Fun with Highways: Michigan

Today we continue our “primary highways” tour with a virtual visit to Michigan, and in particular to Detroit.

My most significant visit to the state took my to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan for a music technology conference. The conference was a great experience, of course. The campus what quite interesting as well. As with many traditional college campuses, it has an iconic bell tower, Burton Tower. But it has a second one as well on the modernist North Campus. Our conference required going back and forth between the two where we could easily see the contrast between the traditional collegiate architecture and the modernist, which I quite liked but my colleagues derided.

If instead of going west from airport to Ann Arbor on I-94 we had instead gone east, we would have arrived in Detroit. I have yet to visit Detroit, and as such the city has taken on a mythical quality. I-94 enters the city as the Edsel Ford Freeway, mostly staying to the north of the city center. We can turn south onto I-75, the Chrysler Freeway to head downtown. One would expect the “motor city” to have an impressive network of freeways. I-75 runs along the edge of downtown as the Fisher Freeway, and together with I-375 and Michigan Highway M-10 form a loop around downtown, anchored by some large interchanges on either end.

As one can see in this map, the loop frames the downtown and Grand Park Circus. The famous People Mover is primarily located within the boundaries of the loop as well. But us now turn our attention to the surface level, beginning with this view from the connection between M-10 and I-75.

[Photo by ifmuth on flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

That large building behind the highways is Michigan Central Station (or sometimes Michigan Central Depot, perhaps someone can tell us which is the correct name actually is).

[Albert duce [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

The massive and once upon a time grand train station now sits alone and abandoned. It symbolizes much about the city and its history, both rise and decline; and people have very strong opinions about it. It’s “heartbreaking” to some who love Detroit. Some see potential for it to have new uses in the future, perhaps as green revitalization project. Others simply see it as an “eyesore” that needs to be removed. For me, it is quite captivating as a quintessentially American form of “ruin.” We tend not have ruins, preferring to remove that which offends us in favor of bigger, faster, newer, etc. And ruins from the 20th century seem even more vulnerable to our need to remove and remake. But perhaps more than most large cities, Detroit stands out for its ruins that remain. This in part because the city was the center of our iconic automobile industry, and quite prosperous with grand buildings and streets. The decline and decay are quite dramatic, but happened in such a way that many of the places are still there in their decayed state. I first became fascinated with this through the website The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, which is a loving tribute to the city and its ruins, albeit a melancholy one. And for me, these ruins can be as much a source of creative inspiration as the landscape of Arizona that we explored yesterday. Indeed some of the basic elements of color, shape, texture and sound have things in common, although the human factor is quite different. There is definitely more that Dystopian feel here. I could certainly see music and image inspired by visiting the ruins of the abandoned Packard Automobile Factory.

[By Albert duce (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

I hope to have the opportunity to visit the city and explore creativity and meet people in the local community there, and make something to share. I hope perhaps the city can find a way to live with its ruins and draw from them without it having to be “blight”, and that vital communities, perhaps greener communities, can grow up within them. Some of the old towers around Grand Circus Park are being redeveloped at this time. And this is all the context of positive news from “Detroit” the automobile industry.

[By Andrew Jameson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

In the meantime, there certainly are plenty of cultural opportunities. The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). We have been shadowing the artist Mark Di Suvero throughout this series, and the DIA has two of his works, including an older piece Tom made primarily from wood. Music of Detroit is of course legendary. I have a fondness for quite a lot of classic Motown, much of which was done before they moved – I tend to think it works best in minor keys or when the overall sound is a bit more melancholy than when it is at its most bouncy and upbeat, but that is perhaps just me. Detroit also has a place in the history of popular electronic music. To me, these are not as disparate as others might think, particularly when one considers the harmony. (On this note, I would also enjoy hearing suggestions of music in the comments.)

But it is time to get back on the road. We can head northwest from Detroit on I-96 to Lansing, the state capital. For those like me who are amused by highway trivia, in Lansing, I-96 and I-69 meet, and even run concurrently for a brief period of time. I think this only place where there is such a mirror-image concurrency (as I-87 and I-78 in New York actually never meet). A spur I-496 turns off into the center of Lansing, with the state capital building to one side.

[Criticalthinker at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

If from Detroit we head north on I-75, we pass through Flint (of Michael Moore fame) and then further away from the Great Lakes that define the state’s geography and into the center of the lower peninsula. But I-75 is also the main highway connection to the Upper Peninsula over the Mackinac Bridge.

