Road Trip 2018 #14 – Hannibal, Missouri

Missouri was my 39th state and was supposed to be the last new state I picked up on this road trip.  As Mark Twain is one of the most famous Missourians and our route took us through Hannibal, we decided we would stop off there and theme our day around Mark Twain.  It did not quite turn out as we anticipated.

My expectations were of a picturesque town full of 19th Century architecture, scenic views of the Mississippi, and lots of tasteful commemorations of and references to Mark Twain.  Well, that is not what our experience of Hannibal was.  While there were some lovely old clapboard houses, they were the exception.  While the streets were pleasant enough and the buildings were vintage, they tended to be those characterless brick built blocks.  We parked up on a side street in front of the Haunted House on Hill Street.  A lovely, friendly lady met us on the porch and encouraged us to pop in.  Why not?  I enjoy waxwork models whether they are exceptional likenesses or tragically awful so we couldn’t lose really.  We must have been in an unusually persuadable mood because we ended up purchasing joint tickets for both the waxworks and another attraction in town.

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The store front was filled with jewellery and trinkets and various Halloween-esque homewares and we were led from it through what looked like a closet door.  This placed us in a darkened room and in a corridor in front of a large glass window that separated us from a whole community of wax figures.  The figures represented Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his family members plus people he knew who inspired characters in his texts, especially ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’.  A recording was set to play that highlighted each of the figures in turn and explained their role in Mark Twain’s life and literary story.  The narrative was actually very well done and was informative – especially for the five members of the Pict family who have never read a word of Twain.  I am going to struggle to describe the wax figures because they were just eerily weird.  I don’t know where the balance was between realism and caricature but the outcome was just awry; they were both very well done and somehow very lacking; creepy pretty much sums them up. Just plain creepy.  Something that made them that bit more creepy: Tom Sawyer has actual human teeth and Mark Twain’s infant son was just a head on a stick.  From there, a doorway at the end of the corridor led us into some very dark and narrow nooks and crannies, these forming a pathway past some spooky dioramas.  The lighting and dayglow elements made the best of the visual effects but what worked most effectively were the floor panels that would trigger movements and sounds and the ankle-level rubbery brushes that would unexpectedly tickle our legs as we walked past.  We emerged out of the darkness back into the bright light of the gift shop giggling and thoroughly entertained, albeit maybe not in the way that was intended.

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A stroll of a few blocks brought us to Karlocks Kars, for which we had the joint ticket.  This small museum was a collection of vintage cars, driving memorabilia, gas pumps, jukeboxes, pinball machines, and advertising, plus some vintage toys and movie memorabilia thrown into the mix.  It was all well curated and immaculately presented but random as heck.  My favourite items was the Model T Ford made entirely  from wood, including its engine parts.  Mr Pict and the boys loved the pinball machines and vintage arcade games – which enabled Mr Pict to relive his misspent childhood.  Our 11 year old loved seeing one of Steve McQueen’s motorbikes, and our 12 year old loved the Coca Cola memorabilia and the vampire seated next to his werewolf rug and Kermit slippers.  I also enjoyed all the vintage advertising, whether it was the graphic design on tin or the bold neon.

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I had a vague plan that we could visit the cave that inspired the episode in Twain’s novel where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher encounter Injun Joe.  The cave had also once been used for experiments regarding the preservation of corpses.  However, we did not really have enough time to invest in a tour of the cave so that idea was nixed.  My other vague plan was to visit Mark Twain’s boyhood home but that was met with groans and sighs from the other Picts.  As they had not read any Twain, I could appreciate that to them it would just be another old house to poke around in.  I think the biggest problem, however, was that everyone was broiling hot (it was 100 degrees out!) and started to get hangry.  Before we left Hannibal, however, I did manage to convince them to let me visit the statue of Huck and Tom that stand on a plinth near Main Street.  The statue was erected in the 1920s and I read somewhere that it was the first public statue to fictional characters in America.  The statue stands in a little green space at the bottom of Cardiff Hill and atop that hill is a lighthouse constructed as a memorial to Twain.  The connection between lighthouses and Twain is lost on me, I must admit, but ascending the hill afforded us some great views over the Mississippi.

