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You've gotta like a place that's honest about its intentions. Da Yoopers Tourist Trap in Ishpeming, Michigan qualifies. They want to sell you all things U.P. and entertain you a bit while you're there. The snow pole out front, which showed how high the 272 inches that fell one winter really is, certainly caught our attention. As did the World's Largest Rifle, built by Tom Moran, whose ironworks we saw in Onaway a few days back. And a very cool hand-made map that covered an entire wall, along with a Yooper version of the internet.
We used the parking lot for some show-ending catch, bought souvenirs aplenty, and started the long drive back. Yep, these six shows are now shot, and we're sitting in an Iowa hotel, amazed that twelve hours ago, we were a mile from Lake Superior. I'm bushed, and pleased that after almost 5,000 maniac miles, we're right on schedule. It's almost as if WE KNEW WHAT WE WERE DOING! Hope that when the shows are put together, I'll still think so (and you will too.)
Music In the Van--James McMurtry's new one, Old 97's "Fight Songs", "K.T. Tunstall "Drastic Fantastic", Dr. John "Live at Tipitina's"
Don's found $$--Another day with nothing! Is it the recession or what? Final totals are sketechy, but somewhere just over $6.00
From the beginning of this trip, Michigan's U.P. or Upper Peninsula has been beckoning us. It's so far north, and so set apart from most of the world that we knew we needed to see it. Today we began by crossing the Mackinack Bridge (nearly five miles long) and emerging in St. Ignace.
Castle Rock is a local landmark, and the Curio Shop below it has added a large Bunyan and Babe to lure folks in. But instead of standing, this Paul is seated--on what might be a block of ice or salt or possibly, a porcelain throne. If only he'd talked, like that one in the California redwoods, we might have learned just what he was doing...
Speaking of learning, we did pick up some more info on the peloskey stone (the state rock, you know) from a nice lady in St. Ignace, then discovered yet another Paul (without Babe) in Manistique, which claimed to be "Paul Bunyan's Home."! We've seen that phrase before in Bangor, Maine and Brainerd, Minnesota, so we're getting a wee bit skeptical.
We lunched at Deb's in Gladstone, with walleye that didn't disappoint, and some pistachio pie, which did. Not awful, just bland (and weirdly green.)
Then we ran north, to the shores of Lake Superior. And ran back to the van as quickly as we could, since IT'S COLD. We sang a few bars of "The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald" and headed on towards Marquette, and a place called Lankenland. It may not be on your map, but it's showing up big on snowmobilers' charts up here.
Tom Lankenen is a welder who'd never even seen a sculpture park, but that hasn't stopped him from building his own drive-through art yard in the trees. Over 60 metal pieces of all kinds, some political, some cereberal, some just plain silly are scattered on the path. Tom couldn't really tell us why he did what he did, because he's on a job in Hawaii. But his stunt Tom (Gardner) drove up from Escanaba to help us understand why someone would do all this for no charge. I'm not sure we ever learned "why" but that's OK. We talked snowmobile smack with Tom2, and shivered happily as we passed dinosaur fisherman, old miners, spaceships, monuments to Marines and a corporate pig excreting on the average American. Is the sculptor full of himself and all puffed up? Not at all, Tom2 told us. In fact, just the opposite. He comes out with a leaf blower and clears new snow off the art when that's needed. That's what you call hands-on.
Music In the Van--Steve Forbert Sings Jimmy Rodgers, Joan Baez new CD, "Combustible" John Mayer
A true family business is hard to find these days. The Legs Inn is one, and it's an amazing place to boot. George Smolak's uncle Stan, also known as Chief White Cloud, started working on it soon after he arrived from Poland in 1913 (at the time it was part of Austria.) He was a man who could take elements of nature and create very cool furniture and distinctive decoration from them. His little bar and grill in Cross Village soon began to feature booths, tables and chairs he made, as well as tasty Polish fare and libations. The collision of Native American images and Eastern European traditions helps account for its striking originality. And as for the name, well, those white appliance legs on the roof made it easy to spot.
These days the Smolak kids, Mark and Chris, help make the Legs a growing concern--open only from mid-May to late October. There's a regular Sunday night blues band, and five secluded cabins for rent in the woods near Lake Michigan. Other than that, it's just a great off the beaten path roadhouse with pierogies and kielbasa and room after room of great folk art. When it's busy, "no one ever complains about the wait," George told us.
We worked our way out to the Legs after a slow morning in Cheboygan, where Main Street is undergoing major rehab work. It's so torn up that the best route to the coffee shop we wanted to visit was through a furniture store's "interior sidewalk." Walking amidst the workmen and machinery made the whole experience more than a little surreal. Kudos to State Street Coffee for brewing a darned good cup!
The van's starting to get awfully damn full, and stops like Seashell City a few miles down I-75 don't help at all. It's the place that promises a "man-eating clam" on the billboards. We weren't fooled, but that didn't preclude some awfully silly poses on the pirate ship out front, and more cheesy souvenir purchases. Don's pirate clock for $5 seems like a steal....
