October 28, 2018

HALLOWEEN 2018

Greetings internet traveler! I just want to commemorate this Halloween season with a rundown of how things have played out this year. It's been a different type of season for me because this is the first Halloween in nine years that I've had a full time, day-to-day job as opposed to a precarious freelance lifestyle. This has created the classic time vs. money conundrum. Last year I was able to review a different vintage Halloween cassette every single day in October, while this year work-related time constraints kept me from crossing off several major items from my annual list of Halloween goals. (I discovered a couple years ago that lists can help keep the Halloween magic from slipping through my fingers.)  Here's how it went...

1. Decorate house for Halloween 
    Done
 
2. Go on October trip to Toronto
3. Go to Chicago toy show
    Both were not prudent given my work situation  

4. Go to a Halloween event
    See below

5. See a horror movie in the theater
    Saw Halloween (2018)

6. Make my Halloween mood table
    No, but my house evokes a strong Halloween mood this year

7. Drive to a nearby town and go Halloween shopping
    Went to several

8. Play a Halloween themed video game
    I started playing Fortnite to bond with my son earlier this year. Then I kept playing. This October it became Halloween themed

9. Read an 80s horror paperback

   Didn't make the time 

10. Watch my pre-selected Halloween movie pile
Got through almost all of it. It included things like: WNUF Halloween Special, Trick 'r Treat, Hereditary, Channel Zero: Candlestick Cove, Ghost Stories, Ghost Story, Return of the Living Dead, Mandy, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Phantasm III and more

11. Have friends over to watch scary things 
   Yes, two friends came over on two different nights and watched IT (2017), and Carrie respectively
  
12. Create something with a Halloween theme
    See Below

13. Make a Halloween blog post
    Work in progress

14. Celebrate Halloween with my family
    Still to come 


It was a work-related errand that kicked off my "pre-Halloween" back in September. I wandered into Lowe's on a Wednesday morning and lit up when I saw a fresh display spooks sitting on hay bales. I picked up my very first life-size plastic skeleton, the kind that GLOWS IN THE DARK. The Lowe's manager lady gave a triumphant shout across the store and declared that I had bought the first Halloween item of the year. Other customers chuckled when I laid him on the floor in front of the cash register. In the parking lot yet another lady made a joke as I was putting him into the passenger seat of the truck. With expert timing I retorted, "Now I have someone to talk to." and a group of shoppers all laughed. It felt like I was in a movie where the happy-go-lucky character has the perfect skeleton buying experience while the opening credits pop on and off the screen.




A week later the skeleton was accompanied by a plastic light-up Jack-o-lantern. I found it at the Tulsa flea market and it has all sorts of sentimental value for me. First, my uncle stored his Matchbox cars and plastic toys in a treat bucket of this very same design. So I would dump out this pumpkin head during nearly every childhood visit to my grandmother's house. It also still has its $1.47 Woolco price tag stuck to it...


  

And best of all, the man who sold it to me said it was a classroom decoration for years. It has a masking taped label on the bottom that says "[Something] Boys & Girls, Salina, KS" I think Woolos (Wootos?) may be a teacher's name, and it's dated Oct. 26, 1975.
  
I was about to pay for it when I saw this on the floor under the table...




It's the Kay Lande and Wade Denning Halloween classroom record! It includes the song "Halloween" that we sang in grade school Music class, and was the official theme song for the holiday in my mind. The digital version of this has been my go-to every year since I discovered it on the legendary Scar Stuff blog. It's a great, not-too-scary album that I could play for my son when he was very little.

It's quite possible that this record was stored alongside the jack-o-lantern, only to emerge once a year into a room of lucky children. Those pumpkin eyes probably saw costumed kids dancing to the record on chilly Kansas mornings year after year. Sigh.


September also found me on the ebay, searching for collectible reminders of forgotten Halloween memories. This cloaked skeleton figure popped up...



