Oberlin Blogs

Truckin' Through Ohio, Wading Through the Wetlands

November 6, 2015

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17


Autumn really snuck up on me this year. It seems like just yesterday that I was walking around in shorts and searching for the best air conditioning, and all of a sudden it was midterms and my toes were getting cold in my Birkenstocks. Fall is generally fleeting here in Northeast Ohio, anyway, so it should be no time at all before my parka is donned and iced drinks are completely out of the question. This makes savoring the air's crispness and the vibrant leaves (I know, so cliché) all the more vital.

My third fall break as an Oberlin student just ended, and it was the first fall break that I didn't go home to California. In the past, I have spent my break at home, where it quite frankly doesn't feel all that different from summer during this time of year. I've always enjoyed being able to see my family and do my favorite California things, but there were always a few downsides. None of my high school friends who go to school out of state were home during the same week I was, and my friends who go to school in CA, where state schools start a lot later than Oberlin, were busy starting their semesters. My parents both work during the week, which meant I couldn't spend a whole lot of time with them. I also needed to factor in two entire days for (often frustrating and expensive) travel from Cleveland to San Francisco (with an inevitable stop in Chicago or Minneapolis). Though I have always enjoyed my time at home, I decided to spend my week doing something else this October.

Knowing I wouldn't want to spend the entire week watching Netflix in bed, I planned a variety of day trips with my friend Emma, who is from Cleveland and would also be spending some time on campus during the week. The goal: to see as many bizarre Ohio roadside attractions as we could, within comfortable driving distance of Oberlin. We were lucky enough to have the use of Emma's car, as well as the Canadian male version of Siri. We scoured the internet for interesting destinations, and did not have much difficulty coming up with a long list. We packed in about four days of non-stop midwestern gloriousness, and we were not disappointed.

Day 1: Cleveland (Just trying to find some dogs)

The first day of break, Emma and I stayed close to Oberlin and had a very full day in the Cleveland area. Since Cleveland is only a 30-45 minute drive from campus, the journey wasn't arduous. However, since there are surprisingly few ways to get from Oberlin to the ~big city~ (insert sassy trombone here) I have only explored Cleveland a couple of times. Plus, I felt like an insider was showing me around, since Emma's a native.

Our very first stop was at an unassuming Indian restaurant in Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland on the West side. If you've read any of my posts before, hearing that our first destination was food-related shouldn't be a surprise. Emma and I had been craving Indian food, which is a vital organ missing from Oberlin's food scene. We wanted a restaurant with a lunch buffet, because we are true Americans and don't want to deal with any type of portion control! We got to the restaurant five minutes before it opened, so we sat in the car in their tiny parking lot while an employee washed the window and awkwardly watched us. Once we actually got inside, the meal was decent, but definitely not the best Americanized Indian food I've had. It did manage to suppress my cravings until I go home for Christmas.

Our next stop was the "Smoky World War II Hero Dog" memorial statue, for which we couldn't find an actual address--all we knew was that it was somewhere in the Rocky River Reservation, part of the Cleveland Metroparks system. As it turns out, the Rocky River Reservation is very beautiful, but also huge. We drove around the park for about 40 minutes before finding a nature center where we could ask for directions. After winding through many miles of roads enveloped by fall foliage in the rain, we found the statue. It turns out that Smoky carried a message through an underground pipe underneath an airfield in WWII, and saved dozens of lives. He has a statue in his honor here because he died in Cleveland. We soaked in this kitschy part of U.S. military history and went on our way.

A large tombstone with a stone dog on the top. Engraved: "Smoky: Yorkie doodle dandy and dogs of all wars"

Next, another dog-related activity: Lakewood's Spooky Pooch Parade, which promised a parade of dogs in Halloween costumes. We also weren't exactly sure where this event was located, either, but once we passed a park with a small cluster of tents and "Atomic Dog" echoing out of speakers, we knew we had found the right place. We arrived as the parade was dissolving and people were starting to leave, but we saw a lot of very impressive pet costumes, including my personal favorite, a terrier dressed as the Pope.