[By Jeffness at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Sam at en.wikipedia. (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons]

North of the bridge, we can switch to US 2 which hugs the shore of Lake Michigan on the southern side of the peninsula. But we can also head inward on M-28, from which we can approach the northern shore along Lake Superior, traveling by many picturesque parks such as Tahquamenon Falls and Pictured Rocks.

[By Attila Nagy (anagy) (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]

[By MJCdetroit [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

M-28 continues on to Marquette, the largest city in the Upper Peninsula even though its population is around 21,000. It is home to Northern Michigan University and the Superior Dome, the largest wooden dome in the world.

[By Bobak Ha’Eri (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]

In researching this article, I came across the blog Michigan Architecture. This site’s author is a gradulate of Northern Michigan University and is still based in Marquette. I recommend checking out her blog and seeing some of her interesting photograph of unexpected places around the state.

We conclude in the northernmost part of Michigan, Isle Royal. It is far north within Lake Superior, and indeed closer to Minnesota and Canada than it is to the rest of Michigan. It has an odd geography, basically a series of parallel ridges sticking up from the lake.

The middle of the island is a lake, Siskiwit Lake. It is trippy to have a large lake in a large island in a larger lake.

But it gets better. When nearby Moose Flats pond is full, Moose Boulder becomes the largest island in the largest lake in the largest island in the largest lake in the world! I will leave readers to ponder this…

Fun with Highways: Arizona

This week the primary season brings us to two very different states, each of which are a source of creative inspiration but in very different ways. The first of these states we will visit is Arizona.

We begin where we left of in Colorado. From Four Corners, we head west on US 160 through the Navajo Nation. The dry landscape is punctuated by red rock formations such as Baby Rocks, which can be seen along the highway.

[By Reinhard Schön (original photograph) and Andreas F. Borchert (postprocessing) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The shapes and textures of the rock formations and the sparseness of the landscape are what attract me to the southwest. The unique combinations of climate, water and rock composition lead to this landscape, and individual varieties of rock (many of which are different types of sandstone) lead to the distinctive shapes in different locations. Sometimes the most interesting can simply be found on the side of the road. But that does not detract from the many iconic parks in this state. Indeed, if we continue on US 160 west to its terminus at US 89, and then further west along State Highway 64, we come to the most iconic of all, the Grand Canyon.

[By Tobias Alt (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

It’s quite hard to summarize the Grand Canyon in such a brief article, but to say that it is most defined by its vast size. One is not simply looking at a large rock formation, but an entire carved landscape that extends in all directions. The space left by the canyon is big enough to support the same atmospheric effects as the sky itself, such as the refraction that leads to a blue tint in the space. Sadly, this also makes it a magnet for air pollution. The scale also means that from a distance one sees the rough surface and curved lines of the overall topography, but not as many distinctive formations like the Baby Rocks described above. To see such details of the Grand Canyon, one must travel to the far sections of the rim or descend into the depths.

[Photo by Al_HikesAZ on flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)]

[Photo by Al_HikesAZ on flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)]

For many, places such as this are as much about recreation (rafting, hiking, climbing), but for me the interest in going back sometime soon is primarily about the visual landscape, touching feeling and breathing the desert air, and hearing both the sounds and the silences.

We head south from the Grand Canyon on US 180 to I-40 near Flagstaff. We take I-40 east to another of Arizona’s iconic locations, the Petrified Forest National Park. The eponymous petrified trees were created by combination of trees and minerals that were deposited over long periods of time and the gradual replacement of the organic matter with minerals. The relatively soft and easily eroded sandstone have left a surprisingly large number of these artifacts in one location. The extreme erosion patterns of the area also gave rise to the colorful formations of the Painted Desert.

[By User:Moondigger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]

By Finetooth (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Leaving the park, we turn back west on I-40 to Flagstaff, and then head southward on I-17 towards the Phoenix metropolitan area and a very different Arizona. But along the way, we pass by Arcosanti, an experimental town and “urban laboratory” that began construction is 1970. It was started by architect Paolo Soleri to experiment with ways of developing urban environments that minimized the impact on the natural environment. The architecture of Arcosanti is quite unique.

[By Cody from Phoenix, AZ (arcosanti western half) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

In addition to being an experimental project itself, it hosts a variety of events (including the annual Different Skies Music Festival).

[By Cody from Phoenix, AZ (arcosanti apse) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

And it’s on to Phoenix. It’s hard to conceptualize that in the middle of the desert is one of the largest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. Yet there it is. The recent rapid growth of Phoenix and the entire “Valley of the Sun” and the relatively flat terrain have led to some rather impressive highway interchanges.

