Go West, Young Fam!

When the city gets claustrophobic, sending you to the nearest bench with a view across the water to pine for open spaces beyond the five boroughs, it’s time to pull out, or maybe pull up, from the Web, the maps.

You could look West over the Hudson and begin to daydream, like old Jack Kerouac, of “the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all of that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.”

Past the 100th meridian, where there are no traffic updates.

For this fenced-in Queens family, the challenge was: How to get an authentic Western fix — without leaving the ground — in a two-week vacation? With weekends, that’s 16 days. And spending more time on the road — transformative as it might have seemed to Kerouac — than in the West is against the rules. If one wants to survive with two fourth-graders and a kindergartner, that is.

Eyeball the map and there’s but one answer, assuming you don’t plan on 16-hour days at 80 mph, — a more-or-less straight shot to Colorado.

So that’s how we came to be roaring down a rainy Pennsylvania Turnpike in what we dubbed “the Cement Mixer.”

The trip started with fetching an Infiniti Q56 from Budget Rental Cars in Fort Lee, N.J. The price for a three-row beast was about half the price typically charged in the city. That came to $1,307, on a 30-day early prepay at Budget.com, which was around half the cost of five plane tickets.

First stop would be Pittsburgh. After six hours and 380 miles on the road, we crawled through modest rush-hour traffic and rolled a few blocks across downtown and pulled up just short of the Allegheny River at the Renaissance Hotel, at 107 Sixth St..

<p>
	Pittsburgh provides short respite and scenic walk along the Allegeheny River.</p>Kevin Flynn for New York Daily NewsEnlarge

Pittsburgh provides short respite and scenic walk along the Allegeheny River.

After a quick look around the grand stairways in the lobby and the massive bronze-plated iron dome looming above, we dropped our bags in a high-ceilinged room, pulled back the curtains to a sylvan sight, for a baseball fan at least, a projection-screen view of PNC Park. Well, a minor splurge, but a good start.

Nearby are a handful of ethnic eateries spaced out in the adjoining streets. We ended up at Nicki’s Thai Kitchen at Penn Ave. and Ninth St. about 4 blocks from the hotel. There were reasonably priced renditions of the usual suspects: green and massaman curries, pineapple fried rice for the kiddies. Afterward, my 9-year-old son and I took a twilight walk over the Andy Warhol Bridge, made a circuit along the waterfront and empty streets, and peered into Wrigleyesque PNC Park.

Next morning involved a quick bit of backtracking into the green hills for a stop at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh.

I had duly gone to fallingwater.org a few weeks earlier to get tickets for a tour of the mod 1930s manse dangling over a waterfall, which go for $25 for adults and $17 for youngsters between 6 and 12. They say kids any younger are a no-go, but fortunately nobody demanded a birth certificate for our 5-year-old, who managed the hour-long walk just fine, although the low railings on the 2,445 square feet of terraces — covering nearly as much space as the interior of the spare and modest house — will jack up your blood pressure if you have little ones underfoot, or out of sight for a second.

By noon it was onward south and west on twisty two-lane roads through a small jam of whitewater rafters at Ohiopyle State Park and then winding for an hour more until joining I-68 in West Virginia, which, mountain mama, or no, meant the end of country roads, cranking up the Cement Mixer and making some time.

After a couple of high-speed hours on I-79 and I-64, the land’s wrinkles began to smooth themselves out as we plowed toward Bluegrass country in Kentucky and a possible stop in Lexington, Frankfort or Louisville.

Road weariness and hunger set in just before Lexington, so we settled on a Days Inn with an ample outdoor pool that would shovel the five of us into a room for $110.

There was even a joint attached with live music, Horseshoes Kentucky Grill and Saloon. We weren’t staying up for the hootenanny, but the restaurant was spacious, with dark wood floors and cheery waitresses who gave me an extra-wide smile for ordering the state specialty, a Hot Brown sandwich.

The version that originated at the Brown Hotel in Louisville is reputedly a classic, but this one was a mound of cheese and ham on white bread and required an extra beer to process. This was our first fairly long day, covering 445 miles, and it was too late to swim, a pattern that was to recur.

In the morning, we did take the plunge and loll around for an hour or so, considering it was ONLY a 338-mile grassy interstate carpet ride to St. Louis, for a couple of days reconnecting with relatives.

