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Exploring Indiana's Backroads

Indiana's easy on the eyes. Easy on the other senses, too, like a sweet old tune you haven't heard in a while. Those who traverse Indiana from north to south rather than skimming its east-west interstates slip into a gentle groove. A three-day drive from Indianapolis down to the Ohio River and back feels like tapping into America's memory bank. Here you find whitewashed barns, laundry flapping on the line, and Little League teams lined up at the Dairy Queen. You can spend an evening watching the fireflies come out. You can eat freshly made pie with every meal. Begin with breakfast at Shapiro's, an Indianapolis deli disguised as a cafeteria, a few blocks south of downtown. Take a tray and confront gleaming shelves of pie, cake, and pudding—don't be shy—before moving on to something a bit more kosher: bagels and lox, eggs scrambled with matzoh, or potato pancakes with sour cream. Your trip starts just outside the front door. From the parking lot, take a right onto Meridian Street. It turns into State Road 135, the route you'll be following for the next 75 miles. Sit tight; the first 10 miles are ranch houses and strip malls. All at once you're surrounded by broad meadows of oxeye daisies and Queen Anne's lace, and complacent cows munching on clover.

As you approach Bean Blossom, the fields give way to rolling hills and shady hollows; split-rail fences and a covered bridge lie just off the road. You are entering southern Indiana, beyond the reach of the glaciers that flattened the northern half of the state.

By lunchtime you'll arrive in Nashville, a town whose lovely old bones are still visible beneath its tourist-glazed surface. Ninety years ago, this was a community of artists. Now it's mostly a colony of gift shoppes with names like Loretta's Strawberry Patch and the Nook-N-Cranny. Wind your way past them on the crumbling brick paths, keeping a lookout for the remaining craftsmen. The Craft Gallery, a cooperative run by local artists, is a good place to start. Nearby, Stoneware Pottery sells elegant, wheel-turned pieces that look like a cross between Japanese and Early American ceramics.

Try out Hobnob Corner for a lunch of soup and a sandwich. It isn't fancy—"It's just good food," a local potter told me. Wide-planked floors and wooden booths recall the shop's former days as a dry-goods store. Just outside town is Brown County State Park, where you can work off lunch with a walk around Ogle Lake. The 11/2-mile path leads you close by a grove of rare yellowwood trees. Give yourself time to savor the view; locals take great pride in these hills. Although the park's highest point is only 1,058 feet above sea level, there are more than a half-dozen lookout points.

Less than two miles beyond the park entrance, State Road 135 turns south. On the map, the road narrows to a hairbreadth, indicating that you've passed into the deep and quiet heart of the state. Dinner awaits at the Story Inn, 9 1/2 miles away. The ramshackle town of Story lurks in the shadows at a bend in the road—a cluster of buildings around an old general store still clad in its original tin siding. The store was converted to an inn during the 1970's, but lost none of its character. Inside is a wonderful restaurant serving herbs and vegetables from the proprietor's garden, and sophisticated entrŽes that change weekly (tenderloin with shiitake-mushroom hunter's sauce and chicken with artichokes were among the choices the night I was there). The flavors are so clean and well balanced, you could almost forget it's Hoosier cooking.

The four rooms upstairs are filled with antiques and appropriately rickety: the floors sag, beds creak, and the phone is in a common room down the hall. If you aren't charmed by such rusticity, ask to stay instead in one of the four village houses that have been converted for overnight guests. In the morning, come back and have breakfast on the inn's porch (the whole-wheat banana hotcakes are delicious). Ten miles south of Story, a road veers off to the right toward Houston (that's "How-sten" in local dialect). Park by the bridge just shy of town. To your left you'll see a cool, deep swimming hole fed by a pair of streams. Don't be surprised if you find several generations of the same family out taking a dip.

As you approach Madison, the road ribbons up and down like a roller coaster as it cuts across creek beds that once emptied into the Ohio. Madison itself is astonishing. Founded by riverboat magnates in 1809, it once was as glamorous as Cincinnati or Louisville. When river traffic dwindled, life slowed to a murmur—a blessing for fans of Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian architecture. Today, 133 blocks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But Madison isn't Colonial WilliamsburgÐperfect; it's perfectly ordinary, a living relic of small-town life. Barbecue grills and lawn chairs crowd the porches of houses that look like museum pieces.

There are several grand historic houses open to the public, and they're well worth seeing. A good place to get oriented is the visitors' center, at 301 East Main Street. Be sure to see the Lanier Mansion, the most imposing house in town. Then stop into some of the smaller residences; the Shrewsbury House has a delightful freestanding spiral staircase, and the collection of 19th-century medical equipment in Dr. William Hutchings's office is only slightly creepy.

A tour of Madison's historic houses will whet your appetite for antiques shopping. Start at the Lumber Mill Antique Mall, a spacious building with some 60 dealers. Other top-notch scavenging spots include the Old Town Emporium and the Madison Antique Mall. Pick up a copy of the Madison Courier if you're interested in auctions or estate sales in the area; they're held Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Tonight's hotel, the Cliff House, is an 1885 mansion magnificently situated on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. Fans of Victoriana will adore this six-room bed-and-breakfast, but even those who dislike the period are bound to fall in love with it. The beds are practically a vacation in themselves: one is an enormous canopied four-poster from Albany; another has an 1850's brass frame from France topped by a crown and hung with blue chiffon curtains. Most spectacular of all is the Yellow Room, with five windows overlooking the river valley.

For dinner, visit the Cinnamon Tearoom, a restaurant decorated with mismatched vintage chairs and linens. The menu, as fresh and eclectic as the furnishings, features such dishes as Pacific Rim shrimp with vegetables on basmati rice, and smoked duck in a citrus and caper sauce. Next morning, hit the ground running. Columbus is 45 miles away, and you need to arrive by 10 a.m. to catch the guided tour of town. Route 7 takes you directly there. Columbus is world-famous, but only to a select group of people. Architects from Seattle and Japan were there when I visited; others travel from as far away as Hungary and Taiwan. The town is a 26-square-mile museum of 20th-century architecture, with buildings designed by many of the greatest names in the field. Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei, Robert A. M. Stern, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill are all represented here. This visionary project began back in 1942, when the chairman of Cummins Diesel agreed to pay the architects' fees for any civic buildings that the community erected.

The bus tour of town takes about two hours. My guide, a Columbus native, had an insider's view of the uneasy marriage between modern aesthetics and small-town life. She tersely referred to the controversy over the city jail (it's considered too pretty for criminals) and described the citizens' initial reluctance to deposit money in the Irwin Union Bank. ("In the fifties, people didn't want to put their money in a glass building," she said. "They were used to citadels." So much for progress.) The bus tour has one serious drawback: you get to enter only a couple of buildings. Afterward, grab a map at the visitors' center and take a walk. Explore the post office and hospital, poke your nose into the city hall and county jail, enter the silence of the library. Architecture this good deserves to be experienced on foot.

To rejuvenate your body for the drive back to Indianapolis, head to Zaharako's on Washington Street. At this century-old soda fountain you can order malteds, phosphates, and black cows, all served from onyx fountains made for the St. Louis world's fair of 1904. Get an extra straw for your date, and sit down at a marble table. Take a sip, and contemplate the great river of traffic streaming across the state a few miles to the north. Take another sip. A 40-minute drive on I-65 will put you right back in the thick of it. Hmm. A few more sips. The car's outside, but what you probably need to do right now is think it over with another strawberry soda.

Celia Barbour, a senior editor at Martha Stewart Living, learned to drive on the back roads of Indiana.

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