“The City of No Illusions”

For the first installment of hopefully dozens of blog entries, my travel series, Rust Belt Tales, chose Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is a mix of East Coast briskness and Midwestern friendliness. Strategically located on the former Erie Canal at the eastern end of Lake Erie, Buffalo was built on the fortunes of steel, grain and automobiles. Buffalo reached its population peak in 1950 at around 580,000 residents. Population has dwindled to around 260,000, but most, including myself, feel as though the population hemorrhage has stopped. Buffalo has a hearty, blue-collar, hard-working, no-nosense DIY ethic that is transforming the city. Among the vacant parcels, abandoned buildings and former manufacturing sites, a new Buffalo is rising.


Greetings from Buffalo Mural by Casey William Milbrand

After driving over one hour from Rochester on the New York State Thruway (why the hell do they have people handing out tickets – no wonder the taxes are so high) on a warm day with gray skies, I was in the mood for some breakfast, and I knew just the place: Paula’s Donuts. Located in the tidy northern Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, I came to Paula’s to try the uniquely Buffalo Peanut Stick Donut. IMG_0601I was even more excited when I found Paula’s runs a breakfast special where you can get a breakfast sandwich, a coffee and a donut for $5.00. I chose a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on an everything bagel and topped it with hot sauce and ketchup. It was exactly what I needed to start the day. After finishing the sandwich, the donut that was staring at me for the past five minutes was about to be devoured. What you get is a cake donut topped with some sort of white icing and rolled in crushed peanuts. This thing is a monster. It took me about five minutes to slay this dense delight. Paula’s was so good, I went back again the second day and ordered the exact same breakfast. I even took two donuts home.

