The last, long, rewarding leg home

It came on so quickly, the turning point of the trip – my push to the northeast was now at an end and it was time to head the car south and west toward home. I hadn’t thought much about departing beforehand (probably reluctance at leaving my dear friends behind) which necessitated my spending quite a few hours that morning hastily assembling all my worldly goods, jamming them into the back of the car and bidding a wistful adieu to Brooke and Aaron.
The weather for our drive back to Texas was a bit daunting. Temperatures topped out only in the low teens for several days - wicked cold for Mark and I, unaccustomed as we both are to real winter weather. We bundled up and drove along curving rural blacktops, passing through western Virginia and occasionally crossing into the corner of the aptly named West Virginia on our way to Kentucky. The rain peppered us with intermittent showers as we followed a path that snaked along the base of a series of steep wooded hills. We weren’t all that far from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smokey Mountains, but we had apparently signed on for the Coal Miner’s Daughter tour because we encountered only tiny, sparsely populated hamlets with little in the way of local cafes or points of interest. As a consolation prize, Mark was kind enough to stop at a coal processing plant we encountered, electing to stay in the car while I got out to gawk excitedly at a continuous stream of coal tumbling off the end of a steep conveyor belt into waiting rail cars below. The biting wind made me hop rhythmically from one foot to the other to keep from freezing solid. I can’t imagine why Mark wasn’t as fascinated with the coal processing machinery as I was!
We had only one itinerary stop planned for Kentucky – a visit to Big Mike’s Rock Shop in the strange little town of Cave City. Cave City serves as the gateway to one of the world’s largest show caverns, Mammoth Cave. In the 50s, Cave City began to market itself as a family tourist destination, complete with attractions like a Wigwam Motel, putt putt golf courses and plentiful rock shops. Today, (especially in the off season when we were there) it’s mostly a ghost town, depopulated by the likes of more modern and glamorous entertainment marvels like Branson, Missouri. As a result, many of the once whimsical and hokey attractions are either closed or in a sad state of repair, lending a post apocalyptic amusement park feel to the area.

Mark and I were there on a pilgrimage of sorts, the completion of a strange and wonderful circle 17 years in diameter. In 1991, to relieve our deep sadness at spending the first holiday season without our dear friend John-David (he had died of AIDS in April that year), we set out to distract ourselves with a road trip. We spent a pleasant week meandering along the roads of the southern U.S., but by the time Christmas Eve rolled around we'd put a fair number of miles on the car, including a mad dash a long distance to Mammoth caves in hopes they hadn't closed early on Christmas eve (which they had). As the dark descended, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, with a lot of nothing ahead of us - a bit bleak. We continued along the curvy roads of rural Kentucky, looking for a place to stop and have some dinner when suddenly we came upon the shining penumbra of Big Mike's Rock Shop, its neon light blazing in the night "OPEN! OPEN! OPEN!". More than eager for a diversion, we stopped to examine the massive mounds of colorful slag that were piled on tables in front. We of course found several choice specimens that absolutely had to come home with us and so entered the nice toasty shop to settle up. We were greeted by a convivial employee who I now know is named Cora. Cora was an absolute hoot and showered us with gracious, friendly attention as though she had nothing better in the world to do than barter with us over chunks of colored minerals. We left that night with a whole box full of treasures, many of which Cora insisted we have as her gifts to us on that blustery Christmas eve night, but it was her generosity of spirit that left the most cherished and indelible impression - one that has stayed with me to this day, seventeen years later.

Well - since we happened to find ourselves passing through the very same region almost 17 years to the DAY (less than 24 hours, in fact), I felt strongly compelled to stop by and see if that amazing woman was still tending the till. Cora was indeed still employed at Big Mike's but was busy enjoying her day off. I left her a note thanking her for her gracious hospitality all those many years ago and then Mark and I resumed our journey, feeling the satisfaction of completing an imaginary circle. For me it registered with an almost audible click.

As we neared Memphis (our evening's destination) from the east, I couldn’t resist spearheading a quick detour to nearby Brownsville to share Billy Tripp’s amazing and wonderful Mindfield with Mark, even though the viewing conditions were less than ideal (it was shortly before dark and drizzling-identical to my summer visit). As I led Mark down the muddy path that runs along one side of the Mindfield, I listened with great satisfaction as he articulated his appreciation, discovering the beauty of the place for himself. Here's a link to some pictures of the Mind Field from my trip earlier in the summer if you'd care to have a look: http://schade.spaceship.com/gallery/Shiree-2008-Summer-Road-Trip?page=6
As we left the Mindfield and headed toward Memphis, the rain that had been dogging us steadily intensified into a crashing downpour, prompting us to go ahead and stop for the night since we had a pretty long drive ahead of us the next day. We'd have just a little over 14 hours of driving to get to Austin, but we'd wisely scheduled in several promising stops along the way to help break up the tedium of an entire day of driving.

