Wanderung 6

Pursuing Pioneer Pathways from the Potomac to the Pacific

June-August 2004


Returning from our two month hiatus in Germany (see Wanderung 5), we had to pause a month to see our dentist and GP for check ups before hitting the road again. While we were waiting we made several trips out to Luck Quarry and brought back over a ton of "Cherry Log" thinstone and 300 pounds of limestone chips to complete the patio we were building out back. Fitting the slabs of rock into the area we had carved out of the woods was a lot like a huge jigsaw puzzle with a randomly shaped set of pieces, which is to say, extremely difficult. Altho challenging, it really was kind of fun (except for lugging around the heavy hunks of rock) and it certainly looked nice when we were done.

The reports on our teeth and innards came back OK, so by the end of May we were ready to go and started packing the truck and camping trailer in earnest. Clothes, books, and foodstuffs that we needed on a daily basis went into the trailer. We decided to put the extra cereal, water, and Gatorade in the bed of the truck, which left us enough space for the rubber boat (uninflated!). Inside the truck cabin we put really important, delicate things like the laptop computers, cameras, GPS units, and the like. Besides the Toshiba laptop that had been with us for the last several trips, we were bringing along a notebook-sized Toshiba Portege on which I had loaded free books from the Gutenberg.com website. To avoid confusion, we dubbed them "Daddy" and "Baby" computers, respectively, and Baby was less than an inch thick and the size of a sheet of paper. That was amazingly small, really, but it remained to be seen if I could cuddle up with books on Baby in bed.

The day before we left was very busy. We dropped off tools for Judson and Sarah to work with their new house with her parents downtown so that they could ferry them up to New York while we headed west for Boise. On our way back out of D.C. I dropped in to a New Balance shoe store to pick up a free pair of shoes I had won as a door prize at our last walk and chucked them into the truck to break in our planned walks. Back at home we figured out that the mountain bike I had stored in the shed would fit Monika, so we put that in the back of the truck's bed. Seeing how nice that was for her, I had a sudden hankering (craving?) for a new bike so we drove over to Costco and picked out a nice comfort bike for $160 for me; nothing like making a last minute impulse purchase the night before you leave town! Fortunately the bike did fit in the back of the truck, but just barely! With the truck (really) packed, I turned to getting everything ready for a quick getaway Sunday morning.

The first step was to take out a collection of 1x12s and 2x10s to build a ramp at the dip in the driveway so the trailer wouldn't scrape as I pulled it out. Then I hooked up all the various connections of the trailer to the truck (see Wanderung 4), and very carefully pulled it out into the street. The rig was just as big and cumbersome as I recalled, and to get it parked in front I had to literally drive it around the block for a better approach. But finally everything was packed and ready for departure, so we used the last hour of sunlight to pick some of the (almost) ripe cherries from the two cherry trees in our front yard, about 6 cups in all. We finished off the evening with Monika pitting cherries and freezing them for making cherry jam in the future while I dug thru all our application CDs for the programs I wanted to install on Baby for the trip and loaded all that software on it. We were both finally just fell into bed completely exhausted around 10.

Altho I didn't sleep too well--worried about the driving, I think--getting out of town the next morning went about as smoothly as I had hoped. The beltway was almost empty and traffic was light all day as we drove (slowly) west on the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes. Driving with the Great White Blimp in back forced us to hold our speeds down to 55-60 mph, consequently it took us about 9 hours to get to Toledo where we took a hotel room for the night. Since it was a big night for tornadoes from Chicago to Toledo, I was just as happy to be in a hotel rather than camped in the trailer!

Fortunately the storm front passed thru during the night and we had good weather for the next leg of our drive on the following day. Our plan to leave Toledo early and try to get around Chicago early enough to avoid the "coming home from Memorial Day weekend" traffic worked quite well. We left Toledo about 7 a.m., had a quick breakfast on the road, and swung around Chicago on the Tollway to arrive in Burlington about 1 p.m. We were happy to see my sister Lois looking so well and she had, as we had hoped, fixed a great stew for our late lunch. Lois's daughter Beth, husband Audie and Carrie and Carson, their two children, all arrived the same evening and we had a wonderful time talking nonstop to catch up on what had been happening to them and to us. Audie took one look at the unfinished doorways in the dome and immediately took on the task of finishing them while on vacation, so he made list, drove over to Wal Mart the next day to get the stuff, and started right in.

