road trip day 1
A brief synopsis of the first day of our road trip:
We love our new car! It's perfect for long trips -- very comfortable, and effortless to drive.
We headed for a spot south of Pittsburgh: Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's more famous architectural achievements.
We took the tour of the house and also visited the gift shop, where we found a clock that we immediately agreed was a perfect fit for our mantle. The weather was chilly and overcast, but we were all really glad we made the stop and had a chance to walk around the amazing grounds a bit. The hillsides are covered with rhododendrons, which probably look amazing when they bloom (I'm assuming that blooming occurs in July, because they said their busiest times are July and October -- October being when the leaves turn).
From there we went to Pittsburgh, had dinner at Whole Foods (in the process getting to tour some pretty neighborhoods and see where the Google office is), and stayed over at a Hampton Inn in Monroeville.
I'm finishing this email from a rest stop in Ohio, as today we expect to make it to Detroit. (We already passed an auto plant here in Ohio -- the one where they make the Chevy Cruze.) It's kind of fun to experience the Americana. The car continues to be awesome.
[Brevity brought to you by iPhone.]
Other photos from this day:
day 2 & 3
Hello from the Dearborn truck plant! Today we are visiting the Henry Ford Museum and doing the Rouge Factory Tour. We decided to do the tour first, so we took a shuttle bus over here to the Rouge facility, saw a movie about the history of the Rouge plant and Henry Ford's contributions to modern manufacturing, and then spent an hour looking over the F-150 assembly line. It was so very cool to watch trucks being built! A few workers waved and smiled at us as they installed headliners, moon roofs, seat belts, side mirrors, etc. (Robots take care of the windshields.)
The Beaner and Al are downstairs looking at some of the cars that have been manufactured here over the past 100 years as I write this in a break area just outside the assembly plant. The assembly line shuts down from 12-12:30 for lunch.
Yesterday we had a fairly straightforward drive from Pittsburgh to Detroit, with no notable stops. Downtown Detroit was (perhaps not remarkably for a Sunday in a business district) almost completely deserted when we arrived at our very nice Courtyard hotel directly across the street from GM's headquarters at the Renaissance Center. We have an amazing view of the city from our room on the 20th floor, and it's kind of weird to look at Windsor, Ontario just across the water. (Our hotel is also across the street from the TUNNEL TO CANADA.)
While looking for a place to eat dinner last night, we were passed by no less than three camouflaged test cars -- two that the Beaner identified as Darts, and one that Al identified as an Alfa Romeo.
We were very hungry, and our first choice couldn't accommodate us due to a party of 90 (!) showing up without a reservation, so we ended up choosing a somewhat upscale seafood place in the Renaissance Center, which is connected to our hotel by skywalk. There are GM cars in the lobby, shops, restaurants, and a food court in addition to GM offices in several different towers connected by a central hub. We plan to go back later in the week for a tour of the building.
We're now boarding the shuttle bus back to the Henry Ford Museum, so I'll stop now and pick up here in my next missive. We're having a great time.
[This message brought to you by a very tired thumb, via iPhone.]
day 4 & 5
Hi Mom and Lisa
We finished up day 3 with a drive out to a Whole Foods in Troy, during which we learned the significance of the title of the movie about Eminem's life, 8 Mile. The streets are essentially mile markers, so there's a 7 Mile and a 9 Mile and so on (Whole Foods was at 14 Mile). It wasn't a grammar error on Eminem's part to leave off an 's'; apparently 8 Mile was a dividing line between neighborhoods for him growing up. Anyway, I think the fact that the streets are numbered by miles rather than blocks kind of emphasizes one of the observations we've made since arriving: namely, that the city seems too big for the number of people in it. It's beautiful, probably more beautiful than anyone outside of Michigan has been led to believe, but it's vast, and it's empty. We thought the emptiness was a factor of arriving on a Sunday, when all downtown business districts are empty. But even once the work week started, the city never filled up. I kind of wish more people and companies knew how nice it was here, because Detroit could accommodate so many more businesses and residents.