It's not a toy, or a decoration per se, but more of a craft item for the doll collecting set. I closed the tab and moved on. Yet, obviously I own it now, so what happened? Well, it popped up in another one of my search results and I started thinking about it. It's from 1987, and it reminds me of the sort of thing that might have caught my attention when I was a kid on shopping days when my mom would drag me from store to store. Her stores catered to moms of course, so sometimes anything distantly toy-like was all there was to focus on during the endless visits. Halloween expanded the possibilities. It could be something like a stuffed black cat, or a felt monster, or a witch cake decoration. But I liked this concept of Halloween fun for moms and grandmas.

It still has a tag on it that mentions the Virginian sisters who made it. That caused me to imagine their whole brainstorming session behind the skeleton man. Two sisters sitting in Virginia in 1987 (or '86 if they had a lot of lead time) discussing their upcoming collectible Halloween dolls. This delights me. Then I wondered what I was doing on that day. I also wonder who bought it, and why it reeks of cigarette smoke and perfume.


I was also struck by his little flannel shirt sleeves. This clearly isn't a grim reaper, but an adult wearing a handmade costume of his own design. The bones look hastily painted on the smock, and I can't tell who's craftsmanship that reflects, the doll maker or the doll's. This flannel-and-jeans wearing guy was probably working the 1987 jaycee's haunted house. This portrayal of a homemade haunter also stuck with me. All of these thoughts motivated me to bid, and when I finally did, I grew terrified that I'd lose the auction. (Turns out I had no competition.)

A couple weeks later I got a call from good ol' Mike Becker of Funko fame. He said he was planning a Halloween fundraiser called Monster Mask-O-Raid, and he was seeking vintage Halloween photos, as well as artwork for the show. Thanks to my new job I have access to screen printing equipment, which is an art form that has eluded me all my life. In a moment of revelation, I decided to combine my desire to screen print with this art opportunity, and the spark of inspiration was none other than the flannel shirt-wearing grim reaper.



I spent a couple weeks brainstorming, sketching, and finalizing my design which turned into a series of die cut-style Halloween decorations featuring the skeleton man and his decorated neighborhood.
The night before my shipping deadline I bribed a college student with a pizza dinner in exchange for supervising me as I attempted to ink my first designs. (I had already called in other favors earlier in the week to get assistance with printing the transparent film and burning the screens.) The first batch was a success! My goal was to make a series of 25 sets of three.



After my pizza-fed student teacher left I started having trouble with the black ink. My sets dwindled as the ink bled and dried in all the wrong places. Feeling defeated, I decided to stop before I ruined all my orange prints. Then it dawned on me that if I could salvage just one of each design I could submit a single complete set of three. That's what I did, and here's how they turned out...





The mask on the kid is based on a real mask that I saw on one of my old blog posts about a Traveler's Novelty Catalog. (Bottom left)


Just like this Halloween season itself, I didn't live up to my own grand plan, but I'm still very happy with the outcome.

One thing that did turn out right was number four on my list...
4. Go to a Halloween event

There's a cave in Missouri that's been showing spooky movies inside it around Halloween. (In previous years they've put on a spook house in the cave, which also sounds neat.) Their sign is good too...

  

The exterior is pretty well decorated which gave us a jolt of Halloween magic...

 


I took my son to see Beetlejuice, which was his first time to see it. When it was over he looked around and said, "Oh, yeah, I forgot we were in a cave." It was a uniquely surreal experience. Water from the ceiling dripped on me several times. Maybe next year I'll see a horror show there. They screen The Descent (2005) on Halloween night.


Yesterday was another Halloween-ish time spent at a corn maze and pumpkin patch...




Those were my most notable events this month. The weather was super hot in early October, then it turned crazy cold and rainy a couple weeks ago. There were quite a few nice and gloomy days. These offered plenty of smile-inducing moments like picking up my pizza order at the gas station and seeing this guy hanging in the window. (Yes, I eat gas station pizza. Casey's tastes like a childhood pizza party.)






I also got my most popular ever Twitter post with this video and the caption:
"The Halloween decoration I hung outside my own window has legitimately terrified me three times now."
which is very true...



There was also a lot of shopping. Flea markets...




And Target, where you can find an official Mego Frankenstein action figure in the year 2018!..




