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Entries about local food

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)

The Most Southern Place on Earth - Mississippi

STATE 25 - MISSISSIPPI

sunny 90 °F

Mississippi is the Most Southern Place on Earth. Well, geographically it is not the most southern on the Earth, or even the most southern in the US. But according to James C. Cobb, a former president of the Southern Historical Association, due to its unique racial, cultural, and economic history, no place is more southern. Megan and I were headed down to Mississippi to rub elbows with the locals and attend a down-South wedding!

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It should come as no surprise that the Mississippi lies in the Mississippi River Valley (the Mississippi River runs along the length of Mississippi's western border). The Mississippi River has greatly influenced much of Mississippian culture, from antebellum times to current day. The state of Mississippi is relatively flat, so when the river floods, its effects can be far reaching. Megan and I decided to stretch our legs after a long ride in the car and experience the Mississippi River runoff first hand by taking a hike through the floodplain.

It was a hot, muggy morning despite being late September. My shirt was sticking to my back and it was barely 9am, good thing we were hitting the trail before it got even warmer. Megan and I checked in at the front desk and told the ranger we were going on the river trail. Upon hearing our trail choice, the ranger looked up and said, "you watch out now, I heard the mosquitoes are real bad right now." I didn't give the warning much thought. Back home in North Carolina you have to deal with mosquitoes every second of every day during the non-winter months. Mosquitoes may be a nuisance, but they aren't going to keep me from taking a hike. We said good bye to the ranger and started off on the trail.

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The trail was dominated by wooden walkways. The river runoff trail could get pretty soggy, and large portions of the trail wound through marsh land. We descended lower and lower into the valley until we reached the bottom of the valley and the marshlands extended off in every direction. There was very little direct sunlight beneath the canopy of the trees, no wind at all, and the water seemed completely stagnant.

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As I followed Megan on the trail, I noticed her shadow looked really weird. It seemed be vibrating and inconsistent. Suddenly it hit me, it wasn't Megan's shadow I was seeing, it was the thousands and thousands of mosquitoes following her! I tried to keep from panicking, but I realized that if we stopped moving, we would end up having an incredibly itchy weekend. It was just about then that Megan wanted me to stop to take the picture above. It took a lot of convincing, but I agreed to a single picture, but I was going to keep moving until the last possible second to keep the mosquitoes from landing on me. Unfortunately Megan caught my "mosquito dance" on video.

After the picture, Megan and I took off at a sprint back to the visitor's center. Once making it safely back inside, we slapped each other silly to kill the mosquitoes that were sucking us dry. My smug North Carolinian pride took a big hit as I realized that I couldn't handle the onslaught of Mississippian mosquitoes.

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The visitor's center was pretty cool. It was like a mini-zoo displaying all the types of wildlife that could be found in the Mississippi River run-offs. Terrariums filled with turtles, alligators, and snakes filled one humid room, while another had over 25 aquariums recreating the different environments of the river and forested ponds.

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I've seen plenty of turtles, bass, bluegill, catfish, and minnows before, but the museum made them seem exotic in the beautiful and realistic aquariums. As we exited the aquariums, we entered a large room filled with stuffed versions of the mammals that call Mississippi home. Megan and I posed as the different animals. I chose to mimic the boar and the bat, while Megan did her best two-headed snake impression (the snake was actually alive!).

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Megan and I left the trails and museum to grab some lunch. We headed to downtown Jackson to grab a bit to eat at the Mayflower, the restaurant from the movie The Help. The local Jackson residents we had met the night before had warned us about walking around downtown (apparently the area was full of crime and was dangerous). However, just as it was walking around downtown Montgomery, it seemed as if we had the entirety of downtown to ourselves. The security person guarding the building that we parked in front of (who watched us suspiciously as we consulted the map to get our bearings) was the ONLY person we saw while downtown. No cars, no one walking around, nothing. Even the restaurant we had planned on eating at was closed because the owner was a wedding.

Side note: Notice how weird the roads look. The were almost a pink color and seemed to be made from paved gravel instead of asphalt.

