"You drove? That's insane!" Exclaimed the checkout guy at Trader Joe's in an ancient Pittsburgh suburb as he clanged the bell to request a second cart. We were stocking up for summer in Mt. Gretna after a cross-country journey from our winter residence in Palm Springs -- 48 hours ahead of the tornado in Oklahoma City, where we stopped for a "Truffle-Shuffle" at The Wedge Pizzeria, dining outdoors as the sky darkened and the winds churned.
The Trader Joe's guy proved to be prescient; the only insanity came as we, laden with frozen fish, chia, black bean quinoa chips, and pomegranate green tea, tried to return to an (any!) interstate through a warren of winding 19th century streets in South Side, too many of them under repair. The GPS lady was confounded by our detours and finally disappeared into the cloud. We ultimately stumbled onto the PA Turnpike heading East. The vista of the city emerging from the Liberty Tunnel onto the bridge over the Monongahela--I think that was where we were--is spectacular, though we were more relieved than impressed at that point to see signs directing us to I-376.
What (among a lot) we learned on our trip:
SiriusXM radio (channels 74-76, Met opera, "Pops" classical, Symphony) broadcasts a wide variety of rarely interrupted music played by good performers and announced by knowledgeable but succinct hosts, including Martin Goldsmith (his book about his parents, The Inextinguishable Symphony; A true story of music and love in Nazi Germany, is moving). The Public Radio channels (121-123) are good too. We laughed at Garrison Keillor's phone call to his mother, and learned from Ira Glass that it is useless to offer facts, observations, or any kind of science to a climate-change denier. That just makes them angry.
You must pay a small subscription fee for SiriusXM (thank you Hertz). When I get around to it I will attach an inexpensive SiriusXM tuner to the cassette player in my very old car.
Despite reviews that sometimes seem juvenile or amateurish, reading between the lines on Yelp* proved a good way to find great restaurants that you might overlook, like Harvest in St. Louis where we enjoyed our best dinner in months. Along a busy street near Washington University (an alma mater), Harvest looked plain and uninviting, like a place where you would order meatloaf. I had delicious pork cheeks. The retired Architecture Professor at a neighboring table thought it the best restaurant in St. Louis. That city, by the way, has enjoyed an amazing renaissance since I was last there as a medical resident 40 years ago. It blows Cleveland (my home town) out of the water. We ultimately sampled Indian (east), Mexican, "American (New)," Italian, Japanese, and Spanish food, each in different places along our route.
The 3G wireless network in the US needs to catch up with other developed countries. There are voids where you can't connect and other places where connections are excruciatingly slow. We did, however, reserve rooms ahead each day from the road on my iPad, after deciding how much further we could drive.
Roads in the West are better maintained, smoother, and less congested. The landscape in the East is greener. Trucks rule all the roads. If you plan to drive 2546 miles, it is better to do it in a large comfortable car. The rented Hyundai Genesis was perfect, >32 mpg every day. Old Route 66 ("Get your kicks") parallels interstates for most of its extent, and you can see--or actually drive on--that 2-lane winding road in many places. We left it in St. Louis as it turned north to its origin in Chicago. We'll investigate some of the old attractions, listed abundantly on signs, on a future trip.
Wheeling WV has an amazingly good Hampton Inn, owned privately by the same family for 40 years. I had to drag Emi away from the large salt-water fish tank in the lobby, and the breakfast buffet did not serve the tasteless pale-yellow silver-dollar-like patties called "eggs" that satisfy most "hot breakfast" claims on billboards.
Santa Fe is as picturesque and interesting as they say: great museums, great restaurants, galleries, jewelry stores, quaint architecture, scenery, Indian culture, etc. Native American art is second to none, as is the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. Neither the Opera in its lofty Crosby Theater nor the Chamber Music Festival had begun their seasons. At the Coyote Grill we nursed martinis at the bar three feet from the cooks at work, and then ordered what looked most appetizing. The mesquite-grilled salmon was the best I have ever had. Be careful; more than 50% of the "Native American" jewelry and art for sale is actually "international." (Look for the made in Malaysia label on the tag.)
But Santa Fe is also a city where ordinary people live as well as a destination for 1.7 million annual visitors. Golden arches and all the familiar chain retailers line streets and strip malls, as in all the cities we passed. The graduation rate of Santa Fe Public schools is a miserable 55%. The Santa Fe Indian School may be the place to send your kid--if s/he is native American and a good student. Their impressive website shows they offer "Band, Chorus, Guitar, and Music Appreciation" among many opportunities.
There is vast "undeveloped" territory in the western US, mainly (and fortunately) because it lacks water, I suppose. The country is spectacularly beautiful--most memorable were the brightly colorful mountains in northern New Mexico loved by Georgia O'Keefe--but burgeoning civilization is doing its best to change that. Some man-made objects are just outright ugly, and many, when no longer useful, appear to be simply abandoned. There seem to be no limits to bad taste or the ruining of Nature's beauty for human sustenance. Wireless towers and windmills are the least of the offenders.
When I travel again, the place where I would choose to spend more time--or even live for awhile--is northern New Mexico. It's easy to see how Georgia O'Keefe fell in love with the place.