Naturally, overconfidence led to another delayed arrival. There was a truckstop Denny’s in Indiana that we timed perfectly to meet up with the church crowd. Then a bathroom stop that led to a blind run up U.S. 51 to Centralia and a cornfield run west on 161, another hour skittering away, but who was counting?

Once in St. Louis, crashing with cousins would have been a circus, so that meant holing up for two nights somewhere central. We chose the Union Station Hotel by DoubleTree.

The lobby is an ornate, soaring vault of a room from 1894 — when the city had grander ambitions, before Chicago, big shoulders and all, elbowed by it.

In the 1980s, after Amtrak moved to a trailer under a viaduct and the station was repurposed as a flashy mall, it was packed.

But now the city has largely spread elsewhere and the mall attached to the hotel is nearly empty and shuts down at dinnertime. If you park in the lot in the massive old train shed behind the hotel at night, there is the odd security van, but you will get shaken down by panhandlers before you get inside, where your room card opens the door to a shuttered, ghostly mall for a walk back through to the lobby.

Getting into the hotel proper requires navigating floor-to-ceiling barred, steel doors, apparently necessary to keep the huddled masses at bay.

But generous, adjoining rooms for two nights came to less than $500 total, and the large outdoor pool framed by the high sheet-metal work of the hangar-like train shed was a major plus also.

<p>
	A pit stop in St. Louis allows for visit to famed Gateway Arch, which rises 630 feet above the city.</p>Kevin Flynn for New York Daily NewsEnlarge

A pit stop in St. Louis allows for visit to famed Gateway Arch, which rises 630 feet above the city.

Getting around in St. Louis is ridiculously easy compared with exploring New York. You might think going up the Gateway Arch would be a Statue of Liberty-like horror of endless lines and security.

But we parked at a lot three blocks away for the grand total of $7, walked down into the Arch entryway, and in five minutes were bumping and grinding along in our personal bathysphere to the top, 630 feet above the city. That height also happens to be the city’s elevation, as well as the distance from one side of the base to the other.

And while the red-brick, even Brooklynesque, charms of what some call the last Eastern city were considerable, the road West was calling. A pit stop was necessary for the sake of my alma mater, and a Booche’s burger, in Columbia, but then it was time to get beyond the land of trees, out onto the plains of Kansas.

At Emporia, I turned off I-35 with a sense of relief, knowing we wouldn’t be whooshed along on a a virtual airstrip through what was once called the Great American Desert, and now merely a sliver of flyover country to many.

Another spot that called out was Chase County, the subject of William Least Heat-Moon’s “PrairyErth,” a 622-page "deep map" on a chunk of lightly rolling grassland slightly more than twice the size of New York City with somewhat fewer than 3,000 inhabitants.

There is much talk in the book of the stone quarried for the majestic county courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, but at the heart of it maybe is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve a couple of miles north, outside Strong City.

The deep green of the nearly bare Flint Hills made for a soothing hour’s wander over the trails, though we did not get out far enough to see the bison reportedly loitering out there. There was a huge limestone barn with cats that came out to be petted by the kids, and an ornate, limestone ranch house worth a quick look.

From U.S. 50, we veered west on 150 and then U.S. 56, mowing down one grain elevator hamlet after another. Eventually we pulled in, while there was still some light, at Ralph’s Ruts Retreat in Chase, which is a good couple of hours west of Heat-Moon’s county.

The Retreat is a ranch house in a meadow, a bit like grandpa’s house, by the Santa Fe Trail, the wagon ruts of which can be noticed behind the house. It needed a little airing out, but with the windows of the three-bedroom home open to the cool high plains night, I don’t think I had a better night’s sleep on the trip.

Dinner was about 8 miles back down the road in the surprisingly charming town of Lyons, built around an old central square.

Knowing that the Plains had become home to a recent surge of Mexican immigrants, we took a chance on El Potrillo, a generic-looking place on the main drag. But there was nothing generic about the green chile. Few restaurants get the right combination of sting and zing in this New Mexican staple, but these guys did it — on a menu full of $8.95 entrees.

Now the green chile trail was heating up, which to me has always been the culinary equivalent of jagged peaks, red rocks and saguaros, something that tells you you are finally in the West.

But with some 503 miles under the wheels since St. Louis, we had plenty more more treeless ground to cover before what would be our Gateway to the West, Denver.

