A chunk of coal

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

A lot of my travel revolves around periodical cicada emergences, and this year my visit to Jim Thorpe, PA was no different (read about the Jim Thorpe periodical cicadas emergence). Documenting a cicada emergence requires you to not only to travel where the cicadas are but also where they aren’t because we have to document the geo-spacial dimensions of their brood. This means I see more sights than most people who visit a town. Combine that with my in-dash GSP’s nearly suicidal compulsion for taking me down the most hairy, rocky, slippery, narrow, axel-busting roads, and I see some really interesting, out of the way stuff.

An aside: you’re thinking “in-dash GPS? Dan, it’s 2016, why aren’t you using Google Maps on your smartphone as your GPS?” Well, I do use WAZE when traffic gets atrocious, but the thought of using a tiny screen balanced in my palm or in a cup-holder isn’t appealing. “But Dan, you can buy an attachment…” Whatever, I like my in-dash GPS; it’s crazy, but it also gets me where I need to go while showing me miracles along the way.

Back to Jim Thorpe aka the Switzerland of America aka Mauch Chunk. Jim Thorpe is a small city in the Poconos region of eastern Pennsylvania, in the county of Carbon (because this is coal country). It is nestled between three mountains, Broad Mountain, Pocono Mountain and Bear Mountain (used Peakery to figure that out). The original name of the town was Mauch Chunk, which means Bear Mountain in Munsee.

My original guess was that the “Mauch Chunk” was the big chunk of coal located downtown, but no.

Coal chunk. I could not lift it

The mountain is actually shaped like a bear:

bear mountain

Jim Thorpe Jim Thorpe gets its name from a gold medal-winning Olympic athlete and football player, but the story of why is a little out of the ordinary. As told to me by a friend: Mauch Chunk wanted to gain some attention, so they paid Jim Thorpe’s family for the right to bury Jim in their town and name it after him. Money talks, and so now the town is called Jim Thorpe and Jim is laid to rest in a memorial park in on route 903. It’s worth mentioning that Jim was not born in this town, or even in Pennsylvania.

Jim Thorpe is also called “the Switzerland of America”, not because of cheese, but because of the mountainous terrain. Parts of the town seem like they’ve been poured onto the side of a mountain, like hot fudge on a pile of ice cream scoops. There is loads to do for bicyclists, hikers, and whitewater rafters. There is even a train that will drop you off on the other side of town so you can cycle back. The natural features that are worth seeing are the Lehigh Gorge and the Glen Onoko Falls (which I only made it halfway to due to time constraints, but the path there was beautiful). If you want to get away from the crowded city or bland suburbs where the only green is your lawn, and you like physical activity, Jim Thorpe may be for you. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place.

The Lehigh Gorge. The hole in the mountain was originally meant for a train to pass through:
Mountain with a hole in it. Jim Thorpe PA

This small rock formation on the way to Glen Onoko Falls reminds me of Fred & Wilma Flintstone’s house:
Rock formation. Jim Thorpe PA

A forgotten Tea Cup in the forest:
Upended soup bowl in the forest

Hi Bear Downtown Jim Thorpe is interesting as well. I don’t possess the knowledge and vocabulary to properly describe the buildings, but many are crafted of fancy bricks and stone, with ornate filigree (not sure that is the right word; one moment while I look it up; close but not really) hewn out of the rock itself. I would equate the experience to when you see an old European town, and you see the amazingly intricate and expensive looking buildings, and think “how did they ever afford to build such amazing things — all we have today is crappy strip malls and cheap homes made of clapboard and sheetrock”? Google “Prague” to see what I’m talking about. Well, Jim Thorpe is like that — not every house; some look like shacks meant to be temporary housing for transient coal miners (as I’m sure they were) — but much of it is beautiful. My guess is coal money paid for the fancy buildings… but I’m sure some of it was due to craftsmen who came to America for a job in a coal mine but ended up applying trades learned in their home country. I could be wrong. I could be very wrong.

As you ramble on foot around town, be on the lookout for waving wooden bears, the Cheshire Cat in the window of the Through the Looking Glass Cafe, giant water turbines, the Mauch Chunk museum (which was not open when I was there — drat), the Mauch Chunk Opera, the Jail Tour, and angels in windows. Be respectful when you visit and wander the streets; residential homes are interspersed between bars, cafes and tourist attractions; don’t be the guy who yaps loudly on his iPhone at 12 am outside someone’s home.

The tourists are part of any tourist town experience. Many tourists dress in bright primary-color uniforms that seem to be the only color available for weekend bicyclists and rafters. Add to that the similar palette of their bikes & rafts, and the whole town seems to be a swirl of brightly colored plastic particles. Maybe like a cheap kaleidoscope or if you spun around in the laundry detergent aisle at Walmart. I think Agnès Varda called it the “plastic colors of summer”.

