It’s part one of wandering around the Santa Ynez Mountains in California’s Central Coast, from Ventura and Gorman to Paseo Robles. Challenging roads, beautiful valleys, twisting curves, a spectacular gorge, mountain peaks, tunnels, no traffic and the surf lapping up on the highway.

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A few years back I spent a several weeks working in Moorhead, Minn., and as things go in the interstate twin cities of Fargo, ND and Moorhead, my budget-priced hotel was across the Red River in Fargo. Wandering around one Sunday afternoon, I headed west to where Fargo runs out and Interstate 94 makes one of its infrequent turns before heading west across the prairie.

Don’t like trains? Check out the cars.

There, at the end of Main Avenue West, is Bonanzaville USA. A most interesting and eclectic collection of everything from classic bric-a-brac to trains, planes and automobiles.

It’s one of those roadside attractions that’s so common here in the heartland, but one of the biggest you’ll find anywhere. A collection amassed by the Cass County Historical Society, it will satisfy your nostalgic noodle or serve as a fascinating glimpse of old tech. As the trucks and cars whiz by on I-94, this is a great rest stop before that long stretch of no speed limit as you head west, or something to put the prairie in perspective.

They’ve collected everything that has to do with the settling of this region. The biggest items are in the Embden Depot and adjacent train shed, housing a vintage Northern Pacific steam locomotive; the smallest are the knickknacks in the cabins and homes of Pioneer Village.

While it lacks the wide open spaces and lush landscaping of, say, Greenfield Village (Henry Ford’s Americana preserve in Dearborn, Mich.), the tightly packed homes, stores and exhibits of are almost overwhelming.

Old town street contains historic and replica buildings.

The local historians don’t seem to turn down any donation. It’s much more than just some static exhibits of old homes. I haven’t found anywhere else that has trains, planes and automobiles — in addition to the depot exhibits, they have a collection of some fine vintage automobiles in the Dahl Car Museum, while a D-Day vet C-47 heads up the Eagles Air Museum.

Where to start? Well, it’s only open from May to mid-October (they do have rather severe winters here), but admission is just $8 for adults and $4 for kids 6-16; children under age 6 are free.

My couple of hours there were a run just to see what I could cover. The train cars and auto museum hit my particular interest. Most of this area was static and a bit dusty when I visited, but given the size of the place, it’s a lot of work for volunteers to keep things going.

The buildings are mostly static displays: kitchens of the past with wood stoves, butter churns, etc; general stores with vintage cans on the shelves. Far cry from Wal-Mart and a 4,000 square foot dream home in the suburbs. Many are originals, moved here and restored, including a town hall, blacksmith shop, log cabins and vintage homes. There’s even the original Wheatland, ND, town hall and jail, moved to the site bit by bit.

Don’t like cars or streets? Check out the train.

Big events are the Fiber Arts Festival, July 24-25, celebrating all things fabric and fiber, and Pioneer Days, Aug. 15-16, which recalls the early days on the prairie.

Next door is the Red River Valley Speedway, a classic dirt track that hosts racing every Wednesday night in the summer. Had a great time watching an evening of racing there, but that’s another story.

Quite a collection for something that’s run by volunteers and owned by a local non-profit. Nearly 50 buildings cover a dozen acres on the western edge of Fargo, as I-94 stays mostly as a straight line for the next 300-plus miles until it hits the Little Missouri National Grassland.

Just remember to take that exit off the interstate. ⚙

Route and Info

  • Hotels in the area are mostly in Fargo, about six miles east where I-25 meets I-94.
  • Restaurants in the area are mostly of the chain variety, but try downtown Fargo. Sammy’s Pizza, 301 Broadway N, Fargo, is a very old-style pizza joint; the chef even tosses the pizzas in the front window. Downtown Fargo also has a number of brew pubs and other interesting spots.

Frontier Motel, Truxton AZ, Carol Highsmith photo, courtesy Library of Congress

Fatigue is setting in and you’ve been motoring eastbound (or north-, south- or west-bound) all day on Interstate Whatever. Up ahead at Exit 134 is a major-brand motel and, even though you find the parking lot choked with Family Trucksters, the somewhat worn out desk clerk says they’ve got a room.

Sure, there are a few kids in the lobby and the pool is going strong, even though it’s 9 p.m. But, it’s a good, comfortable room at a fair price. And it’s either here, or you’re dozing off and making your own exit from the Interstate.

The next morning… waffles at the free breakfast bar are all that’s on your mind. You enter the dining room and suddenly feel like you’re a kitchen scene from the movie “Cheaper By the Dozen.” Kids everywhere. Looks like several moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas; generations all running around while you’re trying to get your first cup of coffee for the day.

You’ve stumbled upon one of the favorite summer activities… a family reunion. All over America, especially it seems in the Midwest, big families scattered all over pick a spot on the map, book a few (dozen) rooms at usually an all-suite hotel, and show up for a weekend of family bonding.

It can be rather confusing if you’re not part of the group. For a few years, my job plopped me in highway-side motels for weeks at a time during the summer and while the place was mostly quiet during the week, on Thursday night they’d start to arrive. Pretty soon, a hotel with mostly business travelers, truckers — a fairly subdued and serious group — was transformed into the Brady household on steroids.

With sometimes only one day off of a 12-hour schedule, my Sunday respit was generally disturbed by a crowd of folks having a great time. So, I decided to go with the flow and, within reason, join in the fun.

