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Xanadu

August 11, 2016

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In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

One autumn day in 1797, the famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wasn’t feeling well. He took some opium to ease the pain, fell asleep, and had a wild, opium-fueled dream about a powerful despot who built a pleasure palace called Xanadu.

When Coleridge awoke, he immediately began writing down this vivid dream in poetry. He called the poem “Xanadu, or A Vision in a Dream.” Unfortunately, before he finished the poem someone knocked on the door of his farmhouse, interrupting his train of thought, and by the time he got rid of the visitor and went back to writing, the dream had vanished from his memory and the poem remains unfinished today.

I’m telling you this story not because Coleridge is a favorite of mine, although he is. I’m telling you this story not because I’m an English teacher and I can’t help myself, although I am, and I can’t. I’m telling you this story because I thought about that poem and its unusual origin this morning as The Hamster and I wandered through the strangest place either of us has ever been.

The House on the Rock was not originally on our itinerary. Its main appeal is as an oddity, not as a destination where you really do anything or learn anything; you just wander through the sprawling complex and think to yourself, “Hmmh. That’s so weird.” And its location in Spring Green, Wisconsin, was an hour out of our way, which is right about the threshold for where you start cutting stuff like this off your itinerary.

But, as luck would have it, our route changed a bit over the past couple of days. And because of our fly fishing excursion, The House on the Rock ended up being almost directly on our new-and-improved route, which made it a no-brainer to include.

I don’t know how to describe the place except to say that it began as the work of a creative architect named Alex Jordan, who built a house for himself on a rocky plateau in the woods, and it grew into something so twisted and ridiculous that even the kajillion photos I took can’t possibly give you any idea of what the place is really like.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

The house itself is exceedingly unusual, built right into the rock and incorporating the rock into the house’s interior in a way that would make Frank Lloyd Wright say, “OK, I get it. Enough with the natural materials, already.” The ceilings are uncomfortably low, there’s carpeting everywhere, (even occasionally the ceiling), much of the seating is just stone with thin cushions placed on top, none of the rooms are a normal size or shape or function, there’s ornate detail in every direction you look, and the décor is probably best described as “Asian-inspired cave creep fest.”

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The coolest part of the house is the Infinity Room, a long, thin, cantilevered sun room that juts out precariously over the hillside and narrows to a point, creating the visual effect of appearing to go on forever.

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But it’s when you’re done walking through the main house and start looking through the connected buildings that things start getting truly strange, and they get only stranger until finally, a couple of hours later, your mind is boggled, your head is spun, and you’re standing in the gift shop wondering what the hell it is you just saw.

At this point I’d like to point out of the existence of the love urinal. I’ve named it the love urinal because the only people who would ever feel comfortable using such a device would be two men who are so deeply in love that they simply cannot take their eyes off each other long enough to pee in private.

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But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

I’d be remiss, too, if I did not mention the musical instruments. I’ve been in several homes where people have musical instruments on display. I’ve never been in a home where the musical instruments play themselves. In room after room after room there were automatic instruments, with piano keys depressing themselves, drums beating themselves, and little robotic arms plucking and stroking the strings of violins and cellos, etc. Sometimes animatronic figurines played the instruments. Sometimes there was nobody, and the instruments played themselves. Sometimes there were just a few members of the band, and sometimes there were entire orchestras.

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And none of this even scratches the surface of the weirdness we beheld throughout.

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

Instead of trying, vainly, to show you the place, I’m simply going to show you one room. It’s three stories high, and it’s called The Heritage of the Sea because it houses Jordan’s extensive collection of maritime artifacts. (There’s a whole section about the Titanic, complete with a 10-foot-long scale model, stock certificates, ads for the voyage, and more.) Also, the main purpose of the room is to display a massive, life-size sculpture of a fierce battle between a giant squid and a terrifying whale, which Jordan created specifically to put here, I can only assume, so he could freak people the hell out for generations to come.

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Yes, that’s a shattered rowboat inside the whale’s mouth.

 

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

It all made me think of Coleridge for two reasons. First, The House on the Rock is most definitely Jordan’s Xanadu: a massive pleasure-dome he decreed with endless beauty and which we meandered with a mazy motion for what seemed like five miles, but also with haunting sounds and ancestral voices.

I also pictured Alex Jordan having an opium-fueled nightmare, then waking up and, Coleridge-style, building all the crazy stuff he dreamt.