After enjoying the peanut stick donut and breakfast sandwich, I headed to another Buffalo institution, Watson’s Candies. Watson’s makes a special treat that will make any Buffalonian drool just thinking about it: the Sponge Candy. Made by Watson’s for decades, Sponge Candy is a seafood-like, crunchy molasses candy enrobed with dark or milk chocolate that quickly melts in your mouth. I had to resist the temptation to try these, as my intention was to bring them home to Michigan. Upon actually trying them, I was hooked and was sad I did not buy more.   Sponge-Candy-1200x675
Don’t worry, this is not a food blog. This is a travel blog – in particular, documenting my impression of Rust Belt cities. After putzing around and procuring some chocolates to take with me, I headed to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, now the Richardson-Olmsted Complex. I had done my research beforehand, and was impressed with the massive and unique architecture and tales of abuse, neglect, overcrowding and torture that have taken place at the asylum. As I drove down Forest Avenue, I started to see two massive, patina towers peek out. I was listening to the local public radio station and right as I pulled into the complex, they were discussing the complex and how they turned a potion of it into a urban resort and conference center.FullSizeRender-201 FullSizeRender-203FullSizeRender-259What timing! Upon arrival, I was in awe of how large this complex was and how detailed the architectural features were. Made of sandstone and brick, this complex was built in 1870 on over 90 acres of land. Designed by famous architect Henry Hobson Richardson, this building coined the architectural term Richardsonian Romanesque. It originally featured a large central administration building flanked by the two towers, and had six wards on each side, forming a V-shape. To preserve this National Historic Landmark, a corporation was formed and lawsuits ensued to save this beautiful building. Parts of the building are undergoing restoration, with planned restoration of the entire complex over the next several years. The entire complex is a fenced-in construction site and is patrolled by police to deter would-be explorers.
FullSizeRender-260FullSizeRender-261I stopped by the desk of the newly-opened Hotel Henry, and an employee graciously showed me a hotel room. The rooms are all modern, but keep the historic nature of the building intact with the large doors and high ceilings. Do you dare stay there?IMG_0632 After spending a good hour at the asylum and still feeling in a spooky mood, I headed to Forest Lawn Cemetery. A cemetery, you ask? I often visit cemeteries in new cities to catch a glimpse of who the prominent people were in the city, as well as how they are treated in the afterlife. This sprawling 270-acre cemetery is the final resting place of such notable Buffalonians as Rick James, President Millard Fillmore and many other prominent figures from Buffalo. There were several birdwatchers with professional-looking cameras at the cemetery when I arrived. They seemed particularly taken with the stone bridge over the creek. FullSizeRender-205IMG_0645
As I was winding my way through the peaceful cemetery, I noticed the quaint and picturesque cemetery chapel. FullSizeRender-207After spending some reflection time in the cemetery, I travelled across town to South Buffalo to see the abandoned grain elevators at Silo City. FullSizeRender-212FullSizeRender-208Nestled among the meandering Buffalo River are what many affirm as the largest collection of grain silos in the world. Buffalo became an important grain distribution center for the entire world with its location on Lake Erie and the Erie Canal. When globalization and free trade increased, Buffalo just could not compete any longer. Thus, we are left with an enormous concentration of grain silos in different states of decay. FullSizeRender-209FullSizeRender-211I was in awe of how tall some of the silos are and how many of them there are. As I was exploring around near the river, an older, scruffy gentleman rode up on a bicycle and told me I could not be back here do to liability issues. I explained I was from out-of-town, and he then instructed me to a different silo to explore. After driving the car and parking again, I wandered around the back of the silo facing the Buffalo River. FullSizeRender-210I was amazed to see an old ship anchored to the back of the silo (The S.S. Columbia), slowly rusting away with time, just like the grain elevator it is tied to. After spending  a good amount of time at Silo City, I had worked up an appetite and had remembered reading about Buffalo-style pizza. I knew just the place to satisfy my craving: La Nova Pizzeria. La Nova is located in Buffalo’s Westside neighborhood and has been dishing out pies since the 1950s. In addition to pizza, La Nova offers wings too. Buffalo-style pizza is characterized by a thicker crust (with sesame seeds), a more savory pizza sauce, plenty of cheese and thick-cut pepperoni that curls and chars as it cooks, leaving a nice puddle of grease. FullSizeRender-217I washed down two slices of pepperoni pizza with a PJ’s Loganberry Drink. What the hell is loganberry, you ask? Loganberry is a Western New York staple soft drink that is made by two different companies. It is syrupy sweet and non-carbonated, and tastes like a mix of blackberry and raspberry. It is definitely a must-try when visiting Buffalo. After feeling the grease settle in, I decided to check out an abandoned railroad station currently under remediation and renovation, the Buffalo Central TerminalFullSizeRender-214I started getting glimpses of the railroad station tower meandering around the adjacent city streets. After circling one of Buffalo’s many roundabouts, I finally set eyes on the railroad station. I was completely amazed at how large and grand this old dame of a railroad station was. Anchored by a large, 18-story tower, this station features a large concourse and several decaying platforms and accessory buildings.FullSizeRender-256FullSizeRender-215I was unable to go into the station, but from the desolate grounds, the exterior is quite haunting. The railroad station is tucked away in an equally decaying and desolate neighborhood. The entrances were all boarded up and there were several signs urging against trespassing. The building is surprisingly spared from large amounts of graffiti, although nearly all of the windows in the platform offices are removed. When I walked closer to the terminal, I saw an old, rusted awning that read The New York Central Railroad Co. Back in its heyday, I can imagine this railroad station anchoring a booming area and bustling with people. There have been (and still are) several proposals for what to do with this hulking structure. FullSizeRender-216After spending over one hour walking the grounds of the Buffalo Central Terminal in awe and amazement, I headed west to the imposing and historic Connecticut Street Armory, located on Buffalo’s West Side. This building encompasses an entire city block and is completely made of sandstone. Built in 1899, the armory features a large central tower and several adjoining defense towers. It is currently home to the New York National Guard’s 74th Regiment. FullSizeRender-218FullSizeRender-219Located nearby is Lafayette High School, which was built in 1903 and is the oldest public school in Buffalo. It is one of the best examples of the French Renaissance Revival architectural style in the United States. FullSizeRender-204In addition to the historic secular architecture, Buffalo has several notable and elaborate churches scattered across the city. Downtown, I stumbled upon the St. Joseph’s Cathedral. This Gothic Revival building is the local diocese’s cathedral church. FullSizeRender-245Located nearly one block away, stands St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese on Western New York. FullSizeRender-246St. John’s Church stands tall over Buffalo’s Black Rock neighborhood. This beautiful red brick church features a large spire with a four-sided clock.FullSizeRender-199Located within walking distance of the Buffalo Central Terminal are three significant Catholic churches built to serve Buffalo’s Polish communities of the Eastside. Nicknamed “Polonia,” this neighborhood numbered around 100,000 immigrants of Polish descent by the 1920s. All three look very similar on first glance, but they are quite different from each other. Corpus Christi was built in 1907.FullSizeRender-238St. Stanislaus was built in 1908 (although the parish was founded much earlier).St_stanislaus_outsideSt. Adalbert’s was established in the late-1800s. FullSizeRender-236All over the city are stark reminders of past fortunes in the way of abandoned buildings. Although not nearly as bad as such cities as Flint, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, Youngstown and the like, the City of Buffalo has