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We walked from the middle of downtown uphill to the Old Capital building and home of the war memorials. The Old Capital (the state capital building from 1839 to 1903, including when Mississippi helped form the Confederate States of America) was located in a beautiful area overlooking downtown. The following picture features the War Memorial that sits to the left of the Old Capital building.

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When Jackson was founded, the entire area was a giant swamp (not too dissimilar from the area we had hiked through that morning). I guess that's why the capital building was placed on the highest point downtown. Looking the other direction, you could see the Jackson skyline (I didn't have the best vantage point when taking the picture).

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We walked through the War Memorial. There was an area that housed the Mississippi soldiers that died in battle, as well as a number of sculptures and inscriptions honoring the soldiers. Since we were the only people there, the entire area felt very serene.

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Of course it wouldn't be a southern state capital if didn't also include a memorial to the Confederate soldiers, which was located on the other side of the Old Capital building. Standing at the heart of the memorial was a life-size statue of Jefferson Davis.

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From the site of the old capital, we walked down to the new capital building. Squirrels were everywhere and clucked loudly at us as we walked by. After taking a short rest on the benches in front of the capital, we made our way back to the car.

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That night we met up with our friends at a Mississippi restaurant, Cock of the Walk, overlooking the river. The restaurant only served two things, fried catfish or fried chicken. You could also order sides of fried onions, turnip greens, fried pickles, and cornbread. Everything is served on tin plates, and beer is served in tin pitchers. We ordered multiples of everything, it was delicious!

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The next morning Megan and I headed out to the Mississippi Ag Museum to get a feel for "the real Mississippi". The Ag Museum was actually a collection of buildings. The largest building was a museum with displays on Mississippi agriculture, but other buildings held special classes and displays. Adjacent to the museum was a collection of historic Mississippi homes and buildings that had been relocated here. We decided the check out the main museum first and work our way outside.

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Upon entering the museum, we were greeted by a very realistic looking Mississippi man.

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The man sat outside a replica of s simple house, and I guess he was supposed to represent a native of Mississippi. He was incredibly lifelike, and it wasn't until I got up close that I realized that he wasn't real. He was also pretty creepy, take a look at his eyes.

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Escaping the gaze of the Mississippi man, we entered the first display. Row and rows of different types of axes filled several walls, showcasing the various tools of the woodworkers (or the types of weapons used by the creepers represented by the man guarding the entrance).

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Reminiscent of the dinner from the night before, the museum had a display on catfish farming. Mississippi farms more catfish than anywhere else in the country. When you eat catfish, it was probably grown in Mississippi.

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The next portion of the museum focused on the cotton roots of Mississippi. At the time of the civil war, Mississippi was the 5th wealthiest state in the country due to its cotton production. Even after the war, cotton remained king. They had an old cotton gin and examples of the textiles that were produced by Mississippi.

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The best part of the museum, other than the axes and freaks, was the music that was constantly playing in the background. The upbeat, banjo-pluckin' tunes prompted Megan and I to have a hillbilly dance-off! Who do you say won?

After the dance-off, Megan and I made our way outside. After exploring the big city of Jackson, it was time to walk through Small Town Mississippi!

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The Ag Museum had actually moved buildings from historic sites around the state to create a little town. Several old houses (most of them log cabins), an old church, farm buildings, an old schoolhouse, and a trading post were just some of the buildings that made up this little town. Animals grazed in the pastures and rested in the barn. As you walked through the old homes sensors would detect as you entered each room which started an audio tour. Everything was kept was authentic as possible and was very well done.

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You could also walk into the largest (working) cotton gin in the world. It was massive! It was steam powered and even included a vacuum sucker that could pull cotton out of wagons. You had to walk up a flight of stairs to see the main compartment. As hot as it was already inside the room, I wouldn't want to be there when they fired up the cotton gin.