The first place we meant to visit was a placed called “Graceland Too” nestled just south of Memphis in the tiny town of Holly Springs, Mississippi. It's an over the top obsessive shrine to Elvis assembled by super-fan Paul McLeod, and from what I'd read, it's right up my alley. Reports on the Internet were also consistent in assuring me that admittance could easily be gained, at any hour, 7 days a week. So pervasive is Paul's passion, that he's reputed to open the door with a smile that is just as eager at 3 a.m. as it is at 3 p.m. So it was with flagrant disbelief and grave disappointment that I failed to raise an answer after knocking on the vault-like front door loudly and repeatedly.

From the outside, the place appeared to be part fortress, part sideshow - impossible to see inside. Obvious gestures toward elevated security were in evidence all around the property and seemed to be strangely out of place in a town so tiny that most people probably don't bother to lock their doors. I can only guess that the marvelous Elvis treasures harbored within Graceland Too merit such extreme measures.

DAMN it! I couldn’t BELIEVE there was no answer at the door! My long run of roadside luck had been interrupted and I found it hard to accept such a fate. I suggested, and Mark graciously agreed, that we should pause and have breakfast at the interesting looking café we had spotted on the town square, and then we could swing back by after breakfast to see if by chance our host had returned.

The café was a good call - my breakfast was delicious and included home made biscuits and a huge slab of the super salty “country style” ham that's served in that region. As we ate, an older woman crowned with a magnificent cone of white cotton candy hair entered, swathed from head to toe in an ensemble of tenderest elephant pink. Her insistent and incredulous eyes betrayed her pink envy as she passed by our table. My covetness took a different form and resulted in my stealing a series of quick glances at her as she sat by herself in a smallish booth, smoking one cigarette after another with one hand and lifting a white crockery mug full of coffee to her lips with the other. I made her into a pretty pink amalgam of several cigarette-smoking, coffee-swilling, beehive-toting gals I've known and loved and made it feel a bit like being at home for a moment.
After Mark and I had broken our fast and concluded our people watching safari, we returned to Graceland Too to find that sadly, the door did not yield an answer this time, either. Ah well - something exciting for next time.

We resumed our journey over the quiet country back roads of Mississippi, blanketed by persistent rain on our asphalt beeline toward the outskirts of Vicksburg. It had rained so much and so long in that area that water had begun to stand in sheets and ponds on the two lane blacktops, hammering the undercarriage of the car when we plunged into the deeper puddles that lay along our path.

By the time we arrived at Margaret's Grocery just outside of Vicksburg, the rain had graciously subsided. As soon as I emerged from the car I was instantly in love with the vivid colors and unabashed sentiment of the place and had a ball walking around taking pictures of every little nook and cranny. My insistent poking around didn't manage to turn up any signs of life, but since it was late in the afternoon on Xmas eve, that hardly seemed surprising. I'd just about finished taking all the pictures I wanted when a car pulled up carrying a gentlemen who made his way directly to the front door of the grocery. He greeted us warmly as he passed and proceeded to knock on the door loudly. After several failed attempts at raising an answer, he whipped out his cell phone and called the inhabitants to let them know he was standing there. “I came to bring you a present - I'm on the front porch!” he told them. Not long afterwards, the door creaked open and the nice gentleman disappeared inside. I could hear him engaged in quiet conversation with someone whom I guessed was probably the Margaret of Grocery fame. After another short while, the door opened quietly and out sidled the Reverend H.D. Dennis. As he walked up to me, he grasped my hand warmly, elbow and bicep, and cried out in the loud clear calculated voice of a preacher “Welcome my white sister!” I responded enthusiastically, in kind, whereupon the good Reverend sat himself down on the porch (only after indicating I should do the same) and proceeded to work to enroll me in the fable of his amazing life. His complicated narrative marched slowly and steadily forward, with the progress interrupted from time to time by giant narrative backward loop de loops that would land the listener some years prior to the point where the story had last left off. This prompted multiple retellings of the same incident, each iteration varying only slightly but distinctly. After a while, I figured out that you could listen to it like a symphony, the same melody repeating over and over again, progressing toward an end, but measured with repetition of the theme in slight variations. Mark, meantime, was not nearly so amused by all this as I, but he had already starting poking around the yard to entertain himself and seemed to be perfectly content.

