One of my favorite songs by the Cincinnati-based duo, “Over the Rhine,” begins with these lyrics, “Hello Ohio, The back roads, I know Ohio, Like the Back of my Hand.”
Up until the age of 12, I could relate to these words. Born in Columbus, I spent my elementary school years in Bowling Green in Northwest Ohio. We had family in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati and spent the 4th of July at my grandparents’ house on Lake Mohawk. When we returned to Ohio from road trips, we played the Ohio State fight song on our cassette player and sang along.
But by the time we moved to Minnesota in 1987, our only familial ties remained in Cleveland.
Nonetheless, the rest of my childhood and college years were spent in other small(ish) towns in the Midwest.
Which is why when Greg suggested we take a road trip this summer, I thought of the Midwest.
I realize the Midwest is not most people’s top vacation destination. In fact, when mentioning our trip to local friends, I got interesting responses. One friend said, “Nothing says vacation like Ohio.” Another said, “I’m sorry.”
Of course, when I qualified my explanation by saying we would end up in Chicago, they said, “Oh, Chicago is cool.”
Even my children were dubious. When I shared our plans with a fellow baseball mom from Kansas, she completely understood. I told Mitchell I finally met someone who got it.
He said, “That’s good Mom, because I don’t.”
By the time the end of June rolled around, I could hardly contain my excitement.
Our first stop was Cleveland to visit my mom’s sister, Aunt Laraine (Aunt Raine for short). We have been to Cleveland many times to visit her and my grandparents, but there is much we haven’t seen.
As is my typical M.O., I suggested we start our visit with a trip to an independent bookstore, Loganberry Books. Aunt Raine lives on the west side of the city and Loganberry is on the east side, but my family let me drag them to this delightful store.
My aunt and I walked in first, and Aunt Raine announced, “This is my niece Anne Garber, visiting all the way from Elizabethtown, Pa.” The bookstore was large, with a wonderful selection of new and used books stacked to the high ceilings.
Following our visit to Loganberry, we went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While Mitchell and Julia aren’t rock and roll enthusiasts, they both enjoy music and have been subjected to their parents’ choices for years. It turned out they were at great ages to visit.
Part of the enjoyment of the Rock Hall is simply admiring the building, designed by the same architect who created the Louvre Pyramid.
After the museum, we were famished. Greg suggested we go to B Spot, one of Michael Symon’s Cleveland restaurants.
B Spot is known for Burgers, Bologna, Brats, Beer, and Bourbon. The kids especially liked their Bad A** shakes. Mitchell got an apple pie bacon vanilla milkshake, which was surprisingly tasty. I loved my Hoppin’ Frog Shandy, and Aunt Raine declared her dinner the best burger she’d ever eaten.
We had to leave Cleveland early the next morning as we were planning to drive the entire distance to Milwaukee that day. When I suggested the Midwest road trip, Greg mentioned he wanted to go to Miller Park. As with Ohio, Milwaukee doesn’t sound like a vacation destination; however, I’d spent time in Wisconsin during college and became a fan of the state.
The route to Milwaukee from Cleveland consists of taking the Ohio Turnpike to the Indiana Turnpike to Chicago and then driving two hours north. I realized this was a perfect opportunity to stop in Bowling Green so the kids could visit my first hometown.
When I tell people I am from the Midwest, they often mention how flat it is. Well, it doesn’t get any flatter than BG. Most people see this as a drawback, but I love flat. Hills make me carsick, and the flat open country roads feel like home.
Our first stop was my old house. It didn’t look the same as I remembered, but as we drove the narrow roads, so many memories popped up.
Next, we visited my elementary school, which has grown, but was still recognizable. Some of the playground equipment is unchanged.
I had shared with Julia that when I was her age, a friend and I would walk from school to the library for German tutoring. On the way we stopped at a store called Ben Franklin for candy. Julia asked if we could stop there on this visit. I doubted the store was still there, but it is, and is now called Ben’s.
After lunch, we peeked in the town’s record store, Finders. The store is enormous. What was meant to be a short visit ended up as an hour-long browsing session. During that time, Julia and I walked to Flatlands, a coffee shop nearby, to use the bathroom. Out of politeness, I tried to purchase a cup of coffee. When they didn’t have my preferred roast, the barista insisted on giving me a free cup of coffee instead.
I basked in the Midwest hospitality. Thirty-two years later this place still felt like home.
Following one more stop at Ben’s for Buckeyes and other candy, we left town via the university. Greg admitted he hadn’t been thrilled with the stop-off, but it turned out much better than expected.
Once we left BG, we settled in for the arduous drive to Milwaukee. We arrived around 7 and showed up at Kegel’s Inn, a German restaurant in West Allis, where we stayed in an apartment above the restaurant.
Our only full day in Milwaukee started with a delicious breakfast at Blue’s Egg where we enjoyed an appetizer of monkey bread and caramel dipping sauce, a bananas foster latte, eggs Benedict and French toast.
Our relaxed demeanor gave us away, because the waitress said we “had the happy look of a family on vacation.”
In the afternoon we wandered through the shops in the Historic Third Ward, including the Milwaukee Public Market. We also walked along the lakefront, so I could show my children the beauty of Lake Michigan.
We then headed to Miller Park to watch the Brewers play the Mariners. For dinner, we ate some Wisconsin favorites – brats, cheese curds and custard. Unfortunately, the Mariners won, but we had a fun night, even Julia, who isn’t always a fan of baseball.
The next morning we drove to Chicago to sightsee and visit my high school friend and her family.
Julia was thrilled that our downtown parking spot was near the Nutella Café.
After a dessert-like lunch, we went to the Chicago Architecture Center for an architectural boat tour on the Chicago River. We finished our afternoon at Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park (see photo above).
Greg and Mitchell needed to fly to Pittsburgh the following day for a baseball tournament, so we couldn’t catch a Cubs game as we had hoped. We did, however, take a stadium tour of Wrigley Field.
A day later, Julia and I said goodbye to our Chicago friends and embarked on our girls’ road trip through Indiana and Ohio. After four bathroom stops, a license plate game, and lots of music and craziness, we arrived in Butler, Pa.
The baseball tournament was a bit of a letdown, with rainouts and losses.
Overall, though, our Midwest vacation was one of my favorites ever, much to the surprise of my doubting friends. And, we only touched the surface of the hospitable, picturesque middle states. Next up: Midwest Tour 2.0.