Now we truly were out there, in the sense that the interstate was safely a half-hour to the north and now it was a day of open skies and little Route 96 after Great Bend, where a smiling local was happy to gab at the gas pump just because my plates said Massachusetts and the likes of that had not been seen in the area for some time, apparently. “Yep, heading toward Denver,” I said.

It can be blazing hot out here in August, but at 2,700 feet now and rising, it was a blustery 67 in Dighton when I hustled out to gas up again and get coffee.

I didn’t see the rows of huge sunflowers I remembered from a childhood trip through here and soon the land took on a brown and gray cast that was the rule till we pulled into the Mile High City, or the Queen City of the Plains, in the afternoon.

<p>
	A peaceful pit stop at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kan., with the generously named Flint Hills in the background.</p>
Enlarge

A peaceful pit stop at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kan., with the generously named Flint Hills in the background.

Suddenly it was colorful again, and certainly so at the Hotel Monaco on Champa St., where the Kimpton chain has tossed in neo-retro Western touches, with whimsical art in the rooms and lobby.

With the Cement Mixer safely stowed in the garage, it was time for urban transit again. And in downtown Denver that means a sleek and wide-ranging light rail system, the RTD, the free 16th St. Mall Ride a couple of blocks from the Monaco, along with bikes offered in the lobby, with helmets, also gratis. You could also opt for bipedal locomotion, with no shortage of restaurants and bars within walking distance.

We grabbed a relaxing late lunch streetside at the Rialto Cafe, 934 16th St., around the corner from the Monaco. As the rest of the clan took a siesta from the long ride, I hopped the free trolley for a five-minute ride to LoDo, and a couple of Fat Tire brews with a friend at Illegal Pete’s, 1530 16th St., an airy dive with Mex bar food and craft beers that’s around the corner from the lively Blake St. strip.

Later, we’d return there and amid spillover crowds all along, hustled toward one of the few tables open at Rio Grande, 1525 Blake. The green chile quest continued and their pork stew had no shortage of sting and savor. And my wife found the margaritas worth a double-take.

Having steered clear of the tequila the night before, I was in the mood to grab a Public bike in the hotel lobby early the next morning and rolled out into Denver’s wide streets for some low-stress cycling compared with New York. In the heart of town, you’re soon riding below street level alongside Cherry Creek’s babbling waters and occasional mini-rapids. Down there it was more hush hour than anything else.

Breakfast was a couple of blocks away, Sam’s No. 3, 1500 Curtis St., where the deal was sealed for the kids by a poster in the window giving the imprimatur of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and for me by the promise of yet more green chile, in this case slathered on another Southwest breakfast staple, chorizo and eggs.

Soon we were barreling skywards in the Cement Mixer to the crest of the Front Range, just west of town. It was cool and sunny at 9,000 feet when we stepped out for gas, and then a couple of hours of jaw-dropping views and a handful of slowdowns for construction, we’d come down on the dry side of the Continental Divide, with some redrock mixing in with the green of the pines as we settled down into our second Colorado stop, Glenwood Springs.

Glenwood was long known as a place to take the cure, and its hot springs pools feel, and even smell, in a 19th-century medicinal way, that it must be good for whatever ails you.

We pulled into Hotel Glenwood Springs, just across the river from the old downtown at 52000 Two Rivers Plaza Road, and, most important to the youngsters, right next to the tram to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. And considering the changeable Rockies weather, the indoor water park is a great fallback and pre-bedtime wear-out-the-sprouts option.

<p>
	The Glenwood Hot Springs pools are open year-round.</p>
Kevin Flynn/New York Daily NewsEnlarge

The Glenwood Hot Springs pools are open year-round.

That evening we recrossed the Colorado and ended up at Doc Holliday’s, 724 Grand Ave., in the old downtown across the river, where we had an easygoing and inexpensive dinner at the rustic and woodsy Western bar & grill. And the green chile crusade continued, with a pork stew that was above middling on savor, but could have used a little more punch.

On our second morning, we hustled over to the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, and taking in the postcard setting, contrasted by pair of whirling water tubes, instantly regretted a plan to spend but an hour and a half there. No question we’d find our way back after soothing dips in both the big 400-foot pool, which is warmed to about 90 degrees, and the “therapy pool,” a 100-foot long hot tub kept at 104 degrees.

