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Road Trip Diaries, Day 4: Route 66 Day 2 – From Raymond IL to the “Show Me” State

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Getting our kicks …

“I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri, and you have got to show me.” -Willard Duncan Vandiver, United States Congressman, as quoted in 1899

Day 2 started with far less drama than Day 1, thankfully! It helped that I had scheduled a much shorter day anticipating that Day 1 of 66 would wear us out (and I was more than correct on that point). It was time to hit the road for the Show Me State … otherwise known as “Missouri”! But before we got there, there were a few more things to check out in the Land of Lincoln, starting with a closer look at our hotel. With too much to mention, here are the highlights of our day.

  • As mentioned before, we’d stayed the previous night at the extremely comfortable Magnuson Grand Hotel and Conference Center on old Route 66 (now renamed simply Frontage Road) in Raymond, Illinois. The hotel was mostly deserted when we were there, but we found its nautical decor, fountains, roomy interior, Route 66 guestbook, and the meticulously cared-for gardens and grounds utterly charming. I’d read that it was once an independent Holiday Inn (not part of the chain), but one glance at the hotel’s indoor recreation atrium told me it had to be an old Holiday Inn “Holidome.” The Magnuson’s atrium features a heated pool, various games (like air hockey), and tables and chairs, and what looked like a decommissioned, boarded-up hot tub. (Later research confirmed the hotel was in fact once a Holidome, although more recently it was the Best Western Carlinville Inn. For those unfamiliar with Holidomes, Holiday Inn introduced this concept in the 1970s as a way to entice families and fun-seekers alike; the Holidome was simply a large atrium with rooms that opened out into it and where a number of fun attractions were located. The more elaborate ones included mini-golf courses and fire pits! You can find a few in existence today or search for them on Holiday Inn’s website, but HI seems to have officially abandoned the concept in favor of more elaborate water park hotels.) Sadly, we didn’t get to sample the pool, as the gate was locked up and then the pool man came to maintenance it and then we had to go. The hotel had other things to look at, like the aforementioned gardens, and the main attraction – a winding sundeck and walkway that will take you around a pond full of goldfish, where the hotel’s crowning glory sits – the Carlin Belle riverboat! The boat was locked up and isn’t available for casual self-tours, but you can rent it out for special events. Finally, this hotel has a restaurant (the Captain’s Table), a lounge (Yacht Club), and upstairs event space (the Crow’s Nest). The Captain’s Table serves a free hot breakfast in the mornings which offers items such as eggs, tater tots and biscuits and gravy.
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Eric checks out the lobby while his wife sneakily follows him around snapping pictures.

  • After gassing up at the station across the road, we headed back toward another 66 alignment. We passed a female turkey crossing the street and witnessed her fly up a good five or six feet in the air, squawking indignantly at a vehicle that nearly hit her. I’d seen them before in my hometown, but had never seen one fly like that (while we yelled “AAAAAAH! NOOOOO TURKEY!”). The turkey made it, and it soon became apparent the wild avian had stolen Eric’s heart, and he became obsessed with looking for them after this sighting! As we got a little turned around again, we also discovered that nearby is a large lake with woods and some nice homes situated around it. (I believe this is the 1500 acre Lake Lou Yaeger.)
The lucky turkey strutting off to her destination.

The lucky turkey strutting off to her destination.

  • Skyview Drive-In in Litchfield, IL – This great old drive-in theater is the last original 66 drive-in in Illinois still in operation – and the marquee, screen, and grounds all look great! There’s even a historical 66 sign out front with more information. Curiously, the sign shows a picture of a full screen tower that looks nothing like the one there today, but I can’t seem to locate much information on it. Tip: Neither GPS on our phone  – Google Maps or the iPhone Maps – had this drive-in in the correct place, leading us to wonder if it had been closed and demolished before we found the correct location.

Informational sign on the lawn in front of the Sky View Drive-In! You can find helpful signs like this all the way down Route 66 in Illinois.

