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Roadtrip 2013: Great Lakes and the Midwest


I never have time or patience to write anything longer before and shortly after Eurofurence. Or to sort and edit the photos that I need for a travel report. And it's been so long that I'm not able to write an actual report anymore, for example I don't remember most of the hotels and motels at all, hence some musing based on the experience have to do. But at least I've edited and uploaded the photos, for the first time in three years.

April, 11th to 14th: Traveling and Furry Connection North

Flying on airline bonus miles for the first time, yay. Still having to pay for fees and taxes, boo. I met my travel companions Kayjay and Lynard in Frankfurt at the new concourse A+ (or is it Z?) and we had a rather uneventful and pleasant Lufthansa flight to Detroit. All of our luggage arrived in time as well, it was just a bit confusing to find the shuttle buses to the rental car station. The car we got from the choice line was a new Chrysler 300C. While it has a lot of leg room even for the back seats, it has not much space for luggage. The only alternative would have been a convertible with even less luggage space. The 300C is quite nice to drive, though it has a somewhat cheap interior. Surprisingly, not only was satellite radio reception enabled (thank you, Alamo!), the built-in satnav worked as well. But it quickly dawned on us why they try to rent out a portable one anyway. The Garmin navigation system is nearly unusable. It receives traffic information via satellite radio, but doesn't use it for navigation. It can only find POIs within your current location (no "find me all hotels near Niagara" while we are in Detroit). It keeps sending you via state routes parallel to the freeway, except if the freeway is a turnpike. It definitely prefers toll roads. The menu system is a confusing mess. I'm glad I brought my Tomtom. But I digress.

After picking up the car we went shopping for a bit and drove to the hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Farmington Hills across the street from the convention hotel. Very nice and well maintained. FCN itself was a very relaxing and fun convention, we got to see Tilt's short movie about his experience with a certain microwave oven and the mayhem that evolves from it. Talked a lot to people I haven't met for years — or only knew online so far (hello Lunden!) The sponsor's lounge had local beer from the keg, some of it really excellent, and Uncle Kage on and off stage was entertaining as always. It was especially great to meet Tersethra and Xan again. And folks like Coopertom, FirestormSix, Xzadfor, to name just a few.

BigBlueFox was one of the guests of honor, which is a strange coincidence that has become a tradition. We decided on attending FCN before we (or BBF) even knew about it. Next year he'll be GoH at Texas Furry Fiesta, and guess what... Anyway, I haven't had that much fun in years, it is always a pleasure to be around friends. FCN was a perfect start for the vacation, a pity there won't be any further events under that name as the chairman and some core staff members quit. While this sadly is the end of FCN, new organizers together with some previous FCN staffers have started Motor City Furry Con, which will take over the same slot and location (and the beer keg thing.) Let's hope the new event will be as awesome as the old one.

April, 15th: Downtown Detroit

We've been warned that we'll get shot, beaten and robbed when we go to Downtown Detroit. That there is nothing to see and we should go to Frankenmuth instead. To which we promptly reacted and... removed Frankenmuth from the list of places to see. Sure, Detroit is not a very touristy place. Downtown is mostly a business district, quite run down at places, lots of empty buildings, some burned down ruins that apparently have been standing there for a long time already, many leveled and fenced-off blocks. Lots of the old buildings are degrading rapidly. Some of the modern office buildings are a city in the city, so that employees working at the office never have to leave the building for lunch or a grocery run. There aren't many people on the street, not even panhandlers. But those who are, are very friendly and curious what hell three tourists are looking for in this run down city.

Michigan Labor Legacy Monument vs. GM Renaissance Center

Detroit may be run down and broke. A former two million population down to 700000, broken infrastructure, whole neighborhoods vacant and burned down. De-facto racial segregation: black south of 8 Mile Road, white north of it, both populations avoiding each other. But if you take some time and talk to the people, you'll hear their the motivation to roll up the sleeves and get the cart out of the dirt. It's their town, it may not be the most beautiful one, live's hard, but let's pull the cart out of the dirt, together. You can feel it everywhere, and if you look closely, you'll see small initiatives everywhere trying to improve the situation. And slowly, but steadily, succeeding.

That's the spirit I admire America for.

April, 16th: Crossing the Bridge

If you want to have a nice view of the skyline of Detroit you have to travel to Canada, preferably via the Ambassador Bridge. The bridge, opened 1929, connects Detroit and Windsor, crossing the Detroit River. It is said to be the busiest international border crossing in America, and it is a private toll bridge. There's also the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, but that's boring to drive...

