Saturday, March 04, 2006

travelogue: Wisconsin Dells

Everything along route 12 between Baraboo and The Wisconsin Dells is geared toward pillaging your wallet for the sake of supporting or exploiting the natives of this region. Faux Indian trading posts, Ho Chunk casino, and what I could only decipher as a twenty-four hour Bingo parlor, which was actually pretty tempting. I’m good at bingo. The natives call me Dances With Bingo.

When I hit the main drag of the Wisconsin Dells, I have about ten simultaneous flashbacks of family vacations here. The Corny Maze. The Wonder Spot. Timber Falls Mini-Golf. There seem to be bigger, gaudier resorts nestled here on the outskirts of the Dells, but closer to the epicenter are the familiar motels and hotels built in the heyday of TV dinners and hula-hoops. The skeeze is all family oriented (except for Dave’s Tattoo Parlor). Tommy Bartlett’s Sky, Ski, and Stage Waterski Show, one of the staples of the Dells will rock forever and ever, even though Tommy kicked on fifteen years ago. I saw the Tommy Bartlett show once. Despite the cloud of mosquitoes eating me, it was a pretty solid evening of hokey and exciting entertainment. Bigger, badder roller coasters have sprouted from the ground from when I last remember. The last time I was here was with my sisters Amanda and Carly nine or ten years ago. Amanda bungee jumped and Carly kneed me in the face on a pitch-dark, double-innertube waterslide at Noah’s Ark. I spent the rest of the day with toilet paper waded in my nostrils, cartilage in my nose properly crushed.

I wasn’t anticipating doing anything on this jaunt other than drive the few miles along the main drag and into Downtown Dells. Most of the attractions are closed for the winter. There are plenty of Haunted Houses and Dungeon’s of Terror, and Fun Houses.
I remember this one used to be called Mass Panic. You can probably guess why they changed it. But this one is one I hadn’t seen before. . .
What the F? What is this? Is this the White House?
Please note the White House landed on, and crushed, that white compact car.

TOP SECRET: A Highly Classified Experience. Now the key giveaway that this isn’t really the White House is that it’s slightly smaller than the actually White House. And it’s upside down. And in Wisconsin. The sign on the ticket booth said it was open so I really can’t leave the Dells without plunking down ten bucks (the winter rate. It’s 12 bucks in the summer. What a deal). I’m the only one here, which seems to be the theme of all of today’s attractions. I enter a waiting area and watch a DVD of presidential bloopers that was clearly made before the George W era: a baby throws up on Bill Clinton, George Bush gets bit by a crab, Dan Quayle being Dan Quayle. I notice something peculiar about the waiting area. This seems to be an upside down room. Hmm.

My college age tour guide arrives and she seems to have invited her boyfriend along so it’s not entirely awkward that I’m the only one on this tour. He’s wearing a t-shirt with an old-skool Nintendo control pad on it, and he admits, “she dragged me on this tour.” I feel a fissure in their relationship and that he ain’t getting any nookie tonight. The tour guide rattles off the scripted tour spiel like the college theatre major she probably was. I say to her, “Please tell me if anything is going to jump out and scare the shit out of me.” She smiles and laughs and not once during the tour does she ever tell me if anything is going to jump out and scare the shit out of me before things jump out and scare the shit out of me, and for this, I hate her. Amanda will tell you about the time at the Wisconsin State Fair when I made it halfway through a “Fun House” before I turned around and ran out the entrance crying. Fun House? More like… Not Fun House.

We walk into the first room: The Oval Office. But there’s something strange… the furniture and everything is stuck on the ceiling and, oh my god, George Washington is behind the desk, feet firmly planted on the ceiling. The most unbelievable thing here is not that the entire White House is upside down, but that George Washington never lived in the White House during his presidency. Never mind that historical inaccuracy. This tour only gets stranger.

The next room we visit is the upside down Lincoln Bedroom. The tour guide informs me that the room is haunted and the bed on the ceiling fell and crushed the last tour group she took through here. I see the upside Red Room and Green Room and then… the top secret part of the tour… I am taken on an “elevator” into the basement. Well, the elevator doesn’t go anywhere. The walls shake and the lights flicker to imply descent. Although, this being the upside down White House, shouldn’t we be going UP to the basement…?

So in the basement, there’s some kind of excavation going on. My tour guide tells me the digging crew disappeared last week. There are alien skulls packed in the dirt. Apparently, there are live aliens stored in crates, or something, I don’t know, the whole story of this Top Secret basement is foggy. Then the next room is, like, a presidential robotics lab where I find out that all the presidents since 1950 have been robots and that the current George W. Bush model is malfunctioning. Okay, that’s a little amusing. Chuckle worthy, maybe. The tour guide leads me through “a decontamination chamber,” on of those cylindrical rooms where you walk on a catwalk, and the walls spin around you with lasers and lights, and the affect is disorienting and makes you run into the railing and makes you want to vomit. This sure is fun.

