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3 A.M. Travel: Crazy Americana


by Andrew Gifford


Indian Steps

"This is America,” my Australian friend, Liam, muttered.

We had pulled over at a gas station in the suburbs of Baltimore, the car facing a Target superstore and a chain of fast food restaurants. Behind us, Interstate 83 hummed with the gentle breath of Saturday traffic. We had just set out for a tour of Lancaster, Pennsylvania – the Dutch Country. Two days and one night among the Amish. Along with the Australian, our Amish raiding party consisted of Donald and Teresa, archconservatives from Spain. I was the token American in our group, tagging along because I had a sweet tooth for forgotten Americana. I was also in possession of the cynical attitude that nothing would be pure. The Amish, their religion and the big open countryside were there for the benefit of the tourist -- the modern American Brave.

“Everything has to be so large, so overstated.” Liam muttered, “What do you get out of that?”

“Prosperity!” I barked, turning towards the sun and taking a deep breath. “My god, Liam. Fortune and glory! This is the course of empire!”

Liam squinted at me until the tank was full. Without taking his eyes off of me he replaced the nozzle, tore off his receipt and walked to the driver’s side of the car.

The route was laid out several days before: I-83 north to PA 74, a two-lane highway that would take us past the Indian Steps Museum. Whenever I travel the States, I do my best to visit at least one Indian monument. The Indian Steps Museum looked to be well out of the way so I was insistent that we locate and catalog the site before it faded away forever.

The Indian Steps, themselves, are crudely cut footholds in the granite alongside what is now the Susquehanna River. The fishermen who made these cuts and gave the river their name came from the Susquehannock tribe, an Iroquois tribe that migrated to the area sometime between 1300 and 1500 AD. When they arrived, the Susquehannocks discovered an unrelated tribe living in the area. Their first act was to brutally annihilate this foreign tribe and this they did so successfully that all traces of that early tribe are now lost.

By the late 1600’s, the Susquehannocks ruled large tracts of Pennsylvania and Maryland. When white settlers discovered that the Indians were expert and surprisingly well-armed warriors, our only recourse was to weaken their tribe with alcohol and Christianity. Our attempts were successful, which lead to the unfortunate subjugation of the Susquehannocks by their cousins, the tribes united under the Iroquois Confederacy. Another powerful Appalachian tribe – the Seneca – eventually absorbed the survivors. They, in turn, were all sent away to reservations. The Museum doesn’t address the ultimate fate of the Seneca but I’m sure it was horrible – they’re probably out at Fort Stinking Desert, Nevada.

The Indian Steps Museum presents the traveler with a comprehensive and fascinating collection of Indian weaponry (that is, sharp rocks) and a 375-year old Holly tree. The Holly tree is hard to find and, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist. When I asked about it, the lady at the counter gave me a look reserved for killer hornet nests.

The museum is far enough off the map to allow for an adequately eccentric display. It is housed in a three-story, 18th century stone house. The suggested donation is one dollar and there’s a small box for this donation beside the guest book. The first floor consists of a small gift shop featuring the ever-popular rubber tomahawks and, a new one to me, “deer hunting boomerangs”. Just off of the gift shop is the Nazi Room. This is well worth the dollar. My traveling companions and I assumed the room was used for seminars or video presentations of some sort. A fancy TV and VCR sat on wheels at one end of a huge, granite table. The oval-shaped table, surrounded by large stone chairs, summoned images of King Arthur and questing knights. There’s a powerful feeling that you’ve crossed some sort of time portal when you enter the room. Suddenly, this North American mission house becomes a chamber in a medieval castle. The windows are hand-painted stained glass, drawings and tapestries adorn the walls. Various photos, looking to be about 70 years old, portray rugged mountaineer men standing in front of the Indian Steps. On the corners of these pictures are darkly emblazoned swastikas. Above the entryway, a large swastika is painted on the wall. Beside it is painted the dictionary definition of a swastika, sheepishly explaining that it really means “good luck”. That’s all, nothing more. Please make sure your papers are in order before leaving the room.