After our Whole Foods resupply, we had a picnic in the room, and then I took the Beaner swimming (he swam, I watched and tried to finish a NYT review of the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed in between answering "hey mom, watch this!" shouts). I ended up being so eager to read Wild after finishing the library book I brought with me that I downloaded it to my Kindle app on the iPad. Reading on the iPad, with its backlit screen, meant I could turn off the bedside lamp that the Beaner complained kept him awake, but it's hard on the eyes in a dark room. The book grabbed me from the first page, however, and totally lived up to its glowing review, so I persevered.
Days 4 (yesterday) and 5 (today) were relatively quiet. Yesterday morning Al called the number we had for the GM assembly plant tour in Flint, but he got a recording that said they no longer offer tours to groups of fewer than 20. (He wasn't sure it would be worth driving the 80 minutes north to Flint anyway, but I was interested in seeing how the town had changed—or not—since Michael Moore filmed Roger and Me there so many years ago, and I thought it might be a good spot for photography, so he agreed to check into it.) We were disappointed, but there were still things on our agenda.
We took the elevator up to the 5th floor of the Millender Center, of which our hotel is a part, and caught the People Mover—Detroit's automated elevated train (like the one at Disney World, only enclosed like a subway train). We took the People Mover in a loop around the downtown area, spotted a few cool places to take photos (but didn't get out to actually take them because it started to rain while we were on the train), and then disembarked at the Ren Center, one stop short of a full loop. The area with the GM cars in it was open, so the Beaner and I climbed in a bunch of them (I liked the Volt; the Beaner preferred the Impala), and the nice man at the info desk gave the Beaner a Camaro convertible Hot Wheels car. The Beaner declared it "not as much fun as the Auto Show" because all you could do was get in the cars. (The Auto Show also involves "watching things, comparing things, and BUYING things.")
Next stop: Canada. Since it was raining, we decided to get in the car and drive through the tunnel (toll: $4) to Windsor, ON. Al wanted some Canadian Tylenol (their back pain formulation has more effective meds in it that are left out of the US version because in the US we have Drug Issues), and I wanted to soak up the Canadiana and see the waterfront gardens. We had an unremarkable lunch, during which it started to pour, and then drove north along the river to see the pretty homes (the river view was somewhat obscured by the rain). Some of the houses reminded me of Aunt Anna's place on Lake Ontario. From there we just cut to the chase and went to the Real Canadian Superstore (kind of like a Walmart Supercenter) and bought a few things. It cleared up while we were inside, and was sunny by the time we made it back down near the tunnel. Al lost track of the tunnel signs, so we ended back on Riverside Drive, onto which I headed south this time (I knew there was also a bridge south of the tunnel). We got to admire the tulips and the sculpture gardens on our way to the bridge, and then we got to attempt to convince a stern border patrol guard that we'd come all the way from Philadelphia to "hang out" for a couple hours in Canada (NO SIR WE DO NOT HAVE ANY CONTRABAND TYLENOL BACK PAIN® IN OUR VEHICLE).
When we got back to the hotel Al took a nap and the Beaner played while I went back out to take photos of the cool things I'd seen from the People Mover that morning. I got off about a third of the way around the loop and then ended up following the elevated tracks on foot through the various neighborhoods until I made it back to the hotel.
Al took the Beaner swimming while I continued reading Wild, and then they ordered room service while I ate from our bag of snacks. By the time the Beaner went to bed, Al was worrying that we had run out of things to do here, and that all the things left on his list were in Canton, OH rather than here. This created a dilemma, because we'd agreed that I would get a ticket to a Red Wings game on Thursday night (it was too expensive to get 3 tickets for a night game that the Beaner wouldn't appreciate anyway when we considered it weeks ago, but I had some extra spending money left over at the end of March, and there was a single seat available 10 rows from the glass when I checked on Monday, so I snagged it). This meant that we couldn't leave earlier than planned unless I could sell my ticket or was willing to eat the cost (considerable). Al said we could discuss it in the morning.
