Friday, August 28, 2015

Senior Day at the Abandoned Zoo

There are benefits to getting old.  One, for instance, is that park rangers seldom hassle you when you find yourself sidling through a hole in a chain link fence to trespass in the cordoned-off animal enclosures of an abandoned zoo.

Wanting to go for a hike, my sister-in-law and I headed to Griffith Park.  Griffith Park is known for many things - the hiking trails, the eponymous Observatory, the carousel, the trains at Travel Town, and the world-class, if sometimes controversial, Los Angeles Zoo.  Long before The LA Zoo opened its gates in 1966, however, there was the original Griffith Park Zoo.  The "old zoo" opened in 1912 with a small collection of both exotic and domestic animals.

At the height of the Great Depression, the zoo got a makeover.
 Relief organizations built fantastic environments that, despite every effort to appear
the handiwork of Mother Nature, have a distinctly-Deco feeling about them.

In a move that is contrary to Los Angeles' typical modus operandi of "seek and
destroy," the eighty-year-old enclosures have not only been left standing, many
have also been left open to civilian exploration.

As we cave-hopped, we heard some noises coming from above and decided to follow the trail up-and-around the backside of the caves.  We were met with a chain-link fence behind which stood even more animal habitats - and cages.  Now the fence said "NO" but the gaping hole in the chain link said "YES," (it should be noted here that the rules of consent need not apply to abandoned zoos) so we climbed trough the fence to explore.

Do you ever find yourself in questionable circumstances only to be overcome by the thought, "This is how a horror movie starts," - like, we sneak into "abandoned" animal habitats only to become the animal attractions at some demented human zoo masterminded by Dr. Jane Goodall gone rogue.

Somehow it is not that hard to imagine...

It wasn't long into our exploration before we heard tires on the nearby path.  The sound of the tires was followed immediately by a searchlight, which seemed a wee bit excessive considering that it was about two hours until sunset.  Concealed by the animal habitat, we were such dorks that we looked at each other and wondered if they were looking for us.  Our question was quickly answered when a voice on a loud speaker ordered us out.  I've spent my whole life as a goody-two-shoes so I am pretty sure that I went into full Chunk mode, blubbering as I confessed to every childhood wrongdoing beginning at year one, before putting my hands up and slowly backing towards the fence.

Our hillside hideout

Maybe I overreacted.  I think the ranger was so surprised to see what looked like two responsible, adult citizens that he simply told us that we weren't allowed to be there, directing us to climb through the fence and move along.  He didn't even have time to remove the toothpick from his clenched teeth before he added, "If you can fit..."  I suppose fat-shaming me is just all in a day's work for a park ranger.

Perhaps I'll just stay in here.
As they say, "If the cave fits, wear it."

Actually, I think we looked so square and so sweaty that he was inclined to feel more sorry for us than upset with us.  Also, compared to the scores of young people he probably extracts from behind the fence every day, our activities were comparatively benign.  The odor of marijuana may have hung heavy in the much-graffitied enclosures littered with spray cans, but I think he could tell that the peri-middle-aged nerds in color-coordinated outfits with cameras hanging around their necks were probably up to anything but "no good."

It wasn't us, Mr. Ranger.

We got off so easy that I considered asking the park ranger if he would give the two trespassing oldsters a ride back to the car but my sister-in-law didn't think that was such a good idea.  She said that just because he had a badge didn't mean that it was safe to enter his vehicle and get transported to a secondary location.  Thanks, Sis, for a great hike and for reminding me about the perils of Ranger Danger!

"Pluto at the Zoo" (1942)

The Old Zoo at Griffith Park
Griffith Park Dr
Los Angeles, CA


Mr. Tiny

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Folk Art & Fantasy in the Land of Enchantment

On more than one occasion, I have used this platform to ponder on the differences between what is considered art and what is deemed craft.  Frankly, I'm not even sure that I know what separates folk art from fine art.  I mean, is it training or merely a matter of retrospection?  Exactly how many decades separate Uncle Max's matchstick picture frame (made during that stint in the state pen) from authentic American folk art?  And is it simply a matter of years before my Blue Bunny Baby riding a Dream-Sized Dream Pet transitions from "Crazy Crafty" critter to museum-worthy exhibit?