  • Ariston Cafe is a well-known historic Route 66 cafe also located in Litchfield! We were too full from breakfast to want to eat, but we drove by it and it looks alive and well. This is often referred to as a must-stop, so catch a bite to eat here if you can.
  • Henry’s Rabbit Ranch (or Henry’s Ra66it Ranch) in Staunton was another must-see for me. This is a more recent tourist attraction, and not a ranch so much as it is a mock gas station that’s chock full of 66 memorabilia (motel signs, gas pumps, cars, etc.), the most prominent of which are two original Campbell 66 Express 18-wheeler trailers featuring “Snortin’ Norton” the camel. The main draw, of course, are the big cuddly rescue rabbits cared for by owner Rich Henry (and, despite my love for 66, definitely the main reason I wanted to stop by). When we pulled up in the little gravel driveway, we were moments behind a tour bus full of older folks on a Route 66 tour. Rich Henry came out to greet them cradling a giant rabbit, Gizmo, in his arms. We had a minute or two to ourselves inside with all the adorable, soft, big-eared bunnies, who seemed quite content and well-fed, and then in came the bus group. Although things were considerably more crowded as a result, they were delightful. One lady excitedly quizzed me about our trip, while an elderly gentleman took advantage of a momentary silence to sing out “You get one of these rabbits, six months later you can’t find the damn thing!”
Making friends with Gizmo, front desk staffer at Henry's.

Making friends with Gizmo, front desk staffer at Henry’s.

A Burma Shave-style sign hangs from the roof of Henry's Rabbit Ranch.

A Burma Shave-style series of signs hangs from the roof of Henry’s Rabbit Ranch.

  • Numerous other attractions, signs, and motels can be found all through the southern part of Illinois’s 66 route. Some are well-known “golden oldies” and some are newer attractions that take advantage of their location to advertise with the 66 emblem. Some are in great shape, like the pre-66, former Al Capone hangout Luna Cafe and its classic neon sign, and some are less so, such as the Apple Valley Motel which recently suffered a devastating fire. There are too many things to see to mention here, but as a drive-in lover, I can’t go without mentioning the wonderful Bel-Air Drive In marquee sign, standing tall alongside a vacant lot in Mitchell, IL. (The marquee is all that’s left – see it while you still can, as it’s my understanding this lot is slated for re-development.)
All that's left of the Bel-Air Drive In

All that’s left of the Bel-Air Drive In

  • Dewey’s Pizza in the town of Edwardsville is one of a few restaurants in a small St. Louis-area chain. We stopped there primarily because we were now hungry and didn’t want to make the same mistake we made the day before (saving our hunger for the most 66-appropriate restaurant possible). As luck would have it, Dewey’s turned out to be a great choice. The chain is one that takes pride in bringing new life to old buildings, and the Edwardsville restaurant is located inside the former Kriege Hardware store. The classic neon sign outside has been re-purposed appropriately and looks great. The pizza is absolutely delicious. I should note that after we’d been waiting a while for it to come out, the manager appeared and apologized saying that they had forgotten to put in the order. (Our waiter was very nice and was probably just new; we actually overheard him apologizing to the manager who was understanding.) As a result, our meal was on the house. We ordered the Socrates’ Revenge pie which included garlic, mozzarella and fontina cheeses, spinach, black and green olives, and feta cheese and the savory toppings on a crunchy thin crust it hit the spot after our drive. I appreciated the way the restaurant addressed their mistake, and I would recommend this place if you happen to be in Edwardsville!
  • (Old) Chain of Rocks Bridge – chances are, if you’re planning a 66 trip, this one is already on your list. This will be your last big 66 site before you cross the river to Missouri – although if you’re in a vehicle you won’t be using this bridge to do it. Built in 1929, the 10-span overpass officially became part of Route 66 in 1936 when the highway was rerouted to go over it, carrying travelers over the Mississippi River into St. Louis. After closing in 1968, it was eventually re-opened for biking and walking use only and is now a well-recognized historic site. Its most famous feature is the 30-degree bend in the middle. Eric already knew what the bridge was from the movie Escape from New York and was thrilled to see it in person. Today, you can drive over a canal bridge to get to a large parking lot outside of Chain of Rocks where you’ll find informational signs and the entrance for foot and bike traffic (and in our case, lots of milkweed tufts drifting by on the breeze). Tip 1: This is so embarrassing, but we momentarily mistook the canal bridge for the real Chain of Rocks, realizing our mistake once a big truck hauling a trailer sailed past me and my camera. The worst part is I actually knew there was a canal bridge coming up first and was so excited that I just forgot. Haha! Tip 2: If you don’t have time to walk the bridge itself and would like to get a great view of the whole thing, there is a fishermans’ parking lot nearby where you can park and take some pictures. We cannot vouch for it, but it’s been recommended by others. This forum posting has a good satellite image to show you where it is. Note – I repeatedly hear that it’s not a good idea to park at the Missouri end of the bridge, so try to get your pictures from the Illinois side.
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The Illinois entrance to the (old) Chain of Rocks Bridge.

