Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Crossroads.

(Happy 90th Birthday Nana.)

You can see it just over the horizon, as you travel the hilly, heart-in-your-mouth kind of roads that run between the towns of Front Royal and Winchester, Virginia. A barn? A silo? Both of these are predominant in this area of the Shenandoah Valley. But no, it's what your first instinct made it out to be, even as your mind tells you it's not possible. The head of a dinosaur, a brontosaurus in fact, emerges slowly, rising up out of the deep, as your car travels to the top of the hill. This brontosaurus is as close to life size as it could possibly get. That's when you know you're not in Kansas anymore, or even Virginia. You've reached Dinosaurland.

Since my grandparents and cousins are from Front Royal, and an uncle lives in Winchester, all my childhood memories are intermingled in some way with this make believe playground. I can remember Pop-Pop driving my sister and I to visit my uncle and cousins along Highway 522. Pop-Pop was a speed demon in his monstrous blue 1971 Chevy BelAir, so when we drove up and over a hill, our heart stopped, coming up in our mouths, our breath catching. It was awesome. We always begged and begged that he drive faster.

To a young child a 20-mile drive is endless, so when we saw the brontosaurus, it was like a revelation, an oasis in the desert of highway. We never asked, "Are we there yet?" but always, "How long 'til Dinosaurland?" To us, it was one of the best reasons to go visit our cousins. We might not ever have time to actually go inside the park, but at least we would get to see Mr. Brontosaurus. It was magical, and whenever we stopped and actually spent the money to go in, we knew we had done something extra good. That day was special from then on.

Dinosaurland is the "South of the Border" of Northern Virginia. Just as some travelers of Interstate 95 feel an unexplainable elation when they spot this piece of Americana, travelers along Highway 522 crane their necks to get a better glimpse of that trademark brontosaurus. The dinosaur marks a spot known only as "The Crossroads" - the halfway mark between Front Royal and Winchester.

The Crossroads consists mainly of Dinosaurland and the gas station attached to it, but in the summers a huge flea market magically appears right across the street. Every Saturday and Sunday, old lamps, dishes, records, baseball cards, and racks of musty fox stoles, vintage hats, and beat-up shoes bake in the hot sun as people mingle about and the dinosaur watches. You wonder why this particular spot was selected as ideal for selling such "junque". Why not any of the other miles of pasture which line Highway 522 between these two burgs? Well, what better advertisement than a reptile extinct for millions of years, one argued never to have existed in the first place?

Dinosaurland was built during the late 1950's when roadside diners were popular, before the time of the big interstate highways. It was the height of America's economic prosperity, when big Buicks, Fords, and shiny Cadillacs tore up the roads, and families were looking for new and different ways to spend their almighty dollar. People took their time while traveling, and didn't mind stopping for awhile to get some reptiliar education along the way. As you step inside the gift shop, this sense of going back in time comes with you. The postcards sold on the creaky, turning racks are horribly outdated - which just makes them much more fabulous. They show Jan and Marsha Brady look alikes, complete with Buddy Holly glasses, straight-straight hair, and huge plaid bell bottoms. These prepubescent calendar girl wannabees are draped across the leg of a triceratops, or peeking from behind a huge, spiny tail. Playing peekaboo with the camera, trying to look all "come hither" while lounging on an extinct lizard. High-sterical, yet creepy too. I'm not sure what these postcards mean to convey, or who the young girls are. They may even be the owner's children! In any case, I find them to be so weird, that during every visit I can't resist buying several.

The gift shop is really the entrance, and every sort of dinosaur memorabilia assaults you as you walk in. Stegosauruses grin from neon-colored tee shirts. A T-Rex squirt gun hangs patiently by the cash register, waiting for some eager young marksman to grab it up and go running to Mommy. Educational puzzles, glow-in-the-dark dinosaur bones, dinosaur bedroom slippers, and inexplicably, a huge coffee mug with the words "Queen for a Day" share shelf space, daring you not to buy something before you even get in the park. What car could be complete without the prerequisite Dinosaurland bumper sticker? My favorite item? The baseball cap - perfect for those sweltering summer days - a long slender brontosaurus neck arises from the front, its long, spiny tail peeking out back. If the eyes on the head lit up, the souvenir would be complete, a work of tacky genius.

Not only is there every kind of dinosaur toy, but since this is the mountains (which I guess means frontier country) you can buy any kind of Daniel Boone-esque type of equipment you might need to continue on your journey. Coonskin caps, miniature Cowboys and Indians, and plastic Indian dolls complete with papoose sit alongside the reptiles which preceded them on the time line. Moccasins can even be had for those men, women, and children who would like to tread the trails of Dinosaurland a little more stealthily.

