Denver to Dayton and Back
How it came to be
David and I had two weeks set aside for Hong Kong. We had reservations and guide books and all. It was getting to be an expensive trip, but we figured we'd never get to do it again, not after June 1997. Then David went part-time, and he had no money or vacation days. I figured I'd use the time to go see some family. I could fly to Denver, then drive out to Ohio and back. I like to drive. That's what I told everyone who said I was nuts, and that was just about everyone. Except my mom, who's like the original road-trip babe. She was already committed to an epic autumn journey to Maine and back when she asked if she could come along with me. I said, you're not just doing this because you're worried about me, are you? She said, no, she did really want to come along. I said, I'll be leaving about a week after you get back from Maine. She said, good, I won't even have to unpack.

Oct. 23: Denver to Colby, Kansas, 250 miles.
Our short driving day, because my plane didn't get to Denver until 2:30. Mom had rented a Chevy Lumina, with four doors and two cupholders, and off we went. I lived in Colorado 10 years, and I never saw any of this area east of Denver. Everyone who has driven across country from the east speaks of the stunning moment when they first saw the Rockies looming up in front of them, but I couldn't get a sense of that when I looked back. Even in Denver, the mountains looked more distant than I had remembered. I think I must be spoiled by the Eastern Sierra.

I would have been OK with stopping at Burlington or Goodland, but it was dark already anyway (and late, because of the time zone change), so we went on to Colby. We ate at Bourquin's Old Depot Restaurant, described in the AAA book as having "predesigned meals like grandma used to make served 'friendly' style." It was only a little way from our Super 8 on the edge of town, and we started to walk there, and then looked at ourselves, both in black, on the shoulder of an unlighted frontage road, and decided we were an accident waiting to happen. We went back and got the car. AAA also lists a Big Wong restaurant in Colby.

Oct 24: Colby to St. Charles, Mo.,570 miles or so.
It was still dark when we left the next morning, and out in the wind very cold, too. Remind me never to become a rancher. Because we couldn't see much past the car, we took the interstate until the sun came up, then cut over at WaKeeney to state Highway 18, which jogs through Hill City, Bogue, Damar, Palco, Zurich, Plainville, Natoma and Paradise until we connected back to the interstate at Russell, which was in a municipality-wide state of denial regarding Bob Dole's prospects. (My only white rock letter of the trip was at Hill City, and the photo is hardly legible because the sun was rising behind the hill.)

At Abilene we stopped to see the Greyhound Hall of Fame . If we had had my brother-in-law Chris along we would be stuck in that town forever: the Eisenhower museum, an excursion train, the historic cattle-trail downtown, and the World War II Generals' Wax Museum. We just wanted to see the dogs. They have a retired racer named Derby there to greet you, very sweet dog. There's a little video about racing, and a gallery of greyhound art, and exhibits on various aspects of racing, in addition to the actual Hall of Fame. Abby's great-grandfather Downing is a Hall of Famer, as are Westy Whizzer and Tell Me Why, perched on the higher branches of her family tree.

I kept waiting for the really flat and boring part of Kansas everyone kept telling me about, but I never saw it. We did more interstate driving this day than any other day of the trip, so the scenery wasn't glorious, but off the interstate it was pretty, rolling, colorful, cool plants and rocks.

From Abilene to Kansas City, we ate fruit jellies and granola bars, because we were saving ourselves for a late lunch at Arthur Bryant's, the mecca of barbecue. As we got closer, we saw more signs of the snowstorm that had hit a few days earlier. On the Kansas side we started seeing branches on the highway -- then, looking down onto a surface street, we saw their source: a queue of pickup trucks, all carrying a load of downed limbs, waiting to get into the dump. Arthur Bryant's is only a few blocks off the freeway in downtown KC Missouri, and we found it easily, and there was plenty of parking. And it was closed, because of the power outage. In the short time it took us to turn around and head back out, we saw a few other disappointed Q-eaters drive up, gape, then drive away. Thousands and thousands of homes and businesses were out of power clear until the weekend. I think it was destiny: I wasn't meant to visit Arthur Bryant's without David.

