’t give me an exact number of art museums in the U.S.; however, we know from experience there are a goodly number. It seems that most large cities and many smaller ones have at least one. This time, the Peabody Essex in Salem, Massachusetts, the Hood at Dartmouth College, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Art Museum, and the Saint Louis Art Museum all surprised us by the breadth and quality of their collections.
Even smaller museums attract exhibitions of national interest. At the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, we were knocked out by the private collection of Rick Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield entitled Heroines of Abstract Expression.
The artists on display were all women abstract expressionists working in the 1940s, and 1950s alongside their male counterparts. Generally, these fine artists were not given their due because they were women. Now, they are being discovered and taking their place among the men who overshadowed them. Some of their names are: Lea Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989), Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Michael West (1908-1990), Mary Abbot (1921-2019), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), and Hedda Sterne (1910-2001).
Not every art museum has a permanent collection. The most striking thing about St. Louis’ Pulitzer Art Foundation is the building itself, designed by the great Japanese architect Tadeo Ando. Unadorned walls of smooth, almost reflective concrete are key to Ando’s minimalist style.
The art exhibited at the Pulitzer Art Foundation is chosen for its capacity to “dialogue” with this building. On the day of our visit we experienced works by Susan Philipsz (b.1965) who creates site-specific sound installations that interact with architecture. Seven Tears has seven turntables each playing a different sound in a large gallery. Elsewhere, her sounds accompanied images of a furious snowstorm, crashing waves, and collapsing glaciers taken from a black-and-white film made in Alaska in 1940.
In our minds, art and history are closely linked. Lowell, Massachusetts on the Merrimack River was the site of America’s first industrial revolution. Today, the gigantic textile mills that in the early 19th century composed an entire town are a national park. They are a composite museum of early industrial architecture and methods.
To stand next to an array of antique mechanical weaving machines operating at full tilt is both eye-popping and deafening.
To learn about the lives of the mill girls who operated those machines for up to 12 hours a day was amazing, too. They were Yankee farm girls to begin with; then when competition forced the mill owners to cut wages and increase working hours, less-expensive immigrant labor replaced them.
Another story from American history impressed us, too. The life of the former slave who was Harriet Tubman is a story of almost superhuman courage and determination. That story is the crux of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Museum at Church Creek, Maryland.
From a horrific childhood and young adulthood as a slave in Eastern Maryland where she was sold away from her family, physically abused and nearly killed by being hit on the head by an iron weight thrown by a white man, and worked like an animal until she escaped north to Pennsylvania when she was 27 years old, Tubman returned to Maryland 13 times at the risk of her life in order to lead 70 other slaves to freedom. Sustained by faith in God, and an almost missionary zeal, Tubman lived to be 90 years old at a home in Auburn, New York as a powerful spokesperson for self-determination and for women’s right to vote.
Some of her words have been preserved and memorialized: “I have the right to be free and the right to die, and I will have one or the other. No man will ever take me alive.” We can only hope that the initiative to replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the U.S. $20 bill with Tubman’s will be revived under a future, more inclusive administration. She deserves the honor.
Every return to the United States requires us to visit Chicago and Detroit. These are cities where our families live and where our roots lie.
Detroit has long been known for its Pewabic architectural tiles and ceramics, and although Kay and I have admired them in the past, somehow, until now, we hadn’t ever visited the atelier and store where they are made and sold. It was a lovely experience to belatedly discover all that Pewabic makes and stands for.
Pewabic is a going concern that has existed for more than a century. It began in 1903 when Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Horace Caulkins opened a studio in an empty Detroit carriage house. This was the time of the Arts and Crafts movement, which rejected machine-made products and promoted craftsmanship. That the Pewabic ideal is still alive and real after so much time is a story in itself.
Warm thanks and appreciation to our friends who suggested that we visit Lowell, the Tubman Museum, and Pewabic Pottery and who accompanied us on those visits. We probably wouldn’t have found them on our own.
It’s axiomatic that on a long road trip, a lot of mediocre food will be consumed. Ours was no exception. So let me offer thanks again to you in North Carolina; Maryland; New York City; Michigan; Sanbornton, New Hampshire; Billerica, Massachusetts; and Oakville, Ontario for the delicious meals you cooked for us. They were welcome gifts and culinary bright spots of our travels.
