American Museum of Magic – The first stop of any road trip is usually a relatively surreal experience because it’s so hard to believe the whole thing has already begun. We clumsily nab the camera from its bag, mosey up to the storefront, and try to start enjoying ourselves, as if it’s ever that easy to just summon fun.
This “museum” was really just one store in a long line of other similar stores running along the main street of downtown Marshall, Michigan. Every wall inside the building was plastered with antique magic show advertisements, and the floor was decked with all sorts of magical paraphernalia which most notably included one of the three water tanks Harry Houdini used in one of his most famous escape acts. We weren’t allowed to get inside (we were barely allowed to touch it with our pointer finger), but it was still cool all the same.
Our tour guide was a nervous, intelligent red-headed woman dressed respectably for her relatively young age, but classlessly offset her outfit with the ever-popular calculator watch. But she was cool enough to let us explore a little more than most guests probably did, usually at our own ridiculous suggestion, and those explorations led to playing dress-up with intricate magicians’ jackets and performing tricks—I mean, illusions—with beautiful assistant mannequins.
Our biggest criticism was that although the room was filled to the brim with old tricks and props, the redhead wouldn’t tell us how any of them worked. She legitimately thought that if she spilled any secrets the Magicians’ Alliance would track her down and take her legs. When she told the story of that masked magician who reveals the secrets of magic on TV she seemed genuinely concerned, telling us about how he as to live in some sort of witness protection program and where a mask all the time like Michael Jackson’s kids.
She was, it’s probably safe to say, a bit of a nervous woman. But she allowed us to shake out of the road trip cobwebs and get the familiar rumblings of fun rolling. Before we knew it good times were spilling forth from us like things that spill forth from other things. It was, as they say, magic.
Dark Horse Brewery – With the loss of an hour heading into Michigan’s goofy Eastern time zone, lunch crept upon us more quickly than we’d expected, but our first planned stop for the culinary aspect of our adventures was a little wooden shanty tucked behind a sort of green warehouse where they brew Dark Horse beer.
The restaurant itself, with hand-kindled Dark Horse steins dangling from every low ceiling beam, served only pizzas and sandwiches, but we had been told the sandwiches was where it’s at. So we each ordered a different microbrew from the menu—all of which ended in a maelstrom of deliciousness—and sampled varied sandwiches.
Our waitress there was exceptionally cool, if not exceptionally speedy, for giving me loads of crap for ordering the Raspberry beer. Kyle and Craig ordered these heavy stouts that must have been like chewing alcoholic motor oil. Downing that sort of brew is apparently a true test of manhood. A test, by the way, I lost by adding fruit to my beer.
Kyle added to his collection of pint glasses by buying one in the gift shop from a gigantic man in a cutoff shirt, and then we hit the road, leaving Marshall for the next leg of our trip.
Armory Arts Village/Jackson Prison – My experiences with old prisons have been overwhelmingly positive, which was why we chose the former Jackson Prison as a stop on this year’s itinerary. Alcatraz in San Francisco is, of course, a fantastic historic prison, and the Ohio State Reformatory a.k.a. Shawshank is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on any road trip, period.
The Jackson Prison, however, didn’t even come close to holding a candle to either of those. Not that there wasn’t potential for this to be cool, but because the jail has been converted into an artists’ community in the last 18 months, there’s no longer any of that old, dusty, brick-laden creepiness that the other old prisons just emanate.
Granted, the apartments built from the old cell blocks are undeniably badass lofts, the history left unscathed is extremely minimal. Our tour was given by a spiky, short-haired woman who spent the first 30 minutes of the hour “tour” lecturing to us about the history of the building without actually showing us anything. We literally sat in chairs for a half-hour.
The other half of the tour actually was relatively interesting, the most interesting of which was the basement, where solitary confinement used to be located. Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty, but prisoners who had previously been condemned to death didn’t just get dumped into gen-pop with the petty thieves; instead of dying they were stuck into solitary for the rest of their lives. It was twenty years before they realized that complete silence and darkness for two decades would drive people loony, and two-thirds of the prisoners who were finally removed from those cells were declared certifiably and irretrievably insane.
It had its cool moments, but for the most part the Jackson Prison was a bit of a disappointment. On the bright side, we later found out from another Jackson resident that just a couple weeks ago Ed Norton and Robert DeNiro just finished some filming at the jail for a big movie coming out next year. So there’s that, at least.