True enough, though, the swastika was a symbol commonly used by the Iroquois. You can find the swastika around the world, representing luck or fortune to countless peoples and religions. In Germany, the symbol comes from ancient Norse mythology. All this is well and good but, the fact remains, the people in the 1930’s photographs at the museum are all white and Germanic. I can just see them sitting around that stone table, dressed in black, working out the final resting place of the Holy Grail.

The actual site of the Indian Steps is hard to get to and defended by an entrenched team of Waffen-SS. Unless one wants to play the Lyme disease game, the best thing is to stick to the museum. The old house features two floors worth of pottery shards and arrowheads. One room addresses the onset of European settlers. Strangely, the paintings and drawings depict the first European settlers in the area as leering Conquistadors instead of the famous John Smith (the first white man to make contact in this area) and, later, settlers under British Lord Calvert’s flag.

----- To get to the Museum, follow PA Route 74 get off on Route 425. 425 is a large horseshoe meandering through endless cornfields and new forest. Follow your heart and, eventually, the road sidles up beside the Susquehanna. Shortly after, you’ll see a sign for the Indian Steps Museum.

The Amazing Maize Maze: Corny Americana

Cherry Crest Farm, Pennsylvania. Today we are astronauts. The brochure says that we are “about to make one giant leap into endless stalks, trying valiantly to prove that there is intelligent life on earth.”

We will fail in this quest.

The Amazing Maize Maze is the brainchild of Don Frantz, a former minion of Disney and co-owner of the American Maze Company. Deciding that raising corn alone wouldn’t bring in the profits, Frantz and his corporate team developed the 5-acre cornfield maze that has reached a certain level of fame. Well, the morning talk-show level of fame.

Each year, the Maize Maze takes on a different shape – a locomotive, a wagon train, the secret tunnels beneath Disneyland and, this year, the solar system. Families enter the 5-acre corn maze and weave their way through meandering corridors, the summer sun burning them into ashes. No joking – this thing is hard.

We were driving along US30 when a hand-written sign proclaimed – “MAZE!”. Something clicked in my head and I anxiously grabbed Liam’s arm – “Right, turn right. We have to go to MAZE.”

As we drove down rattling county roads, led along by scrawled cardboard signs, I explained the history of the Maize Maze:

“It’s really weird stuff.”

“What do you mean?” Liam frowned as banjo-playing rednecks lurked in the roadside shadows.

“It’s a field of corn that’s been converted into a complicated maze. Actually a little famous, so it should be – “

At that moment, Liam drawled a horrified “Oh my god”.

The Maze comes right up on you – from endless farmland, you round a bend and you find yourself assaulted by a mass of tourists. The muddied car park for the Maze requires four attendants and, on most days, is full.

Admission to the maze is $7, snow cones are $1 and there’s a map with pins to indicate your country of origin. Our group selected small, un-named islands in the South Pacific.

As you enter the Maze, there’s a board of record times designed to get the competitive American male into a vicious mood. Fathers of happy families suddenly turn ugly: “19 minutes? Christ, Charlotte, get moving. Come on! We have to beat 19 minutes.”

I noted with despair that the longest time was 12 hours.

We joined the line of tourists and bid Teresa farewell – she was going to buy some cotton candy and feed it to the goats at the petting zoo. Her evaluation of the maize maze (which would prove to be correct) was that it was a death trap.

Full of confidence that won the last World War, we, the tourists, surged forward into the “briefing room”. A loud young man told us about the maze and ran us through some safety procedures. The theme for the Y2K maze was “the solar system”. Colored strips marked the different planets. The blue strip, with which my team would become intimately familiar, indicated “outer space”. There is one port-a-john (don’t worry, though, you’ll circle back to it repeatedly) and two places where you can get some water.

All the tourists were filled with sportsmanlike bravado until the loud young man leaned forward, his voice hushed. “If you get lost, there are only two places where you can call for help.”

