Mount Trashmore

When you think of befitting tributes to our great nation, there’s the usual suspects: Washington Monument; the Statue of Liberty; Lincoln Memorial; the Liberty Bell (cast before the US was a country, but captures our spirit); and Mount Rushmore.

But what about… Mount Trashmore?

The US produces more trash than any other country in the world. If you’re an American, you throw away about 7 pounds of trash a day. A day! It’s like you’re giving birth to a beautiful trash baby every 24 hours. A bundle of joy, a beautiful, rotting mound of spoiled food and dirty diapers, mixed liberally with metal, crushed glass, plastic, and sometimes even hazardous materials.

Of course, most of that goes to the landfill. That convenient, far-off place where we can forget the whole mess. Until urban sprawl encroaches, or we find that placing that dump next to a critical body of water maybe wasn’t the smartest idea.

That’s when a Mount Trashmore is born.

Yes, a Mount Trashmore. Not the Mount Trashmore.

A quick search on Google reveals that there well over a dozen Mount Trashmores in the US. From California to New Hampshire, Florida to Wisconsin, our Mount Trashmores gleam in the morning sun, releasing only the occasional stray bit of noxious fumes. These “mountains” range from still active dumps to parks to, in one unique case, a source of alternative energy.

trash2

An absolutely beautiful view of a Mount Trashmore in Massachusetts. (Photo by FromSandToGlass.)

In Riverview, Michigan – south of Detroit – the initial plan was turn the local Mount Trashmore into a ski resort of sorts. That may sound odd, but it’s not all that unusual in Metro Detroit, where both a gravel pile and a pile of mine tailings were transformed into skiing hot spots as part of the state’s unofficial “take that Colorado!” campaign. And in Franklin, Wisconsin, you really can ski on an old landfill.

So why not in Riverview?

Riverview’s future as a Midwest ski mecca was quickly dashed, however, when it turned out that the heat of the decaying trash below ground was a little too hot. Maintaining good snow coverage was just too much hassle and money, and the nascent resort soon closed for good, although not before this awesome ad was aired.

Not that all was lost.

Now you can golf on ol’ Mount Trashmore – renamed the “Riverview Highlands” – and a DTE Energy Electric Company subsidiary is currently harnessing it as a source of “biomass energy”. Enough power is generated, apparently, to light up thousands of homes. Which proves, I suppose, that trash isn’t always a bad thing.

trash1

(Photo by J. Albert Bowden II.)

Heck, in Virginia Beach, Mount Trashmore is a park that has emerged as something of a minor tourist attraction. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, they’re running a 5K upon the summit of their Mount Trashmore this September 13th in an effort to “reclaim” the mountain.

You’d almost think we have an affinity for trash.

Gary Works

Gary Works. It was true for decades. U.S. Steel’s biggest manufacturing plant, Gary Works has rolled and galvanized the steel used in our homes, cars, and appliances since 1908. From I-90 it might look like hell on earth, but for generations of Americans, it made dreams possible.

Gary, Indiana, however, no longer works. The city has an unemployment of 10.5%, probably a generous estimate. Though Gary Works has continued on, it now employs only 5,000 people, down from a peak of around 25,000-30,000. The city is in a death spiral of decline. Homes are in ruins. Office buildings and churches are vacant, crumbling, exposed to the elements, and littered with trash.

It’s a scene all too familiar in the Midwest, once the industrial heart of America, our steady rhythm sounded out by the thud of the press, the beat of the drill.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That’s not a city on the horizon. (Edited. Original photo by m01229.)

The groans of the South Shore interurban as it leaves the Miller station for Chicago remind me of dark, metallic synthesizer drones. It’s a spooky, ephemeral melody, belonging to a strange alien world where public transportation is treated as a birthright. Cubs fans, easily identifiable in their blue and red caps, stare out of the grimy train windows at one of Gary’s few bright spots: Miller Beach.

You’d never suspect, tucked away in the very northwest corner of one of America’s most infamous cities – birthplace of Michael Jackson – is a bucolic world of dunes, cabins, and quiet streets, but it exists and is very real. The Lake Michigan beach community was annexed almost one hundred years ago by Gary and developed as a convenient getaway for the region’s soot-covered industrial workers. If you squint, you can even see the Chicago skyline from the beach.

Of course, if you don’t squint, you’ll probably just see a bunch of factories. But you get the point.

Not that Miller Beach has been completely spared from Gary’s problems. Marquette Park, a hot destination in the 1920s for Chicagoans (when it was known as Lake Front Park), has had its share of ups and downs. At one time, its famous classically-inspired concrete bathhouse was slated for demolition, only to be saved by determined locals and rechristened as an “aquatorium”. Miller’s all-American downtown has had its own struggles over the years, too, but is experiencing a veritable renaissance, with the already acclaimed 18th Street Brewery opening in 2013.