We walk through a sewer system (whatever, I’m still hung up on the George Washington thing) and end up in the library of the upside down White House. My tour guide leads me into a “secret passage” which is actually a dark mirror maze. Oh shit. A dark mirror maze is what fucked me up in that State Fair fun house. I have to meet my demons head on, I guess. I don’t want to chicken out in front of this tour guide and her lame boyfriend.

I totally rock this mirror maze!!! I’m out of there in like twenty seconds. Even though some scary shit jumped out at me and there’s pee pee dripping in my sock, I feel I have been redeemed in some small way. The maze lets me out into the upside down dining room. I’m informed that the half eaten sausage pizza on the table is Abraham Lincoln’s. I’m just going to let that one go.

The tour guide takes me to the exit and tells me to visit again soon. This is when I press her for answers: “So, I understand that this is the White House, only it’s upside down and the floor is the ceiling and the ceiling is the floor, yadda yadda… but what is the actual premise?”

“Well, that’s pretty much it,” she says.

“I know, but how did the White House get dumped upside down in Wisconsin? Is there, like, a story behind that? How does that connect with the aliens and robot presidents?” I ask.

“Umm. We’re kind of still working on the premise.”

She wants to get away from me as fast as possible and go back to watching TV in the ticket booth. But it makes me wonder. Shouldn’t the premise and the story have been intrinsic to the development of the idea of the upside down White House, or is this just me trying to impose connective story tissue on something that gets by on it’s sheer weirdness and, like, upside down razzmatazz? I know The Poseidon Adventure exploited the upside-down premise, but there was a clear-cut story. What if I had to escape the upside White House? That would’ve been good and scary. But why would I have to escape? What’s chasing me? How does what’s chasing me connect to the reason the White House is upside down in the first place?! All I’m saying is I think I could have gotten my ten dollars worth if someone had put more thought into the story-telling here. I’m thinking about this way too much. My tour guide has left me and I’m standing alone in the parking lot of the upside down White House feeling a little cheated.

I give Carly a call. She’s in school at UW-Madison and Madison is on my way home and maybe we can get a bite to eat. I’ve heard horror stories about her dumpy Madison apartment, and I still have to check it out. Turns out it’s not as bad as I was expecting, but I’ve lived in squalor before and when you yourself have lived in squalor, nothing is ever as bad as you may expect. Carly’s apartment has a nice layer of lived-in skank and has clearly been occupied by college students since the dawn of time.

I have dinner with Carly and her boyfriend Drew. At some point in the meal, I go off on the upside down White House.

“It just… I don’t know. I’m flummoxed. Why was all the furniture bolted to the floor (now the ceiling) in the first place???” I say, emphasizing the parenthesis and the additional question marks.

“Would it have been satisfying if all the furniture had fallen down and was piled in the corner of the room?” asks Drew.

Good point. No, it would not have been satisfying. More realistic, maybe, but not satisfying. I find I really want to believe in the magic-realism of this situation, but my tour guide didn’t give me the tools to do that and I’m finding this is all a metaphor for the responsibility of an artist to her audience.

I tell Carly and Drew about Abraham Lincoln’s sausage pizza and nobody is quite sure what to make of it. I’m sensing that maybe they wished I was talking about something else now.

I depart Madison. I’m always surprised with how dark Wisconsin highways get at night. Guess my eyes are just used to the bright lights of Chicago, but it’s a piece of my heart in Wisconsin I shall leave.

Friday, March 03, 2006

travelogue: Baraboo, WI

When John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers fame, left his hometown and Circus headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin, he referred to the townsfolk as “hick Barabooians.” I found the people there friendly and helpful, and when the toothless town bum spotted me taking a picture of the historic Al Ringling Theatre on the town square, he was thrilled to point out Al Ringling’s redbrick house before asking me for change. Baraboo is steeped in Circus history and is home to the Circus World Museum, but that’s not why I drove 3 hours from Chicago. I was here because I had that audacity to set one of my plays here. Why? I like the town’s name: Baraboo. Say it. It’s fun.

This isn’t the first time I’ve abused a small Wisconsin town in one of my plays. I named a horrible fictional disease after Peshtigo, Wisconsin because the town burned down in 1871 and I liked the grisly details of the fellow who hung himself in a well rather than be burned alive, or following the fire, the thief who was sentenced to death for looting, but got out of that pickle because all rope to hang him with was burned up. I even called the Peshtigo Chamber of Commerce to find out how to pronounce the town’s name because if you look at it, there are three possibilities. The woman who answered my call was amused I couldn’t pronounce Peshtigo correctly because ignorance is funny. It’s not Pesh-TIE-go. Nor is it Pesh-TEE-go. But PESH-tigo.

I wanted a change of scenery and get a feel for Baraboo, Wisconsin, population: 10, 971. The morning drive up there was pleasant, rush hour traffic out of Chicago was as cooperative as a good bowel movement, and the Eric & Kathy morning show on The Mix 101.9 FM still doesn’t fail to annoy the crap out of me. Around 8am I passed through Beloit, Wisconsin, which, by the way, is “The Gateway to Wisconsin”—did you know this? I didn’t. Somebody needs to give Kenosha, WI a call, because I always assumed their acres of outlet malls were the Gateway to Wisconsin—some Beloit radio station had one of those “Dumb People Are Funny” segments about a woman who successfully faked her death to get out of all her traffic tickets… until she got caught speeding posthumously. The DJs had a good morning-drive guffaw and I only wish I had thought of the Fake My Own Death route to get out of that speeding ticket I got in Utica, NY last summer.