Despite being busy with painting and various household repairs, Audie wanted to take a day off to visit the House on the Rock at Spring Green, Wisconsin. He and Beth explained that they had visited it many years back but had not had the time to see all the collections, so they wanted another crack at it. After hearing their description we all enthusiastically signed on for this trip and ended up driving northwest about three hours to get there one morning. The first thing I noticed as we drove in along the entrance road were huge, oddly decorated pots. These pots were about ten feet high and had scattered shelves for plants, but they were decorated with lizards and other figures in a way that could be described as whimsical, eccentric, or bizarre, the exact interpretation depending on how much you like that kind of thing, I suppose. The entrance had a statue of a wizard to greet us, glass cases with models of ships, and a talking automaton like one of those old fortune telling machines at the carnivals that had an owl describing the walk. My first impression that the guy who built all this, Alex Jordan, was some kind of eccentric was getting stronger all the time. He (the talking stuffed owl, not Alex Jordan) said that the walk was over two miles long and you could purchase tokens to make the music machines in different rooms play music. Well, that just goes to show that there is no free music in the world as well as no free lunch!


We started off on our tour in the gatehouse, and Audie and I both had to watch out for the really low ceilings in some of the rooms, but fortunately they were usually covered with carpet, genuine 1960s shag carpeting, no less, and it didn't hurt when I bumped my head. We worked our way thru the gatehouse section, walking bent over, and saw a set of uniquely decorated rooms with odd lamps, fireplaces, and windows with colored glass. I particularly enjoyed the "conversation pits" located here, there, and everywhere-vintage 60s! I also found a small kitchen section with a stove, which was the only place in the whole house that you could even conceivably prepare food. In fact, I never did see any bedrooms or bathrooms, and the legend of the house states that it was created more as an entertainment center than as a residence.

The main house structure was, quite literally, built on a rock outcropping overlooking a valley. Exposed rock was nicely incorporated into the design and decoration of many of the rooms, often in the guise of a quiet garden nook. The natural rock theme was continued in the rock fireplaces and some of the interior walls, and it all blended organically, if often whimsically, with with the wood beams, rugs, lamps and windows.

Many of the lamps and windows were absolutely gorgeous examples of stained glass. Some of the lamps were the typically Tiffany style hanging lamps that I enjoy and have hanging in our house in Virginia, but there were lots of other wonderful pieces that served to lighten the otherwise rather dark rooms. The most outstanding pieces in my view were a table featuring a vivid red dragon, a huge mushroom shaped lamp, and illuminated panels picturing each of the four seasons.


The high point of our tour of the house, literally as well as figuratively, was the "Infinity Room". This was a long, tapered framework that extended 218 feet out over the Wyoming Valley. There was nothing holding up this room, and it started trembling more and more as I walked out over the valley. Being in a shaking room always makes me a bit uneasy, and I was treading very lightly indeed as we neared the pointed end of the room where they had conveniently placed a window where you could look straight down at a hundred feet of nothing between you and the trees below. The feeling was the same as I had in the TV tower in Toronto where you look down thru panes of glass in the floor, and it made me similarly apprehensive but was at the same time fun.

The rest of the tour for the House on the Rock was a convoluted path thru a set of out buildings containing miscellaneous collections and bizarre objects. The Heritage of the Sea room had as a centerpiece a full-sized blue whale locked in a battle with a giant squid, a sculpture that was too large to get into the frame of my camera and must have weighed many tons. A walkway circled the room's walls, which contained display cases of a impressive collection ship models and nautical artifacts like the tusk of a narwhal and scrimshaw. The ship models included the Mayflower, a German battleship that might have been the Bismarck, and a Japanese battleship that might have been the Yamoto--I had to guess at the name of each ship and would have definitely appreciated more labels.

The Music of Yesterday section was a collection of coin-operated mechanical music ensembles. Woodwind and brass instruments were played by compressed air and mechanical fingers playing the notes; the mechanical violins had one bow for each string positioned to play a certain note and drums were struck by mechanical drumsticks. But my favorite instrument was a saxophone with mechanical fingers that could bend and twist while playing just like a human playing the blues--it blew a mean lick let me tell you! Each ensemble was also surrounded by a room furnished to complement the theme of the musical selection being played, and these furnishings were astonishingly elaborate. In the Strauss room, for example, an automated orchestra played the Blue Danube and the room was furnished like a Viennese palace complete with ornately gilded figures. One room had a Japanese theme and played of course a melody from the Mikado. Each of these automatons required quarter tokens to operate, but Audie had thoughtfully stocked up on tokens back at the beginning and had enough to put them all thru their paces.

The Organ Room was absolutely huge, at least 3 stories tall and as much floor space as in a very large house. It had large pipe organs, of course, but they were scattered among a truly bizarre collection of odd artifacts. I saw an old ship engine, huge wooden clocks, transformers from an old electric generating station, a Gatling gun, and a 50 foot high "tree" made from kettle drums ranging from huge at the base to tiny ones at the top. What any of this had to do with organs remained a complete mystery to me.


Another building housed a collection of miniatures including the most extensive collection of dollhouses I have ever seen, and a similarly huge collection of circus tents with small models of the performing animals and acrobats. Along the way we visited the World's Largest Carousel that had a curious carved zebra with an additional face carved on its derriere! The artist's intent once again escaped me, and I was just sorry that we were not allowed to actually ride on this carousel and get a better view of the wooden menagerie. Another carousel featured hundreds of dolls twirling around as it rotated, an effect guaranteed to make you dizzy if you watched it too long. For some obscure reason this spectacle reminded me of the "It's a Small, Small World" ride at Disney World, but that is not necessarily a compliment.