The rather complex tangle above is the interchange of I-10 (the Papago Freeway coming from downtown Phoenix), Arizona Loop 202 and Arizona State Highway 51, which is supposedly the busiest interchange in the state. A more elegant one (which I have in fact seen in a museum piece) can be found further east where AZ 202 meets US 60.

The lines and curves complement the desert terrain (disregarding the subdivisions for the moment). Indeed, the structures themselves have a reddish color reminiscent of the desert landscape.

Traveling up Arizona Loop 101 to Scottsdale in the northeast corner of the metropolitan are, one finds Taliesin West, the winter home and school of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright designed this home to reflect “Arizona’s long, low, sweeping lines, uptilting planes”, aspects of the natural landscape which we have explored in this article.

[I, Gobeirne [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]

In ways, his goals predate and inform the work that continues at Arcosonti, although the latter has more of an urban focus.

Heading south and east on I-10, we come to Tucson and a very different but still quintessentially “Arizonan” landscape. Here the most distinctive features are not the rocks but the vegetation, especially the saguaro cactus. Like the Grand Canyon, the saguaro is a symbol of the state, and of the best preserved tracts of these and other cacti can be found in Saguaro National Park west of Tucson.

[By Saguaro Pictures (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Heading back west on I-10, we switch to I-8 through the southwest corner of this southwestern state. We turn south on State Highway 85 through relatively empty but rocky landscape. Highway 85 intersects with 86 at the small town of Why, named for the “Y” shape of the original intersection of the two highways. Because Arizona law required location names to have at least three letters, the name “Why” was used instead of “Y”. Continuing south on 85, we eventually reach Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

[By Pretzelpaws at en.wikipedia [GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons]

Although this park is named for the organ pipe cactus (shown above), it contains many of the other varieties found in southern Arizona, such as the saguaro. However, the converse is not true. The organ pipe cactus only grows wild here. I visited in the winter of 2004-2005 and found this park to be quite sparse and peaceful. The landscape does not really have many of the monumental rock formations further north, but it does have interesting hillsides covered with rough crumbling stone and frequently punctuated by the cacti.

And I think the final desert sunset is an appropriate way to conclude this article. I of course know there is much more to consider in Arizona, and welcome thoughts and ideas from others as comments.

Fun with Highways: Nevada

When I still lived in New York, going to another state was not such a big deal. It just a short trip to Connecticut or New Jersey, and not too long to get to points beyond. But in California, it takes several hours and a couple hundred miles along I-80 just to get to our closest neighbor, Nevada. And with the Presidential primaries and caucuses next moving to Nevada, we thought we would pay our neighbors there a visit.

The trip along I-80 is one made by many of us in the Bay Area, particularly at the end of August as part of the pilgrimage to Burning Man. We take the interstate past Reno to the town of Fernley, and then head north on State Highway 447 towards the Black Rock Desert. Arriving at “Black Rock City” at night is an impressive sight, with the electrical glow of a small city visible from miles away. And indeed, at the hight of the festival each year, Black Rock City is one of the largest cities in the state. Here is one of my favorite photographs from a Burning Man trip too many years ago:

Traveling back on 447 from Burning Man during daylight hours, one gets to see more of the landscape, including Pyramid Lake. The highway actually ends at the edge of Fernley, and one takes several small roads through town to get back to I-80. I saw these cars along the way.

On the way back along I-80, one can stop in Reno, which has the odd but cute nickname “Biggest Little City in the World.”

[By Renjishino (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Its history and reputation as a center of the gaming industry, along with the glitzy lights and oversized casinos, predates the rise of Las Vegas. But it is also home to the Nevada Museum of Art, which bills itself as “the only accredited art museum in the state of Nevada.” The building itself is a work of art, and its design is meant to reflect the natural landscape including Black Rock Desert.

[By Rmart123 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

From Reno, one can travel south on US 395 towards Carson City, the state capital – one of only a few state capitals not connected to an interstate highway. From here we can either continue south on 395 back into California along the eastern Sierra, or turn onto US 50 into the interior of Nevada.

US 50 was the subject of our Nevada article last election cycle. It is nicknamed “The Loneliest Road in America.” Although the name was first used somewhat pejoratively, I find scenes like this with a straight line and stark natural landscape quite inspiring.

The road is not always this straight and empty. It crosses several mountain passes that break up the Great Basin and the Nevada desert, and passes by odd landmarks like this small castle-like structure, Stokes Castle.

