Thoughtful reflections on his recent cross-country bike ride across the United States from New York Times writer, Bruce Weber…
Among other things, my path through the nation has made me far more conscious and appreciative of the nation. I’m not just speaking of the scenic highlights, though the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, Glacier National Park in Montana, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park in Minnesota, and the Great Allegheny Passage, where the fall colors were on vivid, spectacular display, are enough to make a patriot out of a cynic.
This was an American journey by a New Yorker who became more American as he went along. By virtue of absorbing almost 4,000 miles of thrilling landscape, inch by inch, I learned more about topography and how it figures in the identities of thousands of localities and millions of Americans than I had ever understood.
Is there any way for a cyclist, especially one from a vertical metropolis, not to be awestruck by northern Montana? It took me two weeks to cross its vast expanse, from the dauntingly magisterial Rockies in the west to the endless, wind-whipped flatland of the east, where the towns are dots on the highway dozens of miles apart, pulsing on the prairie like blips on a colossal oscilloscope.
Weber’s musings remind me of our recent cross-country journey by car. Like Weber my husband and I were 57 years old and having experiences that sometimes reminded us of that. Yet like him we moved through those times and felt the reward of having done so.
“Experience, travel – these are as education in themselves” ~ Euripides, Greek playwright, c. 480-406 BC. In the ancient tradition of traveling across lands, I find myself stimulated and curious to learn about each area we are driving through or stopping to visit as we traverse the country.
Sitting with our friends on their balcony this first evening in downtown Cincinnati, watching the barges maneuver past each other on the river, we start talking about the Ohio River’s history. During the Civil War the Ohio River, which forms the southern border of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, was part of the border between free states and slave states. “Sold down the river” was a phrase used by Upper South slaves, especially from Kentucky, who were shipped by way of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. On the flip side, before and during the Civil War, the Ohio River was called the “River Jordan” by slaves crossing it to escape to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad. Some research reveals that more escaping slaves, estimated in the thousands, made the perilous journey north to freedom across the Ohio River than anywhere else across the north-south frontier. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, portrayed such escapes across the Ohio and fueled abolitionist work.
Cincinnati is home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located at 50 East Freedom Way. Their mission is to reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.
And while we are on the topic, for those of you who are bicyclists, The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR) honors the bravery of those who fled bondage and those who provided shelter. The route passes points of interest and historic sites along a 2,008-mile corridor. Beginning in Mobile, Alabama – a busy port for slavery during the pre-civil war era – the route goes north following rivers through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Waterways, as well as the North Star, were often used by freedom seekers as a guide in their journeys to escape slavery. Upon crossing into Ohio, the route leaves the river to head toward Lake Erie and enters Canada at the Peace Bridge near Buffalo, New York. In Ontario, the route follows the shores of Lake Ontario and ends at Owen Sound, a town founded by freedom seekers in 1857.
Now, back to Cincinnati. Our friend, Judith Serling-Sturm, is a book artist and hand binder who has her studio in the Pendleton Art Center. Judith creates custom books – designing covers with leather, textiles, and artisan-made papers from around the world. Visiting her studio we are fascinated by the exposed bindings and book covers embedded with natural elements, semi-precious stones, and found objects.
Built in 1909 for a shoe company, the Pendleton Art Center is now home to over 200 artists. As we walk up the stairs to the eighth story, the building’s history is revealed in the original pine floors, tall arched windows, ancient radiators and fine old doors. Visitors are welcome to studio walks on the Final Friday of each month from 6 to 10pm.
Never missing an opportunity to eat, we head to Findlay Market for lunch. In operation since 1855, this is Ohio’s oldest continuously operating public market. First stop is Pho Lang Thang for a bowl of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), and then a cruise around the market checking out the many year-round merchants. Meat, tea, cheese, gelato, wine, fish and seafood… at Colonel De’s we find Raz Al Hanout, a Moroccan blend of spices that Jay enjoys cooking with… and at Dean’s Mediterranean Imports we buy a delicious Fig jam with sesame seeds and anise seed. Dojo Gelato seriously tempts us as we leave the market but still full from lunch and with dinner reservations at Lavomatic Cafe we walk on by.
Next, knowing Jay’s love of music, Judith takes us over the Roebling Suspension Bridge to Covington, Kentucky to visit Cymbal House. Located at 524 Main Street in downtown Covington. As you can see in the photo this is a gorgeous, highly efficient space. We walk in as a well-seasoned local jazz musician is carefully listening to various cymbals.
The owner is very friendly and explains to me that the size of the cymbal affects its sound, larger cymbals usually being louder and having longer sustain. Heavier cymbals (measured by thickness) have a louder volume, more cut, and better drum stick articulation. Thin cymbals have a fuller sound, a lowered pitch, and faster response. The jazz musician tells us he will be performing just down the street from Cymbal House at Chez Nora – A Rooftop Terrace Bar and Jazz Club. They offer live music five nights a week and spectacular views of downtown Cincinnati and the scenic Ohio River.
For dinner we drive to Over-the-Rhine, sometimes shortened to OTR, a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States. Over-the-Rhine was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and contains the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States. Its architectural significance has been compared to the French Quarter in New Orleans, the historic districts of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, and Greenwich Village in New York City. Besides being a historic district, the neighborhood has an arts community that is unparalleled within Cincinnati.
Our destination is Lavomatic Cafe, an urban wine bar and restaurant. Blessed with a beautiful evening we chose the rooftop patio for dining. Several of us start with the Seasonal Soup – Gazpacho – made with fresh, local tomatoes and seasoned with smoked paprika. Divine. For dinner, Judy & Peter both chose the Bruschetta Salad with Shrimp, Jay has the Grilled Caesar with Salmon (served with a house bleu cheese dressing), and I decide on the Duck Confit Salad. All delicious and totally enjoyed with a chilled bottle of white wine recommended by our server.