After the Reverend and I had chatted quite a while, I was offered a much coveted invitation to come inside and see the interior of the place. I was almost overcome with excitement and joy. If it isn't obvious, this is the precise moment of experience I live for: the act of sharing with people who they are. There is no greater joy for me and I'm never happier. When we entered, the inside of the Grocery was about the size of a trailer, festively lit with holiday lights and heavily decorated with mementos, found objects, gifts, Mardi Gras beads and gee gaws. The Reverend made sure to show me his walker so I could see that it was decorated with strands of Mardi Gras beads, which he was careful to explain added visibility when crossing the highway. I met Margaret, much to my delight, who was golden sweet and complex like ribbon cane syrup. I was also formally introduced to the guest who had arrived earlier, who it turned out lives less than 10 miles from me in Austin! We all chatted amiably for a bit until that time arrived when suddenly everyone knows it's time to go without having to articulate it. The Reverend sent Margaret to the back of the store to fetch me a gift before I departed. She emerged with a beautiful and mysterious photo print of a well worn portrait of the Virgin Mary in her hand. As it passed from her hand to mine, it had the feel of a sacred object, completely unrelated to it's subject matter. The Reverend cautioned me, "Now take good care of that - it's important." Back at the car, I honored the Reverend's request without question, placing the image of Mary on the dashboard facing forward , much like a 2D masthead.

After many heartfelt goodbyes with the Reverend and Mrs. Dennis, Mark and I got back in the car and drove. And drove and drove and drove. We whisked on out of Mississippi and trudged across Louisiana, more than ready to be home but still a fur piece away. Shortly before midnight, we crossed the border into Texas - a boundary made painfully distinct by the disparity in highway budgets in the two states. We hadn't been driving long when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a sudden profusion of lights - all colors, zillions of them! I shouted out, "Whoa, whoa, WHOA!!!!" Mark, accustomed to these sorts of outbursts, calmly and expertly pulled to the side of the road so we could make our way back to the wonderland of lights. It turned out we had stumbled upon the best holiday trail of lights I've ever seen. The trail snaked a long way through a gorgeous grove of pines, weaving back and forth through the trees, zigzagging past spectacular displays covered with thousands and thousands of tiny lights. It was soothingly silent since it was nearly midnight on Christmas eve and few other people were about. The only sound besides an occasional hidden speaker droning holiday tunes along the trail was the frosty wind gusting through the pine boughs overhead. It felt like a a dream, really.
. ..
We emerged from the trail and glided smoothly onto the interstate, deeply satisfied by our fortune and experience. The glow of those beautiful lights lasted us the last several hundred miles home and served as the perfect finale for a fine voyage full of surprises and beauty. And boy did it feel good to be home.


Parade Wave, Show Cave

Before I knew it, the last day of my visit with Brooke and Aaron had arrived. It also happened to be the shortest day of the year and bitter cold to boot. When I woke that morning, the first sight that penetrated my flickering eyelids was the dazzling sparkle of ice crystals arrayed in lacy fingers on the window outside my room, illuminated by the rays of the rising sun. The sight made me gasp aloud and coo like a contented baby.

The household began to stir slowly and after sharing a hearty breakfast enhanced by excruciatingly campy Xmas LPs (is that a THERMIN?!?) and eased by the liberal application of Aaron's homemade eggnog, we gathered our parkas and blankets and headed off to the frozen north toward Luray caverns.
Our first stop was the American Celebration on Parade museum which sits on the grounds of Shenandoah caverns. There, a fellow by the name of Earl Hargrove Jr. (who runs a company that stages trade shows, conventions and every American presidential inaugural event since 1949) has assembled an impressive collection of parade floats housed in a giant warehouse where mere mortals can wander around and gander at the immensity of it all.

Immensity, as you might imagine, is exceedingly obvious the moment you enter. And not long after the concept of how big these rolling stages really are sinks in, the question of how they manage to move along the street become extremely compelling. Understanding this urgent need to know, the museum has thoughtfully provided Plexiglas portals on some of the floats to allow visitors to take a peek at what goes on behind the crepe paper curtain.
Actually, there wasn't much if any crepe paper in evidence. I was truly surprised by the lavishness of the decorative materials that were used. Why, there was enough scrunched up gold lame on one of the floats to outfit an entire chorus line of Rockettes! For some reason I'd imagined the giant rolling dioramas would be made of flimsy, disposable materials but these floats were beautifully executed and have held up really well over the years. In fact, many of the floats have enjoyed several incarnations - makeovers are common and themes continually updated.

