Road tripping, Cleveland edition

26 Nov

It’s amazing how much you can miss on 10,000-mile road trip. During the trek this blog (which turned a year old on Saturday) documented, I was obliged to skip — or, in many cases, come nowhere near — many art museums I would have dearly loved to visit. I most regretted missing the Cleveland Museum of Art, whose extraordinary collection I knew by reputation, not firsthand experience. So when my amazing new boyfriend agreed to spend the first vacation he’s taken in five years — which fell not only on Thanksgiving week but his 50th birthday — road-tripping to the so-called “Mistake by the Lake” with me, that was all the more evidence that life made no mistake in bringing us together.

Henri Matisse, The Windshield, On the Road to Villacoublay, 1917. Cleveland Museum of Art

We did it on a shoestring budget, staying in the suburb of Willoughby in the worst Motel 6 I’ve ever been to — and I grew up staying in Motel 6es on family vacations. Amenities included wet leaves blown under the door by a passing leafblower and a chronically paralyzed Internet connection that you had to buy individual codes per-device-per-day to be thwarted in your attempts to use. The staff had to cut codes out of a book and tape the strips to a piece of paper for you. We still had plenty of fun in the bed, which included a yawning sinkhole at no extra charge.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection is staggeringly, shockingly good. (So is the groundbreaking, ambitious exhibition Wari: Lords of the Andes; read The Plain Dealer art critic Steven Litt’s thoughtful review here.) We spent about five hours there on our first visit, then nearly three on our second, which fell on Black Friday, their busiest day of the year — a fact that’s all the more refreshing when you consider that admission to this incredible museum is free.

We also visited the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, where we loved the shiny new Farshid Moussavi-designed building from the outside but were more nonplussed by the interior spaces — the building’s more about itself than about what’s inside — and by the fact that while you can spend days in the encyclopedic CMA without spending a dime on admission, you can see everything at MOCA Cleveland in a leisurely 40 minutes that will set you back $8. Not that I minded ponying up as tourist, but how often will the locals come back if the museum doesn’t switch to a Contemporary Arts Museum Houston-style “always fresh, always free” model? (Don’t get me started about the $22 admission to the joke of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum — the real mistake by the lake.)

We checked out the shockingly beautiful Lake View Cemetery, which also functions as the city’s outdoor museum and arboretum and home to a 180-foot-tall Romanesque-Byzantine-style monument to assassinated President James Garfield. You get a great view of not only the cemetery, which is also the final resting place of John D. Rockefeller, Eliot Ness and Carl B. Stokes, among other notables including Jeptha Homer Wade, the founder of the Western Union Telegraph Co. who started his career as a portrait painter. Wade gave me one of my biggest double-takes at the CMA with his 1837 portrait of Nathaniel Olds, who sported a pair of such ultra-mod green-tinted shades that I wondered if they had been added to the painting years later as a joke. Nope: the spectacles were meant to protect against his home’s Argand Lamps, which burned whale oil and produced such strong light that they were feared to damage eyesight. (Years later, Wade’s grandson donated the land on which the CMA sits.)

Jeptha Homer Wade, Portrait of Nathaniel Olds, 1837. Cleveland Museum of Art

With our frequent visits to the University Circle area, where the museums, Lake View Cemetery, Severance Hall, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and other byproducts of fabulous wealth are located, our route to and from the Willoughby Motel 6 gave us a daily double does of the Dickensian side of the city. All that money sits right alongside East Cleveland, a devastated community whose crumbling, boarded up buildings rival anything I’ve seen in post-Katrina New Orleans or that the boyfriend’s seen in Baltimore. Adding to the mix of fascination and sadness is the fact that many of those bombed-out structures are, or were, architecturally impressive.

We drove the full six hours up to Cleveland from the boyfriend’s home but broke up the drive back with a stop in Monroeville, Pa., where we made up for the Willoughby Motel 6 by staying in the nicest Doubletree I’ve ever set foot in. We awoke to a picture-perfect snowfall but no ice on the roads and made our way back to Jessup. Then the boyfriend proved himself to be even more wonderful by joining me in DC for a hospital visit to my brother-in-law, who recently suffered a stroke but has to be the funnest stroke patient ever, and stayed long enough to meet my sister and my Southern Baptist parents, with whom I have a relationship straight out of a Philip Larkin poem, and who had made a road trip of their own from Iowa to visit my sister and brother-in-law.

I was adamant about the meeting not just because my parents are always better behaved when there’s a witness, but because I wanted them to know that either he’s part of the family or I’m not, and to their great credit, they got it, as was confirmed when Dad insisted on including the boyfriend in the family snapshots he insists on taking to document every visit. This touched me so much that I started bawling the minute we got back into the car.

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