Dancin’ Across the USA

Last month I took another road trip across the US of A. This was a bit different than the one I took in March, though. This time around I wasn’t going anywhere I hadn’t been before, but I was getting the opportunity to play tour guide to a very special friend of mine. Almost ten years ago when I was in Amsterdam, I met Kjell. He’s one of those people that I seemingly, instantly connected with at a bar over a couple of drinks. We talked for a couple of hours, and the he took me on a walking tour all over the city. We meet up the next evening and talked even more. When a rough storm blew up and knocked down trees all over the city, he was gracious enough to offer me a place to stay that second night and we spent the night talking even more. Since then, we’ve been talking for a decade now. We’ve visited each other several times since then, but we’ve never really had the opportunity to travel together, despite my regular invitations to do a “Great American Road Trip.”

All of that changed this summer, when Kjell flew over to America and the two of us met in Chicago. Before he arrived we had exchanged a flurry of emails discussing various routes and sites to see along the way. I’ve always felt as though we were kindred spirits (he’s the only person I’ve ever spent hours with on a sofa watching “Robot Chicken,” “Family Guy,” and “My Life on the D List with Kathy Griffin,” while it rained outside). I had an idea of what he might like to see an do. It turned out to be a great trip.

IMG_3802            We began in Chicago, and after we meet up at the airport and got settled we headed downtown to see the heart of the city. Chicago holds a special place in my heart. I traveled there every autumn for a decade for work, and I fell in love with the city and it’s people. It’s a big city, with a small town feel. The people are friendly, and pretty much anything you would ever want, you can find there. We hit Milinium Park, the Miracle Mile, Hancock Tower, Wrigley Field, the used to be known as/still called by many “Sears Tower,” the loop, Boystown, Southside, Weiner’s Circle, and all points in between. This was a tour I have done many times before, but it was so much fun because I was seeing everything through someone’s eyes who had never been there before, and wasn’t an American. Kjell’s excitement and enthusiasm really was addictive.

 

From Chicago, we headed east into Michigan. We made our way to Mt. Pleasant, the exact center of the state. Kjell is a huge Kathy Griffin fan and he planned the trip so that we could catch her show at a casino located on a Native American reservation.   I can’t tell you the drive was very exciting. It wasn’t. In fact it was rough. We had over indulged a bit the night before, and both of us could have used a few hours more of sleep. Adding to this, once we left Chicago, the landscape turned into a long, dull, flat blandness. We drove for several hours through what seemed like never ending farmland.

The casino, named “Screaming Eagle” or “Eagle of Freedom” or something or other “Eagle” that we never could quite figure out, was really rather sad. It smelled like cigarette smoke, and so many of the people there who were frantically pulling away at the slot machines looked distinctly like they really didn’t have a whole lot to be putting into the slot machines in the first place. The flashing neon and constantly dinging machines quickly turned into an annoyance whenever we strolled around the hotel.

However, we weren’t there to gamble. The Kathy Griffin show was great. The show took place the week that the Caitlyn Jenner/Vanity Fair cover was release, and she had so much to say about that and the Kardashian clan in general. She also dished on Barry Manilow, the Supereme Court, and some serious Hollywood behind the scenes scoop, which is her bread and butter. It was fun and the crowd ate it all up, including us.

The next morning we moved on and headed northeast, crossing the boarder into Canada. I’m pretty sure I was driving about 50 miles an hour over the speed limit the entire time. There was no traffic and all the signs were in kilometers. Our goal was to make it to Niagara Falls. I traveled to Niagara Falls when I was a teenager, but we were going to stay on the Canadian side of the falls this time around. We stayed at the Sheridan which apparently is very popular with honeymooners. We could see the falls from our room which had a “Juliet balcony” which means the window opened and there was a railing to keep you from falling out, but no actual balcony. We also had a “fireplace” in the room. I use the term “fireplace” very loosely here as it was operated by a light switch, provided no heat, but did produce a very trippy light show in the room as the illuminated log spun around.