Downtown is generally well-paved and friendly enough for those with soft hands, but just outside of downtown, roads become single-lane rock n’ roll rim busters with more craters than Verdun France. Amusing hyperbole aside, my GPS loves to take me down such roads, and then the challenge becomes balancing my desire not to die with my passion for sharing every interesting exhibition of Americana on Instagram. The struggle is real, but the rewards are rich. Adrenaline for now; memories to last a lifetime (maybe, or a few months, depending).

For instance, check out this gem. It looks like the set of American Pickers:
Collector

That’s about it on Jim Thorpe, PA. If you’re into nature, physical activity, uncharacteristically interesting American architecture, and Americana like waving bears, Jim Thorpe is worth the trip.

One last shot. The local drive in. Cool.

Mahoning drive in

Links:

Grounds for Sculpture: the most interesting place in New Jersey

Trigger warnings: New Jersey, Nudity, Taxidermy.

New Jersey is simultaneously wonderful and horrible, and there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. I’m generalizing, of course, but I’ve spent 95% of my life in the state, and struggle with the population density, high cost of living, close-mindedness, and rudeness every day. New Jersey is not 100% Sopranos & MTV’s Jersey Shore, but it is at least 50% that. Every now and then I have to take a step back and think “why do I live here?” It is then that I remember all the good people and places in New Jersey, and think “oh, that is why”.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” If there was one place in New Jersey that is an example of a better New Jersey, it is Grounds for Sculpture. Located in Hamilton, NJ, Grounds for Sculpture is a sprawling, peaceful, verdant park filled with hundreds of impressively-large sculptures. Visit Grounds for Sculpture and you will feel as if you’ve been transported to a new dimension, where people aren’t rude and have an interest and respect for art.

Grounds for Sculpture: The Shepard, The Sheep and Human Hill

Grounds for Sculpture: Sci-Fi sculpture

Heart's Desire

Grounds for Sculpture: Objects D'Art

Silhouette of woman and child sculpture

Yes, you will see some nudity:
Grounds for Sculpture: Sexy Lady in the Jungle

Happy Nudes

They have a few indoor exhibits as well:
Deer Lady

Superdeer

New Jersey should be more like Grounds for Sculpture. If you’re not from New Jersey, spend a day there — it will erase many negative misconceptions you have about New Jersey.

Disclaimer: I’ve only been there during the fall when there were no crowds. I’m hoping that it isn’t like a noisy shopping mall packed with rude, pushy people during the warmer months.

Archie McPhee

Archie McPhee in Seattle

What would life be without the occasional zany novelty item? Life would be gray, dull, routine, boring. It would be a song that that has rhythm, but no melody.

The front of the store. Note the neon sign, lizard face and notice that they were moving locations:
Archie Mcphee

Archie McPee is the grand champion of zany but tasteful novelties (they seem to stay away from the fart and sex jokes). They have their favorite topics, like rubber ducks, rubber chickens, bacon, cats, Bigfoot, squirrels, pickles, unicorns, the devil, and odd-ball historical figures. They have their favorite types of novelties, like finger puppets, wind-up toys, bandages, cat hats, mints, masks, squirrel feeders, lip balm, and air fresheners. Need underpants for your squirrel? They got it. Need a bacon-scented air freshener? They got it. Need an inflatable wizard hat for your cat? They got that too.

I’m a big fan of Archie McPhee. I’ve been ordering from their catalog for at least 20 years, particularly for Christmas gifts. My favorite item of all time is their (discontinued) Cicada Keychain. When I was in Seattle for business I visited their brick n’ mortar store. Every fan of zany novelty items should visit at least once in their lifetime.

The store was everything I hoped for: everything in the online catalog and more… much more. They had boxes of eyes meant for taxidermy and odd-ball stuff like that. Plus, giant heads, carnival fortune readers, and other props that fit the motif of their merchandise. The staff was helpful, pleasant but not dead behind the eyes.

A row of the Devil Duckies that they are famous for:
Archie Mcphee

Giant paper-mache devil head:
Devil Head

Captain Archie, Fortune Teller:
Capt. Archie

My purchases:
Archie Mcphee purchases

The location I visited, in May of 2009, has since closed and the store has moved to a new location. I imagine the new location is just as magical.

If you want more insight into Archie McPhee, check out this blog post on the Secret Fun Blog and follow their CEO Mark Pahlow in twitter.

OBAMA

Official Bad Art Museum of Art

Who’s to say that a particular piece of art is “bad”? You, that’s who.

Art is best when it is able to change our state — state of mind or state of emotion. If a piece of art can make you feel joyful, energized, comforted, disgusted, curious, fearful, motivated, relaxed, inspired, satiated or terrified, it is good art. If art makes you feel nothing or leaves you unchanged, it is bad art. But keep an open mind — because something you perceive to be bad, might be good — you just lack the knowledge, experience, and perspective to see the good in it.

