Monday, September 26, 2016

Smokey Bear Historical Park

 On our way back from a day spent sledding the dunes at White Sands National Monument during a recent New Mexico road trip, we weren't quite ready to call it quits for the day. My sister had mentioned that we were nearby Smokey Bear's grave, and even though we knew we weren't going to make it before the museum closed for the day, we still thought it was a worthwhile stop.

Smokey Bear was a real bear cub, originally called "Hotfoot," who was found by firefighters in 1950, badly injured after a fire in Lincoln National Forest. He was renamed Smokey, and came to represent the character that had been created during WWII to help educate campers on the dangers and destructive force of forest fires. Although he lived in the National Zoo in DC (alongside Ham the Astrochimp!), he was brought back to, and buried in Capitan, NM when he died in 1976. 

 Of course I'd heard of Smokey Bear, but I'd never realized that he'd been modeled after a real bear. Ever since I visited my first pet cemetery, I've been eager to see as many not-exactly-traditional cemeteries and graves as I can—I was delighted to be able to add Smokey to that list. His grave is marked by a carved wooden bear cub and plaque, along a wooded path that includes statues, handpainted signs, beautiful flowers and at least one praying mantis (although I can't guarantee that last one will stick around). 

The park is such a good kitschy roadside stop—including a squished penny machine and fully-stocked gift shop that was maddeningly closed. The entire (very small) town of Capitan is very proud of its hometown hero—there's a Smokey motel, restaurant and even grocery store. Even if I'm forever disappointed to not be able to add a Smokey squished penny to my collection, I am glad we got to pay our respects to such an iconic figure.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Roswell: UFO McDonald's

 My sister, brother-in-law and niece recently hit the road from Dallas, with our destination set at Roswell, New Mexico. We all knew that there wasn't that much to see in Roswell, but we had our hearts set on a kitschy, old fashioned, family vacation and Roswell turned out to be the perfect destination. Sure, downtown Roswell is basically one step up from a one-stoplight town, but there were plenty of alien-themed things to satisfy our need for kitsch.

One of our first stops was the UFO-themed McDonald's in the center of town. Along Roswell's main street (appropriately called Main Street) I counted no fewer than three McDonald's within a very short distance (in addition to three Subways and three Sonics), but only one is shaped like a UFO. Actually only a portion of the restaurant is UFO-shaped, but in a town that is begging for novelty, alien-themed architecture, we were grateful that someone had stepped up to the plate.

The inside is shiny and industrial, like any good UFO should be, but it's the space-themed McDonald's characters that really turn it up a notch. Maybe it was the formative years I spent working at a McDonald's as a teen, but I've always liked the strange cast, from Grimace (what is he!) to Birdie, to the Hamburglar, the Fry Kids and even Ronald. I don't recall the chicken nugget character, but I defy you to find anything cuter than an anthropomorphic nugget floating in a space bubble.

There's a great mural next to the drive-thru that we almost missed, featuring even more cute space nuggets, and a ufo painted in the parking lot incase you needed a spot to land yours. As great as it shines in the daylight, it's even better at night when it lights up, looking as if it's ready to take-off at any moment.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

St. Michael's Cemetery: Headless

I have passed St. Michael's cemetery many times on the way to LaGuardia airport (and eaten at a diner across the street), but I finally made it inside of the grounds recently. It was established in 1852, is open to all faiths and is one of the oldest religious, nonprofit cemeteries in the city. The cemetery is boxed in by the Grand Central Parkway and the Brookln-Queens expressway, in an area of Queens that seems pretty car-centric. Walking there via Astoria Blvd was not the most relaxing of walks, but once you're inside, the grounds are surprisingly peaceful.

It's not the oldest, or largest, or smallest or most interesting cemetery that I've visited and at first glance I was underwhelmed. It's large, but the majority of the graves are fairly new and I saw several people tending to graves and at least one funeral-in-progress. No offense to the recently deceased, but new graves and headstones just don't interest me much. In fact, I try to avoid them because I cherish my alone time when I'm exploring cemeteries, and running into grieving families is just not my scene.

I'm always wary of appearing disrepectful—especially as I snap a million photos—so the older the gravesite, the better. Cemeteries interest me for their history, typography, tombstone design and symbolism, all of which I find to be lackluster with newer (1960s-now) burials. 

Somewhere in between being underwhelmed and trying not to get heatstroke, I started to realize that St. Michael's has a lot of statues—more than I usually see—and I got even more interested when I noticed that a large portion of them had lost their heads. I love anything out of the ordinary and macabre, and a headless statue will always pique my interest. St. Michael's appeared to be in very good condition and well-tended otherwise, so I'm not sure what's to blame for the headless epidemic, but I kept finding new ones wherever I looked.

Some statues also had their wings or hands broken and some were laying on the ground, whole or in pieces. What was even more surprising to me was that multiple headless statues still had their heads—resting on top of the stone or on the ground, presumably undisturbed since they first left their bodies. I"m not proud to admit that I was overcome with the urge to pocket a cemetery souvenir, but ultimately decided that stealing from anyone's eternal resting place was too horrible to justify—no matter how at home one of those heads would be in my new curiosity cabinet.