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The Vax Tax Refund Trip* A 19-day, 3550 mile trip in 13 states. April 2021

Updated: Sep 9

* why this title? We got our first Covid-19 vaccine shot and and an unexpected tax refund (plus a stimulus check!) and took off. Alternate trip title = Vaccinated and Stimulated!

Note: because this was a Covid Times trip we had slightly different experiences than normal. A shout-out to all the businesses we visited for being scrappy in order to survive.

The Whole Route: ToledoPittsburghNYC, NJ and PhiladelphiaVirginia Beach via the DelMarVa ⇨ Raleigh (+ van camping on the North Carolina coast) ⇨ Asheville

Click on the links to get right to the reviews and recommendations, and check out these trip posts on Facebook and Instagram @MadFoodEx.


Highlights: Great Lakes, historic cities and hotels, camping in a van, the Atlantic Ocean, hushpuppies and biscuits, mountains, and so very many bridges!


Method of Travel: 3550+ miles in our car, staying with friends and family, in hotels, and 6 days in a camper van we rented through Outdoorsy.com to see what all the #VanLife fuss is about!


Soundtrack: Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, the fourth of five books of the biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, on Audible. Podcasts Hysteria, You're Wrong About, and The Daily (to keep up with the news), Sirius Grateful Dead and Yacht Rock stations, a Spotify playlist of songs with trip locations in the title (ex. “Holy Toledo” by Vundabar, “Pittsburgh” by the Lemonheads, “Manhattan Skyline” by Julia Fordham).


Toledo, OH - Oh? Toledo was our destination for genealogical purposes, but that’s for a different blog. Coming from Chicago, we arrived in time for dinner at the Maumee Bay Brewing Company, which had a pretty courtyard for atmospheric outdoor dining.

The expansive restaurant, in the historic Oliver House Hotel (1859) featured a lot of info about Toledo’s brewing industry about which, as a Wisconsinite, I didn’t know. They made beer in other states? Northwestern Ohio also had an important oil industry in the 19th century.

In this century, some Ohio cities have this thing called DORAs, or Designated Outdoor Recreational Areas, where you can get a cocktail or beer from a restaurant and then wander the designated area with it. An especially good idea during Covid Times, to keep people outdoors.

Toledo's 19th C beer industry ⇧ Maumee riverfront, 2021. ⇩

The next morning we explored the downtown, which had a good amount of 19thC office buildings, and an actively groomed waterfront (on the Maumee River). The downtown was deserted on a Saturday, probably due to Covid, or a cool April. Toledo deserves more time than we gave it, see why here. If you're there, the Greetings From Toledo mural, from the beginning of this post, is located at Main and First on Toledo’s East Side.

Eastward! Driving through flat Ohio farmland trying to glimpse (Great Lakes reference!) Lake Erie… disappointing in April when the lakeside restaurants aren’t up and running. We ended up getting a Subway sub in Port Clinton, perched on a picnic table by the lake. Somtimes that's just what you have to do on a road trip.



Pittsburgh, PA - did we ever love Pittsburgh! The website Discover The Burgh is a great help in deciphering the neighborhoods and learning where to stay. Thanks Jeremy and Angie!

Illustration by Sam Brewster, from an article in Beer Advocate "Where to Drink in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" by Brian Reed.

Pittsburgh's walkable (hilly) downtown, situated at the confluence of three rivers, features an architectural hit list from graceful 1850s federal townhouses to 1880s fantastically-corniced early skyscrapers to sleek 1920s art deco to imaginative 1960s modern. (OK, also Philip Johnson’s 1980s PPG Place, which I would be remiss not to mention even though it’s not my favorite.) Preservation Pittsburgh is a great resource, and their motto is perfect for this city: "Preserving a world made of steel, made of stone."


Architecture! Some buildings and lobbies worth a look:

  • The Union Trust Building, built by industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1915, in what Wikipedia calls Flemish-Gothic but others would call A Lot. Dramatically lit at night and just as amazing inside.

  • The very diamond-y 1964 United steelworkers building, below left, originally named the IBM Building (I don’t know if Pittsburghers have the same issue we former Chicagoans have with building names, ie. the Forever Sears Tower).


The Omni William Penn, where we stayed, had recently reopened, and the staff was excited! We chose this hotel due to the location and its historic-ness.

