A Travellerspoint blog

December 2011

Columbus, Ohio

OHIO - PART II

sunny 30 °F

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Columbus is The Ohio State University. Maybe it is the number of times I have heard players emphasize the "The" when announcing their school on Monday Night Football. Regardless of the reason, it was our first stop when driving into Columbus.

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It reminded me a little of NC State, probably due to the color red that was everywhere. Students were on winter break when we arrived, so we didn't see many people walking around campus. I wanted to see the football stadium since it is one of the largest in the nation (Megan was more interested in finding a buckeye). The football stadium isn't the only large part to this campus, Ohio State has the third largest campus in the country. It took us a while to walk down to the football stadium.

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The stadium was pretty large, but the cool part was the river that passed right by the stadium. Across the river you could see the basketball arena. We rested our legs by leaning over the bridge and watching logs get trapped against the supports of the bridge.

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On the other side of the football stadium was a courtyard that had been planted with rows of buckeye trees. Apparently the first 22 were planted in a football formation, but all the others honored the top football players that had played at Ohio State. I took a picture of Megan looking for buckeyes that may still be remaining on the ground.

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We made our way back through campus to grab a quick bite to eat. The only restaurant that looked open was Wendy's, and they had the Bengals game on TV! I never get to watch the Bengals live in Raleigh, so we took our time with our bowls of chili to watch the game.

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Before the sun went down, we wanted to check out another section of town called German Village. As the name would suggest, German Village was originally settled by German immigrants. This area of town still has streets made of brick (with a trough in the middle for horse whiz and snow runoff). All the homes used traditional Christmas decorations. German Village was pretty, but the look comes with a steep price. A medium sized house was listed for over a million dollars!

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German Village has some traditional shops and restaurants as well. One restaurant in particular had caught Megan's eye on The Food Network's Man vs. Food for its Sausage Autobahn, an all-you-can-eat sausage buffet. German food mean German beer, so was I all for it. We stopped for dinner at Schmidt's Sausage Haus.

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Schmidt's was packed! Luckily we didn't have to wait for a table since we only had 2 people, but we got shot some dirty looks when we bypassed everyone in line upon checking in. After a quick glance at the menu, we both decided on the Sausage Autobahn. Schmidt's makes 4 types of homemade sausage along with a large variety of other traditional German foods, and it all looked delicious (I hadn't seen German food this good since we were in Sheboygan). While I took my time trying to get a little of everything, Megan took off at 100 mph down the Sausage Autobahn.

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After multiple returns to the buffet, I couldn't even look at another sausage. Unfortunately for me, Schmidt's has another delicious tradition—giant creme puffs. These creme puffs took two hands to eat and were jam packed with different flavors of creme, and they were fantastic!

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We ordered one extra creme puff as a gift for our Couch Surfing host in Columbus. We left Schmidts (slowly since we were so stuffed) and headed back through downtown. Our host for the night, Tom, wanted to meet us at a local bar near his house. Just like James (our Cleveland host), Tom was easy to talk to and had a ton of stories to tell us about Columbus. I talked to Tom about life in Raleigh and Cincinnati while Megan slowly drifted into a sausage-induced coma. After a couple of beers, we headed back to the house and crashed for the night. Tom was such a great host that he went late to work the next morning to take us out to breakfast at a diner around the corner from his house.

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The real reason for our trip to Michigan/Ohio was the Columbus Zoo. Megan knew that I absolutely love zoos and discovered that the Columbus Zoo is one of the highest rated zoos in the world (largely because of the work of director "Jungle Jack" Hanna). When Southwest offered $100 tickets to Columbus (I guess people don't like flying north in the middle of winter), it sounded like an awesome opportunity. We said goodbye to Tom and made our way to the zoo.

Despite the zoo's popularity, it was empty on Monday morning (I'm sure the sub 30s temperature didn't help either). We had the zoo to ourselves. Unfortunately, many of the outdoor exhibits were closed for the season, so we had to observe the animals in their inside enclosures.

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The zoo was pretty large, but it didn't seem too much larger than some of the other zoos I had visited. What made the Columbus Zoo so nice was the extensive detail put into all the enclosures. The aquariums were stunning and enormous. The reptile house and bat house were made to accommodate large groups of people. The manatee enclosure made me feel like I was standing on a dock in Florida.

Some of the more active animals were the gorillas and bonobos (a primate that looks similar to a chimpanzee). We were able to stand right next to the gorillas (they were eye level and only separated by a pane of glass). Two younger gorillas wrestled on the ground while the large male occasionally broke up the fighting. He also gave Megan a look when she sat down next to him!

