For residents of both coasts, the heart of America is a mysterious checkered terrain seen from a plane window on a clear day, but for anyone who takes the time to visit, there's a wonderful world of surprises.
Following the tune by Leonard Bernstein but changing the Comden and Green lyrics, we trill, "Why oh why oh why oh, why would you ever leave Ohio?" as we drive from Hungarian hot dogs and pickles at Tony Packo's Café Toledo along a route strewn with calories (Amish cheese shops, Waynesville sauerkraut, pies from Henry's Sohio in West Jefferson) to Cincinnati's Skyline Chile parlors far to the south.
Ohio is home of the fantastic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the state where Humphrey Bogart married Lauren Bacall and sophisticated Manhattan crooner Ted Lewis ("Me and My Shadow") grew up in the modest town of Circleville. Native son James Thurber is commemorated in Columbus, world traveler Lowell Thomas and straight shooter Annie Oakley share a home town museum in Greeneville, Warren G. Harding came back to rest forever in his long-time residence of Marion, and space aliens masquerading as the Solomon family settled in the mythical town of Rutherford in TV's 3rd Rock from the Sun.
The heartland is where you go to tour RV plants, ride antique carousels, visit recreations of pioneer towns and historic farms, eat dinner at an earlier hour than you thought possible (some down-home restaurants close at 8 p.m.) and rediscover yourself in a friendly, easy-going atmosphere where life is simpler and richer.
RVing in the Heartland
This part of the Midwest is generally RV-friendly. Back roads are usually well marked with a fairly good surface, except in Iowa, where many of the county roads are still unpaved.
While we'd hesitate to call Midwestern drivers slow, some of them do move more deliberately than east and west coast drivers.
Road Trip Route
From Indiana, you can cross into southern Ohio to Dayton, then south to Cincinnati, east via to the Serpent Mound to Portsmouth on the Ohio River, and along the river to Huntington, West Virginia. From Huntington, head north toward Chillicothe, detour east into the Hocking Hills, then drive northwest via Circleville into Columbus. From here, go due east into Zanesville, where a museum salutes our National Road, then north to Coshocton, and on to Cleveland. Turn west from Cleveland and follow a southwest route to Mansfield and Marion, then drive north again to Toledo. The Ohio route covers about 1,000 miles, of which you can pick and choose any part to follow, or go for the long haul.
When to Go--Summer months are the prime season here, but that's also when the locals go driving, camping and sightseeing. We've traveled the area in May, when there is a chance of rain some days but temperatures are mild, and in late September and October, which is practically perfect. Freak weather conditions called "the lake effect" can create unusual snow and ice storms, especially in autumn, in the lakeshore areas (like Lake Erie).
What to Take--If you've packed your RV properly, you should have everything you need for the heartland. We have also flown into St. Louis and rented a Rialta camping van locally, then pulled into a bargain-priced variety store and bought inexpensive bedding, reusable plastic dishes and a couple of pots and pans.
What to Wear--Clean and decent is the rule for summer clothing in the Midwest. Modest shorts and T-shirts pass muster for the whole family on a hot day, but if you stop to go to a local church or a nice restaurant, you might want a light cotton dress and lightweight long pants. When the fashion police aren't around, the male half of this duo may don a lightweight, short-sleeved jumpsuit on driving days.
Trimming Costs on the Road
Restaurant portions are generous in the Midwest, so when we stop to pick up a meal to go, we often buy one to share between the two of us if we don't want leftovers later.
Gas prices vary from state to state, so it's a good idea to exchange price information with fellow RVers who have just driven through the state you're headed for. We carry binoculars within reach to scan gas station price signs ahead so we can get in the correct lane to turn if we find a cheap price.
Farmers markets and roadside produce stands offer great buys on local fruits and vegetables in season.
Where to Get Travel Information
Stop at state tourist information offices located on interstate highways near the state borders. A blue tourist information sign is usually posted shortly after the signs welcoming visitors to the state. You can pick up armloads of free brochures from open racks.
If you want to amass material ahead of time so you can study it, contact the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism, PO Box 1001, Columbus, OH 43216-1001. tel. 800/282-5393, 614/466-8844, www.ohiotourism.com.
