A glance out the window tells me we are in the middle of nowhere. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! Covered in maps, I am navigating while trying to tune-in NPR. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! My husband curses other drivers. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! The annoying sound of dueling Viewmasters continuously emanates from the backseat nether region. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! Welcome to another family road trip adventure!
This sojourn is taking us into a two-day, one-night exploration of middle America. Southern Indiana, to be exact, featuring the best in campy tourist attractions, highly fried food, and beautiful outdoor expanses. Today, we are headed for our exciting first day destination: HolidayWorld, the mecca of all-American amusement located outside the small town of Santa Claus, Indiana.
Two hours into the trip, our kids are wired for sound. Literally. We have a mini-television stuffed between the bucket front seats of our tiny Saturn, and my techie-husband has wired two headphones – one for each child. Thus, those of us in the front seat can travel along and have an actual adult conversation, with nary a peep from our charming children. This extravagance doesn’t come without sacrifice. The front seat feels as tight as the space shuttle. “NASA, I’m ready for liftoff!”
We pass New Harmony, Indiana, and I dig into the travel brochures to learn that the town is renowned for its Roofless Church. In all the rest of America, most people would say that the picture of the Roofless Church looks suspiciously like an empty field. However, the residents of New Harmony (would you call them New Harmonians?) apparently take the Roofless Church quite seriously. It’s important to just go along with them.
Further along, we notice that the town of Santa Claus uses its name to the greatest advantage. Everything has a yuletide theme. There’s Holidaymart, the local supermarket, as well as Santa’s Lodge Hotel with St. Nick’s Restaurant. Nearby is beautiful Lake Rudolph. Of course, the local Catholic church is befittingly named after St. Nicholas. There is even the famed Santa Claus Post Office, one of only five post offices in the United States where you can get the official Santa Claus post stamp. Every holiday season, this small town is flooded with letters written by thousands of children to good ole’ St. Nick.
Finally, in the distant fields of corn, we hear the roar of roller coasters and screaming passengers. The call of the wild… HolidayWorld! A family-owned amusement park since the 1940s, HolidayWorld plays the Christmas theme to the hilt. In Rudolph’s Reindeer Village, preschoolers frolic on bumper-boats and the merry-go-round while speakers blare out “Silent Night”, “Little Drummer Boy” and other Christmas favorites. Just outside the bathrooms there is even a full-size nativity scene where you can have your picture taken. All the yuletide spirit is a little surreal in 90° heat of July, but you get used to it.
HolidayWorld features the friendliest, most clean-cut ride attendants you ever want to meet. If a ride is not crowded and your kid wants to ride again, no problem. Just stay in your seat and ride again. Although the kiddie rides are essentially traveling carnival rides made permanent, my five-year old and three-year-old are in heaven! Go to www.holidayworld.com for more info.
We skip Splashin’ Safari, the water park portion of HolidayWorld, since the kiddos are really too small. The terrifying adult rides are also passed up, since my husband succumbs to motion sickness even on escalators. However, The Raven, billed as America’s best wooden roller coaster, is something no roller coaster aficionado should miss. We head to HoliDog’s FunTown, which features a mass of mazes, climbing contraptions and three-story tube slides for small children. There is also a kiddie roller coaster, which our five-year-old rides 10 times in a row. The toddler area features smaller climbing apparatus and little cars for the younger set.
We take a mid-day break for Santa’s Storytime. Yes, the jolly old elf himself comes out to lead songs and READ A BOOK. Gotta admire an amusement park that reinforces reading. Santa has a real beard and a friendly, gentle face. His southern accent is a bit jarring, but the kids hardly seem to notice.