We walked through the park to the edge of the falls, fighting the hoards of people that were doing the same thing. It was the sheer number of people and touristy nature of Niagara Falls that completely caught me off guard. The falls themselves are beautiful, but one block up, and its an entirely different story. It was shocking how very touristy the entire area is. Amusement park rides, fun houses, fast food joints, and every kind of cheap souvenir hawker you can imagine is there. It was too much, and more than a little saddening to see. Niagara Falls had become an afterthought to the town of Niagara Falls. We took a few pictures that evening and went for a couple of walks, but left the next morning and made our way back across the boarder and headed south.

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Niagara Falls

Cleveland is one of those cities that I think most Americans tend to forget about. Sure, a few million people live there, but how many people visit the city? It’s had a rough few years, as downtown businesses have abandoned the metro area, and crime has risen. Kjell had friends there who were gracious enough to take us out to dinner and show us around. There were signs of change.  The city’s theater district is the largest outside of New York City, and the independent restaurant scene is thriving. We had a great dinner, and saw a few sights. We also were able to spend some time in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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Cleveland Theater District

 

The Hall of Fame was the key reason for the stop over in Cleveland, and I have very mixed thoughts about it. It was surprising to see what was  on display, and what wasn’t. For example, there were large exhibits on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. There were several items showcasing The Supremes and David Bowie, and even Michael Jackson. The displays for Elvis and Madonna though were relatively paltry, though. For Elvis, the display was made up of a motorcycle, film footage, and his name in the red lights from the ’69 “Comeback” special. For Madonna the exhibit was even worse- a single case with a pair of shoes, and a record from the mid-1980s. Maybe they hadn’t donated anything to the collection but it seemed odd that the museum included them in the promotional materials, but had little to actually show. The highlight, though, was an exhibit of the photography of Herb Ritz. I’ve been a fan of his since I was in high school, and discovered his book Notorious on the shelves of the local Books-a-Million. He was such a talented photographer, and the way he framed his subjects was stunning. I like looking at photos, but Kjell really has a gift at taking them. I think we both appreciated the gallery.

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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We headed further south, on to Louisville. I can’t really say too much about the city. We didn’t see too much or do too much. However, somehow we did manage to stay in a very swanky hotel downtown that had just opened and gave us an amazing rate. It really was just a room for the night.

The next day we stopped for lunch in East Nashville and ventured around a bit. It’s a favorite place of mine. Then we headed south to the NASA Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. When I was a kid, I loved this place. I have so many fond memories of going there with my parents and with school. Today, however, a lot has changed. Most noticeably, it seems to be looking a little shabby. It really needed a fresh coat of paint on the attractions, and new pavement all around.   Also, serious thought needed to be given to the purpose of the property. The original hall has been emptied of the space related objects. Those have been relocated to a new building which is very nice. However, in their place is a “robot zoo,” and a climbing wall.   Both of which left me questioning their purpose.

Our next stop was Birmingham for the next few days, for a much needed break. I can’t say that we did much of anything of interest. I showed Kjell the city and we ate some delicious food. Birmingham is one of the up and coming Top 10 “foodie” cities in America, after all. He was nice enough to give me a few photography lessons, especially on night photography. We moved around to a few points of interests, and I can only speak for myself, when I say I thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Magic City.

The last stop was Atlanta. Atlanta is a strange city to me. It’s insanely crowded, and yet some of the areas seem to be abandoned, and cars rarely drive by. It’s home to the largest black middle class population in the country, yet struggles with racial identities. It’s insanely wealthy, and horrible poor. I didn’t explain any of this to Kjell, but he picked up on it all within a short time of touring around the city. We stayed near Piedmont Park, and walked around the neighborhood and traveled over to Little Five Points, and even to Atlantic Station. Of course, a visit to the Coke Museum and the Georgia Aquarium were on the list to see and do.

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Over the two weeks that Kjell and I were traveling I was struck continuously by how much I took for granted living in the United States. He gave me a fresh perspective on many things. His enthusiasm and excitement were contagious, and it was what I needed to open my eyes to the America that surrounds me every day. I also developed a new found appreciation for him. It’s a rare person that can do that for you, and leave you looking forward to the next conversation, the next visit, and even the next road trip.

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Categories: My View of Things, North America

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