But we had to rush off for what could be described as a bucket-list trip, rafting on the Colorado River. Well, a slight exaggeration. Glenwood Canyon is only about one-fifth as deep as the Grand Canyon, but stunning in its own right with walls more than 1,000 feet tall and more suited to family groups and those not in a position to plan a trip months in advance, at the price of a certified, pre-owned car.

Solomon Liston of Whitewater Rafting in Glenwood led us on a half-day trip — yes, a three-hour tour — through the canyon's rapids, which alternated with relaxing stretches of flat water. My son was invited to sit at the prow of the raft that held eight and soon we were bobbing into the rapids, where we had been advised to lean in (really?) and keep paddling.

Um, this next one, Solomon slyly cautioned us, is known as Old Faceful. And before an explanation could be requested the river replied, with several Gatorade buckets’ worth of chilled water thrown up, down and sideways at us, spurring great whoops of victory when we emerged from the maelstrom. Then it was lather, rinse and repeat a few more times.

As we rested with paddles in our laps in flat water, it seemed almost comical when the five of us, already drenched, were asked whether we might want a swim. Seeing our indecision, Solomon flipped out, literally, heels over head off the stern, letting us see we might survive a few minutes in the mighty Colorado. My son and I quickly took the plunge also, floating alongside the raft, refreshed after a stretch in the blazing Western sun.

Then it was time to pull over to a steamy grotto, another helping of the many hot springs underlying the area. There was a touch of sulphur in the air, some talk of old Indian rituals, a couple of cans of beer passed out. We dangled our feet in the warm water.

Feeling totally decompressed, despite the occasional churning in the raft, we made our way back to the not-so-humble town pool in late afternoon. Going there is like a day at the beach for many in town, and entry is around $20 for adults and $12 for kids, so we were mildly concerned whether our hand stamps could possibly have survived the run down the Colorado and turn up under the ultraviolet light at the entryway. Miraculously, they did, so we were good for a proper look at the pool.

The cool of evening hardly registered as we went between the pools and generally lazed around, though the many poolside chairs started to fill as a more social evening crowd poured in.

Though we could easily have stuck around town for a week, morning meant it was time to head eastward and upward, to Aspen.

Next stop was the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel, where, after a stroll through the lively Saturday market and lunch outside at a cafe in the center on the leafy Hyman Ave. mall at Finbarr’s, we checked into a two-bedroom in the heart of town on Cooper Ave.

The neighboring blocks comprise a high-altitude but low-attitude SoHo. Retail therapy was not front and center on this particular family trek, but the 8,000-foot altitude cannot be ignored. Two leisurely beers with lunch in the sun felt more like twice that. It took a couple of days up there to get past a loggy feeling from not so much lager.

When people in Aspen aren’t hunting for high-end merchandise, or a bold-face mention in the press, and if there’s no snow flying, odds are they’re bicycling, I discovered.

This goes for much of the state, of course, but level terrain and a network over trails through, well, aspens, proved hard to resist.

Next morning we stopped across the street at Aspen Bike Tours & Rentals (430 S. Spring St.) and got outfitted for a day on the Rio Grande Trail, which runs 42 scenic miles from Aspen, clear back to Glenwood Springs. We ponied up $40 each for two adult bikes and $29 for kids bikes and set off on the gently rolling old rail route for an 8-mile ride to Woody Creek.

<p>
	Riding on the Rio Grande Trail between Aspen and Woody Creek.</p>
Kevin Flynn/New York Daily NewsEnlarge

Riding on the Rio Grande Trail between Aspen and Woody Creek.

After a few miles, the paved path comes to open country on the edge of town and goes to a packed-dirt surface. If you’re riding with kids, you will want to keep them toward the inside of the path as it follows high above a stream for a bit, but the route is plenty wide. There are no challenging hills till a bit of a descent into the hamlet of Woody Creek.

A sign directed us to the Woody Creek Tavern, the old hangout of Hunter S. Thompson of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” fame. Tables in the shade outside were a welcome sight to all after a couple of hours in the sun.

After ordering yet more green chile and a hearty mug of Colorado Native pale ale, while easily resisting the suggestion of a neo-Western specialty, an awful sounding thing called a fish taco, I took a stroll around what seemed a pitch-black barroom.

