Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Road to Nostalgia is a Haunted Highway

On a recent road trip to Michigan for a family reunion, I decided to take a short side journey to visit my childhood home in Ohio. And though I’d been warned “you can never go home again,” it wasn’t as nostalgic as I thought it would be. In fact, the old neighborhood had grown so full of tall trees and massive shrubbery that I couldn’t even see my old house from the street. Not all of it anyway. The pines and maples my parents had planted way back in the sixties were now towering over the structure, surrounding it in a dark forest-like atmosphere that made it look more like Snow White’s cottage than a two story colonial. In my memory, the yard was always very open and the trees were much shorter and you could actually see the sky and clouds, and even lay out to get a tan. (Before we all learned that wasn’t such a great thing to do.) But now, it was rather dark and foreboding, and didn’t hold any of the charm I’d remembered from my youth.

So, after about ten minutes of staking out the old neighborhood, I continued my journey to Cleveland, which would be the halfway point and my rest stop for the evening. As a child, I remember countless trips to Cleveland every Christmas to visit the Twigbee Shop at the Terminal Tower Higbees, and then seeing all the touring companies of Broadway shows when they played at the Hanna theater downtown. So though Cleveland had always been somewhat of a joke among comedians when I was growing up, especially after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, it would always hold a special place for me.

But again, like my old neighborhood, Cleveland almost seemed like a foreign country to me. The downtown area, which was usually busy on a normal weekday, seemed all but deserted when I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon. There were numerous stores that had been boarded up or were out of business, and the streets were pretty empty. There wasn’t a hustle or a bustle to be found anywhere. Even at five o’clock when most people would be hurrying to get home from a long day at work, there didn’t seem to be much action on the streets.

The next day, on my way to Michigan, I passed by a giant Uncle Sam on the highway. It reminded me of traveling across the country as a kid, and stopping at every tourist attraction that claimed to have the “world’s largest ball of string” or the “fattest chicken on record.” Finally, something from my youth that I could hold onto. I immediately pulled over and took some pictures.

Later the same day, I saw a “Big Boy” restaurant and stopped in for another possible trip down memory lane. As a youth, I’d always loved the Big Boy burgers and shakes, and all the comic books and toys you could get by going there. It became one of my family’s favorite haunts when we were on road trips. (Well, that and Stuckey’s, whose billboard signs along the roadway were notorious for enticing the tired traveler with their “world famous pecan logs” or souvenirs and novelties for the kids.) And though the Big Boy burger didn’t taste as great as I’d remembered, and there weren’t any comic books to be seen, it was nice to spend a little time in an atmosphere that reeked of good old-fashioned kitsch.

But the most memorable piece of the trip came when I happened to notice a sign along the Michigan highway that read “Prison Area. Please do not pick up any hitchhikers.” The very fact that they had to post such a sign was rather disturbing, as it obviously meant they’d not only had a huge problem with such occurrences in the past, but that it continued to be a touchy issue in the present. It also made me feel like there must be a preponderance of prison riots and breakouts in the area that would allow such hitchhikers to suddenly emerge on the highway at all. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was a similar sign posted about two miles down the road, which meant the problem area must be growing. Whatever the reason for the signs, I didn’t stop or pull over for food for the next fifty miles, let alone pick up a hitchhiker (which I would never do anyway.)

So those are the highlights of my little road trip to the Midwest. Have you had any trips this summer that took you down your own memory lanes?

9 comments:

grouse.and.badger said...

I hate when things aren't as good as you remember. Glad to hear you weren't picking up prisoners. I saw that sign one day but failed to see the "prison" sign. My mind wandered near and far trying to figure out the sign.

Grace said...

Memory Lane is so often over-grown with brambles...

Roxiticus Desperate Housewives said...

Hi Henson...long time no comment... but I have been lurking. The Big Boy caught my eye... not so much a hometown memory as it was a familiar figure on family road trips to the mid-west and the south.

Roxy

Roxy's Best Of... said...

As for the hitchhiker sign, it sounds like one of those "I Know What You Did Last Summer" style scary movies where you want to tell the starlet, "Nooooo....don't slow down! Don't pick up the hitchhiker in the orange jumpsuit!"

Roxy

Henson Ray said...

Roxy 1--Yes, the Big Boy is very identifiable. I was surprised they still existed, to be honest. They seem such a throwback to a different era.

Roxy 2--Exactly. The sign was quite ominous. And it was right near a major exit for fast food...like I would stop anywhere near there now.

Chris@HoundsGood said...

That Big Boy is the freakiest one that I have ever seen. I think they need to retire that one for sure.

Henson Ray said...

Chris@HoundsGood---Well, the whole concept of "Big Boy" is a little dated...but I always liked these big statues...especially as a kid...

Marisa said...

Hey I live in Michigan and your story made me laugh. We pass those prison signs on the way to the cottage for vacation. I've never once seen a prisoner on the lam or heard of prison riot or escape.

I love Big Boy though...although the restaurants are slowly disappearing. Sad :(

Henson Ray said...

Marisa--Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yes, I always loved the Big Boy...good down home cooking...I was at the Crystal Mountain Resort in Michigan...do you know it?