So onward. We swung down on Highway 50 through Lone Jack and Pittsville, Warrensburg, Knob Noster ("Latin for 'our knob,'" says Mom), La Monte. The stores advertised "Sunday beer," one more odd liquor law technicality. We stopped in Sedalia for an early dinner. There was a barbeque place called Dickie Doo BBQ, which might have yielded a T-shirt for Dad, but it was more of a steak-and-chop place. There was a barbeque place in an old train car, but it was closed for remodeling. So we ate at a plain old hamburger place. I had figured on either Jefferson City or Columbia for lodging, but we were making pretty decent time and Mom figured the closer we could get to St. Louis, the easier it would be to get through rush hour next morning. We ended up at a Budgetel in St. Charles, just outside the St. Louis beltway. The rates were decent, and they included a free drink in the bar and a bagel hung on your doorknob the next morning. We got our drink and watched the Yankees win.

Oct. 25: St. Charles to Kettering, Ohio, 500 miles
Left: Mom gets tough with an unwhite squirrel, Olney, Ill.

We picked up our doorknob Danish, and rush hour was a piece of cake. That's only the third time I've driven across the Mississippi -- the first two were at Memphis and Cairo, on our legendary Nashville trip of 1992. I don't know if I'd ever have a reason to go to St. Louis, but it struck me as more cosmopolitan than I had expected.

We stuck to Highway 50 in Illinois, and it was pretty much 60mph all the time, except for a couple patches of roadwork. Little towns, kind of grubby-looking but homey, like places that have hard winters. Lebanon, Breese, Carlyle, Sandoval, Odin, Salem. There was a Xenia, so Xenia, Ohio, isn't the only X-city in the country. In fact, many of the city names in the Midwest get repetitive. Illinois, for instance, has a Toledo and a Canton, too. And everyone has a Marion. Marion, Ill., and Marion, Ind., are 50 miles apart, and Marion County is just up the road. (Mom's name is Marion with an O.)

I wanted to see Olney because of the squirrels. There are actually several cities in the country that make a big deal about their black squirrels or white squirrels -- see the Roadside America essay on the same. Olney's are white. They have white squirrels on their municipal trucks, on the police uniforms, on banners all along Main Street -- but the actual fur model is hard to find. We went to the city park. If you can't find white squirrels in the city park of the white squirrel city, where can you find them? We found tons of brown squirrels, very friendly. Mom was getting peeved at them because they refused to eat nuts except from someone's hand; they pretended not to notice nuts on the ground. (Mom likes squirrels, but she's leery of feeding unfamiliar ones from her hand.) The only white squirrel was a chainsaw-carved model on a stump. Mom saw one real white squirrel as we were leaving; I was driving and missed it.

At Vincennes, as it started to rain, we cut down to Interstate 64 to make up some time. At Dale we stopped for lunch at a little pizza shack. We skirted New Albany and took a state road along the bluffs of the Ohio River. I didn't realize that was such a big tobacco area. Most of the fields had been cleared, though, and the crop was drying in the sheds. The winding road right along the river from Madison through Vevay and Rising Sun is supposed to be really pretty, but I had frittered away enough time, so we cut north to Versailles and stopped at McDonald's to call Glenn.

"Hi, Glenn! We're almost there -- we're in ... well, I would call it ver-sigh ..."
"Ah. I figured that."
"Hm! You've driven a ways."
"We took the scenic route. So I figure we're maybe 90 minutes away?"
"I'd say 45."
"Should I just loop to the north of Cincinnati or is there a better way?"
"Oh, no, you don't want to go all the way down there. Just cut over to I-75 and head south."
"South? So we shouldn't swing north on the 275 loop?"
(Pause) "You're in Versailles?"
"Versailles, Indiana."
"Oh! OK. I thought Versailles, Ohio."
Those duplicitous town names again ... There wasn't much in the way of getaway traffic outside Cincinnati, so we got to Kettering by 5 or so. Glenn lives in an apartment complex called The Residenz (something about German castles, I don't know, ask him) near the Kettering civic center. He got us in the complex's guest rental, which was really nice. Two huge bedrooms, each with a full bathroom, a pretty well-furnished kitchen and a living room. As we found out after dinner, though, the TV only got two channels.