experienced over a 50% decline in population from its peak in the 1950s. As I was driving around the city, I saw many notable abandoned buildings. This abandoned factory is located on the rickety Elk Street viaduct over the railroad tracks and was undergoing remediation.FullSizeRender-213This abandoned factory was located along the railroad tracks heading north from the Buffalo Central Terminal. FullSizeRender-234FullSizeRender-233This abandoned Wonder Bread Factory is located near Genessee Street in the MLK Park neighborhood. The factory was churning out loaves of bread and other baked goods from 1923 to its closure in 2004. FullSizeRender-235IMG_0801The Church of the Transfiguration has been abandoned for over 25 years. When I was driving by, I noticed that an Arabic bookstore was located next door to this shuttered church. As I continued driving around this neighborhood, I was seeing many women walking around wearing dark clothes that covered their whole bodies. It occurred to me that this Buffalo neighborhood is slowly being resurrected from the dead by Muslims. They are building this area just like the Poles did in the early-1900s by building a community, practically from scratch. I also noticed that while Buffalo has plenty of vacant land, there is a lack of abandoned buildings, relative to other Rust Belt cities I have visited. I surmise that the high tax rates of Western New York can afford to demolish structures more quickly than other states. FullSizeRender-237IMG_0808Located on East Ferry Street, St. Matthew’s Church saw its last mass in 1993. This church had decayed faster than any of the others I saw. This church is not secured very good, making it a favorite for urban explorers. FullSizeRender-230FullSizeRender-231The former Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Warehouse was built in 1910 and occupies an entire Eastside city block and comprises almost 250,000 square-feet. FullSizeRender-239This abandoned factory is located in the Black Rock neighborhood on Tonawanda Street. FullSizeRender-200Besides grain, Buffalo is a Great Lakes steel town at heart. Located here were some of the largest steel mills in the United States. If you drive south on New York Route 5 from downtown, you will see a massive hulking relics of Buffalo’s industrial past. Factories such as Lackawanna and Bethlehem used to be places that employed thousands of people until corporations figured out they could produce steel cheaper overseas in Asia. The result is a massive industrial wasteland just south of downtown that is plagued with contaminants and will take billions of dollars to clean up. FullSizeRender-257This is the former site of the Lackawanna (later Bethlehem) steel mill in South Buffalo. This steel factory was the largest in the world at one time, employing over 20,000 people. FullSizeRender-221As you can see the contamination cleanup and deconstruction is in progress. This site is over 500 acres in size and is listed as a Class 2 Superfund Site. FullSizeRender-222Further south and across Route 5 from the Lackawanna site is another steel plant that is decaying and/or being demolished. FullSizeRender-224FullSizeRender-225I was haunted by the stark steel shell and broken windows of this abandoned building. FullSizeRender-226I can only imagine how many people worked at this factory in its heyday. FullSizeRender-227FullSizeRender-228I figured I had enough industrial vapors for one day, and decided to conclude my first day in Buffalo. Before heading out of Buffalo, there was one staple food that had been ruminating in my head for months – Beef on Weck. Besides smaller, neighborhood joints where one could procure this local delicacy, there are two renown establishments that serve it up – Schwabl’s and Charlie the Butcher. I chose Charlie the Butcher on price and location relative to the ride back to Rochester. I ordered at the counter and the sandwich was delivered to my table in less than five minutes. The standard here is the hand-carved roast beef, dipped in au jus and served on a kummelweck roll crusted with salt and caraway seeds. The sandwich is served with a dill pickle spear and a side of au jus for dipping. On the table is a container of horseradish, which is essential to this sandwich. Take the top bun off, put on a liberal amount of horseradish, put the top bun, dip a corner into the au jus and take a bite. This is one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. Make sure and wash the beef on weck down with some birch beer. FullSizeRender-229On my second day in Buffalo, I arrived to sunny and windy conditions. It was a nice spring day and the sky was a deep cobalt blue, a nice contrast to the gray clouds so typical of the Great Lakes region. I intended to spend the entire day walking around downtown, before making the eight-hour drive back to Grand Rapids. There are some really cool, striking architectural delights in downtown Buffalo if you look around. The Electric Tower is designed in the Beaux Arts style, and was built in 1912. FullSizeRender-240The four-story, Gothic Revival Old Post Office was built in the late-1890s and features a 244-foot-tall tower. It is currently occupied by Erie Community College. FullSizeRender-241FullSizeRender-242Built in 1929, the Rand Tower is shown with Lafayette Square in the foreground. The Rand Tower is just over 400 feet tall, and some say it served as the inspiration for the Empire State Building. FullSizeRender-250Built in 1925, the Neoclassical Liberty Tower features two miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty on the roof. IMG_0890I don’t often do many touristy things when visiting a new city, but I would be remiss if I did not visit the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park. Located on the waterfront near the new Canalside district, this museum includes three decommissioned Navy vessels open to the public. You start the tour aboard the USS The Sullivans, which is a destroyer named after five brothers (the Sullivan brothers) that were all killed aboard the USS Juneau by the Japanese in 1942. FullSizeRender-244I have never toured a warship before. It was very, very cool to see how the ship functioned. There is a lot of walking up and down narrow staircases and squeezing through tight doors. People were definitely smaller back then. IMG_0842What intrigued me was the sleeping areas. The servicemen were stacked up three high on vinyl cots. There was definitely a shortage of space. IMG_0846Next, you walk over a bridge and tour the cruiser, the USS Little Rock. Although the ship was completed after World War II, the USS Little Rock saw some action in the Mediterranean and the Carribean. The coolest sight in the ship was the giant missile loading area. FullSizeRender-243After snaking my way through the cruiser, the third ship is a submarine, dubbed the USS Croaker. This submarine was very small and tight to maneuver through, giving me appreciation for the sailors who spent time on this ship. The USS Croaker saw action in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. I though the battle flag of the USS Croaker explained their name and mission: a ship named after a croaking fish who’s mission was to bomb the Japanese. IMG_0863After spending a few hours aboard the USS The Sullivans, the USS Little Rock and the USS Croaker, I felt it was time to conclude my visit to Buffalo by strolling downtown for a visit to Buffalo’s Art Deco masterpiece City Hall. Built in the early-1930s, this is one of the United States’ greatest examples of municipal extravagance. The fact that Buffalo could afford this type of building speaks to its past riches and fortune. This 32-story building soars over adjacent Niagara Square. It was a particularly windy day when I visited, and rumor has it, that this building used to be cooled by the prevailing Lake Erie winds.FullSizeRender-247One of the highlights of City Hall is the stained glass skylight on the 13th floor in the City Council chambers. The sunlight was hitting just right to show off this elegant craftsmanship in the otherwise dark room. FullSizeRender-248FullSizeRender-251The murals, statues and friezes in the lobby and entry are a site to behold. I imagine the amount of time it took to finish this building with so many details to attend to. FullSizeRender-252IMG_0887The best part of City Hall is the FREE Observation Deck located on the 28th floor, which provides a pristine, 360-degree view of Buffalo and Lake Erie. IMG_0885FullSizeRender-254Buffalo lives up to its moniker, “The City of No Illusions.” Everything Buffalo shows you is face-value. What you see is what you get. The citizens of Buffalo know they have a challenge to restore this city to what it could be – not what it used to be. Luckily. with architectural treasures, history, location relative to Canada, access to fresh water, and hard-working spirit, I truly believe this city has vast potential to be great again.