Google Earth satellite view of the old Chain of Rocks Bridge - note the distinctive bend. Crossing the upper part of the image is the New Chain of Rocks Bridge.

Google Earth satellite view of the old Chain of Rocks Bridge – note the distinctive bend. Crossing the upper part of the image is the New Chain of Rocks Bridge.

  • Since we couldn’t drive over the Chain of Rocks Bridge, we turned back around (getting in and out of the area is not very fast, as the canal bridge is one-lane and you must wait for a signal to go on it). We used the McKinley Bridge (also a former Route 66 alignment) to get into St. Louis. You’ll get a great view of the famous Gateway Arch from this route!
  • Side trip idea: We could see a building in the distance with a Ferris wheel spinning on top and wondered what it was. It turns out St. Louis has an amazing all-ages museum called the City Museum that is chock-full of artist Bob Cassilly’s whimsical, hands-on exhibits and culptures, including a school bus dangling off the roof (that you can climb in), a maze with monster sculptures inside, and floor-to-ceiling tunnels to slide down. Learning about this “adult-sized playground” museum sealed the deal; we must come down this way again.
  • Ted Drewes Frozen Custard – Run, do not walk to this beloved classic St. Louis custard stand – and get there early, because a lot of other people have the same idea on any given day! As my husband is one of the biggest ice cream/custard fans on Planet Earth, it was a given that we would stop here (plus I’m hardly averse to the frozen stuff, myself). We were very lucky to just barely beat some long lines. But I don’t know that either of us were prepared for the confrontation with deliciousness that confronted us after our purchases were complete. Savoring the rich chocolate and whole juicy cherries of Ted Drewes’ “Cardinal Sin” flavor concrete is a whole new type of heaven. Wait, did I say concrete? Yes I did – that’s what Ted Drewes calls their extra thick frozen custard, so thick that neither the custard nor the spoon will fall out of the cup when inverted. (And lest you start thinking of a Dairy Queen Blizzard … oh no, it’s much thicker than that.) We’ve never had anything like it. Eric lost his mind over the “All Shook Up” peanut butter and banana flavor. Ted Drewes, which currently has three St. Louis-area shops, has been around since 1929 – the Route 66 location on Chippewa (old 66) has been there since 1951. The building still has its original neon sign, as well as wooden icicles hanging from the roof! A serious treasure … if you only get one cup of custard on your trip, make it a Ted Drewes cup. The owner has steadfastly refused to franchise over the years, so you aren’t likely to find it anywhere else anytime soon!
  • Gooey butter cakes are another St. Louis must! Although the city’s most famous are probably found at Park Avenue Coffee, we found a small shop a block away from Ted Drewes called Gooey St. Louie. I grabbed one to go – it can keep for a couple of days without refrigeration – and it was indeed very buttery and gooey in the center! Do not leave St. Louis without trying one!
This guy can be found right outside the Gooey St. Louie butter cake shop!

This guy can be found right outside the Gooey St. Louie butter cake shop!