While the Beaner and Al were at breakfast this morning, I got up and showered, then started looking into selling my ticket on StubHub. They came back as I was trying to figure out if I could save my ticket as a PDF and upload it to the StubHub site from an iPad, or whether I'd have to go down to the business center. The Beaner asked what I was doing and I explained about trying to sell my ticket so we could check out tomorrow. He didn't want to leave tomorrow; as far as he was concerned, there were still things to do here, SUCH AS SWIMMING. He wanted to stay until Friday. I decided to see if we could go to Flint after all. I called and got the same voicemail Al did, which gave the name and email address of the woman to contact if I had a group of 20 or more. I emailed her and asked if by any wild chance there was already a group tour scheduled for this week that we could join. She called me back an hour later and said YES, there was: she could add us to a tour that was scheduled for 9:45am tomorrow. She was very enthusiastic about my "don't take no for an answer" approach. :-) So tomorrow we will be getting up early and driving to Flint to see GMC 2500HDs and Chevy Silverados being made.
In the hour between email and callback, I continued reading Wild while Al napped and the Beaner played. After the tour arrangements were made, I took the Beaner down to the pool, where Al joined us 30 minutes later. He actually got in, and after a few too many, "hey mom, watch me and dad!" interruptions, I went back to the room to finish reading Wild. I did, and I highly recommend it.
Once they had cleaned up we drove over to John K. King Used & Rare Books, a four-story warehouse filled with, yep, used and rare books. We spent about an hour in the stacks, reading and taking photos, then went to a Barnes & Noble in the suburbs to find a book the Beaner wanted and John King didn't have (but also as a means of seeing more of the area). It really is very beautiful here; I wondered as I drove whether I'd appreciate the sunny spring day as much in Philly or New Jersey, and the answer is probably yes, but Michigan's spread-outness helps you see each tree and the expanse of blue sky between the examples of interesting architecture.
The plan was to try again to eat at the Brazilian steakhouse we'd been turned away from on Monday, but after stopping at a different Whole Foods for snacks, the plan changed: the Beaner wanted another hotel room picnic. I was not opposed, so we got dinner and breakfast items (since there will be no time for buffet in the morning) and headed back to the hotel. I've been pecking at this email in between eating, taking photos out the window, and and listening to Larry the Cable Guy on the History Channel ever since. Will send another update tomorrow or Friday.
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days 6, 7 & 8
Hello from Monroeville (Pittsburgh)!
I decided to give my fingers a rest for a couple days after the last long missive, so I'm writing one leg away from home.
On Thursday we left at 8am in brisk, 36 degree weather for the GM Assembly Plant in Flint, MI. It took a little less than an hour and a half to get there, but the drive was uneventful. We'd yet to figure out what direction people commute in in the Detroit metro area, because we'd never encountered what in any other city would be recognized as rush hour traffic. I don't know whether this is further evidence of the sparseness of the population, or whether my expectations of what hour the rush is in are based on office hours rather than shift hours.
On arriving at the GM Flint Assembly plant, we were instructed to park in the first lot near the Rotunda if we had a GM car, or continue down the road a bit to the larger lot and walk back if we didn't. We also had to note the make of our car when we signed in at the security desk. I knew from Mona at the Convention & Visitor's Bureau that we would be joining a tour by cart rather than the usual walking tour, but I didn't know what kind of group to expect. It turned out to be another group of three: a woman whose husband worked at the plant and her retired parents. Her dad had worked for GM for a couple years starting in 1947, the year the Flint plant opened. After watching a safety video, we met our tour guide—a UAW member who worked in Quality. If a worker on the line noticed that a bolt didn't line up to a hole quite right, or a clip didn't click when a pipe was slid into place, or his rag snagged on a headlamp as he wiped it, for example, our guide's job was to check other parts in the batch for similar defects and determine whether it was a one-off problem, a bad lot, or an even bigger problem. We were also joined for part of the tour by a part supplier rep who would be our guide's first point of contact if the defect was widespread (her company produced taillights and other light covers, I think).