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The bonobos had just been fed when we walked by their enclosure, so they were very active. Their enclosure looked like an elementary school playground, filled with slides and monkey bars. It was astonishing to see how quickly and easily they climbed around the enclosure (sometimes scaling the walls using only the tiny bolts that secured the glass). One bonobo was playing with a spinning seat by throwing objects into the seat and spinning it around until they went flying out. Even the baby was playing around by going up and down the slide.

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We wandered through the Australian animals, the African animals, and the South American animals, but about half of these exhibits were closed or could only view the animals indoors. The real action was in the North America section which had all of its outdoor exhibits still open.

We saw a wolverine lounging in a hole, bald eagles eating mice, and an arctic fox chewing on its enclosure. These animals were all very active, moving around their enclosures and playing.

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There are too many animals to even try to name all the ones we saw. Deer, bison, reindeer, wolves, foxes, antelope, goats, pigs—the list goes on and on. Megan did her best to look Canadian by posing with a moose holding her Tim Horton's coffee.

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The bears were some of the scarier exhibits. The polar bear was big, but it was nothing compared to the grizzlies that were sleeping up against the glass. These things were gigantic! After seeing these guys, maybe I should have been a little more nervous on our early morning hike in Glacier National Park!

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We spent nearly 6 hours walking around the zoo, and that's with no lines and some of the exhibits closed. I'm sure Megan was getting tired of me spouting off my ancient Ranger Rick knowledge (for those that don't remember Ranger Rick, it was a kid's animal magazine). Despite our tired legs and Megan's tired ears, we enthusiastically entered the last animal house. We had saved a special treat for last, the elephants (there was a baby elephant).

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I could have spent another whole day at the zoo, but we had to leave. Our flight back to Raleigh was leaving in a couple of hours. Sausages and animals, I don't know if I could have asked for more.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 12:30 Archived in USA Tagged animals beer colleges local_food Comments (0)

Cleveland, Ohio

STATE 27 - OHIO

sunny 30 °F

After seeing Lake Michigan while walking around Chicago and drinking beer in Milwaukee, I was eager to see my second Great Lake, Lake Erie! Megan and I are off to Cleveland!

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I kept going to Cleveland a secret. My family in Cincinnati and friends in Pittsburgh would give me grief about making a special trip to see Cleveland. Cincinnatians and Pittsburghers see little reason to visit Cleveland, whether the reason comes from basic city pride or from their hatred of rival sports teams. Personally, it felt weird that I lived in Ohio and still return to the state multiple times a year, but had never ventured outside the southwest corner of the state where Cincinnati is located. It was time to see whether all the anti-Cleveland bias was warranted.

Being wintertime, it was dark as we drove into the city. I was surprised that Cleveland didn't have a larger skyline, it seemed like only a couple of tall buildings stood by themselves. The traffic was light, and it wasn't too difficult to find street parking downtown. For several years now, Flintosh, my next door neighbor, has tasked me with transporting beer from a Cleveland brewery (purchased in Pittsburgh) back to Raleigh. Great Lakes Brewing Company makes a seasonal Christmas Ale, a strong and spicy beer that is absolutely delicious. Our first stop was the Great Lakes Brewing Company for a couple of pints.

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We arrived just in time to watch Indiana take on top ranked Kentucky, and it is hard to beat drinking beer while watching college basketball. The bar was lively, and soon it was standing room only. After sampling several of the brewery's beers, we had to leave to meet our "host" for the evening.

One of the challenges Megan and I face when traveling is getting the "authentic experience". I read the entries on WikiTravel and other people's travel blogs, I do research on TripAdvisor, and sometimes I can find relevant articles in my travel magazines. I like museums, but only when they talk about topics unique to the city or state. I steer clear of touristy destinations, like shopping or high-scale dining, or even worse, the dreaded tourist trap. I want to experience the city like a resident does; local food, local beer, and local activities. On this trip, Megan and I are trying something totally new—Couch Surfing.

The idea behind couch surfing is that you connect with a local resident by sleeping on their couch (or extra bed if they have one). Your host can help you plan activities or take you around town if they are available. You don't have to sleep on someone's couch to get travel tips, as CouchSurfing.org offers forums and groups to gain extra information. Megan was not sold on the idea of staying in a stranger's house, but she agreed to at least try it out.