By this point in the day, it was starting to snail (half snow, half hail), so we left for our final destination with hot drinks. We headed to Lake View Cemetery, on the east side of Cleveland. Emma had suggested that we take a walk here, and since I have a fondness for cemeteries, I agreed. The weather was very unpleasant by the time we arrived, so we kept our walk short and focused on the main attraction: the tomb of James Garfield. The monument for the 20th President of the United States is incredibly lavish, with a large dome covered in mosaic. There are mosaics that symbolize each state along the walls, a large marble statue of Garfield, and the caskets of Garfield and his wife. There are steps that lead to the top of the dome that lead to a balcony overlooking the cemetery and the city, but it was so cold, windy, and cloudy that we didn't get to enjoy the view much.

Day 2: Mansfield

Emma and I began Day 2 refreshed and thankful for sunny skies, and headed south on Route 58. We were headed toward Grandpa's Cheese Barn, a roadside stop infamous in Northern Ohio, about 45 minutes from campus. Emma had already visited several times, but this was my first time, and I was eager to hear what all the fuss was about. I wasn't disappointed. At Grandpa's Cheese Barn, there is non-stop polka music playing in the parking lot. At Grandpa's Cheese Barn, there is a mouse mascot. At Grandpa's Cheese Barn, there are hundreds of different types of cheese, meats, condiments, snacks, and Christian souvenirs. At Grandpa's Cheese Barn, there is something called "Snickerdoodle Butter." At Grandpa's Cheese Barn, there are vacation cabins. The place was a lot to take in, but I'll definitely be returning.

A sign with a farmer mouse with the words: "Grandpa's Cheesebarn, Ashland OH"

Emma and I were bound for Mansfield, a small city to the southwest where we had heard tell of a small museum that had the largest collection of posed taxidermies in the state. Obviously, we had to go. The first thing I noticed about Mansfield was that it was almost completely empty; and that there was creepy carnival music emitting from a large indoor carousel in the center of town, which was also seemingly empty. We chose not to dwell on this, and immediately sought out the Mansfield Memorial Museum. We were immediately accosted by an over-eager museum employee who clearly didn't get the chance to talk to visitors very frequently. We feigned interest in the WWII memorabilia, the extensive collection of toy airplanes, and the replica of a large robot. We were there for the taxidermy, but didn't want to be those people who walk into a museum and announce that they are there for the stuffed dead animals. Eventually, we found ourselves on the second floor, where we found what we were looking for. There were several cases that held stuffed animals posed in various Victorian outfits, in scenes like a tea party, a wedding, or a band. It was simultaneously horrifying and mesmerizing.

After getting our fill of taxidermized oddities, we got out of Mansfield (too Twin Peaks-y for my taste), made a fruitful stop at a Goodwill, and drove to the Biblewalk, a Biblical wax museum that we expected to be kitschy and fun, and was instead very intense and pretty creepy. We didn't stay long, and headed back to Oberlin.

Day 3: Cuckoo Clock, Disappointment

On Monday, we made our longest journey yet--to Sugarcreek, OH, enticingly known as the "Switzerland of Ohio" and home to the world's largest cuckoo clock. According to Canadian Siri, it was supposed to take only an hour and forty-five minutes or so to drive there, but thanks to roadwork and a detour, it ended up taking much longer. On the way, we got really hungry, but somehow ended up in a part of eastern Ohio where there were no food-selling establishments open for sixty miles. Needless to say we were very hangry (hungry and angry) when we arrived in Sugarcreek.

