I spent all weekend at the wonderful Emerald City ComicCon, dressing up, watching my friends do great things, and working a booth. So I don’t have a post today, but just for funsies here’s a link to the Photographic Novel I did for six years. This was our last convention selling the books in person, and maybe the last thing I do for Night Zero. Of course, I’ve said that many times before…
I got to Pipestone National Monument 20 minutes before the visitor’s center was supposed to close. I had never heard of it before, but I was looking to take a break from driving and I saw a sign on the highway with an arrow pointing off to the side. National Monuments tend to be pretty interesting, and they’re almost always worth the stop. The ranger behind the counter told me that the monument was there to preserve the quarry where Native Americans get the traditional stone for their pipes. Now that it’s a National Monument, only the local tribes are allowed to take rock from the quarries, and even then they must have special permits. The stone itself is seen as sacred.
The ranger pointed towards the back of the visitor’s center and told me that there was usually a craftsperson back there working on a pipe. I followed where he pointed and saw a middle-aged Native American man sitting on a stool and fashioning a pipe by hand. There was another couple already standing there watching him, a husband and wife on the early side of retirement. The man asked the artist if he was part of one of the local tribes, and the artist recited his quarter lineage through an impressive string of vowels I can neither remember nor pronounce. The man laughed out loud at the absurdity of having a name so strange and long.
“So you work and live around here?” the man asked.
“Yes,” replied the artist.
“And where’s your casino?” the man said, chuckling at his own joke. I cringed.
“Up in North Dakota,” the artist replied, without anger, offense, or joy. He was used to it by now. It wasn’t worth correcting the man.
“Oh,” the man nodded. He hadn’t expected an actual answer.
I looked around the pipe museum and gallery until it closed for the evening. Upon the suggestion of the ranger I set out on the 3/4 mile walk to see the quarries. The path was easy and the prairies were calming. The walk occasionally followed along a small creek, and I watched the water forming its path over the rocks. In one corner of the walk I came upon a small waterfall where the members of the J. N. Nicollet Expedition of 1838 stopped to rest for three days, carving their initials into the rock. Nicollet and his men were mapping the upper Mississippi, and I can see why they stopped. The little waterfall is surrounded by full trees that provide shade, and smooth rocks that make for comfortable sitting. The prairies are more hospitable than the desert, but they still benefit from the occasional oasis.
I continued my walk, coming across unusual formations that had been given names and histories by the local natives. Most of the named rocks were ones that seemed to form faces. Some were endowed with prestige, such as The Oracle. I hadn’t walked far when I got to The Oracle, but I was far enough that I couldn’t see the visitor’s center anymore. No one else was on the path, and I did my best to travel back in time for a moment. I thought about being one of those early settlers, coming across a form of rock so highly valued that the locals made pilgrimages to obtain it. I thought about being one of those natives, and seeing The Oracle formed in the rock. It must have felt like destiny – seeing a face in the sacred stone. I thought about being in my car just an hour earlier, turning off the highway because of a sign and an arrow, and seeing the face of a thousand-year history. I like to think I’m closer to the artist than the tourist, but that’s just my vanity. Perhaps I turned off the road to be reminded of that. Destiny comes in all sizes.
The opening words of the sermon preached at Westboro Baptist Church on March 23rd, 2014, the first Sunday after the death of founder Fred Phelps:
“Good afternoon, everyone! I have to say, after reading the 18 billion articles Fred sent over the last few days, I’m really quite surprised to see you all here! To hear the media tell it, by this point the building should have been demolished to its foundation, the websites all offline, the tweets silenced, the vines disappeared, the faxes stopped ringing, the signs shredded, our social security numbers zero’d out, and, depending on which version of the story you read, every last man jack of us either moving to varied and separate parts of the world while all sucking our thumbs in the fetal position, all of us buried in a mass grave by our own hands, we should all be sitting on the front lawn drinking spiked Kool-Aid eating laced apple sauce waiting for a UFO to come get us, or probably worst of all, we should all have joined a Catholic church and applied to be priests, to find “true religion”. Yikes. The good old media. Gotta love ‘em. Or not. Thank God though that every article said God Hates Fags! They can say whatever they want as long as they say that!”
I’ve heard people call Fred Phelps a racist. He was a civil rights attorney.
I’ve heard people say they’ll protest his funeral. The WBC doesn’t believe in funerals. That’s why they picket them.
I’ve heard people suggest the sermon I heard on love when I visited the WBC must have been some sort of show put on because I was an outsider. Westboro has no interest in looking good to outsiders.
I’ve heard people say he was only “ex-communicated” so the church wouldn’t have to pay his medical bills. That’s not even how debt works.
He changed his mind.
He beat his children.
His daughter’s been ousted.
The rumors abound.
I’ve learned not to trust much of what I hear about the WBC because they are the unwitting masters of false advertising. They are single-minded in their goal to have as many people hear their “God hates fags” message as possible, and they are unconcerned with whatever messages might get tacked onto it in the process. The sermon I heard last summer certainly fits with the suggestion that Phelps had begun preaching a message of love, at least among church members. However the other sermons posted on the WBC website don’t tell the same story. It may be years before we know the truth, if the truth can ever be known. The death of founder Fred Phelps is equal parts fact and nonsense. Perhaps the saddest, truest thing that can be said about it is this:
At the time of his death, the world had no idea what Fred Phelps believed.
The thing people don’t realize is that you can’t just see “the world’s biggest ball of twine.” Because there are a lot of them. There’s the widest ball of twine. The largest plastic ball of twine. The heaviest ball of twine. The biggest ball of twine spun by a town. Et cetera.
While traveling the country I decide to see the world’s largest ball of twine spun by one man, which also happens to be the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, and the inspiration for the Weird Al song by the same name.
The town of Darwin is about as bustling as you might expect for the sort of town that would advertise possession of a large ball of twine. There’s a sign on the main road pointing over to where the ball of twine sits, enshrined in its own personal glass gazebo. I park my car on the opposite side of the street and walk over to take a picture. The glass reflects the sky and it’s hard to get a good shot. It’s hard to see the thing at all, and I end up pressing my face against the walls just to get a good look.
Surrounding me and the mighty ball are several items that ensure the spot I’m standing in will appear quaint to anyone who passes through. There’s a small yellow house that has been converted into a souvenir shop. There’s a pair of railroad crossing signs, adorably removed from their natural habitat and masquerading as yard art. There’s a large, painted mailbox which holds the guest book, and a sign to indicate whether or not the “Pictorial Museum” is open. Only one side of the sign believes the shop to be open though, the other side is quite convinced that it is not. There’s an American flag in the yard, and the whole scene stands in the shadow of the Darwin water tower. It is one of the most American things I’ve seen my whole trip.
I pull at the knob of the museum and gift shop to confirm that the more pessimistic side of Shrodieger’s Sign was correct. I’m about to leave when I see a 30-year-old man pull up in his car and start walking towards the magnificent ball and its mighty fortress. I assume he must be a fellow traveler, and I stick around in hopes of watching someone admire the ball that I have come to know so well.
The man takes a casual gander at the twine, but his face is filled more with satisfaction than awe. He asks me if I’d like him to take my picture in front of the ball, but I decline. The reflections will ruin it, I tell him. He asks where I’m from, and I say Seattle. I ask where he’s from, and he says Darwin. He’s a local. He stands there for a minute, then walks up to the museum to confirm that it’s closed. He stands and stares at the ball, saying nothing.
I get back in my car and start to ready my things for the next leg of my trip. I see the man get back in his car and drive away. He wasn’t there for the ball, he was there for me. I honestly believe he just wanted to make sure no tourist went through town without getting every big-ball-of-twine-photo she desired. The town of Darwin really wants to be liked.
Back before I left on my trip, I was recounting to my friend Joe how many people had given me flack for not driving through Austin, Texas. “No!” he exclaimed. “You’re not on the ‘Austin’ tour of America. You’re on the Oregon Vortex / Big Ball of Twine Tour.”
Yes, I am. This is exactly what I came here to see.
This was tech week for my improv show, and we open tonight! I am very excited but my editing time has certainly suffered. Posting will resume next week.