As a child, Native Americans fascinated me. Still do. I loved the fact they never stayed in one place (at least the stereotypes I grew up with never did, of course I know better now). They constantly moved about, setting up house wherever they pleased. Pop-Pop only fueled this fascination by allowing my sister and I one toy apiece whenever we went to Dinosaurland. Rather than choosing something to do with dinosaurs, I always wanted something Indian. Whether it was a beaded necklace, moccasins, or yet another doll, I always went the Indian route. The doll with the papoose was my favorite, because I found it so appealing to think that not only did I have a doll, but my doll had one too. With real moveable blue eyes, silky black hair, and everything.

Once you've excavated your way through all the gift store choices, it's time to purchase admission to this glorious Land of the Lost. For only $5.00 (yes, $5.00!) you too can experience Dinosaurland! The kid at the register, usually sullen, bored, and no older than 16, acts as gatekeeper for this splendorous lizardom. Behind him is a simple glass door marked "Entrance".

As you walk through the glass door, you've only passed through the building to the yard out back, but spiritually, you have just been teleported back to the land that time forgot. All of the dinosaurs are life-size, made of fiberglass, or some sort of plaster-like material. Looking like they've seen better days, actually. Some are dusty, some are missing chunks of plaster. Where in the postcards they appear shiny and new, in reality they look a little forlorn, a little sad.

Most of these reptilian creatures are engaged in such dinosaurish activity as chomping grass or leaves, posing regally, or baring their teeth, attempting to look realistic and threatening. Action figures! Educational signs accompanying these depictions provide the name of the particular dinosaur, its eating habits, when it lived, and even a clear pronunciation of the beast. So a Triceratops sign has printed underneath it, "try-sare-ee-tops". My favorite? Definitely "Moschops". I've never even HEARD of a Moschops for one thing. And the other thing is I've always liked saying it, "Moschops. Moschops. Moschops." Sounds like something Frankenstein would growl or something...

Anyway, it's definitely a hands-on experience - frequently you find adults and children alike climbing over, under, and on these creatures. Narrow paths wind through thick groves of trees, providing enough shade and enough mystery to prepare you for the next "true life depiction". You next lizard tableau. My favorite is entitled, "The Epic Battle Between Tyrannosaurus and Titanosaurus!" The T-Rex and Titan are fighting, but it kinds of looks like they're wrestling. Rex holds the other's neck in his mouth. You can see dinosaur ribs and flesh peeking through a gash in his side. Special effects! Wooooo! The one being bitten has his leg in the air, which has served as a great picture prop in the past. I used to love lying underneath that upraised foot, a horror-stricken look on my face, pretending to be trampled by Godzilla while a friend snapped a photo. In other old pictures, I rake a hand up the side of the T-Rex, as if my puny nails could do any damage to that tough old hide.

To a goofy old broad like me, Dinosaurland isn't just a place, but a way of looking at things. I can see the beauty behind all the kitsch. Behind all the cracking plaster. I can appreciate the passion for dinosaurs that went into creating this place. You can have Disney World. I like the $5.00, side-of-the-road entertainment you get at Dinosaurland. It's like a big playground, where you create the scene, and these plaster beasts are your props. Imagination takes over, rather than having your imagination defined for you by some giant mouse and thrill rides that last 2 minutes. In Dinosaurland it's not all spelled out for you. There's magic between the plaster and the garishness. I'd rather go here than anywhere some guy named Disney could dream up.

As if the creatures weren't fascinating enough, Dinosaurland provides even bigger and better monsters for your entertainment dollar. Just past the entrance to your left lies the scary "Monster Gallery" - where life-size depictions of The Abominable Snowman, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, even Jaws wait for you with teeth bared, arms outstretched. And cavepeople. Why are they in the Monster Gallery? Who knows, but grotesque, hairy versions of a caveman and cavewoman stand guard over the monsters, forever posing for that all-important snapshot. Look Mom, there's me and cousin Sally with the caveman! The cavepeople are my favorite part about the Monster Gallery. Dinosaurs preceded cavepeople by how many thousands of years? Yet, here they are, sharing a small part of the world with them. For once, the impossible becomes the real.

A close-to-life-size version of King Kong lies in the middle of Dinosaurland. The massive Kong's hand is outstretched - waiting for any kid with enough courage to climb up and sit in it. Fay Wray for a day. I did climb up one summer as a young adult, and I remember thinking it wasn't that scary after all. It wasn't even as high up as I remembered. Even so, it felt like a great adventure. As I climbed, I felt the years being stripped from me and a new young persona emerging. By the time I reached the top, I was nine again. I had the urge to yell out, "I did it!" proving to everyone I wasn't scared of anything. My friend remained below, waving, snapping a photo. The picture never turned out, but I remember that day so vividly. I felt as if it was the first day of summer vacation. I felt excited about something, that because I made that climb, something wonderful was about to happen.