Or, as Sam so eloquently put it, “Alex Jordan is seriously freakin’ demented.”

By the time we got to Milwaukee a few hours later, standing next to a bronze statue of a fictional TV character on the banks of a river instantly became the most normal thing I had done all day.

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OK, back to reality.

On the way to Milwaukee we stopped briefly in Madison to take a peek at the state capitol. From above, it’s shaped roughly like a plus sign with a dome in the middle, which means that it looks like a lot of the other state capitols, with one notable exception: the main entrance is not on one of the straight sides but in the crook of two arms of the plus.

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Points for originality.

We got to Milwaukee at around 3 p.m., and tried to see as much of the city as we could before heading to tonight’s Brewers game. I had been to Milwaukee once before but only for a ballgame, so I never got to really see the city. So of course we headed straight for the Bronze Fonz.

Fonz is right on the Milwaukee River, one of many odd pieces of art along the Riverwalk. Riverwalk is exactly what it sounds like: a walkway that runs along both banks of the river for several blocks. It’s similar in concept to the Canal Walk in Indianapolis, and we’ll see a few more of these types of downtown waterfront pedestrian paths in the coming week or so, but each city puts its own stamp on the idea. Milwaukee does this with several quirky sculptures along the path, plenty of boat rentals and pleasure cruises for those who want to be in the river instead of alongside it, and by situating the whole thing in the theater district, which means that the Riverwalk is lined with theaters old and new, big and small, indoors and out. It’s really quite beautiful.

 

When we finished with the Riverwalk we still had time for one more venue, and we decided on the Harley-Davidson Museum. I had initially hoped to go on the Harley-Davidson factory tour, which is about a half hour out of town, but their really good tour is on hiatus until the end of August, and their not-as-good tour is not really worth the trip. But that still left the museum, which houses around 150 old motorcycles in addition to various exhibits about the company’s founders and history and the design of the bikes.

Sam didn’t really care about the history or why Harleys are designed the way they are. He just wanted to look at some cool motorcycles and maybe even sit on a few. That was easy enough to accomplish.

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We breezed through the museum in half an hour, mostly because Sam opted to skip all text and just focus on the bikes he found interesting. That left us just enough time to get dinner and head to the ballpark.

There are two kosher restaurants in Milwaukee. One of them is closed until August 15. The other is inside a nursing home. So 20 minutes later we were in the Jewish Home and Care Center stuffing ourselves with fried fish and French fries, the first real meal we’ve had since Shabbat. And we made it to the Brewers game just in time.

So far this trip has taken us only to minor league games, and I guess we’ve gotten a little spoiled in terms of seat location, because when we walked up to the ticket window, Sam asked if anything was available in the first row. Thankfully, the Brewers stink and nobody goes to the games, so we still managed to get great seats for a decent price.

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As far as the ballpark, Miller Park is one of my least favorite. Many new parks are downtown but Miller Park is on the outskirts of the city, surrounded not by interesting neighborhoods or a beautiful skyline but by endless parking lots and highway on- and off- ramps. Its retractable roof requires high walls on all sides, which makes you feel like you’re indoors even when the roof is open, as it was tonight. And it’s cavernous, with four full decks of seats, most of which are empty. Also, it’s the only current stadium that ever killed a guy. (For real–high winds cause a crane to collapse during the stadium’s construction, killing one of the workers.)

I wouldn’t exactly call it a pleasure-dome.

Still, we had a great time wandering the ballpark, cheering against the visiting Atlanta Braves, watching the famous sausage race, and getting friendly with the team mascot, Bernie Brewer.

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About halfway through the game, Sam started insisting that the sparse crowd would enable us to catch a foul ball or a T-shirt, or at least have our smiling faces shown on the big screen. I asked him why he was so confident. His answer: “Dad, we’re in the front row, and I’m wearing a giant yellow mustache!”

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Feel the Bern!

 

 

Sure enough, two innings later I suddenly noticed that we were on the big screen, and I started shouting and waving. Sam immediately popped up out of his seat and did an odd little dance, which was all the more hilarious because of the mustache. Our whole section cheered like crazy.

The Brewers ended up winning a tight game, and we joked all the way out of the stadium and back to our car.

After an exceedingly strange morning at The House on the Rock, we really enjoyed getting to know Milwaukee. We’ve got some more sights to see here Thursday before heading to Chicago and beyond. But first Sam needs to comb his giant yellow mustache.

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