Friday, August 04, 2006

Beer & Now: On the Road Again, Day 4

The Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk, Riverside, Iowa, & The Field of Dreams, Dyersville, Iowa

It figures that I’d only find out about the really good stuff in Riverside, Iowa after the trip was over. For us, the final frontier was the USS Riverside, a cheap Enterprise look-alike made from old carnival rides and rusty kitchen utensils (the thrusters, or whatever you’d call them, were literally made from red plastic mixing bowls). However, the self-proclaimed Future Birthplace of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk had more to offer than we were able to see bright and early on a drizzly (and surprisingly chilly) June morn.

Apparently a barber shop houses a huge rock that marks the spot of the future birth, as well as a signed proclamation from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry giving the town permission to pronounce itself an integral part of Trekkie Nation. Also, and looking back I would’ve given anything to have seen this, some random bar in the tiny town boasts a pool table adorned with a plaque that reads, "Future Conception Place of Captain Kirk."

But, as I said, it was extremely frigid and damp at 7:00am on the coldest day of the summer, so we didn’t stay in Riverside long. There was much more long living and prospering for us to do elsewhere in the state.

The entire morning looked as it if it might be hampered by rain. The skies dumped water on my little Honda Civic for over two hours while driving to Dyersville, Iowa to see the Field of Dreams. However, the age-old question, "Is this heaven?" was answered with a resounding "yes" for us, as the bad weather took a twenty minute lunch break just as we pulled into the corn-lined baseball diamond.

My dad took the twins and me here the summer after my mom died, and it was one of the coolest vacations of my life. We played a game on the field with a bunch of other families in perfect weather, and we even got to walk right out of the cornfield, just like Shoeless Joe Liotta in the movie. My memories of the place have always been magical.

And despite that fact that it was overcast, and that we were the only ones there, and that the corn was only about ankle-high, and that some idiot found out he owned the land in left and center field and so opened up a second gift shop with a second entrance (our allegiances will always lie with the original gift shop owners)… despite all of that, it was good to be back. I just sat on the wooden bleachers and soaked up the history, the baseball, and a few drops of rain, which were starting to fall again.

The whole thing was still pretty damn magical, which is why he built it, and why we came.

Spook Cave, McGregor, Iowa

Sure, something called "Spook Cave" sounds like it would be a completely frightening location, like some Scooby-Doo villain’s lair amidst dank fog and impending stalactites. But when the attraction’s sign features the long-lost twin brother of Casper the Friendly Ghost, it’s hard to get too worked up about the place. But, as it turns out, we were probably better off going with our initial instincts—if the tiny little tram elevators at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis yield claustrophobia, Spook Cave entices Claustrophobia with a capital "C."

The caverns burrow into a huge wall of rock, the mouth of which opens up into a small body of water known as Bloody Run Creek, most likely named after all the scrapes and minor incisions caused by the low-flying ceilings of jutted stone inside the cavern. As legend has it, townsfolk in the area heard a mysterious howling emanating from the base of the giant stone wall and assumed that the caves within were haunted. Local cave pioneer Gerald Mielke strapped on one of those little miner hats and burrowed his way into the wall, only to find that the delicious creamy center was in fact a long tunnel with mineral deposits and dripping, muddy water and all the other fun things we’ve all come to love about caves. Mr. Mielke then dug enough rock out of the cave’s floor to make them viewable by tourists in tiny boats, and that’s where things stand today.

Of course, cavern heritage is about all that’s able to stand inside Spook Cave, as the entire tour is like rock limbo, sending patrons’ heads lower and lower as the boat continues on. When you first enter the mouth of the grotto, the tour guide warns you in a monotonic voice to "Watch your heads," but her lack of enthusiasm keeps you from taking her seriously, which is a huge mistake. Immediately the interior grows black with darkness and you’ve got to squeeze your noggin between your legs immediately if you wish to avoid a painful decapitation. Kyle, Kevin, had tears in our eyes from laughter. Or maybe those were from sheer disbelief and fear?

Our constant jokes and gripes over the course of the tour irked our guide greatly, but amused our fellow boat-mates to no end. We experienced a number of different rock formations, stone chimneys, and even a poorly choreographed scare tactic, as our guide shrieked penetratingly at the climax of a "scary" cave story she told us. None of us jumped. Except Kyle, who peed a little.

We did make it out soundly, even though about 30% of our shoulders had been skimmed away by low granite ceilings. Still, it was extremely entertaining, even if only for its intense Spook Value.