Another feature I particularly enjoyed was a float that allowed you to sit in the driver's seat and imagine what it would be like to try and navigate one of these monsters down a fun-lover-packed urban streetscape. Naturally, I had a bit of trouble seeing over the dashboard and decided that I probably didn't want to pursue float driving as a side career.
Our extensive tour afforded us ample opportunity to pause in strategic spots and perfect our parade waves. We were then able to display them proudly as we exited through the creepy gift shop, much to the amusement of the teenagers at the register.
After pausing to let Brooke pose with the giant Cootie in front of the museum, we hightailed it over to Luray caverns so we could catch one of the last tours of the day. Luckily, we got there with just enough time to cavort about an enormous privet hedge maze that sits adjacent to the cavern.

It felt good for a while to dash about in the brisk afternoon air, scurrying down leafy corridors, pursuing the tantalizing nearness of other people's voices - surely only a turn or two away. Periodically, a way station would appear inquiring, "Are you lost??" I was only lost once, near the end, but by then I was weary or maybe just plain cold and had no compunction about revealing the path instead of determining it. My patience with maze working is apparently much better suited to navigating Central Market or such.

We headed back to the rallying spot at the cavern to wait for our tour and there was a merry fire blazing in the huge stone fireplace flanking the entrance to the cave. It felt good after having braved the cold to run around in some bushes.

Our tour guide (who apparently was playing at 45 r.p.m. even though she was recorded at 33 1/3) introduced herself and whisked us efficiently through the cavern along with a tall quiet family from Curacao who were making their very first cave tour. Cave virgins! I bet all those rock jokes sounded fresh and funny to them and they were actually scared when the lights went out!

We paused along the way to enjoy the huge underground lake that forms a magnificent mirror of its surroundings and wandered past all sorts of beautiful formations, but a curious detraction began to nag at me as we walked along. Luray is one of the oldest show caverns in our nation. It opened to the public in the late 1800s, and in that non-eco-friendly era, visitors were encouraged to snap off a bit of the cavern to take home with them for a souvenir. Every single area within reaching distance of the path is scarred with stalagmite stubs and stalactite nubs, sort of like an acne incited by humans.

When we eventually arrived at the room containing the fabulous Stalacpipe Organ, my jaded distaste quickly fell away. I did have to work to disguise my impatience, however, doing my best to pay attention to our pert guide as she unspooled her well rehearsed and long winded introduction. Finally, finally the moment arrived. She pushed the magic button and tiny rubber mallets installed over a 3 1/2 acre area inside the cavern began to strike various stalactites in succession and combination, filling the cave with pure vibrating tones that coalesced into song. This amazing instrument (the world's largest, mind you) was conceived by Mr. Leland W. Sprinkle who was a mathematician and electronics geek at the nearby Pentagon. I love it when dorks create art! The organ is played live occasionally, especially at the frequent weddings that are held there, but this day we were serenaded by an invisible robot, more than adequately rendering some unmemorable standard of musicdom. It was lovely.

The tour concluded directly after the recital and we thus proceeded to mount the 80 some-odd stair steps necessary to regain the earth's surface. When we emerged, warm and sweaty, the night was dark and wicked cold. We bundled ourselves up, got in the car and began searching for some dinner as we headed back toward the homestead.

We soon stumbled upon a brightly lit Mexican restaurant in the quaint little town of New Market and decided a margarita sounded real good and we'd just have to take our chances on what passed for Mexican food in these parts. Actually, I always enjoy eating Mexican food outside of Texas, just to see what those wacky non-Texans will come up with, trying to imitate the real thing. The venue we chose was a rewarding one, however, as the owners hailed from the state of Michoacan in Mexico rather than being third generation Scandinavians from Maryland. When we told them we were from Texas and wondered if they had some HOT hot sauce, they brought us out a special bowl of fiery chile paste, for use by professionals only. Also presented with the chips was a hilarious bowl of - get this - coleslaw. I'm guessing that the tomato salsa (I'm not sure there were any peppers in it) was a little too spicy for the average Virginian, so a pleasing bowl of coleslaw was offered as a tongue cooling palliative. It was actually quite delicious on the chips, but we couldn't help laugh at the whiteness of it all. What on earth will those wacky white people do next?
After packing our bellies full of tortillas and frijoles and margaritas, we climbed back in the car and headed back to Christiansburg. We'd packed it in on the shortest day and were all a bit tired. The pleasing sounds of Ratatat sung us gently to our destination, neath the glittering stars of a clear winter night.


