The Great American Road Trip (Part I)

New Jersey. Pennsylvania. Ohio. Indiana. Illinois. Wisconsin. Minnesota. Iowa. Missouri. Arkansas. Louisiana. Mississippi. Alabama. Tennessee. Virginia. For the next two weeks, The Open Road Ahead will be criss-crossing the eastern half of the United States of America. In the span of two weeks, our plan is to drive nearly 4,000 miles, visiting with friends and family, exploring new states and cities, eating great meals, taking lots of photos, and making countless memories. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing write-ups of our adventures. Given the length of this trip, it will be posted in segments. This is the first: an overview of our itinerary, a run-through of our planning process, and then the first leg of our journey. 

Let’s begin!

The Great American Road Trip

The Route

Map of Eastern Half of United States, with blue route line running from New Jersey to Minnesota, south to New Orleans, and then northeast back to New Jersey.
It’s an ambitious plan, but I have faith in our road trip abilities! Google Map’s estimate puts us at 57 hours in the car, traveling 3,735 miles. That calculation, of course, assumes that we don’t sightsee, detour, or explore the backroads… which wouldn’t be our style!

The Vehicle

Contender 1:

Image in two halves. Top: 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in front of Blue Mountain Lake. Bottom: car odometer reading 87001
The first option: my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. On the plus side, it’s a supremely comfortable cruiser, it has all-wheel drive, and it can pack anything you could possibly want. The drawback is fuel… at 21 miles per gallon, gas stations would eat up a significant chunk of our travel budget.

Contender 2:

Image split into two halves. Top: 2012 Honda Accord parked in front of pond. Bottom: odometer reading 202000 TRIP A 236.0
The second option: my 2012 Honda Accord coupe. It handles like it’s on rails. At highway speeds, it will get close to 32 miles per gallon. It’s surprisingly spacious for a coupe. However, living out of a two-door car for two weeks presents some challenges, especially as it relates to accessing items in the back seat.

The Winner

2021 Honda HR-V parked in front of gazebo.
A few weeks before our trip, my Mom called and offered us the use of Betty, her 2021 Honda HR-V. At 36 miles per gallon, it’s fuel efficient. It has all-wheel drive to tackle any gentle off-roading we might throw at it. For such a small vehicle, it is plenty spacious, especially with the Magic Seat feature (more on that in a future post!). We gratefully accepted. Mom will be using my Accord while we raise the number on her car’s odometer. In my Mom’s words: “Put some miles on it!” Thanks, Mom!!

Packing

Canon camera, three lenses, DJI drone, and National Park Service passport.
Clothes toiletries, food, water… all that stuff is important, I guess. But my packing began with making sure I was ready to document our adventures. Lenses polished and batteries charged, my camera gear and drone are ready to go! Knowing of our love of national parks, a friend also recently gifted us a National Park Passport. Each national park visitor center offers a stamp that you can add to your passport. What a cool way to add to our road trip memories!
T-shirt with road leading to mountains and "Are we there yet" motto on bottom.
My wife picked up this T-shirt for me in honor of our trip. Brilliant!
Interior of 2021 Honda HR-V filled with luggage.
Luggage, backpacks, plug-in cooler, food, water, first aid kit… the HR-V easily swallowed all of the stuff required for two weeks on the road.
Car odometer reading 001075 miles.
Betty (pronounced “Bet-tee,” after a character in a British murder mystery TV series that my Mom enjoys) had just over a thousand miles at the start of our trip. It’s time to add to that number… let’s go!

