I had been so tired, so cranky and of such single purpose of mind the previous evening when I'd pulled into the Best Western in Lincoln, Illinois, it came as a complete surprise when I walked out the door of the motel the next morning and discovered the World's Largest Wagon (I am not kidding!) sitting right in front of the hotel. Lincoln, Illinois, was named after Abraham Lincoln before he became president, back when he was merely a venerable lawyer for the region. So naturally the world's largest covered wagon needed to include Abe, but in so doing sends a horrible message about the appropriateness of texting while driving [insert rim shot here - thanks for the wonderful punchline, Mac!]
In reading about Lincoln Illinois on Wikipedia the previous evening, I'd stumbled upon a connection that I hadn't been aware of and was thrilled to discover: the outsider artist Henry Darger of whose work I am so fond spent most of his early formative years at the Lincoln Developmental Center (LDC); a state institution for the developmentally disabled founded in 1877. I researched the LDC and it was just a few miles down the road, but it had been closed in 2002. From what little is known about Henry Darger (say DAR-grrrrr), it sounds as though his childhood was extremely bleak, and most likely informed the ultra bizarre ideation that appears in his life's work. I wondered if any of that flavor would remain in the very buildings he frequented and decided to take my chances trespassing and do a little driving around the grounds of the abandoned asylum. Unsurprisingly, what I could see without breaking and entering wasn't really all that compelling - mostly a lot of very old brick buildings with plywood nailed into the window sockets. I saw several vehicles parked around the grounds, indicating to me that security guards or AHJs (Authorities Having Jurisdiction) were about and I didn't really have a good story about what I was doing there.
I decided to instead fan out into the adjacent neighborhood and get a feel for the town itself and was immediately rewarded by finding a wonderfully creative Halloween display (please note bloody foot with tennis shoe at right).
Right next door sat a house where you wouldn't have been surprised to see Norman Bates strapped to the creepy chair on the front porch. I didn't get the sense that the tenants had decorated for Halloween, either.
I headed out of town after a bit more meandering, following a grid of little county roads headed toward the town of Fairbury. In one of the tiny towns along my route, I spotted a giant ball of string in a store window and stopped to photograph it. The establishment was closed and offered no clue as to anything, really, so I asked a young gal that was busy smoking a cigarette in the doorway if she knew anything about the nascent roadway attraction featured in the window. She shrugged and offered, "It belongs to my landlord. He bought it awhile back and has displayed it several different places in town over the years and now it's ended up here."
"Do you happen to know how old it is or where it came from?" I queried hopefully, fishing for any little shred of useful information.
"Oh it's old, alright, but I don't have any idea how old." Not even a trace of curiosity in her voice. As I headed back to my car, I wondered how on earth you could have a giant ball of string sitting in the front window of your building and not have pumped the landlord for all available details! I guess it's because my sensibilities tend to be located out on the long thin taper of the bell curve.
After stopping for a late lunch of broasted chicken in Fairbury, I asked my vivacious waitress if she could tell me how to find the bouncy horses that were rumored to be about 3 miles out of town. She posed the question to a trio of ball capped elders swilling coffee in the corner and one of them confirmed that it was indeed about 3 miles out of town and then paused and said, "You realize them horses ain't real, dont'cha?" In my best Gloria Swanson voice I parried, "Do I really look to you like the sort of woman who would be out searching for real horses?" The waitress cracked up and I felt the mettle of the roadside encounter rise in my blood.
Sure enough, when I was about 3 miles west of town on a lonely stretch of the blacktop, I spotted a row of plastic horses frozen in mid-leap, lined up in a single row in the middle of a corn field. There were all sizes and shapes and most had come from those glorious toys that were around when I was a kid that allowed a rider to mount his or her valiant steed and rock raucously about on four huge springs. The little bit of story I could glean about the horses is that one of the steeds had mysteriously appeared one night many years ago, and then always under the cover of darkness, many more had joined the pioneer pony, one by one, over the years. /
I was once again reminded of the power of good art to inspire people long after the leap of faith that brings it into being has been made. Did Stanley Marsh 4 ever envision that plastic horses would one day appear in a far off cornfield in Illinois in tribute to his marvelous gift to mankind, the Cadillac Ranch? I doubt it. Which makes his vision and determination all the more generous.
I drove west as the sun began to set, settling in Joliet (a southern suburb of Chicago) for the night so I'd be well situated to drive to O'Hare the next day and pick up my friend Mac. We had trouble to get in to, after all, and it was about time to get started.