Music In the Van-- Norah Jones, "Blue Train" John Coltrane
Don's found $$ count--11 cents (no good stats since Mother's Day)
When your day starts with you successfully tossing sneakers onto the branches of a shoe tree, you know it's all gonna be OK. That particular footwear-bearing specimen stands alongside a very busy US 131 a few miles north of Kalkaska, Michigan. Not only was there far more traffic whizzing by than we've seen at other shoe trees, this one had some unusual fruit, including a pair of waders way up high! The wind was whipping things around pretty briskly, and that's a cool thing.
Along this route, you start to notice that populous areas up here are few and far between. After finally finding a Starbucks in Gaylord (just off I-75) we ducked into Indian River for a peek at the Cross In the Woods and Nun Doll Museum!! The giant crucifixion is currently under wraps, waiting for money to refurbish it (kind of like that "building fund" that Don remembers from growing up Catholic) but the gift shop still has plenty of shrine-centric snow globes, keychains, mints, etc. And a patron saint of highway driving emblazoned on cards and medallions. We bought with conviction!
Our big stop today was a few miles to the east in Onaway. Not a very big place, but one that people passing through often remember because of the giant metal heads--George Washington, Lady Liberty and at various times, Atlas, a helmeted soldier and others that Tom Moran creates at his iron works on the edge of town. They're unveiled to the delight of everyone at the annual 4th of July Parade, and then auctioned off or sent to museums, collectors or civic organizations to be enjoyed by all. Tom had to attend a trade show in Chicago (his real job involves a lot of welding work for power plants and utility companies) but we had a great tour courtesy of Jill. Including some snooping around the edges of this year's parade project, super secret as it may be. We did a phone interview with Tom, who blanched at the notion of being an artist, while heartily endorsing the idea that whatever time and energy he puts into these things comes back around a hundredfold.
One side note--the guy hawking a giant loogie on the sidewalk in town needs to be stopped, before he does it again!
Music In the Van--Cat Stevens' Greatest Hits, "Washington Square Serenade" Steve Earle
Traverse City sits on a pretty bay on Lake Michigan, and claims among other things to be the Cherry Capital. It baked the World's Largest Cherry Pie, some 28,00 pounds in a big steel pie pan back in 1988. Naturally, we had to see that, and toss some pie puns against the wall to see what would stick. We even bought a $1 Sara Lee at the bakery outlet store to pay our respects, and I gamely hauled the Big Ball out to see a genuine Guinness claimant.
Then it was off to Honor, a small town with its own still-functioning drive-in theatre--the Cherry Bowl. It's the real thing, with a great old screen and speaker poles that glow red in the dark (though we were there at noon), not to mention giant fiberglass hot dogs and chickens, even an old Corvair out front. The owners just opened a cafe and gift shop next door (souvenirs were purchased) and comped us a lunch, complete with peanut butter cheesecake that may have had a few serious calories in it...
Just a few miles further down Highway 31 we saw what was left of Don Crossman's roadside sculpture park. Don was written up in Weird Michigan a few years back, but died before the book came out. He was a farmer who just wanted to weld some metal animals, patriotic symbols and Biblical forms for his own amusement, and refused to sell them, because, well, then he wouldn't have them to enjoy!
Our real destination was only a little ways away, on Crystal Lake, where Dewey Blocksma has gradually filled his house and studio with a whole lotta art. Not just the pieces he makes, but works by other artists (like Joe McCuaig) he admires and collects. Dewey has an unusual trifecta in his past--as a child he lived in Amarillo, Grand Rapids and Pakistan! Because of his time overseas, he missed out on typical childhood toys, which may have prompted him to start building some of his own later in life. He left his career as an ER doc in 1980, and gave himself over to earning 95% less, but with far less stress. More than any one we've seen he incorporates sporting goods into his sculptures--softballs, catcher's mitts, tennis rackets... And he even joined us for a little catch in the yard. Dewey's Puzzle Heads are especially great, and lots of fun, but he's still a bit uneasy about being called "whimsical." We mean it in the best possible way.
Music In the Van--the new Dar Williams, "Love" The Beatles (at least until it started skipping)
Don's Found $$ count--17 cents (but he did discover two $20 bills at the Sara Lee store and turn them in . Right is right.)
Mike figures we've missed Mother's Day most of the last 13 years. We're usually out on the road just like we are now. We started MD '09 under sunny skies in Muskegon, which soon turned to cloudy, then rainy by the time we made Montague to play a little catch under the World's Largest weathervane (or so they claim.) There are several other contenders, including Maxie, the Big Goose back in Brunswick, MO. Naturally, some maritime wise-cracking was done during the spirited horseplay, not the least of which included our invention of Old Smelt, an aftershave for men that never really caught on.
Our GPS then took us on a lovely drive through forests and orchards to the gate outside of the legendary Shrine of the Pines in Baldwin. Not open til May 15, and nobody wanted to let us in on Mother's Day...
So we headed for Kaleva, where tour guide Jim did let us in and told us all he could about the Bottle House that the town embraces to this day. Pop bottler and builder John Mackinen constructed the sweet, tidy, symmetrical "happy home" in 1951 and died shortly after. He was a Finn, as were many of Kaleva's other citizens. Their heritage was celebrated in a series of colorful murals in the town's old gym, and more recently, with a metal grasshopper to honor St. Urho. That's the saint who drove the hoppers out of Finland, doncha know?