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Our day ended with a drive to St Louis.  I had hoped to see at least the Arch but I had not thought in advance about the fact we would be reaching there on the evening of Independence Day.  Yeah, it wasn’t going to happen.  We could not get anywhere near the Arch because streets were being cordoned off in advance of the 4th of July celebrations and fireworks.  Indeed, there was not even any affordable parking left in the vicinity.  We, therefore, took in the views of the Arch as we crossed the Mississippi into Illinois and our beds for the night.

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Road Trip 2018 #13 – American Gothic and the Battle of Athens

Our 4th of July was spent meandering our way from Iowa through Missouri and into Illinois.  Who needs parades and festivals and fireworks when you can be in three states in one 24 hours period, right?  I will admit: this driving thing was getting old.

As I was using our trusty mapbook to navigate, I spotted a couple of interesting little detours I might otherwise have overlooked.  First of these was the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa.  As someone who loves art history, I had to go.  Grant Wood painted American Gothic in 1930 having been inspired by the house.  The figures he placed in front of it were modelled on his sister and his dentist, the pair not actually meeting each other until years later.  It’s an iconic and much parodied painting.  Unfortunately for us, the house and museum was closed to visitors because of it being Independence Day.  However, we could still view the exterior of the house so we had a bit of a wander and could not resist doing our own posing in front of the building.

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The visit to the American Gothic House was driven by my interests so it seemed only fair that I confess to Mr Pict, who was driving at the time, that I had spotted a Civil War battle on the map.  We, therefore, took a bit of a diversion to the scene of the Battle of Athens.  Confusingly, Athens is pronounced Aythens.  It sits right on the border of Iowa and Missouri which meant we bobbed in and out of both states as we weaved our way along rural roads to reach the site.  The skirmish that took place there in 1861 is notable for being the most northerly Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi.  I had absolutely never heard of it but Mr Pict was chuffed.  At the time, the town was a fairly busy port on the river.  When the railroad made the river obsolete and the town became defunct, it appeared that most of the buildings had gone with the population.  There were, therefore, just a few buildings dotted around in the landscape, including a hotel and a house that had belonged to a Kentucky slave owner.  The boys decided to stay in the shade of the trees so I wandered around while keeping them in my sights which allowed Mr Pict to wander down to the riverside to see the Benning House, which was pockmarked with canon ball wallops.

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Road Trip 2018 #12 – Iowa

There is always at least one day in any of our road trips that turns out to be an absolute write off.  We had considered our day of travelling from South Dakota to Nebraska to be that day.  We were to be proven wrong.

The day got off to a bad start when we slept in far longer than we intended.  It is essential to get up and on the move early when trying to cover as many miles per day as we needed to so being a tad tardy can throw the whole day off kilter.  The hotel breakfast was shoddy so we decided to skip it and eat on the road instead, treat ourselves to a little slice of Nebraskan or Iowan food.  That was our second error.  Our plotted route took us through towns with populations in the double digits that offered nowhere to even grab a coffee let alone a morning repast.  The kids had snacks and fruit to keep them going for a while but we parents knew that at some point they would turn into grizzly bears if not fed and watered.  So the drive was proving stressful enough before, somewhere in the middle of rural Iowa, the car hit the raised tracks on a railroad crossing a little too fast and did a Dukes of Hazzard style leap onto the road on the other side of the tracks.

We immediately pulled off the road to have a look at the undercarriage of the car.  We could see dripping.  Worried it was oil or fuel, we pulled the car forward a few feet.  It was a relief and yet not relief enough to find it was water.  While I was 95% sure it was simply condensation from the air conditioning system, that part of me with the 5% nagging doubt did not want to drive off onto the remote byways of Iowa with a dicky phone signal.  I spotted a garage not too far from where we were standing, feeling like total twerps, and decided we would head there and ask if someone wouldn’t mind giving our car a once over.  The family who owned the garage were welcoming and kind.  We were given refuge in their air conditioned office and met their cats while the mechanic raised our car and checked things over.  Thankfully the dripping was indeed just the air conditioning and nothing to be concerned about.  They told us they got a lot of business thanks to those railroad tracks which made us feel only slightly less foolish.

That little escapade had set our schedule way back.  Our day was not going at all well.  We had no big plans for the day but even those plans now had to be entirely shelved.  It was proving to be one of those days we wished we could completely do-over.

Winterset is famous for being the birthplace of John Wayne.  We arrived too late to visit the John Wayne museum and birthplace but honestly we were pretty lukewarm about the prospect anyway.  My Granddad was a big fan of Westerns which makes me very familiar with John Wayne as an actor but actually I was never a fan of his either as an actor nor as a person.  I certainly would have found it much more interesting to visit sites associated with another of Winterset’s famous citizens: George L Stout, art conservator and one of the “Monuments Men”.

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As it happened, Winterset also has an association with another famous man.  A few months previously, our 9 year old had an assignment whereby he had to research a famous African American and then present his research as if he was that individual, a project called a “Talking Art Gallery”.  Our son had chosen to research George Washington Carver so he had done his research, written up a speech, and dressed up in a gardener’s apron with a jar of peanut butter and a sweet potato as his props.  Because of his research, we knew that one of the places Carver had lived, while trying to secure a tertiary education, was none other than Winterset.  Indeed, tenuous though the connection is, the town had dedicated a garden in Carver’s memory.  Finding that garden proved to be tricky so we did the sensible thing and popped into the town library.  Librarians are almost always reliably friendly and helpful and the lady we spoke to was no exception.  She directed us to an alleyway beside the fire station and it was this little sliver of land that contained the memorial park.  It was actually a lovely, calm, shady little spot and I loved that local school children had contributed tiles for a wall that commemorated Carver’s contribution to American agricultural and botanical knowledge.

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Winterset is within Madison County and Madison County is famous for its covered bridges.  I have neither read ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ or seen the film adaptation.  I know that I could, however, develop a fascination with covered bridges in the same way that I have to stifle a potential addiction to lighthouses.  Combined with a compulsion to do something actually properly Iowan, therefore, I concocted a plan to visit the area’s covered bridges.  The first one we reached was Holliwell Bridge.  It was built in 1880 and, at 122 feet, is the longest of the bridges.  I knew my plan was not going to pan out when only my 12 year old opted to get out of the car with me – and he just wanted to stretch his legs.  When I suggested visiting another of the bridges, I was laser-stared by all five of the other Picts.

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So instead we ploughed on and reached our hotel in Indianola.  The hotel was brand spanking new and was clean, light, airy and our room very spacious.  The boys loved it best because they got ice water and limitless free cookies at reception.  Our whole day in Iowa, therefore, was a bit of a catastrophe.  I felt like I had had a day of not remotely experiencing Nebraska followed by a day of not particularly experiencing Iowa.  It felt very much like our road trip was going off the rails.

Fungus Fairy

The full title of this piece should be “The Fungus Fairy and the Unfortunate Phallus”.  It is a cautionary tale about going straight to ink when drawing and not taking time to think things through.

The Art Journal Adventure prompt for last week was the letter “F”.  Don’t enquire why I thought to draw a Fungus Fairy as a result because I actually don’t know why.  Let’s call it a flash of inspiration.  I know that I was feeling in the mood to draw something whimsical.  In my early teens, I decided to draw my own versions of the classic Flower Fairies.  I think I got about twenty illustrations done before I packed in the whole enterprise because I loved drawing but hated colouring in (I was using pencils).  Maybe I should start over now that I actually enjoy adding colour to my illustrations.  But I digress.  Short on time (as always) I decided to commit to drawing straight away with pen.  No pencil guidelines.  No preliminary sketching.  Just straight from my brain to my hand to the ink pen.  The way I drew the Fungus Fairy a lot of the line work was over on the right hand side of the page so, to fill in a bit more of the left hand side, I came up with the bright idea of giving her a toadstool as a sort of magical wand.  Yeah, I don’t know what on earth I was thinking either.  In the very instant that I lifted pen from paper I realised that the fungus wand looked like a phallus.  Great.  So, yes, this is a cautionary tale about maybe taking some time to plan things out before committing ink to paper.

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Road Trip 2018 #11 – Missiles and Nebraska

When you think of South Dakota, do you think of the Cold War and missiles?  No.  Me neither.  Mr Pict, however, does.  For that reason, on the day we bade farewell to our temporary log cabin house, we headed to the Minuteman National Historic Site.

Mr Pict and I obviously grew up in the final decades of the Cold War and can remember  pretty terrifying public information films about nuclear holocaust being shown at school.  Our sons, however, don’t have that context or understanding so first port of call was to the Visitors Center.  We handily arrived just as the video was starting.  The kids learned about the use of missiles as a deterrent, about false alarms and close calls, and about “duck and cover” training.  Ultimately the only thing our youngest son could recall about the video was that “Bert the Turtle says Duck and Cover”.  Better than nothing I suppose.  You already know that I am no expert in military history having only the most passing interest in it.  I am, therefore, probably atrociously simplifying things when I write that the Minuteman programme involved constructing silos across the sparsely populated Plains states and having each silo tube house a ballistic missile.  These could be activated by staff at the control facilities.  It must have been boring to man one of these facilities, having to always be on alert while ultimately not doing much each day.  We learned that staff often studied for educational courses or spent their time reading.

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We drove from the Visitor Center to the site of the D-09 missile silo which has been preserved as part of the historic site.  We could look through the glass into the silo below and see the deactivated missile within.  It was weird to imagine thousands of these things dotted across South Dakota and the neighbouring states.  We did not stay long at the site as we were being devoured by vampiric flying insects.

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I am a sucker for decay and rust so we took a detour to a small town called Okaton, near Murdo.  While the town still has a population of about 30 people, I had steered us there because it is in large part a ghost town.  Like so many American ghost towns, Okaton’s life and death was determined by the railroad.  The houses were built to accommodate railroad workers and, when the railroad work moved further west, so did the people.  The railroad ceased operating altogether in the 1980s which was really the death knell of the little hamlet.  I did not venture off into the long prairie grass in search of the railroad tracks (see – I’m learning) but I did poke around the decaying, collapsing buildings, and the rusting hulks of old vehicles and rotting agricultural equipment.  I did not risk stepping inside any of the buildings but I did poke my head and camera through doorways and interiors to get a better look.  The abandoned appliances, moth-eaten soft furnishings, and peeling wallpaper were both nostalgic and poignant.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time we crossed the state line into Nebraska.  That was state number 37 for me!  Sadly our route was boring and flat.  There was not even any “roadside Americana” to divert me and cause a pit stop or detour.  Our hotel for the evening was in Valentine and, while the room was spacious, it felt weird and somewhat aggravating to be back in confined quarters again.  We could have headed out to see the nearby river or waterfall but the kids were just not feeling it.  Therefore, having not done anything kid-friendly all day, we opted for dinner and a movie.  We ate at the Peppermill restaurant where the food was good and the service excellent.  Nebraska is known for its beef so Mr Pict ordered a steak which he declared to be amazing.  We then went to the tiny, two screen Jewel cinema to see ‘The Incredibles 2’ and the kids then burned off some energy in the hotel pool.  I, therefore, get to claim Nebraska but don’t really feel like I accomplished anything Nebraskan while I was within the state’s boundaries.