We arrived in the Switzerland of Ohio with high expectations, but they were definitely taken down a peg when we realized that all it takes to be classified as the Switzerland of Ohio is a few not-so-tall hills and a strong commitment to cheesy alpine-inspired architecture. Much like Grandpa's Cheese Barn, there is always polka music playing through speakers on the sidewalks of Sugarcreek; and like Mansfield, the town was almost completely empty on a Monday afternoon. I began to feel stressed out by the oppressive thematic nature of Sugarcreek and the fact that there were no food options in sight. I think, at this point, I started getting snappy, and an exasperated Emma steered me into a sports bar where we were able to eat a meal and regain some sanity.

After fueling up, we headed to the main event: the world's largest cuckoo clock. Allow me to begin with a visualization exercise: Close your eyes. Imagine what you are told is "The World's Largest Cuckoo Clock!!!!" Can you see it? How big is it? The size of a house? A barn? A cruise ship? Well, I know there are a lot of cuckoo clocks in the world, and I expected to be IMPRESSED by Sugarcreek's. Much to my disappointment, the world's largest cuckoo clock isn't as big as I was expecting. It's about fifteen feet tall, and it doesn't have a very impressive set of movements when it goes through its routine every half hour.

A building with a clock tower, pine tree statues, and flowers with the sign "Sugarcreek"

Maybe I'm being snooty about my cuckoo clock standards, but I'm disappointed that Sugarcreek didn't really deliver. The part of the day that was the nicest was going back to Oberlin, when I wasn't driving and got a chance to enjoy the rolling hills (not present in Oberlin) and count the churches we passed (like three thousand). Even if the experience wasn't perfect, I can now claim to have seen not only the world's largest cuckoo clock, but also the Switzerland of Ohio. That's a real conversation-starter!

Day 4: Pumpkins, Corn, Rabbits

After taking a day of rest in Oberlin, Emma and I resumed our mission on Wednesday, heading south towards the Columbus area. We had several destinations in mind; the first was an outdoor installation known as "Cornhenge." Emma had heard of Cornhenge before because it's in the same town that her grandmother lives in. Dublin, OH appeared to consist of mostly office parks, and it was unsurprising that Cornhenge was nestled on a stretch of grass between several of them. Cornhenge consists of dozens of concrete ears of corn arranged in a grid-like pattern. I would say Cornhenge exceeded expectations. I found it to be a delightful celebration of Ohio agriculture, and it was a fun place to take pictures. 10/10, would recommend. Before leaving Dublin, we also stopped at an outdoor sculpture of giant dancing rabbits. Because obviously.

A field of large statues of corn cobs

Next, we headed to the Circleville Pumpkin festival, which we found out about online and just had to see. We were having trouble finding an actual address for the festival to plug into Canadian Siri, so we aimed for Circleville and hoped that we would be able to find it. It immediately became clear that we had arrived when we saw swarms of pedestrians on either side of our car, all heading in the same direction. We parked and followed the crowds. It seemed as though the entire population of Ohio had chosen to descend upon this small town on this very Wednesday.

It soon became clear that the multi-day festival takes over literally the entire town of Circleville with blocks and blocks of festivities. 95% of the festival consisted of delightfully gross festival food, but most of it pumpkinized, fitting with the theme. We saw deep-fried pumpkin pie on a stick, pumpkin chili, pumpkin funnel cake, pumpkin mini-donuts, and much more. This was all in addition to your standard fare, things like turkey legs, corndogs, and deep-fried non-pumpkin things. I cannot emphasize enough how much food there was--this place was gigantic!

The pumpkins were also gigantic. The pumpkin that took home the grand prize was almost 2,000 pounds and was the size of a Prius. I guess we have Ohio's fertile soil to thank for this feat--or maybe genetic engineering. The pumpkins were nevertheless impressive.

The author taking a selfie with an ice cream cone

After the Pumpkin festival, and a stop for my first ever Steak n' Shake, we were back in Oberlin, having completed our tour of, as a flight attendant I once met put it, the "Maui of the Midwest." It was definitely one of the most fun experiences I've had while at Oberlin, and I definitely feel more connected to Ohio as a state, now that I've had the opportunity to explore it more.