It was a snapshot-papered room with a handful of tables and booths and plenty of memorabilia of the gonzo writer who called himself a doctor of journalism just because others plying the trade had the nerve to do so. There he is in a large photo, reclining on a motorcycle, with his trademark cigarette holder and cig pointed to the heavens and his over-the-calf tube-socked pale legs splayed out. There’s no missing the Freak Power poster of Thompson's radical run for sheriff in 1971.

After another intrepid pair of beers at 8,000 feet (I’d get used to the altitude even if the Jets never would and would continue flaming out in the fourth quarter against the Broncos, I told myself), three kids and a steep hill out of Woody Creek, and the ride back was more of an adventure, even involving toting my first-grader’s bike as she rode on mom’s handlebars for a couple of miles. But the ride back was no trouble for our rising fifth-graders.

The rest of the day was spent splashing around the pool at Aspen Square, with occasional dips in the two hot tubs nearby. After dark, I wandered around a bit through the chilly streets downtown as the rest of the clan recovered from the afternoon’s adventure and stumbled upon a rollicking brass band, a holdover from the Aspen Music Festival, which was just drawing to a close, and stayed with a few dozen people as they worked through energetic arrangements of movie themes.

The next day, giving the kids and ourselves a break from the busy streets of town, we rode the gondola up Aspen Mountain. The 20-minute jaunt features wide views of the valley ringed by jagged peeks, and there’s even a rustic playground up top, with bungy-style swinging for the kids, and a cafe with a cold beverage for mom and dad.

For the our final three nights in Colorado, we headed next-door, so to speak, to the quieter side of Aspen, the Viceroy Snowmass resort. Our spacious two-bedroom, two-bath unit featured a balcony with yet another postcard Rockies view, which is not to imply we were tiring of the scenery. Just, there it was, all day and all night, rather than something one had to walk, hike, bike or drive toward.

One might not want to get up and go out at all, considering the dining options at Eight K and the Nest, the shimmering Lobby Bar, the 7,000-square foot spa, the outdoor pool with cabana and hot tubs,

Then again, a short walk away is another set of vertical experiences. Another mountain was there, and so were we on Tuesday morning. As wonderful as it is introducing your offspring to new experiences, a novel pleasure for vacationing parents, of course, is having a decent place to drop them off for a few hours. Finally, we had this covered with a day for the youngsters at Camp Aspen/Snowmass, at the base village, just a short walk from the Viceroy.

Soon the kids were making up their plans for the day — paintball for the twins and a variety of games and adventures for our youngest. My wife and I had allowed ourselves to be talked into the booming, though previously entirely unknown to me, sport of downhill biking.

Pro Kevin Jordan was there to show us the ropes, or more accurately, the pullies, wires and armor involved. Covered head-to-toe in gladitorial armor, Jordan patiently and humorously ran through a number of techniques that might keep us from landing in traction from a mountain mishap.

I knew about how to stop a bike, of course, but “feathering” the ultrasensitive brakes on these hydraulically advanced mountain bikes, using but one finger on each side, well, that was something new.

We turned corners with legs slightly bent and the pedals in a 9-3 position. After a few goes on a test track, we were deemed approximately ready to ride the Elk Camp Gondola up for a few intermediate runs, which was fine by me, considering that’s the steepest hill I’d dream of going down on skis. A few times we let skilled riders whiz by us, but it was mainly a lazy and occasionally dicey ride down. What seemed to be dicey, for both of us, was turning right. Left was easy, but right gave the feeling one would tumble hundreds of feet down an alpine meadow? Funny how the brain can be wired.

<p>
	The Maroon Bells, a pair of serrated peaks, serve as a serene backdrop for a much-needed rest during hike along to the 10,000-foot-high trailhead in Colorado.</p>Kevin Flynn for New York Daily News

The Maroon Bells, a pair of serrated peaks, serve as a serene backdrop for a much-needed rest during hike from the 10,000-foot-high trailhead to Crater Lake.

In this part of Colorado, you also have no choice but to hike toward the Maroon Bells at some point. They’re a pair of iconic reddish-brown serrated peaks. You’ve seen them in countless photos, maybe most recently with the Geico gecko.

You can drive — as long as you get there by 9 a.m — take a bus shuttle or even bike from Aspen or Snowmass to the trailhead in the Maroon Peaks-Snowmass Wilderness at 10,000 feet.

Many people will be walking the trails, but it won’t matter. Even if you don't have a topo map, pick a trail and head a couple of miles toward a lake. We never quite got to Crater Lake, but trudging on rocky trail through the pines made views of the valley, lake and peaks that much sweeter, though I can’t say that for some of the youngsters’ whining. Still, that’s a fact of life of hiking with kids. At least one will complain. Every time.