[By Toiyabe at en.wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons]

I would love to travel US 50 through Nevada sometime, and of course do photography along the way. I am certainly not alone in this regard, which begs the question of how “lonely” the road really is. Another strong runner up for the title would be US 6, which intersects US 50 (and US 93) in the eastern town of Ely. Heading back west on US 6 from Ely, one travels a narrow two-lane road and does not encounter another town until Tonopah, 168 miles later. Tonopah is an old mining town, with old structures as seen is this photo:

It is hard to tell when this photo (which comes from the National Park Service) was taken.

US 6 is also the northern terminus of State Highway 375, otherwise known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. It derives its name from its proximity to Area 51 and popularly with UFO seekers, but it covers a much longer distance, parts of which are just as straight and empty as some of the others we have explored in this article:

[By Cooper, in Wiki Commons known as – 22:17, 20 August 2006 (UTC) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons]

This photo is from 375 in Sand Spring Valley, which contains the tiny town of Rachel (population approximately 100). Although it is quite small, it does its best to capitalize on Area 51 and the Extraterrestrial Highway with Alien themed business. A mailbox further south along the highway is purportedly used by UFO seekers to share information.

Highway 375 ends at the ghost town of Crystal Springs. This sounds like it would be interesting if some of the original buildings are still there, though I cannot find any photos of this. Nearby, one can pick of US 93 and head south towards Las Vegas. Our quiet journey through the interior of Nevada comes to an end as US 93 merges with I-15 and form a major freeway heading into the sprawling Las Vegas metropolitan area. The highway cuts into the city itself, and parallels “The Strip”, aka South Las Vegas Boulevard.

[By Lasvegaslover (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

I have to admit, my visit to The Strip in 2002 was not a particularly fun experience – although I did have a bit of fun with “fake New York.” It was a combination of factors that cannot be blamed on the city or its resort industry per se – though the expense of even basic items and services was an issue, and the fact that it felt more like a gigantic shopping mall with slot machines than an infamous den of vice and questionable entertainment was a disappointment. I would be willing to give it another chance sometime, particularly in the context of a larger travel and photography trip.

Turning onto I-215, one rejoins US 93 (and I-515). Heading south on US 93, the development thins out once more and the road continues to the Hoover Dam.

[By Tobi 87 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

This is literally the end of the state.

Fun with Highways: New Hampshire

We continue our series this season with a visit to the Granite State. New Hampshire typifies what we think of as “northern New England.”, with a mixture of old factory towns and mills, forested mountainous wilderness and rocky coastline.

[Photo from dougtone on flickr.]

We begin on this rather oddly named bit of highway south of Nashua called the “Circumferential Highway.” It’s not really circumferential of anything, except maybe an argument. But it does connect us to a major highway, the Everett Turnpike, as we head north through the state. I actually have visited Nashua. It was (gasp!) 20 years ago when a college friend invited me to tag along with him to go up to New Hampshire and volunteer for a presidential candidate I had barely heard of named Bill Clinton. The main thing I remember about walking around the town was that it was very cold. And it also looked a bit more gritty and rundown than the some of the more recent images I have seen.

Traveling north on the Everett Turnpike we come to the state’s largest city, Manchester. The turnpike merges with I-293 and heads north along the river, passing by downtown and the old mill buildings of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. This was a huge enterprise in its day, and apparently had the largest cotton textile plant in the world in the late 19th century. The company went under in the 1930s, but the buildings remain. You can see the rather narrow I-293/Everett Turnpike along the river just in front of the red brick mill buildings. Many have found new uses for contemporary industries as well as residential and commercial development.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Manchester is also home to the Currier Museum of Art. It’s plaza includes the sculpture Origins by Mark di Suvero.

[Photo by madame urushiol on flickr.]

It seems like variations on his “weird red thing” (aka Joie de Vivre) from Zuccotti Park are everywhere. After our Iowa article last week, a reader on DailyKos recommended a sculpture garden in Des Moines that also contains a di Suvero piece. I wonder how many more we might encounter as this series continues. The Currier also manages the Zimmerman House, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece in the northern part of the city.

[Photo by mmwm on flickr.]

New England was apparently quite a hotbed of modern architecture in the middle of the 20th century, and many of the designs make Frank Lloyd Wright’s look conservative by comparison.

An avid highway enthusiast who goes by the name “FreewayJim” on YouTube has a fun time-lapsed and annotated view of the drive north on the Everett Turnpike and I-293 through Manchester as I-293 merges back into I-93 towards Concord. It turns out this is his hometown, so he brings a bit of knowledge about what has changed, and especially what has not changed on these roads.

