Before leaving Ohio we still had a few missions to complete, which honestly bothered me more than it should have. While it’s no one’s fault but my own that the big dumb state has been a big dumb anchor for my exploration of this big dumb world, feeling tethered to said anchor, even after the umbilical has been cut, feels taut, drawn and strained. I was more than a little cranky about spending any extra minutes in “The Heart of it All”.
We took a short trip to Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga National Park. While the area, in general, was flecked with the gold of recall, I don’t believe I ever saw the actual Falls before. We took a gorgeous and leisurely walk through the woods; a simple forest bath after the cacophony only large families can orchestrate. Our boots got their baptism, and we strolled out past the Falls feeling fresh and foolish enough to get back in the car.
Having spent the previous week in Cleveland, Ohio’s version of a 90’s sitcom (albeit with alcohol and swear words), I wanted the first stop on our trip to be somewhere serene where J and I could peacefully reconnect and discuss our intentions for the impending journey. Nearby Cuyahoga National Park, with its tractable trails and scenic falls, seemed a likely respite for clearing our heads and breaking in the new hiking boots we had both purchased for the venture.
Forty-five minutes after saying our goodbyes, we were tallying our first national park on our scorecard, and descending the wooden walkway which led to the summit of picturesque Brandywine Falls. At one time, the falls bore a number of mills, supporting the village of Brandywine which sprung up around them. Now all that remains of Brandywine are decaying foundations and a house built by one of the mill owners, which has since been repurposed as an inn. We paused for a while to admire the falls, then traversed the trail leading down to the creek below.
The shafts of afternoon sun peeked through the canopy, bathing the woods with an ethereal luster. The stream glistened in the light and we climbed down its banks to wade, noting how the current had worn away the shale in places, leaving only sandstone. We paused often, inspecting a foreboding bog, a tangled root formation, an ancient, looming tree that seemed to reign over the grove in which it grew. J showed me a felled trunk, inscribed with loops and curves, explaining they were avenues created by bugs burrowing beneath its bark.
My brother in law had recommended Jib-Jab, a hot dog shop from his neck of the woods, and only a few minutes from our Scrooge McDuckian trove of material wealth. For the love of Cthulu, get the fucking cheddar dog. Nothing else matters. Maybe dem fries doe. We locked the last few wisps of real world up along with winter coats and other things we were glad to put out of mind, then stopped at a wetlands preserve just up the road. Even in my grouch-state, an Ohio boy could appreciate the stubborn goldenrod and wildflowers left standing in the chill, hairy-backed, mouthbreathing of an incipient Fall.
While in Cleveland, I had become aware that should my dilapidated vehicle hold out long enough to cross the United States’ Southern border, I could potentially be asked to submit a copy of my title (a document safely stowed away in our storage unit) by any customs official with a tenacious inclination for adherence to international regulations. During our first attempt at delivering our effects to the storage unit, I had somehow become aware, despite my sleep-deprived stupor, of a neighboring wetlands preserve. After a quick pit stop to procure said document, I convinced J to stop and explore the grounds with me.
The fields of Mill Creek Preserve spanned out from the lane, teeming with wildflowers sprouting at shoulder height. The intense yellows and oranges were dramatically set off by the purple sky of an impending storm, goading us to cut our walk short, and we reached the car just as the first heavy droplets plummeted upon us.
With the rain beginning to fall, we hopped back into the car and headed for the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We drove past, under and through coal power plants and no-horse towns, wending through the hills and mountains of West Virginia. We arrived at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling around 9, a place that clearly meant something when my part of the country didn’t have to fabricate history to feel like they meant anything.
The rain persisted as we made our way towards Wheeling, West Virginia. Our path took us past sloping hillsides dotted with coal plants, their orange lights emanating a celestial luminescence in the twilight. They reminded me of the return trips home from New York as a child, my drowsy eyes canvassing the stretch of refineries along the Jersey highway – their lights reflected off the smoke billowing from their stacks, spawning a grave haze, dimly lit against the night. J and I quietly wondered at their majesty, these urban constellations.
We made our way to the McClure Hotel just as weariness began to set in. A fact heralded by my three attempts to park the car, and reaffirmed by responding with a reflexive, “You too!” when the front desk agent bade us to enjoy our stay. The McClure must have once been quite grand, but was now the cheapest room available along this leg of our route. Its expensive looking wood-paneled elevator, cut-glass lamps, and solid, heavy furniture now were cracked and worn, emitting a musty odor.
A somewhat more recently placed sign in the elevator touted guests of note who had once stayed at the hotel, suggesting that it may even have been a possible rendezvous point for President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. The absurd attempt at convincing patrons of the inn’s past splendor prompted J to remark on the availability of black light tours of the Kennedy suite, eliciting laughs from us both.
