Thursday, October 20, 2016

Scenes From The Midwestern Roadside

Encounters on the road over the past few years with the savior's truckin' servants and the dinosaurs in the hills.

Hope For The Road and Truckers For Christ:

Between Fort Wayne, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio, there’s this great little diner attached to a gas station called the Motor Inn. It's made up of decent prices, solid portions, delicious food, and strong coffee. It’s not exactly half way between the two cities, but it’s a nice stopping point. I’ve made the trip between the two midwestern settlements for years, but only within the last couple did I start visiting the Motor Inn no matter which direction I was heading.

The only unfortunate thing about this particular restaurant is that it’s not open late, as I found out in the middle of the night heading back towards home a few years back. I remember that night very vividly, leaving Fort Wayne as the summer sun was setting. I wasn’t in the best place at the time.

What seemed like a few days turned to months and eventually was nearing a full year. I constantly felt awful. Each day the reason seemed to change as to why I was upset with myself, my position in life, etc. That particular day, I don’t remember what was grinding at me, all I remember is that I wanted some coffee and to get back to Cincinnati. The Motor Inn was closed though, I settled for the instant stuff from the attached gas station. With no place inside to sit for a minute, I lit up a cigarette and just kind off meandered around outside to stretch my legs.

That’s when I found the trailer out back, the one featuring an illuminated cross, the American flag, and a door that said “open.”

The trailer was placed there by the “Truckers For Christ,” a ministry based out of nearby Marysville. They define themselves as an “independent, non-profit organization of spirit-filled men and women of God, dedicated to helping all persons in the trucking industry to find a new life through the power of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Inside, the a/c unit hummed in a fight against humidity as bugs lined the window trying to get to the light. Bulletin boards showed off the organization’s efforts throughout the years, free materials lined the shelves. There were places to sit, kneel, and make a donation if you so desired.

Inside, the “closed” sign seemed bright and new, probably having never been turned around while the “open” side became bleached in the sun. I made some frames and glanced at some of the free materials, they reminded me of the bookshelves in the Catholic grade school I had gone to.

I sat there for a minute at the back end of the trailer, taking it all in, sipping my coffee, contemplating.

I’ll go ahead and clarify this right now: I didn’t walk out of that trailer that night as someone who had been “saved,” nor was I overcome with the Lord’s mysterious ways. I hadn’t even prayed or really considered the option. For me, it wasn't a religious experience at all, but still an experience I very much appreciated.

With the mental state I was in at the time, just finding a place to sit, relax, and reflect was all I needed. It was unfamiliar, lacked distraction, and was placed there by people with good intentions. Having a place like that come up unexpectedly was a welcomed relief from the ominous hum of my car and repeating asphalt, a relief from a life I wasn't enjoying at the time.

While the Truckers for Christ may not have gained a new convert that night, they did give someone the opportunity to take a step back at a time they really needed to. Wandering in may not have been the cure, but it provided some relief in a critical moment.

I’ll always be grateful for that trailer being there on that night.

- "Hope For The Road."

Michigan Route 12:

- The overgrown entrance to Prehistoric Forest.

There’s all these tropes and stereotypes about what roadside America is supposed to be, this idea that people have in their heads and portray in popular culture. The “eat at Joe’s” signs, the “World’s Largest Ball of Yarn,” etc.

Let’s be honest, that kind of Americana doesn’t really exist off of our current and modern interstate system. As the Suburbia Lost project has shown, the modern view of roadside America is predominately a mix of Bob Evan’s, Cracker Barrel, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Shell stations, etc. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see the 2000 Rocky and Bullwinkle movie (most people didn’t), there’s a scene where Bullwinkle is driving down the highway and passes an interstate exit similar to the one he had passed earlier in the film. He believes it to be the same town from earlier, because it looks so similar. It’s quite possibly the only dialogue of substance from the film and it’s stuck with me for some time, because whoever wrote that is right. Nearly every major interstate exit is a cut and paste version of the last. However, deeper down some older highways and less traveled routes, the mid-century classic roadside America still exists. You just need to know where to look.