The section on armor had the typical suits of armor from the middle ages, but it also had dioramas that showed the armor in use, so to speak. But these battle dioramas were full-scale so they featured not only men in armor but also battle stallions charging each other with lances and even an armored elephant charging into the enemy lines! The full-sized, armored bull elephant even was crunching a victim in his mouth, which was realistic if a bit gory. The extensive antique weapon collection in an adjacent room had many pairs of dueling pistols and other weapons and was very impressive. But I missed having any information on the provenance or significance of each piece that a real museum usually offers, altho the lack of things to read probably helped me get thru it all in less than a day.


All in all, the entire set of collections confirmed that Alex Jordan was one of the biggest American eccentrics of the 20th Century, a real testimony to unrestrained whimsy. Maybe that is the real reason that the House on the Rock is reputedly the most visited attraction in Wisconsin; people stand back and say, "Yup, if I had a million bucks to throw around maybe I'd do something like this!" Certainly doing that and then opening it to the public like Jordan did seemed a more worthwhile endeavor than using your wealth just driving around and partying with a bunch of biker buddies like Malcom Forbes did.

I think a person's character is tested most severely when they are either very poor or very rich, but for very different reasons. The poor are struggling to survive and have to resist the temptations to get ahead the quick, easy, and illegal way. The rich have no struggle at all and have to resist the temptation to waste their wealth in frivolous, egotistical, or just plain dissipated ways. Most of the middle class is just too busy earning a living and then living it to be tested in any significant way.

Somewhat bemused by these thoughts I finished the tour, bought some fudge with Audie, and drove back to Burlington. After looking for a bike rack for the rear bumper of the trailer and failing to find one, I spent the better part of a day cutting some old wood scraps and screwing them into a framework that would bolt on to the spare tire storage frame. (Obviously using that for a bicycle gave me the remaining problem of what to do with the spare tire, but it was small and I figured that it would be a lot easier to stow somewhere in the back of the truck than a bicycle, which is a very awkward thing to put anywhere!) Fighting off clouds of mosquitoes whenever I went out to measure or try out a piece, I used a 1x8 board and a piece of 2x4 to make a big T into which I screwed the hooks to hold the bike, and bolted this onto the spare tire rack with the lug bolts. Seeing how much this jerry-built contraption wriggled when the bike was on it, Audie was somewhat dubious but I was hopeful that adding a little more bracing would solve the problem. In any case, it did get my bicycle out of the back of truck, giving me extra space there.

On Friday Lois's daughter Patience (it's a Gilbert and Sullivan thing--don't ask!) arrived at Milwaukee airport as we left for Chicago to visit Martin (and his cats and Tanya) for the evening. The next morning we stretched our legs by walking up and down the zoo in Lincoln park just beside Lake Michigan on the near north side of the city. We certainly saw the expected "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!" plus sea lions, an elephant, wild dogs, penguins, a two-humped dromedary, and a strange golden-haired ox-like beast called a Tarkin.

It was quite warm, so a lot of people were also walking along the lakefront path beside the park. At the south end of the zoo folks were pedaling the swan boats on a large pond. Farther to the south the Chicago skyline jutted up above the horizon, and some of the skyscrapers really seemed to reach impossible heights.

Tanya joined us after lunch and we all drove down to the graduation party of my grandniece Melissa and grandnephew Michael on the southwest edge of the city. There I talked nonstop for over three hours trying to catch up with my sister and all the nieces and nephews from her family. Altho our visit was far too brief, it was wonderful to see them all doing well and of course particularly gratifying to see Michael and Melissa wrapping up high school and getting ready to go off to college. That's just such a big turning point in their life and us older folks were just kind of on the sidelines rooting for them to do well.

We returned to Burlington for the night and had a birthday party for Carson the next day up in Milwaukee where my other nephew Tony and his son Patrick could join us. I was so happy to see them and even get to play with Carrie, Carson, and Patrick a bit; it's the next best thing to having grandchildren! I also had a chance to play chess with Carson and do the "play without my queen" routine to give him a decent chance to win too. Patrick was also learning chess and it was a shame they didn't have more time to play together because playing someone of your own age and skill level is always the most fun, in my opinion. But we finally had to call it quits for the day and get back to Burlington. I drove over to Lake Geneva to fill the truck--much easier without the trailer hanging on behind--and still had a few minutes of daylight left to fight off the mosquito squadrons and apply the Loctite I had picked up a Wal Mart to the lug nuts holding on the bike rack. Hoping that would dry overnight and prevent the bike rack from falling off during our drive the next day, I turned in for the night.

Copyright 2004 by Robert W. Holt and Elsbeth Monika Holt
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