This was met with silence. The young man let it sink in for a bit, “On that tower, overlooking the maze, is our maze expert – our cosmonaut. He can help you…but only if you find one of the two ‘telestalks’.”

Children began to cry as the loud young man picked up a brightly colored flag on a ten-foot pole and began shouting again. “Every team gets a flag so, if you are lost, just wave the flag and we’ll come get you.” The young man turned to a nearby 8-year-old girl and said, in a barely audible voice, “You don’t want to be in here after the sun sets.”

Since sunset was in four hours, there was a collective shiver in the crowd as the loud young man grinned maniacally.

There is a map to the maze, but in order to use it you have to find 15 way stations. Each station has a mailbox that contains a square of paper. The 15 squares together, affixed to a master sheet, make up the complete map. This was the kiss of death for my team of adventurers – earlier in the day, we had to ask a stranger if we were in Pennsylvania or Maryland.

We entered the maze and immediately fell prey to the herding instinct – the 25 tourists in the briefing room stuck together, the laughter of the loud young man following us through the stalks of corn. After a few minutes of soul searching, people began to split off and head deep into the maze. Surely, we all thought, this wouldn’t be too difficult. Children were here…this was a family outing. There was a petting zoo, for God’s sake, how hard could this little maze be?

I concentrated on choosing the path less traveled, leading Donald and Liam deep into outer space. The corn rose well over 8 feet and there was no way out. The back of my mind conjured up visions of wildfires, corn thrashers and possessed scarecrows from beyond hell. I kept all of these paranoid thoughts to myself, however.

Never much of a pathfinder or puzzle solver, I eventually gave way to Liam. After 20 minutes, it was obvious that the maze was an entity unto itself. We had passed the Skittles machine in the “Mars” section (signified by red ribbons) several times, we had orbited Saturn no less than 7 times and we seemed doomed to the nether regions of deep space. With his strong background in mathematics, Liam was the only man who could save us. Donald, looking very European with sunglasses and unlit cigarette, seemed content to avoid any leadership role.

“What do you think, Donald?” Liam had asked shortly before assuming command.

“I have no idea. If we all die, I want to go on record as not being responsible.”

Liam had located the first mailbox. He affixed the small square of the map onto our master sheet. Fourteen more to go but, from this point, Liam swore he could figure things out. We just follow the map on the tiny square until it ends. There was a mailbox for each square, so we reconnoiter each new area and we avoid panic at all costs.

He mentioned the panic part at that point because I was hyperventilating. Donald seemed relaxed and somewhat aggressive. He started to move like a hunter and, quietly, he told me that he was prepared to defend the map squares.

“If it comes to it,” Donald muttered, “We’ll fight for these map pieces.”

“If the corn requires blood,” I replied, “we will feed it.”

Donald stared evenly at me and shifted the still unlit cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other. “Have you heard the voice, too?”

My smile faded. “I’m sorry…what?”

Liam looked up from his calculations. “Are you two joking?”

“I’m joking!” I replied quickly.

Donald looked from Liam to myself, his face grim. “Of course,” he said slowly. “So am I.”

We reached the one-hour mark. Families were passing us and laughing, new people had entered the maze and they treated us like wizened veterans. We had five map pieces, all of them scattered across the master sheet. Not one of the five pieces were adjacent to another. Lost in outer space, the sun blasting us and evening rapidly approaching, despair had set in. I was nervous and on edge, convinced that the postal boxes were moving on their own. Donald had begun lovingly touching the corn stalks. Every once in a while, he would shake and touch my arm, muttering something like “There it was again.”

Liam stopped two college guys and asked them if he could compare maps.

“What sections do you have?”

One of the frat boys shrugged, “We’re not collecting the pieces. We’re just going through.”

“They’re lying,” Donald whispered in my ear.

“Been through before?” Liam asked.

“You guys lost?”

“Bastards,” Donald muttered, “they will anger the voice.”

I turned towards Donald, “Please stop touching my arm.”

