Editor's note: New York City's Sam Levin, a beginner driver, is kicking off his fellowship with Westword by documenting his cross-country trip. This is his second dispatch from the road.
Contrary to the lessons of my upbringing as a native New Yorker, there is an exciting world beyond the Big Apple.
In the middle of the U.S. along Interstate 70, it includes fire-breathing dragons, actual open space, museums that can go days without visitors and 200-feet-tall symbols of God.
Driving hundreds and hundreds of miles on the second day of my four-day road trip from the East Coast to Denver, I was reminded of the important fact that New York City is not the center of the universe (something that becomes especially clear after ten hours of driving in the actual geographic center of America).
Unconvinced that driving thousands of miles -- after only really practicing a few times in Manhattan -- would give me enough adventure, I researched quirky roadside attractions that might liven up my time, which on Day Two was spent in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. And to be sure I didn't miss anything, I kept a very close watch on billboard advertisements featuring potential detours -- a practice closely associated with my signature out-of-control swerve that fellow drivers acknowledged with supportive honks and encouraging eye contact.
Exhibit at Wilbur Wright's birthplace in Indiana.
And as exciting as the anticipation is for my GPS' next direction ("Keep left and stay on I-70 West for 200 miles"), I needed something more to keep me energized. That's why I frantically exited the highway in Indiana and followed little brown signs on desolate roads that led me to the birthplace of Wilbur Wright, i.e., the womb of flight.
A few factors made this unlike any other historical landmark I've visited in my life. First, I've never had a whole museum to myself (and my mother, my supportive road trip companion), and I've also never been to a museum in the middle of (relative) nowhere. Thus, I've never heard so much silence. Signs in the backyard of Wilbur's house mark the locations of the first successful flights. The exhibit gives extensive history and shows visitors where Wilbur slept and worked. The museum even takes you to the room where he first walked as a toddler -- the first first step to flight!
A white-bearded, slow-talking Wright enthusiast in charge of the museum when I showed up told me that some days they get a good handful of visitors. Other days, none. Last year, he said, people from 48 states and 27 countries dropped in.
I didn't ended up learning a ton, partly because the eerie, un-urban quiet of the exhibit and the surrounding town of Millville kind of creeped us out, prompting us to leave after only about twenty minutes.
Metal dragon in Illinois, breathing fire for one dollar.
Later, we found a somewhat less educational attraction -- a fire-breathing 35-foot-long metal dragon just off of I-70, apparently built under the auspices of a local hardware store in Vandalia, Illinois. Purchased at a liquor store across the street, a one-dollar token -- which informs its users that "dragon fire brings good luck" -- can be inserted into the dragon, prompting it to shoot out real flames for about ten seconds. I can't say it was overwhelmingly thrilling, but it was definitely more amusing than the predictable landscape of roadkill and fast food ads along this part of I-70.
The one other noteworthy site we visited was a giant white cross just off the highway in Effingham, Illinois. The "Cross at the Crossroads" (at the intersection of highways 57 and 70) juts out nearly 200 feet into the sky.
The Cross at the Crossroads in Ellingham, Illinois.
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SHOW ME HOW
After talking my way out of watching an eight-minute video at the welcome center for the cross, the friendly woman in charge asked me where I was from. When I said New York, she joked: "Will you take me with you?"
I responded that I would, except for one obstacle. It was the truth that was becoming clearer and clearer throughout the day: "I'm driving away from New York."