It was my fourth day in North Carolina and I was getting antsy. I hadn’t explored my surroundings, and what a waste. North Carolina has a lot going for it, and though I had been to the Fayetteville area at least a half a dozen times in the last decade, this truism had never been realized in my mind. Each time I had been there I had stayed in hotels just off the interstate, in non-descript parts of town, that just as well could be anywhere.
Don’t get me wrong, Fayetteville sucks. But the area has a lot to offer. I don’t know what causes it, but I think towns that rest on the edge of Military Bases always seem kind of depressed and sad. Maybe its like a college town, minus the fun and creativity and arts. Tons of young people, but only halves of families as the men are away. Also, unlike college towns, everyone seems to be lower income class. As a result, despite being down to earth, it’s a series of transplant families that don’t even attempt to put down roots, and also don’t invest in some of the things that more financial diverse communities might offer. It’s always just kinda gloomy around military bases. However, notable exceptions exist all around the outskirts of Fayetteville.
So I headed out highway 20 to Southern Pines. When I have time on my hands I try to take the downtown routes through small towns, always enjoying the chance to drive a complete circle though the town square, or if there is no square, then taking the slow route through main street to see what condition it is in. Generally speaking, Main Street USA is a sad place, but there are plenty of towns where main street is converted to antique shopping and the occasional insurance agency or law office. Gone are the barber shops, grocers, and pharmacy’s complete with a soda fountain.
I have heard it argued that Main Street USA never existed. And that the Disney creation is just an approximation of the potential of Main Street USA given a perfect economy. A bustling main street where every store front is open for business and people are doing their daily business all in one spot probably doesn’t exist. Most towns favor the outskirts for new business, due to the space allowed for large new buildings and cheaper real estate. So daily business is spread out towards more recently converted farmlands, which have now become boring strip malls. Abandoning downtowns altogether.
However, on this trip I rode through a town called Reaford at the junction of 401 and 20, and after personally driving hundreds of thousands of miles through all but a handful of states, and visiting at least 400 cities, I saw my first thriving grocery store in the middle of small town main street. This is something you see in New York City, of course, but in the three tiny blocks that made up downtown, people were actually buying groceries out of a typical windowed store front of a brick downtown building in small town USA. This town had no Wal-Mart.
I didn’t stop. But the novelty of a bustling main street that was not merely dedicated to yesteryear, but was bustling in a current sort of way was not lost on me.
I continued on, determined to find something interesting, despite only having rudimentary directions to my sight seeing locales of the day.
Southern Pines was a perfect southern town. The main street here was divided into two one way streets, separated not by buildings but by the train tracks that led through the middle of town. A train station sat on an island between the two streets. A pedestrian on one sidewalk would have no trouble waving to someone on the sidewalk on the other side, had it not been for the foliage planted along the tracks. It was a sunny and warm day, and people were out and about.
The bustling portion of this downtown probably spanned about 4 blocks. I arrived at about noon, and immediately went to walk down the street. I noticed that some shop keepers were locking their doors and placing the “out to lunch” sign in the window. Perfect. 18 year old soldiers in dress uniform were milling about on the lawn of a fraternal building of sorts. The greenery throughout the area was perfect and the hanging flowers framed the sidewalks. The downtown just begged pedestrians to walk every square inch. There was a lot of white paint. Unlike the town squares of Texas, this was less brick, and more of that classic white facades that you always picture when imagining the deep south.
Ice cream parlors, curiosity shops, toy stores, real estate offices, café’s, boutique shopping….and beneath the sign inviting me in to try some free fudge was a chainsaw carving bear holding a sign that says “Creation Museum & Antique Tool Museum.” But that isn’t the half of it. Its also a Taxidermy Museum. The first of many I would explore on this trip. I had arrived.
I love museums that are made by one person. This means the museum is a pet project or at least a little bit of pure crazy. It is one thing to collect things, it is entirely another to collect enough things to build a museum. It is yet another, grand thing, to believe that the general public should have access to your crazy.
I entered what looked to be a typical small town Bible Book Store. But one look to the rear of the store proved that more that this place would hold much more than merely bookmarks and study guides. A quick turn to the left proved that it is also going to be mighty wacky. In the back of the store stood 18 inch tall letters proclaiming that I had arrived at the Taxidermy Museum. To the left…
Above the staircase leading into the basement was a giant suit of armor. It has a story. The lady who ran the bible purchasing counter/free fudge sample counter told me how the curator drove this monstrosity several hundred miles in the back of his pickup truck, in hopes that he could fit it in his display.
I descended into the belly of the beast. Equal parts “Creation Science”, Taxidermy, and Antique tools, this museum was immediately exciting.
Halfway down the staircase and to the right there was a display of dead animals, mounted against the wall in a very cramped space. Dark wood paneling. The slight smell of old. Every space was filled.
This was no white washed museum with shadow box displays well lit with information cards laminated and placed neatly adjacent to each exhibit. No, this was perfect in the other way. And endless series of display cases filled the basement. Jewelry cases, rotating dimestore counter displays probably once used to showcase wristwatches, sliding glass door cases, even panels from the ceiling were replaced with acrylic ‘windows’ to mount creatures above the visitor’s heads. This was a mishmash of display types, each filled to capacity. It was quite possible to stand in one place for minutes and never see everything there is to see, before taking the next single step.
What made it enjoyable was the mixture. For in one case you could see every antique level ever manufactured in north America since early settlers began making levels, each meticulously labeled, sometimes with photos of whatever manufacturers model information that might have been to small to read, blown up for easy viewing. But also in the case would be a buncha dead marmots.
A kangaroo, stuffed, with joey peeking out of her pouch, would be neatly displayed next to an impressive collection of hammers.
