Solomon’s Castle, a palace hidden in a Florida swamp

Solomon's Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.
Solomon’s Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.

ONA, Fla.
There are roadside attractions that are centres of power, author Neil Gaiman says. His book American Gods takes us to a few of them, and we’ve visited some ourselves, like the House on the Rock and Rock City, and they are truly powerful in their kitsch.

Then there’s Solomon’s Castle, which isn’t in American Gods, but easily could be.

The silver palace in the middle of a Florida swamp is the brainchild of writer, sculptor, and lifelong eccentric Howard Solomon, who built the castle’s outer walls of old typesetting plates, news-side-in. There are metal-sheathed guards, and a full-size boat in the boggy “moat.” Everything, from the stained glass to the strange menagerie we will encounter inside, was created and installed by Solomon over decades. He died in August at 82, but his wife still lives in the castle.

Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.
Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.

Our tour guide, Ricky, is scripted within an inch of his life, and he spends an hour blasting facts like buckshot. He kind of warns us about the puns.

It seems Solomon was some sort of three-dimensional-word genius, weaving language and sculpture and play to justify his junk collecting.

Ricky shows us a three-foot sculpture of a woman called Busting Out. She’s just been released from prison and she represents freedom, he says. He tells us what old car part and found treasures went into making her, ending with the bicycle chains that are her hair.

“We call this a permanent permanent,” Ricky says with an eyebrow wiggle.

Howard Solomon's garboyle.
Howard Solomon’s garboyle.

Next up is a half-size truck that Solomon let his grandchildren play in. “The fish market truck is covered with the same stuff the castle is built with, only it’s painted black. Howard said it would take three people to operate this thing: Somebody to steer it, another one to push it, another one to run alongside barkin’ at the tires.”

There’s a selection of guns and rifles, each with their own pun. “I asked Howard, how come this rifle’s got a clock in there?” Ricky says. “He said, ‘It’s a Minuteman rifle. … It’s for killin’ time’.”

It would take days to examine the curiosities Solomon created in this sanctuary that he called his time castle, where it’s okay to touch things so long as you’re respectful, and you can get up close to see each piece of flaking rust or to peer more closely at masterful wooden reproductions of classical art.

Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.
Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.

I ask Ricky where Solomon found his material and he laughs. “Anywhere and everywhere. People’ll’d bring him stuff.” Then he’s back on script.

“The garboyle over there, guys, I had not a clue what it was when i got to the castle. The garboyle is 800 pieces of metal. They say it lays eggs, it eats the eggs, and then it becomes … eggstinct.

“Now let me introduce you over here to Lionel.” Without skipping a beat he’s moved on to the life-size metal lion that’s leaning toward us. “Now, if Howard was here, he’d let you know it’s got two glass eyes up front and two steel balls in the back. Then he’d ask you, ‘Know what this is?’ “ He’s holding up a baseball bat that was lying at Lionel’s feet. “No, ladies, it’s not a ball-buster. Howard would let you know.

“That’s the Lion’s Club.”

Lionel, who comes with his own club.
Lionel, who comes with his own club.

The Lion’s Club indeed. If you have the stomach for the puns, Solomon’s Castle is tucked away in the backroads of inland Florida. We had an adventure trying to see this place five years ago and we’ve been wanting to come back ever since. It was absolutely worth the wait.
4533 Solomon Rd., 863-494-6077

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Mermaids and chemical warfare at Yeehaw Junction

YEEHAW JUNCTION, Fla.
It was hot as steam pipes outside the car and though we’d just stopped for a pee break, the building-cum-roadside-attraction was so cool I was wandering around taking pictures.

“Mom. Mom. Mom mom mom.” I’ve explained to him for more than 20 years that it just has one syllable. Say it the one time and see what happens. Maybe he’ll get there. In the meantime: “Mom! Did your bathroom have a naked mermaid? Because mine had a naked mermaid.”

It’s what you’d expect an establishment at a crossroads that was in the early 20th century a “supply and recreation centre for cattle drovers,” which is a nice way for a big historical marker to say: “brothel.”

The Desert Inn was a gathering place for local farmers near Yeehaw Junction — also called Jackass Junction because patrons rolled up on their burros — with separate rooms for African Americans and Seminole aboriginals. There are hundreds of crossroads like this in America. A few dozen have historical markers.

I turned to Google for more because I intended to write a fluffy post about the brothel, and discovered that Yeehaw was exposed to a lot more than pioneer-era bosoms. It was exposed to biological warfare.

Secret tests were performed here in the 1960s, and the government would maintain — will maintain — that the chemical agents sprayed on the area were harmless. At least two sets of tests were conducted over Yeehaw during the Cold War, as Project 112 sought to find ways to stunt the growth of Russian wheat. The trials were secret till 2002, when a senator demanded an inquiry into decades of rumour after revelations by CBC Evening News.

