When I was a kid, we'd take family vacations, though never anywhere particularly cool. We'd pile into the family truckster and argue over who'd sit on the hump as we drove to Orlando or Tampa. We'd count down the miles (and billboards) until we could stop at South of the Border, where we'd get hamburgers adorned with a strange, unfamiliar condiment called "salsa."
My sister and I would search the souvenir racks for key chains or license plates with our names, usually without much success. Resigned to our fates, we'd be temporarily placated by sombreros and those little rubbery oval change holders. I never understood why my mother drew such a hard line against the set of maracas in the gift shop, but looking back, I respect her for it.
Things are different now. As many of you remember, last summer I successfully, yet foolishly, set a Guinness World Record by playing 50 shows in 50 days in 50 states. On that cross-country tour my unrelenting schedule forced me to drive past what seemed like the most marvelous sights only to mutter a sad but determined "next time" as I pressed onward (like Lewis and Clark--minus the 14-year-old pregnant Indian chick).
Well, now it's next time. I've just returned from a six-week trip that took me to 25 states--from our dear old commonwealth up to Maine, west to the Dakotas through Nebraska for just enough time to dangle my feet in the Mountain time zone and then head back home.
I learned a lot--like that 15 degrees Fahrenheit is about average for a night in North Dakota in early spring. And that "America's Stone-henge" was, until 1970, called Mys-tery Hill. I would've driven right by Mystery Hill, but "America's Stonehenge"? Where do I pay?
It turns out that America's Stonehenge, in Salem, N.H., isn't really America's Stonehenge. I know because I've been to America's Stonehenge, which is actually in Nebraska. But I'll get to that later.
Mystery Hill is a bunch of rocks piled up into shapes that look like rooms. It's mysterious because nobody remembers doing it. There are no similar Native American ruins, and none of the diaries in DAR attics mention such a place.
Certain people, most notably the owner of the rocks, are quick to postulate that the druids came here way before the Pilgrims and built a couple of rooms and an altar with a blood groove in the table rock. When it didn't work out, they just left, forfeiting their security deposit and taking every possession back with them--except the rocks.
So now they call it America's Stone-henge, and I went to see it for that reason. But you might not wanna bother.
Feeling like I was the sucker born that particular minute, I next stopped in Bridgeport, Conn., to see the Barnum Museum. Surely Phineas Taylor wouldn't let me down, right? Wrong.
First I was told I couldn't take any photographs. I said, "Oh, okay. I understand. I wouldn't want my flashbulb to contribute to the decay of Jumbo's remains or anything."
And the woman behind the gift shop counter said, "No, it's not that. It's a matter of intellectual property."
Intellectual property? Are you kidding me? It's the Barnum Museum. It's a woodcut of George Washington's wet-nurse, and a stuffed two-headed calf. Not only that, but it turns out that Phineas took his home decor very seriously, and a good deal of the museum is that sort of "stay behind the velvet ropes and take a respectful gander at the furniture from Mr. Barnum's parlor." Ooh, brocaded silk. Forget that. Skip it.
More fun can be had in the town of Leominster, Mass., less than an hour northwest of Boston. It's pronounced "Lehminster." Leominster is the plastics capitol of the world and home of the National Plastics Center and Museum, which houses (among other things) the Plastics Hall of Fame, where guys like Earl Tupper are enshrined.
On the other side of the chemical and technological spectrum--and on the other side of town--is a scale model of the cabin in which Johnny Appleseed was born. There's a plaque, too. It says something like, "FROM L-TOWN CAME A MAN NAMED JOHN CHAPMAN WHO SPREAD HIS SEED ACROSS THIS GREAT LAND ... AND THEN I THINK HE SHOT JOHN LENNON." Or something. They're both worth seeing, but make sure you do both. As Fox says, "fair and balanced."
In Westport, Conn., I got a chance to use my Guinness World Record secret handshake when I met John Reznikoff, who runs the university archives there. Among the several Guinness World Records Reznikoff holds is the Largest Collection of Hair (His-torical Figures). He showed me a bunch of them--or a hank of them, maybe. I'm not sure.
John Brown's body lies moldering in the grave, but his hair is in a frame on a wall in Connecticut. Reznikoff also showed me a small gold box that contained a thick shock of black hair clipped from Honest Abe's head to clear the wound. There are little gray boogery things on it that I think are brains. Neat, huh?
Reznikoff started off as a stamp collector but has really branched out. He's one of very few collectors to sell the triple crown of collecting: a 1909-1911 Honus Wagner baseball card, an upside-down Wright Flyer stamp and the rarest Declaration of Independence signer's signature, that of Button Gwinnett, who may have learned to write just for the occasion.
The Declaration interests me because I dig presidents. Not the ones now, but back when they used to be cool. Ohio and Virginia share the record for presidential propagation, with seven apiece. I mean, they say seven, but I have a theory that Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield were the same guy. Google those two and see if you can tell them apart. Unless you're Charles Guiteau, who assassinated Garfield, I don't think you can.