Oct. 26: Kettering
I went for a run in the morning. I set out a little before sunrise (still daylight savings time at this point); it was raining a little. My method in new towns is to look at the maps and plot a likely course, then draw a tiny sketch or write key street names on a more portable scrap of paper. The problem is sometimes you don't realize how long the route is, and it's hard to modify it without risk of getting lost. So I ran about seven miles, I think, and breakfast was well under way by the time I got back and showered and went over to Glenn's. (I passed a street called Glenstead, and I thought Glenn should live there. Of course, then nobody would pronounce his last name right.)

We went for a hike in John Bryan State Park, like the guy who sucked Fergie's toes. It seemed very lush and foreign to me, coming from a drier region. There was a slow river, almost a lake. Mom, just back from an Elderhostel in Maine, told us about the distinction between ponds and lakes. Glenn found a little bat hanging on a bush, looking like a furry dead leaf, all wrapped up. Part of the trail was an old stagecoach road from Pittsburgh. By the time we finished the loop, it was raining pretty hard. Glenn drove us out to Young's Dairy, a big dairy/restaurant/visitor farm thing. Lots of people there, lots of kids, a whole high school football team. Very good ice cream. We fed the goats and petted the cows.

Costumed lawn geese are big in the Dayton area. We started seeing them in Indiana, but Ohio seems to be Lawn Goose Central. Glenn says the craft fairs do a big business in goose frocks. It being near Halloween, a lot of them were wearing black capes and witch hats; one I saw was a pumpkin, with a big stuffed outfit and a little green-knob cap. The other yard ornament I've never seen anywhere else is these life-sized decorative iron cutouts of a cowboy leaning against, well, whatever you lean him against. They're rather alarming when people put them against their houses, like big-headed loiterers. I wonder how often the cops get called out to investigate the cutout cowboys.

For dinner, we went out to see my cousin Paul (Mom's brother's son) and his family. They've been at Wright-Patterson AFB for only a few months. I hadn't seen any of the Boleys (except Mom) since I was about 10.

Oct. 27: Kettering & Cincinnati
Left: Susan, Glenn and Pam at Mount Adams, Cincinnati

I chose a shorter running route this time, and I picked winding roads because I've found those are often the nicer residential areas. (And some of the street names sounded like our own area: Oak Knoll, Hilltop, Oak Mead.) The area is called Oakwood, and it had some really nice houses. One of them is where Orville Wright used to live; Glenn thinks it's now used for entertaining by National Cash Register. It's nice to know that Orville Wright actually got rich. Anyway, so that run was only about five miles. Glenn's friend Pam came over and we set out for Cincinnati on surface streets. First we went to a street fair at a market in downtown Cincinnati. It's funny to see a meat-dominated farmer's market, but that's what they do in Cincinnati. Then we drove up to an area called Mount Adams, kind of east and north of downtown on the bluffs overlooking the Ohio River. It seemed to be a clearinghouse for memorials. ("Another sister city obelisk? Put it up in Mount Adams.") They had one memorial grove where every year the schoolkids would honor an author by planting a tree. Some of the picks are famous; others are obviously just the flavor of the year. Like if someone planted a 1996 tree for "The Celestine Prophecies."

Glenn had mentioned a couple years ago going to a big international grocery near Cincinnati, where he bought the frightening grass jelly drink. It had tons of hot sauces, he said, so I asked if we could go there. If you're ever in Fairfield, Ohio, go to Jungle Jim's. You'll recognize it by the big jungle diorama with life-size animals outside. The store is huge, with beers and meats and a regular grocery section, plus aisles and aisles arranged by country. Half an aisle to Britain, even, in case you want spotted dick mix. And, yes, tons of hot sauces. I bought 10, but could have bought three times that if I knew how to get them home. (For a catalog of the Lodge's hot sauce collection, click here

Oct. 28: Kettering to Ottumwa, Iowa, 500 miles
Back across Indiana and Illinois, a more northerly route this time. Richmond, Muncie, Fairmount -- do you know that James Dean has to share his hometown museum with Jim Davis, creator of "Garfield"? -- another Marion, Peru. Lunch in Watseka, Ind. We've found that we can both live with oldies stations on the radio. As long as they stick to oldies, I don't risk having to hear Celine Dion. Country is doable for a while, but it gets old quick, especially if they play that "Little Bitty" song. This was the day that the single from "That Thing You Do!" was released, and even with oldies stations we probably heard it four times.