Last year the big challenge was finding the plastic Skeleton Army that was being sold in some Dollar General stores. My twitter feed was full of boastful people lording them over me. I went to a half dozen locations before I was finally able to track them down in the next town over.  This year they followed with a Mummy Army and I was poised for another hunt, but apparently the success of the skeletons convinced them to put the mummies in nearly every location.




But most of my shopping was online. Like this amazing skeleton from Boss Fight Studio that I found thanks to a tip from a twitter pal, The Pathologist...

 

And this British import of the mini Stretch X-Ray! Thanks to a tip from another Twitter pal.


And yet another Twitter pal, Andy Nyman, sent me this superb dime store "Lochness Monster," also from the UK!



There's also these (which came from a store, now that I think about it.)


I couldn't resist the amazingly ridiculous, ridiculously amazing Savage World horror figures from Funko...


And light-up Halloween III pins from Camera Viscera...

 

But my favorite of all Halloween products this year is this perfect Beistle skeleton blanket from Creepy Company.



Welp, it's late and I should post this so I can get back to work. I'll leave you with some pics of graveyards and moons from this season.  Happy Halloween!


 


August 09, 2018

THE LOST ROAD TRIPS: PART III- NYC VIA TENNESSEE AND WILDWOOD, NJ

“The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll 

Starting a blog posts with a literary quote is a first for me, but I've been thinking about the connection between dreams and road trips. It's simple: I often dream about road trips, and road trips often feel like dreams. Certain destinations seem to have built a permanent spot in my dream world. There are also several imaginary locations that I revisit again and again.

It makes sense, considering the impact that travel has on our psyche. We interrupt the flow of our daily lives to carve out a journey that offers a constant stream of new stimuli, sometimes visiting places that stop at nothing to amuse and delight. When I'm on a trip I'm well aware that the day I'm living will likely be imprinted in my head until death. Trips are my mental benchmarks that help me sort out the years. It's no wonder that the places we visit almost take on a spiritual significance. (Neil Gaiman's book "American Gods" demonstrates this by making tourist attractions, House on the Rock and Rock City Gardens, literal meeting places for the gods.)

Somehow my 2016 excursion to New York was more dreamlike than most. The whole premise of the trip was a dream come true. I was invited to the NY Comics & Picture-Story Symposium to give a presentation on comic book ads and novelties. It's a modest monthly event that takes place at Parsons New School and is hosted by one of my favorite graphic novelists, Ben Katchor. (Ben's work usually centers around the fictitious history of objects, industrial design, and urban rituals. Sometimes he incorporates the old novelties that I'm so fond of. In fact, one of his books is called "Cheap Novelties: The Pleasure of Urban Decay." Nothing else can put me in the same headspace as Katchor's work.) The event was the perfect excuse for a road trip, so I brought my friend Chris along and we set out to make it as epic as possible.

Since epic was the goal, our first stop was Graceland.


I had never been before. Strange, I know, considering my taste for tourist traps, and that Graceland is located on a frequently traveled route. But the timing had never been right, and reports from other people had dampened my interest. For years all I'd heard is that it's smaller than you'd expect, you can't go upstairs, and it's expensive. These statements are not unfair. I had to remind myself that Graceland's cultural significance made up for the fact that I could have spent an entire day at a theme park for roughly the same price. 

The size wasn't a shock thanks to the many warnings, but what did surprise me was its sheer coolness. To me, the common notion of a dream house is usually less than dreamy. Mansions can feel cold and impersonal, but I found Graceland to be extremely cozy and inviting.


For those unfamiliar, the tour groups assemble at a visitor center across the highway from Graceland proper. The line for the bus corralled us in front of a printed backdrop of the Graceland gates. A photographer snapped souvenir photos that would be available for purchase at the end of the tour. Chris and I placed our bets as to how much those puppies would run. I guessed low. Turns out they were thirty-five bucks apiece. That's for a photo in front of an illustration that was taken across the street from the real thing. Our tour ended at closing time so the backdrop was empty and we snapped our own free photos; an act fueled by the rebellious spirit of Rock N' Roll.

There are plenty of complete Graceland photo tours on the web, so I've narrowed this down to my favorite rooms. First is the kitchen.


