This is what you get when you drive 4000 miles, cross country, without a car wash: a bumper covered in insect corpses.
My last visit to Seattle was in 2009, and at that time I visited Archie McPhee at their old location. Seven years have passed and it was time for another visit. The location has changed, but the fun remains the same.
“What is Archie McPhee”? It’s a catalog, website and brick and mortar store — created and owned by Mark Pahlow — that sells wacky gimmicks and novelties. What kind of novelties? How about unicorn masks, bonnets for your cat, Bigfoot Christmas ornaments, glow-in-the-dark octopus tentacles you wear on your fingers, squirrel underpants, rubber chickens, and bacon flavored candy canes? Their website has about 600 different novelties, and the store seems to have about 10,000. The novelties stay on the classy side of the street — no fart jokes or vibrating devices. Every Christmas I place a massive order and treat my friends and family to some memorable oddball amusements.
I arrived at Archie McPhee about an hour later than I planned. The GPS in my rental got me lost 4 or 5 times, allowing me to see much of Seattle but limiting my time at McPhee. Fortunately, the new location was easy to spot — red & yellow and lined with many of the mythical characters featured in their gimmicks — and they have free parking. Once I entered the store, it was like one of those game shows where you have a limited time to grab as much money as you can. Instead of cash, I was grabbing finger monsters, squirrel-sized coffee cups, fugu-flavored candies, gummy candy bacon (tastes like strawberry, looks like bacon), a Bigfoot scarf, zombie pirate finger puppets, rubber tentacles, Thanksgiving dinner flavored gum, rubber chicken floating pens, and much more. I ended up spending $197 dollars (and got a free book about Archie McPhee). Had I more time, I would have spent a thousand dollars. Literally $1000.
Click and zoom in on these photos to get an idea about how vast their novelty selection is.
So, in 7 years, what has changed? Obviously, the location and the exterior of the building has changed, and inside many of the attractions have been altered in some transformative but amusing way. Otherwise, it’s the same store, packed with goodies and awesomely helpful employees (who, even though I arrived close to closing time, they didn’t chase me out the door — which I really appreciate).
The new store front is missing the Jesus Lizard and neon (the neon is around the corner), but it has gained a Bibo and Bigfoot:
Cap’t Archie the Fortune Teller, once clearly a boat captain, now appears to be on his day off, enjoying a meal at a diner:
The Devil Head has gained some blond locks, X’s for eyes, and a veil of sorts:
So, what did I learn from to my most recent trip to Archie McPhee:
- Our time on earth is short, so have and share as much fun as you can, while you can.
- Things change over time, but if your core beliefs and aspirations stay the same, cosmetic/superficial transformations make little difference.
- You can learn valuable lessons by returning to places you’ve visited in past.
- Rental car GPS, not so good.
On a recent business trip, I encountered a strange tower that looks like it is made of green glass beer bottles. It is at approximately 19332 North Creek Pkwy. I have no idea what it is, but it looks cool at night. It’s like a bar saved every Heineken bottle it ever served and made a chimney out of them. During the day, it isn’t that special, so look for it at night.
The point of this article is to showcase Dick’s Drive-In’s amazing rotating, partially neon sign. Look at this sign. Just look at it.
The rest is a ramble about driving around Seattle in a rental car:
The week before last I found myself in Seattle, Washington on a business trip. The rental car was a Toyota Yaris, a peppy sub-compact that gave me the odd feeling of driving while sitting on a bar stool — higher up than expected, never quite comfortable, ever feeling like I could topple off at any moment. I never felt like the Yaris was my car — I felt like Hertz could remotely eject me from the vehicle at will or whim. This is fine. A rental car should remind you that you’re only visiting, and not here to stay (and perhaps not welcome). Yaris — weird, but fun to drive.
Every big city likes to brag about their traffic. L.A. takes an hour to move 5 miles. NYC has its gridlock. Atlanta has drivers who refuse to use turn signals. Seattle has bad traffic for its own reasons. Reason number one: it rains a lot. Rain is annoying as-is, but the accompanying foggy windows and tire-swallowing flooding are even worse. I imagine Seattle’s hilly streets can be quite treacherous on icy winter days. Number two: much of the area looks rural, but it is actually a city; hilly, tree-lined neighborhoods of bungalow-style homes quickly transition to congested highways — unexpected and jarring. Number three: the high-traffic times seem to last longer than expected — like from 5pm to 8:30pm. I wonder if this is due to folks working in the tech industry, where 12 hour days are the norm (Microsoft, Amazon). Think you’re going to avoid traffic by leaving at 7:30 pm — NOPE! Number four: Seattle-area drivers are not courteous. I live in New Jersey — a state that celebrates its rudeness; we call it “unhöflichkeitstolz” — Seattle is just as rude. If you see someone in the lane to your left who has signaled that they want to merge into your lane, give them space and let them in. Combine this set of challenges with an abundance of residents and visitors because of the tech industry, and driving around Seattle can be miserable. Seattle residents seem to take pride in their miserable traffic. “Elendstolz” or “misery pride” in German (I made that up).