I-93 continues north from Concord and winds its way gracefully into the White Mountains region. Here we see the rugged northern New England wilderness, another defining feature of the state. Cosigned with US 3, I-93 continues north into Franconia Notch State Park, where it narrows to just one lane in each direction, a rarity for an interstate highway.

The park includes among other things the former site of the Old Man in the Mountain. This natural feature on Cannon Mountain symbolized the state. It is part of the state highway shields. It is on the state’s commemorative quarter. It is on the state’s license plates. And it came crashing down off the cliffs one night in 2003. It sounds like there was a great sense of loss for the state when this happened. A memorial is currently being built at the base of the mountain, which will feature large granite elements representing both the formation itself and the state’s identity.

One can leave I-93 here and head eastwards on NH 112, the Kancamagus Highway through the White Mountains. In addition to having a great name, the roadway provides scenic vistas of the mountains and forests (especially dramatic in the autumn) as well as rocky rivers and covered bridges.

[Click images to enlarge.]

It seems like New Hampshire has quite a few covered bridges. I was actually in this area once as a kid (even more than 20 years ago). It was quite beautiful, but even in summer the water in the river was cold.

Highway 112 ends at the town of Conway, which I knew sounded familiar for some reason. It is in fact because of the Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire’s shelter in the town. I think I crossed paths with them once via Weekend Cat Blogging. In any case, they have some nice cats available for adoption if you are in northern New England.

UPDATE: Speaking of cats, we would be remiss if we did not head north from Conway on Highway 16 to Mount Washington. This summit has famously high winds and all around terrible weather, but it is quite an experience to visit (on that same childhood trip I was picked up off the ground by a gust of wind). Plus, they have an official observatory cat, Marty. He is one in a long line of Mount Washington cats, about whom you read more here. Marty’s predecessor, Nin, was there for quite a while and posted this article in 2007 when Nin retired.

Returning to Manchester, one can head westward or eastward on NH 101. To the west, the highway is a local road that winds its way to the town of Keene. I only learned about Keene through these great photo an abandoned factory. It seems to not fared as well as its larger counterparts in Manchester and Nashua, but the ruins are quite beautiful as a photographic subject, especially with the snow.

[Photo by Lorianne DiSabato on flickr.]

East of Manchester, 101 is a large highway heading towards the coast. It passes by Exeter, a town with a prep school that many of my college acquaintances attended. But more interestingly, the academy includes this modernist library designed by Louis I. Kahn:

[Photo by Pablo Sanchez via Wikimedia Commons. (Click to enlarge.)]

101 eventually hits the coast at highway 1A, just north of Seabrook. Although the beaches along this shore are quite scenic, I know them mostly from the history surrounding the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. In 1977, the Clamshell Alliance staged what we would now refer to as an “occupy protest” on the construction site of the plant. Nonetheless, at least one reactor of the plant was built. If I didn’t know what it was or the dangers surrounding nuclear energy, I would actually think of it visually as a positive contribution to the landscape, contrasting with the low horizon, dunes, wetlands and ocean, as in this photo from along 1A:

And I think this sunset is a perfect way to conclude this short trip to New Hampshire.

Fun with Highways: Iowa

Our four-year civic ritual begins in its official manner today, and we at CatSynth are once again following the presidential primary schedule with our “Fun with Highways” series. Today, all eyes (or at least a great many of them) are focused on Iowa. A lot will be said about Iowa, it’s cultural and geographical stereotypes. But I would like to rethink the image of the state through my own interests, and thus begin with this image of Des Moines, the capital and largest city.

From what I can tell by looking at maps of the city, this was taken looking north from a railway bridge. Des Moines is a small city but seemingly well laid out, taking advantage of its river to visual effect. It does have a somewhat dense and vertical downtown core, and a rather interesting feature, the Des Moines Skywalk.

[By Dsmspence (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The skywalk is a highway of sorts for pedestrians, allowing easy movement around the downtown area through elevated glass-enclosed walkways. As someone who dislikes cold, I’m sure I would appreciate it in January. The skywalk does seem like it would have had a bit of a futuristic quality to it when it was built, though not the dystopian beauty of New York’s High Line. But perhaps I speak to soon. Check out these images of a desolate Des Moines on the blog, for some beautiful images of an eerie empty city from the skywalk and elsewhere.

