Hey, USA – our road trip across the land of the weird

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Hey, ‘Murica – I’m back!

Did ‘ya miss me? We’ll be on our way from the Toronto area, eventually ending up in North Carolina for my brother’s wedding in October… but we’re taking the time to end up at as many offbeat and weird places as we can pack into the schedule (along with some places we’ve been looking forward to seeing.

The usual pattern we’ll be following looks like this:

  • Wake up, check-out
  • Enjoy a city’s stuff
  • Drive to the next city
  • Check-in with wherever we’re staying
  • Look for new information
  • Relax and get some sleep

Much like our trip through Canada, this aims to be a daily-updated page, so share and bookmark it through September and beyond!

Day 1 (September 5th) – Niagara Falls, New York

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Crossing the border from Canada into the US took a bit longer than expected, thanks to not having a permanent sort of address and being called in for ‘a few more questions’. A little unnerving, but we’re square pegs in round holes like that.

Once in, we got some SIM cards from the nearest Walmart, then quickly found our way to the Nikola Tesla Monument right by the falls themselves. The monument was a gift from Yugoslavia to the US in 1976, showing the man reading his notes. This was a quick stop since parking was $10, but the first 20 minutes were free – just enough time to walk purposefully, get a few pictures, and get out before the rush of tourists comes… The falls are better on the US side, though unless you’re going to walk down or take a boat ride like the myriad of tourists, there’s far more to see and do north of the border.

Next up, a short drive to the Prophet Isaiah’s Second Coming House – the wildly-colored house you see above. This is, according to the resident Prophet Isaiah, the cross where the Biblical phrase ‘every knee will bow’ will come to life. The Atlas Obscura page has more, though we didn’t try to enter the building… Not sure if it was even possible, but it’s a lot of fun to look at.

Finally, we drove towards the Niagara Science Museum, which claims to hold a collection of antique scientific instruments. In reality, a stuffed mailbox, a locked gate, an old sign in some disrepair, and a website that now includes some very questionable links lead this adventurer to conclude this place is either closed or no longer kept up. Not sure of the full story, but a phone call went unanswered, and simply said the voicemail had not been configured…

Day 2 (September 6th) – Buffalo, New York

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Our first stop after checking out of our Buffalo hotel is the Griffis Sculpture Park south of Buffalo. While there’s not much on-site about it, it’s a collection of dozens of animals, human figures, and some more abstract creations scattered amongst a lovely park area.

Once back in Buffalo proper, we had to stop by the Anchor Bar, supposedly home to the original Buffalo Wings. Are they? I couldn’t say for certain without some serious research, but they were tasty. The waitress mentioned the ‘medium’ is the original flavor, but is actually on the mild side as spiciness goes…

Next up, the Museum of disABILITY History – while not weird by the usual definitions, it’s a unique place showing the progress humans have made in helping the differently-abled. It’s rather small (essentially two rooms and a gift shop), but a worthy showcase accompanied by a introductory video.

We were going to get to the Jell-O Gallery on the way to our next stop (Rochester), but realized it closed as we were on the way. We might make our way back there tomorrow or come back another time…

Day 3 (September 7th) – Rochester, New York

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While I’m still looking forward to reaching New York City, Western New York has held plenty of interesting stuff. We started at the Strong National Museum of Play, which holds a lot of exhibits related to toys, a ‘hall of fame’ for toys, and one of the biggest collection of video games I’ve ever seen. Arcade versions (requiring cheap tokens) are the highlight, along with a giant joystick for a version of Tetris and a giant NES-style controller to play Mario with… You can easily spend the entire day here, adults and kids alike.

We later went to Mt. Hope Cemetery and paid our respect to two of its most famous residents: Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Stop by the office by the entrance for a brochure and a quick pointer towards the people you’re there to see – those are two of the most famous names, but there are dozens of other notable residents here.

On our way towards Ithaca, we stopped by the largest pancake griddle in the world, which hangs on the side of a four-story building. It was used to make a gigantic pancake in 1987, and at 28 feet in diameter (8.53 meters), I can only imagine how many people that would have fed… It’s a rather out of the way stop, however, and probably not worth the detour for most…

Day 4 (September 8th) – Ithaca, New York

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Brains? BRAIINNNNSSS!!

This brain brought to you by the Wilder Brain Collection on the Cornell University campus. The real shame here is that the obvious display holds only six of them – the basement holds more, but I was told the curator recently retired and that the collection is otherwise not open to the public… It’s a fairly small display, but it’s done fairly well with ample stories about the people in question…

While on Cornell’s campus (and while our visitor’s parking permit lasted!), we took in the A.D. White Library, a classically beautiful library that wasn’t weird, but still a gorgeous sight.

Also in Ithaca is the Sagan Planet Walk, a series of outdoor statues scaled to show the distance and size of the planets in our solar system. Pluto’s still a planet here, but you’ll need to follow the well-laid path to reach it. Start from the Commons.