Unfortunately, I didn’t sample any brews when I was in town. We only had an hour or two to spare in Gary. Our final destination in Cedar Falls, Iowa was still hours west on I-80. Molly was hellbent on driving from Detroit to Cedar Falls in one day, which was fine by me, but for one caveat: she’d have to finish the trip. I’d been in the driver’s seat the whole way from Detroit to Gary, and was ready for a nice long nap. Unless we took a long break at a rest stop along the way, there was no way I was taking back the wheel. She’d have to drive the rest of the way.

She was fine with my fiery ultimatum, and our course was set.

Four hours on the road can make you unreasonably hungry. All I’d done was sit, hitting the brakes occasionally when we hit a traffic jam. Yet it felt like I’d jogged the whole way. My stomach was growling, my mouth dry.

gary3

We parked in a large lot just north of Indian Boundary Road, which follows an old border that was established in a treaty with the Potawatomi in 1826. But instead of Indians, we were surrounded by two restaurants, a market, and an acupuncturist. Emotionally fatigued from the road, we couldn’t decide whether to eat at the Beach Cafe or Flamingo, so we did what we always do in such situations and flipped a coin. Tails was Beach Cafe and heads was Flamingo.

Heads it was.

gary2

You know Flamingo is a working class bar the second you open the door. You can smell the cigarette smoke emanating from the patron’s clothes. Hollow, sunken faces give off grotesque shadows in the dim light, and almost everyone is wearing jean shorts and white gym socks, the official blue collar summer uniform.

You know how it is.

The snatches of conservations you can catch over the din are priceless.

“BE QUIET!”

“Get out and scrape that shit!”

“But I might dance for you.”

“And it keep on, I’m calling the cops. After I tried to run you over!”

“Another book club!”

“That’s why when he said that Allison read [said in present tense] it, I thought, ‘Allison don’t need to read this!’ It was very intense.”

“BILL, COME ON! MAN! WHAT YOU DOIN’? CONCENTRATE! He’s not funny very… well, he’s not funny.”

gary1

I had my doubts about the food. This was a “de facto watering hole” if I’d ever saw’r one. Don’t get me wrong, it looked nice enough. There were old school tin ceiling tiles in one room. Plenty of wood furnishings. But I was only expecting typical dive bar fare.

Was I wrong.

I ordered the perch sandwich. It was, in a word, delicious. Not that they did anything fancy with it. It was just fried perch on a bun with the standard toppings. What made it stand out was the quality. This was excellent, fresh fish. I don’t even know why they fried it, to be honest.

The fries rocked, too, like a gourmet take on fast food fries. What the food lacked in art, it made up for in character. Molly’s calzone didn’t disappoint, either.

Though Flamingo has changed locations a few times, it’s a Gary institution with over 70 years of history. After eating there, it’s easy to see why it’s stood the test of time. As we climbed a sand dune on our way to the beach, the waves of Lake Michigan lapping against the shore under a big, bright moon, I remember saying to myself, “This is awesome.”

Anyone that’s ever badmouthed Gary on their way through owes it to the city to visit Miller Beach. Just do it, man.

Iowa State Fair

fair4

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here, but I perceived it as a cow beauty pageant of sorts. And aren’t they handsome!

It was a day of contrasts.

One moment, I’m eating vegan “taco crumbles”, a mix of mushrooms, beans, and millet. My plate, mostly lettuce, is drizzled with cashew “sour cream”. The next, I’m devouring deep-fried Oreos and chasing mozzarella sticks with cheese on a stick.

What – when – where – why – how did this happen?

Des Moines, Iowa.

We made a 2 hour drive to Iowa’s capitol from Cedar Falls to see one of the Midwest’s grandest public spectacles: the Iowa State Fair It was a monotonous drive on unnervingly straight roads, the curves engineered not so much out of necessity, but to keep drivers awake. And, occasionally, it smelled like shit. Iowa farmers, apparently, aren’t shy about fertilizing.

Of course, they never mention that in any of the country songs. “I like pickup trucks, goin’ to church, beer, a good girl and roads that smell like horse shit!” Nope. That last bit is, by rule, always omitted. Instead, we’re shoveled more lies about the clean country air, or daisy dukes.

But I kid. I love Iowa.

iowa_road

A typical Iowa road. Not fun when it’s late and you’re tired. (Photo by the inimitable Doug Kerr.)