Turns out it's only about five miles from the Bottle House to Big Joe's. That's Joe McCuaig, the 6'6" painter/carver/morel mushroom hunter we met a few years back at Folk Fest in Atlanta.
His yard has some messages reminding "the paparazzy" to stay away, and a bottle tree to catch the light. Joe's mermaids, snake handlers and fish eating fish eating fish are some of the themes that seem to recur most often in his art. Getting "the previous occupant" out of the White House made Joe very happy, but he's already poking some fun at the stimulus package, and how little stimulation it brings the folks he knows. While wandering with Mike out back, Joe found a couple small morels that we left behind for he and his wife Sharon to cook as they pleased. Along with a Big Ball T-Shirt to "negotiate" over.
Music In the Van--Best of Sam Cooke, "All I Intended to Be" Emmylou Harris, "After the Goldrush" Neil Young
Don's Mother's Day Found $$--75 cents (viva Starbucks!) for a new total of $6.20.
Tom D. is the reason we stopped in Grand Rapids (well, East Grand Rapids technically) but the work he does these days is often done in collaboration with his lovely bride Melissa. And frankly, we've had enough pictures of men on here lately. Let's mix it up a little.
Tom's a Dutch Calvinist by birth and a socialist agnostic through years of practice, making art without any training, but steadfastly resisting the path to easy sales--i.e. doing the same thing over and over. His "vixens" for example are interesting to him lately, as are tin sculptures and some colorful "wraps" that he makes from duct tape and other pliable scraps. Sometimes he adds photos of Melissa in some "semi-erotic" pin-up poses to layers of text and weathered wood. Often, when he's hit the end of the line on an idea, he'll hand it over to her (or vice versa) and they'll discover a way to finish it up. They're even in a band together, though Tom's growing guitar collection (17) is a small bone of contention.
The daughters Duimstra, Ruby and Evee, peppered Don with good questions--"why's the camera so big?" and "what do you need all those microphones for?" The latter was all too pertinent, since recurring audio issues were the bane of our existence today. We also met their dog Larry, but failed to encounter Jessica the Hamster, probably due to our focus on those same audio problems.
Maybe they stemmed from the rain that fell upon us on the way over from Lansing, when we stopped to see a tiny church in Lake Odessa. Size-wise, it was just a couple of pews--roughly the same square footage as ones we've seen in Oklahoma and Arizona, but the lake view out the cross-shaped window in back was much nicer.
After our visit with the D's, we rolled around Grand Rapids a bit, eyeing the Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery on Division Street just minutes before closing time, and the Heartside Gallery a block or so down. Also some nice murals nearby, in a part of town that's got the art vibe going pretty strong.
Which left us with one task still on tap, Nunica's Stonehenge. Nunica is a small town to the west of G.R., with a half-size foam Henge (more solid looking than it sounds) in someone's very nicely manicured yard. No signs, and no signs of life either. Nor room to play catch. So "rock and fire" had to be nixed this time.
Music In the Van "Somewhere" Eva Cassidy, "Workingman's Cafe" Ray Davies
Don's $$ Count--44 cents today, plus 2 I missed last night=$5.46 for the trip so far.
OK, the day started a little shaky--when Don realized he couldn't find the CD's he'd brought into his hotel room last night. The search was fast, furious and finally fruitful. Mr. Murphy located them packed away in the camera bag, where eventually, they were bound to be found.
And the camera did get a workout today, in two different locations we only knew a little about prior to arrival.
And both were great! The first was McCourtie Park, outside Somerset, Michigan--named for the man whose estate contains fifteen photogenic bridges made in the trabaja rustico way we've seen in states much further south. Turns out Herb McC went to Texas, made a fortune in gas and oil, and while he was there met Dionicio Rodriguez, the art form's true master. When he got back to Michigan, a pair of Rodriguez disciples named Cardosa and Corona came to his place and worked (in secret, like Dionicio) to do their concrete magic. Muy photogenico!
After a frenzied lunch at the busiest Subway in all the land (noisiest too) we rolled into Lansing--a repeat visit, since we'd buzzed through briefly to see the Big Lug Nut back in 2000.
This time we wanted to dig deeper. Literally, at the Board of Water & Light Building, the water treatment plant known already for its art deco stylings. It was built as a WPA project in 1938, complete with murals, futuristic grillwork, and even some handles from the Olsmobiles that were made here then. Our guide, Mark, almost adjusted one he shouldn't have, which apparently would have altered Lansing's water supply for the worse. Whew!!!
But the seriously surreal part was yet to come, over in the deep, dank bowels of the plant. That's where a water worker named Charlie Hewes painted panels and murals around the pipes and plumbing he maintained decades ago. Popeye and a warship, local landmarks and poems about his fellow "narrowbacks" are still down there to prove, as we often say with this kind of work, "that he was here." We love it, and the fact that even in these post 9/11 times, TV Weasels like us can still be allowed to wander through and share what we find. Thanks, Lansing.