[By Des Moines Guy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

Before leaving the city, we should also acknowledge the Des Moines Art Center, an architecturally interesting complex with pieces designed by Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, with three differet styles of 20th Century Architecture, but all seemingly designed to take advantage of the horizontal expanse, open space and light that have long made the Midwest an inspiring setting for architects.

Just north of both the art center and the downtown core is I-235, the main highway running through the city. We will head east to where I-235 ends at a junction with I-80 and I-35, and then continue east on I-80. I have personally seen the expanses of farmland along this nearly straight stretch of highway, with the occasional road passing overhead on via artificial mounds and the connected with a diamond interchange. We cross US 6, which once stretched across the entire country but now ends in the eastern Sierra in California. We pass by Iowa City and give a shout-out to the infamous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The program has turned out numerous winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, among other honors. My own experience with the world of writing is a bit limited, but it seems very different than the world of music.

As we approach the eastern edge of the state, we come to Davenport, which among other things is home to the Figge Museum.

[By Ctjf83 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

The museum it itself an interesting building, and has a varied collection. But perhaps most interesting is the collection from the University of Iowa that is being temporarily housed there (after the University’s building was flooded in 2008) and displayed in the exhibition A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock’s Mural and Modern Masterworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

Although it seems natural to explore the state along and east-west axis, one can also travel south to north. Indeed, Iowa has what could be dubbed a “concept highway” running north-south called the Avenue of the Saints because it connects St Louis, Missouri, to St Paul, Minneapolis. It was only designated as a single route, Iowa State Highway 27, in 2001, and mostly overlaps with other longer established routes. In particular, it overlaps with I-380 from near Iowa City northward, passing through Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in the state.

[By en:User:Interiority (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons]

Downtown Cedar Rapids was submerged in the massive 2008 floods (the same floods that damaged the University of Iowa Art Building and forced the collection to move to the Frigge). Many of its cultural institutions were damaged along with countless homes and businesses. One story of particular interest the Paramount Theater. The theater was severely damaged in the flood and the console of its historic Wurlitzer organ was destroyed. It seems so many stories with theaters named Paramount or Paradise or anything else that evokes the golden age of movie palaces have tragic overtones, but some do come back. From information provided by the city, the plans are for the Paramount to reopen later this year as a cultural center. The concept renderings of the lobby look to include the best modernist elements of Art Deco.

If anyone reading this knows more about what is happening in Cedar Rapids or any of the other cities profiled in this article, please do comment.

Primary Highways: Montana and South Dakota

Well, this long process is nearly at it’s end. And this time, we really mean it, there are only two states left, Montana and South Dakota. I had an opportunity to visit both as a kid in 1988. It was only as I prepared to write this article that I realized this was twenty years ago!

We came into Montana at night on I-94, which we previously mentioned in this series when we visited Indiana and Detroit. The night sky in Montana is an amazing experience, as is the complete darkness if one stops the car and turns out the lights. A little eerie, actually. I grew up the suburbs north of New York City, so such clear and dark nights were a new experience.

I-94 ends quietly at junction with I-90 near Billings, the largest city in Montana. I don’t remember much about it.

We did visit Yellowstone National park, which is mostly in Wyoming. But the northern entrance, featuring the Roosevelt Arch, is in Montana:

We discussed Yellowstone in more detail when we wrote about Wyoming. But I didn’t mention the fact that I was there during the massive fires of 1988, that burned about one third of the park. The smoke and the various closures certainly colored my visit. I do need to go back again and experience Yellowstone as an adult and without the fires.

From Yellowstone, we traveled north and east, stopping in the town of Butte. Though quite small, I recall it looking rather large as one approached from the east at night on I-90. We at CatSynth would not deign to make jokes about the town’s name.

Ultimately, we headed north on US 93 to reach Glacier National Park. This was an altogether different experience from Yellowstone. Not only were the skies clear, but landscape was more the standard forests and lakes and mountains one associates with Rockies:

Among the striking features of Glacier Park are its lakes, such as St. Mary Lake (pictured here) and Lake McDonald. Lake McDonald in particular is quite deep, as it is formed from a valley between mountains, though not as deep as Crater Lake in Oregon. The park does of course have Glaciers, but they have been retreating quite dramatically, victims of climate change.

Our trip back from Montana took us through South Dakota on I-90. The main feature of I-90 in South Dakota were the frequent billboards advertising Wall Drug, which we of course did have to stop at, after having fun with the concept for the preceding hours. We did of course visit the more monumental attractions, including the dueling carved mountains of Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore.

We ultimately continued east on I-90 to Chicago, the hometown of the likely winner at the end of this long contest.

