Toetripping or Tiptoeing Through the Toe of Indiana
My friend moved from Terre Haute to New Harmony. “”Good move,”” I thought partly because I have always loved New Harmony, the site of an early experiment in communal living in the United States and partly because she found a good deal on an old drive-in restaurant which she converted into an art studio and living space. I decided to spend a couple of days visiting her and other friends in the toe of the state. It was only a four hour drive from Indianapols but seemed like a trip back through several decades of time.
We had dinner at the New Harmony Inn, beer from a local brewery, cheeseburgers and fries and checked out the Hoosier Salon artists in a mainstreet gallery. If the inn and its menu seemed time capsuled, we stepped back a few more years when we headed for the big event in town that night, a Hank Williams concert. In reality, it was a concert by the group HankeringforHank, a Hank impersonator who asked if anyone had heard Tony Bennett sing, “”Your Cheating Heart”” on the radio lately. A couple of jokes about the red G string on the bass and going to the topless church down the street, seemed right on key, and everyone joined in for some heartfelt gospel singing at the end. We left longing for the “”good ole days”” before television and rap…but the Rappites might have disagreed. Like, “”we dig socialism, but don’t you know man, we can’t agree on nothin’ so let’s just jam.””
New Harmony was founded in 1814 by the German religious group known as the Harmonists or the Rappites. When the Harmonists decided to move back to Pennsylvania, it was sold to Robert Owen, the Welsh utopian thinker and social reformer and William McClure. Owen recruited members to the community, but a number of factors led to an early breakup of the commutarian experience. It is easy to understand both his idealistic approach and the reason for its demise. As he himself admitted, “”…It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us…our ‘united interests’ were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation… and it was evident that just in proportion to the contact of persons or interests, so are concessions and compromises indispensable.”” (Periodical Letter II 1856)
The community then became a scientific (entymology and geology) and religious center which it has remained to this day. It has a little over nine hundred residents and many of the old Harmonist buildings still stand and have been restored. Paul Tillich, the renowned theologin and religious theorist, is buried across from the roofless church, open to God and the universe. His words, “”Man and nature belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation”” still ring true today. The maze remains to encourage contemplation, and gardens, and art galleries enhance the town’s beauty. The search for knowledge is well served by The Working Men’s Institute, established in 1838, by William Maclure. It is the oldest continuously operating library in the state of Indiana and also houses a small museum.
I wanted to experience time travel on this trip and also try to “”Keep on the Sunny Side””. Hank may have enjoyed this song sung by his contemporary muscicians, the Carter Family. I must admit that even this experience had a downside as my friend had a raging tooth ache, and it was about 98 degrees on the “”sunny side”” of the street. We enjoyed our visit anyway, and after admiring all of her beautiful paintings, I set out enthusiastically the next morning to see the rest of the toe.
As I headed out of town I was soon humming Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning as the sun was coming down like butterscotch in southern Indiana in August, and the humidity added to the sticky metaphor. As I sped through the green countryside, a beautiful yellow swallowtail butterfly flew in front of my car. Unfortunately it hit my windshield and lay flapping in the road behind me. Everything else seemed cheery. My friend seemed centered and settled in her new studio, and I was headed toward Santa Claus, Indiana to visit my daughter’s mother-in-law. This lady had been a successful business woman who decided to buy several acres of wooded land outside Santa Claus and live there with her three sons and their families.
She was no doubt familiar with New Harmony, but maybe not its demise. The sons did not agree on a couple of things and with the support of their wives, moved away. After all, if the Rappites and the Owens couldn’t do it, how could they. I headed down highway 165 not knowing for sure where her farm was located and reluctant to ask my daughter who preferred apartheid for her relatives and wisely so. Blue cornflowers, purple cow weed, and white Queen Ann’s lace adorned the sides of the highways. Violet thistle and yellow goldenrod looked like colorful fringe on the edges of the green quilted fields. I was mesmerized by the passing lanscape and unable to slow my momentum through the honeyed morning even to stop for blackberries, corn, squash and melons advertised on a handmade sign.
My mood was broken by a more ominous sign that read, “”Prepare to Stop.”” A few miles down the road I saw the reason for the sign, a monstrous waterslide towering above the park, it’s top lost in the stratosphere. I was appproaching Holiday World, and this was the world’s longest water slide. I knew because my seven year old grandson had recently informed me with the greatest authority. He showed me a picture of the slide on the Internet, and said that he had been on it. I was horrified and asked my daughter, who is normally consummately concerned about his safety, how this could have occurred. She said that the last time he had been to the doctor to be measured he was forty-eight inches tall. Upon hearing this much anticipated fact, he whipped out an advertising brochure and informed the doctor that he was now tall enough to ride the water slide at Holiday World. He was not to be denied.
I stopped at a filling station for a coke. It is not my drink of choice, but somehow looked irresitable when imbibed by a jolly rosy cheeked Santa Claus. I tried to figure out how to get to my daughter’s mother-in-law’s farm using the map. I didn’t really believe that I could find it, and eventually had to give up and call my daughter. Of course my cell phone was beeping intermittantly saying it needed charging. “”I need some charging too,”” I told it, “”but I am not whining about it.”” It must have felt my pain because it kept ringing even though my daughter did not answer, After several tries I heard her voice demanding, “”Do you have an emergency or something?”” Well it seemed so to me as I was starving, my phone was dying and I was driving around in 98 degree heat so I screamed, “”yes!””. She told me she was in Walmart buying school supplies and would call me back in five minutes, click. So much for my emergency. I begged my phone to stay charged, and promised I would buy it an auto phone charger when I came to the next Walmart. Walmarts are ubiquitous in this state, so it did not have long to wait, and it held on until she called back. (I did not keep my promise because once inside Walmart, a small laptop pleaded with me to buy it instead. The cell phone was dead when I came back to the car. Here was another tragedy of the trip along with the yellow butterfly that hit my windshield, and I felt somehow responsible for both.)
