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Coming Full Circle

Driving the I-275 loop shows the many sides of Cincinnati

By Jac Kern · November 4th, 2009 · News

It was an obnoxiously bright Saturday afternoon I should have spent on the couch, nursing a fairly nasty hangover. Instead, I’d been convinced to spend my day in a minivan with three CityBeat staffers (Danny Cross, Jason Gargano and Maija Zummo), a cooler full of autumn ales, a sweater-clad Chinese Crested named Harry and 84 miles of suburban highway to navigate. I guess if you’ve lived in Cincinnati for 22 years, you should drive the I-275 loop in its entirety at least once.

We drove down I-75 and hopped on the loop going east toward Ohio and quickly came across our first destination: River Downs racetrack in Anderson Township. Somehow, we all had stories involving our grandfathers frequenting this place, but none of us had bet on the ponies in recent memory. It’s too cold in Cincinnati for live races in the fall, and since racing is all about keeping horses comfortable (save the whipping), River Downs offers only simulcast racing during this time of year. The indoor betting area, filled with rows upon rows of personal televisions to watch various races, was hoppin’ that afternoon with a diverse, mostly geriatric crowd.

If you’re a bright-eyed young woman in need of a confidence boost, just do a lap around the bar with a bewildered look upon your face. Within minutes, at least a half-dozen gentlemen will be fighting over who gets to teach you their betting technique or buy you a Bloody Mary. If you’re a tattooed young man who wears tight purple sweatshirts, you might get the side-eye from a few regulars and be told to move to a different television (They charge for seating at four-person tables, but not if you have said young women in your company).

For first-time betters, the environment can be pretty intimidating. Some of these dudes come equipped with notepads and laptops and research jockey biographies before placing their bets. And it smells really strongly of nacho cheese. But once you select a race in the day’s betting catalogue, find it on your television and pick a horse with the sexiest name, you’re all set!

I was surprised by the bet-taker’s patience as I stuttered through my bet on True Bliss at Lexington’s Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing & Sales. She didn’t win, but did place in second. This was all the success we needed to feel confident in our next bet — No. 8 in the next race, My Baby Baby, was going to be our hot ticket. She had great odds and a name to match.

Gearing up for the race, she appeared strong and stoic, but as soon as that gate opened, something went wrong. Within seconds, My Baby Baby had bucked off her jockey, flipping him through the air. She then proceeded to race her way, weaving in and out of the pack of her jockeyed pals. We had lost all our money, but My Baby Baby looked so free, we could only watch our tiny television in disbelief. Once the race was over, the probable thought of My Baby Baby being shipped off to the glue factory killed our gambling buzz. It was time to head back to the loop.

The drive through Amelia and Milford made me realize why Midwesterners drink a lot of beer. Without any significant stops to make, I found myself finishing a second Woodchuck Cider rather quickly.

Anything to make the countless Wal-Mart parking lots seem more attractive. Even Harry decided to take a short, hairless nap at this point in the trip.

Upon reaching Sharonville, we were ready for some excitement. Just in time, we came across the 275 express lane, stretching about seven miles across the northern-most part of the loop. The cement-guarded mini-lane is perfect for people who don’t want to get stuck in traffic or are too busy to partake in the many cultural offerings of the Tri-County area. We were particularly disappointed to have missed out on Dave & Buster’s, Tri-County Mall and Target World.

With Maija a tizzy from not being able to get out of the car or shoot at some human-shaped targets with a crossbow, we decided to stop at the next available exit. Thankfully, this happened to be Forest Park, home to Cincinnati Mills. We risked losing our dutiful driver Danny by entering what will always be Forest Fair Mall (to me), as he was once banned for life from the premises by a court of law. But because the name had changed (more than once) since then, we assumed the ban was lifted, and so we trekked toward the most grand business in all the Mills: Bass Pro Shops� Outdoor World� and Sportsman’s Warehouse� (More Outdoors For Your Money™).