What me, arty?

The crown jewel of Santa Fe, New Mexico's Museum Hill is the Museum of International Folk Art.  The best part of the collection is the Girard Wing, the result of one man's lifelong infatuation with world art.  After our visit to the museum, I thought I was beginning to get a better handle on the answers to all of my nagging questions.


Folk art is dioramas.

Folk art is fully-hinged conjoined twins.

Folk art is castles.

Folk art is dolls (with pencil-thin mustasches that would make William Powell and Dali green with envy).

Folk art is dress-up.

The folk art museum was a revelatory experience.  Moving on almost immediately to Tinkertown, however, I found myself squarely back at square one.  Sure there were dolls and dioramas, but the folk art fantasy that is Tinkertown is so much more wonderfully folksy! 


Tinkertown Museum (est. 1962) - Sandia Park, NM

Tinkertown has to be one of the best roadside, one-man, trash castle, folk art installations in all of central New Mexico.  Okay, maybe the world.  A breathtaking assemblage of desert debris, animated dioramas, vintage arcade novelties, hand-carved figurines, coin-operated vignettes, famed watercraft, and legitimate antiques, Tinkertown is a friendly "up yours" to the precious nature of curated museum collections.  There is so much to see that Tinkertown is borderline stimulation overload, but the bevy of bottle-glass walls and hand-painted signs keeps everything nice and orderly.

I've always been a fan of bad puns and dad jokes but
the older I get it, the deeper my affection grows. 

Fortunately, admission - even for a group of four  - was not cost prohibitive (less than $10 total, if memory serves).

I am a sucker for signs and bottle walls!!!

And he is a sucker for automated puppet bands!

The real heart of Tinkertown is its 60-foot-long, old west diorama.  At regular intervals, guests can push a button and parts of the diorama spring to life with automation!

The sets are unbelievably detailed, from the matte-painting backdrops to the menagerie of animal characters.

The carved figures are incredibly evocative.

Shadow boxes filled with odds and ends round out the dingbat collections.

The wild west diorama is a sight to behold but the state's "Largest Miniature Circus" was my favorite oxymoron in the joint!

The miniature circus diorama has everything - three rings, a circus wagon,
trapeze artists - but you will always find Mr. Tiny at the sideshow!

The whole experience was a "living art gallery," just like the Tattoed Lady!

"Snow White said, 'Send the prince back home!  I'm with the King!'"

Now normally, I loathe inspirational quotations; just because you write something down or publish a meme doesn't mean that you've captured the wisdom of the ages.  I can see that the founder of Tinkertown and I are obviously simpatico, as I was charmed by nearly every bit of hand-painted wisdom scattered throughout the museum grounds.

"Live life as the pursuit of happiness."

"Yet there are souless[sic] men who would destroy what time and man will never build again."
This one broke my heart.

"I get up every morning both determined to change the world and to have one hell
of a good time.  Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult." - E.B. White

It probably sounds corny, but I am so glad to have taken this road trip with my nephew.  If he's anything like his uncle, he will have essentially zero recall of his life as a five-year-old boy.  Nevertheless, I know he will be a better, more interesting person for this exposure to the sane-yet-subversive world of weird roadside attractions and fantastic folk art.  I will be a better person for having him in my life!

This picture brings me so much joy! 

So, do you know what the difference is between crazy crafts, fine art, and folk art?  Wherever it lies, I know we'll never get bored on our hunt for the answer!  I'm just hoping that fine or folky, we're allowed to watch TV while we're creating our art!