Day 1: New Jersey to Ohio

Map of eastern United States, with blue route line from New Jersey to Port Clinton, Ohio.
Departing New Jersey bright and early, our first day involved over 500 miles of driving, ending our day in northern Ohio.
I-80, with sign on side of road saying WELCOME TO PENNSYLVANIA.
After an hour of driving, we crossed into Pennsylvania on I-80. One state down!
View of mountains along I-80.
Wanting to reach Ohio before sunset, we avoided any temptations to explore the Keystone State, instead plowing through all of I-80 with only a few stops to get out of the car and stretch.
Apple CarPlay display in Honda HR-V
I quickly fell in love with the functionality of Apple CarPlay in the HR-V. CarPlay integrates the functionality of an iPhone into the car’s stereo system. With my iPhone plugged in, we were able to play music, make phone calls, listen to podcasts and audio books, and receive turn-by-turn directions. When the day comes to eventually replace my Accord, CarPlay will be a “must have” feature.
I-80 with sign over highway that says OHIO FIND IT HERE.
After several hours of driving, we crossed into The Buckeye State. Two states down!
Outdoor table with view of Lake Erie in background.
Nearing dinner time, we arrived in Port Clinton, Ohio and chose to eat at Dock’s Beach House, a cool bar and restaurant along the shore of Lake Erie.
Port Clinton Lighthouse.
After dinner, we drove a half mile to Waterworks Park, site of Port Clinton Light. The first Port Clinton lighthouse was constructed along the banks of Lake Erie in 1828. This structure was built in 1896 and operated for over thirty years (via Port Clinton Lighthouse).
Port Clinton Lighthouse.
For centuries, the Great Lakes have been critical for maritime shipping. However, sailing a ship here has been a hazardous occupation: over 6,000 shipwrecks rest at the bottom of the Great Lakes. Nearly 2,000 of those happened on Lake Erie alone, the highest concentration of sunken vessels on any body of water in the world (via The Monroe News). Given the severe weather that can crop up on the Great Lakes, lighthouses played a critical role in helping to make maritime navigation safer for sailors and their cargoes.
2021 Honda HR-V parked in front of Home2Suites Hotel.
After a long day of driving, we settled into an early night at a Home2Suites hotel in Maumee, Ohio. We set our alarms early for another day of traveling!

