In Search of America – by Charlotte Canelli

Read Charlotte Canelli’s column in the May 25 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website.

Anyone who has been near Death Valley knows that it sits in the dry and hot California desert. Death Valley lives up to its name. It is barren and it is also immense. It is the driest and hottest place in North America.

Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in this country, covers 200 square miles. A trip from the National Park Service central site at Furnace Creek is a 53 mile drive to Scotty’s Castle at the north entrance.

Badwater Basin, its lowest point, sits at 262 feet below sea level. Death Valley is also home to the site where a 20-mule team transported Borax out of the desert’s Harmony Borax Works.

And yet, while desolation seems to prevail there, and at times the near-moonscape of the valley seems endless, it is an awesome place. The contours in the ever-changing dunes and the cracked and barren basin, the beauty of Mosaic Canyon, the spectacle of color in the wildflowers, and scent of the desert life after an early-morning rain is simply amazing. Death Valley is surrounded by the Panamint and Amargosa ranges and the scenic drives into the valley are breathtaking. I made at least three trips to Death Valley in my twenties.

We were young and foolish back then. Gas prices had doubled from 36 cents to 79 cents per gallon between 1973 and 1979. Yet, when a group of us went camping in the winter of 1979 in Death Valley (a nine-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area that we called home) we thought nothing of a daytrip to the neighboring Nevada desert and the ghost town of Rhyolite in the Bullfrog Hills. Rhyolite was a mere fifty miles from the Mesquite Flats campground in Stovepipe Wells and according to the 1978 AAA guidebook, Rhyolite held promises of many marvels. One of those weird and wacky wonders of America was in Rhyolite and that was Tom Kelley’s 1906 Bottle House. Built out of 30,000 bottles in 1905-1906, saloon-keeper Kelley used the only building material he could find.

Rhyolite was once a thriving town of somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000. It had grown quickly after gold was discovered in 1905. Gold prices dropped, ore veins dried up and Rhyolite was abandoned several years later. In 1920 the populated dropped to near zero. In its heyday, the town was home to an opera house, a hospital and a train station.

In 1978, as today, those buildings, along with most everything, have either disappeared or are ghostly specters of themselves.

Our foolhardy trip, two hours each way, led us through endless desert and up and around winding mountain roads. Needless-to-say, Tom Kelley’s Bottle House was the highlight of the day simply because it made for hilarious adventure and memories of a wild-goose chase in search of America.

Massachusetts has its share of offbeat sites to behold. Besides Dedham’s Museum of Bad Art and Sudbury’s Little Lamb Schoolhouse, there is Shirley’s Muffler Man and Ipswich’s Clam Box. “Weird Massachusetts: Your Travel Guide to Massachusett’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets” by Jeff Belanger and “Weird New England: Your Guide to New England’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets” by Joseph Citro focus more on urban legends and wacky tongue-in-cheek descriptions of Massachusetts and/or our five neighboring states.

Eric Peterson has written of places further afield in “Roadside Americana: Landmark Tourist Attractions” (updated in 2008). The book promises some kitsch, indeed. Photographs that grace the cover are of the enormous Longaberger Basket of Dresden, Ohio and Oregon’s Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe.

A bit out of date (but still wild and wonderful) is “The New Roadside America: The Modern Traveler’s Guide to the Wild and Wonderful World of American’s Tourist Attractions” (1992) by Don Kirby. John Margolies wrote “Fun Along the Road: American Tourist Attractions” in 1998 and followed it up with “Roadside America: Architectural Relics from a Vanishing Past” in 2010. Interestingly, Margolies’ latest book has a German publisher. Another book published overseas is “Icons of the Highway: A Celebration of Small-Town America” (2008) by Tony and Eva Worobiec.

WQED in Pittsburg produced a PBS DVD in 2004 entitled “A Program About Unusual Buildings and Other Roadside Stuff” and NPR has a great hour-long CD titled “NPR Road Trips: Roadside Attractions” produced in 2009.

Photographic works that focus on a search of America are “A Handful of Dust: Photographs of Disappearing America” (2006) by David Plowden, “American Icons: Photographs by Steve Gottlieg” (2001) and “Route 66: Images of American’s Main Street” (2003) by William Kaszynski.

Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson went in search of the America in its error-ridden signage. In “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time” (2010) the authors drove an Un-American 1997 Nissan Sentra across the country looking for missing apostrophes and errors on anything they could spot – from enormous billboards to church marquees.

During a recent search online (roadsideamerica.com) I found that Tom Kelly’s Bottle House has now been rebuilt and preserved from the public behind a fence. Rhyolite is now also home to the Last Supper sculptures and the Giant Pink Woman (or the 25 foot cinder block creation called “Lady Desert, the Venus of Nevada.”)

It’s been over 35 years since my trip to Rhyolite, Nevada but it was an adventure I will never forget. While we had gone to look for America in the Nevada desert we’d found ourselves – footloose, carefree and curious. This country holds a wealth of adventures and I invite you to find one – even here in Massachusetts, our own backyard.

If you would like to reserve any of these titles please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-769-0200, or reserve them in the Minuteman Library catalog.

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