Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Praise of Side Trips

            A friend of ours used to take his wife and kids on long road trips and, no matter the distance, insisted on driving straight through without even stopping for rest rooms.  Don’t ask.  I’m the opposite.  Every road trip I plan has side trips:  take a hike, visit a sight, stop and shop, scope out an artist or discover a local restaurant.  Often they’re the best part.   

        Bookmark the website Roadside America and meet the country’s characters.  Thousands of odd sights include an alien welcome center, topiary sculptures and a button museum just in  South Carolina.  Driving cross-country to Michigan, the website led my niece and me to the fascinating Temple of Tolerance in an unassuming suburban neighborhood in Ohio. Jim Bowsher has turned his oversized backyard into a “retreat where people could feel accepted, especially young people.”  “Beat” greeted us and introduced his scruffily dressed friends who were gathered in one of the massive rock enclosures that Jim made from the hundreds of tons of rocks and millstones, lintels, urns and foundation blocks that he painstakingly hauled from farm fields.  Massive boulders became shrines and towers; some are buried upright like tombstones or formed into steps. A suburban
Stonehenge.  It inspires Beat to come at all hours to sit quietly and write.  We were lucky to meet Jim himself who boasted that his house is the only one where Jehovah Witnesses say, “OK, we’ve got to go now.” He excitedly asked, “What show would Shakespeare watch if he were alive?  Jerry Springer!  Dysfunction is where the drama is.”  Jim has dedicated years to helping prisoners publish their stories.  The Temple is his vision of a tolerant world.    He’s particularly proud of a former Klu Klux Klan step.  “I ask Black people to sit on the step so they can liberate it.”
            Roadside America also led us to the “A Wiggle In Its Walk”, a 14-foot high, 200-foot long series of serpentine arches, alleys and tunnels constructed from four tractor trailers of twigs and vines by artist Patrick Dougherty and volunteers in Wegerzyn Gardens near Dayton, Ohio.  It was a wonderful place to playfully wander, to stretch our legs and our imaginations. 

            Billboards for Berea, Kentucky attracted us off the highway to its small downtown chock full of artists’ studios.   Ken Gastineau created a pewter julep cup on his lathe while he told us “instead of the idea that the town should support the arts, the arts should support us.” Founded as an integrated community by an abolitionist minister, the town has thrived by making the arts its foundation.     
            On an Appalachian adventure we used the free directory and travel planner from the Blue Ridge Parkway Association.  If you’re driving near any of the Parkway’s 469 miles from North Carolina to West Virginia, you can get milepost by milepost ideas for nearby fishing, bicycling, camping, hiking, attractions and accommodations.  In Virginia, the guidebook led us to Peaceful Heart Alpaca Farm near mile marker 204 where the field was full of the cavorting furry animals.  In her workshop lined with blue ribbons, Sharla Willis told us how she and her parents had reinvented themselves from Ohioans to farmers by following Sharla’s love of knitting and the glimpse of an alpaca’s sweet face on television. We also stopped at Mabry Mill, one of the most picturesque spots on the parkway to learn about Appalachian history and farm life and to buy some souvenir grits.  With a little Google’ing we discovered that Grayson Highlands was on our route. A short hike led us to a beautiful herd of wild ponies that grazed peacefully while we took photos. 

            My most go-to travel resource is Tripadvisor where you’ll find reviews by real people about every destination.  Enliven a trip across the state by picking a small town on your route and putting it into their search engine.  You’ll get great advice on restaurants or attractions.  Going west?  How about world-class BBQ at Sweatman’s in Eutawville? Or take a walk in the astonishing biodiversity of Congaree National Park.  It’s only five miles off the interstate. Or tour the Newberry Opera House.  Driving south?  Share our favorite picnic spot under the Spanish moss-draped oaks at the Frampton Plantation House located right where you need a break before getting onto I-95 from Hwy. 17.  Heading north?  Take a breather at Brookgreen Gardens where the gorgeous flowers and sculpture will rejuvenate you. Surprise yourself with an exotic lunch at Redi-et Ethiopian Restaurant in Myrtle Beach.
            The trip starts when you pull out of the driveway, not at your destination.  You know the adage “the journey is the destination”?  That’s about side trips. 

If You Go
Roadside America for odd attractions
Blue Ridge Parkway Directory and Travel Planner:  828-670-1924

More photos are here:  Side Trips