That expectation, that sense of elation which surrounds Dinosaurland has carried me throughout some tough times in my life. I can remember being a teenager, crowded into a Volkswagon Beetle with my sister and three cousins, all girls. It was bitter cold, and the Bug had no heat. We had just left Nana's after a meal, and were on our way to Winchester for a movie. All of us were smoking cigarettes, remarking that we had been, "Dying for a cig!" Despite the openness of our family, every one of us hid the fact we smoked. This tiny act of rebellion. The Bug's ceiling, seats, and walls were covered with graffitti, the work of my middle cousin. At that point in time, she envisioned herself to be a terrific rebel and so had covered her car in graffittied phrases like, "Anarchy Forever!" She even painted a huge peace symbol on the hood after splashing the entire Bug in different colors of paint. Needless to say, we made quite an impression as we bopped down the dark, wintery road.

We all smoked, rubbing our hands together, running our mouths about things only teenage girls gab about. As we complained about not having boyfriends and the like, we climbed a hill, and Dinosaurland came into view. The other girls kept talking, but a sudden sense of nostalgia came over me. We had arrived at The Crossroads. Even though none of us were older than eighteen, I was struck suddenly with the thought perhaps this would be our last holiday together. It might be our last time to bond as family, and as young women. At the risk of sounding clichéd, it truly was a turning point moment for my life. I was so aware of it, as it happened. Just five young ladies, headed to a movie. Their whole lives ahead of them. All together for one last time, free of those life attachments that always conspire to keep you apart.

Not since that period of time have we all been so close as one family. Most of us quit smoking, headed off to college, to careers. We all got boyfriends. In our elation at being in love, finally, we put such adventures as driving to the movies really fast over dark country roads on the back burner. Instead of freezing our butts off while holding a cigarette in our gloved hands, we hung out with our boyfriends. We went to the movies with them. We smoked cigarettes and tried to share our hopes and fears with them. If you had asked us, we never would have admitted that driving by Dinosaurland and "looking for the dinosaur" was fun. Our teenage pride prevented such things. I couldn't forget though. As hard as I tried to see Dinosaurland as some out-of-date, tacky roadside eyesore, the magic never left. If anything it became a focal point for me, a representation of how much enchantment lies just out of our vision, how in life, sometimes you have to read between the lines.

It was probably 10 years after that night when my aunt and her daughters went Christmas shopping with me in Winchester at the Apple Blossom Mall. We were by then all in our mid to late twenties, Nana had not yet passed away, so we were still gathering for Christmas at her house. After the madness that is mall Christmas shopping, we headed back to Front Royal, both cars brimming purchases. My aunt traveled in the lead car, and we putted along behind them in my cousin's Peugeot. As we headed up the rise and Mr. Brontosaurus came into view, again I felt that strange elation, and craned my neck to get a better look, even though there isn't much to see in the December darkness around The Crossroads. Just then, very curiously, my aunt pulled into the Dinosaurland parking lot, and so we stopped, thinking that something must be wrong with her car. Much to our surprise, my aunt, all forty-something years of her, ran to the brontosaurus, threw up her arms, and stood in front of it proudly, as if showing off a new dress. When my cousin asked, "Mom, WHAT are you DOING?" in that tone only irritated daughters can achieve, my aunt replied, matter of factly, "I just wanted to show you my dinosaur." We howled with laughter. It was a great moment.

I know exactly what she's talking about. Right then I knew that I wasn't the only one that looked for this earmark in the road, nor was I the only one that felt better for having seen it. It's just a place, lying in the middle of two other places, but it lies in the middle of my whole life experience. Every time I think about home I think about Dinosaurland. Images of fiberglass reptiles are intermingled with memories of Pop-Pop, Nana, cold winter holidays, and Nana's special pickled eggs. That brontosaurus acts as a check point, making sure that I never take life too seriously, and making sure that I never really grow up all the way. It also makes sure that I never forget where home is. It's my dinosaur too.

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Monday, August 11, 2008


So far this summer, I have had the great good fortune to hang with a few of the greatest women I've ever known. We've been friends for four years, but as hokey as it sounds, I feel like I've known them my entire life. Or maybe before that. Maybe we were friends in another life, or sisters, or good neighbors. Anyway, when we get together, it's like a clap of thunder, or a "Wild Yawp" (to borrow Mr. Whitman's phrasing). What began as a shared love for the same book has grown into something much more. Something kinda different. We call ourselves Ya-Ya's.