I'm so ready for all-over wood surfaces to make a comeback. I don't care if it's the real thing or flimsy paneling. The idea that rooms need to be "opened up" with light colors is a plague on our society. (I wouldn't mind the return of avocado appliances either.) Elvis's kitchen put me at ease. Nothing else could make him seem so human.


Even with all its '70s deco glitz, the TV room still has a basement-ness that keeps it humble. It seems surprisingly attainable now. The space is eighty percent sectional furniture and mirrors, and these days the triple screens are almost quaint.
  



In what was likely an effort to keep up with today's sophisticated consumer, each guest was issued an ipad to hang around their necks. The device had the ability to sense your location, and serve up a 360 degree interactive tour of your surroundings. I get the value in being able to touch on certain objects and learn more information, but it means that you're often staring at a Quicktime virtual view of the same room you're actually standing in.

The Jungle Room was the pinnacle of lush lounging. The next-level feature was a mini waterfall where you might expect to find a fireplace. This is yet another trend that I would welcome on a mass scale.



I noticed that someone had left a compact disc on a chair in the roped-off room. There's no way it was an accident. Could it have been an offering put there by a budding musician who sought a blessing from The King? When I walked back through the disc was gone. Possible explanations are: (A) the staff was very vigilant, (B) Elvis received his sacrifice, or (C) it's an Illuminati drop point.

There we go. Finally, some of my lighthearted commentary. I'm not sure why this post has started out so pensive and then price conscious. Anyway...

Truth is, the Elvis factor was pretty much secondary for me. I was so in awe of the environment that I had to remind myself that a modern legend had been cooped up in there, and even died right upstairs. But I'd pay theme park prices to see most any extravagant time capsule homes with shag carpet and green steel tanker desks.



By the way, I asked the attendant if she'd seen any ghosts walking around. Her reply was "no," but that's because she'd only worked there for two weeks.



You are correct if you guessed that we stood before the grave obnoxiously quoting the scene from This Is Spinal Tap, and harmonized a barbershop raga version of "Heartbreak Hotel."


Elvis's house closed, but the stores didn't. You could divide the souvenir shops into three tiers. The gift shop in the Graceland complex offered the officially ordained shopping experience. It's full of the highest order of Elvis gear at premium prices. Right next door in the Graceland Crossing shopping center was Souvenirs of Elvis Presley Boulevard. I was disappointed by it's carefully controlled inventory. It's like they had a couple dozen focus group-approved designs that were applied to the standard types of merchandise. 

Thankfully, I spotted Boulevard Souvenirs, not to be confused with— wait, actually being confused with Souvenirs of Elvis Presley Boulevard may have been their entire plan.



Boulevard Souvenirs was everything I look for in a souvenir shop: cramped, haphazard, and longstanding. There was plenty of stock that first arrived when Clinton was president.



The shop was full of items produced by risk-takers, items too unorthodox to be considered by the upper echelon of the Elvis estate. Seeking official endorsement would be a waste of everyone's time. I bought a foamcore stand-up Graceland that fell apart in my hands, and a poorly designed bumper sticker dated 1994. I've spent a couple hours in search of that goofy sticker hoping to scan it for this article. In the process I did find an old photo that I put on a friend's Facebook page, and that inadvertently connected me to another old friend who I hadn't talked to in a quarter century. So it was worth it.

Day two took us to the twin cities of Tennessee tourism, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. I've written about this wonderful part of the world before. Both towns experienced a boom in tourism when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1930s. Gatlinburg was first to develop as a tourist spot, and is more pedestrian friendly...

 

While Pigeon Forge has bigger attractions that are less concentrated...


 

We spent the bulk of our time in Gatlinburg. It's nestled in a valley beneath tree-covered hillsides which, to me, sets it apart from other tourist meccas like the Wisconsin Dells, Orlando, or Branson. I'm also sentimental about it because it's the first place I've ever been where multiple haunted walk-throughs were plopped right in the middle of a shopping district. To my joy, many businesses on the Gatlinburg strip had gone unchanged since my first visit as a teenager. So I made it a goal to take photos of things that looked more or less like they did thirty years prior.




