A Big Stretch of Road: Our June 2014 Road Trip

June 14, 2014 — I take the phrase, “big stretch of road” literally. To clear out the brain build-up of daily living, I often need to stop the normal circuits of my life and geographically stretch myself before settling back into my regularly scheduled programming. And lately I’ve needed a big stretch.

This time, that stretch ended up being a 3,267-mile, 17-state, 9-day jaunt with my wife and kids. You should see how I crack my back. But this road trip was going to be different than our previous big road trips.

First, it was short notice. That’s right, this 3,000-mile road trip was about a week in the mis-making. For a few months, I had been casually planning a road trip from my home in New England to head west and north around the Great Lakes and into the Dakotas. However, work sent me a curve ball, and I needed to be in Maryland the week before that road trip.

So instead of departing from New Hampshire, we needed to depart from Maryland. And psychologically it was easier to change the entire route than to use a day to travel back to the original starting point. Vacation days are precious things.

Second, I wanted to make sure this trip hit a few states I’ve never visited. That necessitated a long drive to get through all the states I’ve been to already, just so I could add the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri stars to my flag.

The largest difference for the trip, though, was the Time Bomb in the back seat. That was the role my two-month old played in this adventure.

Normally, and even with my older daughter, I’d pack a million things into each day, stay off highways as much as possible, and do plenty of foolhardy things. But with a Time Bomb that could explode with the tyrannical behavior typical of infants, we needed to adapt to make sure every day wasn’t the bridge-crossing scene in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

Basically, it would be a trip my family would either never forget or never forgive me for.

I plan on doing full OTIS posts on everything here at some point, detailing the experience in full, but until then, for those interested, here is a summary of our itinerary:

Day 1: June 6

Four states on our first day, although two of them don’t count. We started in Maryland and jumped across a sliver of West Virginia. We spent most of the day in Virginia and finished off in North Carolina.

1. Natural Chimneys, Mount Solon, VA: This columnar rock formation is evidence that the entire Shenandoah Valley was once an inland sea.

2. Virginia Safari Park, Natural Bridge, VA: I’d visited here in the early days of OTIS, but no way was I going to pass up the opportunity to do it again with my oldest daughter.

3. The grave of Chang and Eng, White Plains, NC: These famous conjoined twins from Siam are the reason we often call that type of birth anomaly “Siamese twins.”

Day 2: June 7

Finished out both Carolinas and sped through Georgia, completely ignoring Atlanta. There are things to do in Atlanta if you happen to be there, but, in my experience, very little to go out of your way to see …at least until the Center for Puppetry Arts gets its full Jim Henson wing built. Ended up in Alabama for the night.

4. The grave of Daisy and Violet Hilton, Charlotte, NC: These conjoined twins from England became famous as entertainers and died in 1969. Why two famous sets of conjoined twins from different countries ended up moldering 100 miles apart in NC, I don’t know.

5. Metamorphosis, Charlotte, NC: This mirrorball fountain in the shape of a giant head is mesmerizing whether its layers are moving or not. I know because it was doing the bare minimum of spitting water during our visit.

6. The Georgia Guidestones, Elberton, GA: One of the more famous oddities in the country, this tall set of stone tablets erected by a mysterious person or group lays out the ground rules for Utopia…and, boy, are they both strict and vague.

7. Jurassic Subs, Bremen, GA: Our unplanned stop at a humble, dinosaur-themed sub shop that rips off the title font of Jurassic Park was for a daughter obsessed with dinosaurs.

Day 3: June 8

My first time in Alabama, the state of my wife’s birth, was spent mostly in Birmingham, where we had some of the best times of the trip in this empty, empty city. We ended the day at a hotel in Mississippi during a tornado watch.

8. Sloss Furnace, Birmingham, AL: This spooky, old industrial complex built to create pig iron out of raw materials is now a national historic landmark and tourist attraction where you can feel like you’re trespassing somewhere dangerous when you’re really not. One of the highlights of the trip.

