Motoring to the Motor City

“Exploded” Model T at the Henry Ford Museum

I really hate traveling during the holidays.  I avoid the traveling masses like the plague. For as many times as I have been to Europe, I have never been there during the summer.

For these reasons, we usually host Thanksgiving at our house with friends, family or “orphans:” people who have no other place to go.  I love the unusual parings that can create.

But, I never say never.  We are craving some family time with my in-laws, the Michiganders.  In twenty years, I think we have spent Thanksgiving with them exactly once.  An invite’s been made and we’ve accepted. As a result, we are staring down the barrel of driving in what is predicted to be the nation’s busiest traffic weekend.

The drive from Charlotte to Detroit normally takes about eleven hours. No way we’re flying.  Airfares are too expensive and it’s too much of a hassle.  We would want our own wheels in the Motor City and renting would be just one more expense so we decide to bite the bullet and drive.

I have a cousin who lives in Athens, Ohio, which happens to be located almost exactly at our halfway point.  Mike and I are on the road at 6:45 am.  Once we clear Charlotte, traffic is moderate most of the way.  We are making good time and cross into Ohio around noon.  We are pretty sure we are going to make it my cousin’s office by 12:45.

At 12:15 Mike is clipping along when a cop comes from nowhere and clocks Mike doing 65 in a 55 mph zone.  Damn.  There’s hardly anyone on this 4-lane highway in rural Ohio.  Ohio is notorious for speed traps so it’s no surprise we were stopped.  Then the cop does the unthinkable.  He writes Mike a warning. No ticket!  In OHIO! Mike is sooo lucky!

Sticking to the speed limits, we meet my cousin around 1:00 pm at his Ohio University office.  He is an architect and gives us a quick overview of the how the university has evolved over the decades.

We settle on a sushi lunch at the China Panda.  On the way to the restaurant, Cuz shows us some of the buildings he designed and others he has refurbished.  OU is a very pretty campus with lots of history.

At the China Panda, we stick to the Japanese menu and order sushi. I get the Dinosaur Roll – lobster Tempura with avocado. Beautiful presentation and delicious but the lobster doesn’t stand out – it could have been anything, and for $12.95 it was kind of pricey.

Mike has a lunch box with an Alaska Roll and a Tuna Roll. Again the presentation is stunning – the Alaska roll pieces are in the shape of a pyramid, and for $8.95, including soup or salad the price is good.

The atmosphere is typical strip mall: pretty much nonexistent. The service is closer to okay than good. My cousin has a sushi roll and soup. The check comes to $38.85 including tax.  Minor complaints aside, it’s a good choice for Japanese food in Athens, Ohio and we’ll keep this on the list of places to stop the next time we are in town.

But now I must confess.  We have been so engaged in engrossing conversation that I forget to take pictures of the food.  The China Panda is only the beginning of a long line of absent-mindedness experienced in all of the restaurants on this trip!  Every time I remember to take pictures, we’re patting our tummies and heading out the door.

On our way back to our car we cruise by more buildings, created, supervised or renovated by my brilliant cousin.  At his office atop the hill, we take one final look at the campus he helped create. During hugs and good-byes we promise more frequent get-togethers.

Back on the road, we aren’t paying attention, make a wrong turn and head in the wrong direction.  The mistake blows twenty minutes. Holiday getaway traffic in Columbus sucks another hour from our day so we don’t pull into the driveway of my in-laws’ Royal Oak, Michigan house until 9:30 pm.

Hummus Tabbouli Pita

Thanksgiving day is spent at home with family and family friends.  One of those friends brings munchies in the form of the best hummus, tabbouli and freshly made pitas that I have ever had.  Who knew that hummus could be this smooth?  And the tabbouli is the perfect blend of parsley, tomatoes, scallions, cracked wheat, olive oil and fresh lemon.  And the pitas!  I must have them again. I find out that they are from a place called Grape Leaves in Southfield,  and vow to go there before we leave.

The rest of the day is filled with more food and drink than we need but never enough time with family.  Our niece tries to catnap while the party is still going on because her employer has scheduled her to work at 11:30 pm for the despicable holiday blood sport known as Black Friday.

Cherry Pie

Our cynical family takes bets on how many deaths will happen and where.  I put a marker down on three at a Walmart.  Happily I am wrong. There are no lost lives.  Just one crazy woman who pepper-sprays twenty others so she can get the one item they’re all after. An Xbox. Police call it “competitive shopping.” I call it shameful.

At 9:30 the next morning we pile into the car to pick up our sleepy-headed worker and head out for breakfast.  Several places are closed so we call the Café Muse in downtown Royal Oak.  The place is hopping but manage to reserve a table for five people (reservations for breakfast!).  My timing is perfect as they are just finishing setting up our table as we walk in the door.

The last time I was here, I couldn’t decide which soup to have so I had a cup of each – a tomato basil and a thick mushroom soup.  Both were delicious. I’m not a huge fan of breakfast and so I am hoping I can order lunch.  No such luck this early in the morning.