Although nobody bothered to preserve the Ohio cabin Warren G. Harding was born in, there is a plaque on somebody's front lawn. And I saw it.
His grave in Marion, Ohio, in this monstrous 10-acre park with a huge rotunda about 100 feet in diameter. It's very strange. This is Warren friggin' Harding! I mean, he was president for like two years in the '20s and constantly ends up on people's 10-worst-presidents lists along with Pierce, Buchanan and Nixon. I'd like to carve their faces into the Black Hills just to call it Mount Rushless. Get it?
Anyway, I think Warren Harding's grave should've been made to look like a Teapot Dome. But that's just me.
But forget presidents--we've got Guinness Records to see!
Darwin, Minn., is an hour or so west of Minneapolis. Within Darwin city limits is not only one of the truly great roadside attractions, but one of the truly great achievements of Western civilization. I speak, of course, of Francis Johnson and his Ball of Twine. His is the largest ball ever amassed by one man. Although the ball in Cawker City, Kan., is supposedly bigger, Cawker's whole population of 595 contributes to it, and the folks in Darwin think that's messed up.
As for Francis Johnson's ball, don't ask me about pounds or diameter, but it's really, really big. Like bigger than my van, big. It's in a glass pavilion right off Main Street. There's a museum and gift shop behind the twine where you can buy T-shirts and see examples of Mr. Johnson's other hobby, carving pliers out of a single piece of wood ... and then carving pliers out of the handle of the pliers and so on and so on. Who knows what I might have done with my life had I not gotten cable.
Every year Rapid City, S.D., Liberal, Kan., and Intercourse, Pa., duke it out for the most ironic town name. The greatest geographic irony since Erik the Red's glacial marketing campaign, however, has to be the limestone monolith located about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, S.D. This 15-foot pile of stones marks the geographic center of the United States of America, so when you're ready to take your cyber-relationship with that West Coast girl to the next level, you now know where to meet. You'll be but a scant seven miles from Mud Buttes (another geographical wonder), so romance will be in the air.
Even better, drive up to Lead, S.D., and see President's Park. It's got 42 20-foot busts--from George W. to George W. Seriously, it's the biggest tribute John Tyler could hope for. And the sizes and angles are just right for dozens of photos of you picking many a First Nose.
Just below Mount Rushmore, near Custer State Park, is Crazy Horse, S.D., named for what will someday be a monument to Crazy Horse. Right now, though, it's just his big head. They've been working on it for 50 years, and all they've finished is the head. And by they, I really mean the sculptor with the traditional Native American name, Korczak Ziolkowski. It was his life's work, or perhaps his life's avoidance of work.
He took this huge mountain and designed a plan to carve Crazy Horse pointing off in the distance as if he were saying, "Hey, Sitting Bull, I can see where your house used to be from here." But all Ziolkowski did in his lifetime was knock a few hundred tons off the top. After he died, it was up to his kids to do the detail work--like making Crazy Horse's face, and cleaning up their father's mess. So it's really another kind of tribute to the white man's way of life. The cool part of the exhibit is that for a donation you can take a piece of the mountain home with you. I paid $1 for a rock--which is definitely cheaper than from my dealer.
As you approach from the north on Route 87, you come upon Alliance, Neb., where America is pithily captured and encapsulated by a few thousand pounds of used-up Detroit steel and a couple gallons of gray exterior paint. That's right--I'm talking about Carhenge. It's Stonehenge recreated stone for stone, but with old cars.
During a 1987 family reunion, Jim Reinders was struck with a drunken inspiration of the sort that hasn't gripped this nation since the ludicrous idea of democracy itself was conceived one hot Philadelphia summer. Carhenge is free, and it doesn't have a cheesy gift shop either.
Brunswick, Mo., is home to the world's largest pecan. All 12,000 concrete pounds of it sit outside of the Nut Hut, where they actually sell you "Hicans"--a naturally occurring hickory/ pecan hybrid patented by the late George James, whose daughter now runs the shop. The museum features several somewhat prophetic pictures of then-Gov. John Ash- croft dropping by to crack some nuts.
If you've never been to the Bowling Hall of Fame, and you've never been to the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame, you can kill two birds with one low cover price because the two share a building right next to Busch Stadium. Along with old wool jerseys belonging to Stan Musial and Dizzy Dean--and their polyester Ozzie Smith and Keith Hernandez counterparts--you can also see a fairly comprehensive, if unverified, history of bowling with an old manual pin-set alley and a car shaped like a bowling pin.
There's so much more, but I'm looking forward to not being on the road. I'd like to play a show five blocks from my house instead of 5,000 blocks, and to not spend $50 a day on gasoline.
But after a short while, I'll feel that old stirring so deftly described by Melville in the first chapters of Moby Dick. Soon I'll need to wander again, though I won't go down to the sea; I'll get in my van. And when I get home, you'll be the first to hear about it. I promise.