Why stop there? Maybe some subtle Photoshopping can help bring out the 1985 in them...









 This one even has payphones and a neon animal print...



I love visiting places where the economy can support more than one freestanding marshal arts supply shop...



I just noticed that there's a mask from the movie Scream showcased the front window. This means that the Ghostface mask was a vital piece of their marketing strategy, selected for its potential to lure people inside. I appreciate that so much.


I've been sitting here thinking about this, and it occurred to me to check the Google Maps street view just to see if it's also visible there. (Admit it, you were thinking the same thing.) Turns out, the Google view is four years older than my photo, but look, there it is! And it's on some sort of canvas!


Now I'm looking up Ghostface mask trivia. Four years before the movie Scream, the original Ghostface design was part of a 1992 line called "Fantastic Faces" by Fun World, the same company responsible for one of the worst Halloween cassettes of all time. The mask was originally called “The Peanut-Eyed Ghost.” There's a dispute over who created the initial design between former employee Brigitte Sleiertin-Linden and her former boss, Alan Geller. (Geller also claims he thought Scream was a student film when he licensed it. This contradicts Wes Craven's recollection of lengthy negotiations. I believe Brigitte.)




Anyway.

One of my favorite things on earth is Gatlinburg's one and only World of Illusions. I've written about it before, but it's been ten years and my feelings have changed. It straddles the line between monumental rip-off and national treasure. Sixty-eight percent of its Trip Advisor reviews are rated "Terrible." But the following one star review is exactly why I'd give it five stars... "It looks like it was built 50 years ago and not touched since then."



There are plenty of "4D" screen-driven attractions these days. Isn't there room for three dimensional figures that move with the assistance of loud, oily motors? If anything, it serves as a historic record of how special effects and magic tricks used to be done: with special lighting, mirrors, and wires. But its greatest mystery is how it has endured the decades. It has to be one of the last of its kind, and I fear its demise.

 



To entice foot traffic World of Illusions deceptively fills their spacious lobby with "hot" characters of the day i.e. Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Padawan Anakin, Frodo (formerly Mini-Me), even a makeshift Neo and Trinity from The Matrix. It's like a history of summer blockbusters. However, on the inside the latest property is probably Star Trek: The Next Generation.



The concept of combining a wax museum with magic trickery sounds great, but World of Illusion's greatest weakness is the shockingly short duration (with an arguably disproportionate admission price.) Compared to other local museums like Ripley's, or Guinness World Records, the number of (working) exhibits are minuscule. The first time I completed it, I thought I had walked out a fire exit by mistake. There's not even a final gift shop, you're jettisoned into a service ally. I'm guessing it takes about seven minutes for the average visitor to take it all in, and that's if they study the toy magic tricks and printed illusions on the walls, including the "magic eye" poster they probably bought at a nearby shop in the '90s. We camped inside for nearly an hour, soaking up ever detail and documenting everything. I roamed from entrance-to-exit again and again, thrilled to exist inside that dark hallway.

The exhibits were behind glass and some were so dim it was difficult to see. It felt like struggling to make out images in dreams. To my delight, at least half of the exhibits were spooky in nature. There's Frankenstein, a werewolf, and at least two vampires, one of which was part of a "Dracula to bat" room...



The "new Vampire/Werewolf Illusion" advertised out front was unfortunately, an update to the classic "Girl to Gorilla" sideshow act...



 There was also a grim reaper wearing a re-purposed Batman suit!


But that's not even the best thing about it. When the face turned human, it was revealed to be Charles Bronson! That's not a joke, or a coincidence, it's a former figure from one of the town's defunct wax museums.  I repeat, they had Charles Bronson as a grim reaper in a Batman suit!



But that's not the only formerly-unemployed wax figure. They tried to pass Alan Alda off as a Doctor Frankenstein! Didn't even take off the dog tags! Was this the product of a masterful sense of humor, or did the management think that customers would be too moronic to notice?


Photo borrowed from a Flickr user named "touristtrap"

The monsters aren't nearly as creepy as Superman using his powers to secretly see Louis Lane's unmentionables.