Since we were a bit ahead of schedule, we headed to Syracuse for the International Boxing Hall of Fame – a little oddball, considering it houses castings of the fists various athletes made – and the Cross Island Chapel – supposedly the world’s smallest church, with seating for only two. It’s in the middle of a pond, meaning you’ll need to take a short boat ride to get there. They do hold weddings there, but don’t go inviting… well, anyone really… They won’t fit…

Day 5 (September 9th) – Cooperstown, New York

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It’s not weird at all, but today’s day trip was to the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame. Yep, all kinds of fun – that happens when there’s well over a century’s worth of history to take in. Above is Babe Ruth visiting Japan as part of a Far East tour during the earlier 20th century.

We also stopped by the Petrified Creatures Museum of Natural History, which looked to have closed some months prior. A real shame, since anything campy and dinosaurs is usually hilarious…

Day 6 (September 10th) – off day

More a day to relax and catch some Pokemon, we did stop by the Salt Museum in Liverpool, New York – not very weird, but plenty of well-told history inside.

Day 7: (September 11th) Scranton area, Pennsylvania

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We went to the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, one of the best preserved collections of steam engine trains I’ve ever seen. I’ll note the Electric City Trolley Museum is also on the same site and shares the same parking lot, but is a completely separate place with a separate entrance fee.

We also angled towards Old Forge, PA, the self-proclaimed ‘Pizza Capital of the World’. Plenty of non-chain restaurants and offerings, though annoyingly, only one was open on a Sunday afternoon around 1pm. Guess some folks take their time opening a restaurant after church…

Drove to New York City, a couple of hours worth of boring driving followed by a bit of gridlock at the George Washington Bridge, followed by the sort of traffic you’d expect from NYC… Explored the area around our Couchsurfers place, then relaxed and planned for the next week-plus.

Day 8 (September 12th) – New York City

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Quick pro-tip: however long you may have in NYC, break up your destinations into boroughs, and perhaps along specific subway lines. Looking over the subway map brought back flashbacks to Seoul’s complex system, and reminded me how intimidating that system was… New York’s does have a few more wrinkles (a handful of lines don’t operate on weekends), but it does run 24/7 (something I wish Seoul’s did)… If you’ve handled the system in Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Moscow, Guangzhou, or Beijing, you’re familiar with the crowds.

We’re here in NYC for 9 days, and for the first day we started in the middle, around Central Park. Laura took in the Met, while I meandered down toward the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum on the upper east side. Plenty of interesting sides to Central Park, naturally, including no fewer than 31 playgrounds, a Swedish Cottage, Belvedere Castle, and so on and so on… No, not much of that is weird… but there’s plenty of that coming.

Day 9 (September 13th) – ‘just the tip’ / Lower Manhattan

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For those of you expecting an Archer joke at some point… you’re welcome. For everyone else, go watch Archer. Fun show.

Our tour through Lower Manhattan started with Wall Street and the Trinity Church Graveyard, the final resting place for Alexander Hamilton and a number of other people. It’s easy enough to spot, but you may also appreciate the 280-foot (85 meter) tall spire on the church. This made the church the tallest building in NYC until 1890. Also here is the oldest carved gravestone, which dates from 1681, and a fun cryptic tombstone…

(In case you were curious, yes, I was dying to go on a trip to the New York Stock Exchange, but they haven’t done public walking tours since 9/11 over concerns with security…)

From here we walked to the Wall Street ‘Charging Bull’, AKA that big brass bull with big brass bull balls. A group of Chinese tourists made the scene rather… chaotic – one person moves out, another person moved in within a second… The line to touch the bull’s balls, however – much more orderly…. Go figure…

Neither of us wanted to pay to do an uber-touristy thing like take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, but we did want to at least see it… From the Charging Bull it’s a short walk to Battery Park and the ferries that take you… or a pier with a fine lookout point. Photographers, bring your telephoto lens!

After exploring some new parts of Central Park (including the grocery list carved in stone as seen above), we eventually ended up at the 9/11 Memorial, partially because after 5pm on Tuesdays it’s free to enter. (The rest of the time, it’s $24 for adults or $44 to get the guided-tour version.) I’ll probably end up writing a separate post about this place in the future – for now, there’s plenty of artifacts and remnants from the former building, and the reflecting pools out front are spectacular. The story unfolds the minute-by-minute events of September 11th, 2001 clearly enough – ahh, the benefits of tracking an event in the modern era with timestamps! – and manages to pull out all the emotions from guests while also dispassionately sharing the facts.

