Day 39. MI/OH: urban sprawl, irish jigs, amish bikes, shaker sticks

by Kevin May

I had done a recce of the facilities when I had first arrived, and so I was aware of the score when I woke up. There was absolutely no chance of even basic breakfast, let alone deluxe.

Even the drinks and candy vending machines were broken. There was one of those contraptions that churns out ice which, in truth, probably came closer to meeting my requirement than anything. I still felt a little rough from the night before.

Now that I was up, I decided that an early start could see me in Fraser in time for breakfast. Then I could see if the place was all that the ladies had cracked it up to be.

The problem (from the visiting traveller’s point of view) in being a suburb that’s part of a huge urban sprawl is that it is very easy to pass through and be away before you even realize that you’ve arrived. There isn’t the break in continuity that punctuates other places. I’d seen the sign saying that I was entering the city limits of Fraser, and then I seemed quickly to come across the same thing for Roseville. I doubled back and found some shops. One of them was a general store, so I went in to see if there were any souvenirs going.

The guy serving recognized my accent and asked me what part of London I came from. It turned out that he had just returned from a two-year stint studying to be a Cordon Bleu chef and living in very well-to-do Regent’s Park.

He wasn’t happy to be back in the US, and longed to return to London again. He was too precise and knowledgeable for it to be all bullshit, but it must have been a strange pass that saw him catapulted from that life in London to serving in a general store on the outskirts of Detroit.

They didn’t do postcards, and so the guy suggested that I try the pharmacy next door.  The pharmacy didn’t have any postcards either, but again my accent was noticed. The woman behind the counter, whose name badge said Mary, had just been over to England visiting relatives in Newcastle, where her family had originally come from. They had made a trip down to London, and she’d been amazed to find out that it was the first time that her relatives had been to the capital too. It was a reminder that it’s not only Americans who like to stick to their home turf.

I didn’t have many miles to cover that day, and so I decided to return to Ann Arbor for brunch. I’d regretted not getting out and wandering around the day before, and so I could have a second bite at the cherry. The sun was bright in the sky as I drew once more into the main street, creating a dappled effect on the footwalk beneath the trees. Parking was easy and soon I was installed at a table outside Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub.

It was just as I had imagined it from my cursory drive through the previous day. Seasoned academics rubbed shoulders with eager students as they enthusiastically attempted to unpick the mysteries of life. Others read quietly, keeping their thoughts to themselves. The occasional embarrassed undergraduate came past, hampered by two smartly dressed but over-anxious parents.

Inside the pub, it was dimly lit and a live band complete with fiddler were striking up the first notes of their lunchtime concert of traditional Irish music. It may have been a theme pub, but it felt more authentic than most of the similar efforts back in London. They only served Irish Whiskeys, and they had both Guinness and Murphys.

Despite having come that way the day before, I got lost leaving Ann Arbor and trying to get back to the freeway. Somehow, I ended up going down the road to Saline but it was no great drama. It did mean that I spotted the Shipshewana road show taking place in a field though. I presumed it was some sort of travelling Amish freak show. And they wonder why tourists flock to take photographs of them.

Even with these distractions, I was over the state line and going round the Toledo bypass in less than an hour. I noted that some of the state’s license plates bore the legend “Birthplace of aviation”. It was a subtle difference to North Carolina’s  “First in Flight”. The Wright Brothers came from Ohio, but neither state had offered them much encouragement prior to 1903. Still, everyone loves a success after the event.

I had spent a week in Toledo back in the summer of 1994, during the USA World Cup, and had gone to Detroit to see Brazil play Sweden. The ticket had been arranged for me by a young lady on whom I had vague carnal designs at the time. I had known her in London, but she had moved back to America and was living in New York. The idea was that we would stay with her parents in Toledo, I could go to the football and we could spend the rest of the time hanging out together.

The evening before I had flown, she had phoned me to say that she couldn’t make it back home, but that her mom and dad (whom I’d never even spoken to, let alone seen) would meet me at the airport and I’d still be welcome to stay with them. I took this as a none-too-promising sign. Perhaps the desire was not reciprocated after all. Either that, or she was playing ludicrously hard to get.

