Thursday, June 18, 2009

Runnin' Wild, Day 2 (Part 2)

Mirrormaze and the Laser Challenge – Towns like Frankenmuth seem to pop up every 100 miles or so all throughout Michigan and Wisconsin. Designed as touristy, kitschy-European-themed towns, most of these places have main streets lined with fudge and cheese stores, maybe a small winery or a smattering of antique/craft places for garnish. The facades of these storefronts are usually extremely colorful caricatures of what a real Austrian/German/Bavarian/Swiss building would look like, but that’s the way American tourists like it. Who needs actual Germany when it’s cheesy bastard cousin is just right upstate?

Tucked away in one little pseudo-Austrian complex, between a Wisconsin-themed gift shop and a place that sold variously tanned and branded leather, lay a small attraction clearly designed for children—an oasis of fun in the midst of what must be a hell-like desert for anybody under the age of 12. The Mirrormaze and Laser Challenge seemed to hold a lot of potential, which is why we invested in both activities the little game center had to offer. Only one of them would eventually pay off.

The Mirrormaze is essentially a labyrinth of archways, some of which are openings to the maze itself and others that are merely crystal-clear mirrors meant to confound and confuse you. The website made it seem like this maze would take hours and hours to escape, and the photograph it offered made the place seem huge. Of course, as we learned at the Museum of Magic, few things trick the eye more effectively than a high quality mirror.

In truth, the whole thing took us about three minutes to navigate. It was a solid 180 seconds of fun, and for a while we were legitimately weirded out in the dark, prismatic passages. But once the path was discovered we realized we were doing a maze intended for kindergartners. Severe disappointment.

But then there was the laser challenge, which is essentially a room of lasers not unlike what you’d see James Bond maneuver acrobatically en route to the jewel safe secured in a villain’s headquarters. One would have to contort his body very carefully to avoid setting off the hypothetical alarm, and since we are all grown men (at least according to our numerical ages) we had entirely more with this than was probably necessary.

Helping us stay motivated in our quest to overcome the Laser Challenge was a timer and a leaderboard, at the top of which was a small child who ripped through the whole thing in just over ten seconds. The legend goes that she spent six hours in that room one day figuring it out. It should be noted that none of us did better than about two minutes. Not helping our huge, awkward man bodies was the fact that every laser you touched tacked on 30 seconds to your final score. I, let me just tell you, sucked at it.

But Cole did not. Somehow he crawled under the lowest lasers and leapt over the highest ones to post the best score of all of us. At one point I just said, “Screw it” and did some sort of front flip/summersault through the room, hoping I’d get lucky. I finished in about three seconds but triggered damn near every laser in the place. Needless to say, it was my best score of the day.

The Cheese Haus – Seeing as how we were surrounded by stores selling cheese and fudge, we wandered into the biggest and reportedly most famous one in town, right up the street from our previous location. The lure for us was the giant mouse just outside (because what’s a road trip without pictures of us standing next to giant stuff?), but there were also rumors that within this Haus of Cheese lie free samples. As growing boys, the temptation of a free snack was just too much.

There was bacon cheese, garlic cheese, jalapeño cheese, strawberry cream cheese, and even chocolate cheese (which tasted more like chocolate cheesecake than chocolate cheddar, for the record), all of which earned the full attention of our taste buds. There were processed meats shaped like all sorts of things, and various microbrewed beers that were all entirely too expensive.

We didn’t buy a thing.

Next door, however, everyone except me rang their charge cards through the register of the saltwater taffy place. I’ll admit freely that what drew me into the store was the undulating pull of pink taffy in the window. Few things are more mesmerizing than one of those taffy pullers, as the fluffy pink candy folds over itself over and over into saltwatery goodness. Besides, little candy places like that make good stuff, even if the prices are a little steep. Come to think of it, it’s probably the quality of the stuff that makes the prices so steep in the first place. In any event, candy trumps cheese every time, and that’s exactly what happened as we wrapped up our stay in the delightfully tacky Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Skalawags – At the very tip-top of the Michigan mainland is the small port town of Mackinaw City. I call it a port town without having any real knowledge as to whether or not it is, in fact, a port town—or even what a port town technically is—but it just felt very clean and fresh and watery. Mackinac Island, a short ferry ride away, is allegedly one of the more beautiful areas in the state, but back on land things weren’t so shabby either.

A city surrounded by water on three sides is bound to capture some delicious fish, which is the specialty of a little restaurant called Skalawags. Anybody who dislikes fried fish and chips can’t be wholly American, and the goods at this particular eatery were, well… good. Not great necessarily, especially by the culinary standards set earlier on in this trip, but good. It’s hard to go wrong with hushpuppies.

We ended the evening at a Super 8 Motel in St. Ignace, which is right across the Mackinac Bridge from the restaurant. The bridge itself is the third longest in the United States and the twelfth longest in the world, and actually offers an extremely gorgeous view of Lake Michigan on the left and Lake Huron on the right. It’s nowhere near as imposing and iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s just about as long and probably just a little bit more useful. Connecting the two sections of Michigan state is an important job. Also, isn’t Michigan weird? A double state? Shouldn’t it be two states, like North Dakota and South Dakota? I’m just sayin’…

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