Music In the Van--"Michigan" Sufjain Stevens, "Together Through Life" (the new) Bob Dylan
Don's $$--It was a very good day, some 63 cents for a total so far of $5.00.
Note--We all did laundry today, and got that headcleaner we needed (for the camera, not Don)
Meeting Milton Mizenberger, Jr. makes a day special. It doesn't hurt when the day is a prototypical early May stunner. The sunny skies enhanced Milton's miraculous transformation of an old house in what was once a very battered part of Chicago's south side. And not only the 1883 era home, which he's rehabbed on the inside and out with parts that others have thrown away, but with art that also lines his yard and several lots nearby. Together, the whole notion is what he calls the Oakland Sculpture Park.
"You gotta dream big" he told us. "People pay attention when you do that." He spoke of the impact that he thinks art can have on communities. And his hope for an even bigger space someday, with a massive roof under which he can display lots more of it-- particularly from African-Americans who don't have many outlets for showing their work.
Milton's made it through thirteen years of really serious illness, and has come through it as positive as it seems a man could be. He's made his own little piece of "country in the city," with a fence and some greenery where he figures horses and cows would be right at home. And now, with his first bronze piece about to be dedicated in a park down the street, he's gone farther than anyone could have ever predicted.
From his rooftop, Milton's even got a good view of Lake Michigan, which we realized we hadn't really seen enough of. Once again, what a great day to do it--joining sunbathers and roller bladers, dogwalkers and folks who all seemed very concerned if we were "getting good shots." I'd say we were, but then again, I might just be dreaming big.
Music In the Van--"Soap and Water" Chuck Prophet, "Miracle of Love" Eleni Mandell, "Action Packed-Best of Jonathan Richman"
Don's Found $$ count--$4.58
Today's equipment issue(s)--Another cheap headset (mini-plugs suck) broken, HDV camera needs a head cleaning tape (the Radio Shack guy said "try Best Buy")
The Big Ball o' Tape came out to play at Intuit, Chicago's Center for Outsider and Intuitive Art, and among the folks on hand was Van DeLisle--one of only a handful of people in the world who've purchased ALL OUR DVDs! He and twenty or so others came out in the pouring rain to see our presentation, ably aided by Kelly Ludwig and her superb Detour Art photos of self-taught artists and environments. But Van didn't just come to hear us (wearing a Big Ball T-Shirt), he also answered our Facebook plea for yogurt, which the Holiday Inn Express hasn't offered at breakfast for not one, but the last two days. Criminy, they just built the place last week, why don't they have at least a wee bit of the creamy good stuff to make our morning brighter? So score 1 for VD on that!
And score 'em for Amanda Curtis at Intuit who also hooked us up with David Philpot, a carver of wooden staffs that dazzle the eye. David told us he's guided by a power he can't explain, one that wouldn't let him refuse the gift of an ability to carve and create some truly amazing pieces, even though he was a slow learner! His skills have sent him to foreign lands and into swanky Chicago affairs--not bad for a cab driver and "illiterate" as he modestly refers to himself.
Before our trek into the city, we'd started the day (unless you count the yogurt fiasco and a Starbucks employee burning herself) with a trip out to Lyons. That's where 82 year old Stanley Szwarc blew us away with his boxes and crosses--shiny metalworks that start as scraps from nearby plants and emerge gleaming with beauty. Stanley came here from Poland in 1977, an accountant and musician with no welding skills whatsoever. He figured it out, figured how to channel his ideas into something others call art (but not him) and have fun in the process. He's up most days by 3AM, working for at least four or five hours, and we think that says an awful lot about how this art really does do a body good!
We're talking standard issue li'l wooden toothpicks, from which Wayne Kusy (who also plays guitar in a band called Heavy Mental) has fashioned detailed replicas of sailing ships like the Cutty Sark and Queen Mary. His fifteen foot Lusitania (193,000 toothpicks) is still on display at AVAM in Baltimore. He calls ships like these "castles on the water" and pours hours, days, and ultimately years into forming them (in sections) in his third floor apartment not too far from Wrigley Field.
Wayne admits that in many cases, he's building models from someone else's model, since older boats aren't that pictorially well-preserved. But getting the intricacies right matters to him. Over the years, he's perfected his construction methods, gluing together hulls so strong you can set a bowling ball atop them. But that doesn't mean the boats travel without some damage. Each time one goes off to a show, picks do tend to tumble. That's inevitable, he figures, when you're making things that you aren't supposed to be able to make in the first place.
Speaking of Wrigley, we did stop by the grand old ballpark just after the Cubbies had lost again, tossed back a Goose River brew or two and stuffed down perhaps the best nachos ever. This, along with a couple of other iconic Windy City sights on our tour of the town where Don lived from '76 to '79--those wigged-out weinies atop the Super Dawg Drive-In on North Milwaukee, and the Leaning Tower of Niles, for which we brought out the Big Ball. And the little ball too, for some vigorous catch at this repurposed old water tower (half Pisa size) in front of the Niles YMCA. The sign said "no skating or bicycling" but it didn't mention throwing softballs into the fountains. No pepper(oni), indeed!