Her parents were very pleasant and did everything to make me feel at home, but I’d seen enough of Toledo in the week that I spent with them not to feel the need to return now.

My plans had gone faintly awry. After going off-piste the day before in Michigan, I now had to pick up the threads of my strict itinerary that indicated I should have been in Ohio for lunch. I had wanted to eat at the Roscoe Village Inn near Coshocton, which one of my guidebooks described as having the finest dining room in Ohio. When I had telephoned the inn, they’d told me that the dining room didn’t open on Sundays. This had thrown me somewhat, and in the ferment of my confusion I had become over-excited and ended up booking a room there for the night instead.

Astonishingly, the radio station that I was listening to was seeing fit to play a cover of Bye bye baby, which had originally been a hit for the Bay City Rollers back in the seventies. Why anyone should want to cover that track wasn’t explained before I found myself tuning elsewhere.

I picked up the excellent Dr Joy Browne. She was dealing with a caller who was perplexed because her sister had just got married and was now away on honeymoon. They had cleared everything up after the party and had realized that – shock horror! – some of the guests who had come to the reception had not brought a gift for the couple.

What a dilemma! That sort of thing’s never happened to me, but I’m sure that if it ever were to then the first thing that I’d do would be to get on the phone to a radio psychiatrist’s show. Dr Brown dealt with the call with elegant tact, finding a beautifully roundabout way to tell the caller to piss off.

I continued down towards Wooster (pronounced “Worcester”) and on to Wilmot, which was very pretty as the books indicated it would be. The roads were quiet, the trees were mature and the houses very large. My next stop was Zoar, which offered more of the same. It was the kind of place that was so peaceful that you found yourself turning the volume on your radio down almost as a subconscious action when you drove into it.

This was where I would have stayed the night if I had remained on track, and I was rather thankful that I hadn’t. Although it did have an inn and restaurant, it wasn’t the sort of community where anyone would have ventured out after seven. They’d all be tucked up snugly in their huge family homes, and I would have spent another solus evening gazing at the wallpaper.

I was re-entering Amish country. If I had not known this from the legion “traditional Amish” shops and restaurants, then I would have got it from the warning road-signs that had little pictures of horse drawn buggies. These villages were all well and good, but too many at one sitting was proving hard for my digestion.

I took a short-cut from Sugar Creek down to Coshocton forgoing my intended visits to Walnut Creek and Berlin, supposedly the Amish capital of Ohio. It was a comely run through the fields, and I passed a number of Amish homesteads, which were very recognizable from the fences and wooden style. I also saw several Amish on bikes, pedalling strenuously in a manner that seemed hardly appropriate for the Sabbath.

Whatever reservations I’d had about Zoar, it couldn’t have proved a worse place to spend the night than Roscoe Village turned out to be. This contrived hamlet on the edge of Coshocton was old and traditional in a way that seemed to have no continuity with the past. It was all rather Limehouse and Mudchute. The inn was more of a hotel complex with eighty rooms and little cosiness about it. I was one of only a few guests staying and all conversations were being held in hushed tones. Everywhere was closed apart from one restaurant in a converted warehouse at the other end of the street, where I had a hurried and far from pleasing time that found me back in the lobby of the inn by 8.30.

With none of the inn’s three bars open that evening and nowhere else in town to go, I retired to my room to enjoy the highlight of staying at that particular establishment: the Shaker furniture.

I looked at the desk, opened and closed its drawers, sat on the chair, and ran my finger over the wood. However much I tried, it was an activity that could only preoccupy me for a couple of minutes. I was left with nothing else to do than wrap some presents. My only further respite from the tedium was when I ran out of Scotch Tape and was given the thrill of going out to reception to see if they had some I could use.

It afforded me a ten-minute chat with the same woman, Tricia, who had been there since I arrived. She told me that Berlin was well worth seeing, but probably not if I’d been to Shipshewana because I wouldn’t see anything new.

I gave up and went to bed.