Ambassador Bridge

We spent quite some time at Centennial Park at the riverside, photographing the Detroit skyline and the bridge. Integrated into the park is the Odette Sculpture Park with some quite interesting sculptures, however the light wasn't good enough to take decent pictures of them.

Detroit Skyline

Also, we learned that what's called a restroom in America, or bathroom in England, is called washroom in Canada. Alas, they were closed and so we quickly took off to Ojibway Park, which has a nature centre that was open and has toilets. Also, nice trails through the woods and lots of wildlife to discover. Mostly birds, but also deer, snakes, squirrels, ...

Black-capped Chickadee

The next stop of the day was Point Pelee National Park. We were at the southmost part of Canada that does not require a ship to get to (the Point Pelee Island is even further south.) To be honest, I expected the trees to already have leaves at that time of year, but it only got warmer just a couple of days before we arrived, so the whole scenery was still very winter-like. And we mostly missed the bird migration season, but there are enough stationary birds around, so it was worth the detour after all. I'd say: highly recommended, but visit in late May or early June for hiking.

Lynard Southmost Canada

April, 17th: Rondeau & The Pinary Provincial Parks

Driving through Ontario is boring. With its corn and potato fields it looks quite similar to the Northwest of Germany where I grew up, just with freeways limited to 80 or 100 kph. Obviously, nobody cares about the speed limit and drives at least 30 kph faster...

Lake Erie from Rondeau Provincial Park

With more great views on Lake Erie, but still bald trees, Rondeau Provincial Park was a nice break from all the plowed corn fields. Lot's of snakes, a pebble beach, various birds. Since we weren't sure if we'd make it to Lake Huron later, we took a detour to The Pinary Provincial Park. Not much to do there, as it is basically just a long stretch of beach, but storms were brewing on the horizon, creating a very special atmosphere. One day later and we'd ended up in storms and torrential rain...

Lake Huron from The Pinary Provincial Park

Have I mentioned that useless built-in satnav yet? Despite the current map it directed us to a hotel (in St Catharines, I believe) that doesn't exist anymore.

April, 18th: Niagara Falls

It looks larger on photo and video. The Niagara Falls are actually three Waterfalls: the famous Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. Mainly not much more worth than a photo stop, unless you try to be creative and want to play with panorama software. It must be extremely impressive if you are upstream in a canoe, approaching the falls, though. Anyway, I made way too many pictures, and it is impossible to make a photo that hasn't been made the same way at least a million times already. But it definitely is a location everyone should have visited once in their life. Oh, and the hint visiting the Canadian side was worth gold. (However, tour behind the falls and all that nonsense starts from the American side, I believe.)

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara

Someone told us to go shopping for The Mountain tees in Canada. The souvenier shops at the falls didn't have any I don't own yet, and they were way too expensive. The mall we went to was nearly deserted... So we took off to return to America.

I have a bone to pick with immigration at the Rainbow Bridge. Yes, I know the CBP officers in New York, for whatever reason, have the reputation of not being very cordial. But a border is not a barrack yard, and speaking in full sentences and towards the open window of the car would help us tourists to understand what the officer wants. Every CBP officer I've met elsewhere at least tried to make me feel welcome.

Since we had some time left, we took the Robert Moses State Parkway north along the Niagara River. A large portion of the parkway is about to be demolished, one side of the former freeway is currently a bicycle trail. So this was probably one of the last chances to drive this highway. We proceeded to the Thirty Mile Lighthouse at the Golden Hill State Park, a former Girl Scout camp and now a state campground. We were lucky, the wife of the campground keeper gave us a tour through the lighthouse and the adjunct former residence of the lighthouse staff. The residence consists of two nicely renovated flats with partly authentic 19th century furniture that can be rented by week by small groups. Very cosy in fall or winter, we've been told.

Thirty Mile Lighthouse

April, 19th: US Brig Niagara

We hat less luck with the lighthouse in Dunkirk, NY. It was, of course, closed for the season, because Americans just cannot imagine someone being on vacation at other times than between Memorial Day and Labor Day. On the other hand, you don't get to see everything then either, due to the huge crowds at the attractions. You just can't win... At least we took some photos through the fence.

Dunkirk Lighthouse

It was just a short stop anyway, because our destination for the day was Erie, Pennsylvania. They have a very nice maritime museum, and during off-season (hah!) you can visit the US Brig Niagara. Most time of the year it is a training ship, but during Winter it is towed at the pier next to the museum and can be visited by guided tour.

