Some people say the most splendid thing about a road trip to Ohio is the road trip from Ohio. I might have agreed; benighted rustbelt, flyover, swing state that it is. But follow this simple itinerary and you may come away with affection for Ohio. Spring is a good time to travel.
I had signed up for a nonfiction conference at a small university in a small university town in the middle of Ohio. The keynote speaker, Scott Russell Sanders, was someone whose work I respected, who had written a wrenching essay I could not get out of my head. Once I decided to drive, I started examining the road atlas for possible routes. There is no getting around Pennsylvania if you want to drive to Ohio from New York City. Two basic corridors exist – Interstate 80 to the north and the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the south. Driving the full distance would be more than a day’s work: so, to break up the trip, where to stop? What’s beyond Harrisburg?
I could visit Fallingwater – Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece that sits astride a stream in a tiny western Pennsylvania town. I have been an architecture nerd since a college survey course and I believe no structure, big or small, exerts such exquisite tension on its setting as Fallingwater. So I went.
I dropped my things at a B&B nearby, then found some startlingly good sushi, and ultimately wound up at the multiplex in time to be disappointed by Star Trek Into Darkness. Early the next morning I wound through hollows pillowed with ground fog to the invisible town of Mill Run, Penna.
Wright built Fallingwater as a weekend home for department store magnates from Pittsburgh. They gave him free rein and what they got was a glory, a stack of cantilevered terraces that stunningly recapitulates the waterfall below. The rugged watercourse adds music to the breathtaking geometries, while the yellow-green leaves of spring cast a dazzling play of light. It feels like there is a breeze. The terraces levitate, suspended from a supple column of stone and glass by good fortune alone. The boundaries of inside and outside dissolve. Somehow, gravity doesn’t operate. Within, the sensation is almost Cubist in that sights and sounds and smells and textures shift and overlap in a wondrous, kaleidoscopic way. Instantly, I knew I could live there, not intellectually or from vanity, but the house could effortlessly fit into my life and my life into it. Setting foot in Fallingwater fulfilled an ageless daydream. I will forever know it in all four dimensions.
Abuzz with satisfaction, I pushed on to Ashland, Ohio, site of the conference. Tedious interstate unspooled before me as I scanned my efficient directions. Ashland lay between Columbus and Akron and I imagined it as the Ohio equivalent of those moribund New England mill towns – a hodge-podge of seen-better-days, a hollowed-out downtown and weary streets of unhappy houses.
I picked up my room number and key and my sheets and towels. My dorm was a three-story, motel-style slab at a right angle to a busy intersection. The rest of the university sprawled across the street, in a mid-20th century industrial park / motel-style slab sort of way. Lavish flowerbeds, generous swaths of color, softened the utilitarianism. Remarkably for a one hundred and twenty-five year-old institution, no building predates World War II. What might the campus look like filled with undergrads? Corporate on a very casual Friday.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Ashland University was its rococo fetishizing of memorabilia. Every possible vertical surface was covered with framed and captioned photos, documents, posters, and tchotchkes, as well as trophies, beanies, balls, and plaques. Every corridor was a walk down somebody’s memory lane or a stumble down a gauntlet of arcana to an end so trivial that all you noticed were the bouffants and bellbottoms. One could not help but observe a dismaying partiality for magicians and Republicans. Astonishingly, Ash U has nurtured a fine nonfiction literary magazine called River Teeth.
Back in the wintertime, I had submitted my ‘manuscript’, a swiped-together selection of discontinuous personal essays, for an ‘assessment.’ No one had seen the thing since its days as a master’s thesis. I discarded about forty percent of it in favor of current writing. In addition to the many other stimulating aspects of a gathering of like-minded writers, the opportunity for someone of reputation to read my writing and proffer their opinion had me vibrating with apprehension. While I’m not shy about letting other people see my work, I sometimes play a very self-manipulative game with fantasy outcomes.
We sit at a picnic table in the quad in the afternoon sun. Kate, my reader, says I have a book here. She points out areas that need expansion and whole pieces that should be set aside. But I have a book, if I want. How about that.
The conference did not provide breakfast on departure day, so I tracked down some to-go coffee, gassed up the vehicle, consulted the next page of the directions, and pointed the car’s nose toward Kidron, Ohio. My friend, Becca and her husband, Michael, had offered to show me around the Amish counties of eastern Ohio. She had grown up there, for all intents and purposes, on the family farm. Ohio is home to more Amish and Mennonite families than Pennsylvania. The highlight of the tour would be lunch with her grandma, Ruth Amstutz, who lives in the farmhouse built after the family emigrated from Switzerland in 1840.
