The Ultimate American Road Trip (part 1) left us off in San Francisco. Now to work our way back East!
If you have an extra week you could keep heading north to check out the Pacific Northwest region, but otherwise enjoy San Francisco and then began your return eastward. A few hours from San Fran you’ll reach picturesque Lake Tahoe which is about the last picturesque thing you’ll see for a few hundred miles (sorry Northern Nevada, I didn’t find anything worth stopping for other than gas.)
Before you reach Yellowstone, I would suggest a brief detour to Craters of the Moon National Park. Very few people make it to this park, but its vast lava flows and cinder cones do an excellent job of setting the stage for the volcanic activity you’ll encounter in Yellowstone . Most of Yellowstone National Park itself actually lies within the caldera of a giant supervolcano, which causes the geysers and springs that attract not only tourists but animals seeking winter-warmth as well. Because the super-volcano is so massive, it’s hard to really picture it as a volcano, which is why I think Craters of the Moon is a good introduction. Picture the lava fields from Craters covering most of the attractions in Yellowstone. Again, you could easily spend a week enjoying the diverse landscapes of Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park, but once you realize you’re in the mouth of an active (and overdue to erupt) supervolcano, you may be ready to move on sooner than expected!
As you continue west, you’ll cross the plains again in Wyoming and South Dakota. The Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, and Badlands National Park of western South Dakota are good for breaking up this part of the trip, and you won’t be able to miss the famous Wall Drug even if you try. Wall Drug is probably America’s best example of advertising and a treasure trove of kitsch. Hundreds of miles away you’ll begin seeing the signs that made Wall Drug so famous at the end of the Great Depression, and what do they advertise: FREE ICE WATER! A standard at every restaurant in America now, advertising this simple thing turned Wall Drug into THE stop along the highway for thirsty and weary travelers.
Continuing on through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois you’ll see the landscapes slowly change from farmlands back to forests. In Illinois you’ll reach Chicago, which is worth a stop to try some insane deep-dish pizza if nothing else. The pizza here is so deep that it has to cook for over half an hour, and to prevent the cheese from burning it goes under the sauce! Having eaten far more than my fair share of pizza in my life (I worked at a pizzeria and ate pizza almost daily for two years) I can say unequivocally that there is nothing in the world like a slice of Chicago deep dish. A good walk along the shore of Lake Michigan will give great views and help you work off some of the pounds of pizza that you just consumed.
After Chicago you’ll pass through Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, a region formerly known as the Steel Belt for its abundant manufacturing, but now referred to as the Rust Belt due to the decline of manufacturing in the area. While not quite as powerful as ghost towns in the western deserts, the abandonment of many factories and other buildings and their subsequent decay is a strong visual reminder of the changing eras in American history. You may also come across some Amish, aka Pennsylvania Dutch, in this region, which will give you a glimpse of how some cultures DON’T change over time. The lack of power lines going into farmhouses is a good sign that you’re in Amish country.
The Amish request that you not take their picture so I don’t have a picture to put here.
Cap off your epic journey in New York, New York, the city so nice they named it twice! Catch historic sights like Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, enjoy the architecture and views from the Empire State Building, and check out the hustle and bustle of Times Square. If it’s Christmas time, Rockefeller Plaza and the window displays along 5th Avenue are must-sees. While here you should also try New York style pizza, but don’t mention that you recently ate pizza in Chicago. As far as I can tell, three issues have divided America during its history: the Civil War; Republican (red) vs Democratic (blue) states; and Chicago style (deep dish) vs New York style (thin crust) pizza. I’ll keep my opinions to myself on this matter and let you decide for yourself!
If you find yourself with still more time, driving toward Boston you’ll find a tremendous amount of American history and some stunning mansions along great beaches, but no great pizza. So I’d recommend calling the trip a wrap in NYC, with some pizza in hand, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean again along the Coney Island boardwalk.