The OBAMA room

This brings us to the Official Bad Art Museum of Art a.k.a. O.B.A.M.A. (no relation to P.O.T.U.S.), a small museum located in the Cafe Racer, a bar / coffee shop / small music venue, located in Seattle, Washington.

The art in the Official Bad Art Museum of Art is really more “tacky” or “kitschy” than “bad” — black velvet, glitter, cloying, bizarre, outmoded, or in poor taste. All these qualities are capable of putting a smile on someone’s face — either a grin borne of genuine adoration or a smirk born of irony. Either way, the art is capable of changing a person’s state and is therefore not truly “bad”. It’s fun to call it bad art, though, so I won’t pass judgment on the name of the gallery.

Here is some of the “so bad it’s good” art to be found at O.B.A.M.A.:

A Glittering Elvis:
Glitter Elvis

A Cute Pooch on Black Velvet:
Classic pooch on black velvet

An Unbelievable Jesus Made of Peeps:
Jesus made from Peeps

A Fluffy Cat:
Fluffy Baby

Anthropomorphic Poodle Lady:
Poodle Lady

The Cafe Racer itself is a comfortable, little beer, booze and coffee bar. The people there were friendly. I enjoyed having the option to enjoy some delicious beers and strong coffee. Stop for the museum, stay for a drink and some conversion.

A wish all bars offered good coffee, in addition to booze.

###

I was last there in the spring of 2009.

Steve Heller's Custom Car

Steve Heller’s Custom Car Sculptures

While rambling along Route 28 on my way to a Catskills camping adventure, I encountered Steve Heller’s amazing space age & custom car sculptures. Staged on the grounds of Steve’s Fabulous Furniture showroom (3930 Route 28 Boiceville, NY), you’ll find U.F.O.s, rocket ships, metal dragons and pigs, and custom cars chopped and cropped into works of art.

At a minimum, you’ll want to stop and take photos, but you really should go inside the Fabulous Furniture showroom and check out Steve’s smaller space-age sculptures and live-edge furniture. You really have to see it to believe it.

A U.F.O.:

Rocket to Roswell

Rocket Ships:

Fintasia 14 Blast Off!

Rocket rebuilt from retro cars

Severely chopped cars:

Retro Rocket Car

Steve Heller Car Sculpture

And even an actual functioning car:

Custom Car

My Trips in 2015

I took two trips in 2015, one short and one long.

2015 map

The long trip, looped through 19 states.

The short trip was to Raleigh & Chapel Hill, NC.

These are my stories:

  1. South of the Border: the Quintessential Roadside Attraction
  2. Augusta Georgia: Golfers, Cookies, Grits
  3. Alabama the Jewel of North America
  4. Jackson Mississippi
  5. New Orleans in 3 Hours
  6. Exhausted in Little Rock
  7. Elvis Presley’s Jets
  8. Land Between the Lakes, part 1
  9. Land Between the Lakes, part 2
  10. Kuttawa Kentucky Huddle House
  11. Fort Massac Illinois Rest Area
  12. Big John: Metropolis’ Other Hero
  13. The Superman Museum in Metropolis Illinois
  14. The World’s Largest Statue of Superman
  15. Jungle Jim’s: the Greatest Supermarket in the America
  1. Welcome to North Carolina
  2. Chapel Hill and Snack Cakes
  3. Raleigh North Carolina
  4. I-95 is Atrocious
bison

The Land Between the Lakes, Part 1

Arrival

The Land Between the Lakes is a large National Park nestled between two long, artificial lakes. The park features 170,000 acres of forest & wetlands, bison, a planetarium, and every 13 years, Brood XXIII cicadas. The park offers virtually any type of boating & outdoor activity imaginable.

Imagine Manhattan if all the buildings were replaced by trees, and the rats were replaced by deer and bison — that is The Land Between the Lakes.

I arrived at the park just in time to hear some chorusing cicadas (they get quiet around 5 pm). In the background, weekend warriors raced their fishing boats up the lake — their engines making “bwaaaa bwa bwa bwup bwup” sounds as they struggled to keep pace with their captains’ pride.

Land Between the Lakes

Park

There were several hours of light left in the day, so I chose to enter the park before finding a hotel. I drove the speed limit, in an effort to drive slow enough to hear the cicadas I was listening for… much to the chagrin of everyone else driving on the park road. They flashed their lights and weaved in and out of lanes, all serpentine-like, in an attempt to cajole me to drive faster. But I was steadfast in my determination to travel the speed I desired. Eventually, these bullies of the road passed.

The road never seemed to end — mile after mile of forest-lined road. It was glorious.

