My Ohio: The Back Roads

Traveling our state routes offers peace of mind and a place to get lost.

My favorite time to take a long drive is in early spring or late summer, in the evening. That’s when you’ll find me heading west, into the setting sun on a state route.

I love to drive through and between little northern Ohio towns like Huron and Norwalk and Monroeville, places with a church and an ice cream shop and an old factory on the main drag.

Cruising through on a Saturday night, you can sometimes spot men in their garages, silhouetted by their hanging lamps, leaning over the opened hood of an old car and cracking a few beers with their buddies.

I also love to watch the sun set behind the trees in the cornfields along Route 303, casting the sky in bright golds and reds and deep purples, before turning to dark blue and finally black.

It’s a sky dotted with stars you don’t see in the city; bare branches seeming to tear at the low-hanging clouds stretched thin in the atmosphere.

I love to make up stories about the little houses set back from the road with lights ablaze, a gravel driveway and an empty porch swing.

Sometimes I’ll stop in from that dark into diners that let out onto the two-lane. They are places that still have rotating pie racks and toothpick dispensers and plump waitresses who are generous with their mascara and your coffee pours. The diner is easy because little is expected and little is required. You want to eat fast, not talk and get out of town? No problem. Cash on the counter and you’re done. You want to spend an hour and a half talking to the guys sitting next to you and drink six cups of coffee? Great. Goodtomeetcha. That’s what works about diners.

I miss this on the turnpike. The turnpike is a simple countdown. You get on at mile marker 180 and count the exits until you hit mile marker 59 in Maumee.

There is nothing to cut through the boredom of six divided lanes at 70 miles per hour — an expanse of concrete cutting through the Western Reserve. You’re too far from the lake and too far above rivers to see them. Instead of stars, you get constellations of drop-down video screens in SUVs. The turnpike cares only for speed and efficiency.

But our state routes show you things. They are about the path. They meander over ridges and between hills, across rivers and culverts and through cornfields and towns. You pass homes and people you can wave, smile and call out to as you slow down for the turns.

Roll down the window and feel the breeze. You can do that at 55 miles per hour. A rolled-down window on the turnpike is a violent affair that rips your hair back and pushes you into your seat, a mean force that must be battled. 

You don’t need music on state routes, not during the day at least. Your head is already full of the sounds of the road — the wind, the tires, the engine — and the sights of the countryside.

But at night, yes, turn on the radio. Find a distant AM station playing country or a local public radio bluegrass hour. That’s traveling music for when the sun has gone down and the moon lights the centerline and the houses along the road become dark outlines.

In those moments, you feel alive, alone and unknown on the road, with a lone guitar and a warbling baritone singing about his lost love or his found family.

He’s singing to you out there in the dark as you cruise on past the houses and towns and bars and diners and waitresses. To them, you’re just a flash of halogen and steel and then gone again into the countryside.

You are dark and deep and unconnected — not here nor there yet — but in a place all to itself, out in the middle of nowhere.

Chuck Bowen is a magazine editor who lives in Twinsburg.