Eric Dykstra 2017




After sleeping for around 16 hours, I woke up refreshed and well-rested, ready to take on another day of driving. It was another beautiful day, filled with clear blue skies and it also happened to be Easter Sunday. I decided to get an early start on the road, which would take me from Oklahoma City to Amarillo, via Interstate 40.

Heading west, I passed through the towns of El Reno, Weatherford, Clinton and Elk City, and after two hours, finally stopped in Sayre, Oklahoma. Sayre is considered one of the best examples of what an Oklahoma town looked like during the Dust Bowl. I was searching for the ghost of Tom Joad, the main character in author John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath. It should be noted that the book was received poorly by locals, as it projected an unfair image of Oklahomans being shiftless and shady. Below is the Beckham County Courthouse, which was used for certain portions of the film adaptation.FullSizeRender-52Sayre’s economy was traditionally based on agriculture, natural gas and helium gas extraction. Nearby was the most productive helium and gas field in the United States. As I drove around Sayre, I noticed the town had seen better days. FullSizeRender-53FullSizeRender-54The town is fairly well-preserved like a snapshot in time just from the 1930s. FullSizeRender-55FullSizeRender-56After Sayre, I drove several minutes west to another great example of a Dust Bowl-era town: Erick, Oklahoma. The stretch of Route 66 between Sayre and Erick was the last to be bypassed by Interstate 40 in the 1970s. Erick has definitely seen better days. Much of the town is shuttered, and I didn’t see more than a handful of people when I was exploring. The town has lost over 50 percent of its population since the Great Depression. FullSizeRender-57FullSizeRender-58Amongst all the shuttered businesses, I did manage to see a few cool murals and an eclectic home decked out in old signs.FullSizeRender-59.jpgFullSizeRender-60.jpgErick was well-noted as having some great motor courts and motels for travelers. I saw a few remnants of the motels and motor courts and tried to picture them in their heyday.FullSizeRender-61.jpgFullSizeRender-62.jpgJust a few miles west of Erick would be my last stop in Oklahoma; the abandoned Route 66 town of Texola, Oklahoma. Texola straddles the state line of Oklahoma and Texas, and is a classic example of a ghost town. Driving around, I did not see one person. The town is so deteriorated, it is really hard to imagine what it may have looked like at one point. There are NO services in town. As mentioned on the building below, there is “no place like Texola.”FullSizeRender-63.jpgFullSizeRender-64.jpgAs I was rummaging around on one of the properties, I heard a distant bark of a dog. I thought to myself that the last resident of this godforsaken town had a dog tied up in the yard. No big deal. I heard the bark getting increasingly closer and more vicious. I started back to my car, slowly. As I was around 300 feet from my car, I made visual contact with this ravenous, likely rabid dog. I saw him making a sprinting beeline straight for me. I remember seeing my heartbeat in my eyes. Fight or flight time. All the scenarios ran through my mind. Would I kick or punch it when it started attacking me? Were there any weapons laying around I could use? Would the dog’s owner come out with a shotgun pointed at my head? I hurriedly ran to the car. I jumped in, just missing the mutt bastard. He was ready to chew any limb of mine he could. I started the car and drove down the weed-infested four lanes of concrete a ways. More abandoned places awaited.FullSizeRender-65.jpgFullSizeRender-66.jpgI made a U-turn to return to the interstate exit. Waiting ahead in the middle of the road was that damn mutt again, barking like the mailman had just walked by. I approached him slowly, he did not move. I swerved to miss him, and there he was again, viciously barking and chasing the car for a good 1,000 feet before he gave up. The balls on that dog!