There’s not much scenery along the way. It’s all vague and vast and forgettable, much like my English major in college, but the billboard signs that advertise Wisconsin Dells attractions provide the Entertainment Weekly reading material to the scenic equivalent of the endless Wisconsin landscape of Chaucer and Milton. The exit for Baraboo/Portage has one of the sharpest, fastest clover-leaf exits I’ve ever experienced, and after nearly flipping my car into a drainage ditch, I end up on a country road toward the promised land, if, by promised land, I mean Baraboo. I drive past houses, decrepit and serene, I drive past farms and grain silos, I drive past Pigtail Road, and I wonder who lives up there. Pippi Longstocking? Wendy the fast food huckster? Yo mama? (if, by Yo Mama, I mean your mother, if she wore pigtails).

Nine miles later, I putter into Downtown Baraboo. It has a town square the way Hill Valley in the Back to the Future movies has a town square. There are the obligatory military cannons parked on the lawn in front of the town hall. I park the car and stand on the sidewalk, dumbly. I don’t have an agenda. It’s 10am and I’m hungry. Nothing is open for lunch yet. I walk around. The aforementioned Al Ringling Theatre:

I buy a couple circus postcards in the drugs store. I keep expecting Marty McFly to skateboard past. I go into an Irish boutique and gravitate instantly, lush that I am, to the Guinness merchandise and purchase a pint glass. I ask the shop owner where a good place to get some grub is, and she raves about the catfish tacos at The Little Village CafĂ©. I am intrigued because I’ve never had catfish in taco form, and I still haven’t, because the pesto-chicken and mozzarella sandwich grabbed me by the throat.

I’ve been to Baraboo before. I think I was nine or ten years old, and it was part of a summer family trip to the Wisconsin Dells. How does one describe what the Wisconsin Dells are to a person who has never feasted eyes on such splendor? Las Vegas for 12-Year-Olds. Go Karts, Water parks, Mini Golf, in a hodgepodge of tacky splendor. The Dells are about 13 miles north of Baraboo with a Ho-Chunk Casino smack dab between the two, the kind of Casino where certain Wisconsin regulars will carry around a lucky Ziploc baggie of cow-pie for good luck at the craps table. We had come down to Baraboo to visit the Circus World Museum. When I talk about it with my sisters, all they can remember is that it was rainy and cold when we went. All in all, I think we were underwhelmed by the experience, and it isn’t quite as visceral of a vacation moment as was the time we were all three crammed in the backseat of a rented convertible in Hawaii, whining and howling about our utter misery, discomfort, and boredom, until Mom, who is actually a very patient woman, completely snapped and thwacked us with a rolled up newspaper. Forget sugar-coated nostalgia. Those are the Kodak moments.

After lunch, I head to the Circus World Museum. I knew even before I left Chicago that the museum is closed for the winter. I parked and walked around the outside. Many of the Ringling Bros. buildings, most built in the late 1800s, are still standing and tagged with historical plaques, buildings for camels, elephants, and bears, oh my. Perhaps this building housed baby chicks?

Much of the museum is outdoor stuff—trains and wagons—so I peeped through the fence. Closed or not, creepy circus calliope music floats over the desolate circus grounds. Why was there music? I don’t see anyone anywhere. Was this a circus for the dead? Am I dead? Did my car actually flip over and burst into flames in the Baraboo highway exit of doom and this is some sort of circus afterlife? The circus music is unsettling. At one point I fantasize that I’m in a Scooby Doo cartoon and I need to solve a mystery in the creepy abandoned circus. I think my favorite part of the Circus World Museum are the clown-heads that top the garbage cans, so you throw your crumpled up Sno-Cone cup into a clown’s mouth, thus fulfilling many clown-haters desires to do that to a real clown.

I got back in my car and followed the signs to Devil’s Lake State Park. It’s a beautiful area, even with the lake frozen over and covered with snow. Before it became a state park, Devil’s Lake was a thriving resort until the late 1800s, but tourism dropped off after people started dropping dead from Typhoid Fever. Right now, it’s deserted and looks like the perfect place for a young female tourist like me to be murdered. I leave the park and drive by what I can only assume is the world’s best family restaurant.

And who can forget the famous Hooty’s jingle?

Hooty’s Hooty’s
Shake your booties
Grab your horns
And blow some tooties!

Really, it’s a shame I’ve already eaten lunch. It’s still pretty early in the afternoon. I don’t need to go back to Chicago yet. That leaves me only one option: I’m gonna hit the Wisconsin Dells!

Tune in soon for the next chapter of high adventure and swashbuckling romance in Wisconsin, including one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen in my entire freaking life…