Thursday, February 6, 2014

Impossible Germany: Frankenmuth, MI

If you ever wanted to know what America would be like if the Germans won the war, go to Frankenmuth, Michigan.

A tourist destination near the thumb of the mitten, Frankenmuth was settled in the 1840s, long before Hitler was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Timeline aside, it’s a strange look into a strange could-have-been but thank-god-it’s-not future. Frankenmuth mirrors the German-designated section of Epcot beer halls, cheese and sausage shops, perfectly maintained buildings in the Bavarian architectural style with astutely trimmed window boxes of multicolored pansies. Every shop attendant is dressed in “traditional” German garb — lederhosen for men and dirndls for women with the obligatory Heidi braids. Upon entering a store, you are greeted with “guten tag” and after swiping a free sample or four of fudge, sent away with “auf wiedersehen!” Not a single piece of garbage flutters to the street before it is swept up by an employee who is neither seen nor heard. Most disturbing is the absence of minorities. Everyone, from the employees to the patrons, is a minutely varying shade of ivory.

There are a few expensive restaurants along the main street, toting themselves as “inns” and each serving what they claim to be a “World Famous” chicken dish. We ordered all our finances would allow — sides of spetzel and beets, curious to see what the illustrious chicken dish was but unwilling to pay $28 a person for it. At the next table over, a couple suited up to consume one of these famous feasts, which upon arrival looked no different than fried chicken from a cardboard bucket. This did not seem to bother the couple, who waited just until the waiter breathed to shovel food into their mouths.

The centerpiece of this whitewashed abyss is Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, boasting itself as the world’s largest Christmas store.

The parking lot overflows in mid-July with sparkling mini-vans and SUVs. Women with wooly up-dos and bermuda shorts pushed heavy shopping carts, filling them with white boxes containing ceramic, light-up scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings and It’s a Wonderful Life, none for less than $70, nearly twice their K-Mart price. Unenthused husbands in Lions’ and Packers’ sweatshirts nodded in sync with each flowing query.

“Do you like this?”
“Do we already have this one?”
“Isn’t this darling?!”

Music dreaded for ten months of the year is enjoyed at the highest volume. Rows of glimmering ornaments for every occasion imaginable are lined up over more square footage than a professional golf course, organized into categories like “newly engaged,” “food,”  and “fishing.” There’s an employee who’s purpose is solely to customize ornaments, painting messages like “Derrick and Brittany, June 2014” on a frail periwinkle bulb. Everything makes noise, or worse, sings a song.

Bronner's also had no problem letting their patrons know that their electrical bill is $900 a day.

Being in Frankenmuth is like being stuck in one of those tiny, porcelain villages, this Made in China town where everything exists for display purposes only a lived-in cuckoo clock. Even the people seemed like they were purchased and set there, dressed in costumes they didn’t have the option of removing, swallowing a conveyor belt of beer and cheese and sausage medallions on an endless loop. Dolls in someone else's playhouse.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

North Country Blues: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

The Midwest gets a lot of hate for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest, at least to me, is the sameness of it all. I won’t deny the existence of Midwestern hospitality, and while there is some natural beauty in the Midwest, most of it has been bulldozed to make way for suburban developments. It is a very bland, homogenous landscape of vinyl-sided prefabs, covering the full spectrum from beige to taupe, with a CVS across from a Walgreen’s across from a gas station across from a used car dealership. (Seriously, Indiana, what the Hell is up with that?)

Breaking away from that sameness is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The people who know about it all agree that it is a wonderful place…but then, there is everybody else. On the one hand, there is the fact that an unsettling percentage of the American population would fail even the most basic of geography quizzes. But on the other hand, there are maps, graphics, and illustrations that just plain leave the Upper Peninsula off.

The Upper Peninsula should be right next to the Northeastern corner of Wisconsin.

Their loss is ours, too, because the Upper Peninsula should not just be its own state – which I actually am in favor of – it might as well be its own country.

Michigan itself is an interesting state, unfortunately known mostly for their run-down urban centers like Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw, places that even the proudest of Michiganders (yes, that is the actual term) speak about in the hushed tones typically reserved for discussing a recently incarcerated relative: “Yeah, it’s a shame, really…” Of course, there is far more to Michigan than just urban decay, fun and scary as all that is for hipster photography students and locals, respectively.