My biggest issues were with the cost (similar museums in Bogota and Berlin documenting horrific / terrorist acts are all free, with the government seemingly footing the bill to educate and hope it never happens again), the requests for donations (cheeky, considering you’re paying for admission, and a list of partners and ‘acknowledgements’ is easily spotted), and some of the subjects they neglected. Museums aim to avoid the politics of the subject, but in cases like this it’s a nearly unavoidable question. Where are the first responders and survivors now? How did America respond to these horrific acts? And so on…

Day 10 (September 14) – New York City

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Started in the East Village today, our first two stops ended up two of the weirdest places we’ve seen thus far in the US. First stop: the Museum of the American Gangster, a 90-minute tour of some of the country’s most famous gangsters, along with the building’s history itself of being an old speakeasy. Today, it holds a theater, the speakeasy-turned-legit-bar, and the museum – a great dive into history, politics, and the money.

Our next stop is the Obscura Antiques & Oddities shop, which during our visit was undergoing some reorganization and reconstruction. The shopkeeper was still letting people in, however, and it’s a glorious place to take in. The seriously tiny shop is smaller than most apartments, and would feel crowded with a handful of people inside. Most stuff looked to be for sale, from antique prints to some NSFW postcards to some old-school safety pins and keys… A great mix.

From here, it was a chance to see Times Square in all it’s finery. Laura referred to it as ‘like walking through a website without Adblock running’, and I have to agree. We walked around the area to explore the three-story M&M’s center – a surprisingly inventive and fun place – and the nearby Reese’s center – candy galore and some other fun stuff. If you’re a chocolate lover, you’ll probably appreciate the flavors of M&M’s that aren’t available anywhere else, or the chance to personalize them for a gift for someone….

Day 11 (September 15th) – New York City

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Operation Separate Ways is a necessary part of traveling with a partner, and today I was off to explore New York City solo. My first stop: the Socrates Sculpture Park in the Astoria area. As sometimes happens, I failed to see an all-important sign at the entrance which no website had talked about: the sculpture park is currently between installations. The heck? Yeah, my thoughts exactly. It’s still a pleasant enough area, and if you don’t mind getting friendly with nature and close to a fence, you can see some sculptures in progress…

Next up: ever heard about the secret pinball bar in the back of a working laundromat (seen above)? Sunshine Laundromat is just that, offering your chance to play any of a couple dozen pinball games from recent decades while getting your laundry done. Grab a drink ($7 for drafts) and some quarters from the change machine (each game is 75 cents) and have at it!

Last up: the Dream House, a meditative sound and light show performance display that’s… kinda hard to describe. The guy collecting money described it as a “meditative space” for people wanting getting away from the craziness of New York City life. I was under the impression it was an art exhibition, which it is, of a sort.. In any case, it’s not unlike doing self-guided meditation at a place that has to crank it up to 11 because it’s right next to the expressway… A hidden, unique treasure.

Last last up: Times Square. No, this wasn’t part of the plan, but I didn’t want to go home without taking in at least some of NYC’s (in)famous nightlife. We’re still on a budget, naturally, but there’s plenty of free entertainment from the crowd-watching, the shops, the touts, the street entertainers… The later it got, the busier it got, which to put it mildly was crazy fun.

Day 12 (September 16th) Brooklyn / NYC

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Today is the day in which I realize I made a bit of a boo-boo. When I was first planning this trip, I used one of my favorite resources of all time, Atlas Obscura, to help with the research. It’s basically a repository of all things weird around the world, albeit with places that are now closed, closed to the public, or aren’t all that weird / unusual personally. There’s plenty of awesome places on the site, however – for whatever reason, the site only showed the first 100 or so listings. Past that, I couldn’t get it to refresh or show any more. I therefore assumed that’s all the site

Fast forward to last night, when I took another look at the site – and the number keeps getting higher…. 200… 300… 400…. 450… by this point we’re getting well out of New York City… but I spent a couple of hours going through all the awesome places to see which places were interesting, still open, and so on – and I quickly realized it went from being ‘we’ll have some extra time?!’ to ‘holy crap we’re gonna have to work here…’

That started today with the New York Transit Museum, which is an excellent look at a century’s worth of getting around an ever-expanded city – all housed in a former subway station. The highlight is easily the basement / subway platform level, which holds dozens of subway cars from over the decades. Great for photo ops and a look back.

Next up: the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Exhibits of bones, taxidermy, and plenty of other awesome dead stuff is all here. This is New York City, which means it’s a small place crammed to the gills with stuff. A highlight is the ‘Kitten’s Wedding’, a scene recreating your classic Christian wedding… with tiny taxidermied KITTEHS…

Within walking distance is the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store, a tongue-in-cheek store selling some real-world stuff while doing a lot of awesome stuff in terms of helping kids read (a secret door is involved). Go ahead and get your kid a cool cape or just take in the jokes.

Last stop for the day: The City Reliquary Museum and Civic Organization, home to some unusual and rather random exhibits about the city’s history and the people that make it up. It’s definitely pretty random, and with only two compact rooms about the size of a house in all, it can be a pretty quick view if needed. Don’t, though – the staff are incredibly knowledgeable about the exhibits and the city.