"Toy Tinkers" (1949)

Museum of International Folk Art
706 Camino Lejo
Santa Fe, NM

Tinkertown Museum
121 Sandia Crest Rd
Sandia Park, NM


Mr. Tiny

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Village of the Southwest Giants

They say everything is bigger in Texas.  That may or may not be true, but New Mexico sure proves that the closer one gets to the Texas state line, the larger everything begins to appear.  

As a native Californian, I used to assume that the "Golden State" had the richest deposits of wacky tacky roadside.  I've discovered that as our state's population grows denser (in every sense), the weird attractions of which we are so fond are either shrinking into nothingness or relegated to distant outposts.  What I so appreciated about journeying through New Mexico was that the "Land of Enchantment's" many giant attractions are seamlessly integrated into the cityscapes.  It is wonderful to know that generations of residents are enchanted by these bits of roadside whimsy on a daily basis.  At the very least, it is comforting to know that I wasn't the only thyroid case to be found in these Southwestern hamlets!

World's Largest Chili Pepper
47 feet long, NuMex Big Jim varietal

The Big Jim is so big that it can't be concealed by the six-foot cinderblock wall surrounding it.
The early-model Saturn is shown for scale; you know, like a penny in an eBay listing.

World's Largest Propane Tank Disguised as a Rocket
And in other records that nobody cares about breaking (or even verifying)...

World's Largest Pistachio
What a couple of nuts!!!

The World's Largest Cake Dome

Okay, so technically this building was never built with a larger-than-
life theme.  It was only ever a bank building dedicated to Mr. & Mrs.
R.D. Champion...but it is so awesome and totally could pass for Jane
Jetson's futuristic cake dome.  If you have any pull with a citizen of
Alamogordo, NM, please encourage them to buy this jazzy jet-age
building (it is currently listed for $245K) and make it something
awesome...maybe a cake shop or the most awesome house in town!!!

There are plenty more giants where these came from - the drive-thru town of Hatch, NM - but
I like these gentlemen for their straightforward simplicity.  A muffler man holds the hapless 
inhabitants of a mini-Winnebago hostage in the hollow of his hand as he decides whether to 
eat them or allow them to continue northward to Santa Fe while Uncle Sam offers us Hatch's 
most famous foodstuff, the eponymous hatch chile.

And just for good measure, Santa Fe's Museum Hill showed our intrepid troupe of
travelers that the biggest and best things in New Mexico are always influenced
by the spirit and culture of the indigenous populations.

With all of these monolithic marvels, I think I could fit right in this Southwestern "Village of the Giants!"

Dance sequence from Village of the Giants (1965)

World's Largest Chili Pepper
America's Best Value Inn
2160 W Picacho Ave
Las Cruces, NM

World's Largest Propane Tank Rocket
2210 S Valley Dr
Las Cruces, NM

World's Largest Pistachio
McGinn's Pistachio Tree Ranch
7320 US Hwy 54
Alamogordo, NM

"World's Largest Cake Dome"
The Champion Building
1901 Tenth St
Alamogordo, NM

The Giants of Hatch
Sparky's Burgers (and surrounding environs)
115 Franklin St
Hatch, NM

Santa Fe Museum Hill
710 Camino Lejo
Santa Fe, NM


Mr. Tiny

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Please Don't Bother the Americans: Bandelier National Monument

When I go on vacation - any vacation - I try to do my research.  Never knowing when the possibility of a return trip will make itself available, I hate going all the way to a different state/country only to return home, disappointed to learn that I missed a great landmark.  That being said, I pride myself on a flexible itinerary; I always leave plenty of time to explore aimlessly and ask locals for recommendations.  Usually, this results in some of my best travel experiences.