Our host wanted to meet us at a local favorite in Cleveland, Melt Bar & Grill. Upon arriving at the restaurant, we met James and waited for a table to become available. I had pleaded with Megan to act cool and stop freaking out, and I could see her start to settle down once she had met James. The beers consumed at the brewery were starting to catch up with my bladder, and I had to visit the little men's room. Upon my return, I learned that I left Megan alone too soon. She confessed immediately, "I blew it! I told James I was glad he wasn't a serial killer!"

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As you can see, James is a really just a nice guy willing to take time on a Saturday night to hang out with travelers to his city. Melt was an awesome suggestion, as everything on their menu is a variation of a grilled cheese. Megan opted for the mac-n-cheese grilled cheese (shown below), while I got the massive Italian with 5 kinds of meat.

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We hung for a while at the restaurant before heading back to James's place. We crashed, woke up, said goodbye to our (non serial killer) host and went downtown to finally see Lake Erie!

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The water at Lake Erie looked totally different than the water in Lake Michigan. The water in Lake Michigan looked refreshing, whereas the water here looked murky. We were also right next to the port, and I have never seen water at a port or marina that looked inviting.

We walked along the waterfront to see the Cleveland Browns Stadium and the Rock-n-Roll hall of fame (check out Megan rocking out in front of the museum).

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I guess now I can say that I have been to Cleveland, and the experience was better than I expected (although I'll admit that my expectations for Cleveland were set pretty low). Megan and I toyed with the idea of checking out some of the other sights around the city, but decided we'd rather move on to Columbus and check out Ohio's capital (yet another city in Ohio that I had never visited). So long Cleveland, don't tell my friends and family I was here!

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:52 Archived in USA Tagged brewery local_food Comments (0)

Motor City, USA

STATE 26 - MICHIGAN

overcast 25 °F

Michigan is a state filled with lakes and natural beauty. It has more coastline than any state (other than Alaska) and touches 4 of the Great Lakes. Michigan is the 11th largest state (approximately the size of Wyoming, and largest east of the Mississippi River). Although Michigan is the 8th most populated state, over half of that population lives in a single metro area. This metro area is not known for its natural beauty, but rather for being the car capital of the world. The home to General Motors and Ford, Megan and I are headed to Detroit!

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Fittingly, we are not entering Detroit by plane, bus, or boat, but by automobile. Southern Michigan looks exactly like Northern Ohio, farms surrounded by corn fields. But it wasn't long before we passed signs that we were entering Motown.

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The fields slowly transitioned into factories and clouds of steam. We passed the plant that builds the Ford Mustang and the Mazda 6 and another factory that stamps the panels for Ford cars. The oil refinery tried to distract us (unsuccessfully) from the eyesore of pipes and dirty buildings by painting the natural gas containers in patriotic colors or as a giant basketball.

My friends who grew up in Detroit warned me several times that I need to be careful going around downtown (they stared at me in wide-eyed horror when I said I would walk from the casino to Ford Field, a distance of a few blocks). One friend even said that red lights are optional when driving around downtown ("if you feel threatened at a red light, just go through it and get the heck out of there!"). With manufacturing covering up any natural beauty and constant warnings about safety, I was pleasantly surprised when we entered downtown.

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Even the gray skies of a Midwest winter couldn't cover up the history that exuded everywhere in this city. The classic architecture of older skyscrapers standing next to their flashy neighbors told the story of a once-prosperous city with a rich history reinventing itself. Despite stopping at several red lights, no one ever approached me (in fact, no one was really even in the streets since it was so cold out). We parked in the parking deck of the Greektown Casino (it was free parking) and made our way down to the street level.

Now, as I have already mentioned, I talked to several Detroiters in preparation for this trip. I was told explicitly to not try to walk around downtown, but use the public rail system called the People Mover (jokingly called the "Mugger Mover"). Since I didn't see any hooligans running rampant through the streets, I figured it was safe to leave the parking deck and walk across the street to the People Mover station. We paid our dollar to get on and started our tour around the city. While I consulted the city map to get my bearings, we took in the sights of downtown Detroit from the warmth of the rail car. Very few people could be seen on the streets below on this late Friday afternoon, and only a handful of cars were driving around. Downtown looked reasonably clean for such a large city, and the area next to the Tiger's baseball stadium and Ford Field looked a little more lively. The stop we wanted to get off was only 200 yards away from where we originally boarded, so after completing an entire circuit we got off at the jewel of the Detroit skyline, the Renaissance Center (home of General Motors).