I pulled into the yard on the dot of 10am. It was a damp, soft-focus morning, somewhere between overcast and foggy. From the looks of it, there didn’t seem to be anyone home. I double-checked the address. Despite a smidgen of doubt, I maintain a steadfast, manly faith in printed directions. I rang the bell. Becca answered. She stood in the doorway, always taller than I remember, her strawberry blond hair pulled back, and a big, sweet smile on her face.
She tilted her head just a bit to the left and said, “V.”
Michael stood behind her and Grandma behind him. With a flurry of pleasantries, I was ushered into the fine old house, spotless and modest. Did I want lemonade or iced tea? Grandma Amstutz carried a pitcher of lemonade and four glasses onto the back porch and we fumbled joyfully through small talk. The talkative dachshund seemed to like me.
After draining our glasses, we departed for a pre-lunch exploration of the rectilinear byways of the Ohio countryside. The infinite farmland was either still bare or covered with new green. Proud barns with acolyte silos lorded over congregations of dusty outbuildings and cast nets of white fence everywhere. In the fields, mighty horses pulled plows, and in the yards, wash hung limply on lines. The farm folk always waved as we passed by. Kids were dressed identically as their parents. A man in overalls, navy blue long-sleeved shirt, and straight-brimmed straw hat walked beside the road holding the hand of a tiny, perfect version of himself.
They brought me to a rambling emporium called Lehman’s, which strived to meet all the simple requirements of the farm communities, while anticipating summer tourists’ insatiable need for stuff. The hokey practicality and impracticality of the abundance extended to fifty different types of hatchet, psychedelic displays of seed packets, stiff, tubular denim trousers in every imaginable size except for ‘fat’, and Amish romance novels.
I guess we had been working up an appetite. By the time we got back to the farm, Grandma Amstutz had laid out an epic lunch – a plump breast of chicken accompanied by egg noodles, mashed potatoes, stuffing, crescent rolls, and asparagus. And a mountainous apple pie and coffee. If I were heading back to the fields, I’d have energy to burn, but after such a painfully hearty lunch, I was predisposed to snooze. Michael and Becca had other plans for me, but first she beckoned – “Come to the springhouse, V.”
Behind and below the farmhouse sat the whitewashed springhouse, two stories, two rooms. Two, small, square windows in its wattle-and-daub walls flanked the thick door, which opened noiselessly. In the half-light hung a rich, chill dampness. A long stone trough stretched against the back wall, filled with cold water of unearthly transparency. Opposite was a great fireplace with a heavy kettle suspended above the swept hearth. “Everything happened in the springhouse,” said Becca, “It was the center of existence.” “I see,” I said, really seeing.
We stepped out into the now bright May air.
More hill-and-dale driving, in search of authentic Amish baskets. Becca knew of a gentleman who set out his excellent wares in the parking lot of Shisler’s Cheese House on weekends. We stopped by, got his address, and then lit out on a GPS adventure. A half hour later, we beheld a hand-painted sign, red baskets on a white section of corrugated metal nailed to a fence post. Abruptly, we turned left. I was in the back seat, my view compromised, as we bucked down a dirt road. A pair of curious sheep paced us from behind a fence. We stopped short of the house and chickens ran across our bow. Again, no sign of human life.
I strode onto the porch and announced, with some self-conscious bravado, “Hello?” through the screen door. The interior of the farmhouse lay deep in shadow. No response. I turned to my friends with a shrug. Then, behind me, the screen door creaked.
“You woke me from my nap.”
“Oh, hello there. Your nap?”
“After the noon meal. My nap.”
“We got your name from Shisler’s,” Becca said. “We’d like to see your baskets.”
“Baskets, yes. In the shed.”
He stepped off the porch and we followed him quietly across the hardpack yard and through the dutch door of a red, weathered building. In a corner, spilling off a workbench and piled underneath, every conceivable form of woven container – breadbaskets, wastepaper baskets, pie carriers with leather handles (one-, two-, and three-pie), baskets that fit baking dishes of all sizes, and hampers with and without lids. The sharp smell of linseed oil cut through the dusty gloom. The basket man grew increasingly animated as he displayed his handiwork, which was very handsome and not without some quirky flaws. Before we knew it, he had disassembled the great pile basket by basket and I had selected four different ones for Christmas purposes. Well, three. The two-pie basket was for me.
