Return to Archie McPhee

My last visit to Seattle was in 2009, and at that time I visited Archie McPhee at the 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 MUCH FUN at Archie McPhee in Seattle WA

Showroom floor at Archie McPhee in Seattle WA

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:

Archie McPhee Storefront

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:

Cap't Archie

The Devil Head has gained some blond locks, X’s for eyes, and a veil of sorts:

Devil Head

So, what did I learn from to my most recent trip to Archie McPhee:

  1. Our time on earth is short, so have and share as much fun as you can, while you can.
  2. Things change over time, but if your core beliefs and aspirations stay the same, cosmetic/superficial transformations make little difference.
  3. You can learn valuable lessons by returning to places you’ve visited in past.
  4. Rental car GPS, not so good.

Links:

Green mystery tower in Bothell, WA

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.

Green tower in Bothell WA

Dick’s Drive-In and Driving Around Seattle

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.

Dick's Hamburgers

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 that 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 7:30pm — 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 typically 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 is what you need.

The “B-Side” of the rotating sign.
Dick's Drive In in Seattle WA

Calico, the “Evil” Middletown Clown

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 distain and sense of humor about the world around him. I guess I see myself in Calico.

Middletown Liquor Clown

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:
The Hand

Also, note that the original drawing of Calico features all 7 chakras:
Clown with 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.

Middle Aged Man Hikes Above Ground Cave

fall 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 than 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 alge; 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 tying.”

Old Man Cave, Hocking Hills

Old Man Cave, Hocking Hills

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.

Old Man Cave, Hocking Hills

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…

Hocking Hills

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 wether 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”.

More info:

This is bear country!

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”.

Send More Tourists 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 weary 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 tshirts, 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.

Sell fudge and popcorn? Why not sell bears as well?
Chainsaw 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.

Chainsaw Bear made by Bob on 495 in MD

Chainsaw Bear made by Bob on 495 in MD

Chainsaw Bear made by Bob on 495 in MD

In a “why the heck not” moment, I decided to purchase a small chainsaw bear. He now greets people who visit my apartment, and guards it from evil spirits.
My new roommate. #chainsawcarving #blackbear

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.

Accident, Maryland

Accident, Maryland is a town created by accident. Legend has it that there was a guy, and this guy had one job to do. That job was to divide up the land in Garrett County, Maryland. But, he messed up. He done goofed. Instead of dividing the the land up evenly, he accidentally left one area unaccounted for. His accident became the town of Accident.

Hopefully not litterally

I visited Accident on purpose, but mostly to get this photo of this sign.

Sideling Hill Overlook

The Sideling Hill Overlook is at welcome center & rest stop in Maryland on i68. It’s worth stopping for the view of the massive cut through the a mountain called Sideling Hill, and the overlook of the valley to the east. Good for photographers, which is everyone these days.

Overlooking the valley below:
Sideling Hill Overlook

Mountain? No problem, just carve a wedge out of it:
Sideling Hill Overlook 2

There is a Vietnam War memorial on the premises. The rest stop facilities are clean as well.

Link:

Freddy’s Mart

I’ve discussed in previous posts how my in-dash GPS likes to take me on nail-biting, white-knuckle journeys down roads better suited for ATVs than my silver muffin low-rider. A few weeks ago the GPS decided to take me down a crooked snake of a road called Bear Creek Road in Garrett County, Maryland.

While the road was a harrowing one-lane adrenaline ride, the view was gorgeous: beautiful forest and bubbling streams. Another case of “do I enjoy the scenery, or do I focus on not dying”.

Garrett County Maryland

Along the winding way I encountered Freddy’s Mart: a ramshackle micro-village of barn-shacks encrusted and encumbered with all manners of Appalachian Plateau cultural artifacts. At the time I spotted the place I was being tailed by teens trying out for Fast n’ Furious: Appalachia Drift. With no time to slow down to allow them to pass I had to keep going, likely never to see Freddy’s Mart again.

In my mind Freddy’s Mart became a legendary place, and I began to manufacture a history for it. I cataloged in great detail its contents: logs shaped like snakes, buckets of thread spools, pots filled with old spark plugs, camping detritus abandoned by soft-handed weekend sportsmen, half used spools of Stren, roadsigns with shot holes, old glass insulators from telephone wires, one-eyed dolls that granted wishes.

By the time I shook the teens it was too far and too late to swing back for an investigation. I had to settle for my imagination. Or so I thought.

Headed back to Jersey a week later, my GPS once again took me down Bear Creek Road, providing me with a twice in a lifetime chance to see Freddy’s Mart. Fortunately this time I was able to slow down and stop, and take some photos. The place was closed, but seemingly just as interesting as I imagined.

My pictures are kind of poorly framed, but the locals started to stare me down, and I didn’t want to outstay my welcome. I can say that the property is for sale, and if anyone wants to buy it, now might be the time.

Freddy's Mart

Freddy's Mart

Freddy's Mart