Combine Seattle traffic with a less than accurate GPS, and a half hour trip becomes an hour and a half. If you’ve read my Maryland trips this year, you know I enjoy when my demented GPS takes me to places I otherwise would have never known. When time is a factor, however, a GPS that continually thinks you’re driving 1 street to your right can be both bemusing and vexing. You’re going to miss a half dozen exits and make 100 wrong turns, but you’re also going to accidentally see the tent cities, shipyards, the first Starbucks, the Fremont troll and dozens of other sights the typical visitor will miss.
The Dick’s Drive-In I spied was on North 45th street, which also features the tentacle neon of the Octopus Bar, and the brick and mortar manifestation of Archie McPhee. The Dick’s Drive has no servers on roller-skates or food trays that hang on your doors — this is not the 1950s. Instead, you find parking, wait in line, you watch workers prepare burgers, fries and shakes in bright, medically-white clean conditions, place your order, your order appears in about 10 seconds, you pay, and then you leave. Very efficient. No sass or insincerity. After an hour of Seattle traffic, simplicity and efficiency are what you need.
New Jersey has many massive & memorable business mascots, including Margate City’s Lucy the Elephant and Asbury Park’s Tillie. My personal favorite promotional character is Calico the Clown: an enormous, primary-colored clown, located at 853 Route 35 North, Middletown, NJ. Calico now stands before a Spirits Unlimited liquor store, but he once was the mascot of Food Circus Super Markets, Inc., a company that operates a bunch of Foodtown supermarkets (more info). I can see the connection between “Food Circus” and a clown, and … liquor makes folks “act like a clown” as well.
Calico has garnered the unfortunate name “the Evil Clown of Middletown”. The look on his face conjures up terms like wily, scheming, bemused, or vexed. His eyebrows are reminiscent of the Rock’s “people’s eyebrow” – but with both eyes. I don’t see “evil” when I look at Calico. I see a complex individual, often misunderstood and under-appreciated, stoic, with a healthy disdain and sense of humor about the world around him. I guess I see myself in Calico.
The clown has been profiled by Weird NJ and Roadside America over the years. There is a Facebook page dedicated to preventing his destruction (Save Calico, The “Evil Clown” of Middletown, NJ). There are even songs about him.
One “controversy” with the clown is: “what is he doing with his right hand?” Some dirty-minded folks say he is making a lewd gesture. He is — or at least he should be — holding a balloon string. The “SAVE” circle on the sign is actually a balloon:
Also, note that the original drawing of Calico features all 7 chakras:
It appears that his third eye was omitted or removed from his roadside manifestation. I also wonder why they chose to paint his finger red.
My Hocking Hills story beings as many of my travel stories do: mapping periodical cicadas. I had heard that Hocking Hills park in Ohio was a hotspot for the rarest of the three 17 year cicada species (Magicicada septendecula), so I traveled there to check it out. The reports were true… the cicadas were there in abundance… but no one had told me about the cave.
I’m a sucker for a good cave. I see a sign for a cave and I’ll drive 100, no, make that 200 miles to see that cave. Case in point: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. Back in 2014 I was in Cincinnati, started heading home (east) for New Jersey, but the next thing you know I’m 208 miles south at a cave! Sure, I stopped at the Jim Beam distillery along the way, but I ended up at a cave.
While wandering through the Hocking Hills state park — clutching my video camera, listening for septendecula, trying not to stand out amongst the dozens of tourists milling about — I saw the sign: “Old Man Cave”. Suddenly the sounds of cicadas dissolved from my mind and all I could think was “cave”.
That’s the third paragraph that ends in cave. Get the point?
Surprisingly Old Man Cave is not a “traditional” below ground cave. It is an above ground cave, because it has no ceiling. Perhaps it had a ceiling at one time; perhaps it collapsed. Had you asked me, I would have guessed that it was actually a canyon. As you’ll see from my photos and video, it still looks like a cave — limestone rock sculpted by the erosion of water — but it also looks like a canyon.
To get to the cave you have to enter a tunnel (the most “traditional” cave-like part of the journey). At the mouth of the tunnel were two healthy-looking young men; before I could enter, one stopped me. “Are you sure you want to go into the cave? It’s a hard walk even for me.” He advised me to go through the tunnel, enjoy the view, and then turn around and go home. He wasn’t an employee of the park — just another tourist.