After returning to Interstate 40, it was merely seconds before I had entered God’s chosen land: Texas. That giant flag wove bright. They sure do love their state flag in Texas.texas-flag.jpgThe eastern panhandle of Texas is odd in that there may have been some Irish settlers at one point, or they developed a kitschy fake Irish environment to attract passing Route 66 motorists, as evidenced by the old sign for the Irish Inn and the city of Shamrock, which includes a beautiful and fully-restored Art Deco Conoco service station.FullSizeRender-67.jpgFullSizeRender-68.jpgAfter the quick stop in Shamrock, I drove west to the next town of McLean. McLean, like many other Route 66 towns has lost half of its population. The town was very small at around 700 inhabitants, and reminded me of the Oklahoma towns of Sayre and Erick. FullSizeRender-69.jpgThere were some pretty cool buildings and roadside motels located around town.FullSizeRender-70.jpgFullSizeRender-71.jpgFullSizeRender-72.jpgMost notable in McLean is a meticulously restored Phillips 66 station from the early 1900s.FullSizeRender-73.jpgGetting back on Interstate 40, I began to see a plethora of wind turbines. In fact, throughout the entire 177 miles of Interstate 40 through the Texas Panhandle, I don’t recall one time where a wind turbine was not in my line of sight or periphery. FullSizeRender-74.jpgI soon approached the Leaning Water Tower, which must have been a popular attraction on Route 66, because it even spawned the now-demolished Tower Restaurant.FullSizeRender-75.jpgFullSizeRender-76.jpgI was soon approaching the town of Groom, and there it was, in all of its glory, the United States’ first-to-third largest cross (depending on what source you refer to). The Groom Cross stands at just over 200-feet-tall, and was shining like a heavenly roadside beacon that has been saving sinning truckers for decades.FullSizeRender-77.jpgAs I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed many motorcycles parked in a straight line. I really didn’t think anything of it. Just typical outlaws coming for some spiritual reckoning on this Easter Sunday. As I walked closer, this motorcycle club was one that serves a higher purpose; the Soldiers for Christ MC! FullSizeRender-78.jpgCould this day get any better? Could it get any more ironic? Why yes, it could, and it did. While I was admiring the fourteen life-size statues replicating the stations of the cross, I saw this:FullSizeRender-79.jpgA newly-married bride, thanking Jesus for granting her wish of marrying her Soldiers of Christ boyfriend at the Groom Cross on Easter Sunday. How cute. How special. To show God’s favor, he halos of heaven could be seen right behind the Groom Cross. FullSizeRender-80.jpgHow heavenly. After all this churching on Easter Sunday, my heathen self needed to go to a more contemplative place that was more inclusive, the Stoner Patriot Peace Garden of All Faiths. This little gem sits on the Interstate 40 frontage road just east of Amarillo, and is a open space with a mix of rusted-out patriotic, religious and stoner signs and emblems. FullSizeRender-81.jpgFullSizeRender-82.jpgFullSizeRender-83.jpgThe last sign I read was “There is enough nuclear warpower in the world to kill the earth – over 18 times; but all it takes is once.” This contemplative sign prepared me for the next stop on the trip, the 16,000-acre Pantex Plant, the United States’ only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility. Located 16 miles northeast of Amarillo, this eerie and heavily-guarded facility has signs lining the perimeter fence that read “NO TRESPASSING: WARNING: USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED.” As much as I wanted to explore further, I was not about breach this fortress.FullSizeRender-86.jpgAs I approached the main gate, I was creeped out enough that I decided to just turn around.  FullSizeRender-85From the air, the heavily-guarded facility is truly sprawling. In the upper-right of the image, you will notice nuclear weapon and waste storage bunkers. There has been a lot of controversy locally and regionally about the storage of plutonium and nuclear waste, wellwater pollution and increased cancer rates. Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.39.39 AM.pngAs I turned around in the main entrance and was back on the main road, I was suspiciously looking in my rear-view mirror, waiting for G-Men in black SUVs to come up behind me and question me as to why I was turning around in the driveway. Paranoia soon disappeared the closer to Amarillo I was.