Brig Niagara

The ship is a replica of the original Niagara that was crucial for winning the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, which was a key factor for the US winning the Anglo-American war of 1812. It was a historic event for America and Canada while Europe was busy with Napoleon during that time and the British didn't pay much attention to a rather small nuisance to their strategic interests. However, it did set the foundation of today's reversed roles in the relationship between both countries...

Aboard Brig Niagara

Unfortunately, the original ship was too decayed after several unsuccessful restoration attempts, so they could use only few salvaged parts of it during reconstruction. Also, they had to install some modern technology to get the permission to actually sail the ship. Nevertheless, only few ships with the construction design of the era exist today, and it was a very interesting insight into a part of American history that is tremendously important for Americans but that is virtually unknown to the rest of the world.

April, 20th: Cleveland, Ohio

Downtown Cleveland is sort of boring. Well, there is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we decided that the entrance fee was too high. And there's the Great Lakes Science Center, which seems to be mainly for children (and there were way too many of them when we were there), so we went visiting Public Square. The Cuyahoga County Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument is quite interesting, also the statues outside give a nice contrast to the modern high rise buildings around it.

Statue vs. Modern Buildings

The Terminal Tower south of the square hides, among a train station, a shopping mall, and the insight that there are actually people in Cleveland. We already started to wonder if the city was deserted... While trying to find a place to get a coffee we stumbled into The Arcade, which used to be a shopping mall in the 1890s, but is a Hyatt Regency hotel nowadays. Its atrium beats the those of any other hotel I've seen.

The Arcade

We got our coffee, by the way. There is a Starbucks next door.

April, 21st: Cuyahoga Nat'l Park

Cities, museums, ships... We need more nature. So we went to Cuyahoga National Park, birding again, of course. We even spotted a nesting bald eagle.

Eagle's Nest

There's a lot to do there, much more we had time for, and I wish the trees were green yet. But on the other hand, we wouldn't have spotted the eagle then. So we hiked a bit in the Brandywine Falls area and decided against riding the museum train, which was pulled by a boring modern Diesel locomotive that day, anyway.

National Park Train

And we still had to drive to Dayton that day. I really have to say something in favor of Ohio, by the way. The landscape is way less boring than southern Ontario.

April, 22nd: USAF Museum, Dayton, Ohio

We picked Xan up in the morning for visiting the National Museum of the United States Air Force. He's been living there for quite a while and never got around visiting the museum. We met Tersethra, who took half a day off from work, at the entrance and started exploring the huge hangars with a tremendous amount of exhibits. Planes, weapons, missiles, rockets, satellites of all areas, some of it top secret until a couple of years ago. Really scary stuff among it, like replicas of atomic bombs. But also very cool stuff, too. It takes at least a day to just get an overview. Also very nice that despite the lack of space they try to set their exhibits in historical context. The museum is currently building yet another hangar to expand the exhibition, so we'll probably revisit next time we're in town.

Scary Even As A Replica

April, 23rd: Chicago, Ilinois

Chicago is called The Windy City. It wasn't that windy when we were there, but it was cold and rainy. Yet, it is a vibrant, lively city with way too much traffic. However, as long as you are not a taxi driver, everybody makes room if you have to cross four lanes...

Chicago Street View

On the first look, the city seems to be relatively flat, but in fact that's just because it's build on several levels, and you never realize until you are using the pedway system. Many of the buildings downtown are connected with each other and the main parking garages so that you can cross the inner city during snow days. We spent hours exploring the tunnels and the shops. You enter in one building, ride an escalator down two floors, walk some meandering tunnels, pass coffee shops and restaurants, go five steps up and... find yourself one floor above street level. Amazing.

Also, lots of fun at the Cloud Gate sculpture. It's a huge bean-shaped polished stainless steel sculpture at the Millenium Park. An example for very popular modern art. It plays with the perception of the architecture from different periods of time around it.

If You Leave Me Now

Much less fun, especially due to the pouring rain, was the Navy Pier. But at least a position to get a photo of the skyline. Or so I thought.

The Rainy City

April, 24th: Lincoln Park Zoo

The zoo of Chicago is free of charge, however parking at the main lot is quite expensive. Their selection of animals is a bit unusual, sure they have lions and tigers, but also red wolves, african wild dogs, a manul, great apes, waterfowl, snakes, spiders, insects, ... Compared to other zoos I'm missing an overall concept, but I've rarely been to a zoo bringing back way too many good photos — like I did this time...

Red Wolf

Trying to get a good coffee was a challenge, though. But after leaving the zoo we found a nice coffee bar in a nearby hotel. Unfortunately, there seems to be a Asian take-out restaurant at it's place now.