Star Attraction

Now that Mark had joined us, there were four of us to agree on what marvel to visit next and so on Saturday after a small amount of hemming and hawing, we settled on a little known quantity called The Star Museum located in nearby Abingdon, Virginia.

The Star Museum touts itself as a world class collection of celebrity memorabilia, which it certainly is. But in this day and age of ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe display cases, e-bay auctions and celebrity branding, the mere ownership of memorabilia isn't interesting to me in and of itself. No, what compelled me to visit the Star Museum were the short videos I'd found on the Internet which featured collector/curator Robert Wiesfeld describing various items from the collection. It was obvious from what I saw that it was the mind behind the museum that made it well worth visiting.
The scent of a home run flared in my nostrils when I called ahead to see if they'd be open and the friendly and animated woman on the other end of the line told me sheepishly, "Just so you know, dear, we have an admission fee." I could tell she'd had to hesitantly defend the charge to ungrateful guests before. "Well," I said, "as long as we're talking less than $500 a pop, I think we can swing it." It was only a tick before she replied, "I think we can get you in for a tad under $500." She added that they'd be happy to stay around and wait for us, if we needed them to. "We can be real flexible" she chirped.

As we arrived in Abingdon that afternoon, it was much like driving onto the set if a1940s movie which took place in an old-fashioned eastern U.S. town - graceful turn of the century columns (think plantation), manicured lawns and tasteful holiday decorations. The whole place was spotlessly clean and downright wholesome. Inconspicuous due to it's lack of garish roadside attraction advertising, we drove right by the Star museum on our first pass through town, but quickly looped back and parked on the street where you live.

As soon as we entered the door we encountered the gracious woman I'd spoken with on the phone sitting at the front desk, and it turned out she was Robert's mother Martha Wiesfeld. Martha is what I'd call a handsome woman and it becomes obvious quickly that she's sharp as a tack and ferociously friendly. While it didn't surprise me to learn of it, I was very impressed to find she'd decided to buy the local newspaper in 1976 and had proceeded to run it for some 30-odd years, teaching herself the business as she went along. Several years ago, she retired and converted the quaint old building that had housed the paper into a showcase for the extraordinary collection of celebrity memorabilia her son Robert had amassed over the years. In talking with both Martha and Robert, it became exceedingly clear that the primary and overriding reason the two of them had taken on the immense challenge of managing a museum was simply to be able to share the magic of what Robert had collected with other people. And that generosity informs everything at the Star, especially the deliciously intimate tours that Robert gives the guests.

After settling up with Martha on our admission (it did come in a tad under $500, by the way), we joined Robert and two other guests at the entrance to the museum where they had just begun a tour.

From the very first sentence, Robert had me completely wrapped around his little finger. He affects the lilting purr of an inveterate storyteller, directing your attention first here and then succinctly there, never letting your eyes veer from the prize. I was held steadily in thrall by the likes of Joan Crawford's fabulous red plumed hat, Errol Flynn's sporty swim trunks and Eartha Kitt's feathered showgirl bra (from her days performing at Dietrich's dyke club in New York, no less!). Robert nourished us with a steady diet of fascinating snippets and morsels as we moved from display to display, usually only artfully hinting when it came to addressing the well known scandal that was often associated with an item.

In fact, one of the things that impressed me most about Robert's narrative ability is his ease in speaking on several levels at once. I know you've experienced what I'm talking about if you're a Bugs Bunny fan. Haven't you been amazed at the risque nuances you now perceive as an adult in what you once thought was purely a children's cartoon? For example, Robert can toss off a phrase such as "in like Flynn" in a way that makes a curt nod to it's prurient content, but without cataloguing all the gory details. In a different day and age, I believe it was called "good manners".
Our tour was absolutely fascinating. Robert's collection is wide ranging - from Lillian Russell to Ann Margaret to Madonna, but I particularly appreciated his focus on stars from the era of glamour. Seeing a huge picture hat covered with hand styled ostrich plumes worn by Mae West was truly a thrill for me. Anything Greta Garbo or Gloria Swanson instantly riveted my attention. The thing I think I was most smitten with, though, was a white turban covered with huge faceted black gems that had been made by fashion designer Adrian for the splendid actress Myrna Loy to wear. Adrian was the creator of the sparkly pink confection worn by Billie Burke as Glinda in the 1938 movie version of the Wizard of Oz and he will always and forever be a god in my doctrine for that small act alone. And to see something he himself had made for an actress I like so well...I was genuinely awe stricken. I'm telling you - I had a lump in my throat!
After the tour, we stood around chatting with Robert and Martha for a good half hour or so. Martha regaled us with tales of spreading picnic blankets on her front lawn in the 50s so that actors visiting the nearby Barter Theater (Barter because the local farmers could bring produce to use as admission in lieu of money) could come and rehearse their lines and relax while she served them Kool-Aid and home baked cookies. In my Frank Capraesque reenvisioning of the scene, little Robert sits rapt on the lawn with wide, admiring eyes, the seedling of his fascination with celebrity just beginning to grow. Just another idyllic day in Abingdon! Maybe they put something in the water there that gives a Jimmy Stewart quality to everything.

