Land of Oz theme park, North Carolina
Uncanny America: folklore, fakelore and the bazaar of the bizarre
Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.
This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!
Day 1: North Carolina to Tennessee
And off we go! My companion (let’s call her J) says there’s a theme-park north of Asheville called the Land of Oz. She went to it as a girl. Unfortunately, it’s off our route, but it feels like we’re going down our own Yellow Brick Road. We’d probably argue who was Dorothy, we’re down a Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow, and London wouldn’t want to be compared to Tonto – so the glamorous analogy is tenuous to the say the least, but that I suspect, looking at the ‘attractions’ to come, is probably going to be the through-line of this trip. Americans love to make something out of nothing – perhaps it’s a residue of their pioneering spirit, striking out across the Great Plain and forging their destiny with their bare hands from the primal ingredients around them1. And that spirit seems to live in the countless makeshift photo-stops and tourist honey pots that line the route (chiefly I-40w). Setting the tone was our first ‘landmark’ – the Big Red Rocker. The name appealed to us (it ‘minded me of J). I was expecting some kind of tipping stone like you get on the moors of England, but it turned out to a giant rocking chair. I’m already feeling like Alice in Wonderland – to use a homelier analogy – but this just emphasised that, as I sat in it, swinging my legs. The big thing over here seems to be, well, big things – the ‘World’s Largest’ is an epithet applied to the most random of
- This I think is a manifestation of the ‘nomad space’ Deleuze and Guattari talk of in A Thousand Plateaus (1988); Grant explores in Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads (2003); and Whitehead retools as a theory of creative process he terms ‘Nomadic Emergence’ (2013).
things, somehow making it great (or worthy of a detour and a few bucks on drinks, snacks and tourist tat). If one wanted to get Freudian about this, one could easily suspect over-compensation – the classic shiny red sports car syndrome. The fallacy of the ‘phallus-see!’ Sadly, we were unable to visit the World’s Largest Chest (breast-substitute?) of Drawers (my life feels impoverished) but we were able to call by the World’s Largest 10 Commandments – emblazoned on a hillside, presumably for the religious edification of extra-terrestrials. Other ‘lesser’ Commandments have been so forged, blotting the landscape, but this is the bonafide original (excluding the ‘Made by God’ stone tablets, of course). Nth Generation Art doesn’t seem to be a problem here, so copies of Stonehenge (’Stonehenge II’) or the faux-Indian Caves are still touted as genuine attractions. For a country which seems to define its identity from movies, TV and comic-books that is perhaps not surprising. As soon as I landed in the airport, back in Asheville, I felt a strong sense of déjà-vu. This was the American familiar to me from countless films and TV shows. There is something pervasively filmic about the States – everything has the texture of the cinematic, and artificial. A membrane of glamour – even the seedier side – wraps everything like clingfilm. And so you see two Americas (at least) simultaneously: the Reel and the Ur-real. Reality is filtered through star-shaped sunnies. If there is a movie- or celebrity-association, then no matter how crappy it is, suddenly it is sprinkled in star-dust. In Britain I find this with literary landscapes – such-and-such a novelist lived here, such-and-such a poet walked there. This landmark features in that novel; this one was used in the film adaptation. Whatever the latest medium, the book is the cornerstone. Literature pervades. While here, the dominant filter is the silver screen. Like the iconic Hollywood sign – no more than over-sized letters on a hillside – the prosaic is pimped with imported magic. The sign becomes the signifier.
Sites missed: Creationist Taxidermy Museum; Ghost Town in the Sky; Monument to the last shot of the Civil War; Scottish Tartan Museum. Well, life is too short really. And the Road calls!
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Crossing our first state border was thrilling – at least for me, an American virgin. I was beginning to feel a little of that pioneer spirit as we head west with our trailer in tow. There is something enthralling about having the big open road before you – a whole continent to cross. The scale of things out here is mind-expanding (and the eat-all-you-can-buffets are waist-expanding). We pulled over at a gas-station shaped like an airplane – once, a working fuel-stop – and took the obligatory photograph. We were tourists, just like the rest (no matter how much we might sneer) and it is hard not to get sucked into the ritual of the holiday snap. Another gas-station was shaped like a huge ‘Shell’ sign – and I wondered whether the icon was chosen not only as a reference to the fossil-fuels but also to the scallop shell of the pilgrim. At what point does tourism become pilgrimage? Our trip had a soul-full purpose, but it has started out frivolous and definitely at the ‘experience-junky’ end of the spectrum. Perhaps that will change as we go along. Yet, for now we succumbed to such tantalising attractions as the ‘grave of Beautiful Jim Key, the Education Horse’ – who could apparently spell his name and count. Lo, such edifying wonders! The Bell Witch Cave and Museum was slightly more interesting, although I couldn’t help think of Wookey Hole Caves, an ocean away in deepest Somerset – gave me a twang of homesickness for one second. Yet, this melted away as we reached the legendary Nashville to be greeted by … polar bears! There were statues of them everywhere, decorating roadsides and parks. Was this some kind of Climate Change awareness-raising public art initiative? Or was it just because they looked cutely incongruous in this hot land? This is the Kingdom of the Car here – the whole place is designed around the automobile. I don’t see many cyclists or pedestrians. Here, we called in on a bar on the drag J is a regular at – playing that is, and we received a warm welcome. After a long hot day of driving a cold beer went down well. We ended up staying for tacos and a great music session in the evening. J ended up doing a couple of guest numbers – she’s such a star. For a long time she’s played with a band, but it was great to see her stepping out as a solo act. Folk loved her, and who could blame them?
The journey continues tomorrow…
Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.