This may be do-it-yourself etymology, but the word “trivial” must come from “trivium” the three lesser liberal arts – and “tri” just means the cardinal number 3. Anyway, some of you may already have guessed that I’m a little bit nerdy when it comes to americana. If I see a sign to “Roadside Americana” I must stop and check it out. So here’s some more trivial stuff. You can’t be serious all the time.
From Northfield to Oberlin I travelled through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But before leaving Minnesota I stopped in Lindstrom and Taylor’s Falls – well-known small towns for those who know about the Swedish author Wilhelm Moberg who was there in the 1950’s bicycling (as the story goes) around the countryside doing research for his four epic novels about Swedish immigrants. I then followed route-8 through Wisconsin and instead of enormous cornfields the countryside was more varied with mostly forests in fall colors, now and then opening up to small farms. The next day I crossed into Michigan and had a late breakfast consisting in three scrambled eggs, hash-browns, bacon and toast, lots of ketchup and coffee in the small town Norway. In the Upper Peninsula itself, nothing really happened until the road followed the great lake and all of a sudden I was on the Mackinaw bridge over the strait between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
On Sunday I spent four hours at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. Automobiles are actually just a part of the museum. There are sections on US history, inventions of all sorts, agricultural machinery, power generating technology, popular culture, furniture – odd things as the car Kennedy sat in that fateful day in Dallas (Can it really be that car? It was weird anyway to look at it) and the Rosa Parks bus from the Alabama civil rights struggles of the 60’s. They also had the chair Lincoln sat in when he was assassinated.
Oberlin was the cutest little town you can imagine – just two streets crossing – and that’s “downtown”. But such a concentration of nice little coffeehouses, shops and restaurants! This is clearly a college town with some students dressed to make an impression. I particular I liked the antiquarian bookshop. I bought a biography over Daniel Boone (18:th century pioneer into and beyond the Appalachians) and another one on the Louisiana purchase when Jefferson bought most of what’s west of Mississippi (except Texas and the southwest) from Napoleon.
From pictures in the Oberlin Inn lobby I learned that there had been interurban trains running into Cleveland. And there was a picture from the 20’s or something where you could see people boarding a tram (or trolley as they say here) at the street corner.
As you move towards the east, the scale of the countryside becomes smaller, more human, almost like Europe. I had picked out two small towns on the map: Minerva and Lisbon. They were both pretty – there was something 50-ish about them. In Minerva the rain was pouring down as I stopped for coffee – a lady at the table next who saw my camera asked me what I took photos of – I said I took photos of small towns and the countryside. I guess they don’t get that many tourists in Minerva (except perhaps from Mars – I got that impression from the way she looked at me). Lisbon was somewhat bigger and different – I saw a man in a suit an two women in smart dresses carrying umbrellas. Ah, such trivial observations.
For some reason I have always wondered what cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis could look like. To me they are the kinds of cities where you could imagine Clark Kent changing clothes in phone booth (or rather rip off his shirt and jacket – I always wondered what happened to the buttons). Anyway, I saw Pittsburgh – or at least its waterfront along the Ohio river with the hills on the other side. Then I got stuck in the rush hour traffic out of town and in the end I had to join the Interstate to get somewhere. There was a town called Somerset one hour down the line. That sounded promising for staying overnight – I thought of the British author Somerset Maugham.
But Somerset turned out to be a complete chaos of motels, gas stations, fast food places and roads – most of in a condition of being not yet in operation. The only motivation for this place to exist – I thought – was the fact that the next similar place further down the Interstate was 70 miles away. I went back to the small roads and soon was on route-20 again. It was dusk and no signs of anywhere to stay for the night.
After Pittsburgh I had not noticed that I was actually going up most of the time. Not until I came to signs saying “stay in low gear”. A big blue sign said Mount Ararat, elevation 2464 ft. Then the road opened to fantastic overview of the valley below. I must take back what I wrote about the scale of the country – this view was awesome. And it offered hope for the night. There must be places to stay after such a fantastic view. And there it was down in the valley – the Shawnee motel – run by a family: no smoking, no pets and no wi-fi. And for $42 it was the best motel yet. And there was a restaurant on the other side of the road with good food, nice service and German Octoberbeer. Back at the motel I sat down with my diary and a shot of Early Times 354 Bourbon. If someone had asked how my day had been, I would have answered “Not too bad, I’ve seen worse”.
In the morning mist was rising from the mountains and kids were waiting in the cold morning air along the road for the school buses. I had had no breakfast and needed coffee at least. I saw a small place with two old gas pumps that said OPEN so I turned around. There was no place to park along the road so I awkwardly had to stop on the driveway. Two men were talking and I asked the younger one if I could buy coffee. I couldn’t because this was really a museum and the OPEN sign was just part of the exhibition. He said it was run by his grandpa – the older guy, who shook my hand and asked if I wanted to see it.
It was a small house – like an old roadside coffee-shop and gas-pump of the 50’s, now crammed full of old radios, TV-sets, toys and all kinds of paraphernalia. He told me he renovated the stuff himself. The radios worked and had that warm electronic valve sound. He asked me if I remembered the Lone Ranger and started up two TV-sets in wooden cases.
He showed me his shop and when I asked him what he had worked with before retiring he said that had been stationed in Germany (I’m not quite sure if he also sad “Nam”) but when he came back he couldn’t get a job so he had started to renovate antiques and made good money out of that. Now he did it as a hobby and the museum itself was just two years old. A great guy and great place it was.
I then asked Honey to take me as fast as possible to Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia.