The Darkroom caught up with photographers Rob Brulinski and Rachel Younghans, who recently ended their first leg of their Freak Flag America tour.
In their latest installment, they talk about a female gun shop owner in Kansas, eating raw broccoli for dinner, casino campgrounds and a visit with activist Ray Hill on the day that Texas has carried out its 250th execution under Texas Governor Rick Perry. Their project across America is for an upcoming photo book about the more unique people who make up the United States.
The expedition so far has been full of amazing sights, insane moments, and of course, eccentric Americans.
Maryland gave us a preacher’s son who stalked us for nearly 30 miles after we visited his ‘Gods Ark of Safety’ roadside attraction. The Appalachian mountains of West Virginia brought us to anti-fracking protests, a drunk grave digger and a tiny Swiss town landlocked and isolated in the heart of coal mining country. The woods of Missouri led us to a Sunday morning service given by a teary-eyed, humble preacher, and wheelbarrows of bloody deer heads fed by hillbillies to exotic secret backyard animals. We chased down a man named Sergio — the ‘Brazilian Hobo’ — who was pulling 360 pounds of junk in a red rider from Michigan to California in hopes of being a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres show. From the basement of a home in Kansas, we brewed beer with an award-winning brewer who has never drank alcohol. Now we have traveled south of Kansas in search of more eccentric characters.
Halloween is approaching and we are beginning to run low on cash. Here were some highlights from our trip.
OCTOBER 21: Shawnee, Kansas — It’s “kind of part of Kansas City but… it’s in Kansas.” Along a Bel Air Road-esque Mobius strip of dollar stores, pet stores, insurance stores and mattress stores, we find Becky Bieker, the dedicated female face of the recently opened gun shop “She’s A Pistol.” Becky herself is not what one would describe as a “pistol” — rather she’s soft-spoken, smiling, laconic and uninterested in blaring her own firearm beliefs. Her goal in opening the shop a little over a year ago was to create a non-gender-centric environment for gun shopping, one where females would especially feel welcome. She didn’t seem interested in reversing any other gender norms, and unlike most gun enthusiasts, she has never been “that into hunting.” She offers weekly self-defense classes, and hopes her shop will soon bring in as much as the classes do. The community has shown disapproval of her shop’s arrival on Nieman Road, but she points out that immorality abounds — there’s already a liquor store across the street.
OCTOBER 22: Wichita, Kansas — We are at the NewSpring Church or are we at Chuck E. Cheese? It’s hard to tell. Somehow enough money has fallen into this church’s hands that they are able to build a two-story Tube City in the waiting room. No one is riding down the spiral slide tonight; they’ve covered the bottoms of the slides with heavy-duty plastic wrap. Perhaps the nature of tonights’ activity is too grave. We’re waiting to walk through their purchased package production of “The Silent Killer,” a play intended to scare non-believers out of their non-believing pants and into their Sunday best. We wait 30 minutes, join two dozen other people (3:1 adult to child ratio) and head into the dark.
Seven rooms later, we couldn’t be farther from entertained.
In short: Mom, dad, teen daughter and teen son are eating pizza; dad and daughter want to go to church, mom and son are mildly indifferent but agree to go; carbon monoxide kills them all on family movie night; dad and daughter go to heaven; mother and son burn in hell; hell is hot and dry and strobe-lit; heaven is full of smiling babies in white suits and “God” wears a holographic gold cape (thanks Jo-Ann’s crafts). We all get free DVDs.
OCTOBER 24: El Reno, Oklahoma — Browsing on wi-fi a little too long at McDonald’s and putting off finding a campground pays off this time: CasinoCampgrounds.com! Many midwestern casinos offer free camping (generally to RV’s, but we’re not scared). Lucky Star is an hour away and we set out into the northwestern Oklahoma night. An hour later, it’s 11:00 p.m. on a Wednesday night and the casino is flooded with chain-smoking retired veterans and Native Americans tattooed with dream catchers, tear drops, and knives. The tricky part is signing in our white subcompact car as a large camper to security guards. We buy beer, the greatest patronage we plan to give and visit the camping counter. They grant us a spot, and we stare at the graphics on the slot machines and drink free soda. Then we go out to pitch the tent, and the wind hits us like it wants to shipwreck us. Thirty minutes later, we accomplish the tent set-up (a task which usually takes four minutes), but accomplishing sleep is a different story. Just as we get used to our trembling tent, howling winds, and bright lights, we suddenly snap back to the reality thanks to more and more wind.
OCTOBER 26: The Motel 6 desk clerk suspects that we’re not really corporate members of the Cat Fanciers Association and we can barely keep a straight face in assertion that we are, or our dad is. It’s true, we’re not members of any fancy cat club, but our poorly told lie rewards us with a $4 corporate discount off our room stay.
OCTOBER 27: Dallas, Texas — At a Halloween party at The Doublewide in Dallas, we meet Bob. Bob wears a Jason mask, a white hood and khaki pants. He carries a keyboard but doesn’t play (sometimes, we’re told, he plays simple chords). Bob tells us a movie was just made about him, but he won’t tell us what it’s about. He also won’t share his favorite animal, but he will get in the photobooth with us. From what we can tell, Bob is just an introverted, unintentional mascot of the Dallas creative scene, and that works for all parties involved.
OCTOBER 29: Austin, Texas — On a hill overlooking the city of Austin live newlyweds Taylor and Austin. They grow amaranth, corn and every other vegetable under the sun. The fennel centerpiece at their kitchen table has a caterpillar cocooning on it. They value friends, animals and long hair, and they want for nothing more than they need. They are magical, beautiful people. We spend a Saturday night around their 4-log-bench fire pit telling stories and singing spooky songs around the fire. We play light-as-a-feather, stiff-as-a-board.
OCTOBER 31: Houston, Texas — Two reasons to be scared: It’s Halloween and Texas is performing its 250th execution since Rick Perry became governor. We spend the day with legendary activist Ray Hill at the 90.1 KPFT radio station. As he does for every execution, he is broadcasting a radio show discussing other ways the case could have been tried, and taking time to show respect at the moment of the execution. There is way too much to say about Ray Hill, who changed multiple city ordinances regarding citizens’ rights, is a activist for gay rights and prisoners, won a landmark First Amendment U.S. Supreme Court Case: Houston v. Hill, helped founded KPFT radio and served time in the Texas Prison System. More on him in a follow-up post.
Living on the road is mentally and physically exhausting. Home-cooked meals and the pleasant silence that four walls can provide have been replaced by sleepless nights in shady campgrounds and raw grocery store-broccoli for dinner. So after traveling through 15 states and over 6,465 miles away from what we call home, we hightailed it down the street to New Orleans, Louisiana for one last hurrah before brining our first expedition to a closure. We are now back home in Maryland and excited to present you with the people we found, the living folklores of today through upcoming interviews and photographs.
Rob Brulinski and Rachel Younghans are contributors to The Darkroom blog, sharing stories from the road for their upcoming project Freak Flag America.
Project: Freak Flag America (FreakFlagAmeri.ca) | Facebook | Twitter
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