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.


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.

Rockin’ Rock City

Rock City got its start in the 1930s. Eight hundred barns were painted thusly, as advertising.

ROCK CITY, Tenn. – A great battle was fought here.

If you think I’m talking about the Chickamauga campaign of the Civil War or you’re thinking of the aboriginal Trail of Tears, you’re well on your way to an A in American history, but you fail this quiz. If you know that Rock City on Lookout Mountain is the site of the climactic battle in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, you win.

The audio book, read by George Guidall, has been our road-trip tale for a few months, and we finished it shortly before arriving in Atlanta. The House on the Rock also features prominently in American Gods, and we went there two years ago, so it made sense to bookend the story with a trip to Rock City.

Fat Man’s Squeeze. Do not try this at home.

We visited on the first cloudy day of our vacation. Also, it was Wednesday (Wow! Double points!), so we didn’t have to share the park with too many people.

Rock City is like … Mother Nature was hanging around with her friends, maybe sipping a little sherry, and she was all, “Let’s topple a few boulders here. Let’s make some caves and some superskinny passageways, and plant some big-ass trees and – you want a waterfall? I can do that.”

The gnomes came later.

Stone pathways lead you around and into the mountain. On a quiet, cloudy Wednesday, you won’t knock elbows with anyone else, which is a blessing, because there isn’t a lot of elbow room, especially if you walk through Fat Man Squeeze. It’s at least two storeys tall but only a foot and a half wide. And you wouldn’t want a group of schoolchildren underfoot while you’re going through the Goblin’s Underpass.

Under and over stone bridges and after the 1,000-ton balanced rock, past dozens of varieties of trees and shrubs and ferns and flowers, along the way you come to the Fairy Caverns. The rocks here sparkle and glitter. Deep inside the 200-million-year-old mountain, it is cool and damp. Here is where the gnomes begin in earnest, mining in the crevasses or housed in black-light-painted dioramas, they fish and farm and –

The gnomes you’ll meet in American Gods.

“The drunken gnomes!” Melani exclaims. “This is where Laura killed Loki. Over here’s where they stashed her body.”

The 1,400-foot walking tour isn’t over. Across a swinging bridge is the attraction’s showcase: A 140-foot waterfall pouring from Lover’s Leap. If you go on, to the edge of Lover’s Leap, you can see seven states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

You can picture a battle being fought here between the old gods and the new, a fight that was the climax of a crazy, two-man con. A place like Rock City is always great, but it’s wonderful with a story attached.

Lover’s Leap. And what a leap it is.

There’s plenty of parking South of the Border

Pedro, eye-catching in his offensiveness.

But wait, you’re saying: You seem to have some Ocean City anger, but I thought you liked tacky.

SOUTH OF THE BORDER, S.C. — I do like tacky. But I like a very specific kind of tacky. I loved – loved! – South of the Border.

This South Carolina tourist attraction spitting distance (literally, if you’re a skilled spitter) from North Carolina wants desperately to be Wall Drug of the East. And I want to be fair: Maybe it was, once. Maybe it was earlier this summer. But when we pulled into the sprawling complex, we had our choice of parking spaces.

Most importantly, this meant we could park in the shade. Two years ago, when I was waiting for my Charleston Gullah article to be published, the travel editor told me no one wants to holiday in the South in the summer. I shrugged, because I love the heat.

This Deep South heat is like nothing I’ve experienced. Getting out of the air-conditioned Joe (here, they call it an “economy truck” and “truck” has at least two syllables) is like stepping into Hades. The heat pushes against you like a succubus. It throbs against your temples. It slides up your back and under your hair, making your head heavy. Within 90 seconds, fatigue drains your will to breathe.

Parking spaces: Take your pick under the shadow of the giant sombrero.

And so we were well pleased to be the only tourists at South of the Border, because we could park in the shade.

Its emptiness gives it a shabby feel, but many of the buildings were freshly painted. It was the dinosaurs and hippos and horses and Pedros (which I found off-putting and offensive) that suffered the most neglect. They were all chipped and peeling.

A $1 view: The top of the sombrero!

Against my better judgment (I have a fear of elevators), we paid a dollar each to ride to the top of the sombrero. There was no wind, nothing to break the heat. It was spectacularly quiet, so we jumped when the air cracked and vibrated. We couldn’t follow the sound – we had to train our eyes before the thunder to find the fighter jet that roared into the distance.

And that was it. An impromptu air show, an eerily quiet amusement park, a decaying arcade and a bumper sticker that says S.O.B.

Thank you, America.

The sun is setting South of the Border.