Liam was insisting that we weren’t lost. He came off a little defensive and the two frat boys laughed and shook their heads as they walked away.

“You are marked!” Donald shouted.

“Jesus,” Liam gritted his teeth and turned towards Donald.

At the two-hour mark, things looked bad. We hadn’t made any progress whatsoever. Nothing had worked for us and Donald had obviously become dangerous – we all needed alcohol, if only to stop the voice of the cornfield.

We tried to steal pieces of the map from others, only to find that they were worse off than we were. We tried the scientific method and ended up back at the entrance, confused and near tears. We followed a class of students and their science teacher for half an hour, circling Saturn again and getting lost in outer space. Shortly after that, the students gave up and, as the sun began to sink in the western sky, we decided to throw in the towel as well. It took us 20 minutes to find the entrance again and we rushed to freedom. Coming out of those cornstalks was like walking out of prison – the sweet smell of petting zoo filled our nostrils and we nearly shouted with joy. Beside us, two 12-year-old girls from France were proudly showing off their completed map to a group of darkly muttering maze-quitters. The loud young man logged in their time at 32 minutes.

----- Information on American Maze Company mazes around the country can be found at

Choo Choo Barn vs. Northlandz

As you pull into the town of Strasburg along US30, you enter the most sacred of holy lands for Dutch Country tourists. The streets fill up in the summer, creating a rough approximation of those scenes from "The Day After" right before the bombs hit. The strip-mall tourist spots of rural America blossom like mushroom clouds from the farmland. You can go to the Amish pottery barn, the Amish candle barn, Amish restaurants, and so forth. We're nearing Intercourse, PA. We're in horse-and-buggy country.

Strasburg is a town of tourist stops. This is where you can take your girlfriend for an Amish buggy ride (I suggest heavy groping and kissing to scandalize 100% of your fellow tourists). I was attracted to the Strasburg railroad, a giant steam behemoth dragging passenger cars from the 50's along 45 minutes worth of farmland track. The fares are based on how comfortable you want your ride to be – molded plastic benches in an open car start at $8.50. You can also get a restaurant car or ride on “theme trips” such as “The Terror Train”. For $15.95, “your spirit guide will take you through a montage of unbelievable nocturnal horror”. Pennsylvania farmland at night – is there a greater horror? Well, maybe New Jersey during the day. Across the street is the high-priced Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, which provides a classy look at the history of rail in the Northeast. Entry is $12 per person and, if you aren't a railroad buff, don't bother. Our team chose not to ride the train and we turned away from the railroad museum. We were all feeling a little strung out from our maze adventure. Donald had regained his senses, Liam seemed to have lost some deep emotional battle and Teresa couldn’t shake the farmyard and cotton candy smell. I had spiders behind my eyes and several dollars worth of loose change in my brain. I wanted a frozen daiquiri.

Just before you hit the train station and museum, you’re captured by a tourist-strip of classically oversized proportions. You can stop here for an All-American burger and some not-quite-Amish honey, but the real attraction is the Choo-Choo Barn. Geared towards children, the Choo-Choo Barn contains an impressive model railroad.

Before we talk about the Choo-Choo Barn, it should be noted that the United States contains the largest model railroad in the world - the semi-famous Northlandz in Flemington, NJ. Housed in a warehouse, it takes nearly 2 hours for a cursory tour of the Northlandz set. There are miles of track weaving through this warehouse and an entire history of rail plays out before you on three separate gauges. Northlandz is a spellbinding experience for the casual traveler and a profound life-changing event for the model railroader. I spent nearly 5 hours examining the Northlandz exhibit several years ago - and there are spots where you can literally get lost, dropping down beneath suspended track or rising above valleys and rivers. You can hole up in a corner and not see a soul for long stretches of time.