Puccinia graminis tritici, or TX, was sprayed from F4 fighter jets over Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of Britain and Canada — off the coast of Newfoundland and “southwestern Canada,” which probably referred to Suffield, Alta. — during the joint U.S., UK and Canadian program. TX is toxic to plants and can spark cancer in animals but the government said it was harmless to humans over the long term. But anyway, the point of the tests was to see whether the chemicals would kill plants, not people. People were secondary, and anyway there have never been more than around 240 in Yeehaw.

TX is wheat rust, “a fungus which kills wheat, and is an offensive test if you want to take the breadbasket away from the enemy,” Michael Kilpatrick, the Pentagon’s director for employment health support, told the Sun-Sentinel soon after the news broke in 2002.

There’s big sky out here on the flat land where a fighter jet would look out of place, now or in the 1960s. It’s incredible to me the testing was kept secret for so long. But I can be naive that way.

You can find food and drink at Yeehaw Junction, which is along old Highway 60 between Orlando and Tampa, but if you find special companionship you’ll have to take them somewhere other than the now-shut-down motel out back.

My bathroom didn’t have a naked mermaid, by the way.

My bathroom mannequin scared me so bad I nearly peed on the floor, which clearly defeats the entire purpose the of thing.

The black angel and wild rumpus of Iowa City

The black angel of Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City.
The black angel of Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City.

IOWA CITY, Iowa – “We’re off to have a wild rumpus!” declared one of the Aunties. “Would you like to join us?”

We were in the cemetery to see the black angel. She is tall – nine feet atop her four-foot pedestal – and beautiful. Her face is sad, chin turned slightly downward, her wings spread out at an angle. She is at once menacing and comforting. Legend says if you kiss her, you will die instantly.

The Auntie who spoke to us had a wide, friendly grin. The other stood shyly back. The young woman with them had a face shaped like the angel’s except her round blue-grey eyes were laughing. Soft brown hair fell straight down her back and over tattooed arms. The lone man in the group had his hair tied back and his long, full beard was not unkempt. Each young adult had a little girl on their back and two more – all of them blond and appropriately wild – wove around the party eager for the rumpus to begin.

Two friends pay their respects.
Two friends pay their respects.

Though we said we couldn’t join them – we were four hours from Omaha and it was nearly sunset – we let our own blond Wild Thing out to meet the menagerie that walked with them – a tiny dog named Penny and two waist-high wolfhounds, Tilly and Dashiel, who wanted nothing more than to lick a fresh baby face.

“But if you go this way,” the Auntie told us, swinging her arm (the one without the beer) toward the far side of the graveyard, “you’ll find a white angel reclining in the tall grass. You should see her, too.”

Trevor and I drove on ahead, leaving Melani and Jilly to join the rumpus.

“We might have lost them,” I sighed. “We could turn a corner and just never see them again.”

The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.
The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.

And yet, they turned up at the white angel shortly after we did. All the little girls were on their feet by then, zigzagging around headstones and perching on angels.

iowa“We call this Poet’s Corner,” the quiet Auntie told me. “Engel was a professor at the University of Iowa. Justice was a Pulitzer Prize-winner.”

The adventurers had gone on without us, meandering to a hill overlooking a devastatingly sad mausoleum with the statue of a mother in a rocking chair looking wistfully at her lost child. The first Auntie hushed everyone so we could hear the owl hooting from his home high up in a sycamore tree.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to Melani, “but if we’re going to make it to Omaha tonight, we have to leave.”

“But first follow the road to the left,” the Auntie advised. “There’s another person there, lying on her grave with her arms crossed. You’ll want to see her, too. Don’t worry about getting lost on the way out. Just remember: The black angel is always looking toward the exit.”

They waved us off as we said our thank yous for the company and the tour. We drove away, but their wild rumpus went on.

iowa

Road Trip 2013: Roadside preparedness

20130712-120718.jpgRoad Trip 2013—Erie, Chicago, Colorado Springs, San Jose, Portland—starts in six days.

I am prepared, if preparation means thinking about what I might throw in my backpack and when I’m going to get around to having Joe the Truck washed. I’m completely prepared, if prepared also means unlocking all of North America on the Roadside America iPhone app.

This thing is really neat. With a toddler around, Mel hasn’t had the time and energy she usually has to map out cool-to-us stuff off the highway and this app will know where we are and where the nearest Biggest Thing is. I’ve been playing with it for two days and marking the stuff we’ve already seen.

What’s nifty about that is how much stuff we discovered without Roadside America—the stuff we have chanced upon over the years, like the scarecrows in Nova Scotia, the open range in North Dakota and the set of Corner Gas in Saskatchewan on the last week of filming. Those are the treasures that make road-tripping worth it—slamming on the brakes and turning around in a farmer’s drive to go back to the chainsaw artist whose show starts in 15 minutes.