It would seem that once E.T.'s hot streak was over, he was painted green and incorporated into a Star Trek exhibit. And people complain about the eight dollar admission?!



Once again, Elvis Presley was there to entertain us in the form of a singing bust. A looped medley of "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" echoed relentlessly from a damaged recording. Speaking of Audio, one of the most amazing things about the place is the recorded "barker" that they pipe out onto the sidewalk. It's clearly a product of the 1970s, and I applaud them for ignoring the inaccuracies and just pressing "play" every day.



If you crave a further look at the World of Illusion, here's a recent video tour that's pretty good.


Late afternoon arrived too soon, and we still needed to get a lot closer to the coast in order to stay on schedule. We agreed to explore one more wood-covered block before heading back to the car.


My dreams recurrently involve finding neat little shops in mysterious towns. World of Illusions had already put me in a dream state, but for a moment I truly questioned whether I was awake as I saw an out-of-reach store called Doc's Magic Castle. Stores in my dreamworld are often inconveniently located, showing up on precarious hills, or other impossible places. I frequently arrive at closing time, or during a blackout. (These frustrations don't match the waking realization that none if it ever existed.)


We navigated a three story mall that never abandoned the beloved diagonal wood trend of the 70s era. Passing a nearly empty arcade on my way up supported my dream theory.


We found the facade of the magic shop, and to my thrill Doc's Magic Castle looked like a castle. However— the front gates were locked, and the lights were out. Of course it was closed, just like a dream.



Then a mysterious voice from inside said, "Give me a moment and I'll open that for you." It wasn't a magic trick, the clerk was getting ready to open! The place sprang to life quickly and a few other customers followed us in. Doc's was a neat magic shop with an extra layer of Gatlinburg aesthetic, like a dragon that could breath smoke. We eavesdropped on a boy with a heavy Tennessee accent who apparently performed street magic for tips. Leaving that scene was tough, but we had miles to tend to.



Back on the road, it wasn't long before darkness fell and sprinkles of rain followed. The moment was right for me to break out my now-ancient MP3 player, pre-loaded with content for a variety of situations. For general fair-weather travel, I had a K-Tel collection of Truckin' songs. For the long stretches of nothing I had entire four-hour episodes of "Rick Dee's Weekly Top 40" from the 1980s. For the rainy, eerie climb over the Kentucky Appalachians I had a real gem set aside.

In 2003 WFMU launched the 365 Days Project where an audio oddity was posted every day for a year. The overall experience changed me as a human, but one of my favorite discoveries was a found cassette recording of a portion of a radio show called "Is Paul Dead?" ( a link to the audio is on the web page.)  It's a lengthy exploration of the legend of Paul McCartney's death coverup. The host goes well beyond the common "clues," and delves into wildly imaginative leaps of logic to support the conspiracy. The content is fascinating enough, but the tone and production value brings it to a chill-inducing level. The music places the recording sometime during the late '70s. The host's earnest delivery, and the music bed that includes the Close Encounters soundtrack and Tomita's "Bermuda Triangle" album give it the same vibe as those documentaries on unexplained phenomenon that were popular in the decade. When you pop it on you think, "This might be fun for a couple minutes," and a half hour later you're disappointed that it's over. It's one of my all-time favorite pieces of art.

Day three was reserved for the New Jersey coast. One yet-to-be-visited place that had been on my radar for a long time was the Wildwood boardwalk, former home of the legendary Dracula's Castle dark ride which burned down in 2002.

I had heard that things don't open until May, but it was the last week of April, so what's one week? It turns out that one week was the difference between open hotels, and no open hotels, between a town and a ghost town.  Here's the scene we found...


 

 


It was cool in a Scooby-Doo kind of way, but it took some getting used to.

Places that were open included: a couple t-shirt shops doing prep work for the following week, a toy shop, an arcade full of crane games, and two pizza joints. As Chris and I tried to determine the best pizzeria, workers from each place walked out of their empty buildings to woo us. We were each handed menus, and told about VIP discounts, free refills and other amenities. The decision was paralyzing.  I don't remember what finally coaxed us inside one of them, but I feel bad that we dealt such a blow to the other place.