The next day was cloudy and struggled toward the 70-degree mark. But it was still fine for the heated pool and hot tubs, a spectacular facial, so I was told, for my spouse.

We closed out the great Western fix trek in the most obvious fashion, a night at the rodeo.

The Viceroy had a van to take us five minutes down the road to the Snowmass Rodeo, the oldest weekly one in Colorado, running since 1973. Even before the beer and barbecue tents, the first stop was to sign up our youngest for mutton bustin’ — which has a sheep stand in for a bronc. Then there was a fun but fruitless calf chase for the older two, and a slow-motion mechanical bull.

Certainly the barrel-riding cowboys and cowgals were impressive, though the bull riding produced the biggest wow factor. But something or other at the rodeo, the petting enclosure, the great vats of barbeque, or maybe the bronco-busters did make an impression on my oldest daughter. Soon after we got home she announced she was becoming a vegetarian.

After this rousing finale, it was time to cram the Cement Mixer full and groan up through the mists to the moonscape of Independence Pass, the high point of our trip at 12,095 feet. With our days in the West and August itself waning, we’d already had premonitions of change, but up top on the bare, misty tundra it was 49 degrees and there could be no doubt that the cold months were headed toward us, “sure as the turnin’ of the Earth,” as John Wayne put it in “The Searchers.”

<p>
	The "cement mixer" takes a breather at misty Independence Pass.</p>
Enlarge

The "cement mixer" takes a breather at misty Independence Pass.

We drove through the chill rain, into Leadville, at 10,000 feet, then past some amazing dedicated cyclists on Highway 91, climbing in the mist toward Fremont Pass, at 11,318 feet.

But as we descended and finally landed again on I-70, there was still a goodly bulge of Earth between us and the end of our road, not to mention a planned stop in Chicago, now that the Western swing was in the rearview.

Soon behind us was Denver and the wall of the Front Range and ahead was grass, though not the kind that has since made Colorado famous.

At Brush, we parted ways with Interstate 76 and turned on to U.S. 34. It was hot again as we began our long descent from Colorado and near the border with Nebraska, there loomed sandy cliffs around the town of Wray, where you could easily see a Spaghetti Western band of Indians poised to ambush our stagecoach-sized rental, or maybe the U.S. Cavalry riding to the rescue, but probably not with green chile.

About 10 miles west of McCook, we turned on to U.S. 6, the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, one of the earliest transcontinental roads, so declared in 1937. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it was properly paved, tracing an oddball route from Provincetown, Mass., to Long Beach, Calif., and stirring the imagination of the nondriving Kerouac, who planned to follow it West from the Bear Mountain Bridge, of all places. He had no luck hitching up there, unsurprisingly, and ended up taking a bus.

Two-lane roads are best when you’re west of the 100th Meridian, and so we rolled almost imperceptedly downhill past the one-blinking-light towns.

But slowly building truck traffic as we headed East did drive us off Route 6 at Holdredge, at 99 degrees West longitude and toward the drone of Interstate 80.

Now we were going nearly 80 mph, but hardly moving, it seemed, in the hugeness of Nebraska. Exhaustion stopped us at 10 that night in Grand Island, over 600 miles from Aspen.

There was an inviting indoor pool at the Quality Inn, but again, too late. No chance even in the morning with 600 more miles between us and the Hotel Palomar in Chicago. But we’d wear out that pool, I promised the youngsters.

Pulling out into the bright cool sun the next morning, I bought $15 worth of stimulation for the second long haul in a row, Monster drinks, Starbucks extra shot, even the dreaded 5-Hour Energy glop, which I found made me twitchy.

The Iowa line and the bridge over the Missouri River gave us a sense of returning to some semblance of civilization, disappointing as that may have seemed at the beginning.

Now it was cornfields to infinity, with a few hillocks weaving their way into the green tapestry as we blew across past Des Moines. Recrossing the Mississippi into Illinois just after lunchtime, the road took on a Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues cast — from the driver's seat, anyway, a certain number of miles to Chicago at last.

