Crossing the country in six nights
Much of the country is fields of corn, soy and hay, connecting the the urban metropolises in between. You wonder how many of those cornfields, consuming the likes of Ohio, Illinois and South Dakota, were planted with the crop before the ethanol boom.
We first visited Pittsburgh, Baltimore’s post-industrial soul sister, after crashing at a Pennsylvania Turnpike roadside motel. As the capital of Appalachia, Pittsburgh dwells in that space in between and, despite its spectacular skyline, seems to feel inferior to East Coast cities. The bacon was the highlight of our brunch there at there at the Harris Grill in Shadyside. But the waitstaff was grumpy.
In Chicago, we had a free place to crash downtown within walking distance to Lake Shore Drive. We ate yummy Italian tapas at Quartino, where carafes of Barbera reds from Italy’s Alba Piedmont region flowed freely. And then I made a pilgrimmage to the Tribune Tower, the corporate home of my former employers, The Baltimore Sun and the Daily Press.
Then we took a short detour to Minneapolis, stopping for cheese curds in Wisconsin along the way. We got a real primer on Minnesota politics, including the current Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman (born Goldman) from an affordable housing advocate mentored by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. And we had a memorable brunch featuring local wild rice sausage patties at the veg-friendly Birchwood Cafe.
Then South Dakota took an eternity to cross. Its famous Wall Drug signs greeted us as we hit I-90 in Minnesota: the tourist stop near Rapid City was only 355 miles away. South Dakota must have more anti-abortionists and fewer vegetarians per capita than any other state, judging from the road signs along the way. A fierce lightening storm illuminated the wide South Dakota skies as we drove west at dusk.
But then a detour toward the Badlands at the edge of the state provided truly spectacular views.
Wyoming and Montana were more scenic and dry. We stayed at a B&B in the warehouse district of Bozeman, Montana and stumbled upon our first farmer’s market of the trip. Bozeman had good local beer and yuppy boutiques, while Missoula had a more rugged granola feel. The fresh roast beef, red pepper hummus and sprouts sandwich at Dauphines’s Bakery & Cafe in Missoula was worth going back for.
We stumbled upon our second farmer’s market in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, a mountainous city on a lake that seems to lure tourists from California. Then made another detour into Washington’s wine country in the Walla Walla Valley. Our lushest accomodations were there at the Fat Duck Inn, after we ate a farm-fresh outdoor dinner at Luscious by Nature. We also picked up some wine from the Reininger Winery. Their Helix Pomatia 2005 was a tasty blend. The arid landscapes in Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon had a real vacant, apocalyptic feel.
In Portland, we lunched at the city’s oldest Chinese carry-out restaurant, in the Hollywood District. Chin’s Kitchen opened there in 1949, though it now has a decidedly vacant and 50s feel. Chop suey, the American-created dish popular with World War II vets who served in the Pacific (see Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, is still on the menu.