I’m excited to have Roadside Attraction in my back pocket, but the best adventures are discovered out of the corner of our eyes, decided upon with a nod and a smirk.

The adventure starts in six days.

In which we are nearly led astray by buzzards

CLERMONT & ONA, Fla. – Of all our planned roadside attractions, the monster-truck eco-tour was the one I was most looking forward to: a 45-minute tour of a cattle and citrus farm, seen from the world’s largest 4×4.

I’ll spare you every delightful detail (“We have 350 cows and just seven bulls, each of them named L-L-L-Lucky.”) through mud and sand and across cow paths, past gators and banana spiders and into an angry thunderstorm that nearly drowned out our chipper guide, Chris.

Florida is all about the thunderstorms. As on the Prairies, you can see it coming. You have a few minutes or half an hour to prepare, tighten your seatbelt or take cover. Often you can see patches of lbue sky in the black cloud and you just hold on and hope the wind is in your favour.

* * *

Solomon’s Castle appealed to each of us. Trevor, because he’s pretty much up for anything, Melani because it’s a castle, and me because it’s made from discarded objects including old printing plates.

Our GPS, Alpha, loved it because it meant he could take us on back roads and threaten to get us lost.

The rain tapered off as we pulled away from the monster truck. We drove along the wide highway for a bit, past fruit and gator-meat stands, a gas station and a strip mall before turning left onto a well-maintained side road. Citrus groves were interspersed with fields of cattle. I’d never thought of Florida as cow heavy, but with 1.1 million head of cattle, this is the third-largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi.

Trevor spotted the herd of deer in some scrub on the other side of the ditch. “I bet the citrus farmers love these,” I said sarcastically and wondered whether the fences were good enough to keep them at bay. Moments later a deer with huge black eyes nodded as we went past. She was on the orchard side of the fence. Farther along, two wild boar dodged out of the ditch and into the tall grass.

“Ahead, turn right,” Alpha instructed, putting us on a narrower road where the trees creeped closer to the asphalt. The clouds had somewhat lifted and we couldn’t see lightning any longer, but the low growl of thunder penetrated the closed windows. The car was very quiet.

The trees fell away, opening to an empty field ringed by an uneven fence and more than a dozen dark silhouettes.

“Buzzards,” Melani breathed.

My foot lifted from the gas pedal. The buzzards turned as one to watch us approach. One lifted his head, as though he were about to speak. We were almost past them, my head turned sideways because I would not look away.

“Turn right now!” Alpha commanded and my foot, which had hovered over the gas, came down hard on the brake. The buzzards lifted, disappeared.

“Umn, yeah,” I said as I threw it into reverse. “Let’s go where the buzzards hang out. Because that’s a good idea.”

And, yes, the next road was narrower still, pitted and uneven. Branches hung over us from both sides, Spanish moss reached toward the windshield; the road curved. A faded sign promised Solomon’s Castle just ahead and – here! – the white gates. We finally approached.

Solomon’s Castle. Reopening in October. Bet it’ll be spectacular.

Classic cars, brights lights and Scripture

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. – I whine and moan about places like Virginia Beach and Ocean City because I believe if you’re going to walk on the tacky side, you should cross all the way over.

Jackson Hole didn’t quite get it. Wisconsin Dells really, really did. If you like your flashing lights and your nearly unbearable kitsch with a side of Bible, try Pigeon Forge on for size.

Titanic museum.

We knew we were in for something special when we came across a museum shaped like the Titanic – but that was just the tip of the iceberg. It was full dark, and by that, I mean the sun had gone down. It’s just like midday 24/7 in Pigeon Forge.

Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was on at the Miracle Theatre. A Scriptures-themed hotel offered camel rides. A warehouse with a two-storey sign advertising a Bible sale was still open.

“It’s Wisconsin Dells on Bible crack,” Melani said.

The cowboy outlet (because everyone needs a cowboy) was also still open. It was nearly 11 p.m. So was the As Seen on TV store. There were lit-up waterslides and rides and miniputts.

Imagine miles and miles of this during a rod run.

Then we started to notice the classic cars. One was cool. Two was really neat. Then there were five or six and then dozens, parked in lots along the street, facing the road. Some had their hoods open. Some were for sale or trade. Owners sat on the grassy median in folding chairs, like a tailgate party without the tailgate. What turned out to be early comers for a Grand Rod Run went on for miles and miles – there were hundreds of classic cars along our cruising lane. There was just too much to look at, especially through our travellers’ exhaustion.

We passed a flashing neon Jesus sign o our way to the Quality Inn. Inside the most luxurious room of our trip (at a whopping $68, tax in, for fireplace, fridge and microwave and Jacuzzi tub), Candi the housekeeper had left the Bible open to a Psalm wherein God was very, very angry. Maybe he was just fed up with all the lights.

Oh my God. Natural light.