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.