The SPAM Museum, Austin, Minnesota

Austin, Minnesota smells like rotting animal flesh fertilized with bovine dung. The second you step out of the car, the stench smacks you about the face like an abusive spouse. But through the amber haze of stink enhanced sevenfold by the most intense of heats, there is an oasis of roadside novelty. A building standing strong and proud, adorned decoratively by way of blue and yellow. A bronze statue of noble farmers and their trusty swine guard the gates to this haven. This museum of SPAM.

Inside, the foyer opens up to the heavens, the way paved by hundreds and hundreds of cans of Hormel’s most famous product. Spammy greats you at the door, and a Spambassador orientates you on the building and its many marvels: a SPAM movie theater, interactive games, educational displays, and even where to get free Spamples. She handed us a Spamphlet full of all kinds of tasty information, and we were blissfully on our way.

Our first stop was the movie theater, but we were stopped and provided with a small portion of cooked SPAM to eat. We each took a niblet, and since none of us had ever previously tried the delicacy, we toasted our samples, popped them into our mouths, and nearly vomited aggressively all over the SPAM theater floor. Kyle especially disliked the treat, as it was so vile to his taste buds that it actually stopped his heart for seventeen seconds. None of us could believe that anyone would pay legal American tender for so disgusting an entrée, let alone introduce to it to a human digestive system.

But we weren’t there to eat; we were there to play. And play we did. There was a little mock SPAM factory game where you dress up in Hormel digs and race to see who can assemble the cans of SPAM the fastest. Kevin applied an assembly line strategy while Kyle haphazardly slopped the cans together with no pride in his work. It’s no wonder Kevin won by nearly half a minute.

By the end of our stay, we learned that SPAM got its name by smushing together the phrase "Spiced Ham," which was Hormel’s original name for the food. We also discovered that the meat used for this product comes from the pig’s shoulder, and soldiers ate a ton of it during World War II because it was easy to transport and didn’t spoil as easily as fresher meats with (and I’m guessing here) 7,000% less salt.

Yes, SPAM is truly a part of American history, and a real success story for the Southern Minnesota town. However, had we stayed for another hour or two, the scent of butchered hogs would’ve permanently seeped into our pores, and then our girlfriends would break up with us. So, we were forced to leave Austin. Forever.

Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota, & The Metrodome, Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Twin City skylines are pretty incredible. It’s like God took a mirror and stuck it in front of a major American metropolis, just so it could see its own reflection. Even more impending than the double dose of Minnesota high rises is the Mall of America, which is the most spacious retail center in U.S. and A.

The Mall includes over 500 stores, including an aquarium, a college, and even a wedding chapel. At the center of the 2.5 million square-foot structure is The Park, an indoor amusement park, complete with Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and carnival food. There’s also Lego Land, tons of restaurants, and multiple Victoria’s Secrets. No wonder people drive to Bloomington, Minnesota to rent hotel rooms for three or four days at a time. It would be impossible to get through this place in just one day!

But we tried, with our townie buddy John Haugen as a guide. The MOA is his local mall, so he knew the ropes and was able to take us through the place pretty quickly. Dinner happened at the greatest restaurant in the History of Life: Famous Dave’s. I indulged in BBQ ribs, some beef brisket, cornbread, and a big ol’ 22 ounce glass of Blue Moon. Food couldn’t be more delicious if it tried.

Home plate from the old Met Stadium is somewhere amidst the rides in The Park, and there’s also a seat from the stadium positioned 520 feet away to commemorate a towering Harmon Killebrew blast. I mention this only to segue into to the ball game we watched at the Metrodome in Minneapolis after dinner. Smooth, eh?

It was Orioles versus Twins, and since we had Haugen (a huge Twins fan) with us, we rooted loudly for the O’s. The Dome is a junky ball park, due mostly to the fact that it was tailor made for football. It’s an indoor facility, which makes baseball viewing about as enjoyable as proctological examinations, but on this particular night the shelter was a godsend—it was pouring outside. Nasty park, but an even nastier night, so the dome was okay. But just that one time.

It was the only game of the three we viewed on this trip to give us a home run in person. We were starving for one, so thank you, Minnesota Twins!

Our hotel for the evening was over two hours away, so we left in the 7th inning (which was smart because the game lasted 12). Our early departure was moot anyway because we ended up driving around Minny for over 30 minutes, entirely lost. We eventually got directions from a nice business fellow, who for a short time we believed would shoot and rape us, but we got back on track, thereby ending the fourth full day of our journey.

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