The joy of beautiful, simple things, of found art, and of a peculiar, almost mystic, encounter way outside the bounds of my customary experience, made for a chesty exhilaration, a core happiness shared with friends. Back at the farmhouse, I stowed my finds in the trunk of the car and bid Becca and Michael good-bye. The music of Cleveland beckoned.
From the south, I arrived at Cleveland via a boxed-in interstate that gave way to a tumble of squat, banged-up industrial buildings. All of a sudden, a mylar-shiny baseball stadium ballooned into view on the left. An afternoon game would be getting underway. A beefy crowd clotted at the crosswalk, then streamed across, more likely to aggravate a melanoma than see the Indians win. After driving just fifteen more blocks, I could see the Lake and, jesus, another stupendous stadium. Cleveland – city of light, city of magic. Thank God its streets were numbered.
The Hyatt Regency hotel had been retrofitted into and out of a grand nineteenth century structure called The Arcade. In its original configuration, the five-story atrium was surrounded by lower floors of retail and, on the upper ones, offices. Now it was all hotel. The atrium ran the length of a city block beneath a glass canopy, so that the space flooded with soft, saturated light. Cast-metal gargoyles circled the fourth floor, leaning balefully into the vast space every twenty or thirty feet, each with a small incandescent bulb in its mouth. It’s a breathtaking interior. I was to meet my friend, Chet, there. He had driven up from Dayton to join me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A couple of phone calls and a knock on the door and there he was, lanky and gnomic, wearing jeans and a blue Indian-style shirt. Chet had flyaway white hair and a white beard that he tucked into his shirt for some mystifying reason, which he eventually explained to no avail. His features were large and well-formed; the giant ears had been pinned back many years ago to discourage involuntary tacking in high winds, so it was up to his noble nose to give focus and gravity to the entire facial menagerie. He carried himself with the quiet aplomb of the professional actor. Chet was fond of me and I him. I offered him a seat and we proceeded to catch up – the comings-and-goings of our children, his search for community among the far-flung and long-lost, my writing process.
We adjourned for a dinner reservation nearby. A quick stroll along the ground floor of the Arcade, out the back door, and soon we were seated in the noisy frat-bar front room of a highly regarded tavern. Though the decibels peaked and troughed relentlessly, we gabbed with enthusiasm. Chet described his curious method of decision-making, which involved a rubber cork on a length of chain that, held aloft, waggled one way for ‘yes’ and the opposite for ‘no.’ His technique had a friendly name I immediately forgot.
It developed that Chet had decided to forego the Federal Reserve Bank of Rock ’n Roll in favor of visiting an old friend from his days in the copy department of a greeting card company. His little rubber stopper jobber had advised him to alter his plans. I felt a twinge of abandonment, but quickly adjusted to the new normal. We agreed to meet for breakfast in the hotel and then proceed on with what the cosmos had in store.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has affixed itself to the shore of Lake Erie, a striking prism of glass, a bell jar of nostalgia and hype. A banner across the marquee announced THE ROLLING STONES. The ticket guy proposed that I take advantage of the opportunity to pose against a blue screen holding a red electric guitar with rocker intention. At the end of the visit, a 4×6 print would be available for purchase. Oh, no thank you: not this time. I’ve posed as Elliot on his bicycle with ET in the front basket and nothing could possibly ever come close to the stupid magnificence of that.
Holy Shit! The Hall of Fame of Rock and Roll was a ridiculous, entertaining, exhausting place, crammed to the gills with minutiae, a lot like Ash U, but without the Republicans. In addition to the tsunami of ephemera, small print to squint at and presumably read, there was treasure – you could find pieces of the plane that took Otis Redding down, an ‘Otis’ fragment and a ‘Redding’ one, Jimi Hendrix’s sofa, an uncomfortable-looking section of a sectional, Michael Jackson’s glove revolving on a plexiglass pedestal, pinned by a spotlight, resplendent and dead as a butterfly, and CBGB’s awning that I used to see from my apartment window until a couple years ago. It sometimes had the feel of uniquely glamorous, museum-quality episode of Hoarders. The exhibit hall in the basement was pitch dark, with labyrinthine, chronology-averse catwalks and cul-de-sacs that shunt you from Metal to Doo-Wop to Disco in an eyeblink. The whole thing was claustrophobic, over-reaching, and spectacular, like Aretha Franklin being squeezed into one of Diana Ross’ gowns.