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Between the agriculture tour and the relaxed attitude of its residents (not to mention the delicious down-home cooking), Mississippi reminded me of life in North Carolina (although I would agree with James C. Cobb in that the Deep South is a different type of southern). Megan and I started to make our way out of the Ag Museum, but not before one last hillbilly dance in the town garden.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 11:08 Archived in USA Tagged animals museum marshes historical local_food Comments (2)

Montgomery, Alabama

STATE 24 - ALABAMA

overcast 80 °F

Grits, Hank Williams, Rosa Parks, fried chicken, and Martin Luther King Jr can all be found in my next destination. I'm heading into the Deep South to visit Montgomery, Alabama!

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As Megan and I rolled into Montgomery, it looked like it was about to rain (and the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife). I hoped it wouldn't rain, because our plan was to walk through downtown to see the sights. Montgomery has played a role in some of the most significant events in our nation's history. Jefferson Davis took the oath of office here when Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederate States of America at the beginning of the civil war. 75 years later another leader, Martin Luther King Jr., rose up to fight against unfair practices and violence against African-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a ton to see, and we only had one rain jacket between the two of us.

We parked the car near the Alabama River and started to walk into town. The Montgomery Riverwalk was supposed to be a nice area to walk around, but with the rain looming overhead, Megan and I decided to head into town and start with a museum.

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Hank Williams got his start in Montgomery, and one of the largest collections of Hank Williams memorabilia can be found here. Neither Megan nor I are a huge fan, so we hadn't planned on stopping by the Hank Williams Museum while in town, but it was hard to miss when walking away from the Riverwalk.

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One of the celebrities we were here to see was Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks is one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, who after a day of work claimed she was too tired to move out of her seat when ordered to do so by the bus driver. She wasn't physically tired, but "tired of being treated like a second class citizen."

Megan and I walked to Court Square, the "Historic Heart of Montgomery". Originally serving as the junction between the two rival towns, New Philadelphia and Alabama Town, that merged together when the capital moved to Montgomery, Court Square has been the scene for many moments on the Civil Rights front. Slaves, freshly shipped up the Alabama river, were sold next to livestock in the middle of the square. In 1866, Court Square was the first place that Alabamians could witness the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (over 3 years after Lincoln had originally issued the order). On December 1, 1955, another historic event took place, Rosa Parks boarded a bus.

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Megan is standing at the current stop for the bus route that Rosa Parks was riding. Rosa Parks only rode the bus for a couple blocks before she was arrested. Megan and I walked along this route to the Rosa Parks Museum, located at the site where Rosa Parks exited the bus under arrest. On the side of the museum there was a picture commemorating the event. Megan thought the guy's face behind Rosa Parks was interesting (and slightly odd), as he seemed to be saying "lady, you're about to be in BIIIIG trouble!"

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We went into the museum to take a look around. A lady at the front desk claimed they weren't ready to accept the entrance fee (despite it being 20 minutes since the museum was supposed to open). She offered for Megan and me to take a look around and she would come grab us once the payment system was up and running. We wandered into the museum and entered an art gallery. To my surprise, there was nothing about the Civil Right Movement, just art exhibits. Not wanting to pay to see a tiny art gallery, I pulled Megan out the back emergency exit in the museum before the curator could track us down.

We walked back through Court Square, past the fountain, and further through downtown towards the Capital Building. Montgomery has a weird vibe to it. First of all, we were the ONLY people walking around. It was just before noon on a Friday morning, you'd expect to see someone walking around. Only a handful of cars passed us, one nearly running us over (I guess the driver wasn't used to people actually using the crosswalk). Most of the buildings downtown looked older, but then extravagant buildings with fountains, waterfalls, and pools mixed in between the older structures. Our next destination was the Civil Rights Memorial, one of the modern structures located downtown.

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It took us a while to find the entrance to the Civil Rights Memorial Center. As we circled the block trying to follow a basic map, a security guard definitely started following us, staying just far enough away that we couldn't ask for directions. On the second loop around the block, we found the entrance hidden behind a construction tarp. Upon entering, Megan and I had to pass through a metal detector and empty our pockets to be wanded by another security guard. The Memorial Center wasn't a very large place, but it was incredibly moving.