Now, in Cedar Falls, there aren’t any vegetarian restaurants, let alone a vegan restaurant. The best you’re getting is tofu or a black bean burger, and black bean burgers are like the vegetarian equivalent of leisure suits. Sure, there was a time when black bean burgers made vegetarians feel free and liberated. That time has unfortunately passed and vegetarians have moved on permanently.

So naturally, we had to hit up a vegan eatery in Des Moines. Molly is a staunch vegetarian, and I don’t mind fake meat. In fact, I was a vegetarian first, before denouncing the cause. I’m still against eating meat every day. Believe it or not, it’s OK, occasionally good, to eat a meal without meat.

Although that doesn’t stop New World Cafe – tucked away inconspicuously in an industrialized corner of town – from offering up a smörgåsbord of imitation meats and dairy products. What can I say? Old culinary habits die hard. That said, the taco salad was tasty, as was Molly’s breakfast bowl, with mushroom quinoa crumbles, mushroom miso gravy, and cashew vegetable sauce. The substitutes worked well.

What was barf worthy was New World Café’s branding.

The café has a “volunteer program”, in which you work for free in exchange for food, discounts, and experience. Yes, that’s right. It’s a restaurant that hires unpaid interns and covers up its exploitation with anti-corporate art. Hey, New World Cafe – you might hate Walmart, but at least Walmart pays all of its employees in cold, hard cash. Is there a better example of our misguided youth culture than this?

I doubt it.

restaurant1

Don’t trust people that try too hard to achieve an image. There has to be a reason why they need all that window dressing.

Our stomachs half full from the light, healthy fare, it was time for the Iowa State Fair. We parked about a mile away on Grand Avenue in an old working class neighborhood with squat houses and narrow streets because we’re fucking cheapskates. Twice I was almost hit by a car while crossing the street at a stop sign. Drivers had no respect for the right of way of pedestrians.

The next day, I read in the Des Moines Register that a cop directing traffic was hit on the corner of Grand and 30th. Sounds about right. Luckily the officer was OK, and life moves on.

fair1

“Are you gonna bring me back a corn dog?” The officer on the right asked a couple (not in the picture) waiting to cross. They laugh. “I’m just kidding. I don’t actually care for corn dogs. Donuts! The donuts in there are good. Think you could bring me back a couple?” Hey, at least he owns up to it.

The big show was the Iowa State Fair, held since 1854, and it didn’t disappoint. For $11, there was a giant cow made out of butter; humongous pumpkins; a 3 ton bull; aquariums with fish from the Mississippi River; cowboy boots; live bands; rides; a giant concourse; magnificent exhibit halls with traditional urban American architecture; auctions; Clydesdale horses: and (drum roll, please)… fried food. Lots of fuckin’ fried food.

Legend has it that there was even a year (or two) when you could buy fried butter. Alas, no more.

Don’t fret, however. They’re still dipping Oreos, Twinkies, cheese, and almost anything else not moving into batter and frying it into oblivion. It’s insanely unhealthy, a decadent celebration of runaway American obesity. And yet people love it, eat it up with a sloppy abandon. A deep-fried Oreo has about double or triple the calories of a regular Oreo. Still, fairgoers lined up at the red, white, and blue stand like it was a communion wafer. The cashier looked miserable.

fair2

For the record, I may have been the only male at the Iowa State Fair wearing skinny jeans. Don’t judge me.

“I can’t decide,” I said aloud. “Oreos or Twinkies?”

A perky brunette in line in front of me immediately turned around.

“Get the Oreos. You won’t regret it. The Oreo melts inside the batter.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Oreos it is.”

“Yeah, and they sprinkle powdered sugar on it. Trust me, it’s really good.”

“I was thinking that’s what it needed. Thanks! My decision is made.”

How was it? It was… well… it was good. Nirvana in my mouth good? Instant orgasm good? No. It’s like an especially greasy Oreo cake that congeals into a thick, immovable mass in your stomach. Not that I wouldn’t eat one or three if you put a plate of ‘em in front of me. To tell you the truth, if I was stoned and you locked me in a warehouse stocked with deep-fried Oreos, I’d just resign myself to weighing 1,000 pounds. I’d die on the toilet Elvis Presley-style.

fair3

Worth dying for? Maybe.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. Standing in the towering shadow of a 25 foot tall replica of the father and daughter (or is it husband and wife?) from Grant Wood’s American Gothic – inspired by a house in Eldon, Iowa – I couldn’t help but imagine the Wood’s staid farmer scowling at the indulgent, fatty cuisine. Until he tried a deep-fried Oreo, that is, and broke out into a Cheshire grin.