Paul’s Roadside Road Trip 2009 (Part 2)

[Part 2 of my quest to check out all the local World’s X-ist things! Click here for Part 1.]

Friday, August 21, 2009

I had a similarly early start this morning, leaving my room at around 10:00 a.m., after dropping the key off on top of my room’s dresser. Apparently you’re allowed to do that in this motel, instead of taking the key to the clerk on duty, which is great for a person like me, who fears human interaction like most people fear being set on fire. Breakfast was Strawberry Pop-Tarts and a Snapple from a local convenience store, which I wolfed down, because apparently I’d forgotten to eat dinner the night before.

It was a 45-minute drive to my next destination: The Museum of Family Camping, nestled in Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown, NH. I had to drive through an in-park toll booth to get to the museum—shockingly, as a former resident of New Jersey, only the first toll booth I’d seen so far on this trip. I pulled up and rolled down my window, and the man working the toll both just stared at me. Just stared, like he was mad at me for interrupting his soaps. I was about to roll my window back up and keep going when he asked what I was doing there. I said “there’s some museum around here, right?”, because, seriously, how do you tell someone you visited their beautiful national park for the sole reason of checking out a museum devoted to tents? He said he thought it was closed, and I shrugged and continued on.

I found the museum easily from there—it was the building with a dozen old campers parked outside it, with a big sign on the door saying “Open.” (I think the toll booth guy lied to me, because he was mad at me for not waiting until a commercial break before pulling up to his office.) I got out of my car and started looking at the campers. I was staring inside what appeared to be a gigantic metal Twinkie when the museum’s curator approached me, introducing himself and asking what I was doing up in these parts.

A gigantic metal Twinkie at the Museum of Family Camping in Allenstown, NH.

This happened at a few of yesterday’s attractions, too, and it’s a really awkward question. I can’t exactly say “Well, I’m touring some of New England’s wackiest attractions, and your life’s work is on my itinerary!” I usually just make up something about being in the area and wanting to stop by, and hope there aren’t any follow-up questions.

We talked a little about camping trips we’d been on, and then the curator left, and I got back to staring inside old campers. They range in birth year from the 1940s to the 1970s, and you can tell that they’ve been through a lot with their families. On some, the canvas has begun to rot away. One is covered with stickers from all the places it’s been. Two of the trailers have albums full of photos of the adventures they’ve been on with their families. One of the bulkiest trailers there had even traveled all the way to Alaska. After 30 years of travel, this trailer was bequeathed to the family’s son, who transformed it into an outdoor office for his wife. You can flip through the albums and watch the families age with their trailers—kids getting older and older through each page until they’re finally too old to be vacationing with Mom and Dad. Even if the museum had been closed, there’s a great deal to see just outside it.

Inside is no slouch, either. Half of the museum is devoted to old camping supplies and memorabilia. Books on how to camp good. Posters about how you shouldn’t peel bark off of trees. Devices for keeping bears from eating your food. One corner of the one-room museum is “The Camping Hall of Fame,” with inductees like L.L. Bean (the person, not the store) and Bill Riviere, author of The Camper’s Bible. There’s also a TV and VCR where, if you really have time to kill, you can watch videos on a number of camping-related topics.

Inside the family camping museum.

The other half of the museum is devoted to the Civilian Conservation Corps—FDR’s program to save the environment while providing jobs to the nation’s young people during the Great Depression. I only just skimmed this area—I wasn’t very interested, but I thought it would have been rude to totally ignore it, what with the curator sitting there on a fold-out chair, watching me peruse his collection of old camping spoons. Unlike yesterday’s random jaunt through ancient oceanic travel, this exhibit wasn’t completely out of nowhere—this museum is actually situated in the middle of an old CCC camp. The museum itself was the camp’s dining hall.

After buying a few trinkets to support the museum, I left, and plugged my next destination into the GPS: Salem, MA, the hokey witch-museum capital of the universe (lowercase, but with potential for uppercase), which seemed like a perfect stop for this trip. I could probably spend an entire day there, just visiting the tourist traps. In fact, I’d actually done that already, on a trip with my family years ago. This time, I was traveling to Salem again, but I was going to completely avoid anything witch-related, instead visiting The New England Pirate Museum, which was a little over an hour away from Bear Brook.

The exterior of the New England Pirate Museum in Salem, MA.

On the way, I saw a recycling truck full of leaves, no doubt on its way to some tree-stapling. I stopped at a mall for lunch, which turned out to be a sandwich with some kind of meat and some kind of cheese. If you’d put a gun to my head, I would not have been able to tell you what I was eating. I eventually found parking in downtown Salem and walked to the Pirate Museum, which was the opposite of the other museums I’d visited on this trip in two major ways:

1) This museum has mandatory guided tours, and

2) I wasn’t the only person there.