Instead I choose the Vanilla Waffles with a seasonal piping of pumpkin, candied pecans with whipped cream on the side ($9.75) and a side order of bacon ($3.00). Mike and his sister get the Plain Jane Scramble with Cheddar & Chives with Garlic Sautéed Fingerling Potatoes and some fruit ($7.95).  Others in our group order the Stuffed French Toast Mascarpone ($8.75); the Smoked Salmon Scramble with Gruyère & Chives ($9.75).  That came with Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar, Cinnamon & Vanilla.  They look really, really good!  If they were in reach, I would steal them.

For all of the times I have been to the Detroit area, I have never played tourist here.  I used to come here every six to eight weeks for business and would work non-stop the whole time I was here. Other visits have been jam-packed with family activities.  This trip, I want to do a few touristy things.

Because a lot of family members have worked for Ford, I think the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn is a great place to start.  I firmly believe it’s good to occasionally be a tourist in your own town.  As it turns out, this museum is new for all of us.  School field trips decades ago don’t count!

Cornell-Liberty Safety Car Prototype

There is so much to do here.  Several attractions reside in this complex.  Greenfield Village is filled with 83 authentic buildings from America’s past including Thomas Edison’s lab with his original lightbulbs and the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law.  The Benson Ford Research Center (closed on this day) allows the public to read historic documents and look at rare books that document the American Experience.

Make your own memento of the Kennedy Limo

The Ford Test Track is also on the premises but we don’t see any cool cars zooming around when we drive in.  I would have liked to take the Ford Rouge Factory Tour to see how trucks are built but no one is working on the day after Thanksgiving so this is not an option. Besides, we got a late start, so the Henry Ford Museum is the only attraction we are able to squeeze in.

President Kennedy’s Limo

Entrance for the museum alone costs $15 each plus $5 for parking for our group.  There are no signs to indicate there is a charge to park until we get inside.  I think this is a bit sneaky but I let it go.  We are also told that the main automotive exhibit is undergoing a complete makeover and is closed until early 2012 so we won’t be able to see it.

President Reagan’s Limo

Still, there is plenty to entertain us.  We only have two hours before closing and want to pack in as much as possible.  One of the first things we seek out is the collection of presidential limousines all lined up in a row.  The most interesting is the limo President Kennedy was riding in when he was shot.  The limo that Ronald Reagan used to escape would-be assassin John Hinkley Jr. is also on display.

Booth Playhouse Chair

In keeping with Presidential assassinations, another exhibit contains the chair from the Booth Theater Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot.  This is part of an exhibit called “With Liberty and Justice for All” which also houses the bus Rosa Parks was riding in when she historically refused to move to the back of the bus sparking the Civil Rights movement.

Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of this bus.

Other notable full-sized pieces on display include trains; airplanes; the first Ford Mustang; and an Oscar Mayer Weinermobile from 1952.

1952 Weinermobile

My brother-in-law, the award-winning architect is drawn to the Dymaxion House.  It’s the only surviving prototype of R. Buckminster Fuller’s vision for mass-produced affordable housing. This round house is made from aluminum alloys suspended from a central mast.  It feels a bit like something out of a 60’s, episode of the Jetsons.  Fun.

Futuristic Dymaxion House

We are out the door in two hours flat.  Yes, a rushed visit, but we feel like we hit the highlights. The museum, and what we know of the Rouge Plant tour and Greenfield Village make Detroit a tourist destination we highly recommend.

It’s time to head to ritzy Grosse Pointe to have dinner with some dear friends. This former roommate of mine when I lived in Denver is now a realtor here.  Her husband spent time in Iraq working on rebuilding projects. There is never a lull in the conversation.  This is another example of why I am so distracted that I forget about taking any pictures of dinner…but I can describe it.

We slip into a booth at T. N. Thai Bistro in Grosse Pointe.  I spot the gyoza special on the blackboard as we walk in so we order that while we peruse the menu.  These were not good.  Usually gyozas are delicate, pan-fried pork dumplings.  These were deep-fried.  That miss didn’t deter us.

I order the green curry chicken “super hot” and substitute broccoli for the eggplant.  I’m just not a fan of eggplant.  It’s always a good sign when substitutions are not a problem, meaning that the kitchen is cooking fresh food for me.  I’m not normally a beer drinker but it goes great with Thai and Indian food so I order a Singha.

Mike gets duck curry with a glass of wine.  He isn’t wild about his dinner.  Mine is good and it is hot but not so much that it causes me to break a sweat.  No one at the table dared to try it.  I think years of practice have made me mostly immune to super spicy food.

Our friends get the Pad Thai and chicken fried rice.  They seem happy but we really don’t discuss the food much because we have so many other things to catch up on.  Back at their house, we top off the night with candy corn for dessert.  Boy, do I miss these guys.

Baby Brother with a new use for fake candles.

Saturday is a totally lazy day for me.  Mike plays golf with his baby brother (Now in his 50s! Some baby!) and I hang out with his sister and her family and do absolutely nothing.  I don’t go out of the house once.  It’s a glorious day!