As much fun as I had ogling all the tantalizing trinkets Robert showed us, by the time we made our hesitant preparations to leave it was exceedingly clear what it is that makes the Star Museum so special. I've been to a huge number of museums and displays and roadside attractions over the years and what I've found that makes a place worth visiting more than anything else is the people that make it. And if you're very lucky, you get to engage with the minds, not just the matter, of a place. For myself, I've never experienced as great a joy in seeing a thing as I have in beginning to understand who made it.

After leaving the Star Museum, we wandered down the picturesque little street peering in windows and looking for a place to have some dinner and in the space of less than two hours, I had received the nicest compliment I think I've ever gotten ("You make my eyes happy!") and encountered the least pretentious fruit and cheese plate (yes that's cottage cheese) I've ever been served.
Chalk up another amazing day. Dang! There's hardly room left on the wall for another tally mark!


Foam, Fiberglass and Fun

On Friday, December 19, Brooke and Aaron and I headed toward the tiny town of Natural Bridge, which is host to an assortment of eclectic amusements, most of which have been produced by a local entrepreneur by the name of Mark Cline. Mark is a mad genius (much more genius than mad) who has fashioned attractions like Dinosaur Kingdom http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/10790, Professor Cline's Haunted Monster Museum and Dark Maze http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/9210 and a Stonehenge replica made entirely of beaded Styrofoam appropriately named Foamhenge.
Many of you, dear readers, are well aware of my proclivity for henges so it won't surprise you to learn that I had set my sights on visiting Foamhenge many years ago. When I found out it was conveniently located less than two hours from Brooke and Aaron's house, it was out of the question not to visit while I was in the vicinity!

When we arrived later that afternoon at the lonely Virginia tor that serves as the setting for Foamhenge, the rain that had been dogging us all day generously subsided and an enormous rainbow emerged in the ominous gray sky behind us. I haven't seen an arc of that immensity in a very long time - fabulous! The air was cold and crisp and the wind whipped little beads of Styrofoam by like flecks of foam blown from the tops of waves. The fluffy grey stele made an odd creaking sound as the wind battered their flanks. The three of us were utterly alone as we frolicked among the time worn slabs of polystyrene. We played several rounds of hide and seek, suggesting a vaguely Scandinavian scene of cinematic quality. The rainbow which had disappeared for a time, reappeared as we headed back to the car.

Our next stop was to be Dinosaur Kingdom, which advertisements assured us contained gripping life size tableaux of dinosaurs savaging Union soldiers. "It's 1863..." reads the glossy brochure "...living dinosaurs [something, something] Union Army discovers the secret [something, something]...to use as weapons of mass destruction against the South!" But of course, as is often the case in these situations, something goes terribly, terribly, wrong.
We waved goodbye to Foamhenge and set out eagerly towards Dinosaur Kingdom, interrupting our urgent journey only when Aaron spied Mark Cline's workshop, Enchanted Castle Studio, just ahead. We decided to stop and see if we could take a look around Professor Cline's la-bore-a-tory before proceeding down the road to observe his monsters running amok.
It was double lucky we did, too! Not only did we learn (sadly) that Dinosaur Kingdom and the Haunted Castle were closed for the season (saving us a long disappointing drive), but my incredible string of fortune in getting to talk to the minds behind these extraordinary places continued when we came upon none other than Mark Cline, working with an assistant to try and roll an enormous parade float into the warehouse.

Mark welcomed us warmly and encouraged us to look around as much as we liked. I felt like a showgirl cut loose in a sequin factory. There were so many fascinating things piled one on top of another that it made my head spin.

