Wednesday 19th July – An Unexpected, Crazy, Weird & Wonderful Delight

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I woke up dry with only a few new bug bites to add to my collection. The rain had cleared and the morning was eerily still, like it was pretending nothing happened the night before. The surface of the Mississippi was glass, reflecting the trees of the opposite bank perfectly. My mud art from the day before was buried and if it wasn’t for the wet ground underfoot, nature would have convinced me that I’d dreamed last night’s storm.

I had me a shower and practiced my Spanish over breakfast. Between my shower and brekkie, I pulled the car forward a few meters so I wasn’t standing in the newly wet mud while in the kitchen and even moving that short distance I was spinning my wheels. Hmmm. It might be a challenge getting back onto the gravel road from the wet muddy grass? That didn’t matter, I sat in the sun and took my sweet arse time enjoying my morning (because, you know, that’s what I do).

Ready to go, I packed the Astro up and put her in 1st gear. She crawled over the grass ok as long as I kept my momentum up and I only just made the road without tearing big divets into the grass. I looked for the camphosts to say goodbye and thanks but they were nowhere to be seen so I drove on out. No dust along the road this time.

Shortly after heading north, I was back into Iowa, choosing the roads that were closest to the Mississippi. Mum would have really liked the section between Muscatine and Davenport because of the houses. All with perfectly trimmed gardens and beautiful green grass, the two storey winter-style homes epitomised the American dream with their shuttered windows and neat porches. They were beautiful pieces of architecture and their owners clearly took pride in keeping them well presented.

I remained in Iowa until I hit Savanna and crossed back into Illinois to check out the Mississippi Palisades State Park. I drove around in the forest a bit until I found myself at lookout point. There didn’t seem to much else of interest in the park despite it supposedly having some boulders for climbing. I ate my banana pancakes (delicious) while sitting at the lookout, mostly peering at all the graffiti carved into the timber structure to see if I recognised anyone. Apparently Dan and “LS” are a thing? That cheating bastard, I will be sure to confront him about it.

In the carpark, I deliberated how I should move forward and decided my time by the Mississippi was coming to an end. Good thing too because despite its beauty, I couldn’t take much more of the bugs. An hour later, I was in Wisconsin, right where it meets with both Iowa and Illinois. Per what I read in my Lonely Planet guide I expected the corn fields to dissipate in favour of dairy farms that produced a quarter of all of America’s cheese.

Using only my Atlas as guide since I was out of service, I chose the scenic route heading north east through the state. There was a place of interest marked on my map called “The House on the Rock” and I guessed I’d get there about lunch time so I considered that my next destination. What a great decision that would turn out to be. Expecting to see some sort of structure propped up on the top of a big boulder, I pulled in to a signed driveway lined with grand brass-looking pots with flowers planted all over them and I got the distinct feeling I would be paying money to see this house. More surprising was the size and fullness of the carpark at the end of the drive. What was this place? It sure was popular for a Wednesday afternoon!

Before doing anything about lunch, I went inside to see what all this was about. They didn’t have any information about the place, just that they were celebrating 50 years. At the ticket desk, I got the idea from a pamphlet that it was a museum with three sections and you could elect and pay for which sections you wanted to visit. After a quick conversation with the ticketing lady, I didn’t want to miss out on anything so I said I’d do the whole experience for $30. What another great decision that would turn out to be.

I went back out to the car and made a quick toasted wrap for lunch. I’d been advised I would be pressed for time since it was 2:30pm and they suggested the whole experience would take three to four hours. Since they closed at 5pm, it would be tight, but it never usually took me as long to soak up museum information as suggested, probably because I glaze over most things.

Back inside, I bought my ticket and walked through the double doors to the unknown – literally – I had no idea what this place was. I walked on an elevated pathway past a Japanese garden and into the house on the rock. You couldn’t really see the house from the outside since it was so closely built in to the forest. I stooped underneath the low ceiling in the dimly lit residence. It was Japanese in style with carpeted floors and exposed stone for walls. Only a few lanterns lit the whole place which gave it the feel of a back room where smoke should fill the air while dodgy deals are done. I crept through the house and found that the kitchen was probably the largest room and the only one that I could stand upright in. It was equipped with all the modern fixings too! I wonder how recently someone lived here.