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Megan and I walked around the Renaissance Center to reach the shoreline of the Detroit River. We could see the city of Windsor, Canada just on the other side of the river. The sun was starting to set, and it was very cold. We stopped for a quick picture before continuing our walk along the waterfront. In the picture below, Canada is on the left side of the river and Detroit is to the right.

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At the end of the walkway along the river, we stopped at Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Red Wings (Detroit's Professional Hockey Team). Before the Hurricanes moved to Raleigh, I was a big time Red Wings fan, so it was pretty cool to see the arena (the building itself wasn't really much to look at otherwise).

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We wandered into the plaza park between Joe Louis Arena and the Renaissance Center. We continued moving through downtown back towards the Greektown area (where we had parked). It was a little early for dinner, but we were both starving and figured we could beat the dinner rush by grabbing an early bite to eat.

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Greektown is a historical downtown area that features many Greek Restaurants, deserteries, and the Greektown Casino. Originally a Greek neighborhood, the area is now more of a commercial area, but the city and neighborhood took steps to preserve the Greek atmosphere.

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Greek restaurants lined both sides of the street, so I patiently waited (while my stomach growled impatiently) for Megan to check all the menus before finally selecting one. The restaurant, New Parthenon, was authentically decorated and we had a very attentive Greek waiter. We ordered the flamed cheese for an appetizer, which our waiter exuberantly shouted "Opa!" when he lit it on fire, and then a Greek platter that had nearly everything (hummus, pita, stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, and lamb shank to just name a few). Great service, great food, and it was surprisingly inexpensive!

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After dinner we walked to a cafe to get some Greek desserts. Baklava, sweet rolls, and all types of cakes filled the cases. It was tough to choose just one, so we got multiple desserts to make sure we didn't miss out on anything!

Megan had never been to Canada, and being this close, she couldn't resist the urge to cross the border. After our desserts, we walked back to the car and headed towards the Great White North.

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We paid a toll on the American side of the tunnel, went under the Detroit River, and arrived at the traffic jam entering Canada. Cars slowly divided into lanes to cross the border. I picked the wrong lane, as the lanes on either side were passing three cars through for every one in our lane. As we pulled up to the Canadian border guard, I put on my cheeriest face and prepared for a pleasant conversation (all the Canadians I know are extremely nice and easy going). This guy was not nice or easy going. Here is how the conversation went:

Guard (before I had even stopped the car): "License plate number."
Me: "Hold on one second, I have to look it up." (it was a rental)
Guard (after waiting impatiently for 5 seconds): "Come on, give me the license plate number."
Me: [license plate number]
Guard: "Why are you driving up from Cleveland?"
Me (slightly confused): "Huh? I've never been to Cleveland, we are driving in from Detroit." (no duh)
Guard: "Who is the car registered to?"
Me: "I'm not sure." (and once I realized this was the WRONG thing to say, quickly added) "Enterprise, I guess."
Guard (now furiously tapping away at his terminal): "Why are you bring a rental into Canada?"
Me: "I got a rental after I flew into town."
Guard: Where are you headed?
Me: "I'm not sure, we are going to grab a bite to eat."
Guard (raising his voice and asking incredulously): "You don't know where you are going?!?"
Me (now realizing I just made another big mistake, I strained to remember the name of the bar we were headed to)
Megan (sarcastically): "We are headed to Danny's," (the name of the all male strip club), "do you like it?"
Me (cutting Megan off): "Sunny's, we are going to Sunny's".
Guard: "Place must not be very good, I've lived here all my life and never heard of it."

At this point Megan was frustrated with this guy's attitude, I was trying to stay polite to the guard and hush Megan, and the guard asked a few more questions before reluctantly handing our passports back. Leaving the guard behind us, we traveled 45 minutes into Canada (I had wanted to find a neighborhood bar far from the border so that Megan could get a real Canadian experience, not just drunken American 19 year-olds).

We pulled up to the tiny neighborhood bar and found two seats at the bar (there was only 25 seats total in the entire place). We were easily the youngest people there by 20 years, and I'm sure the only non-regulars in the place. The bartender took our drink order, and then immediately identified us as Americans. After finding out we were from South Carolina (he didn't understand that there is actually a North Carolina), he asked some friendly questions about the States. A veteran bar-fly sitting next to Megan (who had obviously has quite a few before we arrived), began talking her ear off. Canadian NHL Hockey, working in Alberta (western Canadian Province), Hurricanes hockey, CFL Superbowl, and more hockey were his favorite topics. At the encouragement of her new friend, Megan ordered poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds), a Canadian specialty. As Megan drank more beers, more and more people became interested in the conversation. I had to fight off people wanting to buy us beers (no way I was crossing the border drunk after the experience earlier), and Megan ended up getting her food on the house. When it finally time to go, Megan and a herd of Canadians fought me to stay longer by bribing me with more free beer.