I've discovered that there is a lot of talk about critical thinking in China. My roommate told me that he feels that China's 应试教育 (educational system that stresses tests) doesn't teach children how to think critically. On the other hand, my anthropology professor here wrote in my midterm progress report that I have "good critical thinking ability." I guess that that could be the influence of my primary and secondary education in the U.S., but I think that it has a lot more to do with my education at Oberlin. Being at Oberlin, where people's assumptions about the world are constantly being challenged, I never really had the opportunity to stop and consider this, but my recent fall break trip with my program here made me realize just how much Oberlin has trained me to think critically.

Before coming to China, I didn't really have any big plans to travel. While I have quite a few friends who have studied abroad and talked about the trips that they took while abroad, I personally expected to spend all of my time studying. Therefore, I'm really surprised about the amount of travel that I've done while in China. I've been to 大理 (Dali), a beautiful "third-tier" city with all kinds of natural scenic spots, 香格里拉 (Shangri-la), a small town in Northwest Yunnan with a large population of 藏族 (people of the Tibetan ethnic minority), recently renamed in order to draw in tourists, and climbed four mountains, among other trips. I think in this case a few pictures are worth thousands of words:

A Chinese building on a body of water

Ancient Chinese buildings tower over homes

A view of mountains

However, none of these trips have been as extensive as the weeklong excursion that I participated in over fall break. We spent the first two days in Heqing, a relatively rural area, where we participated in a variety of activities involving local people. We then moved on to Lijiang, a relatively more developed area with a "古城" (old town) that the assistant director of our program frequently reminded us was a quintuple-A ranked tourist spot (whatever that means). Afterwards, we spent a night in a 傈僳族村子 (Lisu ethnic minority village) in what was effectively a large-group homestay. We then rounded out the trip with three days in what was effectively the wilderness, where we stayed at a nature conservancy field station or something that had no running water or beds and climbed a mountain up to an elevation of 4000+ meters. Basically, it was a pretty awesome time filled with a wide variety of activities.

This trip was run not only through our study abroad program, but also through a group called The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which is an international group that has done a lot of work in Yunnan, and was instrumental in founding a lot of China's (somewhat controversial) national parks. Therefore, the vast majority of our activities had to do with environmental protection. This made it a pretty ideal situation for me, given my majors. However, a few of the activities gave me a lot of opportunities to think about some of the power dynamics involved in certain kinds of environmental activism.

For instance, due to the nature of the funding of our trip (which was pretty great, considering that the whole week was virtually free), we had two people from the United States who are involved in sustainability work with us the whole time. Neither of them spoke more than 2 words of Mandarin. Before we left for the trip, they informed us that, on the first day of our trip, we would be doing environmental education activities in a wetland with local middle school students. On one hand, I was very excited. I've done a fair amount of environmental education-related work at Oberlin, and I will never pass up an opportunity to talk with large groups of Chinese children. However, on the other hand, right from the start I was somewhat uncomfortable with this idea. We had never been to this wetland (in fact, a few members of our class had never heard of wetlands before our trip), and we were being led by two people who don't speak any Chinese at all, and we were supposed to teach large groups of Chinese children about how they should be protecting a wetland literally in their school's backyard? From my perspective, this plan not only would probably not teach these kids anything, but also absolutely reeked of the white-savior complex.

In the end, both my hopes and my fears proved true. The activities that we did with the students were super fun, and I got to have some long conversations with a few of them about ethnic minority culture, their crushes, and which ones of them were the best students. However, the two environmental educators with us also gave presentations to the students that proved that they had not spent a single minute researching the place that they were going. For example, one of them talked about how the college that he is affiliated with is so wonderful because they use cow manure to power their heating. While that's a great thing, because of the way that the Chinese government chose to develop China, there is virtually nowhere in all of Yunnan, let alone a place that the students, most of whose parents are migrant workers, had been that has heat. He also made comments about food safety that made it very clear that he had never heard about any of China's plethora of food safety controversies.