Day 13 (September 17th) – all over New York City

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Yup, that is in fact three deers humping. It’s one of the SFW offerings at the Museum of Sex, which starts off ‘hardcore’, turns to sex in the animal kingdom, and eventually ends up with dozens of exhibits that’ll enlighten or make you blush…

As usual, we go from adults to kids in about three microseconds by visiting the real Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library. If you’re expecting to see an old-school Pooh bear, you’ll be disappointed – this was the real-life bear that author A. A. Milne bought for his son, Christopher. Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger came to the library in 1987 courtesy of the publisher, and they hold a prominent place in the Children’s area in the library’s basement.

Next up: the Church of the Intercession – a Manhattan Episcopal church with a (supposedly) eerie underground crypt. There was nothing about hours online, and we discovered it’s only open by appointment or “if you can wrangle one of us with a key”, said Danny, one of the caretakers. The truth? It wasn’t as eerie as expected, partially because the space is still actively used by the church, but is in fact a crypt…

A couple of quick stops came next: Tom’s Restaurant has the same look at the classic restaurant in Seinfeld, then went over to one of New York’s Chinatowns for the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory to try some of their unique flavors (coconut fudge, anyone?).

A long subway ride later, we made our way to a bar where Bill Murray was supposedly serving up drinks… only to realize the line was long… We had easily logged several miles of walking, so waiting in a line was not in the cards…

Day 14 (September 18th) New York City

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A little sleeping in today – alarms being set for 9am or 10am are most definitely not our normal wake-up times…

We had heard about the explosions in Manhattan last night, which were accompanied by a larger-than-normal amount of sirens… While I didn’t pay much attention to the developing story throughout the day, it’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on as it develops.

Our first stop is the Bushwick Graffiti Tour, a two-hour, two-kilometer look at the artist’s village in a former industrial area of the city. ‘Rundown’ is putting it nicely, although ‘rough neighborhood’ is only how it looks, not how it is. A very knowledgable tour guide, with plenty of stories about the art, the themes, and so on. It’s a free walking tour, with tips accepted at the end (but reservations required)…

From here, we headed to the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan, a chance to see some of the newest designs for Singaporean skyscrapers. A few of the permanent exhibitions focus on the New York skyscrapers, and how the records have changed over the decades….

Sunday night isn’t exactly a hot time for museums or stuff, so we relaxed a bit around Battery Park and Central Park…

Day 15 (September 19th) – New York City

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For our last full day in NYC, we parted ways to get to the places we each wanted to see. My first stop: MoMath – The Museum of Mathematics, supposedly the first and only museum in the US dedicated to math. It’s an amazing place, actually, full of interactive stuff appropriate for 4th-8th graders but still LOTS of fun for adults.

Next up, a couple of quick stops that turned out to be… less interesting than expected… The Greenwich Locksmith, which features a fun facade made of thousands of keys. It’s very detailed, but there’s not much to see once you’ve taken a couple of pictures or got a copy made…  The very first C. O. Bigelow Apothecary is within walking distance, and supposedly has served from everyone from Thomas Edison to Mark Twain… There’s not much of the history to be seen, save for some old-school floors and fixtures…

Next up, the John M. Mossman Lock Collection – one of the highlights of the day with hundreds of old-school mechanical bank vault locks. You’ll get a hardcover book to accompany the cases and page number to see more info about them – while it seems fairly clear the exhibits haven’t changed in decades, the good news is that it really hasn’t had to…

Later on, The Relic Chapel at the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, home to an obscure Roman martyr that’s located right of the main altar. While it was a bit further away, I also got to the western side of Manhattan to see the Frying Pan, a bar that features a sunken ship brought back to the surface. And a caboose, for some reason. The bar didn’t seem like it was open, but the area was still open to the public

The highlight by far is the Torah Animal World, which requires calling ahead for an appointment. Once you’re in, you’ll be able to see dozens of taxidermied animals that are all mentioned in the Torah and Talmud. The gentlemen showing me around encouraged me to touch them as well – which made me do a double take. Wait, seriously? Yup – it may well be the only place I’ve ever heard of where touching the taxidermied animals is encouraged… A room of millennia-old artifacts is another wonderful way of bringing the ancient scriptures to life, as is the chance to wear an ancient helmet…

Day 16 (September 20th) – Philadelphia

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With our time in New York City complete, we made our way to Philadelphia uneventfully. Our first stop is the Eastern State Penitentiary, a well-known attraction that still has the capacity to freak people out. The audio tour comes with admission (a rarity), and is one of the best audio tours I’ve ever heard. Actor Steve Buscemi does the narration, along with former guards and inmates of the prison,

We also tried to reach the Historical Dental Museum, but a lack of time foiled our plans. We’ll be back, though…

Day 17 (September 21st) – Philadelphia

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Our first full day in Philly is a chance to take in the downtown / central area. As usual, we aimed to walk where we could (especially with the city’s borderline impossible odds at finding a parking spot).

