(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.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
(Happy 90th Birthday Nana.)