At some point in the not-so-distant past, an advertising slogan came about for Michigan’s tourism industry: “Say yes to Michigan!” The counter-slogan for the Upper Peninsula, which has achieved far more immortality than the original advertising campaign it mocked, is “Say ya to da UP, eh!” Describing the difference between the residents of the Upper Peninsula, who call themselves Yoopers (hey, it rolls off the tongue better than Michiganders), and pretty much everyone else in the United States can be easily summed up with that slogan.

The UP boasts a strong Scandinavian heritage, largely due to the low numbers of people who initially settled there. In many ways, the UP shares a lot in common with Aroostook County in Maine: low population density, locals who are just as Old World as their ancestors who arrived six generations ago, plenty of room for nature, and a local humor that is far less parochial than one might think. Roadside souvenir shops boast Genuine Yooper Goods, including this Yooper bug-killer:

My personal favorite was what looked like a mileage chart, indicating the distance from various UP locations to other major American cities. Instead of miles, though, the sign listed the number of “road pops” needed to get there. I asked a shopkeeper what a road pop was, and with a proud chuckle he informed me that road pop is beer. The distance from St. Ignace to Chicago? Six road pops. Drunk driving – not funny. Road pops as a unit of measurement – hilarious.

The Mackinac Bridge, connecting the UP to the Mitten.
Of course, in the same way that Michigan isn’t all Detroit, the UP isn’t all Scandinavian hillbillies. Marquette was a lovely college town, and Ishpeming is not just home to a rich history of copper mining and the International Skiing Hall of Fame, it was also one of the final contenders for Michigan’s state capital. (Now there’s an interesting “what-if” for you, if that’s your thing…) My friend and fellow Monkees scholar Colin told me we absolutely had to visit Houghton and Hancock, twin towns separated by a river, on the premise that “it is just like walking around inside a Gordon Lightfoot song.” It definitely was, and we also had an incredible Finnish breakfast in Houghton.

Hancock, as seen from Houghton.
And speaking of Gordon Lightfoot, the Shipwreck Museum in Paradise features a short film on the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald that reduced everyone – everyone – to tears. Not just quiet weeping, either, we are talking full-on funereal sobs. Beyond the tragic element of the souls lost in the treacherous waters of Lake Superior, the Shipwreck Museum offered a lot about the lives of lighthouse keepers, which was apparently a prestigious job in its time. The museum also has startlingly realistic dummies, so if you visit, be sure to look out for that.

The Shipwreck Museum
Whenever either of us write about a place we genuinely liked – or even loved – both Alexa and I always wonder if our enthusiasm was contagious enough, especially since writing such pieces typically devolves into us saying, “This place is awesome, so just GO already and see it for yourself!”

Downtown Ishpeming

It may not be the easiest place in the country to reach, but for adventure seekers, who want to see what a colorful downtown looked like before the invasion of the big-box retailers, who want to be one with nature (did I mention we began camping out in the UP? Highly recommended, but bathe yourself in bug spray – the deep woods stuff.), who love being on the water, who cherish soaking in the local culture, well…this place is awesome, so just GO already and see it for yourself!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Superman: Metropolis, IL

We passed through plenty of towns with some claim to fame, hometown of this or that famous or infamous individual or setting of a certain movie or television show that collected a cult following, but none as proud as Metropolis, Illinois. And rightfully so. It’s common for every tenth town to boast it birthed some one-hit-wonder, troubled Disney star, or indie darling, but only Metropolis has rights over Superman.

While the town recognizes that Superman did not actually spring from the banks of the Ohio, he is their bona fide hometown hero. The town itself is a blip, a few municipal buildings, a pizzeria guilty of frozen, pre-made crusts, a fifty-year-old hardware store surviving because the town is too small for a Lowes, certainly nothing like the fictional city of glass and concrete Superman perpetually saves from certain destruction. But, through a simple duplication in name, Superman became the icon of the real Metropolis, and standing in the center of their downtown is a glossy, two-story statue of the comic book icon, fists to his hips, his fiberglass cape blowing in the wind.

Every year, Metropolis hosts a celebration honoring Superman, drawing comic book nerds and cute kids in costumes to the southern Illinois village of only a couple thousand residents. In the past, when Hollywood producers decided to film a new movie about the Man of Steel every few years, the town of Metropolis gathered at the local cineplex to cheer on their hero. The theatre has since closed.

Across from town hall is a museum dedicated to Superman and his nearly seven decades of saving the world. It’s more of an insane fan’s collection rather than carefully maintained and curated articles, neatly displayed for viewing. Only a few items have homes in cases or garment bags, and things have begun to wither and yellow under a layer of dust. There’s costumes, props, and stills from every television reboot, and shelves full of plastic cups from every time a fast-food restaurant promoted a Superman movie. A Superman documentary plays on a loop, covering the creation of Superman up through the largely mediocre 2006 release Superman Returns. Thousands of action figures stare down from their shelves, gifting the museum the feeling of a journey into a nerdy ex-boyfriend’s basement, all the stuff he would never want you to know he owned.

Outside of the museum, tourists poked their heads through cardboard cutouts of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Dwarfed under the enormous fiberglass statue, they snapped this year’s Christmas card. “Have a SUPER Christmas!” The bought souvenirs and t-shirts from the museums only worker, the in-the-flesh version of The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy.

Superman does save Metropolis, Illinois — he saves it from existing as yet another depressed town, overwrought by strip malls and chain restaurants, existing just as the next town over, the only difference being it’s name. It has pride, far more than hundreds of places we’ve passed through, and pride is worth everything.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Major Announcement - Seymour, IN

(No YouTube link this time around, just text. Those with short attention spans and/or a busy workday can find the "too long; didn't read" version of this below.)

In the course of our travels, we have outrun a tornado in Alabama, accidentally done some off-road driving in Maine, dodged floodwater in Missouri, and waited out a blizzard in Wyoming. We have driven while barely awake in the dead of night. Last week - on December 5th - we woke up in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, ready to visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe before making our way to Colorado.

We never made it.

On our way north, we encountered freezing rain, followed by sleet. The car we have is a Mazda 6. She's great for fuel economy, rated one of the safest cars out there, and is in such good shape that when we got the oil changed in Seattle the fellow at the garage asked what we were doing right. However, at the end of the day, our car is still a four-door sedan. It is not equipped for brutal weather, and even in extreme winds can buckle from side to side. As we sat at lunch, watching an apocalyptic weather forecast covering most of the Midwest, Alexa and I reached a mutual decision.

The trip is being put on hold until springtime. We will continue to post entries on the blog and photo albums on Facebook, but the traveling segment is on temporary hiatus. (I cannot stress enough the word temporary here.)

In terms of the grand scheme of our trip, this was not an easy decision. As it stands now, we have 4.5 states left: the northern half of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Aside from Hawaii and Alaska, we have literally seen everything else. We were so close that we were projecting a completion date of around my birthday (January 11th). However, in terms of our personal safety, the safety of our vehicle, and the safety of what little we have with us on the road, this was a no-brainer.

Since then, we made our way across Texas, visiting San Antonio and Houston, before venturing north. For the time being, we are visiting my family in Seymour, Indiana, where we will be through Christmas. After the New Year, we will resume blogging and posting photos, while also preparing a manuscript version of American Weirdness for publication and getting caught up on other projects.

I know I can speak for both of us when I say thank you - the readers - for your continued interest in this project. It has changed shape in the nine months we spent on the road, morphing from a travelogue with dining reviews to an almost anthropological glimpse at American society. Despite this, our readership hasn't just remained constant. It has increased. Whatever it is we are doing, we are clearly doing it right.

I also want to extend our sincerest of thanks to all of our nearest and dearest who have offered us food, a free place to stay, local recommendations, or even just a hang-out during our travels:
Jenn and Jay in Charleston
Joe in Knoxville
Vickie, Travis, and Scott in Atlanta
Stefania in Auburn
Danielle in St. Petersburg
Lewis for recommending stops in Delaware and Cape May, NJ
Briana and Dave in NYC
Tom and Lisa in Brooklyn
Jim in Newport
David and the kids in Scranton
John and Lu in Buffalo
Venkat and Parampara Das in New Vrindaban
Mark and Jeanne in Nashville
Phil and Ann in Madisonville
Nancy, Dudley, and Andy in Louisville
Joyce and Eric in Seymour
Kat in Indianapolis
Carrie in Columbus
Lori and family in Fort Wayne
Harleen in Ann Arbor
Eric and Ann in Detroit
Surendra in Lansing
Jonas in Minneapolis
Amanda, Amanda, and Daniel in Milwaukee
Mike in Vermilion
Art Barrow
Katie, David, and Joe in Seattle
Michael in Portland
Dan, Beulah, and Daniel in Corvallis
Emily in Salt Lake City
Winty in Sacramento
Kevin in Los Angeles
Josh and Amber in Florence
Deepak in San Antonio
Monica in Houston