My daughter told me she couldn’t remember how to get to the property, but as I named some towns and roads, she did remember a town and a county road number and some Wapati elk and buffalo across the street. This seemed like valuable information to me in my pathetic state and recalling another 60’s classic by Janis Joplin, I decided to “”try just a little bit harder””. Her directions proved accurate, and I drove down a long driveway with horses on one side, stopping to tell the renters who inquired, that I was Donna’s daughter-in-law’s mother or something like that, but I was really too hot to know for sure.
The nice lady assured me that Donna lived on the property and to take the right fork in the long road. I started to feel like I was in Jean Paul Sartre land at that point and was pondering the meaning of existence. What was down the left fork and, speaking of forks, why hadn’t I bought some food while still in civilization. But soon I was seated in an air conditioned house with a glass of lemonade, hearing a tearful Donna describe how her beloved dog had died of the heat on the way to the vet in her car the day before. I was deciding if the lemonade and air conditioning balanced out this new tragedy when I was hit with another one. My granson had also fallen in the pond while fishing from the dock during his last visit and had been covered with pond slime.
Now I was definitely starting to stray from the sunny side, but, just in time, we turned the topic to our adorable three year old grandaughter, Kate. We agreed that she was very independent and had a mind of her own, which Donna took the credit for because she said she was just like that as a child. Kate’s dad had told her to pick up something she had thrown on the floor or he would paddle her behind and Kate turned around and offered her behind to paddle. “”Yes, Donna, I think she does take after you,”” I agreed pleasantly. Donna continued by telling me that coyotes on her property frequently send the female coyote out to attract the cute little male house dogs that she owns and then the male coyotes pounce on the dogs. Wiley Coyote is alive and well in Santa Clause land. I was headed for the dark side again. Then her son Darryl entered through the side door, and I remembered Bob Newhart’s character named Darryl and his brother named Darryl. I left chuckling and still on the sunny side but pondering the meaning of it all. Maybe life is about getting what you want for Christmas, but it is probably more likely about wanting what you get. A giant Santa Claus beamed at me from one side of the highway while a small madonna smiled benevolently from the other.
I headed toAdyeville, a town consisting of about two houses and an old store which another friend of mine calls home. He was retired from teaching sociology, and we enjoyed discussing politics and philosophy and agricultural practices. He wasn’t home so I discussed politics and water quality in the area with his donkey, Third and patted his dog, Second. Third was concerned about the state of the environment but Second was only concerned about enjoying long walks in the countryside. I think my friend was First but I am not sure as Second or Third might have been first. Abbot and Costello where also contemporaries of Hank.
Then up the highway to French Lick, Indiana’s Historic Playground. On the way I say a sign that said, “”Eat here! Get gas and worms too. Beer hunters welcome.”” Wow, what a place! I was becoming elated again until I saw a dead deer on the roadside which brought me back to roadkill reality. A sign for tomatoes and one for web design juxtaposed the old German agri-culture and the modern American cyber-culture.
But entrepreneurship was alive and well! And corn was everywhere, in small gardens, in yards, in giant fields by the roadside and next to the roofless church in New Harmony where it was framed by the stone church windows like a godess in a shrine. Iowa may produce the most corn in the country but Indiana has Orville Reddenbacher of popcorn fame and the motto, “”There’s more than corn in Indiana”” leaving one to wonder if “”she doth protest to much””.
Patoka Lake, in the state park of the same name, where I had spent many happy hours camping with my family, came into view. I’m sure the original native American inhabitants of the land enjoyed this area as well. Its Indian name means “”log on bottom.”” Its surface area is 8,000 acres, it has many campgrounds and hosts many sports related activities. It is also home to many varieties of birds, fish, animals, and insects. During a year of the cicadas or seven year locusts, I had camped there with my then twelve year old daughter and her girlfriend, Misty. The roar from the woods sounded like a massive factory working the night shift, but was just a huge choir of cicadas who had been waiting for seven years to sing. It also rained so that we were soaked to the bone in our tents. We got up and played the card game,Uno. Misty started repeating you know Uno, I know Uno, you know Uno, I know Bob, which seemed hillariously funny. No one knew who Bob was nor cared proving that sleep deprivation can be fun.
When I arrived in French Lick, the first thing I saw was the French Lick Hotel and new casino surrounded by a moat of water. This is the only way it could have existed in this mostly landlocked state, with only a small shoreline at the point of Lake Michigan at the north and the Ohio River at the south. The state also has a split personality when it comes to casinos which must be on a river or lake if they really have to be here at all. They are the work of the devil, but so is Pluto water which has been in French Lick from the beginning. So here it was with its moat, surrounded by little white frame churches with disapproving faces. They would rather have used the water for holier purposes.
The Pluto Water factory sold the mineral water in bottles with a picture of the devil on it that supposedly cured all ills, except maybe gambling. Al Capone traveled here by train from Chicago in the 30’s and wealthy families came from Europe to take the water. The West Baden hotel right next door had the largest free spanning dome in the world for many years and was billed as the Carlsbad of America. Visitors from around the world still come to French Lick now that the West Baden Hotel has been restored and is part of the French Lick Resort Casino Complex, a giant undertaking, but worth it to keep this unusual town on the map. The gilded hotel roof gleamed in the afternoon sun like a veritable Pleasure Dome whose outside is the opposite of topless, but inside, who knows?
I took one last picture of a huge red sun sinking behind a corn field, and an old barn with a “”Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco”” sign. Then I headed north, still on the sunny side, having come to the end of my day of time traveling and toetripping but not nearly exhausting the interesting places and people to visit in the toe of Indiana.