After helping Mark and his assistant wrangle the enormous Rudolph themed float into position (it was surprisingly light for its size), Brooke and Aaron and I went outside and spent some time poking around the large storage yard that surrounds the warehouse. We passed pile after pile of unpainted fiberglass castings interspersed with figures that had obviously already enjoyed at least one dramatic turn and had been saved for repurposing, all of them waiting for further transformation under the skillful hands of the resident roadside attraction genius. Giraffes idled unconcernedly next to gigantic squirming tentacles, headless dinosaurs commingled with bloody demons of hell and a pile of spacecraft scraps lay heaped in the back of an old Toyota truck. Why, it was just like my home planet, only without any glitter!
After I'd had a chance to poke my head into every single nook and cranny of the storage yard, I finally headed inside to the workshop area to see what Mark was cooking up there. It felt a bit like unwrapping the ultimate piece of an Almond Joy - I'd been saving it, knowing it would be delicious, but also sensing it would all be over when I polished off the second morsel. The toppings on this confection, however, were a little more exotic than a single chocolate enrobed almond! The main area of the warehouse rises perhaps three stories high and houses an assortment of exotic creatures like the 14 foot high Frankenchicken...or Chickenstein...or whatever it's called! Unfortunately, we were not formally introduced. Shelves and cubbyholes are all filled to bursting with skulls and dismembered limbs and swags of holiday greenery. Perky little Christmas elves are nestled in with bloody zombie heads. Everywhere the florid imagination of Mark Cline is in evidence, and it felt like a lark to be able to bare witness to such. I'm so glad we stopped for a visit!

Not everyone, apparently, is quite as fond of Mark's work as we were. He told us a chilling story while we milled about in the warehouse of how his first castle had been burned by God-fearing zealots. After arriving one night to find his entire life's work consumed in flames, he discovered that his mailbox had been stuffed with a stack of religious tracts, a picture of Mark clipped from the local newspaper with the eyes burned out, and a written warning about fire consuming those things which the Lord did not love. Mark's tale of neighborly hate mongering was by far the spookiest thing I encountered on my visit. Put plainly, it scares the shit out of me that people could act that way to someone else. I find it way more horrifying than anything I saw at Enchanted Castle Studio.
Still, Mark seems to be undeterred in his passion, and even makes the most of the fire by saying it seems like it was necessary for him to get to where he is today. An extremely generous and big take on it, if you ask me.
But then I'm guessing you got to live pretty damn large to accomplish what Mark Cline hath wrought. After all, it's not easy being the Gepetto of our age - definitely not our father and mother's Norman Rockwell puppet master. So here's to doing what moves you, Mark Cline, even when it's risky!
As the sun began to set, we realized it was time to head back to Roanoke to pick up my Mark, flying in from Austin to join me on the remainder of my trip. We thanked Mark for being so generous with his time and his studio and set off toward Roanoke inspired and renewed.


In Miniature

For the next week, I spent time with my friends Aaron and Brooke at their home in Christiansburg, Virginia. They recently moved to Christiansburg from Austin (you may remember them from my summer trip to Graceland and Billy Tripp's Mindfield) and have been trying to settle into the strange amalgam land of southern Virginia ever since.

I'd come to Virginia first and foremost to pay a visit because I love spending time with those two, but I'd also come to help scare up some fun things to do in the vicinity, since I have a pretty good knack for that. And scare up fun things to do, we did! There was absolutely no shortage of worthy destinations that I could detect. (See mirror ball affixed to random roadside pine above.)

On Thursday, December 18, Brooke and I made a trip to Roanoke to visit a place referred to as Elvis City or Mini Graceland. Elvis City is an elaborate replica of Graceland and other Elvis-centric structures installed in the humble front yard of an otherwise unremarkable home in an old industrial neighborhood in Roanoke.

I had to stop and ask for directions at a local gas station when I became lost and the fellow I asked replied, "That old place? That's been there for years! I didn't even know you could go up and look at it! Funny what you never see in your own back yard." It's a sentiment I've heard expressed over and over in my travels. It's so easy to overlook the marvels right under your nose, isn't it?

After managing to locate our quarry, I parked the car so Brooke and I could polish off our appropriately themed convenience store lunch of Fritos and bean dip before setting out to take a turn around Elvis City.
It was fortuitous that Brooke and I had visited the real Graceland just months earlier so we could make informed comparisons as we looked around. I was particularly happy to note that curator Mike Epperly had gone to the trouble of installing seasonal blue Christmas lights lining the driveway, just exactly as I'd observed on my visit to the jumbo Graceland during Christmas of 1991. Brooke pointed out that the light fixture over the front door of the mansion had been faithfully reproduced for Mini Graceland, which tickled both of us. The Tupelo birthplace of Elvis was represented along with miniatures of various performance halls where the King had performed so triumphantly all those many years ago.