Now, a few restaurant meals deserve mention by name:
The simple menu at Chez Nous in Charleston, South Carolina offered only two starters, two mains, and two desserts. A terrine of octopus was delicious as were pan-fried swordfish steaks set over sautéed fennel and accompanied by fried tomatoes.
At Limoncello in Oxford, Maryland we dined on polenta with cheese and mushrooms, followed by bowls of cozze e vongole made with Little Neck clams next to Veal Saltimbocca.
New York City’s Caravaggio provided superior service in artful surroundings. After a starter of Burata with almonds and butternut squash, the orate (sea bream) pan-fried with a pistachio crust and accompanied by sautéed bitter greens was stellar.
The Woodshed, housed in a barn in Moultonborough, New Hampshire was so well loved that after a fire destroyed the original, a well-heeled patron rebuilt it at his own expense. A dozen Pemaquid oysters made a great introduction to the sea scallops that came with a vegetable mix of butternut squash and beets.
This account of our dining experiences has to include Wisconsin, the home of the supper club. As its name suggests, supper clubs are restaurants open only in the evening.
One of our favorites is Hob Nob located right on the shore of Lake Michigan in Racine.
We love the retro decor of this restaurant so redolent of the 1940s and 1950s. On our first visit, Kay and I each ordered planked whitefish with potatoes and warm spinach salads. We enjoyed our meal so much we booked a table for two nights later.
In supper clubs in and around Appleton, while waiting for an open table, it is possible to snack on sauerkraut balls, marinated mushrooms, and deep-fried cheese curds while sipping a Brandy Old Fashion, the Wisconsin signature cocktail.
A short walk from our hotel in St. Louis’ Central West End district we discovered Brasserie at Niche, an authentic French restaurant with a menu of classic dishes. I can’t forget one simple meal of walleye quenelles taken with bread and a red vin de maison.
Finally, I have to mention the fine dining we experienced twice in the small city of Little Falls in Herkimer County, New York. At the Canal Side Inn, Chef John Luciano offers a menu of haute cuisine classics unusual for this part of the country. Since our accommodations at the Inn at Stone Mill were catty-corner to the restaurant, it was easy to nip across for first-class dinners: tournedos on one night, Beef Wellington on another.
I can’t leave the food realm without mentioning some of the casual eating places we happened on along the way. I’d never tasted better New England clam chowder than at the Museum Cafe in Chicago’s Art Institute. Otherwise, there were these go-to spots for breakfast and lunch: Helen’s Diner in Concord, MA; Adelle’s Bluebird Café in Clintonville, WI, the Peacock Diner in St. Louis, and Ann Street Restaurant Deli in Little Falls, NY– four that come happily to mind.
On long-distance drives, our usual accommodations are hotel chains like Hampton Inns, Comfort Suites, and Hilton Garden Inns. They are practical choices, close to the highway, with ample parking, large rooms, and comfortable beds. Their layouts and amenities are so similar that they seem to share a single design. Now and then, as circumstances will have it, we arranged to stay in one of America’s classic hotels with long histories. The Coolidge Hotel in White River Junction, Vermont is one.
The last stop on our itinerary was Chicago, where we would stay for several days to be with family and attend the wedding of my niece Jane on the 7th of December. In Chicago, we customarily stay with my sister and her husband in Beverly; however, on this occasion, it would not be possible. In a stroke of brilliance, Kay booked us into the large, venerable Palmer House Hotel between State and Wabash in the city’s Loop. It claims to be the longest continuously operating hotel in the country.
The Palmer House is a museum in its own right. The large, elaborately decorated lobby is straight out of the past while the corridors of the concierge floor leading to our room are hung with photographs of the ‘White City,’ as the famous World’s Columbia Exposition of 1893 was called.
By our lights, the greatest feature of the hotel was its proximity to the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, a world-class museum and certainly one of our country’s greatest. It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Art Institute’s collections of late 19th-century and early 20th-century European paintings that include such masterpieces as Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon of the Island of the Grande Jatte” and Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day.” By buying a year’s membership to defray the cost of multiple entries, we visited the museum four separate times, making it the high point of our trip’s museum going. We felt so lucky to have this treasure house at our virtual doorstep.
By dint of its length and complexity (much of which I haven’t touched on here) this road trip qualifies as one of our “trips of a lifetime.” It’s doubtful there will be another such so we’ll nourish ourselves on the memories of this one.