Day 2: Ohio to Wisconsin

Map of central United States, with blue route running from Port Clinton, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin.
Our second day of travels would take us from Ohio to Wisconsin, with an unexpected, fun stop in Indiana. Another four hundred miles in the books on this road trip adventure!
Four mini waffles in waffle maker.
Nothing like starting your day with make-it-yourself waffles! Fueled up on a free hotel breakfast, we were ready to set off for our first destination.
I-80 with WELCOME TO INDIANA sign on side of road.
A little more than an hour after departing Ohio, we entered Indiana – another state crossed off our list! 
Exterior of Indiana Dunes National Park.
As we passed through the city of Gary, Indiana, a sign for Indiana Dunes National Park caught our eye. Checking the clock and doing some quick mental math, we estimated that we were far enough ahead of schedule that we could take a detour. Admission is $25 per vehicle, but when we were in Shenandoah National Park in May, we purchased a yearly National Park pass that covered our entrance. Money well spent!
Trail leading up dunes.
After speaking to Rudy, one of the rangers at the visitor center, we headed to the West Beach section of Indiana Dunes, where we could enjoy a picnic lunch and then hike to the top of the dunes.
Indiana Dunes with view of Lake Michigan.
Spread out over 15,000 acres along the southeastern shores of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes was first established as a state park in the early 20th century. It was established in 2019 as the 61st National Park in the United States (via Wikipedia).
Photo of Dunes with Lake Michigan in background.
The sand at the dunes was found to be ideal for glass manufacturing, and so for much of its history in the 19th century, dune sand was removed for glassmaking. Indiana residents, concerned for the loss of unique plants and trees among the dunes, led the push to make the area a state (and then later, national) park.
View of Chicago in distance from top of dune.
After a hot (and sweaty) hike through a sandy path and then up a large wooden staircase, we arrived at the top of one of the dunes. We had a clear view of Lake Michigan, and could even see the skyline of Chicago in the distance. We enjoyed our time at the park, but we had more destinations on our itinerary.
2021 Honda HR-V parked in front of Indiana Dunes National Park sign.
Before setting off for Wisconsin, we did make a quick stop for a mandatory “car selfie” with the HR-V.
WELCOME TO CHICAGO sign over highway.
Apparently, there is no “Welcome to Illinois” sign on I-80… I guess when you’re a city as big as Chicago, you get top billing to welcome visitors.
Roadside welcome sign to Wisconsin along I-94/90.
After fighting through miserable Chicago traffic, we encountered clear sailing as we crossed into Wisconsin!
Visitor Center for Olberich Botanical Gardens.
Previously, I had only passed through the city of Madison, so my wife decided that we should spend a little time exploring the Wisconsin state capital. Our first stop was to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Established in 1952, Olbrich is a 16 acre botanical garden on the shores of Lake Monona in Madison.
Stone tower outside of Rose Garden.
The entrance to the Rose Garden was inspired by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose “Prairie-style architecture” is considered the first truly American architectural design philosophy.
Chive flowers in bloom.
Although we didn’t have enough time to explore the entirety of the gardens, we did enjoy our walk through the Rose Garden, examining all the plants in bloom, such as these chives.
Orange and yellow lily.
The gardens were established in the 1950s by Michael Olbrich, a politician and conservationist from Madison. The gardens are now jointly managed by the city of Madison and a non-profit organization (via Wikipedia).
Sunflowers against blue sky.
Olbrich Gardens seek to preserve and display the trees, plants, and flowers native to the Midwest, and to do so in an ecologically-friendly way, avoiding excess use of water or pesticides.
Group of sunflowers facing skyward.
While there is a minimal fee for visiting the indoor conservatory ($6 for adults, $3 for children ages 6-12), admission to the outdoor botanical gardens is completely free. I’d love to return when we have more time… but after an hour wandering the gardens, it was time to head to our next destination!
Sandwich board with menu at Lake Edge Seafood.
On our way to Olbrich, my wife spotted a seafood restaurant in a strip mall. Doing a little research, she discovered that it had rave reviews, and so we decided to try Lake Edge Seafood, located along the shore of Lake Monona.
Scallops, green beans, and slaw mix on plate.
Lake Edge is a seafood market that also offers some amazing in-house (or takeout) dining options. We started with an order of calamari and a Caesar salad (both delicious!). For our dinners, I devoured a Southwest Smoked Salmon Wrap (salmon, petite greens, bacon, and avocado, on a sun-dried tomato wrap). As good as my sandwich was, my wife had the best meal of the night: seared scallops with green beans and coleslaw (pictured). I am admittedly a Jersey Shore seafood snob, but Lake Edge was as good as anything I’ve eaten along the Atlantic coast.
Wisconsin State House, with flowers and statue in foreground.
Our next stop was downtown Madison and a visit to the Wisconsin State House.
State Street in Madison, WI.
We then ambled down State Street, a shopping, dining, and commercial district within the city. Filled with independent shops and plenty of good restaurants, it caters to locals, University of Wisconsin students, and tourists alike. My wife and I grabbed some dessert at Kilwen’s, a local chocolatier, before heading back to our hotel. I would definitely be interested in returning to Madison and exploring more in the future!