Whether you offered us a bed, a meal, or even just tea, it meant the world to us.

This will be our last post for 2013, but this is only the beginning. Life on the road for any stretch of time, let alone nine solid months, is both fun and grueling. (Contrary to what our only naysayer might think, to call this a year-long vacation is callous, insensitive, and just plain stupid.) We're ready for time off from it, but at the same time I am happy to say that the last thing we want a break from is one another. Last week, my dad quipped that at this point Alexa and I could renovate a house and/or build one from scratch. And, as we told Tom and Lisa in Brooklyn, we are so close as a couple that we finish each other's sandwiches. It's a little scary.

We will see you in 2014.

Until then, Merry Whatever, Happy Who Cares, and use this time to reflect on the past and look towards the future.


tl;dr - bad weather, tired, taking winter off to get caught up, resuming travels in the spring; see you in January.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing: The World's Largest Cross, Effingham, IL

Alongside Interstate 70 in southern Illinois is a massive cross – 198 feet tall, to be exact –made out of aluminum siding. Do I even have to write this one to convey to you our shared thoughts on it?

Imagine a world where a religion adopted a method of execution as their central symbol: a noose, a guillotine, a lead pipe in the billiard room…now imagine that symbol stamped all across the United States. The cross, too, at least historically, was the device for one of the most popular execution methods of its era: crucifixion. There are crosses everywhere in this country. In regions with higher concentrations of Baptists, it is usually a trio of crosses. Roadside are makeshift memorials to loved ones who died in automobile accidents, marked by crosses. And yet, there is never a roadside assemblage of crescent moons and stars, six-pointed stars, the Sanskrit depiction of “Om,” Buddha’s wheel of dharma…

For those who don't know - and want to - the Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David, Hindu Om, the Star and Crescent of Islam, the Buddhist Dharmic wheel, the Shinto Torii, the Sikh Khanda, the Baha'i Star, and the Jain Hand.

Image credit: Wikimedia.
Now is as good a time as ever to restate that I find nothing wrong with the core precepts of Christianity. Whatever belief system helps you become a better person without being a self-righteous ass about it, I say go for it. My dad is a good Christian. My grandparents are good Christians. There are plenty of good Christians the world over. This isn’t for them or even about them – and with that, I hope more Christians stand up for themselves and the true messages within their religion, of love, acceptance, and service to mankind, not just as an affront to the clinically insane claimants of the faith, but also to reshape popular perception.

Theological conundrums aside, and I assure you the book will have a much meatier take on the subject, the important question I have asked as we traveled across the United States is this: “What about non-Christians?” What about non-Christians who wish to buy alcohol on a Sunday in any number of states? What about non-Christians who see a billboard telling them evolution is a lie, and to call 1-855-FOR-TRUTH to hear the real story? What about those pro-life billboards?

Not even the worst.

Image credit: Plunderbund via Gender Focus.
For people living on either coast, this may seem baffling, but it is a reality throughout the Midwest and the South. (That said, I would love to know the rates of teen pregnancies in regions with those awful “LIFE BEGINS AT CONCEPTION” billboards.) If this was a phenomenon limited to a single state, it would not be as bad. It would be a problem as easily resolved as my version of censorship: if you do not like it, turn it off! If you don’t care to see these messages, avoid the one state that has them. Unfortunately, this presentation of a warped, distorted Christianity that is anti-gay, ferociously anti-abortion, and anti-science, whatever the numbers actually are for practitioners and church memberships, is loud, proud, and preachy.

