Acid Park by Michael Channing

Acid Park

by Michael Channing

You could actually go and touch the death car. It was just a few yards off the shoulder of the road. Years ago, a girl had been driving at night, high on LSD, lost control on the curvy backwoods road, and crashed. She and her boyfriend died right there in that car. By the time I saw it, there was nothing left but the rusted chassis. A tree grew up through the front, and the hood was gone. The girl’s father had stripped it for metal and parts, which he used to make art. He made a sculpture in her memory. And then he made a few dozen more.

The sculptures stood forty feet high or more. They spun and twirled like weather vanes. It was like a whole midway of carnival rides shrunk and hoisted into the air on metal polls. Miniature airplanes and carousels with iron horses, tilt-a-whirls, and spinning stars. And they were absolutely covered in reflectors of every color.

The sculptures loomed against the night sky, and when you rounded the curve, the very one that killed that poor, reckless couple years ago, your headlights would hit the reflectors, and the whole field would pop and flash like fireworks. You couldn’t miss it. When you saw it, you slowed down, which was exactly what the artist wanted to accomplish. He made art not just to memorialize his daughter, but to save the lives of anyone else who might be driving too quickly, too carelessly, too intoxicated on the dark and winding road that snaked past his land.

The locals called the place Acid Park, and, despite the agreed-upon origin story of a distraught father hoping to warn others against the effects of mind-altering substances, it was a place where teenagers liked to go and do drugs. I did not do drugs while I was there. But the place did change me. I wrote a short story about those sculptures. In my story, a cult lived in the glittering structures and claimed anyone who stared too long at the reflected light. There was madness in the light. My story was all effect with no substance, much like the supposed origin of the artworks themselves. There was no dead daughter. The daughter was very much alive and had never been in a horrible crash on the edge of her family's property. There had been no crash at all. The car I saw had simply been abandoned. The artist created the sculptures, or whirligigs as he called them, for the same reasons anyone creates any art, to pass the time and make something neat.

You can understand the rumors that gathered around the whirligigs. They just started sprouting up in the middle of nowhere. People must have come across the first one night and wonder what that glittery thing was that passed through their headlights. A few weeks later, that glittery thing glittered even more. Every so often, a new alien construct would black out a few more stars and add its secondhand light to the growing dazzle. It was private land far from the city, and the city itself was pretty small. Of course people made up explanations. Interesting that the one that caught on was so dark.

By day, the structures were strange but nonthreatening. Fascinating but rusted and rickety, competing with the encroaching kudzu and undergrowth. But at night, the wind whistling through the supports and spinning blades, the reflectors flicking random light into your eyes, the place felt haunted. So you looked for ghosts. You looked at the dozens of steel sentries and wondered what they were guarding, what signals they were sending and to whom. You stood outside the wire fence watching the stars strobe behind the moving parts, and a car approached. The occupants saw not only the technicolor spray of reflected light but also you and your friends, staring into the sky as if listening and waiting. You became part of their story, an accidental figure in their newly-minted mythology.

We thought Acid Park was our secret. And it kinda was. No two people ever came away with the same explanation for its existence. But it was hardly a secret. How could it be? It was right there beside the road.

It eventually became a tourist draw. People came from around the state to see the contraptions and marvel at one man’s ingenuity and determination. The artist, whose name is Vollis Simpson, maintained his metal garden into his nineties. When it became too much for one man, the whirligigs were moved downtown. Acid Park is now a real park, though of course it’s not called that anymore. It’s now the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, and there's a gift shop and an easily-accessible parking lot and signs pointing the way there.

It’s good that the man’s art was restored and is now being preserved. His daughter is on the board for the park, maintaining her father’s creations. But something was lost. There’s no mystery anymore. You’ll never again discover the place by accident as you turn a corner in the pitch-black night. All the madness has been explained away.

The same artworks, now re-contextualized. Yes, the whole story of the drunken crash was false, but the myth was tangible. I haven’t seen the structures in their new location, but I can guess they’re still an amazing sight to behold. They still hold wonder. But I can remember a time when I thought they might hold monsters.

Unseen and Unexplained

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

December 3, 2021