I decided to find the Caribbean hotel where I'd tried to make a reservation. It was mid-century gorgeous.


But somehow, in all my years of nostalgia-obsessed intenetting, I never learned that the entire town is a sanctuary for 50s and 60s hotel design! It was mind-blowing, block after block of "doo wop" architecture (also known as Googie, or Populuxe style). The area is known as the Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District where the structures are saved and restored by the The Wildwood Doo Wop Preservation League.











How had we stumbled across a place like this? Again, it felt like— one big dream!

As we traveled closer to our painfully contemporary hotel, there was time for a final stop to see Lucy the Elephant in Margate City, New Jersey. This had been on my roadside bucket list for decades because it appears in nearly every book and documentary about wacky roadside architecture. Built in 1881, it's one of the oldest of its kind. It was visited by tourists back when road trips required horses.


We made it to New York City with several hours to suck up some sights. Everyone was taking photos of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, but I took this picture, just in case nobody thought to photograph the inside of a Times Square souvenir shop that day.



Elvis himself appropriately made a final appearance in the form of a costumed impersonator posing for tips. I didn't know he was there until I heard him angrily accusing us of taking unpaid photos of him. Chris defended us and a minor verbal spat broke out. As he walked away he flipped us off and told us to, "Eat a dick."

It was perfect! I mean, come on, that's not just dream-like, that's the kind of stuff you'd write into a novel. That's a full blown literary theme! We went from visiting hearth and home of the real Elvis Presley, to a run down robot of him in Gatlinburg, to a bitter New Yorker insulting us personally. Clearly, the trip had reached a turning point.

I gave my talk and had a blast. As a college instructor I'd forgotten what it was like to have an audience that's interested, enthusiastic, and there on their own volition.

On our last full day on the road I wanted to check in on one of my favorite little tourist spots, Cave City, Kentucky. The biggest (man made) attraction there, Guntown Mountain, was teetering on the brink of collapse the last time I'd been through. We discovered the place had shut down after changing the name to "Funtown Mountain" and some failed renovation efforts. Consequently, what I once described as "the perfect souvenir shop"(in this old post) was boarded up. The mood turned bleak, and as if on cue, dark storm clouds began to roll in. (Thankfully, as of this summer the place is operating again under the name Froggett's Guntown Mountain.)



Rather than return to the interstate I wanted to investigate the defunct Mammoth Cave Wax Museum that went up for auction in 2012.






It opened in the 70s and had a mini golf course, an ice cream shop, a tank of fake sharks, and an alpine village called Pixie World. There was also a sizable apartment for the management to live on site. I used to fantasize about buying it. The owners were hoping they could pass the torch along to someone else, but I heard the contents were sold to various buyers, ensuring its demise. Sheesh, maybe following up the Guntown Mountain discovery with another grim stop wasn't a great idea. Elvis's grave was cheerier than this.

Speaking of which, yet again Elvis had a poetic connection to our journey. His statue had been in there for decades. Just as he had left the building, it seemed like he had left us to face our daily lives once again.


 Photo from 2011 by Flickr user jacobkrejci

(Here's a video tour of the Wax Museum grounds that's made even better by some abandoned Halloween decorations.)

The horizon was flickering with wild lightning when we saw a sign for a rock shop and mystery house four miles away.



Was it worth an eight mile round trip knowing it would be closed, and the storm was about to rage? Of course it was. As we pulled into the driveway the storm let loose.


The fun was over prematurely, like waking up from a good dream before you're ready. Everything around us was closed, dark, soaked, or out of business— except for the combination Long John Silver's and A&W! The lobby was a welcome dry refuge, heavy with a familiar deep-fried aroma. They cooked me up a batch of chicken planks (as I still call them) and a side of complimentary krums. We sat in the otherwise empty dining room devouring our trays of batter-dipped comfort as the storm gave the windows a thrashing.

With precision timing, the after-dinner skies grew merciful. Chris surveyed the patio, looking like an Edward Hopper painting.


The ride to our next bed was smooth and clear. Once again we were living the dream.