At the entrance, I’d received four tokens for some music machines and I saw the first example of these in an ensemble of instruments wired to self-play arranged on a wall in the house. I’d never seen anything like it, but my eyes were soon to be opened. In the next section of the house, I was accosted by a staff member who told me I had only fifteen minutes to complete this section before I had to move on. Hopping right to it, I came into a room that was a clash of eras with a cooking pit that resembled the late 1800s but a carpeted floor and couch lining the opposite walls. Weird, but a pretty cool idea.

There was another musical instrument ensemble tucked into a wall on the way to the infinity room. This narrow section of building stretched out of the treetops, completely unsupported beyond the main structure of the house. It was well formed and so narrow at its tip that the floor bounced beneath me as I walked out to the edge.

More weird rooms within the rest of the house and even room for a couple of staircases, this place would have been my worst nightmare to live in. With nearly no natural light and furniture filling every room, it was a small maze. It was in one of these cramped rooms I saw my first musical instrument that someone else had set off. It was a piano playing itself and it was a beautiful tune. Made me want to sit down at the keys again. By the end of my tour, I lost track of the number of pianos I saw but it was definitely in the dozens.

I finished my tour of the house (right on time) and was directed by signs to the next section. I feel for the people that only paid for the first section because the best was yet to come. At the mill house, I found all sorts of artefact collections and even wandered into the men’s bathroom because it looked like an exhibit with the trinkets hung on the walls. They had old guns and so many precious breakable things that were cool to look at.

Out the next door, I was in an indoor/outdoor area. It was like an alleyway with shops lining the street. I spent my first token on the magician’s machine which I don’t think could have fooled a five year old with the magician lifting his hat from a table to reveal a different object underneath each time. Still, it was amazing just that it worked.

I strolled the alley peeking into the Sheriff’s office, the china maker’s rooms, the tea lady’s store and plenty more. At the end of the alleyway was the biggest musical ensemble yet. With bottles hanging with beating sticks next to them, I had to turn it on. It took two tokens, but what a show it put on. The organ played while air was blown through tubes sitting atop bottles, symbols were smashed, drums were hit and the bottles hanging from the top were hit with their beaters. There was xylophone and a piano in there too. The imagination of the creators of this wonderful machine are just out of this world. By the time the show was over, a crowd had gathered to watch what I’d started.

Behind the next door, the breath was taken out of my lungs. I walked into a huge warehouse that was entirely filled by a whale, thrashing in the tentacles of a giant octopus. This really made me say “wow” outloud. The whale literally stretched to each corner of the massive building, suspended from the ceiling and supported from below. The octopus’ angry head was peaking out from the ocean and some of his tentacles were wrapped around the whale.

Once I got over my shock, I started my way up the ramps that slowly climbed around the walls of the building. Encased within the walls were endless models of ships, real and imaginary and plenty of nautical memorabilia. All the while, I could admire the huge octopus/whale fight sculpture from different heights. The creator of this scene was clearly a passionate man and wanted to share it, and his collection of nautical goods, with the world.

Next, I was in a fantasy world. Another huge shed with hot air balloons floating in the rafters and houses within the huge space. It reminded me a little of the inside Vegas strip. In here, there were dedicated to the weird creations of this world, including Rube Goldbergs (machines that achieve a set task in a roundabout way). My top exhibit in this place was the tiled car. I wondered what I was from afar but up close I saw that every inch of this Rolls Royce’s exterior had been tiled! Why? I have no idea, but it was damn cool. Dad even would have approved of the tiling job!

After seeing a room filled to the brim with aeroplanes hung from the ceiling, it was time to see a real dedication to musical machines. I’m sure every instrument existed in this display, each wired either through electricity, pneumatics or rotating wheels to play the correct notes. Noise came from all corners as people played their tokens. I would have liked to stay and listen to more music, but 4pm was fast approaching and I’d been told I had to be at the carousel by 4pm to get into the last section.