Hogs! Do you know I don't think I'd ever seen a hog in real life before? Pigs, sure, but "big pig" doesn't get across the imposing majesty of full-size hogs. One hog farm had a big cement hog out front -- and for Halloween, it was dressed as a witch.

Fourth Mississippi crossing of my life at Burlington. By Ottumwa, it was raining pretty hard. We stayed at a hotel that housed what seemed to be a road crew, or a railroad crew. Channel-surfing, we hit on a Flash Gordon film festival that was just wonderful. All those cheesy, snarling space aliens played by balding, middle-aged men ...

Oct. 29: Ottumwa to Ogalalla, Neb., 500 miles
Left: Susan at her childhood home, Starr Street, Lincoln.

A big thunderstorm swept through before sunrise, and the Weather Channel showed us right in the middle of a huge storm band. Might as well get out of there, so we did. The driving wasn't too bad, and I really liked the countryside. I had always lumped Iowa together with Kansas and Nebraska, but it really has kind of a distinct Northern Plains feel, higher and wilder. At Corning we saw a motel called the Berning Motel. We wished we were staying there so we could call Dad and say, "Hi! We're in the Berning Motel!" We started seeing a little break in the weather around Red Oak, and shortly thereafter we crossed into Nebraska at Plattsmouth, over a rickety Iowa River tollbridge tended by a surly old Cornhusker fan.

We were still 20 miles out of Lincoln on the state highway when we started hitting the city-numbered blocks: 136th St., like that. We lived in Lincoln for a couple years, when I was 2 to 4 years old. I'm not sure I remember the fourplex we lived in, or just had an image from photographs. I think I do remember going over to the dairy at the University of Nebraska ag campus to get ice cream, because I don't think I've ever seen a picture of that. Mom navigated us to the old place. She remarked on the Mexican restaurants because when they lived there, the whole town had just one.

At Grand Island we got off the interstate and took a parallel U.S. highway along the railroad tracks. It was blowing, with huge tumbleweeds bounding across the road; we were pelted not only by blown gravel but by blown corn kernels. Nebraska. At North Platte, as it started to get dark, we switched back to I-80 and cruised into Ogallala. We got Denver TV, and the wind had been worse in Colorado: cars blown over, a half-built house in Fort Collins taken out, and a guy killed, even.

30 Oct: Ogallala to Fort Collins, Colo., 250 miles.
Cold this morning, with ice on the windshield and everything. In about 20 minutes we were in Colorado. Again, I forgot to pay attention to the moment when I could first see the mountains. To divert the train of thought a moment: I thought a lot about Western landscapes a couple weeks later when I went to a photo exhibit in San Francisco about the settling of the West, from the mid-1800s through today. These photos of cottonwood trees on creekbeds and scrubby fields with patches of snow, and I'd think, "Yes. That's it. That's the terrain that goes to my heart." But why? Not that I'm so fond of that particular ecological zone. I like greener, wetter places. Is it just familiarity? That's so disappointing, but I couldn't rule it out. Maybe I feel that this is a landscape that is as much mine as it is anyone else's -- and more mine than most people's. Anywhere that you're a kid, you probably spend more time out in it than adults, on foot, wandering around, hiding out, trespassing. And if it's a kind of homely and harsh landscape, not some garden spot or tourist attraction, maybe you own it even more. If you go away, it still holds the solitary hours of a strange and homely kid. The town may have grown or shrunk, but the landscape stays the same. It's probably good not to have to stare those years in the face every day, but when you do come back it's like you still have secrets with this place.