Wheeling is very beautiful, very quiet, like an old cross-stitch missing the last few threads. We stayed in the hotel to write and plan and made some phone calls. My Father, ever-supportive, offered further congratulations for the two of us:
“What the two of you are doing, it takes balls.”
Or ovaries. Or both.
The next day we packed back up and drove through more of the mountains majestic to New Vrindaban, a Hare Krishna colony of over 100 people/families in the area. We were there to see the Palace of Gold, what was originally intended to be a home for their founding saint. He unfortunately passed before completion, but his followers continued their work and built something truly glorious.
It’s slightly dilapidated in its current condition, but restoration work was being done on every aspect of the facility and its campus as we explored. Even in its shoddier parts, it remains a beautiful act of dedication and humility by a bunch of self-taught builders who have more chops than most contractors today.
A few years back I had made an outing with some friends to Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold. Believing J would be fascinated by both the craftsmanship and the spectacle of the structure, I wanted to revisit the grounds. A good deal of reconstruction had occurred since I had last been there, and members of the congregation were scattered throughout the property tending to gardens or painting portions of the facade. The recently cultivated rose garden was in full bloom, perfuming the surrounding acreage with its heady scent.
We walked the perimeter, then toured the gilded palace. The structure had been outfitted with mosaic marble walkways, bedecked with intricate wood carvings and frescos, and adorned with stained glass and Swarovski crystals. Elaborately embroidered banners trimmed the interior rooms. Ceilings were lined in gold leaf. However, such opulent ornamentation in the name of a man who promoted living simply stung of hypocrisy, and my inability to reconcile that truth outweighed my appreciation for the skill exhibited. My distrustful nature further piqued by repeated nudges from members of the congregation inviting us to join the assemblage for lunch, we were persuaded to move on.
We were invited to lunch no less than three times, and it was truly striking how genuine, honest and generous the people on the campus were. Of course, jaded other J was silently squalling “CULT!” on repeat while quarter-expecting “What does this rag smell like?” from around the corner. While joking about the inherent lack of trust that seems coded into our DNA, we caught sight of a white peacock. We stopped, snapped pictures, oohed and ahhed. “That’s a fuckin good omen,” I proclaimed. We quickly looked up the symbolism. The quick read is a symbol of purity, the Divine self realized, renewal and rebirth. We agreed it was indeed a good omen. Y had the idea to get tattoos of the omen commemorating our trip. We’re excited for that hot needle bite.
Next was a brief trip to Moundville to see the Archive of the Afterlife, a kind of modern roadside attraction put together by a regional occult and weird shit expert who has Been On TV once or twice. It was everything and nothing and is well worth the trip. Or the $2.50. Icing on the cake was that it was in a room on the second floor of a nearly-condemned repurposed elementary school, complete with 80s pop culture murals still clinging to the hallway wall.
I had heard of some macabre sideshow calling itself the Archive of the Afterlife housed nearby and insisted we continue forging ahead on our tour of the eccentric. The address led us to a run-down elementary school, in which the classrooms had been overhauled into storefronts, like a makeshift strip mall. Billed as a paranormal museum, it more closely resembled the attic of a childless couple who had passed on in the house they bought as newlyweds.
The collected artifacts garnered the anticipated amusement from J and I, but the real gem was the building itself. There had been no renovations made to the common areas when converting the space, and the hallways bore murals of 80’s pop icons like the California Raisins, Garfield, and A.L.F. Excitedly surveying the strangely augmented walls, my attention was drawn upward, where immense glue traps had been hung along the HVAC ducts lining the hallway’s ceiling. The thought of rodents darting along the ducts above irked me far more than anything I’d seen in the archive and I hastened back to the car.
We cruised on into Charleston and had some orgasmically good burritos at Tricky Fish. Afterward, we hung out for a spell at the Empty Glass, taking in some truly fire cool jazz, along with the entire graduating class of 1970, which is older than my dad, who is bonafide old, at least as far as AARP is concerned. Perhaps inspired by the company or the road ahead we turned in early, retelling the day and hoping for sunnier weather.
Charleston was meant to be our evening’s final destination, and by the time we breached the city, our appetites were voracious. Thankfully, the Tricky Fish, a taqueria/bar/stoner outfit, sated us with their immense, killer burritos. Bellies full, we tottered to the Empty Glass for a digestif. Part dive bar, part Elk’s lodge, the place had an inclusive vibe, a well-curated beer selection, and some truly talented jazz/funk musicians who seemed to be playing to entertain themselves as much as for the crowd. Places like this lend themselves to adventures fueled by excess, and not wanting to go down that road with the car in tow, we headed to the hotel to get soused responsibly, in our room.
Interested in taking your own trip to Cuyahoga Valley National Park? Check out our guide here.