Anyway, it was a completely different experience from the one we had at the Ford Rouge Plant. That was a real working factory, too, but the experience was more Disney-like: We were struck by how similar it was to waiting in line for Test Track, with its videos of plant workers describing their jobs and computer displays of different processes—whereas this one felt grittier and more real. It was stunning, actually; we spent the first 10 minutes saying "wow" over and over as our guide drove us right up to the area where the robots were welding the doors, along the different parts of the assembly line, through the area where the truck bodies with paint problems were stored, and so on. It was just plain fascinating, and our guide's perspective on how well "union" and "management" worked together or didn't (we gathered that relations were pretty good at this plant, but I was still a bit surprised by the us/them) was especially interesting. He pointed out ideas for changes that the union guys had come up with (so you can get the full picture, I should mention that all of this commentary was shouted above the noise of the factory, which included heavy metal music blaring from several stations), explained what the colors and symbols on the status board meant, and described the different jobs and how workers rotate through them. We heard about sequencing, which allows two different trucks in various body styles with different options to be produced on a single line, and how the union fought to have it done onsite instead of having it outsourced in order to both preserve jobs and increase efficiency and flexibility; how many seconds out of each minute various jobs should take, and how if you want to blow your nose, you have to work a little faster in order to build up an extra few seconds of slack in which to blow; and why we couldn't go into Paint—namely, because to even get a job in Paint, you have to go through skin and hair tests to make sure your body chemistry doesn't cause you to shed excessively. (Shedding skin or hair, or using certain shampoos or lotions, can cause paint defects.)
We learned about "float" (what Al knew as "variance" in Lean terminology, and I didn't know by name but by practice, as I determine my team's capacity and assignments), and we saw with our own eyes what happened when there were problems on the line and float got used up (Paint was apparently having issues, and a couple sections of the line stopped for a couple minutes and blocked others. This, we were told, was when you took the opportunity to run to the bathroom if you couldn't wait for your 14-minute break.)
I'm realizing as I write this that I'm never going to be able to capture it all for you, especially typing with two fingers on an iPad; I'll have to write more about it when I get home, or tell you in person. We haven't stopped talking about it ourselves. I think the GM tour was more fascinating for me and Al than for the Beaner, who had trouble hearing and parsing what our guide was saying, though he says it was "educational, fun, and tiring" (he doesn't seem to realize that a two-hour walking tour of the enormous, two-floor plant would have been much MORE tiring—we lucked out by joining a tour with two people in their 80s). There was plenty to look at for all of us, and plenty to think and talk about for me and Al. I'm really glad that we got to see both a Ford plant and a GM plant (or just two different plants, period), and the opportunity to hear the union perspective on everything from the organizational structure of the plant to how decisions on plant closures are made was eye-opening and thought-provoking. (I am not a fan of unions—the adversarial relationship between union and management frustrates me, and I think that the us vs. them mentality can lead to bad decisions—but I think this is the first time I've been able to hear so much detail about a union member's job, aside from my discussions with Val about being a teacher. I absolutely respect the hard work that these people do, and acknowledge that I couldn't do it.)
After leaving the plant, we followed Mona's recommendation for getting "the full plant experience" by having lunch at Capitol Coney. As Mona explained:
"The many auto plants that sprouted up in the Flint area paved the way for a particular type of restaurant, known as a 'Coney Island'. These 'coneys' were famous for the hot dogs they served by the same name. They sprouted up around the plants because factory workers needed lunch in a hurry when on break. A Flint style 'coney' is a Vienna hot dog served with mustard, coney [meat] sauce and chopped onions. It was almost always served with French fries and a coke."