The family reunion crowds are generally about the happiest folks I ever encountered on the road. Adults are catching up with others in their generation, reconnecting with great-grandma and grandpa, meeting cousins. Spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends are the ones with the dazed looks and different features — it’s amazing how facial features and body types go across the family tree.

At a Residence Inn outside of Columbus, Oh., a few years ago, instead of dashing in the dining room for a bagel and running back to my room to avoid the crowd, I decided to chat up the folks in line for the waffle machine. Turns out the family did this about every five years, with family members coming from as far away as Chicago and Macon, Ga.

There were new babies and significant others to meet, old times to relive and connections to reestablish. There were also transitions to experience, as a couple of members of the older generation had passed on during the five years. Life goes on.

Folks were really overly friendly and in a mood to talk and share their stories. For someone with a really small family, seeing 50 people all in the same room (most with the same nose and eyes) was pretty amazing.

So, when you pull off of Interstate Whatever and see one of those full parking lots at the motel, don’t dread it. Join the family.

Ben's Chili Bowl, photo courtesy Ben's Chili BowlA friend’s upcoming visit to Washington, D.C. brought back memories of my six weeks there back in 2001. Yes, that 2001, it was when I was working for FEMA and was called to headquarters after the September 11 attacks.

The city was pretty quiet when I got there shortly after the FAA decided that airline flights could resume. By that time, everybody who could get out of D.C. did. Tourists exited, conventions canceled, lobbyists went to wherever they go. Auto traffic was way down but still snarled because of streets that were blocked off for security. I got back home on Halloween.

Our work group went out for lunch one day, walking over to the Ford House Office Building cafeteria. A few hours later, the anthrax episode unfolded; I had a day off the next day and stumbled into the news conference where Congressional leaders announced they would be leaving town en-masse for the first time since the War of 1812 or something.

I stayed part of the time at the Homewood Suites at Thomas Circle, which I found out was on the site of the German embassy up to World War II. Walking the same sidewalk as Nazi officials gave me the creeps, but that’s Washington. There’s a great little book called On This Spot that tells what’s been where over the years.

But that’s another story. In my six weeks or so there, I was able to explore a remarkable American city, seeing some of the off-the-beaten path sites. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Ben’s Chili Bowl and “the Black Broadway,” 1213 U St. NW. Locals at FEMA HQ said I had to check out Ben’s, a Washington legend for not only its great chili and snack-bar fare, but the history. We’re the same age (both opened in 1958). Ben’s story goes that Ben and Virginia Ali opened their café down the street from the Washington Senators’ home at Griffith Stadium and in the middle of the night clubs, theaters and restaurants that catered to Washington’s African-American elite. Read more about the history on Ben’s website, but just know that over the years, the narrow restaurant in an old building turned into one of those where-the-elite-meet-to-eat places. Photos of political and entertainment celebs dot the walls. And the food ain’t bad either. I’m not usually big on chili dogs, but I tried the chili smokes and it’s worth the trip. It reminded me of the Beefmaster, a skinny greasy spoon that used to be in the old California Theater in downtown San Diego. Griffith Stadium is gone; the Howard University Hospital is now on its site and many of the clubs and theaters from the Black Broadway days are also history. The city has a walking tour through the area, well marked with frequent signs, that will take visitors on a great experience.
  • Maine Avenue Fish Market, 1100 Maine Ave. SW. Outdoor markets are few and far between and this one is the oldest. Predating even the (now moved) Fulton Fish Market in New York, Washington’s Maine Avenue market dates to very early in the 19th century. Nearly buried under Interstate 395, it’s about as waterfront as the Southwest Waterfront can get. Fish on ice as far as the eye can see, it still retains its original seafood glory, not succumbing to tourist-trap status as have similar markets in San Francisco and Seattle. You can grab something live or cooked here as a snack. For something a bit more developed, walk a ways to the local Phillips restaurant, 900 Water St. SW, flagship of a family-owned chain in the mid-Atlantic region. When I visited, it was a rather cool day so I skipped the chowder on the street for the comfort of the Phillips dining room.
  • Stan’s Restaurant, 1029 Vermont Ave NW. I remember my steak being OK, but not great, but it was just the ambiance of the place. Downstairs in a brownstone, red leather booths, small bar, just so Swanky D.C. This was before the martini boom, but I bet they serve a great one.
  • DuPont Circle. I can’t remember the place I ate here, but the area is packed with restaurants and clubs. Check it out.
  • Ford House Office Building Cafeteria, 416 3rd Street SW. The food wasn’t anything to write home about — and yes, it its a pick-up-your-own-food cafeteria — but for a yokel from San Diego it was fun to sit down among all the well-dressed folks at the hub of Our Nation’s Government. I hope when you visit there’s no anthrax threat.
  • Eastern Market, 225 7th St SE. Another back-to-the-past market, this one boasts it is the oldest outdoor fresh food market in the city, although it’s a couple of years newer than the Maine Avenue Fish Market. Oh well; they’re all really old. A variety of merchants have a variety of eats available, along with other goodies. I walked over from the Metro station, then walked back to Capitol Hill (and into the we’re leaving Washington congressional news conference).

Other stuff: I visited an old friend in charming old town Arlington; the Newseum and Holocaust Museums are a must as are as many of the Smithsonians you can get to. When you’re checking out the clubs, shops and cafes in Georgetown, be sure to look for the canals. Those were the high-tech transportation corridors of their day and one reason why Georgetown was there before Washington, D.C.

There’s also a whole list of things I want to do when I get back there one day. Bianca, wish I was going with you on your trip; have a great time!