  • Note: Driving through St. Louis on 66 can be tricky if you haven’t figured out what you’re doing well in advance. There are numerous alignments, some of which are said to run through bad areas, so plan carefully. Fun fact: Panera Bread is known as Saint Louis Bread Company in St.Louis – because that was the original name, although the concept was different prior to being purchased by the company that would launch Panera. (Read more here.)
  • Fun Missouri sites if you like seeing unfamiliar/different chain stores: Family Video is an evidently still-thriving brick and mortar video/DVD rental place (which caused Eric to do a U-turn in shock and go marching inside with delight). It’s in plenty of other states too. Lion’s Choice is a roast beef restaurant chain in the St. Louis area that looks like it competes with Arby’s and is reportedly much beloved. (The name makes me think of lions going through the drive-thru and therefore giggle, but I am also a really silly individual for my age.) Casey’s General Store is a gas station and well, general store chain popular in the Midwest.
  • Not far past St. Louis, we made it to our hotel for the night – a nice family-run motel, Budget Lodging in St. Clair, Missouri. This motel came recommended by this 66 dining and lodging guide and seemed like the perfect stopping point, plus it had a pool (which we wound up not using, but I always like to have the option). I liked the warm friendly welcome and the attention to detail in the lobby with board games, a popcorn machine, a fireplace for winter, and attractive rustic decor. The rooms are also a nice big size and there is laundry on-site. There is also a large event space with attractive stained glass windows (indicating it might have been a chapel at one point). If you’re traveling with a family, you might consider their separate “cabin” located in the back of the hotel. We found parking outside of our room a nice touch, and our room was very spacious. Quiet and comfortable, we slept well even though the hotel was fullof travelers. I recommend it. (And you get free continental breakfast here, too.)
The front of Budget Lodging.

The front of Budget Lodging.

  • The historic Lewis Cafe in downtown St. Clair (not on Route 66) is a great little place to catch a good meal with friendly service. Open since 1938, the restaurant currently serves beef from its own Black Angus cattle herd on the family farm. We had the fried dill pickle spears appetizer and I had the French dip au jus sandwich for the main course while Eric feasted on a patty melt. Sides were homemade potato salad (absolutely delicious) and green beans (the vegetable of the day). Everything was filling, simple, and good. Another great eatery!
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Lewis Cafe is well-worth a visit.

  • St. Clair is well known for its twin water towers that read HOT and COLD. It’s a former factory city, and evidence of this still stands (such as in the historic International Shoe Company Building).
  • Dana’s Shaved Ice, while not on 66 (that I know of – old alignments are everywhere in some places)popped up as we were enjoying a drive through town back to the hotel. Eric went barreling in there to get some more ice cream while I sat in the SUV, too full to move from all the good, good food I’d already been munching on that day! Eric came out with a banana ice cream cone which he devoured, but he was also raving about the place itself. He really liked the atmosphere inside and the nice service.
Dana's Shaved Ice also serves soft-serve ice cream.

Dana’s Shaved Ice also serves soft-serve ice cream.

  • If you really want to see some cool classic 66 motel signs and whatnot, definitely keep your eyes peeled on this section of the route.
  • There are plenty of other 66 attractions on this route. I was curious about stopping by Times Beach – a town that was evacuated for dioxin contamination, cleaned up, demolished, and eventually turned into Route 66 State Park – but it wasn’t a must-see and we passed it up in favor of getting to dinner sooner. You’re also not far from Meramec Caverns, a nature reserve, and a wolf sanctuary here. There really isn’t enough time to see every little thing unless you’re spending several weeks on the route (and probably not even then), so make your list of must-sees ahead of time! Day 2 on the Route was a good, good day. As for the next day of our trip, it promised to show us more of Missouri, more Route 66 sites, some unexpected tourist attractions, and, lest Eric worry, more ice cream.
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Close-up of the crumbling sign on the roof of the old Gardenway Inn in Gray Summit, MO, which closed in 2014 after many decades in business. See this stuff while you can, folks.

Road Trip Diaries, Day 1: On the Way to Chicago, and Staying in an Inverted Spyglass

Welcome to our road trip diary! This first entry will just cover our drive from Arlington, VA to Chicago; later entries will cover our journey on old Route 66.

Saturday, July 23 – Day 1 of our big road trip found us up early to hit the road for an 11+ hour drive from Arlington to Chicago. We had rented our car the day before. Enterprise didn’t have a standard available, so they upgraded us to an SUV for free – a silver Toyota RAV4. It was comfy enough, roomy, and promised to be able to handle the rough roads of old Route 66 well. The sound system left something to be desired. Oh well, we had a ride! On Saturday morning, after a breakfast of McDonald’s, we were off! I love the first few moments when you hit the road for a vacation and the anticipation is at its height.