Primary Highways: Oregon

Our series returns to the west coast, and to a state I know from personal experience. I have traveled through the western part of Oregon multiple times. It is a state that at first glance has much in common with northern California, politically and geographically, but has its own unique characteristics.

Traveling north on I-5, one crosses an arbitrary line the separates the spectacular landscape of far-northern California from the spectacular landscape of southwestern Oregon. The highway weaves through the mountains and valleys of the Cascade Range, including numerous volcanic (or formerly volcanic) peaks.

At the town of Medford, one can continue north, or take a detour east on state highway 62 to Crater Lake. Crater Lake fills a caldera in the Cascade Range, and is the deepest lake the United States. It's circular shape is quite distinctive, as are its internal landmarks, including Wizard Island (the pointy island to one side of the lake), the “Old Man of the Lake“, and several volcanic formations. I had the opportunity to visit Crater Lake many years ago.

More recently, I traveled the other route from Medford, on I-5 north to Portland, while I was on tour last October.

We experienced Portland's famously variable weather. Fortunately, many of the city's attractions are indoors. This includes Powell's Books. I could have spent the whole day in the Pearl Room, which contained the art and architecture offerings, as well as their extensive rare book collection.

Portland also has abundant public art. Across from Powell's is this “brush,” a noted landmark:

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This building brings to mind the city's nickname, Rose City.

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These are only a few of the photos I took while on tour. Please visit the original article for more images, including the intriguing “recursive elephant” sculpture (and the hidden cat).

Portland is someplace I could see living, and indeed the idea crossed my mind during my period of unemployment last year. Ironically, it was en route to Portland that I took the fateful phone call that led to my current job and new life in San Francisco.

We also performed in the coastal town of Astoria, which can be reached by traversing the coast range or traveling along the Columbia River on US 30. This is actually the western end of US 30, which starts at a junction with our friend US 101.

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Astoria was cool and rainy and very green, as one would expect along the northern Pacific coast. The people we met there were also very welcoming to a group of Bay Area musicians playing weird experimental music. Again, you can read more about our visit at the original tour article.

I have never been to the eastern part of Oregon, which is a very different place altogether. I am quite intrigued by the descriptions of part of eastern Oregon as a desert landscape. But it seems like one has to be very motivated to visit, as it is far less populated and less accessible via major highways. The east-west divide also seems to extend to politics, with western Oregon being more liberal in the “northern California” sense, and eastern Oregon being more conservative. I wonder how this divide is going to play, at least in the media, given the patterns of this election…

Primary Highways: West Virginia

Well, this is probably the most difficult state we've had to write about since beginning this series. Even harder than Indiana last week.

I did travel through West Virginia a couple of times on family road trips in my youth. We definitely passed through the panhandle on I-81, an area that probably now identifies more with the DC and Baltimore metropolitan area than with the rest of the state. I do recall signs welcoming us to “Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.”

The capital and largest city, Charleston, has a population smaller than my former hometown, Santa Cruz. The state is synonymous with coal mining; and with some rather harsh stereotypes that have surfaced in the last weeks, especially with the demographic issues in the current campaign. We at CatSynth would prefer to consider the state's striking landscape and beauty as suggested by its iconic New River Gorge Bridge:

The New River Gorge Bridge carries U.S. Highway 19 over the New River. At a height of 876 feet (267 m), it is the highest vehicular bridge in the Americas, and the second highest in the world. This section of Highway 19 forms a rather spectacular bypass of Charleston and connects two of the states major highways, I-77 and I-79.

Situated in the Appalachian region, West Virginia is full of mountains and canyons, but altogether different from those one finds in the western U.S. The landscape isn't quite as “stark,” and its features are much older than the Sierra Nevada or the Rocky Mountains or the canyons of the southwest. Indeed, the Appalachians are one of the oldest mountain ranges that can still be considered “mountains.”

There is also Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state. And this cable-stayed bridge over the Ohio River introduces a more “industrial Midwestern” area altogether different from the New River Gorge.

Quite a geographical diversity for such a small state. And perhaps appropriate given its history as a border region and breakaway state during the American Civil War. West Virginia pulled off the trick of seceding from a secessionist state, Virginia. It was admitted in 1863 under somewhat controversial circumstances, but has managed to forge an identity of its own.