What saved us from plowing off the interstate into a “Field of Dreams” cornfield? Maybe the warm call of home — as in a gaspipe sucking, Cross-Bronx Expressway-worthy crawl through the outskirts of Chicago on I-290, the Dwight Eisenhower Expressway. Yes, an express-way, not a FREE-way, because nothing’s free, not even a square foot of that road, as we well know in the East.

Still, the slow-going allowed the brain to recover from the blur of hours of high-speed blankness and I felt excited gliding over the Chicago River and into the Loop, and the end of two brutal days.

We staggered into the glittering lobby of the Hotel Palomar, a last treat for this road-weary crew.

We zoomed up 14 stories, gaped out the floor-to-ceiling windows, a bit of welcome vertical relief, you could say, after two days out on the Plains. More glass walls showcased the huge tub and shower, which also looked inviting.

<p>
	Rooftop pool at the Hotel Palomar in Chicago.</p>
Kevin Flynn/New York Daily NewsEnlarge

Rooftop pool at the Hotel Palomar in Chicago.

But two urgent destinations had to come before washing off all that road. We needed a walk, or I did, and I made vague promises that a restaurant would be encountered not too far from the hotel.

The Palomar, of course, had a top-flight dining option, Sable, but legs needed to be stretched and I had a notion of also making it to the lake shore, though objections were quickly raised to that sort of ramble and we ended up at Dao, a Thai and Vietnamese place on Ohio St., that delivered a game-saving, bottom-of-eighth rope into the gap hit with the now-grumbling crew.

The other necessity was getting in that deferred swimming, and the Palomar's blue-lit, penthouse pool with skyline views was a walkoff homer to the youngsters.

I wouldn’t have minded a deep end, rather than see it bottom out at about 4 feet, but that does take some of the angst away from road-weary parents. And out the pool doors is an open terrace where you could bring your own drinks, as a dozen or so guests did, and take in the skyline under the stars.

There had been fantasies in my mind about dipping my toes in Lake Michigan, taking a leisurely stroll along the water in the city of my birth. But no time, again too many miles to go before we could hope to sleep.

We rolled east to Lake Shore Drive for a quick peek at the inland ocean and then mounted the Chicago Skyway and slipped out of town quietly on a sunny Saturday morning.

Although Kansas is famed for being flat, and Nebraska, Illinois and even eastern Colorado are way up there on any contour-challenged list, there is a special monotony about Indiana and Ohio that makes you wish the speed limit were 175 mph.

The Welcome to Pennsylvania sign, which, going West gives you the sense of entering actual America, yields up the visual comfort-food relief of familiar green hills and quirky towns when heading the opposite direction.

In fact, it delivered a powerful second wind and seemed to make a run straight through to Queens a possibility as miles melted away on I-80, each gentle curve and hill drawing the Cement Mixer closer to its New Jersey roots.

Around 10, we pulled off for a bite and a caffeine infusion at Mom’s Dutch Cafe in Danville. Just 20 minutes and we’d be back on the way to sleeping in our own beds. But it had been 638 miles from the Loop and the sense that my chair in this sleepy diner was buzzing, still in motion, told me that we were going no farther. One of the five hotels ringing the exit would have to do. Day’s Inn it was.

In the morning we overheard enough to make out that our dining mates in the self-serve breakfast room were Little League World Series teams who’d just been knocked out before the championship, starting in a few hours, 30 miles up the road in Williamsport.

Our own finish line was a mere 160 miles in the other direction, no energy drinks required.

The Cement Mixer was rated more than a little dusty when I hauled it back out to Fort Lee after unloading it in Glendale, but I was fortunately spared a $75 cleaning fee, possibly by the glazed and hapless look in my eyes.

Over 4,300 miles covered in 16 days, a Western fix without the threat of a TSA massage, and a new appreciation of the breadth of this massive country. The kids seemed impressed for once, and not solely by the rear-seat DVD screens.

Source : http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/west-young-fam-article-1.1973168

Go West, young fam!
Group lifts young patients' spirits
Shawn Johnson: Olympic ambitions in the balance
Reaching Out
Landmark Families: Meet the families behind familiar places, and learn how they're impacting the area today
Beyond texting: Revisiting conversational skills in the digital age
Staten Island slay victim's family refuses killer's apology
Beauty of Irish dancing
Tiny Cadiz, Ohio, celebrates famous son Clark Gable, 75th anniversary of 'Gone With the Wind'
Confessions of a Ballpark Wife
[LIMITED STOCK!] Related eBay Products