The Choo-Choo Barn presents a much smaller model railroad. There are no stairs or hidden corners, you just walk around a large table. A quick walk through would take under ten minutes. For four dollars you pass through heavy velvet curtains and are immediately taken away by the sounds of sirens, trains and music. With Northlandz in my mind, I anticipated a vast disappointment in the Choo Choo Barn. Much to my surprise, the Barn seems to have taken a cue from the gaga tourist industry surrounding it. The model is filled with bells and whistles - a circus parade, a veteran’s parade, cut-away sections following spelunkers through a mountain and there’s even a house that catches fire. Planes spin in the air, children fly kites, and bandstands play for the opening of a baseball game while a player slides into home base. It’s all a bit too much, actually.

Without question, the house fire is what gathers people. For 15 minutes, a tight cluster of tourists watched as a model alpine lodge caught fire. Immediately afterwards, a fire engine screamed out of a nearby firehouse, traveled down the road and spilled out firemen who quickly sprayed water onto the burning home. Meanwhile, on the streets below, a crane picked up tiny lumps of gravel and deposited them into the back of a dump truck while a streetcar raced through traffic to pick up waiting commuters. This isn’t a train show, it’s a tribute to modeling. The daily activities of Choo-Choo City are captivating. To the delight of everyone in the room, the sun slowly set and we were plunged briefly into night - then the city flared with streetlights, houselights and the headlights of racing trains.

As the sun rose again, I found Liam contemplating the most discreet way to derail Thomas the Tank Engine.

Is it ‘Bobby’?

Liam insisted that we find the worst and most dangerous place to spend the night - dirty sheets and blood-splattered shower stalls were the goal. We looked at several motels but were unable to find the examples of plague and brutality that would make Liam happy. We settled on the “Oh! Shaw” for several reasons. One was that it looked like it had survived several hurricanes and the other was the blank, slightly crazed look the owner's wife gave us when we asked if they took credit cards. They don’t take them, silly.

When we first pulled into the Oh! Shaw’s parking lot, Liam and I were afraid to enter the dilapidated front office. Behind the office (which was also a home for a medium-sized family) was a run down L-shaped motor-lodge (about 15 rooms) and several Friday the 13th-style box cabins. We sent Donald and Teresa in to check on prices while Liam kept the car in gear and I watched for trouble.

The Spanish returned with pleasant smiles and invited us in. All looked okay and the Oh! Shaw’s owners were glad to talk to us. We spoke at length about the Amish and, though the owners said nothing outright, it became apparent that they had written the Amish off as communists long ago. Three exotic birds chirped and flicked sunflower seeds at us while we talked. A large cockatoo occasionally fluttered over to the owners arm, leaving only when he raised his voice (usually in the direction of, but not directly to, his wife).

The rooms hit $45 a night (the cheapest we found in the Dutch Country) and we spent a frenzied moment getting the cash together - handing over crumbled bills, rattling change and a few shirt buttons.

The rooms had no telephone and the TV's looked as if they had just been added a few days ago - power cords and cable lines stretched across the walls and ceiling. We would have to sleep exposed to the night air since the windows facing the cornfield wouldn’t close.

Without a doubt, the “Oh! Shaw” was one of the most comfortable and refreshing motel stays I've had. The bed was soft, the shower had strong hot water and you could spend long hours of the evening on a swing watching the traffic jam on US30. I give the Oh! Shaw 5 out of 5 crazy Americana points.

We arrived at the Oh! Shaw motel in an exhausted, strung out state of mind. Our early morning start and several hours of backwater Americana adventuring had put all of us in a warped mood. Donald and Teresa, with a few muttered curses in Spanish, retreated to their room while Liam and I placed a quick call to our Lancaster County Guide, Maddie. Our plans had been a Lancaster City pub-crawl, perhaps a knock down fight with Amish youths and, certainly, some sort of action with Asian prostitutes. At least, that’s what I had on my “to do” list. In our current state of mind, however, we were more interested in sleeping for at least 18 hours. But Maddie, who would receive free beer in quantity for her guide services, refused to let us back out of our Saturday evening plans. She had an alternative in mind – a visit to what is destined to be a classic Americana stop, the Corn Crib Restaurant between Atlen and Gap, PA.