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The first room of the center had a series of plaques describing 40 different men and women (some black and some white) that had lost their lives in the Civil Right Movement. Their stories ranged from being victims of random acts of violence, from giving a black man a ride in their car, to being an active member in the NCAAP. You could look through a simulated telescope to see the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement located within 4 blocks of the Memorial Center. A set of phones played commentary on each of the people remembered.

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We left the first room to watch a 20 minute video on the Civil Rights Movement. We had studied Civil Rights in school in various US History classes and during Black History Month, but the images presented in the video had a deeper impact. Perhaps it was the fact that I was seeing these images outside the sterile and safe environment of the school and in the location where they actually took place, or perhaps it was because I had just read the tragic story of 40 people who had died. I think the real reason is I no longer view 1965 as ancient history (30 years ago seems like an eternity to a 10 year old). Both of my parents were in school when these events were taking place. My grandparents were in their 30s, certainly aware of the events that were going on. How could people in my grandparents' day think that segregation could be fair? How could the creation of laws to prevent blacks and poor people from voting be passed? These events didn't just happen in Alabama, but all across the country. In North Carolina, laws passed in 1900 prevented nearly 100% of blacks from voting. It took until 1964 for a constitutional amendment to be added to ban these types of laws.

The hallway outside the theater drove the message even further. Here were stories of additional acts of racism and unfair practices against other minorities. Some of the stories had happened since I was in college, stories like the random acts of violence against Middle Easterners after September 11th. Entering the final room, you were presented with a giant wall filled with changing names. This was the Wall of Tolerance, where people could pledge to do their part to end racial injustice. It was pretty moving to be able to take this minor stand after reading the stories presented in the rest of the museum.

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Unfortunately the memorial itself was undergoing some maintenance, so we couldn't see it completely. A round, polished marble monument, etched with the names of the 40 people, rotates as water cascades over the side. The wall in the background has a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, "...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream...".

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From the memorial we walked back to the main street running through town. On the corner was the church that Martin Luther King Jr had served as minister. They offered tours throughout the day, but the sun started to come out from behind the clouds, and we decided we wanted to see some more of the city.

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Across the street from the church, a giant memorial commemorated the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Montgomery was the initial capital of the Confederate States of America until Virginia seceded several months later.

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The grounds around the Capital Building were beautiful, especially after walking around with an overcast sky all morning. A giant map of Alabama stood out front of side, while flags of all the states were on the other.

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On the far side of the Capital Building, we walked past the First White House of the Confederacy (when the capital of the Confederacy was moved, so was the White House). With as much security as we had seen around downtown, I was surprised there wasn't a single guard in sight around the Capital Building or the White House.

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Upon leaving the Memorial Center, we had asked the guy at the front desk where we should get something to eat. He had two suggestions, either Chris' Hotdogs for a meal that had been in Montgomery for over 100 years, or go to a down-home southern kitchen. Both sounded great, so Megan suggested a hotdog appetizer before heading the the southern kitchen.

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We crammed into Chris' to sit at the bar after ordering a single hotdog. It was good, but not too much different from your standard hotdog. The restaurant itself was the real experience. You could feel the history while sitting at the counter. There were still no people in the streets, but the restaurant had a consistent line of people ordering food. Seemingly every person ended their conversation behind the register with an emphatic "Roll Tide!" (referring to the cheer of the University of Alabama).

We walked back to the waterfront to pick up the car. With the beautiful weather (but not completely able to ignore our rumbling tummies), we wandered down to the river to take in the view. It was scenic, with a walkway and a concert pavilion off to the side of the dock. A steamer was tied up, waiting to take people out for a cruise later in the evening.

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We hopped in the car and drove to the restaurant for an authentic Alabama meal. I ordered steak and gravy, with grits, corn bread, black-eyed peas, and rice. Megan ordered fried chicken, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and string beans. It was absolutely fantastic, and Alabama held up to the saying "If it ain't fried, it ain't from the South".

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Despite the rough memories of the events of the Civil Rights Movement, Montgomery was a nice city filled with Southern pride. The people were friendly, and the food was phenomenal. If was time to leave, however, and head to the neighboring Mississippi.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:09 Archived in USA Tagged museum historical local_food Comments (0)

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