I had to pause, if just for a moment, and ask myself: “how decrepit is my appearance?” Yes, I know I look like Lucious Malfoy: clearly middle-aged, with bone-white hair. And certainly, I could stand to lose a few pounds (more like 20). “How feeble and near death do I appear?”
I thanked the young man for his advice and concern and entered the tunnel. Upon exiting, the view was amazing. It’s hard to capture the magnificence with a photograph. To the right there’s a massive limestone overhang, slick with moisture and stained with streaks of green algae; straight ahead the cave/canyon drops maybe a hundred feet to the cave floor. It’s spectacular. At that moment I thought, “I have to do this; I have to experience this, even if the young man is right and I will die trying.”
The Old Man Cave trail passes under the massive rock overhang, and then winds and twists along the side of the cave until you reach the bottom, at that point you can enjoy the view of the waterfall, and then you hike back up the other side and continue around until you reach the start.
The hike down is long, and the hardest part is maintaining your balance and not falling to your death while taking a photo. Core strength is important. The hike up requires leg strength and stamina, but it isn’t all that bad. There were a few septuagenarians and little kids hacking it — it was fine. No worries.
Video from my hike:
After the Old Man Cave, I took a break… grabbed some water… made a video of some bugs…
And then walked across this funky looking bridge…
And then hiked up a hill into the woods and recorded some cicada song.
Along the path back to my car there were a group of young dudes debating on whether they should hop a fence and go swimming in the stream below. They were having a serious debate — you might think they were getting up the nerve to talk to some young women — no, just going for an illegal swim.
Crossing back across the bridge I could hear them splash into the river below. I thought “good, they’re living life, and taking chances as they should”.
My last post was about 6 cool things about Burlington, Vermont… but what about the rest of the state? I’ve only been to a small portion of Vermont, but here are a few of my favorite things to see and do there (yes, most are odd).
A Gorilla Holding up a Volkswagen on Route 7
This masterpiece is somewhere along Route 7. A huge gray gorilla holding aloft a rusty VW Bug. I can’t remember what type of business the gorilla stands in front of, but I assume it is either a mechanic or a gymnasium for gorillas.
More info on Roadside America.
The Whale Tales on Route 89
Imagine that you’re driving along a Vermont highway, enjoying the pastoral scenery, when suddenly two massive whale tales appear as if the whales are diving into the green grass sea of a cow pasture. “Am I hallucinating?” you might ponder, and you very well may be, but the whale tales are very real. These massive sculptures are made of black African granite and the sculptor is Jim Sardonis.
More info about the whales www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/1377.
I can’t remember where this was. An entire village of tiny houses. Someplace in Vermont. I wish I had more facts to share. Enjoy the photos below.
Ben and Jerry’s
Ben and Jerry’s is famous for their cleverly named ice creams. What once started as a small business in Vermont is now a very large subsidiary of the mega-corporation Unilever. In spite of this change, their ice cream is still tasty, and their factory in Waterbury, Vermont is still worth visiting. My favorite attraction within the Ben and Jerry’s factory compound is the graveyard of retired flavors.
Maple Syrup Everywhere
I love maple syrup. I prefer it to honey or cane sugar. Vermont has maple syrup everywhere you go, and in virtually any format you can imagine. Candy, ice cream, syrup… candy.
Last time I visited I bought a jug of the stuff, kept it in the fridge and took swigs off it at least once a day. I’m not proud of that fact, but neither am I ashamed.
Don’t worry folks, the antlers used to make this massive arch outside the Cow Palace fell off the elk naturally. But they also will serve you an elk burger. Naturally.
1) The Lake. Most tourists probably go to Burlington for Lake Champlain, which provides all manner of water-based outdoor possibilities. It is beautiful. It has its own Loch Ness monster-like creature named Champ.
2) Downtown Sculptures. Downtown Burlington is loaded with many sculptures. Some are simply nice, like a bear or a deer. Some are exuberant and whimsical.
3) Gnome Mushroom: Some ne’er–do–well or perhaps force majeure must have tipped this sculpture over at some point. This marble masterpiece was across the street from my hotel. Some of the locals referred to it as a choad rather than a mushroom. Use your own imagination. The mushroom gnome can be found in Battery Park Extension.
4) Wizard of Oz Flying Monkeys. Legend has it that these creatures once guarded a furniture store named the Emerald City. Now they perch atop a building down by the waterfront.
About the monkeys, which can be found at One Main Street.
5) The patriotic Egg Man. I don’t know the story of this mural, but it certainly deserves a good one.
6) Dolomite. I’m a fan of the actor/comedian Rudy Ray Moore. His Dolemite films were truly something else. This rock is a piece of Dolomite, which is a mineral that is sold as a diet supplement associated with good health and strength, which is exactly why Rudy named his character after the mineral (true story, I wouldn’t lie). This rock can be found in Waterfront Park.