Music In the Van--"Tupelo Honey" Van Morrison
Don's found $$ total--not sure, but the drunks around Wrigley seemed to be leaving a pretty good trail of coinage. I'll know more tomorrow,...
The man is Jack Barker. At his shop in Essex, Illinois, some six miles from Route 66, he churns out a whole lotta fun, using scrap metal that he welds, hammers and bends into animal, human and fanciful forms as they occur to him. And watching Jack for awhile in his shop, it's easy to see how much occurs, since he pretty much gets one idea after another. The man has tools, and he knows how to use them!
In the beginning, he told us, his friends were afraid to be seen helping him haul the big things around. Fifteen years later, people around town have gotten used to seeing the yard continue to grow. We particularly liked Jack's way with metal shavings from nearby factories, which he's incorporated cleverly into beards, hair and the fur on buffalo and camels. It's unlike anything we've seen before.
He, on the other hand, had never seen anything quite like the Big Ball o' Tape, which toured the yard in its Radio Flyer, before stopping at an Indian princess' feet for a great photo op.
Speaking of ops, the day started back near Kankakee, so we could gawk at a big Lincoln. Not a Muffler Man, but a huge fiberglass Abe holding a sign that gets changed when the owner has something to share. Today it was bashing the bailout. Tough shooting conditions for Don, what with I-57 non side, a fence on another, and mud all around, but as usual, we got more than we bargained for. The owner pointed us out back, where an ice cream cone toting Lincoln was down for the count. Hot dogs in his pocket too. Or was he just glad to see us?
Music In the Van--Elvis Costello's Starbucks Artist's Choice Compilation, Bettye Lavette "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise"
Don's Found Money Count--$3.96!!!
Oh, and we started the day on a really amazing note, circling a baby-poop brown Gremlin (still functional) in the coffee shop parking lot... always a good omen.
That would be Bart Powers, from Munster, Indiana. Turns out he also knows quite a bit about The Munsters, old cars, architecture, music and a great many other topics. But he suffers from agoraphobia and depression, so he doesn't get out all that much. Bart works fairly obsessively down in the basement, starting with pencil sketches, and then painting in a way that brings to mind M.C. Escher, graphic novels and album art from the 70s. Some of his more detailed pencil and marker work might keep a school supply store in business!
He admitted our impending arrival had kept him awake all night, but he was surprised to see we were "professionals, not 20 year olds with a VHS camcorder." He seemed to enjoy Don's witty repartee more than your average bear--they both love guitars and Allen Sherman, and they talked Corvairs a fair bit as well. We all riffed on some TV and movie trivia, though I fell flat on the lead in "Vanishing Point," which I later remembered to be Barry Newman of early 70's "Petrocelli" fame....
Bart's house is about two blocks from the Illinois state line, which tells you we crossed most all of northern Indiana to get there from Toledo. Most surprising was the thriving Amish town of
shipshewana, which we saw thanks to a detour on US 20. We also stopped for lunch in downtown South Bend. The Thai food was fine, but the trip down an old elevator to a bathroom straight out of a David Lynch movie was even better.
Oh, the other main attraction today was Goshen. At first Mike had it confused with Gomorrah, but with some lifeline help, he did confirm it had biblical roots. Something about Moses and the Exodus' starting point. The one in Indiana has a claim of its own--a bulletproof guard tower on the courthouse square that was built to protect the Maple City from gangsters back in the day. Apparently, it worked, because no banks were robbed, and the courthouse lawn is well-tended and just right for playing some catch.
]Music In the Van--"Heading West"(we were), a Starbucks Compilation with Pattty Griffin, Jakob Dylan, Aimee Mann, etc., "St. Mary of the Pines" James McMurtry, "Trouble" Ray Lemonmtagne
Don's up to $3.16, and he also picked up some really good beer from the Great Lakes Brewery, "Edmund Fitzgerald Porter" (yum)
How cold was it this morning in Cleveland? Cold enough that it was snowing when we left the coffee shop and opted not to go see the shoe tree in a cemetery that we'd read about. We're just not that tough! So we took our act indoors to the home of Rabbi Sidney Rackoff, an 89 year old who took up sculpting twenty five years ago. Sidney greeted us warmly and invited us in, though his 91 year-old wife Regina wasn't quite so sure. "How do I know you're not going to kidnap him," she asked. We volunteered to show her how cramped the van is, and convinced her that we may be a pain, but we're hardly a threat.
Sid's made some fabulous metal pieces over the years, some quite large. He displays them in front of office buildings and schools, gas stations and gardens. People see them that way, he figures, many more than would see them in museums or high dollar galleries. It's not about the money, clearly. It's the joy of making and sharing his art, the person to person experience he's had with a wide swath of Clevelanders who in one way or another have helped make it possible. Regina apologized profusely for not feeding us, but the time was needed for chasing the two of them all over town to see his handiwork. Sure enough, as promised, people at the sculpture sites came out to hug the artist and say hello. Very cool, very good for the soul.