When I set out on my epic New Mexican adventure, I had mostly planned to hit up the wacky tacky highlights and help my sister put her new home in order.  Foolishly, I hadn't really considered how enchanted I would be by the land in the "Land of Enchantment."  New Mexico's landscape is wonderfully monotonous, wide swaths of pink and golden sand interrupted only by mesquite, sagebrush, and the endless trail of cruciform power poles.  The hazy silhouettes of the distant mountains create the perfect backdrop for some of the most intensely-blue skies I've ever seen.  The most spectacular of all are the clouds - REAL CLOUDS!!!  Living in drought-ridden Southern California, I'd forgotten the joys of staring at those puffy cumulonimbus and watching the heavenly shapes transform into a man punching a shark, or a juggling penguin, or a fire-breathing dragon in a dress (all images we saw on our car rides across the desert).  Seamlessly set into this idyllic Southwestern majesty are the dwellings of America's indigenous people.  Had we not left ourselves open to the possibility, I might have never lived out a childhood dream of climbing into the cliffside caves of the Pueblo People.

Bandelier National Monument - Los Alamos, NM

The only challenging aspect of the short hike out to the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument is the oppressive summer heat.  Luckily, we had water, determination, and a slight breeze at our backs.  Logically aware that I am well out of shape (or well into a shape unnatural to the human race), sometimes all it takes a brisk pace at high altitudes to remind me that I need to get back on track.  The only redemption I found in my puddles of perspiration was that my very-fit brother-in-law seemed to be feeling the heat as well.  When we rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of the cave dwellings, I realized that the pounding in my heart came not only from its first taste of exercise but also from the excitement of seeing such an incredible part of American history.

So COOL!!! is entirely possible that I have been operating under a thirty-year misapprehension that cliff-dwelling Americans led the entirety of their existences perched up there in the cliffs.  I guess I hadn't applied a proper amount of thought to the realities of that particular lifestyle.  In fact, I tried not to act too surprised when we encountered the remnants of their land-based lives, including storage structures, reservoirs, and mills.

Perfectly contented to examine the ruins and see the caves from the relative safety of terra firma, we were ecstatic to learn that the cliff dwellings at Bandelier are INTERACTIVE!!!  At this national park, any cave at which stands a ladder is a cave open to exploration!

By the first cave our wacky tacky house hunt had reached an end;
we were ready to pull up the ladder and take up permanent residence!
But then he got smart and found his own pad.

There is some combination of appreciating the ingenuity of indigenous people and the childlike desire to live in cave/clubhouse/treehouse that has always captured my imagination.

I mean, who wouldn't want to live a vacation home at the very least?!!


As we climbed ladder after ladder, we started to fancy ourselves cave connoisseurs, recognizing the nuances of cliffside dwelling.

Some caves were multi-roomed affairs with low ceilings and arched passageways; others
were tall enough to stand straight up, large with built-in nooks and porthole windows.

Leave it to a few thoughtless nincompoops to deface such a significant historic site,
He's looking up and wondering why people are so destructive.  As the cartoon (below)
says, "Please don't bother the Americans!"

Our visit to Bandelier National Monument culminated in a cool-down by the creek.  As it turns out, water is still a necessity - even for the cliff-dwelling people of New Mexico.  The peaceful flow of the water allowed even the youngest among our ranks to reflect on the importance of listening to traveler's intuition.

We were all so grateful for the fortuitously-unplanned experience of walking in the footsteps of the first Americans, learning about their culture, their homes, and their/our shared history.  Visiting these cliffside cave dwellings was a precious experience that fulfilled at least one line item on the wacky tacky bucket list.

At this point, it should be obvious that the bulk of my "knowledge" (historical, cultural, geographical, and otherwise) comes from the hands of animators - most of them Disney.  Why then, should anyone be surprised to learn the cartoon that inspired my desire to see the cliff dwellings of New Mexico is set in Arizona's Grand Canyon?  However misguided my motivation, I believe anything that encourages us to get out from behind our electronic device, learn about our history, and explore the beautiful world is good, solid, and sound.

Donald Duck in "Grand Canyonscope" (1954)

Bandelier National Monument
15 Entrance Rd
Los Alamos, NM


Mr. Tiny