We start with perhaps the most bizarre attraction in Philly, the Mütter Museum. I was not a fan of the ‘no photos’ rule, and between security personnel and cameras watching us (oh, the irony) there was no place to sneak anything in. It’s the best collection in North America, though the Siriraj Medical Museum in Bangkok has a large collection of its own…

Next up, the Redding Terminal – meh. It wasn’t weird, and the iconic former railroad platform’s history has been replaced by a Hard Rock Cafe. Also nearby: the Wanamaker Building, complete with the largest operating musical instrument in the world (a multi-story organ), is a spectacular performance to behold over the din of a department store.

Later, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (seen above) – an opportunity to see what happens when an artist makes a mosaic on a grand scale. It’s a great chance to take in one of the most bizarre art displays in town, and probably on the East Coast.

We wrapped up the day with America’s Oldest Operating Theater, that old-school facility showing prospective doctors the very human condition… There’s not much to see here, but there’s a fair bit of history around the old-school hospital buildings. Take a little self-guided tour around this part, and you’ll be rewarded with a look at a cornerstone set by Ben Franklin….

Day 18 (September 22nd) – Philadelphia

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With most of the downtown area covered yesterday, we headed a bit further afield to Spring House and the Stoogeum, the world’s first museum dedicated to the Three Stooges. No photos inside for ‘copyright reasons’ (apparently they’ve never heard of ‘fair use’?), but it’s a great collection of all things Stooges. Plenty of video clips and posters to go along with the posters, lunch boxes, autographs of people they worked with, etc. It’s in need of some better organization, and could stand a bit of changing to the ending section…

We tried to take in ‘Harriet‘ – the world’s first complete dissection and mounting of a person’s nervous system – which is located inside a students-only facility on Drexel’s campus. Right as we handed over ID’s, the fire alarm went off… Oy vey… No idea how long that was going to take to resolve, so we moved on…

Next up: the Historical Dental Museum, which is part of Temple University’s facilities. You’ll need to sign in and be escorted up to the third floor, but it’s an interesting look at how the professional practice has changed and evolved over the centuries.

Last stop: the Mummers Museum (as seen above) – the elaborate and flamboyantly costumed paraders that take over Philadelphia every January 1st. It’s about as colorful as you can get, full of sparkles and sequins, and yes, worn by plenty of grown men… Two floors of awesome.

Day 19 (September 23rd) – onward to Baltimore

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Philly, you’re great. Really. You were fun. Parking, however, was a different story. CRAZY hard to find a spot to park downtown. We ended up having to park in a garage about a kilometer for the privilege of taking a car-sized spot for the night…

We started at Baldwin’s Book Barn, a five-story restored barn holding a spectacular array of rare, classic, and used books. Prices were generally fair – between $5 and $20 for the vast majority – and the collection was reasonably organized. I’ll note the nature of an old barn means it’s stairs only, and you’ll be relying on the signs to keep your head from meeting an archway.

On our way to Baltimore, we noticed a sign for the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace, Maryland. While this wasn’t part of our original itinerary (partially because I hadn’t heard of it), I ventured inside to discover a wonderful collection of duck decoys used for hunting ducks. What you see in the picture above is an example of a boat that rode just above the water, with the hunter sitting in the hole in the middle. These were so effective that they were later banned, but naturally the museum has one to let your imagination enjoy. The museum has a great exhibit on the crafters, whose individual style and personality come through with every wooden duck they make…

Now in Baltimore, we aimed our car toward the Edgar Allen Poe grave in downtown Maryland (a small site with a number of graves to regard) and the Bazaar, a gift shop with stuff for the morbid, darkly creative types. From greeting cards to animal penis bones, this place has a little bit of everything – and a lot of it done by local creators…

Day 20 (September 24th) – Baltimore

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Our first stop today is the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum – you already know what to expect by the name alone. The house where the Babe himself was born today serves as a tribute to one of baseball’s legends. While renovated, no house can avoid feeling cramped after a dozen people try moving around at the same time… A worthy collection of videos and original artifacts, including a kimono he wore while playing Japan’s best in baseball.

Next up, we aimed for the Davidge Hall, home of the oldest building continually used for medical education. That might sound on the lame side, but the stairwall inside is supposedly home to ‘Hermie’ a cadaver laid out on an old wooden / necropsy table. Being a Saturday, the building wasn’t open – a reminder that our whirlwind schedule means we’re unable to reach all the places we’d like just because the days of the week are off…

Big fan of the Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, which aimed at showing everything from videos to collectibles to posters of all things that have entertained over the decades. The first room starts with the #1’s of comic book legends (Superman, anyone?), and a touch-screen device lets you read that first issue electronically… It’s one of those rare places that’s excellent for parents, kids, and even the grandparents if they’re along…

Seen above is a mosaicked bus outside the American Visionary Art Museum, a collection of ‘outsider art’ (much like the ‘naive art’ we saw in Switzerland). No photos allowed inside, but plenty of weird art outside. They’re currently between installations, which means the permanent exhibitions (three floors worth) get a chance to shine a little brighter. The highlight, personally: a random, oddball souvenir / gift shop, with some seriously low prices on much of its randomness.