We left Cleveland thinking that overall the town's had a bad rap. There's some amazing architecture, cool, funky neighborhoods and nowhere near the desolation of say, Detroit. Our route out took us down the Ohio Turnpike to Toledo. Destination Tony Packo's. If that sounds familiar, it might make you a Mash-a-phile. Corporal Klinger mentioned it on the show eight different times. That's fine, but the lure for us can be attributed to Burt Reynolds. Back in the late 70's he signed a Packo hot dog bun, and launched a tradition. Celebs as varied as Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Dole, Frank Zappa and Joan Rivers (along with 500 or so others) have inked one of the fake buns that decorate the old restaurant's walls. Apparently their standards of "celebrity" are slipping. Caleb, the most agreeable manager ever, offered to let us into the club too. He's now the proud owner of a Big Ball T-Shirt, and we took home plenty of Packo-bilia...
Music In the Van--John Hiatt's new one (can't remember the name)
Don had a nice run finding money in inner-city Cleveland, but he never told me eactly how much. Must be getting close to $3.00 for the trip by now.
This one's last name is Lovelace. He paints Cleveland, scenes of the life on its streets, and the aspirations he has for it. Michelangelo picked up the name early in life because he was always drawing stuff, even though no one around him thought art was a real option. Yes, he did attend the Cleveland Art Institute for a year, but he couldn't afford to finish. He met the Rev. Albert Wagner, Cleveland's most notable outsider artist, and found the inspiration he needed.
Michelangelo's subject matter includes everything from P-Funk concerts drive-n movies to cdrugs, crime, city politics and the Obamas. We managed to get everything we needed done with him just in time for the big Cavs-Pistons playoff game, which he and the rest of the city were anxiously awaiting.
That game was being played downtown, just a few blocks from the House of Blues. We'd weaseled our way in there earlier in the day to look over the art. Like all the HOBs, it's decor includes lots of work by people we've met over the years--Jimmie Sudduth, Ab the Flagman, Missionary Mary Proctor, the Baltimore Glassman, et al. Their collection also includes some top-notch paintings by Peter Wood, a local boy who's now based in California. Tracey Glenn, the lady who handles tours and classes let us wander at will and pepper her with stupid questions. For that, and the inadvertent groping she endured due to her "microphone problems," Tracy definitely earned her commemorative shirt.
We had entered Cleveland via Lakeshore Drive, where the houses of what we presumed to be "Robber Baron Row" left us more than a little slack-jawed. As the rain alternately stopped and started all day, we did actually manage to catch a glimpse of Lake Erie with sunshine on it. Then it rained some more, much as it had earlier in a beautiful stretch of Concord Township. That's where we found, despite some bad directions from a website we won't name, a Flintstone House nestled back in the woods. If a car with no floor had been parked in the garage, we wouldn't have been too surprised. No Rubble on this one, it was Bedrock's best, to be sure.
Music In the van--"Days Like This" Van Morrison, "Bootleg Sesssions, Vol.8" Bob Dylan
Don's found $2.61 to date, and still can't figure out what weird stuff was going on with the camera today. We just hope it doesn't do it tomorrow!
PR Miller doesn't watch TV, doesn't even have one. The so called "Junk Man of Akron" figures he can find entertainment anywhere he wants to, so why depend on others to shape his pleasure centers. I'm kind of paraphrasing there, but this guy throws out lots and lots of of free-form verbiage, with considerable theatrics. so there are plenty of phrases to para.
And lots of products that he brings forth from the things others throw away. He's trying to get us to realize that the earth has just about had enough! So if his art can help get the message through to kids that we're choking the planet, then his "Grizzled Wizard" persona is time well spent. We visited him first at his studio across from the Firestone HQ near downtown, and then at his equally art=packed house, where the yard yielded more of the colorful giant scrapflowers for which he is known. Also saw a cool frog he'd made at a library nearby...
You'll notice a certain wet, gray shade to the photo, which I snapped between downpours on this chilly AM. Mike had sung a stanza or two of "Rainy Days and Mondays" to get us going (and scare us a bit) before we gave ourselves over to the PR Experience. It came complete with a lunch trip to Luigi's, an Akron institution which features a giant pizza the Junkman made in 2003 on the outside. Luigi's is also known for a 1949 Mechanical Bandbox above the front door that comes to life when the jukebox is played. Or did anyway, until it jammed up, and awaits the repairman. We ate heartily nonetheless, gazed up at the nearby building where Chrissie Hynde calls home, and even stood in the crotch of Akron's Y Bridge while discussing what exactly a "hectare" is. (10,000 square meters, it turns out.)
Then it rained like heck and we called it a day.
Music In the Van--"Sugar Mountain Live (1969)" Neil Young
Rain. That's what they've been telling us is on its way with a vengeance. So we awoke with a mission. Shoot stuff before we wouldn't be able to. After yesterday's "issues" (and thankfully, we did find a place to imbibe last night) the realities of guerilla TV-making were rearing their ugly head.
After a Starbucks stop we resumed the Appalachian road regimen-- hills and curves and potentially stomach churning drops. Hey, no problem. We made it without incident to the Miners' Memorial Park near Reinsersville, Ohio, better known as the home of the Big Bucket. A 13 ton coal bucket from a machine called the Big Muskie. (Yes, it even put Kansas' Big Brutus to shame.) That's it above, being occupied by a Boy Scout Troop and the Big Ball. We played some catch inside it, proving once again we're only ready for "the minors."
