25 Aug The Best & Worst Top 20 From My 10,000 Mile Road Trip

The From Our House to Animal House book tour took Cleo and me 10,000 miles, through 40 states over four months, to every corner of the nation. Along the way, I met with and talked to old-house owners and preservationists, and toured all kinds of cool buildings, which I’ve filmed for a documentary and website (more on that later). Here are some high- and lowlights of the trip. (Left: most intriguing ruin.)

  • Most Impressive Public Building
    Los Angeles City Hall:
    a remarkable, high Deco skyscraper (used as “the Daily Planet” in the Superman TV series), fully restored to its original splendor–chandeliers, murals, gold leaf, art tile, marble: constructed when city buildings were meant to matter. Nearly razed after the 1989 Northridge quake.
  • Oddest Event
    In a city I won’t name, I got a great turn-out and had a very successful event, except the hosts never showed up. I was on my own for the whole thing. Later, after I sent the hosts a thank-you email, they never answered me.
  • The most valuable thing I lost:
    my new prescription sunglasses (threw them into the garbage by mistake)
  • Best Pizza
    When Pigs Fly, Kittery, Maine
    I know, it sounds crazy, but there it is–Maine has it: a light, subtle, Neopolitan pie with a brick-fired, tastefully blackened crust. Superb.
  • Most Impressive Old (Abandoned) House
    Duncan Manor:
    there it sits in an Illinois soy bean field, an awesome three-story, brick manse, built in 1869, and so imposing, it looks like a ship on the horizon.
  • The most valuable thing I broke:
    My fresh water tank under the van the first day I was on the road — I blew it up because I didn’t know there was no pressure relief valve installed on the thing.
  • Saddest Structure:
    The Negro Opera House in Pittsburgh
    There are good intentions to restore this historic building — the first African American opera house in the U.S.A. — but, at this point, salvation seems a long shot.
  • Coolest Diner
    Miss Worcester, Worcester, MA:
    it’s an historic landmark and has killer food too.
  • Most Expensive Parking
    Downtown Chicago: $24 an hour
  • Wildest Campsite
    cliffside in California, at the end of a dirt road
  • Second most valuable thing I broke:
    My new Minolta camera — left it on the back seat, then made a sudden stop:
    it went flying.
  • Coolest Mid-Century Modern House
    The Pulitzer House, Cincinnati:
    an example of high modern excellence, the 1937 house was nearly razed for a subdivision but now has been magnificently restored.
  • Most Colorful Campers
    A tribe of homeless twenty-somethings at a campsite outside Eureka, CA.
    They traveled in beater cars from campsite to campsite, took odd jobs where they could find them (one was learning tattooing, another was “getting into” the cultivation of medical marijuana); they drank beer for breakfast, were good-humored and very friendly.
  • Most Surprising Turn-out
    Oklahoma City, OK:
    Although I know nobody in this city, nearly 60 people came out to hear me and they were a great audience.
  • Most Disturbing Tourist Attraction
    The Berkeley Pit, Butte, MT:
    the largest Superfund site in America, the Berkeley pit is so poisonous — a mile-long pit-mine lake, 900 feet deep — nobody knows what to do with it. Currently, it’s a tourist attraction.
  • Third most valuable thing I broke:
    My new Nikon camera — it fell off its tripod in Spokane. I glued the lens back together but then, later, Cleo stepped on it
  • Quasi-Near Death Experience
    Trucker drove me into orange construction barrels in South Carolina
  • Most Raucous Audience
    Macon, GA: they were loud and laughing and out of control in the best way
  • Oddest Place for a TV Interview
    A grocery store in Hays, Kansas:
    I’m still not sure why it happened here, but the local station sat me in one of two chairs in a alcove behind the cash registers and interviewed me for 15 minutes as I watched shoppers wheel their carts past.
  • Most Egregious Time Zone Mistake
    I was an hour late to my event in Missoula, MT, because after I drove out of Washington state I didn’t know I was leaving Pacific time and entering Mountain time
  • Wildest Animal encounter
    Grand Tetons National Park, WY:
    a large fox nearly walked up to me and shook my hand as I was jogging through the forest
  • Coolest Kitschy Ruin
    Dinosaur Park, Eureka Springs, AR:
    A one-time popular family park peppered with life-sized plaster models of old-style dinosaurs, now fallen to ruin.
  • Cutest Old Town
    Marblehead, MA:
    I saw a lot of cute old towns but Marblehead has the advantage of being very old (1649), very quaint but not touristy, and on the water.
  • Most Awesome Bathroom
    Nashville, TN: the Hermitage Hotel’s high-Deco men’s room.

  • Highest Road  Elevation:
    Beartooth Scenic Byway, WY: 10,947 feet.
  • Most Sentimental Stop
    Morristown, NJ:
    I visited the house my family lived in when I was in grade school and middle school. I was surprised how modest it was and hardly recognized it at first, but then it all came back to me.
  • Most Unexpected Stop
    Cadillac Ranch, TX:
    I’d heard of it but didn’t know I’d see it, wasn’t looking for it, didn’t even know I’d be passing through Texas but suddenly there I was and then, at a glance, I saw the upended caddies in the sand.

  • Worst Campground
    New Orleans, LA: Jude’s RV Park–a gravel lot backed up to a railyard and sandwiched between a motel and the International Union of Operating Engineers
  • Coolest Mid-century Modern Structures
    the Parkade, Spokane, WA and the Space Needle, Seattle, WA

  • Most Impressive Boulevard of Big Houses
    Maine Street, Quincy, Illinois
    one killer mansion after another on this street

  • Most surprising state: Arkansas

  • varied geography: from the Mississippi flood plains to the Ozark mountains
  • unexpectedly diverse population: large groups of Indochinese and Marshallese living in the western part of the state
  • meaningful landmark: Little Rock’s Central High, site of hateful anti-segregation protests in the 1950s, restored a national historic landmark, and operating still as a a high school.
  • quirky historic town: Eureka Springs, home to artists and iconoclasts and wholly Victorian architecture
  • notable food: pork barbecue sandwiches
  • Coolest Sneak Peek
    Cincinnati, OH: The American Sign Museum, now open to the public.

  • Most Unusual Home
    Bloomington, IL: A restored boys’ orphanage dormitory.

  • Cutest Dog
    Cleo, the go-anywhere, do-anything basset hound!
  • Prettiest Church:
    Macon, GA: Saint Joseph’s