Driving and Camping Tips
Be cautious about weather. In tornado season, local TV stations usually run tornado warnings by county at the bottom of the screen throughout the warning period, so look up the name of the county you're in and the counties nearby when you stop for the night. If an alarm sounds, leave your motorhomes and proceed to the campground's designated shelter and remain until the alert is over.
The first time we ran into this on a dark and windy spring night in Bowling Green, we were having a candlelight dinner and listening to CDs instead of watching TV. We saw our fellow campers hurrying in singles and pairs toward the recreation center, and figured there was a bingo game or ice cream social. Not until the next morning did we realize there had been a tornado warning.
You can also run into heavy driving rain so powerful you should pull over (well off the roadway) at the first opportunity and wait it out.
On secondary and rural roads, particularly when they are narrow, exercise caution and drive slowly, because you may round a turn and find a large tractor, a horse-drawn Amish carriage or even a herd of dairy cattle crossing from the pasture to the barn in front of you. These roads are also famous for making sudden left or right turns at a property boundary.
Except for birding, the Midwest is light on wildlife viewing.
But you can find some good birding at Ohio's Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge on the shores of Lake Erie some 15 miles east of Toledo on state route 2 is home to massive flocks of migrating waterfowl in the early spring, plus nine miles of hiking trails open sunup to sundown each day.
The large pileated woodpecker may be seen or heard year-round in Milan Wildlife Area, Milan, Ohio, three miles off route 113 west of town.
America's largest concentration of ring-billed gulls visits Lake Erie's western basin each fall.
Southern Ohio: The Wright Stuff
Dayton, Ohio, has always been associated with flying. Wilbur and Orville Wright manufactured bicycles and later a heavier-than-air craft that stayed aloft under its own power for 12 seconds; their memorial is on route 444 overlooking Huffman Prairie where they tested later planes and trained pilots. The Carillon Historical Park at 2001 South Patterson Boulevard displays the 1903 Wright Flyer III, along with other historic artifacts, and the U.S. Air Force Museum (www.wpafb.af.mil/museum), Springfield Street at Gate 28B on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, has a vast collection of planes and exhibits relating to flight.
An early Wright bicycle given by the brothers to a boyhood friend, African-American poet Laurence Dunbar, is on display in Dunbar's home and museum at 219 North Paul Laurence Dunbar Street in northwestern Dayton. For information on all the Dayton attractions, contact the convention and visitors bureau, tel. 800/221-8235, www.daytoncvb.com.
A zigzag journey south to Cincinnati can take you through Waynesville, at the junction of US 42 and route 73, home of the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival (www.waynesvilleohio.com/Sauerkraut.htm) every October, where you can sample sauerkraut candy and sauerkraut pizza, and Lebanon, site of the historic Golden Lamb Inn (see "Take-Out Treats," at the end of this piece).
East of Dayton about 15 miles is the pretty little college town of Yellow Springs, at the junction of US 68 and highway 343. Two miles north of town on 68 is where the estimable Young's Jersey Dairy operates as a bakery, soda fountain, sandwich shop and ice cream store. Locals love the cow shake, an ultra-thick milk shake, and the bull shakes, the same as the cow with a big scoop of ice cream on top. If you're really hungry, order the King Kong Sundae. Open daily 6am-11pm. tel. 937-325-0629, www.youngsdairy.com.
We've always loved Cincinnati because when we were soap opera actors, our checks came from there; soap makers Procter & Gamble actually owned and produced many of the popular TV serials. And Mark Twain used to say he wanted to be in Cincinnati when the world ended since it was always 20 years behind the times.
Today, our favorite destination in Cincinnati is the Museum Center at Union Terminal (www.cincymuseum.org), The art deco railway station was erected in 1933, then restored magnificently in 1990 to house the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science and the Children's Museum. You can walk through the Ice Age, explore a limestone cavern inhabited by live bats, step onto a vintage steamboat from the Cincinnati Landing, even (if you're really brave) sample Skyline Chili in one of the Center's food court restaurants.
Try to see downtown's Fountain Square, used in the opening credits of TV's WKRP in Cincinnati; the riverfront Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Park; glass-canopied Krohn Conservatory's tropical rain forest and its Costa Rican butterflies (www.cinci-parks.org/parks/krohn/visitorcenter.html); the German-accented suburb of Covington, Kentucky, and its MainStrasse shops and restaurants; and the rare and exotic animals at Cincinnati Zoo (www.cincyzoo.org), termed the nation's "sexiest" zoo by Newsweek magazine.
