The Volcano of Middletown, NJ

When hard-working New York entrepreneurs want to relax they head to New Jersey. Mostly they go to the Jersey Shore. Vito “Don Vito” Genovese was no exception. Vito took his hard-earned money and invested it in an estate in the northern-most shore town: Middletown Township. Within the estate Vito created a majestic botanical garden, featuring dozens of species of trees, a massive rose garden, a koi pond, a frog pond, and terraced gardens featuring pools, waterfalls, and a volcano.

That’s right: a volcano. Not a real volcano of course, but a model of the famous Mount Vesuvius in Italy.

Deep Cut Park

I’ve seen this Grimace-shaped stack of rocks a dozen or more times and never thought it was a volcano. A horribly misshapen barbecue or kiln perhaps. But now I can see it. It doesn’t really look like Mount Vesuvius, but that isn’t something I would ever say to Don Vito.

But in context of the beauty of the gardens, it’s pretty alright.

Deep Cut Park

Deep Cut Park

Deep Cut Park

Deep Cut Park

Did I mention the volcano has a side-hatch? A hidey-hole? A place to put stooges who say it doesn’t look like the real Mount Vesuvius?

Deep Cut Park

It’s also worth mentioning that I discovered that the volcano was a volcano thanks to the Roadside America app, which is the best app of all, and one of a handful of reasons to own an iPhone.

Also, important to note that the volcano is located in Deep Cut Gardens, which is now owned by the County of Monmouth. Go so see it.

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 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 where 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 down town, 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 white water 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 breath-takingly 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 posses 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 clap-board and sheet rock”? 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 look out 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 12am 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 isle 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 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.