Facing Extinction

You've all seen the jungle-esque summertime photos of the forlorn abandoned dinosaurs of Michigan's "Prehistoric Forest" swirling around the internet in Buzzfeed-land, so hopefully my version will be a little different.

With the coming of the automobile tourism era after World War II, US-12 sort of became Michigan's own version of the famous Route-66, in that it developed lots of kitschy and campy roadside attractions designed to get the family station wagon to pull over and look at silly stuff so the kids would drag the parents through the gift shop. The "Twin Towers" and "Stagecoach Stop, USA" were among the many such attractions in the area of southern Michigan known as the Irish Hills.

The history of southern Michigan and of the Irish Hills is written on the ancient scroll of US-12 as it winds its way through the countryside, following a path that is over ten millenniums old and denotes where the line of retreating glaciers used to be.

The Sauk and Potawatomi tribes trod this trail from the Detroit River down to the Mississippi River, just as their great ancestors had in ages past. It was called the "Great Sauk Trail" and its history has been dated back 10,000 or 11,000 years to when the last glaciers receded northward.

Ice Age herd animals first beat this trail along the high ground between the muck and pools created by the melting glaciers. Prehistoric man fashioned spearheads from the rounded stones dropped by the glacier, and simply followed the animals on their migratory paths. This was the primeval origin of the modern day US-12.

As white expansion moved further into Michigan's interior in 1825, the US surveyed the area for building a military road between Detroit and Chicago. It was the building of the Chicago Pike, or "Old Chicago Road" that gave birth to the villages of the Irish Hills at that time, as well as so many others along its path.

Of course as time went on the Old Chicago Road was improved, and with the coming of the automobile it was designated as Highway US-12. It remained the single most direct route between Detroit and Chicago until Interstate-94 was completed, and many tourist traps such as this sprung up around the automobile culture.

Welcome to Stagecoach Stop, USA, pardner:

Apparently they have designs on reopening soon, but time will tell if it flies. "Prehistoric Forest" was among the better-known attractions for kids, with its collection of large fake dinosaurs looming in the woods:

It also had a fake mountain, with fake caves:

One thing that was so endemic to these sorts of places was the fake rock formations that looked like they came right out of a Hanna-Barbara cartoon backdrop. These caves happened to be made out of that expanding spray-foam stuff, painted gray. This must be the Grinch-asaurus's cave:

In the mid-1980s I believe dinosaurs were kind of "in," or at least that's what I remember as a 5th and 6th grader. I remember watching all kinds of science shows on TV about digging for dinosaurs, and I'm sure I wasn't the only kid my age whose imagination was sparked by the thought of finding fossils from ancient monsters; I had already beheld with great curiosity the many fossils embedded in the beaches near Lake Erie.

So naturally my ma took me and my siblings out here at least once or twice so I could groove on the super-realistic dinos at Prehistoric Forest, and their equally realistic movements and sounds, heh.

But as automobile travel became more streamlined, and Americans became more jaded, less adventurous, and just downright too lazy to get out of their cars, places like this have fallen from popularity. Our dullard children are much more amused by staring deeply into some electronic device in their carseat than by some goofy looking fiberglass dinosaurs.

Our parents too are less fun than ever, concerned only with getting from Point A to Point B in the absolute least amount of time possible. It seems that nobody knows how to get anywhere without using the Interstate. After all, why go against what the GPS lady says? You must obeyyyyy....

As if there was any doubt in your mind, I do not have a turn-by-turn navigation device in my car, nor has there ever been one anywhere in my possession. I study old maps, and love to explore the areas between my destinations.

Now, I'm not arguing that if Prehistoric Forest were still open today that I would be a regular customer, however. This is the kind of attraction that comes from the black & white era of cheesy rubber-and-string TV monsters, when people were still impressed by such things.

So naturally with faded interest in places like Prehistoric Forest and Stagecoach Stop, USA, they all began to face mass extinction, almost as if the Ice Age were returning to the Old Sauk Trail.

Such attractions have become "dinosaurs" in both the metaphorical and literal sense. The only visitors they get now are the cyber tourists who click on the latest copycat re-blog links to Buzzfeed clickbait articles containing stolen photos. After all, why go out into the real the real world to look at fake dinosaurs when you can look at them from the safety of your warm cubicle on nailhed.com?

Today the poor creatures nervously shuffle about, shivering in the cold, scrounging what little food they can in these snowy post-asteroid-collision days, knowing that there is a dramatic change coming in the air that will soon be their undoing.

The fact that most of the herbivorous dinosaurs are already missing shows that this extinction has been underway for some time; the lack of vegetation for them to eat in the long Michigan winter caused them to perish in the first wave of die-offs, while the carnivorous dinosaurs have managed to cling to life for a bit longer.

However, even they have begun to croak, as their supply of prey has dwindled with the onset of this new Ice Age:

There were newer species appearing however such as the Woolly Mammoth out front, who seems rather unconcerned with the snow and single-digit temps.

By each dinosaur was a plaque that told the curious visitor the name of the creature as well as some things about him. Above the sign was a speaker that constantly broadcasted the sounds the dinosaur ostensibly made when he was alive, as well as general jungle sounds to help you forget that you were in Michigan for the 15 minutes or so that the tram tour lasted.