Even more fun was the completely logic impaired Creation Science information and displays. Upon reaching the third level, on the second floor of the building, I encountered what was clearly a promotional giant sized Converse shoe mounted on the wall. Though it was 3 feet long, which is fantastic enough, it was accompanied by a philosophical inquiry, designed to make the observer pause and reflect on the origins of life. It read along the lines of “if you found this object in the desert, all alone, would you assume it came to be, all on its own? Surely it had a creator, and did not simply evolve on its own accord.” This was the gist of it. And, actually, more or less the gist of the whole place. Wacky objects juxtaposed with 4th grade philosophy. It was great!
One of my favorite pieces was interesting to me because of the sheer amount of real estate used up to display this mammoth collection. Clearly, every space was used. Yet, deep in the bowels of this trove was a single near empty, and large, case. Lit by a single florescent bulb it contained only a small statue of a green snake, coiled around a red apple. Above the case rests a wooden sign, with beveled lettering stating “In this case is displayed all the credible evidence of evolution.”
A plastic snake with an apple in its coil. Rad!
On and on and on it went. Southwest dioramas with snakes and desert critters set upon a sand floor. Swamp creatures and wood working tools. Monkey-Man heads, scripture verses. Bumper stickers proclaiming Jesus is Lord, stuck neatly near stuffed rare squirrels. And of course there was the taxidermy humor. Roadkill Beaver might be my favorite.
No, squirrel in cammo. No, squirrel in boat!
One case, filled only with incredible taxidermy, was set opposite of a giant mirror with letters spelling out this fun fact:
“THE EVOLUTIONISTS CLAIMS
ARE AN ANIMAL – AN ACCIDENT OF NATURE!”
Of course nothing was as interesting as the case inset into the wall in one dark culdesac on the basement floor.
“False God’s Worshipped In Place of The Creator”. It was the empty burlap bag labeled “California Marijuana” that caught my eye. The rest of the case was filled with wooden statues of native gods from exotic locales. There was a small display of prescription drugs labeled “legal drug addiction”. Clearly this was also an abstract display. A TV rested near a placard stating that it was a tool of the devil, and stating the claim that it existed in more homes that indoor plumbing. Harry Potter audio books, rested near Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.” This gave me pause.
I don’t wanna judge, but this made me think our curator isn’t bangin’ on all cylinders. (Do not assume this was the first or only time I came to that conclusion.)
No matter, for my favorite part of the display, among the wooden tiki’s and university textbooks on psychology, was a rack of CDs. Ozzy. Of course. Metallica. Naturally. Megadeath. Sure. King Diamond. Does this guy have a private ‘metal history’ tutor? Among the thirty or forty CDs was a special section dedicated to Country Music Worshippers. And then it just got loopy. The Batman Forever Sountrack? Billy Joel? Bryan Adams?
Yes. There we can agree. There is a special place in hell reserved for anyone with a Bryan Adams CD.
Of course, the display also had a poignant message, designed again to give one pause. A mirror. This time, with a handsomely lettered sign.
I struck up conversation with the fudge dealer upstairs before I left, and asked about the collection and how I could learn more about who created it. She was happy to give me a brochure about the man, a retired minister. Unfortunately it is misplaced or perhaps gone, but rest assured it also included information on becoming a Christian. It didn’t have the information I wanted.
If you are a taxidermy or oddball museum fan, this is one of the best displays in our country. I highly recommend stopping by, at least to enjoy the Rockwell-esque downtown of Southern Pines, NC. This was, quite literally, one of my favorite stops I have ever made along our nation’s interstates. I have kept my descriptions short, in hopes to not spoil the wonders that live inside that building.
I then made my way to the World’s Largest Strawberry. This was a bit of a farce. It was merely an octagonal-ish building painted to look like a Strawberry. Regardless, they served ice cream and sold fresh fruit grown from local farms, and advertised that the strawberries were picked fresh daily. I bought enough to give me diarrhea and ate them during my highway trek to the gravesite of “Spaghetti” the Carney Mummy. This was a total let down, as the storied history of the mummy far exceeds the gravesite memorial.
Nonetheless I snapped a photo and made my way back to my cabin at the camp.
I got a little hungry on my trip, and being a celiac I have to be choosy as to where I eat. Lucky for me, Wendy’s is always a safe place. Luckier for me, Wendy was washing the windows when I arrived.
Altogether I probably drove 200 miles that day. And let me take a moment to remind my readers…
Driving 200 miles to see something you have never seen before, whether an interesting grave marker, a wacky museum, or an ice cream stand that is merely photo-worthy, is always a good idea. At age 30, I am only wishing I lived in an RV and could stay on the road throughout the entire year.
This summer I was reminded of a phenomenon that occurred to me during my second year of non-stop touring of the USA. I was so accustomed to travel, that at some point I became more comfortable, content and happy in a place where I had never been, than I was in a familiar place. Comfort was re-defined as a place I had never been, as opposed to my own bed, my own home, or any place I knew well. That, my friends, is a lonely, yet amazingly wonderful place to be. Comfortable and content in strange surroundings is a sensation I recommend as worthy of pursuing. Try it. You might just like it.
Hopefully, one day, that can be my entire life.
But that merely brings us to Late June. There are many more, and much more interactive and interesting adventures to be had.
PS: Before I left Southern Pines I stopped by the train station. Inside the train station, where tickets were sold on the north/south Amtrak that stopped twice a day, was also a visitors center. I struck up conversation with a women who seemed delighted to speak to a real live visitor. She asked me what brought me to town. I mentioned the creation/taxidermy/tool museum and the wonders it held. Her response was candid. She had never heard of such a place. It was approximately 200 yards from the ticket window of the very train station we stood at.
It’s too bad that some of the most interesting places in our country are secrets even to the people who live among them.