We had seen a few restaurants with "Coney Island" signs on them around Detroit and were puzzled by them, since if you're not actually AT Coney Island, it's an adjective—usually in front of "hot dog". We kept saying to ourselves, Coney Island *what*? After hearing Mona's explanation, suddenly we were able to read Coney Island as a noun. :-)
We then drove around Flint a bit, trying to get a sense of the place. We went to the Farmer's Market (where I got what seemed at first to be a normal reusable shopping bag with the Flint Farmer's Market logo, but turned out to be a bag designed specifically for farmer's market shopping—narrow and long, with credit-card like pockets on the ends for herbs and flowers), stopped at a local coffee shop, and took photos of interesting signs before heading back to Detroit.
We did see something resembling rush hour on a clogged exit ramp to 696, which our GPS wanted us to take, but by this time I was familiar enough with the area to know that we could stay on 75, and the traffic stayed moderate and at the 70mph speed limit until about a mile from Downtown. We took the Beaner swimming, and then I went to my Detroit Red Wings game while the Beaner and Al went to the Brazilian steakhouse we'd failed to eat at on Monday. This turned out to be a good choice, since it was really best suited to meat eaters—I would have had a very expensive salad. :-) The Beaner and Al really enjoyed it, and I enjoyed my great seat at the Red Wings game.
As we were going to bed on Thursday night, Al discovered that there was a Chrysler museum that we'd missed—and it was even on the way back from Flint, the opposite direction we'd need to go the next morning. We decided to go anyway on Friday before leaving. We both wished we'd known about it on Wednesday, when we didn't do anything particularly interesting, but going on Friday didn't really impinge on our plans. One of the volunteers at the museum gave us an intro to Chrysler history and the cars on display, and then we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was the perfect spot to end our Detroit automotive tour, and was as educational in its own way as the Ford museum and plant tour and the GM plant tour had been. With Chrysler we got a bit more of the engineering and design perspective, as well as the complicated history of the brand.
Going a bit out of our way to cram in one more thing, weirdly, helped make our exit from Detroit calmer rather than more frantic. The simple decision to take the time to do this set the tone for the day, and the three-hour plus drive to Cleveland wasn't that bad. We checked into our hotel near Progressive Field around 4:30, and I took the Beaner swimming (I actually got in this time) for an hour. Al ordered room service, and I walked about half a mile to get sushi rolls for me and the Beaner, and then we watched History Channel shows until I conked out at around 9:30.
In the morning I took the Beaner down for breakfast so Al could sleep in, and then we packed up the car and walked over to Progressive Field, where the gates would open at 11:30 for the 1:05 game. It was a chilly 45 degrees, but it was sunny in the outfield, where we stood to watch the Blue Jays' batting practice. I was glad I brought both scarves and my gloves (the warming kind, not the baseball kind), because our seats behind home plate stayed in the shade for the 5 innings we watched. It was a really fun experience; I quite liked that ballpark—it had a very low-key, homey vibe, while offering modern food choices (including gluten free options)—and our seats were great.
We left the park around 2:30 and walked back to the hotel to get our car, then set the GPS for the Whole Foods in Pittsburgh, about 2 hours away (we listened to the game on AM radio until several miles into PA, where we lost the signal—almost, but not quite long enough to to hear the end of the game, which stretched to 12 innings). We got there around 5, got dinner items to bring back to our hotel, and then returned to the same Hampton Inn we stayed at on our way to Detroit.
The Beaner is now thrashing about on the pull-out sofa in our room after an hour and a half of swimming followed by dinner in the room and a few episodes of American Restoration. I am sitting on my right hand and and pecking with my left, as my right hand went numb about 30 minutes ago (I should invest in an external keyboard for this thing for our next trip). We'll be back in Philly tomorrow afternoon!
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