Fashion writer Johanna Björk moves West, couchsurfing and eating good food the entire way.
Having lived on the East coast for eleven years, and New York City (NYC) for nearly five, I decided a few months ago that it was time to try out life in the West. Like many before me, I figured the perfect transition (and to get my car over there) would be to do a cross-country road trip. My man and I decided on the Northern route, mainly because it had less wildfires right around this time. To add a bit of a challenge to our trip, we decided that we would not eat in any mainstream chain restaurants or stay in any big-chain motels — only local mom-and-pop eateries (as healthy as we could find) and independent motels, or better yet, couchsurfing.
Day One: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio
We rolled out of the city around 10:30 on Labor Day morning. It was kind of sad to say goodbye to New York, a city that had been my home for such a long time, but by the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel, I was ready to go to greener, less crowded and stressful pastures.
A last look at the NYC skyline, seen from New Jersey.
We hit I-80 West and blazed through New Jersey, with “no stop ’til PA” as our motto, and we stuck to it. After a few hours our stomachs were growling for some lunch, but all we saw were rest stop signs for various fast food chains until Tannersville, where a small sign that said “Tandoor Palace” caught my eye. Tandoor Palaceturned out to be a restaurant, housed in an old train car outside a weathered Days Inn. The interior was part murky banquet hall and part colonial-era first class train car salon.We were lucky it was Labor Day, because there was a special buffet $12.95 for all you can eat Indian food, including naan bread and dessert. For a long-time New Yorker, this is a steal. Adding to our joy of finding Indian food was that besides us, there were about 80 (actual) Indian people there. “Must be really good,” we thought, as we filled our plates to the brim. It was very good, and the manager even gave us two cups of free coffee to take with us as we hit the road.
Eating well on the road is not easy, but sometimes you come across some pretty fantastic places, like Tandoor Palace.
All the way through Pennsylvania (which is a pretty wide state), we had a huge cloud of rainstorms looming above making this part of the trip less than joyful. Thankfully, I have been to Pennsylvania many times for work and have seen a lot of its picturesque countryside.
Rain and dark gloomy skies accompanied us all the way through Pennsylvania.
As we stopped for gas, it was starting to get dark, which meant it was high time to consider where we would spend the night. After some cheap motel searching that turned up nothing but Motel 6’s and expensive motels we decided to try out Couchsurfing. Neither of us had an account, so using my iPhone I signed up for one in the car and we started searching for couches in Cleveland, since that was the nearest major city.
We were both amazed at how many we found, and sent requests to a few of the ones that sounded like our kind of people. We had little hope, since it was fairly last minute (it was about 7:30pm and we needed a place for that same night), but just a short while later one of them called us back. The man on the phone, Steven, said that we were very welcome to come crash at his place, gave us recommendations for what neighborhood to go for some good food and said he and his wife would come join us for a beer.
Cleveland by night.
After a quick loop around downtown Cleveland we drove over a bridge adorned with two gigantic statues — it felt almost like they belonged in Lord of the Rings or that latest Thor movie — and took us to the West Side. This part of town used to be independent and called Ohio City, a name you still see used a lot. We found an open parking spot right next to a place called Market Garden Brewery. They brew beers in-house and grow their own produce in a garden out back. I ordered the wheat beer, which was delicious, and we split a market salad and three shrimp tacos.
The Market Garden Brewery in Ohio City. The large neon sign that says “BEER” may have helped to draw us in.
Dinner: a delicious, locally grown, salad.
Market Garden also brews many different kinds of beer.
Enjoying a delicious, house-made wheat beer. Life is good.
Our couchsurfing hosts showed up right as we had finished our meal, and we shared another beer. On our way back to their house, they took us by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since we would not have time to go, at least we had seen it from the outside. They lived in a place a few minutes outside town called Cleveland Heights. To our great joy, our bed for the evening was located on a sleeping porch, complete with Japanese ceiling lanterns. As we fell asleep to the soothing sound of crickets right outside the screened doors, I could not help but think that this, although my first, was definitely not my last couchsurfing experience.
Day Two – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa
We awoke to the smell of coffee, which was being freshly brewed in our hosts’ kitchen. After a cup or two and some good conversation, Steven took us to see the old knitting mill, where Ohio Knitting Mills, the heritage clothing company he is working to revive, was located. Awestruck by all the amazing textiles, we stayed a bit longer than our schedule really allowed, but it was definitely worth it. And I came away with a few great pieces of vintage (but never worn!) knits from the 1960s.
We began the day with a visit to Ohio Knitting Mills, an old heritage clothing brand that our Couchsurfing host is in the midst of reviving.
It was great to see the more industrial parts of Cleveland. It was obvious that this is a town where they like to make things.