Without asking, we had a huge room, and the lobby was beautiful though the bar and coffee shop were still closed. We immediately walked to the waterfront, to orient ourselves in the city, and because our Chicago Cubs were in town playing the Pirates. Tip: you can see right into PNC Park from the Roberto Clemente bridge, which is just one of Pittsburgh’s many fantastic yellow bridges that cross the Allegheny and Ohio and Monongahela rivers. (The two bridges immediately east are named after Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson - how cool is Pittsburgh?)

Note: To see these bridges in action, check out the beginning of Wiz Khalifa’s video for Black And Yellow. Then live with that song in your head all day.

PNC Park from the Roberto Clemente bridge. The Cubs lost.

Here’s some stuff we did while in Pittsburgh, planned and unplanned:

  • The Warren is a charming cocktail bar where we discussed, with the bartender, the lighter fluid-like liquor Chicago is known for, Jeppson's Malört (check out their hilarious Instagram). Having proved ourselves worthy, we were entrusted to deliver a cocktail concoction in tupperware to the bartender at the restaurant at which we were having dinner. A mission! The Commoner, on the lower floor of the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, was beautiful, with Covid-consciously-spaced tables, and intriguing and excellent small plates that showed up on our receipt as simply Meatballs and Salmon.

  • Point State Park is the point where the three rivers meet. Or do they conflue at the confluence? It’s wonderful park to walk or run through, with all the other Burghers, who might also be kayaking.

Across the river you can see the funiculars climb steeply into the hilltop neighborhoods, like Mt. Washington, which we actually drove to.





Great views of the city from precarious-seeming platforms in Grandview. And those hills, seriously! Navigating the inclines and the many bridge on-ramps was exhilarating. Here you have to make split-second decisions faster than Google maps can direct.

  • Brunch at The Foundry Table & Tap gives you a nice river view, and is a great location if you’re headed to PNC field or the Steelers' home, Heinz Field. Be sure to check the game schedule and plan accordingly because parking may be at a premium. Try the Whippet cocktail if you're a gin person.

  • Mr. Rogers is from Pittsburgh! There’s a statue of him along the river, with his voice piped in, which made me quite verklempt. It kind of borders on creepy, however.

  • The Strip District - thanks Discover the Burgh for this! The Strip District is a couple of streets lined with converted warehouses, a mix of old-style grocers and gourmet food shops, street stands selling produce and t-shirts, brewpubs and classic Italian eateries and sandwich places. There’s an amazing and active seafood market, Wholey, est. 1912, that is the kind of place we love to wander, wishing we could take everything home. Then we found a picnic table at the 1700 Penn Ave beer garden, where the Helltown Brewery beer was cold, the pizza oven was hot, and there was live music. Remember back in Covid Times when there wasn’t much live music? We would have been happy to hear a 5th grade strings concert.

  • Randyland. What the heck? This collection of art and sculptures in Randy’s backyard is free and worth a quick visit, though we were nervous to run into Randy himself, who was wandering around shirtless. Here he is.

The nearby Mexican War Streets neighborhood was interesting to drive through, and made us question anything we know about the Mexican War. I’ll let you look that up.

  • Primanti Brothers is THE place to get a big sandwich with fries and coleslaw on it, and we were willing to try. According to legend, having everything on the sandwich makes it easy to eat one-handed and drive, which we did not try.

  • In the East Liberty neighborhood, which we visited on the way out of town, is the gigantic Cathedral of Hope, otherwise known as the East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

Unfortunately the church was closed, but we walked around it, and then ran across a cool t-shirt (and men’s underwear) store called Trim, which is operated by a former Minneapolis newscaster. I bought an excellent t-shirt featuring the yellow bridges.


One more thing - if you’ve read my other posts, you know a historic hotel’s picture gallery is a place you’ll often find us, and also we sneak around and try to see the ballrooms. Often, a ballroom has abandoned wedding flowers, from the wedding the night before. I’ve been known to procure them for my hotel room. Below, some leftover flowers in front of our room at the Plum Point Lodge from a different trip, Rust Belt and Waterfalls.

A 5-hour drive on the (expensive) but welcoming PA turnpike took us to our family in New Jersey. The PA Turnpike is a genius way to collect fares from anyone trying to get to or from New England to and from anywhere else, a concept which is somewhat forgiven after reading the informative historic displays at the (really nice) rest stops.