Continuing the religious exploration on Easter Sunday, I stopped at the tiny Wat Lao Buddharam when I arrived in northeast Amarillo. I parked my car and started walking around the grounds. The strong Texas sun was rapidly melting any residual snow that was left over, making for some pretty spectacular pictures. FullSizeRender-88.jpgSeeing that I was a certified interloper, a man came out and asked me if I was visiting. I replied that I was, and he invited me inside. I was asked to remove my shoes before entering. When I entered, there were around 15 Laotian people inside. Couches lined the walls. A massive shrine was located near the front of the building. An elderly monk was sitting down and praying. The man who invited me in had me introduce myself to everyone in the room, and we all started talking for a few minutes. I had never been in a buddharam, and I asked if I could take some pictures inside. FullSizeRender-89.jpgI can’t say that I have seen such a grandiose collection of deity statues in such a small place. These people clearly loved the Buddha, and were very friendly and welcoming to me. All this religion was making me hungry, so I high-tailed it to the iconic Big Texan Steak Ranch. FullSizeRender-90.jpgAdvertisements for this place are seen lining the interstate for hundreds of miles. They advertise a free steak. The catch is the steak is 72 ounces that you must initially pay for. You must eat the steak, shrimp cocktail, a baked potato, a roll and a salad within one hour.OrFEPkt.jpgIf you fail to clear the plate, you will have a bill for $72.00. If you succeed, you are rewarded with the free steak dinner and a trip to the bathroom (where said steak dinner will be coming out of both ends). What better way to celebrate our country’s excess and abundance than crushing a steak the size of a small baby? As for me, I settled for a small sirloin, a baked potato and salad, all washed down with a beer brewed on-site. After consuming the tasty steak, I decided to head into Amarillo and check it out. The trend of clear, blue skies continued in Amarillo, and provided a nice backdrop for pictures.FullSizeRender-91.jpgFullSizeRender-92.jpgFullSizeRender-93.jpgFullSizeRender-94.jpgFullSizeRender-95.jpgAfter driving around Amarillo for a bit, I decided to check into my motel and rest for a little while. I was soon at the Travelodge (I know, what a cheap bastard). I walked in and coerced the front desk clerk to let me check-in early. I was successful, and I walked to my room. This is one of those motels where you access your room from outdoors. I didn’t mind the outdated furnishings from the 1990s. I didn’t mind the tube television. I didn’t even mind the love stains on the non-working lamp fixtures and other assorted decor. I did mind the sticky, musty, uncarpeted floor that reeked of ammonia and bleach (and possibly semen). Those cleaners didn’t even leave me enough towels to create a makeshift white carpet to walk on between the bathroom and the bed! I really found a winner. When I unpacked and tried to rest for a few minutes, the chemical fumes were really getting to me. I made a resolution to depart earlier than I thought for Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which is located approximately 40 minutes southeast of Amarillo. Palo Duro bills itself as the United States’ second largest canyon. After paying a nominal $5.00 entrance fee, I was soon driving to the only scenic lookout before descending into the canyon. FullSizeRender-97.jpgFullSizeRender-98.jpgAfter spending 30 minutes walking around and enjoying the scenic viewpoint, I decided it was time to hop back in the car and begin the descent into the canyon. FullSizeRender-99.jpgThe canyon was pretty impressive. It was nice to be soaking up the sun in nature. I did some hiking for about two hours and came across some beautiful landscapes. FullSizeRender-100.jpgThe pine- and sage-green foliage provided a nice contrast to the copper-orange dirt that was baking in the sun. FullSizeRender-101.jpgFullSizeRender-102.jpgAfter spending three hours on the canyon floor, I decided to drive back to Amarillo, with hopes of catching the sunset from the scenic viewpoint on the way out. Approaching said viewpoint, I saw blue and red flashing lights. When I pulled into the parking area, I saw a guy and what appeared to be his girlfriend being questioned by two state park police officers. Able to hear what was being said, I sat on a bench facing the canyon, and acted like I was taking pictures, when in reality I was using my phone as a mirror to see what was happening behind me. They were getting questioned because they may have been speeding, and the officer found them acting erratically, and found some unprescribed pills in the vehicle. They claimed that they had a prescription for them. The officer called their bluff, and said, “fine, I will let you go today….. on one condition: I want a call from the prescribing doctor within one week. Here is my card, they can call me at the number listed on it. If I do not hear from the prescribing doctor, I will issue a warrant for your arrest.” Realizing this officer wasn’t playing games, the boyfriend fessed up and took the rap. He was quickly arrested and thrown in the police cruiser. One officer could be heard saying, “you’re going to like the county jail, it’s really nice.” Was he being sarcastic, or did he feel sorry for the chap? We will never know. I soon realized the canyon viewpoint wasn’t even facing west, and that sunset wasn’t for another hour, so I departed the state park. On my way out, I saw a few Texas Longhorns grazing.FullSizeRender-103.jpgI soon arrived at the Travelodge Amarillo West by sundown. I made sure to wear socks inside the room. I watched the tube television. Baked by the Texas sun and cashed out, I soon fell asleep, comforted by the fact that I didn’t have a black light with me.




The plan was simple. Drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Las Vegas and return over 10 days. Cram in as many sights as possible. Deprive myself of sleep if necessary. Despite all my research and planning, it turns out nothing would prepare me for the adventures of this epic road trip of nearly 5,000 miles.

I realized I would be missing the Midwestern portion of Route 66 sights in Illinois and Missouri, however I was OK with this, as I needed to flee the cold and gloom of home for the sun and warmth. I departed Grand Rapids, and was soon hugging the eastern shore of Lake Michigan on Interstate 196, getting familiar with the intricacies of Korean engineering. I was also getting acquainted with Sirius/XM Radio, which is a blessing from the musical gods. Within what seemed like minutes, I was soon in Benton Harbor merging on to Interstate 94. Soon enough, the roads changed from crumbling to smooth, I knew I had left Michigan and entered Indiana. I had entered Chicagoland on a Friday afternoon. Weaving and zig-zagging through the lines of traffic on Interstate 80, I was soon perturbed to be paying a trivial toll of slightly over $1.00 just to have the right to pass through on a major, transcontinental interstate highway. The Hyundai was holding up nicely and gas consumption was proving to be economical.

After surviving the gridlock of frustrated truckers and suburban commuters hurrying home for the weekend, I found myself cruising through the uninspiring prairie of Illinois on a lonely stretch of Interstate 55. I soon began to appreciate the prairie’s subtle beauty while stopped at a gas station outside of Bloomington, Illinois; the sky was turning a into a psychedelic swirl of peach, lavender, crimson and jade. I had a feeling this trip was going to be one of epic proportions and I would do everything in my power to make it so.