Five minutes before I was due, I walked into another big open room to see it, the carousel. This place just kept getting more fantastical. I couldn’t even see the centre of the slowly spinning ride it was so big and when I walked up close, I learned from the attendant that it is the largest carousel in the world and weighs in at 36 tonnes and – get this – no one has ever ridden it. Apparently any significant weight on one side of the carousel would imbalance the whole lot and potentially break it. Despite this, it was an absolute work of art. Of the 269 animals that slowly meander around the carousel, not one of them is a horse. They had everything in between though, including something that looked like a pitbull and another that was surely a peacock. The music (played by one of the musical machines) just put more charm on the whole experience. What an amazing sight.

Time to get to the last section, I got my ticket stamped by an attendant and walked through yet another building full of artefacts. This one really took the cake for me. There was beautiful music playing from somewhere behind the walls and it almost brought me to tears. Seriously. To see so many wonderful things crammed into a huge space, with spiral staircases and walkways taking you up and down through it all, this was an exceptional collection, obviously borne from people with intense passion.

I don’t know how to decsribe the things in this room, it just seemed to be a collection of things from a different world where elephants stand on each other to build towers and every object can become a musical instrument.

Being directed out of the room, I walked through displays dedicated to the circus, with miniature figurines displaying scenes of festivals, circus tents and acrobats.

Next, was a collection of doll and model houses, some built with the most intricate detail. Towards the end, was the most impressive display I’ve seen of ivory art. There were complete miniature Asian cities carved out of the smooth material, I can only imagine the hours of painstaking work that went into making them.

I got one last walk through my favourite room, climbing stairs to see the hundreds of carousel horses carved out of timber, their paint faded but the expressions still persisting in the crazy eyes of the beasts. I tried to store the music in my ears, savouring the sweet, sweet sound. If I’d still had two tokens, I would have made the orchestra play, but with only one left, it would be a souvenir.

Outside, grey clouds were lighting up the sky and my eyes struggled along with me as I readjusted back into the real world. Wandering through such a fantastical place, I had the feeling the whole time I was about to be whisked away into another world where carousel creatures came alive and music played endlessly.

I wandered through the small Japanese Garden before strolling back up the ramp to the gift shop and the exit. It was just before 5pm so I’d had as much time as possible inside the House and enjoyed every minute. Unfortunately I have to condemn my Lonely Planet Guide for not mentioning it, I’m just happy my Atlas had that one pink dot.

Still without phone service, I couldn’t look up camp, so I just drove north, hoping to find something on the way. Still with cornfields all around, I saw funny farm vehicles driving along the road, just waiting for a car to drive right underneath the huge machines. When I came to a small town, I found I had service so I pulled over to do some research. Turns out there’s hardly any free camps in all of Wisconsin. Using Google Satellite, I picked out a few places that looked manageable and navigated towards them.

My first stop was at the Mud Lake Public Hunting Grounds. The entrance sign stipulated no camping but the dirt road wove far enough in that I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. At the very end of the road there were a couple of cars parked so I went back and chose a pullout where I didn’t think I’d be bothered.

I got straight on to dinner while I spoke to Dan and just as I finished cooking, drops of rain started to form. The clouds had been gathering a while so it was expected. What I didn’t expect was the swarm of mozzies that came with it. I figured I was far enough away from the water that I wouldn’t be bothered, but this was absolutely not the case.

By the time I’d finished eating dinner, it was pissing down and there were at least a hundred mozzies in my van. I had the windows open for ventilation, but I was soon to be eaten alive if I didn’t do something. I got my fly net out and hurried to set it up over my bed. All the while I was swatting and scraping trying to keep them off me. Eventually I got myself under the net with only a few mozzies inside to kill, then I was isolated. I watched some TV in between talking to friends from back home. It turned out to be a late night because I was so popular.

My mind was racing and the fly net was bothering me so I was struggling to get to sleep. I’m sure it was well past 1am by the time I started drifting off. Just as I did, I thought maybe there was an extended period of lightning, but it was headlights pointing right at me. “Are you serious?” I said aloud, but the lights didn’t go away. There was a driveway not far up the road so I considered it could have been them, but at this hour? I dug a shirt out of my clothes in preparation for an interruption, but they soon went away. Great, but now I really couldn’t sleep.

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