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The Road Trip

by Bryan A. Thompson

Written 6/6/2004


I'm heading to Exotic Animal Paradise tomorrow at 4:30am because my Grandmother has decided that she'll never get a chance to go to the Middle East, and she wants to see what it was like in Noah's day.  I kid you not. I have only one experience with this place, and as usual, it's one that resulted in getting thrown out.  As do most of my weird-ass-but-true stories starts out, this happened during my surreal childhood way back in the 70s.  The beautiful new 1978 Red Pontiac Trans Am just arrived, so it had to have been the summer of 1978.  Seems so long ago.  

As is the tradition when you lived in the trailer court that was my home town,  the car had to be Christened via a pilgrimage to the tourist trap furthest from your trailer, but still less than a days' drive in case a neighbor fell down a well and you had to return home immediately to laugh at his ass and pour your beer down the hole onto him and be on the evening news to tell how "you were born and raised there, and still ain't never seen nuthin' like this 'fore." 

This wasn't a planned experience, oh no.  You just got in the car at 4:30am and drove.  When the sun went down, you found the Motel 8 nearest you, and made sure to pick up lots of colorful brochures from the lobby and add them to your collection that also consisted of the black lawn and garden and leaf bag who no doubt offended the Gods-in-charge of leaf bags and was now serving out its miserable existence as your luggage.  In addition, you had the cracked and leaking one pint sized ice bucket, containing half ice and half of what used to be ice, but was now a melted collection of water and those ever so disconcerting black specks that froze into the has-been ice.  I always wondered what part of the frozen caveman they used to be.  We always ate out, so we didn't need the ice to cool anything in particular, but for some reason, if you're "not from around here," ice can be as comforting as a security blanket I guess.   

Then there's the bag of McDonalds food that of course couldn't be eaten in the car because it was a new car, and that kind of thing just wasn't heard of, and the corresponding brown paper tray full of medium sized McDrinks, at the time, 12 ounces. Apparently as a society, we drank less then, which explains why those orange juice glasses are so inconceivably small.  The collection of tourist crap wouldn't be complete without the inevitable one sunburned arm and sore butt which resulted from sitting over the back wheels, half way on "the hump" (remember rear wheel drive cars?) just so you could see something other than the chrome ashtray embedded into the back of the front seat, which was now stuffed with gum wrappers, soda straw wrappers, that thing that stuck to your shoe when you walked across the motel parking lot, the handful of hair that used to belong to your sister, the shoe whose mate obviously decided to take a holiday in the Joplin, MO McDonalds parking lot, etc.

Anyway, this particular pilgrimage was to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, precisely 1.014 days' drive from home, which was acceptable in Redneckdom, because after all, it's a Trans Am, and if the neighbor should happen to fall down the abandoned well and you have to get home right away, you can always drive 94MPH and still make it there for the ten o'clock news.

Along the way we passed the first Graceland of rednecks (recall that Elvis wasn't dead yet, and was therefore being generally ignored in favor of truck-driving and hot rod van songs and Star Wars). That shrine went by the name of Dogpatch, USA, and was located in Harrison, Arkansas.  If you're not a redneck, Dogpatch was a hillbilly amusement / theme park conveniently located halfway down a mountain, the parking lot was at the top of the mountain, and at the bottom was the Buffalo River, which meant if you forgot to set the parking brake, you were screwed.  To gain entrance to the park, you had a choice.  You could take this dangerous looking cog railway down the side of the mountain, or you could (all kidding aside) sit on a skateboard and surf down a dry water slide.  After more than a few complaints, they cleverly placed a talking sign at the entrance that said "Shoes Required." The sign talked so that the customers didn't have to read.  This practice would eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the park, as a large majority of the clientele didn't own shoes, and just turned around and sank their head in dismay and got back in the pickup and left.

After sinking our heads in dismay and getting back into the Trans Am and leaving Dogpatch, USA, we continued our journey to Eureka Springs.  Here in Missouri, there are thousands of barns which have an advertisement for Meramec Caverns painted on the roof.  Once you cross the Arkansas border, however, this changes to ads painted on the side of abandoned Jetstream trailers for gator farms.  After touring several, and stopping by the marvel that is Tiny Town, and being generally disappointed that we never actually found the springs, it was time to head "backhome".

As luck would have it, we see an ad for the Exotic Animal Paradise.  Exotic Animals?  In Paradise?  And you drive through it?  Dang, now that sounds cool!  We could drive through it - we have a new Trans Am.  As luck would have it, we picked up a brochure from the Motel 8.  And as luck would have it, the brochure, the thing that stuck to your shoe when you walked across the motel parking lot, and the clump of your sister's ex-hair were all intertwined the new tan carpet of the Trans Am.  After the requisite curse required by redneck protocol that mom still strangely thinks was unnecessary, and the pulling over of the Trans Am, it is decided that a left-over plastic fork from Taco Bell that we probably should've used to eat the nachos bellgrande but didn't because we were rednecks, but that we saved because will be used to extract the mass from the patient.  After about an hour and forty-five minutes in the summer heat have passed, it is decided that the brochure will have to be amputated to provide access to the Targumhair cancer, still embedded in the carpet.   While dad is scraping the thing out of the carpet and cursing the day we kids were ever born, mom is piecing the brochure together and trying to decide if the Animal Paradise is 12 or 1200 miles east of Springfield.

Three hours later it is decided that the patient is out of immediate danger, but will require hours more work to undo the damage done by the damn kids that were obviously not dad's idea but rather "accidents", and if only he'd had more ice to get the gum out, the patient wouldn't have been scarred for life.  Back on the road and it's clear that this paradise is but twelve miles away, and yet further away than ever.  For some reason, the car isn't headed toward the Animal Paradise, but rather we're literally watching through the rear window as the bulletin boards announce that we're getting farther and farther away.