Note: this story needs some editing, but it’s late and I want to get it out.
Pokemon Go might be the biggest fad of the century (so far). Like Rock and Roll in the 1900s, it represents a massive, and permanent, culture shift. Like any change, people will fear it, lament it, ridicule it, and try to regulate it. Some will use it as a distraction, to turn their minds from the more difficult and frightening issues of the day.
That said, Pokemon Go has a truly valuable side effect: kids are actually learning about their neighborhoods, towns, counties, and other real-world places they visit. They’re learning to value their local parks, trails, monuments, and attractions. The game makes kids go to these greenways, trailheads, statues, sculptures, etcetera, in order to win Pokemon Balls and achievements. 90% of these kids would never have learned about these places. This best thing about Pokemon Go: kids are learning about the real world, in amazing detail, and even after they grow out of Pokemon Go, they’ll remember and appreciate these places and return there someday.
I downloaded the app to test this out. Yeah, I caught a few Pokemon. Yeah, I captured Tauros in Deep Cut Gardens. But, mostly what I was interested in was the PokeStops aka the real-world places of interest that appear in the game. My town only had one: “Fish Art” — a giant fish painting outside a fish restaurant. But once I left my town, I found monuments to war heroes, parks, hiking trails, and here’s the coolest one: a place to go digging for fossils. FOSSILS!
It was after work. Maybe 6:30 pm. I started the Pokemon Go app specifically to look for some interesting local places. In the distance (within the app) I saw a marker for a PokeStop. So I drove there (I know, I should have walked, cheating), and there it was: Poricy Park Fossil Beds. Actual fossil remains of sea creatures. Like finding the skeletal remains of ancient Pokemon! And guess what?! I walked into the woods and up to a muddy, dank stream bed. I dug my hands deep into that mud. I swirled that mud around in my fist, and within minutes I had a small collection of fossils.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but fans of apps like Roadside America: you want Pokemon Go too. Why? While Roadside America will show you the weird and oddball stuff, Pokemon Go will show you the normal, but still awesome stuff. If you’re the type of traveler who likes to wander around a town looking for things that make that town unique — you want both apps.
When writing this post, the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came to mind. In that movie Johnny Depp (Raoul Duke (Hunter S. Thompson)) and Benicio Del Toro (Dr. Gonzo) are traveling to Las Vegas (or was it from…) when Depp announces “wait, we can’t stop here, this is Bat Country!”, which is a famous line from the film. Bats become a major component of the film, and are mentioned 35 times in the script. There are many strange and creepy moments in the film, and bats are a major (but perhaps the most natural) part of the experience.
Driving through Garrett County, Maryland — alone and totally sober (okay, caffeinated) — I noticed the appearance of Bears everywhere. Signs in the shape of bears, wooden bears, places with “bear” in their name. And to be clear, I’m talking about black bears aka Ursus americanus. Garrett County Maryland is clearly “bear country”.
Unlike Raoul Duke, I had no fear of the dominant local mammalian fauna. Statistically speaking, only one person per year dies of a bear attack — and that’s all bears, not just black bears. You are 33,000 times more likely to to be killed by a human driving a car than a bear. That’s 3,300,000% more likely. Here’s the source if you don’t believe me. Now, am I suggesting that if you’re on a road trip in bear country it is safe to stop in a forest, and prance off into woods covered in spoiled lard and blueberries? No! You should be wary of bears, and pay them the respect they deserve, but don’t avoid Garrett County because the dominant megafauna are bears.
If you think like I do, you’ll want some bear-themed souvenirs. Bear Creek Traders in McHenry, Maryland is a super-market sized store filled to the rafters with all manner of bear-themed bric-a-brac, tchotchkes, quelque chose. When I walked through the door, an alarm went off that announced “a rube as entered the building”. When it comes to travel situations, I have little self-control, so I loaded up on $99 of t-shirts, mugs, magnets, shot glasses, and stickers. I love that kind of stuff.
The most iconic manifestation of Garrett’s bear obsession are the chainsaw-carved bears that festoon nearly every business or homestead in the county. Chainsaw bears are not unique to Garrett, but they “own” the art form. If you haven’t seen them before, they’re literally bears sculpted out of wood using a chainsaw; the limited precision of a chainsaw combined with the natural grain of the wood simulate the fur of the bears.
While mapping the outer edge of Brood V, I stopped at a chainsaw vendor in Bittinger along rt. 495. I met the proprietor, and we had a short conversation about bears, insects, religion, and life. There’s no sense in traveling unless you stop and talk to folks along the way.