The greatest

On your way to Nashville from Ottawa, you pass through Kentucky. Pretty much inevitable. And unless you’re going to go mine coal or race a horse, you could almost be forgiven for only stopping for gas.

Louisville is right on the Ohio River, looking across at Indiana. It’s the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the South”. But Louisville has some heavy hitters in its corner, most namely Muhammad Ali, J-Law, and the world’s largest baseball bat.

Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and point, so we did.

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This is the outside of the Muhammad Ali Center, with J-Law’s enormous face looming down on you from another building across the street (I don’t think they have a J-Law Center…yet).

What do you need to know about the Muhammad Ali Center? It’s really pretty great, and the most wonderful thing about it is you don’t have to know anything about boxing. You don’t even have to like boxing. (An aside: I recently saw the film Creed in the theatres, and as I squirmed through the first fight scene I thought, very clearly, “I friggin’ hate boxing.”).

But Muhammad Ali was so much more than just a boxer, right? He was a man of colour from a southern state at a time when he could be a gold-medal winning Olympic athlete, but not get served at a diner counter. (Note: audio here was particularly effective, a overhead bell ringing as a door creaks open and a man telling you that you can’t sit here, to go somewhere else.)

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And this is almost where we start. Not with the boxing (there will be plenty of that later), and not even with the lunch counter.

No. You start with this:

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Yes. The second-largest escalator in Kentucky. (I’m secretly hoping that we get this question in some future pub trivia game…I am seriously going to kill at this stuff).

Where you actually start is with the introductory film which was down for servicing. One imagines that you don’t really need an introduction to Ali, and you’d be right-ish, because as I progressed through the first part of the (large) exhibition, I realized that I didn’t know much beyond “he’s a boxer with a lot of swagger”.

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Okay, escalator and non-intro video aside, almost the first thing you come to is a nice theatre in the round where I imagine you could lay back and look up at the nice swirly projection (the whole place makes some very nice use of projections) surrounded by explanations of Ali’s spiritual journey, of his philosophy, which is important. It’s not some afterthought. It’s really the underpinning of Ali’s way of being, and what he wants to put out to the world (one presumes).

After having worked on a project for the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, I recognized this initial room and appreciated what it was trying to do. Especially without the introductory film, this room perhaps took on more importance–it was the de facto introduction and it coloured the rest. In a good way.

The rest took us through Ali’s socio-political life, didn’t shy from his treatment and attitude towards women (especially in earlier days), and placed Ali in an historical context.

And it did this with some great clips and wonderful audio and OH MY GOD SO MUCH TEXT.

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Now, for someone who writes museum text for a living…this was a lot of text. It was certainly too much text for me and my head reeled at the idea of how I would have approached a similar story…in two official languages. On the other hand, I was with the Professor, who reads everything. He was rolling around in the text, finding more text (projected on the floor…there was no escaping it!!!), pointing things out to me, nodding his head. He loved the text. If you’d asked him, he’d have said it was just about the right amount of text.

Which goes to show: it takes all kinds.

Now, about the bilingual aspect–the Ali Center had a neat trick I hadn’t seen before.

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Turn the bar, and the screen changes to Spanish. Sweeeet. There was also video embedded in the screens, and all videos were captioned (more text!)

But here’s the bit I loved the most, and I’m sure I’m not alone with this–the Center, which has been open for 10 years, has probably done a ton of visitor surveys and I bet this is the thing people love the most:

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We come to the boxing. Standing at the 4th level and looking down to the 2nd, a professional size ring acts as a screen for a kick-ass video projection of Ali’s career. This is a perfect combination of great exhibitry meeting deep content. Sometimes, the images are perfectly set within the actual physical ring, and you can easily imagine you’re there, you’re watching Ali do his thing. It’s genius. Totally moving and exciting and mesmerizing.

Considering it’s February, you could have shot a cannon through the place and not hit anyone, but I imagine that come summer, the Center attracts a fair bit of business, probably a lot of families with kids and possibly wanna-be boxers. So, for those inclined to climb in the ring and bash other people, there’s the Bruno Mars Boxing Ring (try on gloves and Ali’s daughter shows you how to box), a shadow-boxing interactive and a punching bag where you can set the dial from beginner to expert and try to keep rhythm.

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As anyone who knows the Doyles knows–they have no rhythm. So the next frame of this shot ended badly.

I loved the Center–for someone who knew next-to-nothing about Ali, it was very moving (I cried a little at the end, when you stand among a small forest of Olympic torches and watch a shaking, unbroken Ali light the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games), and there were some nice ancillary exhibitions–the Selma to Montgomery photo exhibition was really thoughtful.

The Center’s slogan is “Be Great: Do Great Things” and its purpose is to inspire people to get involved with their communities. In this way it reminded me a lot of the Aga Khan Foundation, and the spirit of the place, despite or maybe because of the very literal pugilism, was freakily serene.

Their website: http://alicenter.org/

 

Finding the Spot

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Spot Diner, Sidney, Ohio

So we decided we were hungry.

Here’s an ode to the power of signage, okay? Because our gps indicated “food” with the usual knife-and-fork pictogram that could be a Wendy’s or a Bob Evans. Really, all I was hoping for was soup. But as we pulled off the I-75 heading south through Ohio, I spotted a tiny sign: Sidney Historical District, 1 mile.

Pointing in the opposite direction. Yes, Wendy and Bob beckoned. But not as shamelessly as a friggin’ HISTORICAL district.

We pulled a U-y (waving at Bob), and headed into Sidney, Ohio, pop. 21,229. It was one of 10 “All American” cities for the year 1964. Its courthouse, which takes up a full city block, has been named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the “Great American Public Places”.