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As we headed back to the border crossing, Detroit's skyline shone across the river. It was pretty impressive.

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After going under the river and emerging on the American side, I was the only car in sight. I slowly headed towards one of the crossing booths, and right before entering the booth I realized that it was closed. I swerved to what I thought was an open lane, and then a series of really quick, bright flashes went off (the kind when you run a red light). My heart dropped as I realized I had probably just tried to run the border and snipers were locking targets on my car. A puzzled guard leaned out of the booth and motioned for me to pull forward. Swerving to switch lanes at the last second, stopping 20 feet before I was supposed to—so much for not looking drunk. The American guard gave me grief about the rental car and asked to search the trunk, but I guess I was more prepared this time to be interrogated. Thankfully we were allowed back into the country and headed to my friend Chris's parents' house for the night.

The next morning, we awoke to find our car dusted in snow and completely frosted over. One more reason for living in the South (or at least having a garage).

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Megan and I drove out of Detroit and headed south to Dearborn, the site of The Rouge, a gigantic Ford manufacturing plant. We were going to the Ford Museum, a massive museum with rooms and rooms of collections. The first thing we see coming in the door? One of the most recognizable automobiles in the world—the weinermobile.

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The first section of the museum we walked through focused on Henry Ford's engine that was used in farming equipment. Giant combines and harvesters stood next to displays showing how Ford's engines helped power Michigan's agriculture. The coolest part? I got sit behind the wheel of the harvester!

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The museum had displays on life in America during the 20th century demonstrating what is was like to grow up in each decade (you could practice hiding under your desk for bomb raids, listen to a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (that people originally thought was real), dance in an 80s music video, or watch a nickel movie with WWII updates). The museum also had hundreds of cars, including the car JFK was shot in (bringing back memories of investigating the JFK assassination conspiracy in Texas), the bus Rosa Parks rode on when she was arrested (which was cool since Megan and I had just walked the bus route in Montgomery), and the original Ford car.

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There were additional sections of the museum focusing on aircraft, train engines, and humongous steam engines. Most of the sections had displays where you could sit in the aircraft or walk though the train. A new section of the museum was about to open, "Driving Across America", which featured row after row of old cars. And no roadtrip through America is complete without a stop at McDonalds.

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The museum was cool, but it focused more on history and cultural education than Ford and his company. That all changed once we boarded the bus to go into The Rouge and view the manufacturing facility.

Ford tried three times to start a car company, partnering with the Dodge brothers in one failed venture and leaving the future Cadillac Motor Company in another. On the fourth try, Ford finally made his mark. As we learned in history class, he created the assembly line, paid his employees more than the national average, and implemented vertical integration of production (meaning he took raw materials all the way to finished product). The Rouge is the crowning achievement of all those innovations. A river was built to allow raw materials to be dumped next to the manufacturing plant. Iron ore was forged into steel on site, as well as raw materials being turned into glass. The place is massive, and it is still in use today.

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The tour guide spent a large chunk of time talking about the environmentally friendly innovations at The Rouge. Bee hives next to orchards between buildings, a living roof, porous concrete that filters rain water, and modified wetlands surrounding the complex have been added to present you with an image of an environmentally friendly company. As great as these innovations may be, I still couldn't see the beauty of the Michigan wilderness around the endless factories and smoke stacks.

However, the tour did allow you to walk through the factory where they build F-150s, and it was incredible. The basic frames enter at one end, and a completed car drives out the other (just like in Ford's original assembly line). Everyone had a very specific job, and the cars never stopped moving on the assembly line. One guy put speakers in, while another attached the steering wheel. One guy's job was to open and close every tailgate to make sure it was attached correctly. While the jobs may be boring, it was pretty efficient.

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After taking a loop around the factory, we left the Ford Museum and The Rouge. Our trip through Michigan was over and it was time to move on. We continued South, leaving Michigan the same way we entered—in our automobile through fields and farmlands.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:48 Archived in USA Tagged museum local_food travel_trouble Comments (0)