An amusing fact is that Mike’s sister; Mike’s baby brother’s wife and I share the same birthday.  Not the same year but the same date!  And to make it just a bit creepier, another one of his brothers is now divorced from a woman ALSO born on that date.  Four sisters-in-law all born on the same date!  Three brothers married women born on the same date as their sister.  I don’t want to get all Freudian but it’s a bit weird.  That said, their sister is wonderful and we Aquarians are pretty damn special!

Sunday, we continue our quest for things we have never done here.  Our award-winning architect brother-in-law takes us on an architectural tour of Detroit.  There are some spectacular old buildings here and a lot of decay.  Simply put, this is a city built for 2 million people with a population that has now dwindled to around 700,000.  There isn’t enough revenue coming in to support the services needed.

It’s heartbreaking to drive through the Boston Edison neighborhood where the Fords and other big-money people once lived and see mansions begging for buyers at almost any price.

Curious, we stop to call the agent about a magnificent home with a For Sale sign. We are dumbfounded as she tells us that this 5,500 square-foot 5 bedroom/5 bath house lists for $199,000 but will probably take offers for $150k.  Back in Charlotte, our 14-hundred square-foot 3 bedroom/1.5 bath would sell for more and sell more easily!

Across the street is a 3,200 square-foot house for $99,000.  These beauties have leaded glass pocket doors and numerous other architectural details but as Mike said, “You buy one of these and you will own it forever because you will never be able to get rid of it.”

Another one of Mike’s sisters tried to buy one a few years ago but said the taxes and insurance were prohibitive.  Then again, how bad can it be when you can pick up some of these for nearly nothing.  And I mean nothing.  Some major fixer-uppers are listed for just $9,000!

There are other astonishing prices such as a downtown studio condo for $3,995.  A 25% down payment comes to a thousand bucks and that works out to a mortgage payment of $20 a month (plus monthly Homeowners fees of $652, but still!)  I’ve paid a lot more than that for a car.  It’s very sad.  Of course we all spend a few moments fantasizing about buying something as an investment but realize that none of us wants to support a property for as long as it might take to sell it for a profit.

Detroit’s Guardian Building

Once we get our fill of real estate, we head for the Detroit People Mover. Again, our award-winning architect guides us through the city’s history glimpsed through the windows of the DPM.  We want to check out the Renaissance Center – the General Motors World Headquarters and Riverfront Shops.  But since this is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, nothing is open.  We walk around a bit and look at the building and hop back on the People Mover to get back to the car.  Total round trip cost is a mere $1.50 each.

We stop at the wonderful Holiday Market in Royal Oak for a small jar of Sanders Milk Chocolate Hot Fudge dessert topping.  After I buy it, my sister-in-law tells me that she has a jar for us at her house.  Oh well.  I guess we’ll just have to suffer through both of them.  For anyone who has had some of this Michigan treat, they know why we have to make this stop.  Hershey’s syrup just doesn’t cut it after Sanders.  Yes, it’s available by mail-order but that is just too dangerous to have in the house all the time so we only buy a jar when we are in Michigan.

Remnants of Grape Leaves

My final mission before we leave in the morning is to get some more of that fabulous hummus, tabbouli and pitas from Grape Leaves in Oak Park at Greenfield and 10 Mile Road.  They are making the pitas in the oven as we watch.  They keep putting more and more pitas in a bag for us until we stop them when they hit 16!  And there’s no extra charge for them!  The kitchen wraps our hummus and tabbouli tight for the drive to Charlotte.

And everything is good for days to come.  The pitas are fresh as the first day after a few minutes in the toaster.  I make little sandwiches out of the pitas, hummus and tabbouli.  It’s absolutely worth going out of our way for and we’ll definitely go back next time we are in town.

The drive back is uneventful.  We meet another one of Mike’s brothers (they’re everywhere!) at Tee Jaye’s Country Place Restaurant at North High St. & Morse Road in Columbus, OH.  He forgot an umbrella in Michigan the day before and we said we would bring it down.  It’s all an excuse to just stop by and say hi again and grab some breakfast before we put the pedal to the metal and drive non-stop home.

We are the youngest people in Tee Jaye’s and that’s not saying much.  This place definitely attracts the senior set with the standard breakfast fare.  I’m pining for a French bakery that I saw on the way in, a couple of miles back but the food at Tee Jaye’s is decent and again, the company good.

The trip isn’t totally smooth.  We hit quite a bit of rain passing through the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia.  Better than snow anyway. We make good time and think we’re going to get home at a reasonable hour – we foolishly estimate 5:20 pm, but that it not to be.  We hit stop and go traffic starting at the northern suburbs of Charlotte so we crawl home tacking on an extra hour.

About Journeys By Jill

I have spent most of my adult life working in and around TV, film & radio production. As an avid traveler, I have a goal to visit at least 100 countries using the Century Traveler's Club Country List. At the moment, I have 54 to go. My favorite form of travel is to get off the beaten path and discover weird & wonderful attractions. Basically, I wing it. I'd love for you to come along for the ride.
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