Levi Coffin, known as President of The Underground Railroad, led some 3,000 slaves to freedom in the Cincinnati area; he lived within walking distance of the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. A downtown street is named for native son Pete Rose. Cincinnati Information: Convention and Visitors Bureau, tel. 800/CINCY-USA, www.cincyusa.com.
From here, head south on US 52 for a scenic drive along the Ohio River, pausing in Point Pleasant, where U.S. Grant was born, and Ripley, a notable stop on the Underground Railroad, where the home of prominent abolitionist and minister John Rankin is a state memorial. A visit to this house in 1834 inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Portsmouth, further east on the river, is the birthplace of cowboy film star Roy Rogers. The town's riverfront is lined with the Portsmouth Floodwall Murals, an awesome historical panorama of the town history from the prehistoric to the present.
A Detour Into West Virginia--A detour across the river to Milton, West Virginia, a suburb of Huntington, can net a bargain hunter some of the jewel-like glassware created by Blenko, one of America's greatest stained glass and art glass producers. Blenko was founded in Milton in 1922, and is open daily to allow visitors to watch artisans create beautiful vases. A factory store sells samples, including some "seconds" that have few if any visible flaws for as little as $10 each. Take exit 28 off I-64 20 miles east of Huntington. tel. 304/743-9081, www.blenkoglass.com.
If you choose to travel due east 50 miles from Cincinnati on US 50 instead of dropping south along the Ohio River, then turning south on route 73 at Hillsboro for another 15 miles, you would come to the famous Serpent Mound (www.ohiohistory.org/places/serpent), south of Hillsboro off 50 on route 73. Built by the Adena people sometime between 800 B.C. and 400 A.D., this sinuous earthwork is 1,348 feet long, but unfortunately, unless you're in a low-flying aircraft, you can't get the view that is depicted in most photographs. Climbing the viewing tower at the site does not allow a full overview. There is an excellent museum, however, and a walking path that lets you explore the perimeter of the mound. Theories abound as to how and why the mound was built, but our favorite was one put forth by a devout local minister who said it was built by God to identify Adams County as the Garden of Eden. Instead of an admission fee, there's a parking fee based on your vehicle--cars pay $4, motorhomes $8.
If you take scenic route 41 northeast to US 50 and turn right, almost at once you'll come into Bainbridge, where Dr. John M. Harris opened the nation's first dental school in 1828. Today it's a dental museum displaying old dental instruments, sets of false teeth and portraits of early "painless dentists." The museum is on the north side of US 50 at 208 West Main Street.
From here, follow US 50 to Chillicothe, center of the Hopewell Culture, which flourished between 200 B.C. and 500 A.D. To the north 19 miles via US 23 is Circleville, birthplace of jazz and pop singer Ted Lewis, whose big song hits included "When My Baby Smiles at Me" and "Just Me and My Shadow." With a battered top hat and a clarinet, the entertainer left Ohio for New York, where he appeared on the vaudeville circuit and on Broadway in the 1920 and 1930s. A small museum dedicated to the singer at 133 West Main Street is open on Friday and Saturday afternoons 1pm-5pm except holidays. tel. 740/477-3630.
After a number of visits to Columbus, Ohio's capital, we have begun to understand how Columbus-born James Thurber may have developed his quirky sense of humor. Famous for drawing clocks, wives and lugubrious dogs, he once wrote, "The clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus." The Thurber House (www.thurberhouse.org) where "the ghost got in" in one of his famous stories, is a restored 19th century house at 77 Jefferson Avenue where the New Yorker writer and editor lived during his college days from 1913 to 1917; one room is a gift shop selling his books and memorabilia.
Downtown Columbus has several blocks of elegant Greek Revival buildings, including the statehouse, as well as some off-the-wall historical locations such as the original Wendy's, displaying 25 years of hamburger history and still grilling burgers. Also downtown at the corner of East Town Street and Washington Avenue in Old Deaf School Park is The Topiary Garden, a replica in pruned shrubbery of Georges Seurat's classic painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with 50 topiary people, eight boats, three dogs, a monkey and a real pond to represent the Seine. Additional information at www.topiarygarden.org.