Day 3: The House on the Rock

Map of Wisconsin, with route from Madison to House on the Rock to Baldwin.
The third day of our trip would represent the least amount of driving so far – less than three hundred miles to our next major stopover. Along the way, however, we would stop at the greatest/strangest/coolest/weirdest tourist attraction I have ever visited.
Rural two-lane road in Wisconsin.
Country road, take me home… we departed our hotel in Madison and headed westward to our big stop for the day: The House on the Rock.
2021 Honda HR-V in front of sign that says THE HOUSE ON THE ROCK
After an hour drive, we arrived in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to explore one of the oddest attractions I have ever visited.
Exterior of The House on the Rock visitor center.
Built in 1959, The House on the Rock was the sole vision of Alex Jordan Jr, a wealthy local man who spent much of his adult life creating a complex that’s part museum, part amusement park, and part nature center. After showing our tickets in the Visitor Center, we began our tour.
Display of Alex Jordan Jr's library.
The tour begins with the story of Alex Jordan Jr’s life, along with how The House on the Rock came into existence. Mr. Jordan was a deeply private man, which is even reflected in the exhibits about the history of the complex. For instance, Gladys Walsh, business manager for The House on the Rock, has a larger display (pictured) than exists for Mr. Jordan’s life story.
View of Japanese-style garden.
Alex Jordan was fascinated by Asian art and architecture. For instance, the beginning of your tour takes you through a Japanese-style garden.
Interior room of The House on the Rock.
After climbing a wooden covered bridge, you enter the House, a Japanese architecture-inspired house built atop a 200-foot tall chimney rock. The house was designed as Jordan’s private retreat, a place for him to study, learn, and develop his art. The House exists as it did during his lifetime.
Interior view of Infinity Room.
One of the most noteworthy features of the House is the Infinity Room, a cantilevered room that extends over 200 from the house, jutting out high above the forest below.
View of Infinity Room, with glass floor showing trees below.
I was doing fine until I reached the glass panel in the floor and could see how far below the trees looked. Fear of heights, activate!
Photograph of Infinity Room at House on the Rock.
After we had walked back into the house, my wife pointed out a display that included a photo of the Infinity Room. I was very happy she waited to show me what the room looks like until after we had exited it. Gulp.
Collection of ceramic eggs and Chinese figurines.
After several years of existence, a clamor grew from people who wished to visit the house and were willing to pay money for admission. Reluctantly, Jordan allowed visitors, and the money collected was used to create a complex of buildings to display his growing collection of memorabilia, tools of various trades, and mementos of US and world history.
Room filled with musical instruments.
We wound our way through seemingly countless rooms, all filled with various objects, and arranged in ways that I can only describe as whimsical. Several rooms, such as this one, contain instruments that play on their own. For a small fee, visitors can purchase tokens which, when inserted into a slot, will cause instruments, figurines, and models to come to life. Inserting a token in this room causes you to receive a concert from the self-playing instruments. 
Storefronts in Streets of Yesterday exhibit.
In “Streets of Yesterday,” visitors walk through a simulated Main Street of a turn of the 20th century American town. Each storefront displays the objects and tools of the trade for varying professions.
Interior of barber shop.
Need a haircut? The barbershop in the Streets of Yesterday looked ready for business.
Steam-powered tractor under lighted marquee.
This steam-powered tractor was one of several steam engine vehicles on display.
Model steam locomotive.
The museum had steam engines of all sizes… including this fully functional, hand-made, steam-powered model locomotive!
Diorama of giant squid attacking a whale.
The centerpiece of “Heritage of the Sea” is an enormous diorama of a Giant Squid and a whale fighting one another.
Giant whale with open mouth in middle of exhibit hall.
The sheer scale of the exhibits is astounding. The four-story tall whale is the same length as the Statue of Liberty. For a sense of scale, if you look closely, you can see people along the far wall.
RMS Titanic model with iceberg.
A 20-foot long model of the RMS Titanic was also in the gallery, captured as it collided with an iceberg.
Classic car in front of European-style house.
The Tribute to Nostalgia allows visitors to step into a three-story tall gallery of life in the first half of the 20th century. Of course, the centerpiece for me was this 1930s Packard coupe.