Like I said, unfortunately a lot of the plant-eaters were missing, such as Triceratops. Either they migrated to warmer climes, or all of the guilty looking meat-eaters that were left milling about had turned them into a meal long ago.

For what it's worth, there was another roadside attraction in northern Michigan very similar to Prehistoric Forest, though it was called "Underground Forest." It was located on Old US-27 in Frederic, and when I-75 was built it eventually shared the same fate as its southern cousin.

The styrofoam cave system here was kind of fun to explore.

It was beginning to come apart at the seams though, revealing its meticulously-crafted undercarriage.

Pay no attention to the homeless man behind the curtain...

One entire side of this cave-bridge had given way:

Underneath it I could see the tunnel that the trams went through as they carried visitors out into the woods to begin their tour of the Prehistoric Forest:

What was this, a Neanderthal scarecrow?

A headless one, anyway. Perhaps T-Rex had already come by to snap off his head for a midnight snack.

I went into the doorway in the back of the cave to find a weird room with a bar and a fireplace in it, which I can only imagine was not part of the tour.

An office or lounge for the employees, perhaps?

It's covered in snow, but you can see at least one fake palm tree in this shot:

Some pretty serious cave-ins up ahead:

The foam cave-in exposed what looked to have been a once-secret compartment behind the fantasy facade, where a ladder led up into the hidden structure of the fake mountain itself.

I climbed it up through some very strange, fun house-proportioned spaces behind the elaborate illusion. "Hmmm, is that wiring done to code?" the narrator asks himself, knowing full well the answer:

Wow, quite the job here:

I imagine there were a lot of carpenters in a place like the Irish Hills though...there's nary an Irishman alive who could not join two pieces of wood with a hammer by the age of 5.

It would appear that our styrofoam mountain was actually built over a huge mound of ex-glacial Irish Hills sand:

 Reminds me of a set out of Tales From the Crypt or something...

This is what it looks like from the outside...didn't the Flintstones' house look kind of like that?

A rare specimen of Great Northern Snowcactus:

By the way, I apologize if any hardcore Christians are offended by the sight of dinosaurs. Here are some pictures of unicorns.

Anyway, what is this, a Dodo Bird...?

Either that or Toucan Sam's prehistoric forebear.

Not sure who this guy is:

He looks like he has kind of a defeatist attitude about the whole situation though.

Could you imagine being out here on hallucinogens....?

 On second thought, I'd rather not. Especially with Jar-Jar Binks lookalikes on the loose:

This guy looks like he is about to either devour me, or offer me a really great deal on car insurance:

Ole T-Rex is looking a little chilly today...I bet his nipples are as hard as rocks.

I don't know what's up with the scary tree guy, as he doesn't look very prehistoric or dinosauric, but there is an area of the park dedicated to large statues of Old Mother Hubbard nursery-rhyme themes, such as the big shoe house, that I did not show you in this post.

Actually, now that I think about it, that tree-guy looks exactly like the entrance to the Level-1 labyrinth in the Legend of Zelda...

This guy ate our lawyer, so I guess that proves he's really not all bad:

Taking a peek up T-Rex's rectal access port offers a view of the mechanics that apparently made him open and close his jaws or lean over to roar at visitors:

Okay, found the end of the tunnel where the trams would come out, if I remember correctly:

When you came to Prehistoric Forest and paid your admission, you boarded a little tram that carried other passengers out this tunnel and onto the trails through the woods where the dinosaurs were. 

Remember now too, this was years and years before Jurassic Park came out.

Anyway, I noticed a bunch of these things stuck to the wall in random places...I wonder if they had once been painted with glow-in-the-dark paint so as to give the appearance of scary eyes watching you as your tram passed through the darkened tunnel?

Going back out front again, here is the Woolly Mammoth and Brontosaurus. It seems more like Brontosaurus needs his neck propped up by the palm tree than he is eating from it. What a lazy bastard.

You can almost imagine the frosty breath coming out of the Mammoth's mouth in puffs. It seems someone has come along and relieved him of his tusks however, making him look more like a Snuffleupagus than a Woolly Mammoth.

I didn't realize there was a black market for fiberglass tusks? Perhaps they were stolen by savvy scrappers who knew that Mammoth ivory was more valuable than all the copper in the Packard Plant?

Oh well, that's it for the Prehistoric Forest.

One other great thing about the Irish Hills is the abundance of really old buildings that have managed to survive along the great old US-12, including a lot of rustic stone buildings such as St. Joseph's Church, barely a mile down the road from Prehistoric Forest:

Speaking of "facing extinction," below is the An Gorta Mor, or "Great Hunger Memorial" to the lives lost in the Potato Famine, which afflicted Ireland from 1845 to 1850, killing a million people. That was the precipitating event that resulted in a mass exodus from the Emerald Isle to places in America, such as the Irish Hills here, where they built St. Joseph's Church in 1854.

The monument was erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 2004, but the lintel piece is actually one of the steps of Penrose Quay at Cork Harbor in Ireland, which I presume must have been a landmark or departure point along the great migration to America made by the two million Irish emigrants in those days. It is suspended over an empty bronze bowl, which symbolizes The Hunger.

The churchyard cemetery contains this weird fake-stone monument, whose origin or purpose I am not quite sure of:

A fake oak tree made of concrete sits nearby. Stay tuned; there is more to this concrete tree stuff, that I will hopefully investigate when I visit Cement City in a future post....

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