People are entitled by the Bill of Rights, their own free will, and some level of divine inspiration to pursue and practice the belief system of their choice. Where I draw the line is when one narrow school of thought is considered superior, influencing not just popular culture, but public policy. My gripe is with how in-your-face certain types of Christians can be. For the most egregious example of this, look no further than the Effingham Cross.

Interstate 70 serves as a major route for transportation from Baltimore to Utah, spanning just over 2,150 miles. Anyone who has passed through Illinois on this road has seen it, almost popping up out of nowhere: a giant cross, illuminated by a circle of spotlights on the ground. A close inspection reveals it is covered with aluminum siding, looking more like the weekend project of a crazed Home Depot employee than an earnest testament of faith.

No graven images...but a cross that towers over the nearest grain silo? Totally okay.
At the cross’ base is a relatively new church facility. Its sanctuary has at its front a wall of glass, granting visitors a view of the enormous cross and the relaxing vista of four lanes of constant Interstate traffic. Staffed by elderly volunteers, the church also offers a ten-minute video detailing the construction and installation of the cross. For reasons that I do not understand, both the video and their literature makes a big deal out of the fact that the cross was completed and put in place in the weeks after 9/11.

Alexa Altman: 5 foot 4 inches of fierce.
I was also left with a bad taste in my mouth when I learned the designer deliberately planned for the cross to stand 198 feet tall. What sounds like an arbitrary number is in fact two feet less than the minimum height listed in an FAA regulation requiring a blinking red light on top. Something about that struck me as so unnecessarily defiant, as if a cross twenty-four inches taller would somehow be cheapened by a blinking red light in compliance with federal law.

It was (literally) a hundred degrees out, with that Midwestern humidity to boot. I promised Alexa a cake pop to stay there while I walked back far enough to get the entire cross in the frame. 
The worst thing about this incredibly well-lit monstrosity is in knowing the resources invested into it, the time, money*, and manpower that could have built a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, or a Boys & Girls Club. Jesus was a champion for the weak, for those in need, and for children. My Biblical knowledge is rusty, I’ll admit, but I definitely do not remember him insisting his followers build a cult of personality around praising him, much less to construct a replica of the device used in his brutal public execution.

Jesus' execution, as depicted in a film that parents who otherwise protest violence in cinema took their children along to see.
Christianity is not the only religion in our cultural landscape, and with increased globalization, its numbers will continue to drop so as to make room for different belief systems and philosophies. This does not mean it is going away – and I would not want that to happen– but instead that other ideas will enter our cultural lexicon. After all, is America not the land that, even today, boasts room for all? Or did that go away along with habeas corpus and payphones?

The Effingham Cross would be less obnoxious if, along that same stretch of road, there were massive replicas of the symbols of every major world religion. But then again, it would not be too long before Muslim extremists would attempt to blow up the Star of David, Zionist war-hawks would build a barbed-wire fence around the Star and Crescent after vandalizing it, while the Baha’is would wonder aloud why we all just can’t get along.

Then again, religion is a subject much like sex. A private and deeply personal matter, it is best discussed in small groups, where experiences and pursuits can be discussed in a climate of respect and understanding, with an unwritten law in effect that those who talk the most frequently, the most publicly, and the loudest about it are the ones who are getting the least enjoyment from it.

Credit: Photobucket
*Actual retail price: $1,000,000.00. It wouldn’t exactly be the Ritz-Carlton, but that could build a homeless shelter or seven.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Tumbling Dice: French Lick Casino & Resort, Indiana

Neither of us are the ideal people to write about casinos. We hate them. Alexa and I both think casinos do nothing but attract the sleaziest elements, separating the gullible from their money to the point of addiction while at the same time heralding the culture of conspicuous consumption for America’s jet-set. This one won’t be pretty.

I grew up in Seymour, Indiana. It is the “small town” that John Mellencamp, the poor man’s Springsteen, rhapsodized about, but only after he had made his first million and gotten the Hell out. For many locals, this is still a sore subject – he abandoned his flock, he got too big for the “little people,” he forgot his roots…by moving to Bloomington. Bloomington – the hip, liberal college town, the only spot in Indiana that doesn’t deserve a napalm strike. For moving two counties over, just 50 miles away, the man is a sell-out, a Judas.

