We’d been knowing for quite a while that Sarah would have to be in Europe for work for over a week during June. This would present the perfect opportunity for me to take the car out for a drive, and go on my very first American road trip. This was the plan:
The idea I had was to drive west and make as big of a circle as I reasonably could in about 6 days. I decided that I would be able to comfortably drive for about 3-3.5 hours every day, excluding spontaneous stops and detours, which boils down to about 200 miles per day.
Day 1: Washington (D.C.) – Morgantown (WV), ~220 miles
I left our apartment rather late on a Sunday because there were some things I needed to take care of in the morning. Without many stops I drove to Morgantown in West Virginia, cruising through Maryland most of the time. I stopped in Hancock (WV) for coffee and gas. The lady behind the counter said: “Hi honey, how are you today?”. I seemed to be going in the right direction.
While I am driving I like to listen to audiobooks. For this trip I had downloaded all 12 of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Today I would finish adventures #1, #2 and #3.
Arriving in Morgantown I was a bit spooked. I had seen, of course, that the landscape had become rather hilly if not mountainous, but driving on interstates the roads themselves were easy to navigate. That changed. All of a sudden there were slopes of about 15-20%, which cannot be found in the Netherlands where I was born and raised. After a few sweaty first minutes I had learned that the car nor I experienced any problems, and I started to enjoy the scenery more and more.
I drove to the house in which I would spend the night. To save costs, I had booked an air mattress at someone’s place through Airbnb. During the evening I went out again to explore Morgantown, which is home of the West Virginia University (WVU). Admiring the campus I was struck by a strong feeling of pure jealousy. Sarah had told me about her college experience at the University of Virginia. Surely, I went to university in the Netherlands and in the U.K., but that’s really a different thing. Especially the combination of (serious) sports and study at American universities attracts me in a most powerful way. In the Netherlands I was really quite athletic and in shape before I left for university. As detailed elsewhere, I had to give up soccer as it would not fit my university ambitions. On top of that, as I was leaning towards business administration, I would be expected to conduct internships and commercial side jobs from the first year onward, ruling out any seriously competitive sports.
It may therefore not come as a surprise that I feel quite envious of those attending American colleges. Morgantown seemed no exception, considering their athletics facilities that would rival the biggest commercial structures in Europe in terms of size. The best example is the enormous Milan Puskar Stadium, home of the Mountaineers. The air around me seemed to vibrate with energy and expectations of young people, starting a journey of self-discovery. Instantly, I dreamed away of secretly enrolling myself. The combination of an impressive campus, an overt and blind pride of the own university, a huge athletics department in which I would fight for a spot on a team, the frat parties, the stress of exams, the sunny days on grassy lawns, …
Day 2: Morgantown (WV) – Columbus (OH), ~210 miles
After having breakfast with my host, I drove to the Earl L. Core Arboretum, a 91-acre nature park kept up by the biology department of WVU for the study and display of a wide variety of plants and trees. I walked around for a good 45 minutes, which proved quite the exercise because of the hilly terrain. Some pictures:
After this I hit the road and soon entered Pennsylvania. I stayed on highways until I reached Wheeling (WV), where I decided to explore the countryside somewhat more. The landscape was very hilly, with dangerously bumpy roads connecting houses that seemed to be in a dire need of new paint. I drove (probably suspiciously) slowly admiring the so evidently ‘American’ houses. Grassy yards, wide roads, huge trucks on sloping driveways, here and there a pool, American flags flying from wraparound porches, and signs warning me that Rocky guards the premises. They are certainly not the wealthiest neighbourhoods, nor the most kept up, cleanest, or prettiest, but they are so full of character. I was a bit reluctant to take pictures, otherwise I would have shown them here now.
A little while after I had hit the highway again, I stopped at something else, ‘truly and authentically American’ that has intrigued me for so long: the diner. Bright lights, leather booths, bad coffee, and an overweight super-friendly woman called Betsy asking me what I was hungry for – I wish they had one of these right where I lived. An old man in worn out clothes walked in, keeping himself up with a stick. Betsy walked over to him: “I’m sorry Jim, someone else got your booth. Is it OK if I put you near the window today? The usual, honey?”
After this break I drove to Columbus (OH), listening to Mr Holmes’s adventures #4 and #5. I checked in at a motel – I had always wanted to stay at one of these (again, typically American) motels. I really don’t know what it is about them that I find so interesting – it is highly likely I just watched too many movies.
I drove to downtown Columbus and parked the car. I walked around for a while, feeling a bit more depressed with every step I took. I could think of no reason why people would want to be in this city – the people in it looked like they didn’t want to be there either. I saw very few people, even though it was around rush hour on a regular weekday. The few faces I did see may have been different in many ways, but they all showed grumpy moods. I walked to one of the main sights, the Topiary Park, which did not live up to the expectations I had from reading about it online. All in all, I didn’t like Columbus at all.
I walked south, to German Village, a neighbourhood in Columbus with a distinct German legacy. The moment I crossed the Interstate 71, which separates the downtown area from German Village, my mood lightened when I saw beautiful little houses, plentiful trees, colourful yards, people outside walking their dog and going for a run, and busy bars and restaurants. I crisscrossed the neighbourhoud when I heard thunder storms closing in. Right when I decided to seek shelter, I stumbled upon the Book Loft:
It claimed to have 32 rooms of books. “That can’t be true”, I remember thinking. How wrong I was. What an absolutely lovely place this is. Numerous (well, 32) rooms, all with different themes, filled up from top to bottom with books, and all with different but fitting music playing in the background. I thought at least 5 times that I had finally seen the last room, when I found a narrow staircase leading up or down into yet another series of rooms. And best of all was that the prices were actually really good. I tried to be strong but my defense was broken after a few minutes.
Walking out with a number of new reads, I headed to the restaurant that was recommended to me by the bookshop owner: Schmidt’s Sausage Haus. After some sauerkraut mit wurst I went back to the motel. I made the mistake to read some additional reviews that had been written by former guests. I made sure I locked the door (and checked it multiple times) and tried to go to sleep. I heard a lot of funny noises that night. I was happy when my phone’s alarm told me that it was time for the next leg of the road trip, heading f0r Kentucky – but more on that in a next blog post.