After breezing through Bloomington and Springfield, I was soon anticipating the next major city of St. Louis. Rather than continuing on Interstate 55, I opted to take the less-trafficked Martin Luther King Bridge over the Mississippi to enjoy a less-hurried view of the St. Louis skyline glimmering under a full moon. I exited off the bridge and was determined to see the Gateway Arch. It proved to be difficult to avoid the hazards of construction to connect downtown to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Dodging  droves of drunken, stumbling St. Louis Blues fans (they beat Vancouver 4-0 that night) on cobblestone streets, I finally managed to pull over and take this picture of the Gateway Arch, shimmering under the moonlight:FullSizeRender-27

FullSizeRender-28After weaving through the labyrinth of converging way finder signs (such as the one above), I soon found myself cruising on Interstate 44 through the western suburbs of St. Louis and had entered a new, hillier region of the country: the Ozark Highlands. I passed through iconic Route 66 towns such as Cuba, Rolla, Devil’s Elbow and Springfield #2. The caffeine-induced anxiety  of being on a dark and lonely road left me very sleepy and disoriented as I approached the last Route 66 Missouri section town of Joplin. My mind pondered taking nap or pressing on to meet the goal of arriving in Tulsa at sunrise.

Still in the Ozark Highlands, I entered Oklahoma and was now on the Will Rogers Turnpike. As I passed through towns the towns of Miami and Vinita, and was approaching metropolitan Tulsa, I noticed the landscape changing from the Ozark Plateau to lowlands, and back into a hillier, sandstone region. It was before dawn when I arrived at one of the most recognizable Route 66 sights; the Blue Whale of Catoosa.FullSizeRender-25

The Blue Whale of Catoosa was built in the 1970s by a man as an anniversary present for his wife. Its bucolic setting on a private pond was used as a swimming hole by the family, but increased in popularity with travelers and locals alike. The whale soon fell into disrepair, until being restored by locals over several years to its original condition (including being painted to its original brilliant blue color), as seen below:Rt_66_Blue_Whale_Highsmith

The light of dawn was soon breaking into a brilliant cobalt blue color as I was briefly detoured, weaving through the futuristic oil refineries that make up the most inland river port connected to international waters in the United States, the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. There was a slight drizzle in the air as I entered the Tulsa city limits and the sky was turning into cotton candy, as I set eyes on the Golden Driller of Tulsa:FullSizeRender-29

The Golden Driller was built in 1952 for the International Petroleum Exposition. At 75-feet-tall, it is the fifth-tallest statue in the United States and is dedicated to the industry that built Tulsa: petroleum. After realizing I drove through 14 hours through the night and ended up in a completely different part of the country, I soon had a second wind, and was excited to see what the day held in Oklahoma. Sleep was an afterthought at this point. Finding Tulsa in spring bloom was a welcome respite coming from snowy Michigan. I read about how Tulsa has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the United States, and its greatest example is the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, just south of downtown. FullSizeRender-30

IMG_5026The National Historic Landmark church was built in 1929 and stands 225-feet-tall. It is considered the greatest example of ecclesiastical Art Deco architecture in the United States. After visiting the church, I began to drive around downtown Tulsa. I was quite impressed with the collection of architecture that surrounded me. At 667 feet, the BOK Tower dominates the Tulsa skyline.FullSizeRender-31

FullSizeRender-32Much like my hometown of Grand Rapids owes its current iteration to the likes of the philanthropic DeVos, Van Andel and Meijer families, Tulsa owes much to the oil tycoon Phillips brothers of Phillips 66 fame. Before Houston, Tulsa was referred to as the “Oil Capital of the World.” An oil derrick is even featured on the city seal:

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Petroleum-related industries still provide a great number of jobs for many local residents of the area. Many cultural institutions and buildings bear the Phillips name, such as the Philbrook Museum of Art, the Philcade and the Philtower (pictured above).

Just east of downtown is Tulsa’s countercultural neighborhood, the Blue Dome District. The neighborhood is filled with many bars, nightclubs, restaurants and shops. The neighborhood is justly named after an old Gulf Oil service station built in the 1920s. FullSizeRender-34

Seeing the futuristic campus of Oral Roberts University was next on the agenda, but I was elated to hear that Frank Lloyd Wright left his mark on Tulsa. So I made a quick detour through the stately Timber/Oak neighborhood of Tulsa to see WesthopeFullSizeRender-35

Westhope, also known as the Richard Lloyd Jones House was built in 1929 for Frank Lloyd Wright’s cousin, who was the publisher of a local newspaper. As I departed Westhope and returned to a main arterial street, I saw visions of Oral Roberts University in the way of a 648-foot-tall tower, the CityPlex Tower.FullSizeRender-36

This futuristic complex of towers was envisioned by Oral Roberts after he “saw a 900-foot-tall Jesus who encouraged him to raise funds and get it built.” The building stands semi-vacant, with some of its 60 floors never being leased. Simultaneously perplexed and intrigued about this man’s warped and hallucinating religious visions, I came upon the main entrance of the university and came across the Healing Hands sculpture, the largest set of praying hands in the world at 60-feet-tall.FullSizeRender-37

I parked the Hyundai, and started to walk around the campus. I felt like the Oral gestapo was watching my every move. They could tell I did not belong. The next sight seemed like a carousel swing ride straight out of the Jetsons, the Prayer TowerFullSizeRender-38