Before hitting the highway, we stopped at Aladdin’s Baking Company, a Middle Eastern bakery (recommended by our host), to get some hummus, tabouleh and pitas for the road. Despite executing the utmost carefulness, I managed to spill everything I could possible spill on my tights and tank. That’s just a part of any road trip I guess. We blazed through the remainder of Ohio as well as Indiana, stopping only once for a rest room break and tea/coffee.
On the road again: The Ohio Turnpike, aka I-80/90, toward Indiana.
Indiana farm country.
Midway through Indiana we saw a big truck dousing a field of corn in pesticides — a grim reminder of the (non-organic) reality behind many of these vast fields that surround the highway on both sides.
Beautiful skies on the approach to Iowa City.
Before entering Illinois we passed by the exit for Gary, Indiana, the birth place of Michael Jackson. It was crazy to see the quaint two-lane highway we had been traveling on thus far turn into a full-on five-lane freeway as we got closer to Chicago. Thankfully we did not get stuck in traffic, and continued on through the entire state. We had our sights set on reaching Des Moines, Iowa before finding a room for the night. We only made it to Iowa City and in accordance with my “no chain hotels” policy, got a room at a small mom-and-pop motel. Unfortunately the rooms smelled like someone had been chain-smoking in there for about three decades, so we asked for our money back and checked in at the only other option around, a medieval-themed Best Western. Gargoyles greeted us at the gates and there was a small mote (with gold fish swimming in it) and a draw bridge at the entrance to the lobby. Come on, that’s pretty cool. Even if it happened to be a Best Western, it certainly wasn’t a mainstream one.
The Cantebury Inn, our medieval-themed home for the night.
Day Three – Iowa, Nebraska
After a late start, we again found ourselves driving through endless corn fields. I had a strong desire to stop the car and run through the corn rows to really embrace the being in the middle of America, but I figured the people around here might have guns and it would be best to resist.
Picturesque Iowa corn fields.
The monotonous corn-field driving-meditation was quickly interrupted when we were pulled over by a police car despite driving only about 2 mph over the speed limit (on cruise control). After being separately interrogated about who we are, what we do, where we are going and what’s in all those bags in the bag, we were let go with a warning. Still confused and startled (I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been interrogated by police), we came to the conclusion that we had been culturally profiled — two kind of hippie-looking people in a MINI Cooper with New York State plates, stuffed with suitcases.
Pulled over by the police in Iowa. Driving a MINI Cooper with New York plates and lots of luggage is apparently suspicious here.
After a few more hours we entered Nebraska, and even though I don’t eat steak I felt like a visit to an old school Omaha steak house was warranted. After some Yelp-ing, I found a place called The Drover, that had all kinds of people raving about the steaks and complaining about the decor being dated — perfect. The place turned out to be everything we had hoped for. Located behind some kind of hospital, the space was dark and looked like it had not changed at all since the early 70s — lots of dark wood and brick walls. There were several small rooms with about four tables each and another room that housed the bar. All the patrons seemed to be older locals or business men passing through.
The Drover in Omaha, Nebraska.
Great early 70s decor and whiskey-marinated steaks (if you’re into that kind of thing).
Since I don’t eat meat I decided to go with the mushroom burger but was sort of confused when the waiter asked how I wanted it cooked. “You mean you cook it different ways?” I asked, still not catching on to what was going on here. “Yeah,” he said, with the incredible patience of someone who caters to a lot of tourists, “you can have it well-done or more raw, up to you.” Finally the light went on in my head. This was not a mushroom burger as in veggie burger, but an actual hamburger with mushrooms on it. “Oh, so it’s a MEAT burger?!” I asked, instantly aware of how strange that sounded in an establishment such as this one. How funny it is that after living in New York for so long you just assume that every place like this has a veggie burger option, clearly it is not so in most parts of the country. The waiter kindly agreed to make me a baked potato with sauteed mushrooms on top, which I had with the (very well-stocked) salad bar. It was actually a very satisfying meal. The great thing about steak houses in that they usually have really good red wine, which was true in this case as well, and also meant that we would not drive any further today.
Enjoying a glass of great red wine and a baked potato with mushrooms, after realizing that a mushroom burger in these parts of the country is not what I think it is.
Tired and stuffed we used the Kayak app to find a (non-mainstream) hotel for the night and came across one called Carol Hotel that was in our price range (cheap as possible) and closeby. Something about the type looked strangely familiar and when we got there I realized that this used to be a Clarion Hotel and that the (very clever) new owners had chosen the name based on how they could scramble and reuse the letters in the neon sign on the facade. Very creative recycling.
The Carol Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska displayed some pretty creative reuse of neon signage.
As always when in hotel rooms, I fell asleep watching TV, happy that we were only halfway through our cross-country journey. 1,246 miles down, 1,626 to go.