I’m sitting at a highway rest stop in southern Wisconsin, looking out at a panorama of level horizons in this glacier-flattened part of the country, and I’m thinking about George Mallory, who led the first British expeditions to the five-and-a-half-mile high summit of Mount Everest. When a reporter asked him why he wanted to climb the tallest mountain in the world, he famously replied, “Because it’s there.” Mallory’s death in 1924 on a subsequent climb notwithstanding, that answer became an oft-repeated motto for adventurers and explorers of all stripes. Why did I climb that mountain? Why did I visit that crumbling temple on the other side of the world? Why did I trespass into that abandoned hospital? Because it was there.
Quite a few people have used Mallory’s words to talk about the need to overcome a challenge, the drive to prove oneself, but the same impulse would seem to guide travelers, explorers, road trippers, even when challenge isn’t part of the equation. Sure, it might have been part of what drove me to trek across burning deserts and shimmy through winding canyons, to scale the rusty fences around industrial ruins, and hike to the ancient sandstone cities the Ancestral Pueblo carved into cliffsides. But I would provide the same answer if asked why I slogged through traffic in Seattle to find the place underneath a bridge where a giant troll had been carved into the concrete. Or why I ventured to an utterly unremarkable and objectively meaningless spot in the barren southwestern desert where four states’ borders intersect at a dull monument surrounded by tribal gift shops. Or why I drove hours out of my way through Nebraskan fields to a place where someone had recreated Stone Henge with vintage cars upended and spray-painted gray. Because it’s there. So I wanted to see it.
When I finish stretching my legs, I eagerly slide back into the cluttered crossover SUV that I bought because it has just enough room to sleep in for a few weeks at a time, and I get back on the road, because mountains or not, there’s something here to see. Road trippers are collectors of experience. We are a curious people, easily intrigued by oddity, endlessly fascinated. We fling ourselves out of the comforts of our homes because we feel drawn to the enormity, complexity, beauty, and absurdity of the world, and the more of it we can take into our hearts by firsthand encounter, the better. It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most famous and frequently visited roadside attractions in the country is the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin – a place that is itself enormous, complex, beautiful, and utterly absurd.
It’s also unusual among roadside attractions in that it was never intended to be one. The precise location—set back in the woods, invisible from the highway—hints at a desire for seclusion and isolation rather than an audience. It isn’t like the hotel a few miles away that has a Boeing C-97 military cargo plane with a fuselage signed by Farah Fawcett parked on its front lawn, begging passersby to pull over for a look. No, a thick wall of trees obscures any view from the road. Only after turning off the highway and through a gate and onto a long winding path do I find myself passing huge ornamented urns as though approaching some lost and forgotten shrine. Most roadside attractions might be conceived with some artistry, but they’re also designed to attract a crowd. House on the Rock wasn’t.
As I pick up from a glance at some reading material in the lobby, it began as a passion project by a man named Alex Jordan. It was a studio he designed and built himself, full of winding passageways, levels broken up into awkward, jaggedly shaped chambers. And as he built it, he gradually began to fill it with every possible art and artifact that aroused his curiosity—and he was curious about many, many things. Music, aviation, history, weapons, armor, clothes, medicine, trains, the ocean, toys, stained glass, Buddhism, the circus… everywhere I look, from the coffee tables made of church windows to the mythological statuary at the center of spiral staircases to the shelves upon shelves of baubles and trinkets and antiques of varying authenticity, to the elaborate Japanese garden, is filled with testaments to his curiosity, an exhibit of Alex Jordan’s own mind.
However, it was first and foremost a personal retreat and one into which Jordan never planned to invite anyone. Initially, as rumor and interest spread about his construction, he turned visitors away, claiming that he was just the gardener to avoid conversations about what he had built. He only began allowing visitors when he realized that charging fees for tours would give him the means to expand, to build more of a world for himself, and so he did expand…
Even the initial house is more like many houses in one, and when I venture beyond, I find more than rooms. I tread onto the cobblestone streets of a sprawling village, all under a distant invisible ceiling, permanently dim, populated by mannequins and mechanical specters tending to their shops and relaxing in their lounges. Others spend their days playing music in different genres, barbershop, rock, orchestral, sometimes echoing just barely far enough to overlap.
Just as I begin to worry that even as large as this place is, it couldn’t possibly be large enough to hold everything Alex Jordan ever loved, I see he found the answer. When there wasn’t room enough for every possible kind of place at full scale, he built smaller. I follow the path into a whole civilization of miniatures sprawling from corridor to corridor behind glass. I drift by snowy villages, peek in on intricately carved cathedrals. In one case, a three-ring circus, in another a sailing ship on choppy waters.
Around the corner, a five-and-a-half-foot tall replica of a five-and-a-half-mile high mountain stands with tiny Englishman scaling it with dogged determination.
And when towns and villages weren’t enough, he built the ocean and the skies. I pass a little robotic octopus playing a predictable Beatles tune for an audience of dancing fish as nearby a gargantuan whale is locked in frozen combat with a giant squid. I ascend a ramp, and soon I’m wandering on walkways past mannequins riding blimps over greenhouses.
And when all of that wasn’t enough…
Finally, I reach perhaps the most famous element of the expanded house. The enormous carousel, hundreds and hundreds of creatures riding on multiple levels, dangling chandeliers and glittering lights, the whole thing surrounded by concentric circles of winged angels. It reminds me of Gustave Dore’s illustration of the Paradiso, when the pilgrim reaches the primum mobile on whose spinning motion all of creation turns. Maybe that’s a bit much for an overblown carnival ride, but still, it’s the divine heart of this place, and it’s beautiful.
Of course, a great deal of these observations are only my impressions, my experience of this place and this man’s creation, peppered with a bit of promotional material from the lobby, which I assume has its share of liberties and omissions. I would not pretend to truly know what was going on in Alex Jordan’s mind—I’ll leave that to his biographers. I do find it interesting, though, that when interviewed, Jordan explained that he collected and collected and brought it all inside because if he could gather everything he liked, everything that intrigued him, everything that captured his interest, into this space, then he would never have to leave it. Thus, in a sense, Jordan was full of the same frenetic energy of curiosity that drives road trippers out into the world; only the direction of that energy was reversed. If the road tripper explodes outward, Jordan’s curiosity was instead like a collapsing star, drawing everything it saw into its gravity – it’s no wonder that it started drawing in so many people along with everything else.
If I were to make one guess, however, it would be this:
The “infinity room” is a long, steel-framed corridor, constructed to a narrowing point such that it visually seems to stretch on forever and ever. It is located in the house’s original main portion, but according to the pamphlets, it was one of Jordan’s final additions, just a few years before he died. It makes me wonder if, in his waning years, he contemplated his choices, the simultaneously broad-reaching and stationary quality of his life. Perhaps that reflection brought him to retreat back closer to the first part of the house he’d built and let himself look off into the infinite, which was safely inside his walls.
BIO: Rhiannon Catherwood lives in Syracuse, NY with her wife and cat. She is a teacher, circus artist, and road tripper.
Photo by: Rhiannon Catherwood
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