I felt like the 900-foot-tall Jesus that Roberts envisioned was going to impale me on it! I began to think I was under surveillance as I continued the short walk around the campus. I soon felt the urge to depart the overwhelmingly sanitized and futuristic dreamland that Roberts had created. FullSizeRender-39

As I departed Tulsa, I was famished and the blanket of clouds began to clear out and reveal a crystal blue sky, and then I saw my own vision from 900-foot-tall Jesus to order a Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit from Whataburger. 9bb2c48a14a611e2b543123138094e4f

It was so good, and I was so hungry, I hurriedly ordered another. This was one of those things you inhale where you want to put a sign up saying, “PLEASE DO NOT LOOK AT ME DURING CONSUMPTION.” I mean, come on, look at this sweet, syrupy, flaky, buttery, crispy, crackly, greasy, savory delight straight from the 900-foot-tall Jesus himself. Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 2.23.52 PM

Feeling very sluggish, the next stop was Oklahoma City to see a few things and finally get some sleep. An hour outside of Oklahoma City, the large trees had become less frequent and the landscape had changed again. I was now in Red Dirt country. Then I realized how geographically large, low-density and sprawling Oklahoma City was. Around 30 miles east of downtown, I saw a sign that said “Oklahoma City City Limit.” It was quite a while before I reached my next destination, the Oklahoma State CapitolFullSizeRender-42

The clear and bright blue sky coupled with flowering trees provided an absolutely stunning backdrop for the Capitol. The Oklahoma State Capitol is unique in that it did not have a dome until about a decade ago. When it was eventually built, it turned out spectacular:FullSizeRender-41

It should be noted that the Oklahoma State Capitol is the only state capitol building with active oil derricks on the grounds (bearing the iconic name of the company that made the state a lot of money):FullSizeRender-40

After walking around the well-maintained grounds and briefly touring the building and rotunda, my next stop would prove to be a sobering one; the Oklahoma City National MemorialFullSizeRender-43

This memorial really touched me. I could relate to it. This was the first time I had really known what the word terrorism meant. I experienced it. I remember sitting in class in eighth grade and watching this live on television in science class. I remember the images of firefighters carrying bloodied children in their arms, the parents embracing each other sobbing. The violence and confusion. The uncertainty.FullSizeRender-44

I will say this memorial is very well done. It is located in downtown Oklahoma City on the site of the Murrah Federal Building. It includes a reflecting pool bounded by two columns with windows on opposing times, each etched with the time of the bombing. On one side of the reflecting pool are 168 chairs, one for each person killed in the tragedy. Each one is empty, because it represents the chairs at family dinner tables. Those people will never be present at another family dinner. FullSizeRender-45

An inspiring tribute to the survivors is the Survivor Tree. This American Elm tree, thought to be 100 years old, was the only shade tree in the parking lot of the Murrah Federal Building. Employees would arrive early to secure a shaded spot under the tree during the warmer months. Several damaged by the blast, most of the tree was destroyed. Many thought it would not survive. To many people’s surprise, the tree not only survived, but is now flourishing. Quite a symbol of tragedy and hope. FullSizeRender-46

Contemplating how such tragedies could occur and bound by sadness, I felt that I had seen enough here. I drove around downtown, which is dominated by the 850-foot-tall Devon Energy Center, which is the tallest building in the Great Plains states. FullSizeRender-47

The Devon Energy Center is definitely a testament to the strength of Oklahoma’s energy industry. The building was completed in 2012 for a cost of $750 million. Another notable structure receiving high praise from architecture critics is the futuristic Skydance Pedestrian BridgeFullSizeRender-48The Skydance Pedestrian Bridge is built over Interstate 40, and is limited to pedestrians and bicycles only. When darkness falls, the bridge is often lit up in neon colors. My final stop in Oklahoma City was what is billed as the world’s largest stockyards, the Oklahoma National StockyardsFullSizeRender-49Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 3.45.22 PM

Cattle are brought into the Stockyards for storage before sale. They have a weekly auction that attracts cattle buyers from all over the region. The man I talked to claimed they can hold over 20,000 head of cattle in the expansive pens around the property. I asked if I could walk the catwalk above the pens, he approved. The rickety, rusted out iron and wood slab-lined catwalk stretches almost one-half of a mile. I walked the entire thing for a good view of the cattle. FullSizeRender-51FullSizeRender-50

Sun-drenched and growing increasingly delirious from the lack of sleep, I suddenly had a craving for some BBQ. How sadistic, I know. Seeing all that beefy goodness had me salivating for some brisket. After talking to the stockyard workers and asking them for a suggestion on a good BBQ place, the suggested Pappy’s BBQ (which was conveniently on the way to my hotel. small-dining-area

I ordered brisket and hot links with a side of potato salad and baked beans. The brisket was nice and tender. The hot BBQ sauce complimented it nicely. The sides were great, and the hot links were OK. I ate most of the meal, thanked them and high-tailed it to the luxurious confines of the Extended Stay Suites near the airport. I hadn’t slept in nearly 36 hours. I begged to check-in early. The receptionist initially declined, but I was persistent and she caved in. I showered and crashed.