I'm sorry I wasn't able to meet the fellows that had so meticulously crafted the buildings and let them know how much I appreciated them. I guess not everyone wants to talk about what they do. Some folks like to quietly create and let the others make of it what they will.


Pearl of Wisdom, Pearl of Love

When I awoke Monday morning, I knew I had a long drive in front of me (9 hours on the road would put me at my destination in Christiansburg, VA, later that evening), but I also had a shining golden carrot to draw me eagerly forward: a visit to the topiary gardens of Pearl Fryar in Bishopville, South Carolina. (http://www.fryarstopiaries.com/)

On his website, Pearl freely invites anyone who'd like to to come by and visit the incredible, amazing, fantastic gardens surrounding his home - a wonderland of shrubs that he's patiently spent the past 24 years gently coaxing into abstract shapes of whimsy and graceful elegance. It's not like I need much of an invitation to poke my nose around such a place anyway, so I excitedly drove to Pearl's house and parked my car along the neatly manicured but otherwise unremarkable suburban street that leads to the gardens. Unremarkable except for the fact that most if not all of Pearl's neighbors have gotten in the spirit and proudly display crisply shaped shrubs of their own in their front yards.

As I emerged from my car, that wide, beaming smile that graces my visage when I experience true awe began its march across my lips. The gardens were a vision of geometry and shape and fluid motion! Precision and flow nestled side by side. I wandered about, oohing and aahing, basking in the quiet beauty and serenity of the place. I marveled as one extraordinary shape gave way to the next, punctuated with beautiful and contemplative sculptures that I later learned Pearl had made himself.

It felt a bit awkward to be traipsing around a stranger’s yard gawking the way I was, but I was soon set at ease when I saw a figure emerge from the house and amble over my way. It was, of course, none other than Pearl Fryar, graciously offering to share his time in addition to giving the gift of his gardens.
Pearl shyly and humbly welcomed me and offered to walk with me as I wandered about. As we strolled around the garden, Pearl shared his amazing outlook on life with me, espousing so many of the notions I myself hold dear about loving people and sharing art. I was absolutely smitten. He’s just so full of love! So committed to the concept that he's inscribed the sentiment "Love, Peace & Goodwill" in enormous crisply chiseled letters as the focal piece of the central garden (which you can see in the picture above). He loves what he does, he loves the people he shares it with and he loves the community that has given him support – so much so that he’s set up a scholarship fund for local students so he can give something back. Pearl even teaches a class on creativity at the local college, helping students find their own unique route to accessing and expressing their vision of the world.

To my great, great delight, Pearl paused after we had chatted a bit and said, “How about after you’re done taking your pictures, we go to the Waffle House for a cup of coffee?” I could hardly believe my fortune. I was thrilled! Not only would I have the chance to enjoy chatting with an artist who embodies so many of the values I cherish, but I could ply him with questions about how it felt to have such a singular vision and bring it to life. I eagerly seconded the idea and set about making a couple more quick circles through the grounds, attempting in vain to capture the feeling of the place with my humble camera. When I was satisfied that I had at least captured enough of the look to remind me of the passion of the place, I intercepted Pearl as he warmly greeted yet another carload of visitors and told him I'd meet him at the Waffle House.
It occurred to me as I drove toward the familiar yellow and black sign that I must be in heaven. On the road, at the cross hairs of my intersection with a dazzling beam of human love, swigging coffee from a mug at Waffle House (one of my favorite greasy grills). I don't know about your book, but in mine, the meter was reading peak experience.

I met up with Pearl and we entered the Waffle House just as a queue of eager and excited children readied themselves to walk out the door and engage in a visit with Santa who was busy preparing for them in the bed of a pickup truck parked in the parking lot. The Waffle House was a hive of activity and made for a lively and joyous setting for our visit.

Pearl and I spent a really pleasant hour or so chatting about how he came to be inspired, how he dove into an art form he knew nothing about to begin with (Pearl is completely self taught) and how he's dealing with the sudden notoriety he's gained following the release of a documentary on him and his work and several articles that have recently appeared in international publications. Pearl takes it all in stride, though, effortlessly returning again and again to giving to people, as much as he can. He's a jewel of a man, that Pearl. Even treated me to coffee! After saying a heartfelt goodbye, I looked in my rear view mirror as I turned out of the parking lot to see Pearl visiting with Santa and the kids in a happy melee. I resumed my journey toward my friends Brooke and Aaron's house in Christiansburg, Virginia, with a huge glowing heart and a sense of how magnificent and amazing this world can be. Heroine. Pure heroine for the soul.