9. Vulcan Statue, Birmingham, AL: The world’s largest iron statue depicts the Roman god of fire, who stands atop a tower on a hill overlooking the city. We ascended it for that god’s eye view.

10. McWane Science Center, Birmingham, AL: Obviously, a stop for my kid. It’s a typical science center with plenty of taxidermy, children’s science activities, a dinosaur room, and an aquarium level with a shark and ray touch tank. But it was the first time I’ve ever seen a “Decomposition Box,” a sealed glass tank where they place dead animals to decay to teach kids about the futility of life. A rabbit was putrefying inside on our visit. The image rises unbidden in my mind about 10 times a day now.

Day 4: June 9

The tornado watch continued directly in the line of our route as we drove the turtle-strewn roads of Mississippi before spending the night in Memphis, Tennessee. The storm added drama while mercifully cutting the miserable southern heat.

11. Witch’s Grave, Yazoo City, MS: I love stuff like this. A broken slab surrounded by broken chains in a local graveyard not only has its own witch lore, but said lore is inscribed right on the slab. Interestingly enough, the author who made the witch story famous is buried just a few plots over.

12. Jim Henson Sites, Leland, MS: Henson was born in nearby Greenville, but it was Leland where he grew up and Leland where he drew inspiration for his swampier characters, including Kermit himself. As a result, the place bills itself as “The Birthplace of the Frog,” with a small exhibit, a historic sign, and a bridge with green-painted guard rails and a large colorful sign proclaiming it the “Rainbow Connection Bridge.”

13. Robert Johnson Crossroad, Clarksdale, MS: It was supposedly at this crossroad where famed and ill-starred blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so that he could play the blues. Today, it doesn’t look like the place a devil would haunt, unless he’s a fan of suburban retail…or good BBQ.

Day 5: June 10

I’d been to Memphis before, and didn’t want to spend too much time there as I wanted more time in St. Louis. After a quick jaunt to a cemetery, we left Tennesse and crossed the Mississippi to travel the extreme southern edge of Arkansas, before arriving for the night in St. Louis.

14. Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, TN: This amazing Victorian cemetery doesn’t have any nationally famous interments, but it does have plenty of amazing statuary. Way worth seeing while you’re there to visit/instead of visiting Graceland.

15. Johnny Cash’s Boyhood Home, Dyess, AR: This humble little house on a dirt road in a desolate field will open in two months as an official, tour-able museum. Wouldn’t trade that experience, though, for the lonely, flooded, stormy moment we had with it.

16. The Gateway Arch, St. Louis, MO: In our ongoing quest to ascend every city’s Signature Tall Thing, our first stop in St. Louis was above it, which you do, surprisingly enough, by squeezing into small spherical five-person pods and riding them to the top of the arch.

Day 6, June 11

Man, did I fall in love with St. Louis. And not for the reasons people usually fall in love with cities…culture and restaurants and atmosphere and such. There are just a ton of sites there and in its suburbs that intersect with my interests. Obviously, I couldn’t get to it all, so I will be back. After spending most of the day in the city, we crossed the Mississippi again and stayed the night in IL.

17. Vincent Price Sites, St. Louis, MO: One of the main reasons I wanted to visit St. Louis is because it’s the birthplace of Vincent Price, and there are a few sites worth seeing in connection with him, including the candy factory his family started which inspired this strange night of my life.

18. City Museum, St. Louis, MO: This might be one of the strangest, coolest places on the planet to take a kid and to face death with them. I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I just remember disappearing into dragon caves and 10-story slides and strange exhibits and climbing through wire tunnels 10 stories above the ground to see giant praying mantises and to enter old airplanes. It was terrifying. My four-year-old loved it.

