Accessible Travel by Car
I was fortunate this past week to have been offered a free press pass to Hitec, the world’s largest conference for technology professionals in the hospitality industry. I was interested to see what technologies have been developed that will improve travel for people with disabilities, but the last minute nature of the trip meant an outrageously priced plane ticket. So rather than fork over $600 for a ticket to Baltimore,
I hopped in the car and headed out on my first road trip of the year, and the longest one in about 25 years! As long as I was going to travel the road, I decided to make it a quest. I was going to see how easy it would be for a person with a disability to travel by car over 700 miles through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. So, I loaded up the car with my road trip essentials, beef jerky, nuts, cheese puffs, Fig Newtons and water. I was going to drive the first leg to Pittsburgh, which would take about eight hours, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t starve along the way. Never mind that there are a bazillion places to stop along the way. I was going to make sure that I would be prepared, should I run into one of those food deserts I keep hearing about.
Now, I love Chicago. It’s a beautiful city with wonderful, friendly people. However, I always feel sorry for travelers who cross from the Indiana border and see the far south side near Calumet Harbor. Frankly, it’s a depressing, dingy, dump. I apologize to anyone who may live in the area, but there is nothing scenic or representative of the Chicago I know there. As I drove southeast from my suburban home, I passed from the famous high rises of the Chicago skyline, past Cellular One Field (home of the White Sox), and onto the most expensive, and least maintained stretch of highway in Illinois; the Chicago Skyway. For $3.50, you too can drive on the pothole ridden Skyway, past old factories and neighborhoods that haven’t thrived in more than 50 years.
After paying the exorbitant toll, I crossed over an extremely high bridge over Cal Harbor. I used to have nightmares about this bridge, dreaming that my car would slide off the bridge and I would fall forever. Needless to say, I always drive in the far left lane, away from the guide rails. There is a unique smell in this part of town, and I remember driving through that area as a kid; everyone blaming the person next to them for the pungent smell that penetrated the car.
I drove past the old Falstaff Brewery, leaving the Windy City behind, and crossed the Indiana border, where I was welcomed with the still, dank waters of Wolf Lake, shadowed by old steel mills where I remember watching the fires burning in the smokestacks on summer evenings. This area has stood still in time; the only real new construction being the Horseshoe Casino that attracts south siders to its slot machines and gaming tables. The scenery didn’t improve until I got past Gary, Indiana, famous for it’s not so great crime rate and being the home of the Jackson Five.
The roads then opened up to tree lined byways that were construction free. I stopped at the Elkhart rest stop, one of several rest stops that were spaced between 25 and 30 miles apart. I wish I had good news to report. Not only had the rest stop not been updated in many years, but it was a bit dirty with the typical McDonalds offering. While it was accessible, with automatic doors and accessible restrooms, I had no plan of staying any longer than to do my business and get back on the road quickly.
After paying my toll at the last booth in Indiana (actually, I had an iPass, which is honored in the states I drove through), I crossed over into Ohio. The landscapes were lovely. Rolling hills, kelly green crops, surrounded by camel colored brush. I pulled into the first Ohio rest stop, which is brand new. In fact, they have completely rebuilt all of the Ohio Turnpike rest stops in the last couple years. The brightly lit food court had your typical choices, but some of them had Panera Breads and healthier choices. There was a small shop, a family restroom, a trucker’s lounge, and plenty of accessible stalls. There is a live person from the tourism office that can offer suggestions of places to stay and things to do, and tons of brochures. The drive through Ohio was a long one; and I ended up stopping at several rest areas along the Turnpike (too much water). All of them were equally well maintained; very clean. They all had Starbucks, and I was able to get WiFi, which was a welcome treat.
Construction welcomed me from Sandusky through Youngstown, which is most of the eastern part of the state. Fortunately, traffic was fairly light, but I could see it getting pretty hairy during peak periods. As I crossed into the state of Pennsylvania, the driving became more technical, and I could feel my fatigue set in. Construction and winding roads kept me on my toes, but I was definitely ready for the break! I arrived at my first destination in the north hills of Pittsburgh where some dinner and a good night’s sleep prepared me to finish my drive.
Cruising through Pennsylvania
The next morning, I got back onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and traveled the scenic roads toward the Maryland border. Pennsylvania has also invested in new rest stops. They have spacious family restrooms and individual restrooms for people with disabilities within the women’s and men’s restrooms. They even have mommy and me stalls with little kiddy toilets next to the normal restrooms so that moms with children have their own place to go potty! There is a good variety of restaurants, and plenty of accessible pathways. My only issue is that the service plazas are spaced farther apart on the western side of the state.
I left the Pennsylvania Turnpike to head over the Maryland border toward Baltimore. The lovely vistas of Maryland reminded me of many drives through France. It was simply beautiful. The roads were quiet, but the rest areas were more rustic and spartan. They were accessible, but gone were the large service plazas with food choices and family restrooms.
As I headed down US Route 70, the lovely views gave way to more traffic, more industry, and less scenery. Goodbye quiet Maryland countryside; hello, Baltimore!