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Rainbow Art Journal – Sunset over the Harbour Village

When it comes to subjects for my art, I am always drawn to faces and figures or monsters or anthropomorphised animals.  What I really don’t tend to touch upon is botanicals, still life, or landscapes.  I decided, therefore, to challenge myself to produce a landscape in the orange section of my Rainbow Art Journal.  Having grown up in Fife, I thought of the orange pantiles that adorn the roofs in villages like Culross – a result of the tiles initially being imported as ballast.  I grew up in the post-war new town of Glenrothes but always enjoyed visiting the fishing villages of the East Neuk so I decided to illustrate a harbour village in my art journal.  There is zero verisimilitude in my illustration and I didn’t use any photo references so my buildings are all a fusion of memory and imagination.  Landscape is definitely not my thing but I really enjoyed creating this page.  I don’t even care that the scale is bonkers, including monstrous seagulls.  Maybe I will force myself to do landscapes more frequently.

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Road Trip 2018 #10 – Mount Rushmore at last!

Finally – after two failed plans and on our final day at the Log Cabin near Lead – we managed to make it to Mount Rushmore.

We had been a bit tardy leaving the house and had driven a slow going, not always properly surfaced, cross-country route to get there which meant we did not arrive early enough to beat the crowds.  The place was absolutely hoaching*.  We joined a queue that began on the actual roadside just to join one of the queues to drive into the multi-level parking lots.  It was crazy.  However annoying our experience of waiting to get parked might have been, we were still lucky we arrived when we did.  By the time we left, the queue to enter the parking lot was so long that it took us ten minutes of driving to even see the end of the queue.

The National Park itself was also thronging with people.  Because I hate crowds, I sometimes find myself getting annoyed that so many other tourists want to visit the places that I – also an annoying tourist – want to see.  Of course, the sculpture is on such a massive scale and is at such a high elevation that there is really no risk of the view being obstructed by all the masses gathered below.  I, therefore, don’t really have any cause for complaint.

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The idea of a gigantic carving in the Black Hills was conceived of in the 1920s and the sculptor Gutzon Borglum was hired for the project.  He chose to depict Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln because they represent America’s founding, expansion, preservation, and unification.  Almost 400 people worked under the direction of Borglum and his son, Lincoln.  We learned that workers had to ascend 700 steps to the top of the mountain to start each working day and then they were handling things like dynamite and dangling from ropes.  I can’t help thinking that the shortage of other employment during the Great Depression must have been one of the reasons that compelled people to sign up for the job.  I know I absolutely could not have done it.  In addition to using dynamite, holes would be drilled into the rock to assist its removal with greater precision.  We saw chunks of this so-called “honeycomb” granite lying around among the rocks and trees at the base of the mountain, which was pretty cool to see.  It was pretty amazing to think that such a process resulted in the smooth carvings we saw high above us.

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We took the short and easy “presidential path” to get closer to the heads.  All this really achieved was to move us away from the majority of the crowds because, of course, getting closer to colossal heads is all relative.  After we had had a gander at the presidents, I suggested we poke around in some of the other exhibits on site, maybe take in one of the National Park movies.  The kids, however, were not having any of it.  I also suggested that we visit the (ongoing) carving of Crazy Horse which is not too far from Rushmore.  The kids protested once more.  At present, Crazy Horse is just a face.  The boys claim they will happily return with me once the sculpture is complete.  The sculpture is planned to be almost 600 feet high and has been being worked on for 70 years.  I suspect I may have to return without them if they won’t go until its completion.

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In the end, we agreed we would return to the Log Cabin.  The boys wanted some down time and to soak in the hot tub.  We parents knew we were going to have some real slogs of driving days ahead so were happy to capitulate and let the kids recharge their batteries and their tolerance.  I used the time to do laundry and pack suitcases.  We also had a visit from some deer and a family of wild turkeys.  Later, the two younger boys and Mr Pict took a gentle stroll to see a waterfall in Spearfish Canyon where they encountered lots of downed trees from the recent tornados.  Otherwise we had a lazy time of it and made the most of having room to relax in before hitting the road again.

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*I used a Scots word so better translate.  Hoaching means teeming or swarming, to be very busy indeed.