I didn’t decide where to go on my road trip until the morning I left. I wanted a big change of scenery with a relatively short drive, so I ended up going pretty much due north on I-77, straight into the midwest, to a city I’d always been curious about.


One interesting sight on the way up was one of the only stretches of the new I-74 that is actually signed as such in North Carolina, with no “future” signage nor any other disclaimers added. It ended almost as soon as I realized it had begun, after which I was in Virginia on a westbound highway that, per the signs, was really going both northbound and southbound. I was confused.


I was also confused as I drove through Bluefield, West Virginia, mainly because once I took the exit, no matter how many miles I drove, I always seemed to be between two and three miles from town. Finally, I found the elusive burg, and I was much impressed with the level of sheer decay, despite the numerous people living in the midst of it. Of course, that pretty much sums up just about all of West Virginia.

I braved the West Virginia turnpike, where they ask you for $1.25 every thirty miles or so, and wondered how damned hard it would be for West Virginia to just have toll plazas at the entrances and exits like they do in New Jersey and other states. I stopped for gas in Pax, where the “Highway to Heaven” re-runs never end, and I drove around Charleston a bit, thinking it might be worth a longer visit sometime.

Eventually, I made it to Columbus. It was too late to do much of anything other than go to Meijer for snacks, which I did. I like Meijer. It’s a much more pleasant shopping experience than a Wal-Mart Supercenter. It was nice, however, that I was also staying right across the street from the Wal-Mart with the cheapest gas in all of central Ohio.

Columbus II

I grabbed a quick breakfast and set out in search of the real Columbus. Turns out it’s a fairly nice place. It reads a little like a cross between Richmond, Minneapolis, and Sacramento. In other words, there’s sort of a state-subsidized vitality about the place, which makes you think there might not be much of a city there if it weren’t for the presence of the state capital and a big university or two. It’s distinctly urban, but not overwhelmingly so.


I did the obligatory Highway 40 tour, from one end of town to the other. I’ve driven many chunks of US 40 between Baltimore and San Francisco, and I think I’ve decided that I like this historic road better than Route 66.

On the southern and eastern edges of downtown, I found myself in some surprisingly scary neighborhoods. I shouldn’t have been surprised; if there’s a scary neighborhood, I’ll generally find it. But for some reason, I didn’t think Columbus had a lot of ghetto of the boarded-up buildings and drug dealers on street corners variety. I was wrong.

I was also shocked by the white trash. I’m from North Carolina. I know white trash. But central Ohio seems to have produced a hardcore, super hearty, antibiotic-resistant strain of white trash. I’m not sure if it’s transplanted farm-grown stock or a breed native to the city, but it was some scary stuff, this central Ohio white trash. Maybe it has something to do with all the asbestos siding.


North of downtown along High Street, there was a “midtown” fringe area full of old buildings that would have been lost to urban renewal in almost any other city. I’m glad they made it through the 1950s and 1960s here, especially since they managed to pick up some of the more interesting aspects of subsequent decades as well. There’s creeping cutesiness and gentrification, but it’s not quite nauseating just yet.

An area called Victorian Village is adjacent to this strip, and I can only imagine that it looks very much like Brush Park in Detroit must have before the decay set in, with blocks and blocks of heavy, dark brick and stone Gothic architecture. Farther north is the OSU campus.

And then there’s Michael’s Goody Boy with its pork tenderloin sandwiches. My friend Bob in Indianapolis taught me to love this deep-fried and flattened midwestern bun full of joy, and I’m glad they have them in Ohio too.


Downtown Columbus is a bit pockmarked. It seems that it may once have been much more dense, but that it lost an inordinate number of buildings to the twin demons of urban renewal and surface parking. I was somewhat obsessed with the carcass of the Lazarus store, which closed a few years ago and is now apparently being converted into some sort of educational complex. I’m surprised, frankly, that the store lasted as long as it did; it doesn’t look like the creepy ghost mall across the street was much help.


A lot of the remaining buildings are very interesting, and I was amused to see one of the last surviving Planter’s Peanuts stores in the world, complete with a neon Mr. Peanut. I amused myself for a couple of hours walking around downtown.


And then there was the pilgrimage to the very first Wendy’s. It was entertaining, if not a real religious experience or anything. The staff was surly as hell, but the museum display was fun. I, of course, sat in the section that was decked out like an original 1960s-1970s Wendy’s.


Evening brought dinner at the MCL Cafeteria. I realized as soon as I saw it that visiting the place was a necessity. I knew I’d be disappointed (and I was) because midwesterners just don’t quite get the concept of a cafeteria like southerners do. The entrees were just sort of bland and boring, and the vegetables were just sort of, well, not vegetables, but things like baked beans and assorted starches under cheese. The desserts just looked scary. But new cafeterias must be visited, as I said, even when okra is not on the menu.

I drove around a bit more, and finished the evening with a snack from White Castle and a Diet Coke nightcap from the convenience store where the clerk (who was surprisingly geeky white trash) really liked my iMac t-shirt.

Columbus III


Breakfast at Frisch’s. If there is an active Big Boy franchise in a city I’m visiting, it is mandatory that I eat there at least once.


After breakfast, I made my side trip to Zanesville and McConnellsville. The visit to McConnellsville had been one of my prime motivators as there’s a tiny, ancient, but still open Kroger there that I had to see. And I saw it, along with the IGA.

Zanesville was just an interesting town along the way. I had lunch there, at a place called Nicol’s, where the special was beef with noodles. I didn’t realize that the beef and noodles would be served on top of mashed potatoes. This whole midwestern starch thing was starting to get to me by this time. It’s like I spent the whole trip in the midst of a giant carb crash.


Back in Columbus, I found a couple of decent used bookstores, and stumbled upon the 1940s-1950s neighborhood where the betrothed and I would probably crave to live if we ever moved to Columbus — in the vicinity of Indianola Avenue and Cooke Road, if I recall correctly. I spent a little more time around OSU and Upper Arlington and then went back to the motel for a while.

I didn’t really have a dinner agenda and nothing really “spoke” to my need to avoid anything involving noodles or potatoes, so after a long drive, I ended up at a nondescript Chinese place in a nondescript shopping center in a nondescript suburb. It was pretty good, I must admit.

Coming Home


Had a quick oil change and a quick breakfast before heading out of Columbus on US 33. I decided it might be nice to take a drive through Lancaster (birthplace of General Willam T. Sherman, who burned Atlanta) rather than staying on the by-pass. Big mistake. I had no idea the whole fucking town was under construction. I’m serious: every major road in or out was either blocked or reduced to one lane and absolutely choked with traffic. I’d always wondered where hell was. Apparently, it’s about 30 miles southeast of Columbus.

On the way home, I also saw Nelsonville (with another Kroger, no nearly so old or tiny as the one in McConnellsville) and Athens, a surprisingly cute college town. I had lunch at a Long John Silver’s there, not realizing that if I’d just waited fifteen more minutes, I would have found one of the last remaining Arthur Treacher’s locations. Oh well.

It all became a blur after I stopped at the mountainside Kroger near Charleston. I remember I got gas in Virginia because it was cheap. I think I may have eaten dinner in Statesville. But I’m not sure. I think all the starches finally got to me.