Pig Truck Man

I managed to raise the ire of the driver of a giant, matt-black, pig-truck — once again by driving the speed limit. The giant, matt-black, pig-truck was like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road: it was a monster pickup truck, jacked-up about 3 feet higher than normal, pained matt-black, two huge stacks belching black, sooty smoke, with a pig nose for the grill, and lights for the nostrils. Most folks would be terrified by the sight of such a vehicle, two feet away from their bumper, but I was thrilled by it. I’m weaving, trying to get a photo, but failed. It was awesome though. Eventually, it passed. It would have been an honor to have been run off the road by the pig truck. All that said, I do look like exactly like Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road, so the guy probably thought I was his leader. He just wanted to say “Hi”.

Quest for Bison

I made it as far south as the self-guided Elk & Bison prairie tour, paid the $5 entry fee, and was very pleased to see these mighty creatures up close.

Stretching Bison

Bison at Land Between the Lakes

When I was a child I spend a lot of time around lakes, rivers, woodlands, and forests. I loved the smell of a country road after a rainstorm; the mirror finish of a lake; the lively communication of birds; the contrast of a red newt on soft green moss; and awe-inspiring views of lush, green valleys from the top of tall hills.

People find solace & peace in the pop culture & toys of their childhood — Star Wars, comic books, Frankenstein, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, Donkey Kong, a Nirvana record, etc. For just a moment it allows them to go back in time, and escape from their troubles, worries, and responsibilities. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I find solace in nature. A National or State park is my Comicon.

Drive Thru Liquor Store

The Land Between the Lakes, part 2

Welcome to the truck stop

I arrived at the Hampton Inn at sunset. The sky was ablaze with ribbons of orange, gold, and red. I watched the colors fade behind the hotel; when the last drop of red drained from the black stage of the night, I walked into the hotel and checked it.

It must be said: no one tries harder to please their customers than the Kuttawa/Eddyville Hampton Inn. It was Memorial Day Weekend. You would be hard-pressed to find a hotel more patriotic than the Kuttawa/Eddyville Hampton Inn. Their staff was uninformed in red, white & blue; a variety of patriotic flair pinned & clipped to their torsos and heads. The hotel lobby was festooned with red, white & blue decorations… It was amazing. U.S. Flag key chains were free at the counter. The staff was pleasant and helpful. Free breakfast in the lobby every day, including a waffle maker. Free lemonade and treats throughout the day; come back from a long day of outdoor adventure — a cold glass of lemonade is waiting for you. Free toothbrushes! Forget to pack your toothbrush — they have you covered. Clean rooms with refrigerators and wi-fi.

The most memorable hotel worker was the night-shift desk clerk. Imagine Penn from Penn & Teller, covered with red, white & blue flair, and just bursting with enthusiasm about the holiday weekend, and with eagerness to help hotel guests. I couldn’t help but think: this guy loves his country, loves his job, loves helping people, and it’s 2 am and he has to deal with drunks and whatever maniacs are awake in the middle of the night. What a mensch!

Hampton Inn in Kuttawa KY

The truck stop featured three or four gas and diesel stations, two burger joints, two hotels, a steak & country music restaurant, a Huddle House, a drive-through liquor store, and a lady who sold barbecued meats from a grill she towed behind her truck.

I know what you’re thinking: “how many times did you drive through the liquor store drive-through?” Sadly, zero times. Instead, I just walked there (and bought many PBR tall-boys).

And “did you fall in love with the lady who sold barbecued meats?” Sadly, no. If I did, I would still be in Kentucky.

Drive Thru Liquor Store in Kuttawa KY

PBR, country music wafting through the night air, and taking photos of gas stations at night. Once the cicadas are quiet, that’s how I do it.

Exxon in Kuttawa KYBP in Kuttawa KY

Local Stores

The next day, while cruising around the Land Between the Lakes area, listening for cicadas (why I was in the area in the first place), I made sure I stopped by local stores and markets to get an idea of what local life might be like.

The local flea markets were intense and possibly magical. Imagine a roadside lined with rows of shacks made from plywood and hope. Inside each were antiques, toys, clothes, Christmas artifacts, knives, preserves, dolls, cellphone cases, drones, and other dreams without a home — you name it, they had it. I walked away with pickles, a knife and some LP recordings of the Bible.

Red Door Antiques was pretty good. They had a wide variety of antiques and collectibles. I picked up a vacuum tube tester and some rhubarb preserves. I enjoyed seeing a Big Jim vinyl camper that I think I had as a child (I vaguely remember destroying it by peeling the vinyl from its cardboard frame because I liked the sensation of the vinyl tearing).

Big Jim vinyl truck

I visited an outlet store mall. Only 10% of the stores were occupied. I bought another knife — this time a multi-tool. I was surprised by the overall lack of activity in the area — maybe it was because of the holiday weekend. Maybe not that many tourists were visiting the park?

But no, the Walmart was backed to the rafters with people. Probably all looking for a USB cable, just like me.

Oh well.