Last stop for the day is Elijah Bond’s Ouija Board Grave, inside the Greenmount Cemetery. The man who patented the Ouija board has a gravestone that could easily serve as a board, if you had the heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic (which I just learned is called a planchette).

Day 21 (September 25th) – Washington D.C.

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Left Baltimore (it’s nice enough, though I’m not sure if or when we’ll have a reason to go back) and drove to Washington DC. Our first stop: the International Spy Museum, a spectacular look at the craft and personalities involved in the tradecraft of spying. Without giving too much away, there’s an interactive piece that gives you a chance to assume the (fictional) identity of a spy. Remember these details for a little computer-based quiz near the end of the exhibition… The special exhibition on James Bond and all the villains he’s faced…

After confirming the Museum of Crime and Punishment has been closed (sadface!), we headed to the not-weird-at-all-but-still-wonderful Mall in the heart of Washington DC. The afternoon went by in a flash, and before we knew it we were fast-walking it back to our car to ensure our time in the garage didn’t run out!

Day 22 (September 26th) – Washington DC

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Operation ‘Separate Ways’ strikes again! Laura had plans to see some of DC’s finest attractions – the Smithsonian museums and the Newseum amongst them. I… had other plans, naturally.

My first stop is a Technicolor Church on Delaware Street, formerly the Friendship Baptist Church and now an art installation (more here). It’s fenced off and didn’t look to have anything going on during my visit, but it’s a fun, oddball sight to kick things off…

I should acknowledge a few places I wanted to go, but couldn’t reach thanks to it being a Monday and/or the fall: The Mini Golf course on the East Potomac, the oldest operating mini golf course in the country, and the Fridge, a gallery of street art (wasn’t open on Mondays).

Next up: the National Arboretum – not weird, though its grounds do hold the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum (seen above) and a odd set of columns supporting nothing. If you’re into bonsai and penjing (Japanese and Chinese versions of the same artform, with some minor differences), it’s a great exhibition of some plants that have been ‘in training’ for decades…

The National Capitol Columns are a short walk away, and are the original sandstone columns that were part of the US Capital’s portico for 130 years. They were replaced by marble columns in 1958, and the government wasn’t sure to do with these (if only they had thought of that when deciding to replace them!). They were moved here in 1984, and have been supporting air ever since.

Last up: the Washington National Cathedral, one of the country’s finest cathedrals that will inspire awe regardless of your religion. I didn’t just go for some spectacular stained glass, though – one panel is dedicated to the Apollo 11 missions and holds a piece of moon rock. A difficult-to-see gargoyle in the shape of a Darth Vader Mask is here as well, though you’ll want binoculars or a long telephoto/zoom lens to see it. Oh yeah: Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller are entombed here.

Day 23 (September 27th) – DC to Pittsburgh

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A four-hour drive from DC to Pittsburgh awaited, but we had a few places left on our list before leaving the DC area… Our first stop: the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) Museum – and yes, it’s as square as you would think it would be. The highlight is the souvenir store, which offers some hilarious patches…

Next up is the NRA’s National Firearms Museum (seen above), which kinda feels like walking into the lions den… It’s a great collection of antique rifles and handguns from centuries of history, and the tone of the museum is exactly what you’d expect. I was a bit surprised to not see stories of house owners defending their house from would-be robbers…

Last up: National Museum of Health and Medicine, home to plenty of morbid anatomy, weird pathology, and the bullet that killed Lincoln. Lots of weird stuff here, collected over 150 years with Civil War artifacts…

On our way to Pittsburgh, we took in the unfinished Noah’s Ark reconstruction, which is off the highway in Frostburg, MD. There’s almost nothing there to see except a gigantic steel frame…

The next few days will be Pittsburgh – lots of stuff going on here!

Day 24 (September 28th) – Pittsburgh

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Our first full day of exploring Pittsburgh – and it got off to a great start at Bicycle Heaven – the biggest bicycle museum in the world. Two maze-like floors hold thousands of bikes, many of which are for sale, along with a great selection of 20th century Americana, from the Three Stooges to Happy Days to Pee-Wee Herman… oh, and some psychedelically-colored sprockets…

Next up: Randyland – an awesomely decorated yard with a little bit of everything from welcome signs in dozens of languages to a bunch of wonderfully painted stuff. Randy himself was around to welcome us, and had the chance to talk about his creation… This’ll definitely be getting it’s own post…

Later on, the Toonseum – a look back at how people made toons or learned to toon over the decades… Meh, I say. Not as exciting as I thought it would be – I’d pass if I had a second chance…

We stopped by the Church of Brew Works, which as a working restaurant wasn’t really appropriate to just hang out. They brew their own beer in a repurposed church… and there’s a few other repurposed churches in the city worthy of perusing…

We had an appointment to take in the Center for Post-Natural History, a look at the intentional changes humans have made to nature, animals, and so on. There’s some genetically modified mice (including an alcoholic rat), some mosquitos… and sea monkeys…

Day 25 (September 29th) – Pittsburgh

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Is it a road? A rock? Or something else altogether?