Lunch was taken in Cambridge, a town we realized we'd stayed in 6 years ago. We didn't stop at the Hopalong Cassady Museum then, and we didn't this time either. Sorry, Hop. But Ruby Tuesday's did have a vegie burger on the menu and a right plentiful salad bar. A new option for eating has arrived!
On the way up to Wilmot, we remembered to pimp the good folks at Hampton Inns, who've been doing some work to restore old roadside attractions. Why not help us a little bit too? One of the places where they'd assisted was the World's Largest Cuckoo clock at Grandma's Alpine Inn. We were primed for some oversized animated timekeeping, but when we finally found it, the giant parking lot was empty and a "for lease" sign told the tale. Eventually, someone came around to ask what we were doing, but they clearly didn't really care to talk about it, except to say we could "tell PBS it's for sale." Wonder how the Hampton folks feel about that...
Still no rain, though, so we trudged on to Canton, took a spin (actually two) past the Pro Football Hall of Fame ("underwhelming" was the term we could all live with) and flew on to North Canton. We'd seen a tip about a UFO shaped office building, and sure enough, a saucer seemed to have landed atop a bug eyed base with very few markings except a "psychological services" sign on the back. Kinda suspicious don't you think? We didn't think too long, although Don did point out that if they wanted to turn it into a revolving restaurant someday, that might be an option...
Music In the Van--Cat Power, "Dirt Farmer" Levon Helm, "Madman Across the Water" Elton John, "Nashville" Solomon Burke
Don's money count (apparently I've missed several key finds) --$2.65
This cheery, upbeat image doesn't completely encapsulate our entire day. But it is a good one, at which we invoked our pal Erika, who we know has seen The World's Largest Picnic Basket in Newark, Ohio and put it into the World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things. It is the working headquarters of the Longaberger Basket Company, which apparently sells enough of 'em to build this behemoth.
OK, now the bad parts. The first came much earlier, outside Dayton, when Don realized he'd left his personal pillow at the hotel. His woobie! And even though they're mailing it to his home, that means another week of possible sleep impaction (psi) and all the attendant issues.
Actually though, that was just a warmup for the flat tire our swanky Town & Country developed in the wilds of southeast Ohio. And no manual to explain where the spare was or just how to deal with it... Points to Mike for his mechanical aptitude, and a nice guy in Deaverton who pronounced us "SOL" before trying his best to help make some repairs.
B.F. (before the flat) we'd been hanging out near Crooksville with The Old Man of the Mountain aka Rick Crooks. He's a sculptor, making animal forms (some real, some not) from salvaged parts that a country guy like him can easily come across. The twist is that Rick's blind, has been since an accident at age 16. His wife Patty told us he's the most patient person she's ever known, a guy who thinks he can do anything, and usually does. His mom Alma had contacted us, which we believe may be the first time that tactic has been successfully used on RVRR!
Rolling along on a temporary tire we'd decided to trust, we made it to Carbon Hill, and Paul Johnson's Pencil Sharpener Museum. The count is currently 3, 283, ands as he adamantly tells you, "there are no duplicates." Metal, plastic, stately, silly, Presidents, superheroes, cars and trains-- Paul's collection fills the walls of a specially built structure that this 84-year old veteran of WWII says has helped keep him alive. His quest now is for 4,000.
After a Wal-Mart intervention that more or less got the van road-ready again, we took off for Athens. More bad news--the hotel's full of teenagers at a basketball tournament (turn up that noise machine, Don) and the Bennigan's next door had lost their liquor license!
Pray for us.
Music In the Van--"1,000 Years of Popular Music" Richard Thompson
Finding money today got lost in the day's traumas, but I think Don picked up 12 cents while shooting the Big Basket
Let me explain the picture above. It's proof of our day-ending visit to the World's Largest Ball of Paint in Alexandria, Indiana. Mike Carmichael has been painting layer after layer over a baseball core since 1985, some 2,300 layers, including the Jayhawk blue one we helped with. We chose the color in part because of Mike's un-nerving resemblance to former KU b-ball coach Roy Williams. He, however, is more into Sherman-Williams, dadgummit.
Mike's not just a painter, he's also a numbers guy, who tracks all the different colors each layer has been, and all its vital stats. The appearance of our Big Ball o' Tape inspired him to do some measuring on it as well. Ours is lots smaller.
Prior to the Ball-A-Rama in Alexandria, we'd spent some time in Warrington with Billy Wilcox.
The topic was wire, which Billy incorporates into animal forms that can be seen around the area, in places like Greenville and Knightstown (where all the restaurants seem to have died). He showed us around the remains of what had once been a sculpture garden out back-- until his partner left him holding the bag on a whole lot of bills. The conversation covered everything from Billy's days as a Boy Scout to the importance of keeping your tetanus shots current. I took home a wire "r" and Don got a nifty small fish. Mike weaseled something too, but I'm not sure just what.