Our travels took us through Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana – a new state for me, but not Eric – before finally reaching Illinois and Chicago. Eric is a pro at long drives (literally), and I had done all of the research and planning for the vacation, so that set us up as driver and navigator, respectively. I figured we’d switch at some point, but we never did!

We racked up plenty of tolls along the way as we took the fastest route of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes, and the Indiana Toll Road. I had been down the PA Turnpike several times before and enjoyed seeing the cows, pastures, and mountains once again. At one point we could see a big herd of cows laying in a grove of trees to stay cool. At another, we saw a Pokemon Go player shuffling creepily through a wide open field, smartphone in hand … or maybe it was a zombie. We drove past the wind turbines of Johnstown. But my favorite part of the PA Turnpike is probably going through the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel.image

The Turnpike travel plazas are great, as you don’t have to exit and pay the toll just to get gas or use the restroom. The one we stopped at (North Somerset) was crowded – though not all that bad for a summer Saturday. I was expecting it to be way worse than it was. We picked up pretzel dogs from Auntie Anne’s and a couple of drinks and moved on.

The Ohio Turnpike’s travel plazas were much bigger and nicer (sorry PA) although the scenery was mostly just mile after mile of flat land and farmland. At Erie Islands plaza, we picked up Einstein Bagels for an early dinner, and then Eric found a crane game with an orange dino skeleton that would pick up your prizes for you. I won two things – a goofy wind-up turtle, and a triceratops figure with bright red painted eyes that looked kind of demonic. Eric left the former on the machine for a lucky child to find, and I kept the latter for myself … he was too creepy not to take home for future Halloween decorations.

By the time we reached Indiana, I was getting really punchy and doing this thing I do where I crack up for no reason. We saw more cows and calves running around. We started getting pelted with rain. It was mile after mile of cornfields until we got to the Gary area, but it was very pretty. Originally a country girl myself, I found it relaxing. Also, by this point we’d seen a couple of other interesting vehicles on the road – a car with a Route 66 license plate, plus these guys …

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This antique car first popped up as early as PA … by Indiana we were still driving alongside it at times!

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Check out this awesome Mayberry Sheriff’s Car! Look in the window and you’ll see it’s Barney Fife’s …I loved The Andy Griffith Show as a kid.

At long last, we reached Chicago! The traffic heading into the city was very slow, but no worse than DC’s. The skyline was gorgeous and made the long drive much easier. The sight of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) looming over everything is especially stunning. There was no way to really capture how incredible it was with my camera. We soon learned from walking around the city that Chicagoans are very proud of their architecture, and they have every reason to be. Unique, well-preserved historic buildings are everywhere and they are beautiful.

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The Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge

We noticed a super skinny skyscraper as we headed into the heart of Chicago’s Loop area, and it turned out that was our hotel, the River Hotel. We  dropped off the car with the friendly and extremely helpful valet (and left him a good tip). The price to park valet seems extremely high in Chicago, but the alternative was for us to fumble around in a cramped parking garage ourselves and then haul all our bags … and the garage by itself, no valet, was still very expensive. We checked in at the front desk so late that they actually didn’t have any rooms left in the River Hotel itself, so we got upgraded to the Club Quarters hotel in the same building – and grabbed the very last room. They had oversold and that meant everyone after us would have to be walked over to neighboring hotels.

If you’re wondering how two hotels share the same building, it’s kind of a unique story (at least, it’s the first time I’ve ever encountered this). Our hotel is part of a building known to Chicagoans as “The Inverted Spyglass” – a nickname for the historic Mather Tower (later known as Lincoln Tower). The building was nearly torn down a few decades ago, and in fact, the original four-story cupola was removed. (It’s since been replaced with a new one.) The River Hotel has the rooms all the way up to Floor 10. Club Quarters, which provides hotel rooms for corporate members, has rooms in the octagonal part of the tower starting at floor 11. We were on floor 23. The octagonal tower is very skinny, so our room was small, but very nice for what it was. At the rate we were paying – a downright bargain in the heart of Chicago, right on the River and easy walking distance from Millennium Park – we were not complaining. Our bed wasn’t super comfortable, but it was good enough. The bathroom was tiny, but everything worked, the shower was deliciously hot, the amenities were nice, and most importantly, it was very clean. The room came with a small stash of library books, and there were reusable water bottles out in the hallway with a chilled water station. (I’m also remembering now that they offer free aromatherapy sleep kits and I meant to request one and completely forgot!) The view out of our window faced some great looking skyscrapers. Finally, the downstairs lobby was beautiful. Great attention to detail was paid when renovating this building – it was clear there were originally six elevators, now reduced to four, but the two old elevator spaces in the lobby were cleverly re-purposed as a brochure cabinet and a business center. The gorgeous old elevator dials were left alone even though they no longer worked! A warm and inviting lounge was around the corner with water, coffee, and comfortable chairs. There was also an Italian restaurant downstairs. For Day 2 we had plans to get up early, and we were exhausted from our drive, so instead of eating there, we pretty much just took a shower and crashed.

