Seven states later and everything from Noah’s ark to a hillbilly zoo: Postcard from Freak Flag America
Be prepared to be jealous. Seriously.
From gator rentals to an isolated community of Swiss immigrants and being referred to as “fat-ass hunters,” local photographers Rob Brulinski and Rachel Younghans are on a roadtrip discovering what makes Americans… well uniquely American… for their upcoming book Freak Flag America.
Seven states later and 3,818+ miles driven, the duo shares a photo postcard dated Oct. 21 from the road.
It’s Sunday afternoon in Wichita.
It’s so hot, any reasonable person without too serious of a to-do list has gone in search of the nearest swimming pool or water hole. It’s so windy, parents hold tight to their children as they look both ways before crossing towards the doors of their weekend chores. It’s so sunny that even ducking into a well-blinded Chili’s for an after-church family meal leaves husbands squinting to see their wives. Men have brought fold-up chairs and fishing rods to the ‘pre-fab lake’ adjacent to the brand new Target. “Other times we’ve seen snow this time of year,” says the female owner of a non-gender-centric gun shop in Shawnee. The story of the worst drought in the United States in half a century is no longer a story to us. It’s a feeling. We can almost taste the candy the farmer in Kentucky desperately fed his herd earlier this year just to stay afloat.
Tonight closes the fifth week of our expedition (it’s not officially over ‘til we visit the Hell House down the street at NewSpring Church at 5:00 p.m.). We’ve accomplished 3,818 miles, seven states and eleven (plus six in queue) interviews with truly fascinating Americans, none of whom we knew five weeks ago. To say the least, we are thrilled with the American hospitality, conversation and weirdness we’ve found.
From a shop that rents alligators in West Virginia, to being referred to as ‘fat-ass hunters’ in a campground in Kansas, to the realization that there are more than a few folks in the Midwest who have never heard of Maryland, we have much to share in our book.
We’ve gathered a few highlights:
Our first day on the road led us to the massive, steel-framed edifice known as ‘God’s Ark of Safety’ in Frostburg, Maryland. The epic-sized but incomplete structure sits along I-68 with a sign that boldly reads “NOAH’S ARK IS BEING REBUILT HERE!”. The Noah’s Ark idea struck Pastor Richard Greene in a three-part dream and he spent the next fifteen years collecting $200K in donations. Construction began in 1976 but funding dried up a year later and the ark remains in the shape of a great brown eyesore. Instead of doing our first interview, a man in a red truck aggressively followed us for nearly 30 miles from the parking lot to I-68, on and off several exits. We went to a nearby police barrack to file a report, but about a quarter of the way through our story, the police officer interrupted to say that the stalker-to-be was the son of no other than Pastor Richard Greene.
Driving through the no-cell-service mountains of coal-mining West Virginia, a raven with a 20” wingspan flew directly into our windshield. It rolled off the side and flew away leaving a few feathers stuck under the wiper blade. Incredibly, no damage to the car was done and the bird is probably still alive.
While photographing a herd of multi-colored semi-trucks from the side of the road, a large (and intoxicated) man named Vaughn in a large truck pulled over to chat with us. He’d spent his day digging a grave for a friend’s recently deceased grandmother. He then proudly told us about ‘Big Momma’s’, the bar his mother owns, and told us to stop in for a free beer.
The depths of Appalachia West Virginia led us to Helvetia, an isolated community of Swiss immigrants. A mother that manages both the post office and restaurant (the only non-residential structures in the whole town) fed us cheese soup and gave us a night of well-needed rest above the restaurant.
The woods of Missouri led us to a private-owned hillbilly zoo. Just as Rachel accidently tripped over a severed deer leg, we were lured to a trailer by a man surrounded by wheelbarrows of blood and deer heads. All of the carnage was locally donated roadkill, and he was preparing to feed it to Leo the lion, Jafar and Jasmine the tigers, and a horde of alligators donated to the ‘zoo’ after owners found they couldn’t care for them. We paid $6 and saw what looked like the healthiest wildlife in all of America. Their lack of pacing back and forth seemed to say that they were very content. Our tour guide was Michael, a broad and tattooed young man who specializes in reptiles, and feels great pride in leaving Indiana for Missouri. He said, simply, “I’ve always liked animals more than people.”
We caught up with Sergio the “Brazilian Hobo” at a Missouri rest stop. Sergio began walking from Michigan on September 1st. He strapped a leather belt to a cart, wrapped it around his stomach and headed southwest. By the time we met him, he’d accumulated four carts, totaling 360 pounds (that number grows when his girlfriend ‘visits’ him, as he likes to pull her along too). He averages 22 miles a day. He is going to California and he intends to meet Ellen DeGeneres and be on one (or more) episodes of her show. He wants to share his ideas for more efficient ways to deal with trash.
We spent a day in Leawood, Kansas with Michael Crane of “Drunken Crane Brewery.” He brews beer from his basement every Saturday, to an audience of open-mouthed friends and neighbors. He has dreamed up several refrigerators’ worth of beer: mango beer, beet beer, chocolate chip cookie beer, cucumber beer, an exact replica of Modelo, several sours, some blonde ales, some IPA’s and more. He sends his beer to competitions, and they send him back first-place ribbons. Here’s the catch: he doesn’t drink. It has simply never appealed to him. It’s the chemistry of brewing that he’s fascinated with, and that is why he continues to order and fill his shelves with new wheats, hops and empty bottles to be filled. Since he does not drink his own beer, we wish to be his neighbor.
Our departure from this Wichita Subway is long overdue; the sandwich artists are no longer discreet about their glares. It’s time for us to move on. We’re headed south through Oklahoma to Texas for Halloween. Make sure to follow our travel journal on Facebook for updates and consider donating to our project!
Rob Brulinski and Rachel Younghans are contributors to The Darkroom blog, sharing stories from the road for their upcoming project Freak Flag America.
DARKROOM: Baltimore, USA