Out on the edge of town off I-71 at route 161 is American Whistle Corporation, the only factory in the country still making metal whistles; tours by appointment are $3 a person, but require a minimum of 15. (See if you can recruit a crowd; each participant gets a free whistle.) It's open Monday through Friday between 10am-4pm. tel. 614/846-2918, www.americanwhistle.com.
A large migration of Germans settled in Columbus before the Civil War and thrived until World War I, when a wave of anti-German sentiment that, along with the onset of Prohibition, closed down breweries, butcher shops and bakeries until the 1950s. Now the restored historic German Village has been recreated by a private foundation and celebrates the foods and drinks of Germany, along with seasonal festivals. It sprawls along Third Street and adjacent thoroughfares for more than 20 blocks. Irresistible for book lovers is The Book Loft at 631 South Third with 32 rooms of all-new books at bargain prices.
Visitor information is available from the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, tel. 800/345-4FUN, www.surpriseitscolumbus.com.
Near Zanesville, 56 miles east along I-70 or the parallel US 40, one museum salutes three different subjects--our national road, an Ohio-born writer of western stories and locally made art glass--in one building at 8850 East Pike, which is also US 40, in Norwich. This engrossing museum is open daily in summer except holidays, and open daily except Monday and Tuesday the rest of the year. Detailed dioramas trace the history of the National Road, first proposed by George Washington. The first part was built from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vidalia, Illinois, between 1811 and 1838. Conestoga wagons are on display, along with toll road signs and vintage vehicles. We follow the progress of travelers from early inns to early campers with tents and Tin Lizzies, then a panorama with a trolley, a biplane and Model-Ts. Another room houses a full-sized replica of Zanesville-born western writer Zane Grey's studio in Altadena, California, and the center of the museum showcases high quality art glass from Zanesville craftsmen. tel. 800/752-2602.
Campground Oases in Southern Ohio
Zanesville KOA, Zanesville, Ohio. From I-70, take exit 157 south to the traffic light at Old US 40, then follow signs to South Pleasant Grove Road, where you turn south for 3/4 mile. RVs longer than 35 feet cannot be accommodated, but there are shade trees and the location is convenient to the National Road Museum. Full hookups include electricity up to 30 amps. tel. 800/562-3390, 740/452-5025, www.koa.com/where/oh/35130.htm.
Hocking Hills State Park, Logan, Ohio. This scenic park is 12 miles south of town on state road 664, with 157 paved sites with 20-amp electrical hookups, a sanitary dump, restrooms and showers, playground and freshwater fishing. No reservations. Information: tel. 740/385-6165, www.hockinghillspark.com.
Buckeye Lake KOA, Buckeye Lake, Ohio. This campground is about 25 miles east of Columbus in an old lake resort town where Big Bands used to play at a lakeside pavilion. Take exit 129A from I-70 and drive south 11/2 miles on state road 79 to the campground. Maximum electrical hookup amperage is 50, and cable TV, dataports, miniature golf and firewood are available. Both pull-throughs and back-ins can accommodate big rigs. Reservations: tel. 800/562-0792, 740/928-0706, www.koakampgrounds.com/where/oh/35101.htm.
John Bryan State Park, Yellow Springs, Ohio. This lovely park near the college town of Yellow Springs is centered around the Clifton Gorge and Glen Helen nature areas and offers hiking trails easily accessed from the campground, picnic areas and a day-use parking lot. Large RVs should avoid the lower picnic area, however, since the road is narrow and winding with little turn-around space at the end. There no hookups (there are toilets, sanitary dump station and water taps) and campsites are unmarked. The rules require vehicles to park 16 feet or more apart. No reservations. Information: tel. 937/767-1274, www.dnr.state.oh.us/parks/parks/jhnbryan.htm.
Dayton KOA, Brookville, Ohio. From I-70 10 miles west of I-75, take exit 24 to exit 49N, then turn north and follow Wellbaum Road to the campground. The location is convenient to Dayton and the Air Force Museum, and has dataports at the campsites, a big swimming pool and a golf course nearby. Full hookups with electrical connections up to 50 amps are available, as is food service. Reservations: tel. 800/562-3317, 937/833-3888, www.koa.com/where/oh/35102.htm.