If I were him, I would have thought that even Bloomington was too close to that depressing track-mark, the land where religious diversity means Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians are breaking bread over the same buffet of casseroles and mayonnaise-based “salads.” It is a land that offers nothing but complacency, conformism, and being criticized in the rare case that you are even just a little different. I was happy to leave and have never looked back, not even missing Bloomington but for those fleeting moments of dumb nostalgia – yearning for an idealized past that never really existed, but one still envisions “those days” as being uncomplicated – and finally reminding myself that even Bloomington is only so much limestone and mortar.

Beginning with my adolescence, I knew Indiana was a state with no future. What a bleak thing to think, but only those who have seen it firsthand, with the right kind of eyes, will know what I mean.

I am singling Indiana out here, but the same can be said for a bulk of the Midwest. It has no future.

“Look at all the people,
Well they all look the same,
They’re going to the factories,
In their cloth caps and trilbies.”
- The Kinks, “Scrapheap City”

It is all about homogeneity. The sameness. The same houses. The same American-made trucks. The same haircuts. The same religious, political, and social views. And it has been meticulously crafted by the powers that be – all them liberal queer-lovers can stay out on the East Coast, or in California, because the Midwest has no place for them here. Putting a boot in one’s ass, according to popular lore, is the American way.

Fuck that song.

Perhaps more tragic than having no future is when a place has no idea what – if anything – to do with its past. Again, this is not just Indiana I am talking about. In fact, I’ll begin with an example from Indiana’s somehow even more depressing neighbor, Ohio. When we visited a friend in Columbus, she recounted to us that the birthplace of Rutherford B. Hayes and the first-ever Wendy’s had both been bulldozed. A White Castle now sits atop the latter.

I have talked a lot in my writings about my grandfather and his influence on me – loving history, my infatuation with the early days of the space program, leaving room for nature – but now is as good a time as any to mention his son, my dad, and what he brought to my upbringing. Besides music and movies, Dad has a love of architecture. Anything from the Victorian era up through Art Deco is right up his alley – he helped save a historic home near the Freeman Field airport from demolition – and he even lives in a house constructed in the mission-style, from 1912. This is something he has imparted onto all three of his kids. My older brother even considered architecture when he started college.

Way back when our family just had the one computer, Dad had as the desktop background a picture of the famous resort in West Baden, with its massive domed atrium. Dad told me all about it, and that one day, “when they finally get around to restoring it,” we would see it. West Baden shares a municipal border with French Lick, the unfortunately named hometown of Larry Bird. French Lick is also home to another famous old resort hotel, known for its sulfur-scented hot springs. Because the water induced diarrhea or something, it was bottled and sold for its curative properties as Pluto Water – “if nature can’t do it, Pluto will!”

The location of the resort may seem like a bit of a head-scratcher, smack in the middle of south-west central Indiana, but it was its proximity to Chicago along Highway 41 (just far enough to be a getaway) that made it a favorite place for businesspeople, gangsters, and film stars.

Long story short, the place fell in and out of disrepair (along with the West Baden Springs Hotel, which for a period became a Jesuit seminary), changing ownership every few years with loads of empty promises about restoring the place to its former glory. When I visited French Lick with my family in 2004, we actually stayed at the famed hotel. The lobby was in great shape, but the corridors and rooms definitely had a Shining feel to it. Maybe it had something to do with Indiana being a depressing shade of grey from November through April, but it had its share of charm. At the time, the West Baden Springs only offered tours of its grand lobby, with the scuttlebutt of the time being that Donald Trump had plans to revitalize both French Lick and West Baden.

Within a year, that rotten, racist son of a bitch had pulled out for “various reasons.” Instead, the Cook Company from Bloomington pledged their money, and by the time I left Indiana for good in 2009, French Lick’s grand hotel had become a resort and casino once again, with West Baden soon to follow.( Of course, some laws had to be rewritten so as to allow for the legalization of gambling first, but given the millions granted to the hotels, I’m sure a check or two made its way to Indianapolis.)

In our travels, and even when we still lived in New York City, the oft-proposed solution to money woes for a given town that inevitably floats to the surface like a turd in a swimming pool is, “I know! Let’s build a casino!” And the town is never the same. We have seen it everywhere there is a casino – panhandlers begging for money for a bus ticket, a gallon of gas, a phone call, that one last drink, plus that overall grimy and vulnerable feeling one gets upon realizing that they kissed personal safety goodbye twenty minutes ago – but that has not stopped local lawmakers from buying into the great lie that casinos create jobs and stimulate the economy.