We spend five hours plodding through the endless joy of kiddie rides until we are so sick of Christmas that we can’t stand it anymore. Did I mention that the children are barely able to walk? We trudge out to the car and make it to the hotel in one piece. After checking in, we uncork a bottle of wine we brought along for the trip. Long ago, we learned that rural areas in middle America cannot be trusted to have handy liquor stores (if any). It’s BYOB time! The kiddos come back to life after a quick swim in the hotel pool, which overlooks a gorgeous field of waving wildflowers, butterflies and yellow finches. It looks like a picture out of National Geographic. After a dinner of fried everything at a local eatery, everyone sleeps quite soundly.
The next morning, we head out for more adventure, and I am surprised to see that we are passing through Hoosier National Forest. In the rest of the middle America, “Hoosier” is a derogatory term, akin to referring to someone as “white trash” in the deep south. Here in Indiana, however, it is a point of pride. Indeed, some of the license plates on cars say “Hoosier State.”
We arrive at Marengo Cave after following a skinny road through lush forest. The main cabin/tourist shop is decorated in early Adirondack rustic motif. Even better, the entire area is rigged with an outdoor sound system that blares “Dueling Banjos”, that snappy song from the movie Deliverance. Good thing this isn’t West Virginia. But wait a minute! We are frighteningly close to the Kentucky border. I momentarily think about alerting the proprietors that “Dueling Banjos” may actually scare the clientele a little bit, but then think the better of it after opening the door to the gift shop.
Immediately, we are greeted by the host of the gift shop, Willy Clifton, a stiff, older fellow perched in a relaxed manner on a stool. Willy is actually bearded mannequin wearing a cave touring uniform that says “Head Guide”. Apparently, before his demise (from a caving accident, perhaps?), Willy was a caveman’s caveman. He even used to play the cave’s pipe organ with a hand mallet for underground weddings. Quite a guy!
Marengo Cave itself is fabulous, filled with close passages that are often very dimly lit. This is one of the more authentic cave experiences I’ve had as part of a tour group. You have to squeeze around corners at times and duck down to waist level to scoot through other areas. Our cave guide is Jess, a “dude” in every meaning of the word. The stereotypical cool, skinny teen, Jess is all hip with the other cave guides prior to departure for our tour. But in front of our tour group, he is soft-spoken and awkward. He imparts all his knowledge of stalactites, stalagmites, and limestone draperies, in a low-key, shruggish way that actually works well in the subdued atmosphere of a cave. Our five-year-old is enthralled with Jess and stays with him at the front of the tour group pack. I’m surprised she didn’t ask for his autograph. Of course, no cave tour is complete without a light show choreographed to classical music. An image of the American flag caps off the light show in patriotic fashion, and everyone files out into the bright sunshine. For more details see www.marengocave.com.
For lunch, we head to The Dock, a rustic restaurant on the Ohio River, which forms the border between Indiana and Kentucky. The Dock has a lovely outdoor patio filled with large wooden barrels of flowers. There are butterflies everywhere. As this was a very casual restaurant and we were the only customers, I let the girls run around and look at the butterfly convention that surrounded us. (Normally I do not let my kids run lose in restaurants!) It was an idyllic scene, with barges passing by on the lazy river and our little girls delighted by flora and fauna.
Unfortunately, the menu at The Dock featured only heavily fried seafood. I suspect The Overlook Restaurant up on the bluff probably featured healthier fare, but linen tablecloths and children muddy from a cave tour didn’t look like a good mix. The stunning view at The Overlook Restaurant also included a precipitous 100-foot drop off the outdoor balcony down to the river. After surviving the cave tour without losing a single kid, I want to relax and watch the river float by, rather than try to prevent a kindergarten skydiving attempt. For a listing of local eateries, go to www.cccn.net/tourism.shtml.
Quite unexpectedly, we find that there are plenty of other great things to do in Southern Indiana – canoeing, hiking, horseback riding, camping, cycling, climbing, adventure racing, and lots more. Go to www.patoka-lake.net to find more about this great outdoor adventure area that hasn’t been discovered by the rest of the crowded populace. We can’t wait to return next year when our kids are a bit older, to try some hiking and maybe canoeing after indulging in the campy thrills of HolidayWorld.