We spent the rest of the day driving to Milwaukee via Sheridan Road along countless mansions at the shore and through small towns and villages. Quite a scenic drive, and fortunately marked very well as this time the satnav constantly tried to direct us to the Interstate. Unfortunately, lake access is rare, mostly by marinas.

April, 25th: Milwaukee

Since we had to drive back all the way to Detroit eventually, we had not much time to spend in Milwaukee, so we skipped visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum and went downtown. Like Chicago, the city also has some pedways, but these are mostly bridges between some few high rise buildings. Walking along Milwaukee River is quite nice, the Grand Avenue Mall is a huge complex spreading two blocks with only few interesting shops, but we had some excellent coffee on the bridge between the the mall and the university building. Looking through the windows from the bridge however makes you wonder about the decade, no, century you ended up.


One great coffee and a cookie later, we walked back to the lake shore. The Milwaukee County War Memorial Center has a very nice 1950s architecture with a large terrace that provides a great overview over Lake Michigan.

Milwaukee County War Memorial Center

The art museum is connected to the memorial center. Viewed from the memorial center it looks like the art museum is a ship docked to the memorial. Two entirely different styles of architecture that usually work best standing alone, connected, without destroying the effect of either.

Milwaukee Art Museum from War Memorial Center

And since we had to get back to Michigan, we took off early, got lost in East Chicago due to the demolished bridge of Indiana SR 912 of which my GPS naturally didn't know anything about due to the age of the map, but the built-in GPS of the car didn't know that either (come on, it's been closed since 2010!) and the detour signage was confusing. We somehow ended up back on US12 and arrived at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and State Park just in time for the most wonderful sunset.

Sunset at Lake Michigan

April, 26th: Grand Rapids and Bay City, Michigan

Grand Rapids is located nicely at the Grand River, the rapids being replaced by barrages long ago, downtown is sort of uninteresting, but we heard the river walk was quite nice. So we came to the city to find this:

Flooded River Walk, Grand Rapids

Due to the large amount of rain the previous week (which we somehow managed to avoid), a lot of flooding occurred and we still saw utility workers pumping water out of basements. The river walk was flooded, so we took a look at the Gerald R. Ford museum and grave site. Ford was the only American President that was neither elected as president nor as vice-president, taking over vice-presidency after resignation of Spiro Agnew (thank you, Wikipedia!) and subsequently presidency after resignation of Richard Nixon. Apparently was a remarkably modest man, who only reluctantly ran for a second term and lost. His tomb is probably one of the most humble grave sites for a former American President I can imagine.

Gerald and Betty Ford Grave Site

After a short coffee break we went to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, but it was crowded and too expensive. Have I complained about too many kids in museums before? Well, now I can complain about too many old people... Meh, let's go elsewhere, Bay City maybe?

We avoided the Interstate and took rural roads, and yes, it does look like the northwest of Germany again. But at least with some pastures in between, and the corn fields getting some green hue here and there.

Corn Field near Ithaca, MI

Bay City itself looks like it has seen better days, but apparently it was always that way. For some reason it has a large brand new DoubleTree hotel, a nice new river walk along the Saginaw River, and some interesting historic architecture. But admittedly, we expected more.

Downtown Bay City

But a bit north of the city, there's the Bay City State Recreation Area with a nice trail around Tobico Lagoon to watch birds, and a very nice beach at the shore of Lake Huron. So it was worth the detour after all.

Lake Huron Beach

April, 27th: Ypsilanti, Michigan & Flight Back

After staying for the night in Ypsilanti, we still had almost a full day to spend before our flight back home. So we walked a bit along the Huron River, and went to Depot Town, the former railway district of Ypsilanti with some nice historic buildings. Unfortunately, no trains are stopping there anymore.

Historic Caboose

After enjoying the nice overview of Belleville Lake at Van Buren Park, we finally proceeded to the car rental station, returned the car, checked in, and flew back to Germany on an uneventful transatlantic flight.

What I've brought back from this trip is the great hospitality of the people of the Midwest, seeing and experiencing an aspect of America that's virtually unknown in Europe (maybe because superficially it appears to be quite similar to various regions of Europe), a region that just doesn't exist in popular media except for its few big cities. And even what I read and hear about the big cities is often a projection of what journalists expect and doesn't reflect the real character of it. This trip definitely improved and deepened my appreciation for America.

A selection of photos is available from my gallery as usual.

Comments 7 years, 12 months ago

Great photos !

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