The French Lick Springs Hotel, now dubbed The French Lick Resort Casino, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been dubbed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the Historic Hotels of America. These coveted distinctions were not enough to keep an entirely new wing from being added on to the original building, with the pressurized air from the connecting hallway blasting down the corridor.

That lobby I praised? Gone. It has been gutted out, renovated to look like an ugly modern hotel. A plastic bimbo hawking seats for a timeshare presentation in Group Meeting Room C was offering free cookies. Looking around at the clientele, she probably also should have been offering insulin shots. None of the original charm was intact – people addicted to penny slots don’t give a splatter of vomit about interior design, they just want to win big. But hey, at least they kept the tile floor.

Sitting on the large covered porch – another feature I was shocked to see left intact – were affluent vacationers, all reading the same shitty inspirational Christian fiction, looking like they just strutted out of a Ralph Lauren catalog. The men all play golf and the women treat themselves to oily rubdowns in the spa. A hundred years ago, they would have played croquet at lawn parties, sipping lemonade, advocating for temperance, and deriding gambling as the devil’s game. Now they sit above it – both architecturally and metaphorically – while the same groveling minions they slowly work to death during the week blow their wages below.

Throughout the historic hotel are signs indicating that no smoking is allowed. Hell, you now can’t even smoke within thirty feet of the entrance – but those rules don’t apply in the casino. The moment you cross over into the new addition, there is a faint aroma of tobacco smoke. At the escalators, the aroma becomes first a smell, then a full-blown stench, as you descend into the abyss. After you get past security, you are surrounded by winos, seniors connected to oxygen tanks, obese vacationers, and even more obese people who use motorized carts to get from one machine to the next.

You are inside the belly of a windowless, charmless, monitored-from-all-angles beast. All around you are blinking lights, loud synthesized notes as the tumblers spin inside the slot machines, and every few minutes an artificial bell ringing because someone just won three bucks on a nickel game. No machine makes any noises when you lose, and why should it? Keep the customers happy; anyone from our generation who played them can remember the crushing agony of the countdown after getting a game over at the arcade.

Maybe it is a bit cruel to make this observation, but I have already conceded my faith in Jesus as the son of God, so by these people’s standards, I’m already going to Hell: Alexa and I noticed that the people playing the machines were, in some part, machines themselves. Some of them need a mechanized apparatus to breathe. Others needed a machine to get around. Others still, while having nothing obviously wrong with them externally, pumped in change and pulled levers like they were automated, occasionally taking a drag off of their Marlboros.

This whole notion of machines playing with machines was compounded when we saw the serious players who weren’t using cups o’ change. That is for the amateurs, apparently. No, these high rollers had little cards with their name, rank, and gambling habits go into the machines – and just how many of these people are frightened of the Affordable Care Act? – which all of the players had attached to their wrists. It was like a little umbilical cord, connecting them to the machine that is the opposite of a womb: it depletes their money, rarely providing anything beyond sensory overload, and ultimately only brings them closer to the inevitable.

We left, horrified and disgusted. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Whiskey River: Maker's Mark Distillery, Loretto, KY

Though it is not without its problems - like the lady we saw pumping gas, holding her baby, and managing a cigarette all at the same time - Kentucky is home to dozens of whisky distilleries. You can smell the rye drifting through the air for miles. It’s fucking beautiful.

As a whisky drinker, I found myself in a lush's Shangri-La when I realized we had unknowingly shacked up for a few days in the Bourbon Capital of the world, using Bardstown as our home base. We researched tours and, with some help from Alex's grandparents, settled on the Maker’s Mark distillery. They still hand make the product and haven’t gone all corporate like some other brands, collaborating with shit-food chain restaurants to create a syrupy sauce to pour over a hunk of all-purpose beef. In fact, they have their own chain of restaurants.

Descendants of the original Maker’s Mark family still live on the property where the whisky is made, bottled, and distributed. Tours are affordable at $7 per person, and the best part is most people usually don’t bring their little kids. Good parents, at least. There’s always that one family who thought a whisky distillery would make for an appropriate family outing and just think it is so cute when their dumb little angel decides to tell the docent that they love Batman.