2 hours in New York City, NY - worth it? Absolutely. Where would you go for two hours? Central Park, of course. After what we’d been hearing about New York being shut down and deserted during Covid, seeing it blooming back to life was just what we needed. (Plus we added a 7th state to the trip). We saw people picnicking and rowing and walking and posing. We even saw a coyote, which caused us to interact with other New Yorkers - "did you see it?" A glass of wine at the beautiful Boathouse was a treat. Tip: if you want to sit on the water side, make a reservation for a meal. If you just show up like we did, you'll be on the side with the kids and the ice cream. Which is fine.

Turtles! ⇧


This drop dead gorgeous view of NYC from Jersey City is available with a delicious dinner at Hudson & Co. (hello, truffle tater tots and other yummy things!)





Flemington and Lambertville, NJ - Cute Town(s) Alert! And more New Jersey.

Between family visits, we stopped in Flemington to see the dignified Hunterdon County Courthouse, 1828.

History lesson: This is the site of the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial of 1932. The conviction of the kidnapper was aided by Madison, WI, resident Arthur Koehler, who lived in our neighborhood. With his research on wood types, done at Madison’s Forest Products Lab, he was able to lead the investigation to the kidnapper via a ladder. This is loosely explained here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindbergh_kidnapping





We also explored Lambertville, full of interesting shops and historic buildings, and had a great lunch at Lambertville Station overlooking the D & R canal.



Get it?














Philadelphia, PA - This one-evening visit began at the cocktail and foodie destination Cork. I bought a few items we enjoyed on a later camping trip, such as pasta sauce and a Runamok cocktail syrup.

We then enjoyed a Covid novelty, the walktail

(walking cocktail), while strolling through storied Rittenhouse Square. Many thanks to the many small, special businesses that stayed afloat during a pandemic by being extra creative!














Philadephia's Rittenhouse Square, one of five original squares planned by city founder William Penn in the late 17th century. One Liberty Place, 1985, is in the background, designed by architect Helmut Jahn. It was the first skyscraper in Philadelphia, ending an agreement in the city that no building would be taller than City Hall. More about that here. Our city, Madison, WI, has a rule sort of like that which allows the state capitol to remain the center of attention in the cityscape.




We had an absolutely fabuous dinner at Vernick, a many-roomed rowhouse with creative small plates to share. In addition to many plates and rooms, there are also several Vernicks. The dish below is probably the arctic char crudo, but honestly we had so many delicious things I lost track. My favorite, foie gras, just doesn't photograph well.



Our Philadelphia stop had us staying near Cherry Hill, so I must mention the amazing bagels we had on our way out of town. K & A Bagel Cafe has over-the-top breakfast sandwiches and a really nice Pride tribute in their rainbow bagel.

And, we almost had a stowaway, our grand-nephew.


More states!

This drive involved many states, as we crossed Chesapeake Bay on the The Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel, collecting more for this trip with Delaware (#8) and Maryland (#9) on our way to Virginia (#10). That bridge is something else, so very long (17.6 miles), and two tunnels! The engineering feats are amazing, but the bridge-averse might want to avoid it.


South to Virginia Beach, VA!

We spent time with good friends here, sitting on the beach and watching the container ships go by. This may not be a big deal to some, but for those of us who live near lakes where boats are for water-skiing, the sheer size of these is mind-blowing. (We’ve also had our minds blown watching them go through the locks on the Illinois River SW of Chicago, something I highly recommend, and something I was not at all interested in until I saw it.)

We had a fancy drink at the fancy c.1927 Cavalier Hotel (again, historic hotels!) and an excellent dinner afterwards at The Atlantic (on Pacific Avenue). Of course there were oysters. Also, because I was in the South, ham and pimento cheese biscuits and crab hushpuppies.


Heading into North Carolina... we had good intel on a BBQ place to stop at, Ralph’s Barbecue, which was Covid-closed. So we ended up at a Waffle House, another necessary southern stop. The counter guy was genuinely concerned that I wasn’t getting enough to eat, because all I wanted was hash browns. He suggested I add ham and cheese, which I did, moslty because he called me ma'am, which always surprises me.