There have been so many times when I've sat down to write about my friends. But then I shake my head and think, "Nah, you can't capture them on a page - there ain't no page big enough really," before walking away from the computer. But this summer something feels different. Something's changing. And I feel the need to at least try and capture something of what I feel for them, before I forget. Before it all slips away.

Once I read a book called, "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," by Rebecca Wells. Actually, I saw the movie first, on a weekend on TNT, or TBS, or maybe I was home sick and saw it then. In any case, I ran out and bought the book, finished it in a night, then its prequel the next night. And I just had to talk to somebody about it. Anybody. Not being the social kind I turned to the Internet - and there I found a group of women that I adored because they were the total opposite of me, and everything I wanted to be. Bold, brash, opinionated and not afraid to say so. Independent. High-spirited daredevils. Awesome broads.

Now, I'm these things after a few (name your poison), but not on your average workday. It's something I wanted to be, though. All my life I had been quiet and careful and afraid, more of a follower than a planner. Not a leader. Definitely not a doer - wallflower me, all the way. And I was damn tired of it. Here was my chance to change. Purdy please?

They took me in like a sister. And after months of posting, we agreed to meet - to gather from all over the country to see if this Internet "spark" was actually something worth building. And it was. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt at home. Even now as I'm writing this, I find that it's hard to describe. I had a sister back home, but here were eight more. I had friends, but here were friends that knew secrets and memories that my oldest ones didn't. And they still loved me. Boy, was that new!

We spent most of that week in hysterics. It was like everything we did and said was funnier than shit. I don't think I've ever laughed that hard at anything - at just anything. The ugly laugh. It was like we had bottled up our hilarity all that year, only to let all that good energy out in a big guffaw to share among us, to let soar above us. Crowns and all.

The following year saw us at another Ya-Ya location, and last year they came to my home, which they decreed would be known, now and forever as, "The Libby Home for Wayward Women." I loved it. Never in all my years had I felt so loved, or felt such a sense of belonging. It was like I had suddenly married into a huge family, warts and all.

And this summer in addition to seeing my old friends again, I finally got to meet a Ya-Ya who lives "across the big water" in the UK. We had never even talked on the phone, but when we got together we never shut up. We spent the entire evening and most of the next day laughing, talking, catching up. It was wonderful. I again felt such a connection, like I had known her for a long time - like we had grown up together or something. That same energy was there, and when I left, once again I carried it with me inside. It's like when we get weak, and have moments that would try even the best woman's soul, all we have to do is get together for a little while and create all of that healing juju - that good energy. And then put it in your pocket for when you need it later.

That's what those yearly Ya-Ya gatherings are for me. My yearly juju replenishing. I don't know why our friendship even works, I mean we phone and write occasionally and see each other only once a year if that. I don't know why it works - I've stopped asking why. It just does, and that's all I need to know.

The energy that exists when we laugh together is kind of like what I sensed when I was young and my mother and aunts were together at family gatherings. There they were, so grown up, so beautiful and fashionable (think 1970's TV Cher, or Annette Bening in "Running With Scissors" with most of the crazy taken away - I said most, not all). I admired and envied their laughter, their confidence and brashness, and seemingly endless ability to coordinate their hair, their makeup, their clothes. They were so easy with themselves, and with each other - unafraid to say what was on their mind or who they thought should be told off. They carried casseroles in from the car like they were crowns on pillows. They poured wine from huge jugs of Gallo without spilling anything on the mint green couch. They wore false eyelashes without a hint of irony. They wore white lipstick, and used Jafra eye pencils like Way Bandy had done their makeup. Scarves around their necks, gold hoop earrings the size of basketballs.

Meanwhile, I watched, petrified of their confidence, a little quiet mouse reading my book, but watching it all over the top. Am I friends with the Ya-Ya's because of what they remind me of? Or because of what I wish to be? Maybe a little bit of both. I do miss the energy of my aunts and my mother together - laughing, talking about things men could care less about. I wanted to be them when I grew up. They were something to emulate.

Of course back then I had child eyes. I only really saw what was on the outside - never realizing all the pain and sorrow and crosses that my mother and aunts bore. They never showed it. Kind of like the Ya-Ya's. In knowing these women, I've come to love and respect them even more for what I've learned from them. They take on each life obstacle as it comes with pride. Because they can. They keep smiling when they want to cry. They are so non-judgemental it hurts. They give lots of hugs. They keep having fun because this is the only day they know that exists. They'll kill you with kindness, but when there's ass-kicking to be done, they do it and keep walking. They never look back, and they never regret.

Again, it all sounds so hokey when I look at it on paper. You can't capture their courage and faith in words. I look at them and think, "How do they handle all of that?" Their lives seem so much more full of things I don't think I'd ever be able to deal with or absorb. But they do. With aplomb. With laughter. With tears. They do it with sass. They do it with grace.

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