The worst part of the day was a soul-deadening stretch of suburban driving on US 31 south of Indianapolis, followed immediately by more of the same on US 40. Genericana at its most tedious, but at least we'd seen Big John before that. BJ is, or so the store that owns it proclaims, the World's Largest Rocking Chair. We played our first catch of the trip in its shadow, a nice spot for as Don put it, "sunny and chair."
Music In the Van--Eric Clapton & JJ Cale "Road to Escondido", Golden Smog "Pecan Pie"
Don found only 2 cents today, ironically, I noticed a quarter in the driveway at the Ball o Paint's place.
That old Indiana magic started again at the Providence Grotto in Jasper, with the charming and chatty Father Angelo showing us what his predecessor Father Phillip had done with rocks for "the glory of God." We've seen grottos in many shapes and sizes, but none where geodes prevailed the way they do here. No blueprint or even sketches, just a twenty year explosion of building walls, planters, fountains and shrines that sprawl across the grounds of this Catholic-run nursing home. Father Angelo mentioned that he's hoping someone might come along to maintain and watch over the place, much as he did fourteen years ago. With health care costs the way they are now, Don said to add his name to the waiting list, he might be just the guy for the job.
Jasper is only half an hour away from French Lick, the home of basketball's Larry Bird, so we decided that we'd head there for lunch. While we were admiring a Romanesque bust of #33 across from the big new casino, a guy in a black pickup gave us 4 copies of the 2004 French Lick High basketball yearbook. We tried to give 3 of them back, but he said he had thousands, so what could we do? Eat large sandwiches at a place on Brick Street...
Last stop of the day, Smithville--where The Big Ball's arrival was being anxiously awaited by John and Cheryl Baker, owners of an attraction called Baker's Haunted Train. John started it all in 1976 by purchasing not one, but two small train stations, then bought a few railroad cars to hold his very own railroad museum. He, however ran afoul of Bloomington's zoning folks, and "pinheads" on the planning commission. The legal battles have taken their toll, so scaring people in the train cars and mazes around them has been their main moneymaking mode for the last few years. We particularly liked the Petticoat Junction-esque water tower/swimming pool out back. And the fact that these people actually watch our show!
Music In the Van--Bob Dylan's Starbucks "Artist Choice", Herbie Hancock "Rivers (The Joni Sessions") And no, Don didn't find near as much change today... details tomorrow.
That guy with the heads on the bench is Kevin Titzer, an Evansville native who makes some pretty great stuff in the workshop his grandfather built, using hand tools, lots of tiny nails and a dark sense of humor. Most of the materials come from the nearby Ohio River, at a spot where things wash up for him to bring home and recycle. The heads he then makes might strike some (not us) as disturbing. Ticks, bees and stigmata were some of the themes in the ones we saw here. Originally, he told us, he felt strange making art when most of his relatives lived blue-collar lives, but he's come to see that it's just another way of working with your hands.
Kevin and his girlfriend MJ were terrific hosts, pouring strong coffee, and serving up pie that she made from an old family recipe. Though we meant to bring a dessert of our own (as seen here yesterday) we had to admit that it never quite made it. When all this gets to TV, perhaps you'll see why.
Much of the time today was spent reliving Don's previous trip to the Evansville area--in 1972 when he attended the ill-fated Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival . It was supposed to be the Midwestern Woodstock, but with 300,000 people and 2 port-a-potties, things didn't go so well. The crowd eventually burned down the stage, though Don was gone by then.
In his honor, we drove down some of the same roads near the Wabash River, including one that took us to the charming little town of New Harmony. Supposedly the Archangel Gabriel left a footprint there in 1838, but it's not on public display anymore. Not one, but two utopian communities failed there, though it's still picturesque as all get out.
Our last stop of the day was north of Evansville, in the tiny town of Buckskin, home to the Loneliest Museum in America. That's what someone called James Henager's uh, somewhat random collection of Memories & Nostalgia. Sadly, he had no Erie Canal Fest souvenirs, but there was a Brewer & Shipley 8 track tape, a scary Smokey the Bear TV clip, and lots of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassady and other western movie memorabilia. Also, things from the baseball film, "A League of Their Own". His display of old automotive oil filters didn't leave us breathless, but we agree that history shouldn't be stuffy, and since he's put it together upstairs from his cabinet shop on virtually no budget at all, why complain? And Don's $2 in the donation box may be the first such bill the museum's yet seen.
No music in the van today, just stories about who Don saw at the festival-- basically it was Cheech & Chong, Ravi Shankar & Pure Prairie League (separately, not together.) And eating some Dinty Moore Beef Stew. He wasn't a vegetarian then. Oh, and another fine change-finding day--75 cents behind the newspaper rack!
Pretty provocative, huh? And really pretty vague. But tomorrow, when our newest adventures in TV Weaseldom actually begin, it will all start to make sense. Or not.
Big news, so far--Don found 76 cents in a Starbucks chair! And our swanky Town & Country van (thanks to Jake at Avis) has back windows that actually roll down. With new HD cameras and just enough knowledge to be dangerous, Indiana here we come.
Music in the van (besides some Heep on XM radio)
Randy Newman "Harps and Angels", Neko Case "Middle Cyclone,"