They led us through the sweltering-hot room where the product ferments and turns from an oatmeal-like substance into actual, drinkable whisky. Our guide let everyone dip their fingers into the enormous wooden vats to taste the product at it’s three stages. I’m not a germaphobe but I know what people do with their hands. She assured us it was safe, and we all stuck our fingers (some used their whole hands) into the tub of boiling slop. It tasted like cheap, stale beer. Each vat was more potent than the last, and eventually, you could taste the whisky.

The bubbling brew.
She showed us to the packaging and distribution center, where workers in hairnets slapped on labels and dipped thousands of bottles in red wax, the product’s signature. They clattered by on a conveyor belt, the wax dripping down the neck on its way to shipping.

At the end of the tour, our guide led us to the tasting chamber, where we sampled four different versions of Maker’s Mark, including the top shelf one that I know I’ll never be able to afford. We finished our samples and stumbled, as always, into the gift shop. We didn’t buy anything, but then again, we never do.

We aren’t drinking much on the road, save for special occasions and when we visit friends. For the moment, it has been deemed an unnecessary expense, which it is. When we finally are back to earning paychecks, I’m going to buy a bottle of Maker’s Mark, pretend it’s one I saw rattling by on the conveyor belt at the factory, and pour myself a whisky and ginger ale.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Southern Man: The Jefferson Davis Memorial, Pembroke, KY

Alex’s grandparents live in Madisonville, Kentucky, a modest grid of 18th century buildings housing under-visited businesses and strips of teeming fast-food restaurants. Papa, a former anesthesiologist with the Air Force, and Gramma, the sweetest, most honest woman alive,  live in a 60s split-level brick home a mile from the center of town. We spent a weekend with them on our way from Memphis to Indiana in the middle of the summer. Gramma fed us eight-layer bars and Papa told us stories about his parents, friends from the service, and even one about the time Alex stayed with them for a weekend and refused to pick up his toys.

In the morning, we drove 45 minutes south to Pembroke, Kentucky, a hamlet even smaller than Madisonville, to see the Jefferson Davis memorial. A 351-foot obelisk of pure Kentucky limestone stands among a brood of spindling trees on the same land where the Confederacy’s biggest hope was born. We rode the elevator to the top, a narrow platform with barred windows and views of the emerald Kentucky countryside.


Just a few hundred miles to the East, in a similar patch of Kentucky sawmill grass, is where Abraham Lincoln was born.

A couple joined us to the top and then down to the base. Papa talked with the man, wearing a tanned, chocolate brown cowboy hat and silver belt buckle. His wife, a spirited, stout woman, whose few remaining teeth matched her husband’s hat, told us they were Civil War re-enactors and first-rate historians.

“We wear the traditional hoop skirts and everything,” said said in a stilted twang. “Some of those dresses cost nearly $500!”

Their authentic rifles cost nearly three times that amount, and thousands of proud Kentuckians come every year to watch the South rise and fall again.

As she waddled alongside us, she said her teenaged daughter had just gotten in trouble in school for “correcting the teacher” while discussing the Civil War. The historian thought it important we know the teacher was black.

Like fracking, abortion, and whether or not our president is really an American, the Civil War remains an issue that divides this country nearly 150 years later. There are legions of disappointed, disheartened people, embarrassed about the day Lee folded and determined that antebellum will rule once more. Like the historians, they claim it has more to do with land and pride than race or slavery, but everything in this country is always about race and slavery.

In reality, Davis was a reluctant hero, disinclined to secede, and possessed little desire to be president over the Confederate nation were they to win. The puppet in president’s clothing, and when the South crumbled, the one to blame.

We walked through the small museum in the building next to the monument, detailing Jefferson’s life, beginning with his Kentucky roots and upbringing in Louisiana and Mississippi, moving through his marriages, and on to his military career. It displayed cases of his letters, photographs of his family, and the side of him lost under scrutiny and opposition. Jefferson Davis was the brain child behind public services we still employ today, including ensuring veterans receive compensation after their service. It was his idea to construct the nation’s capital, but it doesn’t matter. Most people will always, and only, remember him as the guy who let down the South.