Raleigh, NC - We had a fun day exploring downtown Raleigh, starting with a great BBQ lunch at Sam Jones. We watched them carry the pork in on their shoulders, so, legit!

I especially liked the Pork Skins & Pimento Cheese














We walked down the (Covid) deserted downtown streets toward the capitol, dipping into a great vintage sports t-shirt store, The Vault. As Judge John Hodgman fans, we were excited to see a hat from his favorite extinct hockey team, the Hartford Whalers.

The actual North Carolina capitol is from 1840, but we checked out where the legislative action takes place, which is in the modern Edward Durrell Stone State Legislative Building. One feels like Jackie O walking down these stairs!

We were able to peek at the legislative goings-on, and found access to the garden rooftop, which offered nice views of the city and the old capitol. There are a number of historic districts nearby, making it easy to understand why everyone wants to move here. Or nearby.


In Raleigh, we picked up a Winnebago Revel camper van for a 6-day camping trip. We rented through Outdoorsy, which we've used several times. (We have since bought our own van, more posts to come about that!) For more about this part of the trip, and thoughts on #VanLife, go to this post. And then come back! Because Asheville is next.


Asheville, NC - there is a lot to see between Raleigh and Asheville, but we had a drink waiting for us on the sublime terrace of the historic Grove Park Inn, so off we went. Because we were driving, we had (southern) driving food:

Bojangles for breakfast, and Smithfield’s BBQ for lunch. At the latter, my Midwest showed when I asked what one dips hushpuppies in (thinking, um, ranch? Charlie Berens explains this best...), and the counter guy replied "butter." Then he demonstrated that he meant dragging the hushpuppy through a little container of solid butter. Which I did not do.



We drove a little of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as we were nearing Asheville, and this demands more exploration. Holy scenery! But… the Grove Park Inn itself is so magnificent, especially if your architectural preferences are embedded in the early 20th century, specifically the Arts and Crafts movement.


We had a late dinner reservation, so we watched the sunset with a cocktail. Tip on the sunset: in the Spring, the direct sunset is best viewed from the open terrace in the Edison Restaurant, rather than the Sunset Cocktail Terrace and restaurant, which is where we were. Though this view of the Blue Ridge Mountains is not bad at all! Tip on the rooms: since we like a historic room, which are limited here, we asked specifically for the rooms near the Palm Court, which are accessed by a fun but small manned elevator hidden next to the grand fireplace. And that fireplace is GRAND. Right?


This is the Palm Court.


Here are a few things we did in Asheville, which was not enough:


Biscuits! We had them at Early Girl Eatery, on historic Wall Street in downtown Asheville, and at Biscuit Head, in the West Asheville neighborhood. Thank you, Biscuit Head, for the bacon in my coffee (Maple Bacon Latte)! While in West Asheville make sure to stop and buy a lot of stuff at the delightful Provisions Mercantile.




Back to downtown, there’s a self-guided walking history tour of downtown, called The Urban Trail, here. And make sure to step inside this very cool early shopping mall, the Grove, with an interesting history. Cool shops and restaurants too.

  • The Grove ↴



Biltmore, of course. I had not visited since a high school trip and it was both what I remembered and better. We did the handheld audio tour, and noticed that we spent much more time at each stop than those who didn’t, in a good way. It is truly an American castle. We also walked the grounds, but skipped the wine tasting.

(in case you don't visit during the spring this is what you'll miss)


And, despite our best intentions to get into one more cool Asheville restaurant, Biltmore is a LOT, so we headed back to the Grove Park Inn to secure a table on the Terrace in order to stay there forever. We met some great people doing the same! Farewell GPI, until the next time, which I hope is soon.

One more stop as we drove home, through states #12 and #13, and back to #3 (Indiana).

Author's note: Wix is a clumsy blog platform, I really can't do much about the placement of these pictures!!









We stopped for the last night in little Lebanon, IN, just north of Indianapolis. Lebanon has a pretty downtown that surrounds a courthouse. A quick map search took us to the popular Kinnard & Drake's 1830 Chophouse for dinner.




The Boone County Courthouse, 1911










And... futher notes on Asheville, or, the places we will eat next time. This list is comprised of recommendations and research. Hopefully you'll make it to some!



Like our longform road trips? Try Rust Belt and Waterfalls, featuring lots of New York state. Cheers!



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