Today had us bouncing around Pittsburgh a fair bit thanks to the opening hours some places kept. We started with the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus – the first and third floors feature dozens of classrooms, each themed after a different culture or country.

Later on, on the other side of the city is St. Anthony’s Chapel, which claims to hold some 5,000 relics from martyrs and holy people – more than anywhere else in the world, save only the pope. Although no photos are allowed inside, a worthy audioguide is likely to be playing, and a book inside offers details of their relics. They almost certainly have that many, though it’s worth noting most of these relics are extremely small – the size of your pinky’s fingernail or smaller

For lunch, we found our way to the Conflict Kitchen back on the University of Pittsburgh – a restaurant that only serves food from countries the US is in conflict with. Right now (and for the next several months), it’s the Iroquois. Neither I nor Laura had ever had what you might call ‘Native American’ food, so this was a treat.

Next up: the Carnegie Museum (seen above) which is a place worth several hours for the natural science  sections alone. We had around two hours for that excellent part along with a lot of art… I’m positive there was quite a bit we missed… It’s not weird, but it’s a spectacularly done place.

We showed up to La Hütte Royal, a house that’s been repurposed as a artistic statement with everything from a fireplace you can wriggle through to a hallway lined with doors. No answer to repeated door knocks and doorbells… dangit… Hate missing out on places that sound awesome…

Our last stop of the night: the Trundle Manor. Offering tours by appointment and the occasional movie night means there’s ample time to check this awesome home out. The couple that owned it are awesome as well, and offer up drinks and souvenirs to boot… What’s here? Think vintage taxidermy, goth and steampunk collections,

Day 26 (September 30th) – Pittsburgh to Akron

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As we left Pittsburgh, we had the chance to take in another huge collection of pinball machines across the decades at Pinball Perfection. (While it was out of our way for this trip, the Pennsylvania Coin Operated Gaming Hall of Fame and Museum supposedly offers 10,500 square feet of pinball in an old dollar store.) Perfection offers up over 250 working pinball machines, and has dozens more in their repair shop. Pachinko and other gaming machines are for sale here as well, and even though our time was limited, it was a great look at how the game has progressed over the decades…

A bit of a drive later, we got to the The Living Dead Museum in Evans City, PA. This area was the backdrop to some scenes from ‘Night of the Living Dead’, the iconic 1968 cult classic that (arguably) introduced the world to zombies. Plenty of info and some original artifacts on hand, and a great array of zombie-themed t-shirts in the front part of the store.

Our time is quickly running short, so we made our way to Akron (cheaper hotels than Cleveland) and spent much of the evening catching up. The past few weeks alone I’ve taken close to 3,000 pictures and have fallen behind on the spreadsheet I use to keep details straight… There’s also some planning to do for what happens after North Carolina…

Day 27 (October 1st) – Cleveland

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Home of Major League and the Drew Carey Show, Cleveland will end up having more than we can handle in the time we had. More on that in a second.

We start the day at Dittrick Medical Museum, an excellent look at contraception and medical treatments over the years. I’d classify this as PG-13, with plenty of frank medical text and descriptions of love-making to take in. That it’s well-lit makes my camera happy…

Next up: The Christmas Story Museum, a look at the very same house used in the titular movie. The naked capitalism started as soon as we realized the neighbors opted to charge $5 for parking when there’s ample street parking nearby, and continued through the ginormous gift shop (you know that leg lamp? They’ve got four different sizes on offer). After realizing it would be a bit of a wait for the next guided tour, we moved on…

After lunch, we went to the Rock and Roll Museum and Hall of Fame – not weird at all, but on course for lots of fun… right? Honestly, we were both a little disappointed by the overpriced, square, and corporate-feeling attraction. While I can’t be sure if it’s run by the same folks that massively overcharge for drinks and concerts to begin with, they’ve definitely adapted the same mindset. The messages of the music are acknowledged in a nicely-done special exhibition, though.

We capped off the day with a peek (OK, more than a peek) inside the biggest candy store I’ve ever seen: b.a. Sweetie candy company. Claiming 40,000 square feet and $3 million worth of candy for sale, it’s perhaps the best place in North America to find that obscure flavor of Tootsie Roll or a bulk-packaged bag of your favorite. Oh, and ALL THE PEZ you could stand, including a fill-the-bag bulk Pez display I’ve never seen before.