Maybe it's because Oberlin's Environmental Studies department stresses environmental justice, but, to me, this was a horrifying display of arrogance. It's been almost two weeks since this event, and I still cannot fathom how someone from the U.S. could come to a developing country that they know absolutely nothing about and also cannot speak the language of, and tout their first-world "sustainable" amenities. I know for certain that it is because of my time at Oberlin that I decided to speak up about this problem. When we had an opportunity to give feedback about the activity, I explained as politely as possible (which, as anyone who has met me would know, was probably not as polite as it should have been) that while I found the activities very fun and worthwhile, I had some problems with the content of the presentations. While I was very worried that my classmates would be angry at me for my criticisms, as none of them are nearly as confrontational as I am, instead almost all of them came up to me individually at various times throughout the day to thank me for my comments. Some of them said that they were thinking the same kinds of things, but felt awkward about expressing their thoughts. Others said that they had never thought about the issues that I brought up, but that they agreed with what I said, and it made them think about our experience in a new way. While I don't think that my comments really reached the people in charge of this experience (one of them later commented to me that he "was surprised there was a good air day in China," despite the fact that there is likely not a single bad air day in Lijiang in any given year), I'm glad that I was at least able to get my message across to my peers. Hopefully, we'll be the ones running these kinds of programs in the coming years, and we will use a more culturally-conscious and place-based approach to them because of these kinds of bad experiences.

I also had the opportunity to talk to one of the (Chinese) TNC staff members about these kinds of issues. He is part of the cultural branch of The Nature Conservancy, which means that he works with local ethnic minority populations in order to try to convince them to develop more sustainably. After I expressed strong interest in his job, as it combines many of my interests, he admitted that he often finds it very frustrating. He told me that most of the people are only interested in making money, and will refuse to alter their behavior unless they can be convinced that it will make them money. However, he and I agreed that if we were in their situation we would probably do the same thing, which he said made him feel a bit uncomfortable about his job. I couldn't help mentally drawing a comparison between his job and my experience at the middle school earlier that week.

These issues are not ones that are limited to China. In fact, the beautiful mountainous environment, abject poverty, and huge flat screen TVs in the middle of dirt-floor houses, made it impossible for me not to think about the summers in high school that I spent in West Virginia with the Appalachian Service Project. Most of the people in the region I was in then were involved in coal mining, an obviously environmentally-destructive occupation, but pretty much the only one that they had access to. It was also a job that was giving them cancer--one of the counties I was in had, at the time, the highest rate of cancer of any county in the United States. At the time, I honestly could not understand why these people wouldn't just leave. The reasons that people provided me with ("their families have lived here forever," "their heart is in these mountains") seemed overly-sentimental. Now I realize that, just like the ethnic minority populations in the Nu Jiang region that I discussed in one of my classes today, these people's lives wouldn't necessarily be any better elsewhere. They would have to spend what little money they had on transportation to wherever they were going, only to get there and not have the skills to get any jobs that pay a living wage. I have no idea how to solve these socio-environmental problems, but I'm glad that Oberlin has at least given me the ability to see them for what they are.

Perhaps this post has gotten overly depressing. Despite my concerns about some of the activities and the general state of the planet and its inhabitants, I had a great time on this trip. I got to learn about 纳西族文化 (the culture of the Naxi ethnic minority) at an amazingly high-tech museum. I've discovered that I genuinely consider hiking a hobby. I met super cool Chinese people doing amazing work in biodiversity conservation. I ate some really incredible kidney beans. I even got to witness our program director's enviable language skills, as she translated all of the many presentations we attended into English for the people who couldn't speak Chinese while the presentations were still going on. On top of that, I think that the only way to really become an advocate for social and environmental justice is to actually engage in these kinds of activities, and see these people and environments first-hand. I guess maybe if I have enough of these good experiences, I'll keep thinking critically, but stop being so critical.

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