But we didn’t know any of this going into Sidney. It was a blip on the gps, a dot on the map. A place to perhaps find soup.

And did we.

It’s not often that you stumble upon a place like the Spot. As Charlie had said earlier in the day, about something completely different: “You don’t really go there so much as you end up there.”

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The Spot’s drive-in menu

We came at it from behind–and saw that there was a DRIVE IN. An honest-to-god drive in. I hadn’t seen one of these in…I don’t know how long it’s been.

Inside, the place was great, the fries were…just the best. I had a pot roast sandwich. Aaron had chicken and dumpling soup (I opted for the pot roast because, well. Pot roast). But also, it was a restaurant aware of itself. It engaged enthusiastically with its own interpretation.

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The Spot, Sidney ,Ohio

The imploring signs “Order a pie today!”–or what?

But the Spot isn’t content to mediate its history with anything less than a heroic gallery inside, filled with artistic interpretations of the vintage signage outside, but also, this:

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Interpretive signage, the Spot. Sidney, Ohio

Oh, be still my interpreter’s heart. For, nestled gently under letters big enough to be imprecations (PIE, THICK MALTS), was a chaste sign, ably tilted for reading at both a standing and seated position.

George W fucking Bush.

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I saw it before I went inside and, still desperately seeking soup, didn’t stop to read until after I was pot roasted. And you know what? He wasn’t even the FIRST sitting President to visit Sidney!

Wording like this drives me bonkers. Honestly. Who were the other two??? (I’ll save you the trouble: Reagan and Teddy. There. Now you know). But the beauteous thing W did was he ate at the Spot. They’ve named a burger after him (I went with pot roast, remember?). Kinda like how at the Moulin de Provence bakery in Ottawa they have Obama’s picture with the maple leaf cookie. Except that’s just a photo, and they didn’t name the cookie…well. You get the gist.

So. There you go. A happy accident, and the power of signage in the right place at the right time.

If by now you’re dying for even more Sidney Ohio goodness, chek-là : they made a documentary about the place for PBS a few years back. Here’s a LINK TO THE DOCUMENTARY.

The road trip

Balancing out the 25 dollar barrel of oil with the plummeting Canadian dollar (the two things are not unrelated), it seems particularly asinine to take a road trip through the US. Why not just fling loonies out the window as we speed along the Natchez Trace?

But, still. The lure of the road. Crammed into a VW Golf with a lanky teenager, blasting CDs our daughter burned for us for Christmas (“I’ve been listening to those playlists these past few weeks,” she told us this weekend, “You’re really going to enjoy them.”), too much luggage in the back, obscuring whatever’s visible in the rear view mirror–which I sincerely hope is SNOW. Leaving winter behind us is kind of the point.

I took my first on-my-own road trip when I was 18. Lori and I decided to check out Nelson BC’s David Thompson University Centre. It was possible that Lori would go there. We started out in Victoria and ended up in Calgary, as one does. In the interim, we stayed at dubious motels, promised a lift to a hitchhiker as we waited for a Kootenay ferry (he turned out to have a garbage bag full of weed, his earnings from a summer tending BC’s unofficial crop-of-choice; we had second thoughts. Halfway through the ferry ride, he’d discovered that he’d forgotten his shoes. He turned back, serving us up a handful of product that lasted quite a long time), and returned to find out a friend had killed himself in a police-assisted suicide.

Road trips can be like that–life changing. Liminal journeys, crossing from one state of being to another. Learning experiences. Certainly adventures. It’s why people write about them. Even the Icelandic saga writers–strange shit happened if you left Iceland, it seemed to go. All bets were off. Anything could happen.

Which can be kinda liberating, right? Though for Icelandic voyagers in 1000 A.D., the idea of “away” was almost always lethal. You met witches and selkies, fell off horses, met your fate, inevitably bloody.

Atlas Obscura is my new go-to website for good things on the road. They seem to be chanelling my need for blurred double yellow; their First Road Trip Across America article landed in my inbox today. Horatio Nelson Jackson crossed the country west to east, carrying with him gas, a dog, and a mechanic. Now, a mechanic is not a bad idea if I could find somewhere to fit him/her, but I can’t imagine stuffing Arlo into the backseat with Charlie.

We’re all going to miss the Dog something fierce. But I don’t think he has the inborn need for travel, for the liminal, for Campbell’s threshold journey. I mean, he’s a dog, one that shivers when the car keys are rattled, not the kind to stick his head out an open window, catching air in his wide nostrils. He’s positively Icelandic in his outlook on life. Home is good, the best.

He’ll just have to hold the fort.

Bud the Pit Bull

Bud, the Pit Bull who crossed America by car in 1903. Bought for $15 in Idaho. Photo from By Mary Louise Blanchert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Contemplating leaving

 

Three suitcases will fit in the trunk of the VW. Two large, one small. Guess who gets the small one? That’s right. Not me.

I also vote for all shoes to go in a separate bag, because shoes take up the most room and A2 always brings about 5 gazillion of them.

It’s a big trip, the one we’re about to take–and I’d like to call it the Museum Studies Tour, but that’s about as exciting as sitting through a staff meeting (if you have a really tedious staff), so how about the GOOP Tour? The head of the Muse Studs dept at U of T used to drop  the phrase “Graduates of our program” all the time to describe how well everyone was doing (ignoring, of course, that most GOOPs don’t actually work in museums). But I will be visiting GOOPs on this upcoming turn around the US, so it’s fitting, I suppose. In the meantime, I’m compiling a big list of stuff I want to see and it even includes some museums.

That’s how GOOPs roll, people. Busman’s holiday.