Day 28 (October 2nd) – Cleveland to Columbus

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There’s plenty more going on in Cleveland than our stay allowed us to see, which means there’s a fair chance we’ll be back. For today, however, we took in the Ohio Caverns, supposedly one of the largest cavern systems in North America. I do wonder why it cost $17 to tour a cave – even taking electricity and tour guide’s salaries into account, it seems they’re doing more than covering costs…

We then drove to the Piatt Castles, a pair of eccentric castles with a $25 price tag for admission to both. One claimed ‘electricity’ for the high price (so something that’s only open for two days a week runs up a huge bill at around 13 cents per kilowatt-hour?), while the other said it was ‘private property’ (meaning it’s been in the family for a long time and doesn’t have a mortgage?). The US has been more expensive than expected, so places that aren’t exceptionally weird are harder to justify the spend…

Once in Columbus, we stopped by the World’s Largest Gavel and a Topiary Garden creating the scene from a famous Seurat painting. We’ll be doing a lot more exploring around Columbus tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Day 29 (October 3rd) – Columbus to Cincinnati

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Starting from Columbus, we started by searching for the Arnold Schwarzenegger statue in downtown Columbus. The eight-foot-tall statue was missing, however – removed from the area while it’s under construction.

Next up: the Drainage Hall of Fame – the first place I’ve been in that qualified as ‘weird but not interesting’. A single panel in the Agricultural Engineering building on Ohio State University’s campus offers up bios and pictures for a dozen or so old men, and that’s all…

A little bit of a drive: the Insane Cemetery, a minimalist sort of cemetery for residents of insane asylums. It’s at the end of a sleepy government complex. Another place, the ‘Old Insane and Penal Cemetery’, looks to be within walking distance on Google Maps, but we didn’t see any way to get from point A to point B…

A few minutes later, Watlao Buddhamamakaram, the Lao-style Buddhist temple you see above. We’ve been to Laos, of course, and I was delighted to see the viharn recreated wonderfully. The entrance was blocked off, and this is the only building decorated in this style…

While I wasn’t sure what to expect, the Bruce Lee Legends of Martial Art Hall of Fame is (and will be) a worthy look at the legendary martial arts figure. The man who runs it is arguably a legend in his own right, a 10th dan Grand Master. and though most of the collection is in storage, the posters and the collection in the studio makes for a worthy stop.

The oddest place on the list: Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum. Yup. An entire museum. Pencil sharpeners. In truth, it’s not a museum so much as a shed-sized building near the Visitors Center for the area. Thousands of pencil sharpeners, organized by theme and packed into cabinets. The man behind the collection passed away a few years back, but that’s a guy I would’ve loved to know…

On our way to Cincinnati, Laura directed us to the Hitler-Ludwig Cemetery on Hitler Road in Circleville, Ohio. Yep, that’s right – at least a dozen names on the tombstones said ‘Hitler’ on them. And nope, none of them were that guy. Turns out the Hitlers were pillars of the community here, including one that went to fight for the US in World War II… More on this one coming soon.

Day 30 (October 4th) – Cincinnati

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Cincinnati didn’t have as much weird stuff on tap as I would have expected, but it held enough to keep us busy for a day. We started at the Cincinnati Police Museum, a worthy collection of the honors police had won and a few brief sketches of the local villains / criminals. It’s free (donations accepted), and worthy for a brief visit.

I’ll note that we passed on the Creation Museum (beyond being expensive, I hate the notion of funding places that offer such bad misinformation) and Loveland Castle, a castle built by one man that’s only open on the weekends during the off-season…

Next up: the Lucky Cat Museum., a collection of well over 1,100 Japanese ‘lucky cats’ kept by one cat-loving lady inside an former clothing factory turned artist’s collective. There’s cats over a century old here, along with purchases she was literally unboxing as we were having a delightful chat…

Later on, I had to check out the Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition, a bar mashed up with one of the biggest collections of arcade games I’ve ever seen…

Day 31 (October 5th) – Cincinnati to Asheville

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Our last day of traveling for this leg means there’s a lot more driving… but of course we have a few places to visit. We started with the American Sign Museum – a great selection of signs and neon pieces from over a century of signage. Some pieces are iconic (like a gigantic McDonalds sign), while others harken back to a simpler time…

On our way through Kentucky, we stopped across the street from the Ark Encounter, the Noah’s Ark recreation with a $40 admission and $10 parking fee (both ludicrous considering this is built in a gigantic field of all places). We had no intention of supporting that sort of mission, but tried to get a look from across the street. Turns out that from across the street and through the parking lot, the ark is perpendicular to the road – it’s far from visible from the road. I wouldn’t even bother with it.

We stopped by Lexington’s Biblical Miniature Golf course, which wasn’t open when we stopped by… A shame, considering it offers three different courses all related to the Bible…

Finally, the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken in Corbin isn’t weird, but certainly a fun place of history. A more modern KFC is next door to the ‘Sanders Cafe’, which includes a look at the Colonel’s backstory, kitchen… and even a hotel room they offered up to people as they travel…

We arrived in Asheville, and will be taking several days to catch up with family, look at the thousands of pictures I’ve taken over the last month, and planning our next moves…

This leg has come to an end – but of course there’s plenty more stories to tell. Keep your eyes on this space.

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