he Corn Crib is an instantly recognizable little roadhouse. The tail end of an airplane sticks out from the roof, a car and a fishing boat are smashed into the sides…a classic example of kitsch Americana. Inside, the place is covered with mementos from past customers – pictures, signs, hundreds of autographed one-dollar bills, condoms, and napkins with scrawled love poems. Every inch of the wall and ceiling is coated with this stuff. In fuzzy shape, the sun setting hard into the Pennsylvania countryside, we marched up to the bar and settled down to sample the microbrews. Absorbed by the décor we were barely prepared for complicated social contact. It was hard enough to answer questions put forward by the timid bartender. The poor girl was on shaky ground the moment she failed to understand Liam’s Australian accent and then she made the unforgivable mistake of offering Donald and Teresa too many options. I helped translate for Liam (“He said lager. Give him a Sam Adams.”). The Spanish were easy to work with, they were assigned lagers and the bartender was under orders to keep it coming till somebody mentioned “the Empire”.

Social contact was stepped up a notch when a woman in a black bowler stepped up to us and began to seethe insults – not only about the food and the Corn Crib in general, but eventually against us. We decided to move to a table, only to be hounded by this woman. In the dining area, however, she seemed to relax a little and surprised us when she viciously chased a waitress over to our table.

We watched her return to the bar, insulting whatever hapless patrons crossed her path. Quietly, we congratulated each other on avoiding what could have been a terrible confrontation. There was no time to enjoy this victory, however. A man in a matching bowler spun over to our table, grinned malevolently, and then asked us where we were from (the answer is always “Washington, DC” to avoid conversation, though Teresa answered formally in Spanish). The man rattled off some personal notes and proceeded to perform a series of long-winded but surprisingly adept parlor tricks.

This was the owner, A. Charles (“Chuck”) Artinian, author of Rhyme and Punishment. exec/obidos/ASIN/0966538005/. He and his wife, Mary, are there each night to entertain the customers. Both in black bowlers, Mary’s job is to insult you relentlessly. Charles, on the other hand, will perform countless magic tricks. As we would soon discover, neither of them will leave you alone.

I found myself silently wishing for my second wind, a reawakening of my alcoholic genes and a shot of adrenaline for all of my traveling companions. The Corn Crib lends itself to insanity and, if in the proper mood, it could have been a wild night. Between Mary’s catcalls from the bar and Chuck’s near-drunken monologues about the beauty of Spain (Teresa let the cat out of the bag after 45 seconds of direct interrogation) the Corn Crib proved to be the most exciting experience of our trip. It outranked baking in the sun at the Maize Maze and it cleared the dark and evil undertones the Indian Steps Museum had left. Liam, a hopeless skeptic, became obsessed with debunking every trick Chuck could think of. Finally, towards the end of our dinner, Chuck pushed a snarling Mary aside and handed a hardback book to Maddie’s husband.

“Open it at random and pick a word.” Chuck instructed. “Show the word to Donald but don’t show it to me.” Chuck went over to the bar and chatted with a few patrons for a few seconds while Maddie’s husband prowled through the book. He showed his selection to Donald and then closed the book, the signal for Chuck to return.

The Corn Crib’s magician called Mary over and had her stand in the center of the small dining room.

Chuck turned to our table, “I can guess that word. We’ll have Mary help us out – “ Turning to his partner, he began to order her about the room. Left, right, three steps forward. Finally Mary was standing in front of a small plastic Christmas tree. On the tree, in place of a star, was an English policeman’s hat. Chuck ordered Mary to put the hat on her head and, in triumph, turned to our table.

“Is the word ‘Bobby’?”

And so it was. Exhausted, half drunk, this was a profoundly religious experience. Chuck Artinian could read our minds. He was the Messiah. Liam, nearing desperation, told us it was light and mirrors. His protestations fell on deaf ears, the authority of skepticism crumbling with one word.

----- To get to the Corn Crib just make a right onto Route 41 from US 30 at Gap, PA. You can’t miss it.

Andrew Gifford

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