Water towers are a ubiquitous sight in just about every Midwest town.
Nothing brings out the best in a family than driving for days on a cross-country road trip.
The author, embarrassing his sons Johnny and Trevor.
Traveling the Midwest’s highways and by-ways, I was reminded of my mom’s stories of driving back to Mississippi in the 1930s without air conditioning. Fortunately, we were well prepared with our Google maps, iPhones, and the knowledge that cheap motels and fast food are at almost every freeway exit.
In most Midwest cities, once you drive 30 minutes out of town, you’re in farmland boonies, with uncrowded two-lane freeways and amazingly smooth roads. But it’s doublewides and Dairy Queens until the next town.
Six thousand miles later, from San Diego to Northern Michigan and back, I can confidently state we live in a great, scenic country. I was excited to find there still remained some regional diversity in the good folks of the Midwest.
In recognizing and celebrating our noticeable differences, I honor the following:
Worst highway system built by big unions. Most every Chicagoland freeway has a toll. We avoided downtown Chicago traffic by choosing 20 miles of I-294 through south Chicago, at a cost of $13.50. Illinois had the same access to highway funds as every other state, so you can guess where all their freeway money went.
Most boring highway. Kansas’ I-35 Turnpike. There’s nothing for hours between Kansas City and the Oklahoma border. How many miles of amber waves of grain can one stand? Gee, Toto, we're still in Kansas?
Asphalt vs. concrete? Well-maintained asphalt highways are like riding on air at 80 m.p.h.
Stupidest-looking highway patrol cars. Michigan’s one-tone, 1970s blue with a bubble-gum red revolving light on top. How can you take them seriously when they look like a cartoon? They’ll never have their own TV show.
Worst on/off ramps. Texas’ I-40. In 30 feet you’re whipped onto a gravel road to get to the gas station.
Best “welcome to” state sign. New Mexico’s adobe-looking monument across all freeway lanes, welcoming us to “The Land of Enchantment.”
Lowest gas price. Oklahoma City at a Walmart on I-40 - $3.31/gallon. Almost worth driving there just to fill up.
Highest gas price. We didn’t fill up in California.
Best combo businesses. In Camp Verde, AZ , a two-lane drive-thru liquor store and archery supply; in Alanson, MI, a bakery and yarn shop; and in Boulder, CO, an outdoor furniture and ski shop.
Best tourist attraction. The Field of Dreams baseball field and TV’s American Pickers’ Antique Archeology shop, both in Iowa.
Best tourist attraction I wished we'd seen. World Famous Big Texan Steak House in Amarillo, TX - home of the “free” 72 oz. steak, if you can eat it all in one hour without throwing up, including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and a roll. If you can’t clean your plate it's $72 for the dinner.
Weirdest town name. What Cheer, IA. Locals say the town got its name either: when meeting to name the town, someone was told to take a chair and asked, “What chair?”; or a Southerner arrived and said “whatcheer” – assumably, Southern drawl for “what’s here?”
Weirdest highway sign. Missouri’s I-35, in big bold letters inviting one to “Hit a Highway Worker” and in smaller type explaining that one would lose their license and receive a $10,000 fine.
Memorable songs most likely to pop into your head:
- "Standing on a Corner in Winslow Arizona"
- "Amarillo by Morning"
- "Get Your Kicks on Route 66"
- "Chicago, Chicago"
- “Rocky Mountain High”
- “Six Days on the Road and I’m Gonna Make It Home Tonight”
Questions I still have about the Midwest:
What’s up with the tall water towers in every town? They look like giant golf balls on a tee. Why not just place a pump inline to pressurize the town’s water system and avoid whole tower/gravity thing?
Midwest road trips are chock-full tourist stops such as Ronald Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon, IL.
Where does one buy those 4’ x 8’ plastic letter signs with the big flashing arrows pointing to a business? Liquor stores, mortuaries, meat processing plants – every roadside business has one.
Why do public restrooms not offer toilet seat covers? Heading east, we saw them last in a gas station in Elsinore, UT, and coming back, we got excited in Flagstaff, AZ.
What I learned driving through the Midwest:
Mexican restaurants have never heard of fish tacos, three rolled with guac, or a carne asada burrito. (Burritos are served “wet” with a red sauce poured over them.)
It's not called soda, it’s called pop. And the further north you go, the more the word gets extended and shoved up through the nose, as in P-a-a-ah-p.
Outside of the big cities there are only huge truck stops, with two or three fast food restaurants inside, and a million snack and soda choices. And long lines at the cash register. It will take you at least ½ hour to get out of one. The largest truck stop in the world is the Iowa 80 Truck Stop on I-80 in Walcott.
There are still a lot of people that smoke in motel lobbies and behind convenience store counters, and that population seems to be dentally challenged.
Most Motel 6’s have been remodeled with stylish bedding colors and bathroom designs. And the best idea in the history of budget motels – no more who-knows-what’s-in-it carpeting. Now it’s laminate flooring. But with cheap motels, first impressions are not to be ignored, as in if the parking lot is full of asphalt craters or junk cars (Motel 6 in Blue Springs, MO.)
And finally... never eat fried chicken from a gas station. That should have been obvious.