Really. This was the first time I wasn’t mostly alone in one of these museums. This place was downright crowded with sweaty parents, hostile teenagers, and children hoping to meet Johnny Depp. I waited in the gift shop for about 20 minutes for the next tour to start, picking out the surprisingly reasonably-priced trinkets I’d take home with me if the tour wasn’t a bust.

It wasn’t. Our tour guide was an actual pirate, and he took us through the dimly lit museum, showing us wax statues of New England’s most infamous pirates and telling us their stories. We learned about Thomas Tew, apparently a really pleasant pirate, who was also a great storyteller; William Fly, whose pirating career lasted all of a month before he was killed; and Rachel Walls, a very fearsome lady pirate who was eventually hanged for the one crime she was accused of that she didn’t actually commit. Listening to all these stories made me want to become a pirate historian. Some of the exhibits were gruesome—there was one of a merchant holding the recently severed head of a pirate high in the air, false blood dangling from its neck. This one terrified the Johnny Depp crowd. I overheard one mom saying, very loudly, as she was holding her child’s hand, “It’s OK; don’t worry. I’M SURE THESE NICE PEOPLE WILL MOVE OVER SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO SEE.”

GRUESOME! A wax pirate's head is severed by a wax merchant.

The tour also took us on the deck of a replica pirate ship and through a replica treasure cave, complete with a fearsome animatronic pirate, which made one teenage girl scream like she’d just heard that Zac Efron had died. It was awesome. This lead us back to the gift shop, where I bought my trinkets, and thanked the pirate for putting on such a great—and, surprisingly, very funny—show.

I went back to my car and plugged my next destination into the GPS. This stop was supposed to be fifty minutes away, but this was complicated severely by the traffic I met in the world’s longest tunnel (lowercase, because I haven’t fact-checked that), which you may be familiar with if you’ve ever traveled in Massachusetts, but which took me by surprise. The freaking thing has its own exits. During this jaunt, I looked at my gasometer for the first time since filling up back in Connecticut. The little cursor was on the “E.” I took the next exit I saw. This exit, it turned out, took me straight into downtown Boston.

Pro-tip: You don’t want to be on empty, looking for a gas station in downtown Boston in the middle of rush hour. I thought I was going to die.

I eventually gassed up, fought my way back into the tunnel, and continued on. I had already been on the road for an hour and a half and still had a ways to go, and I was really starting to wonder if it was worth all this trouble to visit my next stop, which I am absolutely not making up: “The World’s Most Nearly Perfect Sphere” (uppercase belonging to RoadsideAmerica.com) in Quincy, MA.

Spoiler Alert!: It wasn’t. It was pretty much just a big granite sphere outside of Quincy’s town hall. They weren’t even selling t-shirts of it.

The world's most nearly perfect sphere (seriously) in Quincy, MA.

It was starting to get dark, but, fortunately, my next and final destination would be open until 10, when the theater that housed it finished its last film for the evening. I was off to Dedham, MA, to visit the Museum of Bad Art.

The Museum of Bad Art has particular significance to me, which is why I’m glad it turned out to be my little trip’s main event. During my family’s trip to the Boston area (which included Salem) years ago, I insisted that we visit this museum. We got into town and, after asking around (I’m sure my father still hasn’t forgiven me for having to ask strangers if they knew where “the Museum of Bad Art” was), we found the museum, and it was closed, and we weren’t going to be around when it was open. This time, I made sure to write down the museum’s hours before leaving on my trip.

The Museum of Bad Art is situated in the basement of the Dedham Community Theater. It’s actually, pretty much, the hallway leading to the theater’s bathroom. (Some of the museum’s best/worst pieces are hung on the bathroom door.) There were about 25 or 30 of the museum’s 500+ pieces on display today (the curator told me that they’re rotated periodically). The museum’s mission statement is to show off works of art that started ambitious and went astray. They’re not looking for intentionally bad art—they want art that was supposed to be great and went horribly wrong. The works are purchased at yard sales and thrift stores, and are sometimes donated by the artists (and, in a few cases, the artists’ families, no doubt elated to get them out of their houses). Many of the paintings are housed in super-fancy wooden frames, and they all have little placards detailing the artists, the names of the pieces, the media, and brief interpretations of the work (“A remarkable fusion of ski resort and wolf puppy—stoical in his yellow-eyed silence, frozen beneath the ice-capped peak—Dogeloquently challenges the viewer to re-examine old concepts of landscape.”).

The Museum of Bad Art.

This is only one of the museum’s two locations, the other being in Somerville, MA. Maybe I should’ve tried to visit both—my only “complaint,” as such, is that there’s not enough room for the museum to show off its fantastic collection.

I purchased a few more trinkets, got in my car, and started the uneventful two-and-a-half-hour drive home. I had a fantastic, albeit short, time visiting all these oddball locations—all of which, except the sphere, exceeded my expectations, in that I actually enjoyed them for what they were, and not ironically. I think I’ll try to take a trip like this again next year.

Thanks for reading!

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