Day 1 Linkage: 

The view from our hotel window

The view from our hotel window

Let’s hit the road! Planning for Route 66

My husband Eric, always game (to date) for every travel adventure I’ve pulled him into, and I are about to start out on our next “big” vacation – a road trip that includes most of the first half of old Route 66. We’ll start in Chicago and stop at Oklahoma City for the historic part of the trip, hopefully returning next year to finish OKC all the way to L.A. and the Santa Monica pier. Given that the “Mother Road” was decommissioned from the 1970s through the 1980s and technically no longer exists, it’s not surprising that planning this trip has been an adventure all its own. Here’s a few things I have learned:

  1. …That folks around the metropolitan DC area, where I live and work, confuse old Route 66 with Interstate 66 all the time. I can’t blame them, but the sad fact is that it’s the interstate highway system that “killed off” Route 66 and other roads like it. I-66 has the number 66 because that number was up for grabs once the old route was decommissioned.
  2. …People wonder how on earth I’ll drive on a road that doesn’t exist anymore. Once again, I can’t blame them for asking, because I worried about this myself. The route isn’t in your average map, atlas, or GPS. But my second lesson learned is that there is a TON of great information out there including enthusiastic travel guides, turn-by-turn directions, and painstakingly hand-drawn and illustrated maps. Which brings me to my third lesson …
  3. …People LOVE America’s “Mother Road”! It’s not just something that seems kind of neat to learn about if you’ve read The Grapes of Wrath or On the Road or watched the movie Cars or heard the famous song about “getting your kicks”. There is an entire community of roadies devoted to this road, there are clubs and organizations dedicated to its preservation, and there are authors who eagerly pen their own travel guides and publish gorgeous books full of pictures and memories. Folks run websites and blogs and fundraisers, and they eagerly get the word out about all the mom-and-pop businesses that have survived the years, as well as the new ones that have arrived more recently. Visitors from around the world ask “old-timers” on the forums what to plan, where to stay, and how to rent cars and buy gas/petrol in the U.S. Every year, there are travelers coming from all over the world to tour Route 66 and see our big beautiful America this way – it’s a legendary bucket list trip for many. Isn’t that amazing? You could say the road technically breathed its last breath back in 1985, but it’s for sure not dead!

For more information on the old route, check out the following for starters:

Autumn Leaves

The beautiful sight of Washington as I fly back home never gets old. Monuments, the Pentagon, and the Potomac all look just inches away as we touch down at DCA (Reagan National). Sometimes it looks like the plane might land right in the water. The delighted gasps of first time visitors as they see the Washington Monument and the Capitol staring back at them through their window is nearly as wonderful as seeing it myself. Flying home from CAE (the grand little Columbia, South Carolina airport) last week gave me an additional special treat of seeing our gorgeous Virginia fall colors from the air. It looked like someone had dropped paint balls all over the trees. Some foliage was so incredibly bright that I genuinely mistook one solitary tree for an orange tarp in someone’s back yard!

Driving to Morgantown, West Virginia for business this week gave me a view of our state’s (and our neighboring state’s) seasonal splendor from the road as well. Capturing this glory from my iPhone’s camera seems next to impossible – I can never do it justice with this type of camera. The colors come out dark rather than gleaming. But I’ll post a few pics anyway … 🙂

En route to WV

En route to WV

Old Glory

Old Glory

A view from the mountains at a Virginia welcome center

A view from the mountains at a Virginia welcome center