19. Exorcist Sites, St. Louis, MO: Another of my ongoing quests is to visit all the sites connected to the exorcism that inspired the book and movie “The Exorcist.” I’ve been to all the DC and Maryland sites, including the Exorcist Stairs, and now I can check off the St. Louis parts. I think that’s everything. The quest is over. I am sad.

20. Piasa Bird, Alton, IL: This giant painting of a Native American monster myth is a modern reproduction of an ancient version, set dramatically on some large limestone quarry caves like it’s the monster’s lair.

21. Robert Wadlow Statue and Grave, Alton, IL: If you’ve ever been to a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum, you’ve probably seen a statue of this guy. At one time he was the world’s tallest person, and his demure personality and bespectacled and besuited appearance made his size seem doubly strange. He’s buried in Alton and also has a life-size statue in town.

22. Kaskaskia Dragon, Vandalia, IL: It’s a 25-foot-tall metal dragon that shoots fire when you stick a token in it. You won’t find a better way to stretch your legs and singe your hair.

Day 7, June 12

Due to the short timing that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I actually hadn’t planned this trip past St. Louis. But we’d done pretty well with Illinois and our luck continued in Indiana, where we mainly stopped in Indianapolis before moving on to Ohio.

23. Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN: Sure, because it had life-sized dinosaurs clambering over and breaking through its exterior, we went for my dinosaur-obsessed daughter (it also had a way-interesting mummified dinosaur fossil named Leonardo and a dragon-looking one whose scientific name is in honor of J. K. Rowling’s stories), but it was also an extremely worthwhile stop to see a temporary exhibit of the famous Chinese terra cotta warriors, which I’d always wanted to see.

24. Indianapolis Moon Tree, Indianapolis, IN: We made this stop because it was an easy one. Seeing a tree grown from a seed taken to the moon is a cooler story than it is a site.

25. Hollow Earth Monument, Hamilton, OH: It’s the grave of a man who espoused the scientifically heretical belief that the earth is hollow. Today the cemetery is a park, and his grave monument is the only one still standing amidst the playgrounds, complete with a hollow earth above it and a sign on the edge of the park proclaiming the honor.

Day 8, June 13

Although Friday the 13th traditionally ends for me with a night of horror movie watching, this one ended on a cliff over Lake Erie watching the sun set after driving the width of Ohio, a short stretch of Pennsylvania, and then entering New York.

26. Great Serpent Mound, Hillsboro, OH: I’d been to Native American mounds before, but never an effigy mound, which are piles of grass-covered dirt shaped like animals and humans. So when I heard that the longest one in North America is at the southern edge of Ohio, we altered our route to make sure we hit this pile of dirt shaped like a snake. Unfortunately, we had to bypass Ohio’s other effigy mound (this one an alligator) to make sure we had time for the last site of the day.

27. Leo Petroglyphs, Leo, OH: These Native American rock carvings feature both the familiar and the strange, from fish and birds and stick-figure humans to a smiley faced creature of unknown identity.

28. Ohio State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH: I don't remember what I thought of The Shawshank Redemption the one time I watched it, but ever since I saw that old Travel Channel episode of America’s Scariest Places, I’d wanted to visit this spooky reformatory where the movie just happened to be filmed. With its peeling walls and old cells, the place is certainly spooky, but more chilling was the view it had into the exercise yard of the still-working prison next door, which was full of the meandering incarcerated.

Day 9, June 14

Technically, at this stage, we still had two more legs to this trip between Buffalo and home, but as that route of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire is well-trod already by us and accessible any weekend, we decided to just burn rubber straight home and have some time to recuperate before letting the brain build-up of daily living start again.

So thanks to everyone who followed along with us on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr (where you can see more pictures from the odyssey), or here on OTIS. Having you guys involved not only helped out as far as finding sites en route, but also kept us entertained in the car and motivated us to really make it a rich experience with as little copping out as possible.

For any of you thinking of making a similar trip, drop me a line, as I have a list of sites that we didn’t make it to that’s as long as this list. Or you can contact my alternate universe self directly.