We get about 45 minutes away, and it happens:  My mother for once in her life gets a clue and figures out that we're traveling west, not east, and yells at dad to turn around because she wants to see the Koala bear pictured in the top half of the now mangled and sticky brochure.  Silence, except for the sounds of Michelin tires traveling west at 94 MPH.  So mom decided to get out of the car.  I guess it didn't take dad long to figure out that anyone crazy enough to bail out of the tan Naugahyde passenger bucket seat of a brand new 1978 Red Pontiac Trans Am traveling west at 94 MPH on I-44 might also be crazy enough to go after him with a kitchen knife while he slept if she didn't get to see that Goddamned koala bear, so we pull a U-Turn and headed for the Exotic Animal Paradise.

Twelve miles away.  There's where we stopped, remember dad?  Ten miles.  I think I left my shoe back there.  You don't have shoes, remember?  That's why we couldn't go to Dogpatch.  Oh yeah.  Can I have some new shoes?  No, we can't afford it - just bought a new Trans Am.  What'll I wear to school?    It's the 70's, isn't it?  Didn't I just buy you those bell bottoms?  Just shuffle your feet and no one will know that you're not wearing shoes.  Five miles.  What about when winter comes?  Make some moccasins out of that lifetime supply of Duck brand Duct tape I won in the Bassoff '74 bass fishin' tournament.  But dammit they'll be silver - everybody'll make fun of me.  No cussing in the car, kids.  Alright you ungrateful monsters, I don't care, you're the dipshit that took your shoe off and left it on the roof of the car so that it blew off and scared the hell out of me and made me think we hit a kid -  What?  When did this happen?  When you were asleep, dear, if that narrows it down for you at all.  But I can't wear silver shoes to school!  Alright, A:  They go with that cool silver Trans Am jacket that the salesman threw in for you.  Two:  If you lose them, we got a shitload of duct tape in the garage so you can make more.  And C:  Tell the other kids you won them in the Star Wars raffle at the Walmart.  This sucks.  Two miles.  There's the fence so the truck and van drivers that haven't paid the $16 dollars can't see the koala bears - It costs $16 dollars?  God *DAMN* it!  Why didn't you tell me that?  Because I wanted to see the koala bear.  Do you have $16 dollars?  Because I just spent the last dollar I have on that bag of ice back at that gas station.  Well I don't have any money.  What?  How much gas do we have?  Not enough to get home.  You got the cash machine card?  Yeah, but this is still the '70's, and the only cash machine is in Lamar, MO.  Front gate.  Kids?  How much money do you have left?  (My sister)  My last thirty allowances, but it's at home.  (Me) Just enough to get you that stuffed koala bear at the gift shop at the end of the drive.  How much is thirty allowances?  You can't do math?  Jesus, you're a school teacher!   $15.  Look under the seats for change.  Hey, here's your other shoe.  So you have both of them now?  Oh shit - you really did run over a kid back there.  Otnay in rontfay of the idskay.  What?  Never mind.  I found $4.50 in nickels and pennies.  How?  This is a new car!  How should I know, I'm a kid - maybe the guy at the factory had a hole in his pocket.  So that leaves us with $2.50 - can we get home on $2.50?  We're a hundred miles away, but we're getting 13 miles to the gallon, so at 59 cents a gallon - damn it!  You're a school teacher - why can't you do math?  I still don't know why you didn't buy a Pinto - they get 30 miles per gallon.  Those things are a death trap - it's only a matter of time till the world figures it out and they make Ford quit making those things.  Should we go in?  How the hell should I know - I suck at math, remember genius?   Screw it - we're going in.  No, wait!  According to my calculations, we can't make it home.  And it's not $2.50, it's $3.50.  You're a kid - you don't know.  Yeah, well you're a grown-up, and you don't know either.  Dumbass.  Go suck an egg.

And so we went into the Exotic Animal Paradise.  And from what little of it there was to remember, I think it was pretty cool.  We're cruising along, slow as you can go in the same finely engineered American race car driven by Richard Petty at the Daytona 500.  It was hot, and everyone knows that you get better gas mileage with the air conditioner (that never really worked anyway) off, so of course the windows were down.   And we passed a couple of giraffe, and they were pretty cool, and then we passed what was too far away to really tell, but we think was a rhino, and then we come upon this moose that must've been really hot and wanted ice, because he stuck his head in the window.  Got a great picture of it somewhere.  It was on dads and my side of the car.

Quick - what's it say to do on the back of the park map if a moose sticks its head inside the car?  It says to keep the windows rolled up at all times to avoid 'confrontations'.  Dammit, it's just a little too late for that, now isn't it?  What do we do?  Roll up the windows!

So my dad rolls up the window.  Right on the nose of the moose.  Doesn't seem to bother the moose a bit - he must've really wanted ice or something.  So without further discussion, my dad decides that he's in a fast car, and that he'll just try and outrun the moose.  But we were still attached to the moose.  So the moose is running alongside the car for quite some time.  Then dad gets the idea to roll the window back down while we're still moving.  I guess he was going to take off and try and outrun the moose again with the window down.  But the moose is pissed, and tries to stick his head further in the car when dad rolled the window down.  So dad punches the moose in the nose and hits the gas.

And the Exotic Animal Paradise equivalent of Mister Ranger sees this happening and threw us out before we got to see the koala bear on the upper half of the sticky and torn brochure.  Then we got free gas (well, OK, we stole the gas) because we had a really cool car and the good old boys at the gas station and dad talked about the Trans Am for like an hour and they forgot about us not having paid. 

Wish me luck tomorrow.

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