It was still cold when we got to Fort Morgan, where we stopped to take a picture of the gravestone of Philip Dick, the writer, for a friend of mine who's a fan of his. This is sugar beet country. I'd imagine most people have no idea that there's a lot of sugar that comes from Colorado. The teams at Brush High School are called the Beet Diggers, which we used to point to whenever people started laughing at the Fort Collins High School Lambkins. I will now admit that Lambkins is funnier, but at the time it was comforting.

We veered off I-76 just past Fort Morgan and took two-laners up past the Monfort stockyards, through Greeley, out into Severance, Eaton, Ault, Timnath, and we were home in time for lunch.

Oct. 30-Nov. 2: Fort Collins, Colo.
Left: Dad and Susan above Horsetooth Reservoir

If you want some hometown musings from someone gone 15 years, continue. For traveler's tips on Fort C, jump ahead a few grafs.

We moved to Fort Collins in 1969, when it had about 25,000 people, most either farmers or university employees. When I left in 1980, it had about 80,000 people. The population hit a plateau for a while, but I imagine it's passed 100,000; it was, maybe still is, a favorite destination of burned-out Californians. There wasn't much planning for becoming a city of that size. They built houses for all the people who wanted to move there, but they didn't build any express bypass to the main street through town, and they didn't build underpasses or overpasses for the railroad that goes right through the middle of town, so a long train pretty much stops everything. The residents blame the traffic on the newcomers -- "the Californians," as they are called generically. I'd say you can't have it both ways. You can be a little no-growth town watching your children move away to find work, or you can welcome new business and new capital and new taxpayers and find a way to deal with the strain on the infrastructure. I suppose I'd feel different if I'd stayed, but I was one who moved away.

I noticed the growth more this time than I did a year ago -- just a lot more little commercial pockets and shopping centers. There seemed to be less turnover among the downtown businesses, too, more people actually making a go of it. Lot of coffeehouses in the center of town, just about every chain restaurant you could think of on the outskirts. But it still feels to me like a lot of open space -- not just at the edges, but undeveloped pockets within the city. It was nice to go running on the trails along Spring Creek, or drive out behind the reservoir and go hiking. I always thought, still think, it's a good place to come back to. I'm not sure I could see myself living there, but it's more imaginable now than five or 10 years ago. And I'm not even burned out on California. So there's my endorsement for how they're managing the city's growth.

I'm not the best person to make visitor recommendations, since my view of Fort C has been only partially updated since 1980, but I do anyway.

When Dave and I go, we stay at the Marriott near College and Horsetooth, next to the mall. Nice place, close to my parents', and you're not stuck out on the interstate.


  • Good trails at Lory State Park, up behind Horsetooth Reservoir,. The most strenuous (half-day hikes both) are Arthur's Rock and the trail to the landmark Horsetooth.
  • The in-town paved trails: are a 6.6.-miler along Spring Creek, roughly parallel to Stuart Street and an 8.35-miler along the Poudre ("pooder") River. The two connect northeast of Prospect and Timberline roads.
  • Nice couple-hour drives: Around the south end of Horsetooth Reservoir, through Masonville, out to Loveland. Up past Laporte to Bellvue and back along Overland Trail or Taft Hill Road.
  • For longer day trips, either of the canyons are excellent -- Poudre out to Rustic or Walden and Thompson up to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. From Fort Collins, though, it's hard to make a manageable daylong loop; out-and-back is probably the way to go. It's not commonly recommended to tourists, but I once drove David up to Cheyenne, over to Laramie on route 210 and back down on 287 through Tie Siding and Virginia Dale, and it was a nice half-day drive with great scenery and cheap cigarettes.
  • The Anheuser Busch tour isn't bad if you like factory tours. (I do.)
  • Colorado State University isn't real gorgeous, but the old section has some charm. It's at the northeast corner of the campus, near Laurel and College. If you happen to be in town during the veterinary school's open house, definitely do that, unless animal medicine makes you queasy.
  • The city park near Mulberry and Shields is nice, but for a smaller playground closer to downtown and Old Town, hit the library park a few blocks east of College near Oak.