Primary Highways: Indiana

It has been a really busy week at CatSynth, but we're taking some time to continue our “primary highways” series with a visit to the state of Indiana. Appropriately for our series, Indiana is nicknamed the “Crossroads of America.” And that is how many of us know the state, passing from one place to another. It boasts eight major interstate highways: I-69, I-65, I-94, I-70, I-74, I-64, I-80, and I-90. These are indeed crossroads among major U.S. cities, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Boston, Chicago. Detroit, Seattle and are hometown San Francisco.

I have traveled through Indiana en route from New York to San Francisco multiple times on I-80, which is part of the Indiana Toll Road. (Anyone surprised that we are once again traveling along I-80 during this series?)This highway runs along the extreme northern section of the state, passing through farmland, old industrial cities, and the suburbs of Chicago to the west. One can imagine along this landscape the demographic divisions currently being portrayed in the media. One can also observe Indiana's well-known reputation for being flat, particularly in the north. Though in the south, towards Kentucky, the landscape becomes more hilly.

In the northwest, near Chicago, I-80 shares its path with I-94. To the west, I-94 splits off to become the major freeway in downtown Chicago; beyond that it heads towards Milwaukee, then Minneapolis and the northern plains. In Indiana, it hugs the coast of Lake Michigan “before heading east on the long road to Detroit“.

A bit of amusing highway trivia involves I-69, which extends from Indianapolis north to Michigan and eventually the Canadian border. There have been plans for a while to extend I-69 south all the way to Texas and the Mexican border, creating another north-south transcontinental route. Former representative John Hostettler from Indiana was a strong supporter of the extension of I-69, but he also led a campaign to change its designation. Apparently, some “religious conservatives believe 'I-69' sounds too risqu

Primary Highways: Pennsylvania

Well, after several weeks off, we resume our “primary highways” series with a trip to Pennsylvania. And once again, we find ourselves on I-80.

We begin with this interesting photograph from the completion of I-80 at the Milesburg Interchange, from the site The east and west destinations are reminders why we keep coming back to this particular highway throughout the series.

I-80 traverses a path through the center of the state, though hills and valleys, mostly avoiding larger towns and cities. It is also famously windy and difficult to drive, particularly the eastern half. Indeed it has been cited as one of the “worst roads” multiple times by truck drivers and others. Nonetheless, it is quite scenic, and it does pass by a few notable places. Just south of that cool sign in Milesburg is State College, not surprisingly the home of Penn State University. This school is huge. There is Punxsutawney, the town made famous by the classic film Groundhog Day. Yes, they do have a groundhog there. On the eastern edge of the state, I-80 passes through the mountainous region around the Delaware Water Gap, a frequent “first stop” on trips heading west from New York.

In the northeast, I-80 also passes through the area that includes industrial towns such as Scranton and Allentown, which have been much talked about in the recent campaign. Hillary has some heritage here (and support). It is also where the media is looking for “drama” after Barack Obama's recent comments – I do sympathize with him, but I am holding back from jumping into that milieu. Let's get back to the road…

…much of the action is actually to the south, on Pennsylvania's other major east-west highway: I-76, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It connects the major cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the capital, Harrisburg, and New Jersey. I have never been to Harrisburg or Pittsburgh – though I can name all three rivers, which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

According to the site Philadelphia Highways (part of, “Interstate 76 happens to come through the city just a few miles from where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.” Seems like too much of a coincidence, but it is actually the most appropriate number on the interstate grid. And for actual proximity, I-676 and I-95 are even closer to Independence Hall:

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Philadelphia has an interesting dual identity. One is its central role in the history and “mythology” of the United States. (One of the “myths” is that is was the first capital. That was actually New York!) The other is simply being the sixth largest city in the U.S., with life and culture of its own outside the historical sites. It also has a reputation as one of the more dangerous cities. Nonetheless, I have visited several times with no negative experiences. I do feel bad for cities that have a lot to offer, but get tagged with that label. New York certainly went through that as well. We will see how things go for the “City of Brotherly Love” – I would certainly welcome comments from anyone who has lived there…

And we can't close this article without mentioning I-99. I-99 is infamous among some highway enthusiasts for being numbered so inconsistently with the rest of the grid, and for being a construct of pure political vanity. Again, from

In 1996, Representative Bud Shuster who acquired funds for the upgrading of US 220, had this highway designated an Interstate in Section 322 of the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995…Bud had his highway designated I-99 and had the designation written into law. It was bad enough it runs past his son's car dealership, and violate Interstate highway numbering system too! It should have been numbered I-576, 776, or 976. I like the last…a fitting number for someone that had been under investigation for illegal highway funding acts.

The currently completed section if I-99 takes us back to State College, where we began.