On a vacation last year, we rode I-75 and its monotonous exits all the way to the northern tip of lower Michigan, on the way back we went looking for the real roadside America on the state’s Route 12.

Fittingly, it was the Fourth of July.

- The twin Irish Hills Towers and their faded signs. 

We headed for Michigan’s Irish Hills. I was planning to simply catch a glimpse of the abandoned “Prehistoric Forest,” but found a lot more.

- The defunct Prehistoric Forest Amusement Park. 

With several attractions both closed and open, Route 12 offers a glimpse into the fabled roadside that these days seems to exist only in nostalgic movies and the tales of "people who know better than you." We saw the faded, static dinosaurs creeping out from the overgrown brush and like Sam Neil in a Jurassic Park Jeep, a local in his Chevy pickup rolled up.  He was friendly enough, warned me to not even think about trying to sneak into the brush and treat the abandoned park as my own Isla Nublar.

He had nothing to worry about, we were just passing through anyways with a long drive home still ahead of us.

- Forgotten attractions of the roadside Prehistoric Forest.

- Forgotten attractions of the roadside Prehistoric Forest.

- Forgotten attractions of the roadside Prehistoric Forest.

- Forgotten attractions of the roadside Prehistoric Forest.

Route 12 through the Irish Hills was once your quintessential “tourist trap,” lined with the kinds of attractions that make kids beg their parents to waste money. These days though, it’s charming, a glimpse into a bygone era unlike the Wal-Mart induced aggressiveness of a place such as Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

The road is lined with several forgotten attractions that complement the Prehistoric Forest. There’s the combination waterpark, go-karts, and arcade a.k.a. the "Fun Center:"

There's also the twin towers and their mini golf course. These two wooden observation posts were built in 1924 to provide views of the hills and several lakes in the area. The towers actually began as competing tourist attractions before being joined in the 50's. A gift shop and miniature golf course were eventually added, but the entire attraction closed down in 2000. As of the time of these photographs (7/4/15), demolition had been halted while the local historical society sought to raise funds for restoration. The building's were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

- Path leading to the towers. 

- "Irish" themed mini golf. 

- The overgrown mini golf course. 

Side roads jut off to lakeside parks and boat ramps. With it being the Fourth, people were already launching fire crackers and staking out their spot on the water for that evening’s pyrotechnic show. Boats were manned by men in cut off t-shirts and flip flops rather than polos and Sperry’s.

There's still several tourist attractions operating in the area. Down the road, the Stagecoach Stop Western Resort has made a comeback. While it was closed for July 4, the "Mystery Hill" was still open for business.

- Entrance to the Mystery Hill. 

We stopped at Randy’s Roadside Bar-B-Que where the hot dog, coleslaw, and Mac-N-Cheese were outstanding.

- Sign for Randy's roadside BBQ.

We grabbed ice cream at the Dairy Bar where a painted map lined out all of the Irish Hill’s attractions, both the opened and closed ones. The top of the map read: “Cead Mille Failte! 100,000 Welcomes!"

- "Mille" should technically only have one "l."

An overall unpretentious vacation spot that wasn't trying to splash its simplicity in your face, the roadside of the Irish Hills looked beautiful in the evening light. I would describe it as "honest."

That nostalgia of yester-year, the Americana of the past - if it still truly exists anywhere, it was there in the Irish Hills on July 4th, 2015.

On that day,  at that time, there's nowhere else I would've rather been than on Route 12. A year and some change removed from coming across the Truckers For Christ.

Over the years, several of QC/D's urban exploration stories have focused on abandoned amusement parks: View all of the stories


  1. We used to vacation Up North every summer. I'm hoping to take the kids up there again this summer even if only for a short 4ish day trip. We love to stop by random roadside attractions as a way to get out of the car, stretch and see something unusual. This year, we'll stay off of 75 and take 12 instead. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    1. If anything, it's a great place to stop for some ice cream. Let me know how your trip goes!