Once we checked our firearms at the turn-style entrance, we were welcomed into a world of all things Man. With everything from taxidermied elks to 15-pound trail mix tubs to tricked out fishing accessories, I felt like I was going to sprout some chest hair with all the testosterone that surrounded me. But, somehow, I didn’t feel too excluded. I noticed the number of couples holding hands and chatting it up by the massive aquarium, and realized BPS�OW�SM� had to have something to offer women.

Boy, was I right. I mean, who doesn’t love old-fashioned fudge? With a state fair-style fudge cart right in the store, any chick can get her chocolate fix. ‘Cause we all know how much women love chocolate! Also, females know how to appreciate detailed décor. Upon stepping into the ladies’ room, I was swept away to rustic living. A lovely little parlor area featured a mosaic fireplace, vintage suitcases and fine leather armchairs.

As for products, there were plenty of items just for girls. My favorite product at BPS�OW�SM� was strong, feminine and fought for a cause: pink pepper spray. The proceeds from this item go toward breast cancer research (that can be assumed if an item has a pink ribbon on it, right?), so I think this would be a great stocking stuffer for anyone’s college-aged daughter. Mase for a cure!

All this talk about self-defense got us hungry, so we hit the trail to find some eats. Jason told us about some deadly hot sauce at a nearby chicken wing restaurant, and with this delicacy in mind we navigated west toward Colerain: the township to be known heretofore as the birthplace of babies. Seriously. There were so many babies.

Quaker Steak and Lube, originally a Pennsylvania restaurant, specializes in crazy wing sauces, suspending racecars from ceilings and playing really great music. At 6 p.m., there was already a 15-minute wait for a table. That’s how you know a restaurant is good. During our wait, we remained entertained by floor televisions, an arcade claw game, Lou Bega and all those babies. Two beers later, our table was ready and the host carried over four plastic lawn chairs for us.

While listening to our eloquent server Tommy’s description of their tortilla soup (it really is the whole enchilada!), I noticed how differently Maija and I were dressed from everyone else still waiting in the arcade for their table-notifying buzzers to vibrate. Being the style-conscious women we are, the thought of not fitting in because of our apparel was foreign to us. The host didn’t look twice at us while taking our reservation, even though we were the only people in the joint wearing tights or knee boots. No one had informed us that there was a stonewashed denim and white sneaker dress code. No one explained to us that because we’re well into our twenties, we should probably have a child or, at the very least, one on the way.

The anxiety from all the purple Ugg-wearing toddlers almost caused us to lose our appetites for the famed onion ring tower. Just as I was about to suggest we backtrack to the mall so I could buy some LEI jeans at Kohl’s, I realized that I was the only one concerned with appearances. We might have been weirdoes in Colerain, but these folks didn’t pass judgment. Even when Danny and Jason went to the bathroom together…

After running poor Tommy back and forth so many times for a more noxious hot sauce, it was finally time to jump on the loop and finish our drive. Maybe it was the Atomic Sauce talking, but the sunset over the Indiana boarder was damn pretty (or maybe it was just the casino glow). Either way, we rode in silence, mesmerized by the beautiful autumn scenery. Harry shed a tiny, hairless tear for the beauty that still existed along the western-most section of our highway loop.

Our final stop once we crossed into and out of Indiana was CVG, the Cincinnati airport not located in Cincinnati. The hustle and bustle of pretending to travel gave us a second wind, and we fast-walked across the lobby just like everyone else. After some rousing escalator rides and losing Maija and then paging her after she had already returned, we found ourselves checking out the evening’s departures: Lexington, Denver, even Paris. One would think that after a day of experiencing so much of what Cincinnati has to offer, these destinations would be appealing. That much is true.

Still, after considering that our combined salaries would probably have only afforded a one-way ticket to any of these destinations — and checking twice that no airport bar was open outside the terminals — we walked solemnly back to the van. I’m not sure if it was a sudden resurgence of affection for the center city of our hometown, the fatigue of a five-hour automobile adventure or the increasing likelihood that Harry would soon relieve himself inside our rig, but I felt a sense of happiness as we paid our $2 parking fee and headed home. And as the planes buzzed overhead and the green highway signs pointed both east and west, I thought to myself, “Forget Paris, I’m glad we’re getting back on I-275.”



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