Collection of antique and classic cameras.
The Tribute to Nostalgia also had a small camera shop, filled with classic and antique cameras – absolutely fascinating!
Cafe, decorated like cafe in the 1930s.
The tour takes you through the cafe… although the bratwurst smelled delicious, I resisted the temptation to have one (or a slice of pizza, which smelled equally divine), as we were passing through around 10:00 in the morning!
Red room lit with lightbulbs.
As the tour progressed, the rooms became increasingly more surreal… like something from a dream. Or a nightmare.
Red room with instruments and large chandelier.
The House on the Rock has captured the imagination of many, including author Neil Gaiman, whose 2001 fantasy novel American Gods features The House as a place of mystical power.
Room with red light, illuminating Chinese lanterns, statues, and musical instruments.
Fanciful, ominous, eerie, whimsical, foreboding… I started to run out of adjectives to describe what my eyes were seeing.
Circus figurine and miniature models of circus acts.
Two stories of the museum were devoted to a miniature circus.
Knights in armor fighting on battlefield.
A life-size diorama of knights fighting in battle? Sure, the museum had that too.
Chandelier and view of organ room.
The Organ Room features 11 pipe organs and five antique whiskey stills. Plus, an enormous chandelier.
Statue of woman and lion, with red chandeliers above.
The museum was a great test of my camera’s low-light performance and color accuracy. Nearly a year-and-a-half since I purchased it, my Canon EOS 5d Mark IV continues to impress.
Carousel in red light.
Aside from the House itself, the centerpiece is the carousel, one of the largest in the world. It features 269 animals, 20,000 lightbulbs, and 182 chandeliers (via Wikipedia). Interestingly, there are no horses on the carousel – it is filled with tigers, mermaids, fawns, and countless other creatures.
Lion carousel animal.
In the fantasy novel American Gods, the carousel in The House on the Rock was a secret gateway to another dimension. I believe it.
Skyscrapers and a boat floating in the air on a balloon.
The guide suggests allowing yourself 2-4 hours for a thorough tour. We did it in about two-and-a-half. One note – while there are very few steps, the tour does involve a lot of walking, so dress comfortably.
Whimsical flower pots at exit from museum.
Exiting the museum, we made our way through the Japanese Garden and headed to the parking lot. Onto our next destination!
View of construction zone on I-94.
Our final stop was to visit with relatives near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. The drive mostly uneventful, although I did learn that there are two seasons in the Midwest: winter and road construction.
Entrance to Black River Valley Scenic View.
After several hours of driving, we stopped at the Black River Valley Rest Stop along I-94. Spotting signs for a scenic view, we thought we’d check it out.
Paved path through woods.
Most roadside scenic views are visible from the car. Expecting something similar, we began following the trail. We walked. And walked. And walked…
Wooden footbridge through park.
…and walked some more. The paved path continued to snake upwards, eventually turning into a wooden footbridge. The trail was almost a half mile uphill climb – talk about an unexpected workout!
View of Black River Valley.
Fortunately, the view from the top was beautiful – absolutely worth the exercise (and sweat) it took to get there. Legs properly stretched, we set off for our last destination of the day.
Car odometer reading 2442 miles.
Arrived! We pulled into our relative’s driveway with the little HR-V now at 2,442 miles – over 1,300 since our departure. The HR-V will get a bit of a break over the next few days, as we will mostly be around the Twin Cities area before the next leg of our journey.

Wrapping Up

States Visited: NJ, PA, OH, IN, IL, WI

Miles: 1,367

Average fuel economy: 31.4 mpg

Average speed: 57 mph

What a fantastic start to our summer road trip adventure! Our drive westward was filled with great food, unexpected adventures, (highly!) memorable tourist attractions, and lots of great memories. The next leg of our journey will see us heading south, following the Mississippi River, so stay tuned!

Thanks, as always, for coming along on another adventure down the open road ahead.

‘Til next time.

 

12 thoughts on “The Great American Road Trip (Part I)

  1. The House on the Rock looks incredible! Hard to tell the vastness of the museum from pictures. I want to go see it.

    Have a safe and enjoyable trip!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow-The House on the Rock was so fascinating! I think your adjectives described it well. And your camera did a great job photographing it. Looking forward to hearing more about the Magic Seat feature!

    Liked by 1 person

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