Fabulous Factory Tours
1. Longaberger Basket Factory, Dresden, Ohio. These finely handcrafted baskets can only be purchased through home party sales like Tupperware, but a tour of the factory ends in a gift shop where one style of basket called "tour model" costs around $30 (and where you can pick up materials on how to host your own home sales events). The modern plant covers 6 1/2 acres, but has no assembly line. Instead, each of the 2,200 basket weavers at work turns out his own baskets from start to finish, then signs each on the bottom. When we visited, the factory was making 35,000 baskets a day. Allow plenty of time for the tour, which is totally structured; no free spirits can wander about on their own. East of the plant, also on route 16, is the new Longaberger Homestead, a collection of replicas of early family homes and workshops, with retail shops and restaurants occupying various "rooms." The basket plant (called a "manufacturing campus") and Longaberger Homestead are on route 16 (at 5563 Raider Road) near Frazeysburg about 20 miles east of Newark. tel. 740/828-4000, Web site www.longaberger.com.
2. Harry London Quality Chocolates, North Canton, Ohio. This huge candy factory, largest in the Midwest, won't remind you of Willie Wonka, but with more than 500 varieties of chocolates and gourmet candies to choose from, you won't mind. Tours $2 adults, $1 seniors and youths take place Monday through Saturday 9am-4pm and Sunday noon-3:30pm except major holidays. Candy store hours, where you can mix and match everything for around $12 a pound, are 8am-6pm Monday through Saturday and noon-5pm on Sunday. Reservations required for tours. The factory and shop are located at 5353 Lauby Road, just off I-77 at exit 113; follow the signs. tel. 800/321-0444, Web site, www.londoncandies.com.
Take-Out (or Eat-In) Treats
1. Tony Packo's Café Toledo, Ohio. Fans of TV's M*A*S*H will remember Corporal Klinger reminiscing in seven different episodes about Tony Packo's in Toledo, the real home town of actor Jamie Farr, who usually ad-libbed the lines. Hot dogs, Hungarian sausages and pickles are big favorites with the locals. Located at 1902 Front Street in East Toledo on the banks of the Maumee River, the restaurant opens at 10:30am on weekdays, 11am on Saturdays and noon on Sundays, and stays open until 10pm or later, except Sundays, when it closes at 8pm. Call 419/691-6054.
2. Henry's Sohio, West Jefferson, Ohio. Pies are what people remember about Henry's Sohio at 6275 U.S. 40, along with the old gas pumps out front and the entrance through the former garage. Name your pie flavor--blackberry, strawberry, apple, rhubarb, chocolate and butterscotch creams--and it's usually on hand. Choices of a main dish before dessert offer the usual meat loaf, chili, hamburgers and ham and white beans served with cornbread. tel. 614/879-9819.
3. Golden Lamb Inn, Lebanon, Ohio. Voted Ohio's favorite restaurant by the readers of Ohio magazine, this venerable inn has hosted Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and ten American presidents, plus assorted ghosts, since 1803. While Dickens complained vociferously in 1842 about the inn not serving spirits, today you can enjoy the meltingly tender lamb shanks, fried chicken and fruit cobblers with a bottle of wine. Enjoy the ambiance by eating in; forget about take-out. Open for lunch and dinner and overnight lodging, 27 South Broadway in downtown Lebanon. tel. 519/932-5065
4. Skyline Chili, Cincinnati, Ohio. Skyline is a chain of some 60 chili joints around Cincinnati, but this isn't Tex-Mex or New Mexico chili--this is a strange combination of flavors that is, frankly, not to our taste. However, since we're obviously in the minority, this high-profile comestible has a place here. The basic dish is spaghetti topped with a soupy, cinnamon-spiked (but otherwise bland) chili. From here, the diner orders the dish three-way, four-way or five-way. A three-way adds cheese, a four-way a choice of diced onions or red beans and a five-way carries all of the above. Oyster crackers are served on the side, and locals are said to enjoy it with a glass of buttermilk. Whatever. Skyline has numerous locations in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, plus some outposts in Florida where, we presume, Cincinnatians have retired.
5. Saywell's Drugstore, in Hudson, Ohio, at 160 North Main Street makes its own chocolate syrup for its popular chocolate sodas, and turns out an egg cream even a native New Yorker would love. tel. 330/653-5411.