On a higher floor, I ducked into a dark theater, stood in the back, and watched a compilation film of the famous inductees, beginning at the museum’s inception in 1986 with this bunch: Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Elvis. It played the soundtrack to my life. When it came The Band’s turn, Levon Helm sang a snippet from The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Just a fraction of a second, it seemed. Those seven words was the entire length of the segment, but my breath caught and my eyes filled. This crazy place was too rich for me.
My final stop was the city of Akron and the house where Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, two drunken Vermonters, met and where, on June 10, 1935, Dr. Bob Smith took his last drink. From that date, Alcoholics Anonymous marks its beginning. The modest house was built in 1915 and Bob Smith was its first owner, living there until he died in 1950.
I am sober since 1985. For me and many, the story of how Bill W. met Dr. Bob carries the resonance of a creation myth. The principles and history of AA all depend upon the simple practice of two alcoholics sharing an honest conversation. Only that kind of intimacy can keep us from drinking. I believe this in the very center of my being.
Swooping over the swells and dips and swells of the red brick streets of the old suburban neighborhood, a fluttery anticipation tussled with the real concern I might get hopelessly lost. My directions had me slowing down to make a turn every three or four blocks. It felt like it took hours to find 855 Ardmore Avenue and I knew the house was going to close at three o’clock. And then, there I was, parked at the curb of a leafy street like any other. The house sat high on a corner lot, white with yellow trim and a wide front porch.
I couldn’t help feeling just a little self-conscious, climbing the twelve steps (yes, the twelve steps) to the front door. Once inside, that sensation dropped away: the house enveloped me. Standing in the front hall, one could see, or certainly sense, the four exterior walls of the house; it was that small. This also meant the house was full of light. First thing, I signed the guestbook. A half dozen people milled around in the entry and living room; coming or going, it was impossible to tell.
A stocky, open-faced guy in blue coveralls approached and asked if it was my first time. I chuckled and he chuckled back. The name embroidered above his pocket said ‘Doug’.
“My name is Doug. I can give you a tour, if you like. We’re all volunteers here,” he said.
“I’d like that,” I said. “This is my last stop in Ohio. I’m here on purpose. I guess we all are. On purpose, I mean, Dr. Bob and all… Doug.”
“Uh-huh. Yeah. Let’s start upstairs, then.”
I poked my head into the three bedrooms that had provided respite for countless drunks, often forcing the two Smith kids to bunk in the third floor attic. This must have been a lively place; both before and after Bob Smith stopped drinking.
On the ground floor, what struck me was the kitchen table, around which Bob and Bill had their life-changing conversation. In addition to two half-full coffee cups, I saw a plate of windmill cookies, the kind I see all the time at meetings in New York. The only spot on the globe where I’ve felt the presence of such quietly turbulent spirits was Delphi in Greece in the early morning. Maybe that’s a reach, but the restorative legacy of 855 Ardmore Avenue is unquestionable.
Eventually, Doug and I made our way down to the cellar, a whitewashed room remarkable for nothing in particular. For the Smiths, being on a corner lot allowed the basement to have a set of double doors that permitted off-street parking. Photographs of Dr. Bob’s automobiles lined the walls.
“How much time do you have, Doug?”
“Seven years clean and dry in a month.”
“That’s impressive. It sorta rolls along after a while, the not drinking and going to meetings,” I said. “This commitment must help. How often do you take people around?”
“Only once a week.”
“Only? How come?”
“There’s a demand. Some people say it’s the best job in Akron.”
“And you’ve got the Tuesday afternoon commitment. Lucky me.”
The two of us continued the conversation in this abbreviated vein – questions, simple answers, fencing, sideways admissions.
It’s all in the eyes. “AA eyes,” as my friend, Brigid, says. What Dr. Bob called “the language of the heart.” Doug and I struck a chord of commonality in half an hour. We didn’t have much in common in the specifics of our lives, but we weren’t drinking and that took care of just about everything. I couldn’t have been happier, what they meant when they talked about the joy of living.
For you, the pleasures of Ohio are there to be discovered. Enjoy.
V was raised by wealthy people in suburban New Jersey; growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. For thirty years he worked on Wall Street managing other people’s money until the office closed in 2008, when he decided to try his hand at poetry and nonfiction. V completed an MFA in creative writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars in June 2011. His publishing credits are slender, consisting of an anecdote in the Metropolitan Diary section of The New York Times about shopping for styrofoam with a nickel stuck to his forehead and, recently, an essay in the The Common online about therapeutic spelunking.
“Ohio House Tour” won a Silver Award in the Culture and Ideas category of the Eighth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.