Saturday, August 05, 2006

From The Plastic Pumpkins Case Files: The Mystery of Mill Race Park

I just recently returned from a business trip to Indiana and the small town of Columbus, where I expected to find very little with which to pass my time and instead stumbled upon a mystery that would baffle the greatest analytical minds of our generation, from Trixie Belden to the Bobbsey Twins. By 'our generation' I apparently refer to your great-grandmother's and by 'recently returned' I mean sometime back around the Fourth of July. I'm not up-to-date on what the kids are reading these days and it takes me a long time to get my film developed.

Columbus, Indiana had all sorts of things going for it. Educational and arty things which sounded like the sort of stuff a lot of people would find very interesting. They also had a Starbucks and a Target which was more than enough for me. Most of the places I'm sent to on business trips can offer up little more than a Dollar General and a Tastee-Freez to fill my long lonely evenings, so the Starbucks/Target combo rocked hard. There was also a White Castle restaurant, something I'd never seen before in my life. The White Castle visit alone filled an evening. It was very exciting... people kept telling me that you either love White Castle or you hate them. Magic 8-Ball says... 'Hate them!' Besides the fact of the meat looking and tasting a bit like Play-Doh that's been left out of the can overnight the secret to White Castle's success can be summed up in one word- onions. Every last thing on their menu is dipped in, covered with and reeking of onions. Onions make me sick like I want to kill. Just the smell from the sackful of 'sliders' that I ordered gave me a migraine. Still it was an adventure.

What was the point of this post... oh yeah, the park. Columbus had a lot of parks for a city of its size, a lot of parks. There was Clifty Park and Donner Park (which reminded me of the Donner Party which was not good) and Noblitt Park (which reminded me of Green Giant 'Niblets' which was good) and about 15 other parks, most of which were always empty save for a few people sitting in their cars in the parking lots with the engines off and the windows up, staring straight ahead and not doing much of anything else. Weird, but not the mind-baffling mystery portion of this post.

There was one park called Mill Race Park which I attempted to find on two occasions, driving past the entrance several times 'cause it didn't look like much more than a driveway running through an empty hill past two large upright stone thingies. The stone thingies I later assumed to be the remnants of a mill race. Clever. A sign would have been better.

Mill Race Park is a lovely park, a mish-mashed patchwork of odds and ends but a lovely park none-the-less. It features an 84-foot tall observation platform, a genuine wooden covered bridge, a reflecting pool, a steel trestle bridge sitting in the middle of a weedy bit of field, a lookout hill capped by a concrete slab scattered with one-seater benches facing in all manner of direction and, strangest of all, several structures built of glass blocks and red-painted metal and looking very much like 1960's bus stops. One of these structures was an amphitheater, one was a vine-covered tunnel, one was a picnic shelter and a couple, I think, were restrooms. I didn't have to pee so we'll never know. Then there was the 'Mystery.'

Mill Race Park, like most of the rest of the city's parks, featured plenty of beautiful and well-paved walking paths. Kudos to their Parks Department for these. One of the Mill Race paths took you over a wooden plank walkway, very reminiscent of the Everglades, and onto a metal bridge/platform that spanned a stanky pool of water with a large fountain in the center. On the opposite side of this small lake was a huge concrete observation platform hanging out over the water. In the center of this platform was a large concrete pole. This place is very hard to describe.

On this metal bridge, hidden back up under the tree branches was another glass block/red metal building. It was smallish, about the size of a newstand, with one door in the back which opened up inches away from the edge of the bridge and the thick green water below and a roll-up metal door in the front like a... well, like a newstand. I took it at first to be a rather oddly placed information booth, but I soon discovered that if that was what it indeed was than it was also a long-abandoned information booth 'cause it was securely padlocked and obviously uncared for. It was scrawled with graffiti, half the glass blocks were broken or missing and the interior was full of dead leaves and old candy wrappers.

I walked past it, but found myself returning to it later on. The more I had thought about it the stranger it had seemed. It was too far off the beaten path to have been conveniently located for anyone looking for an info-booth and yet not so far off to steer lost hikers back towards civilization. Could it have been used as a rental booth and if so what did they rent? Fishing equipment for the slimey lake? Bikes? Did they sell refreshments? Umbrellas and cuddly animals like that Roller Coaster Tycoon stand? Upon closer inspection it would seem that nothing of any real importance could have been kept in there since there was no actual roof just a canopy that left plenty of room for encroaching elements to sneak inside. There was a small metal bench beside it, so was it a bus stop? Did there use to be a bus route along that narrow dirt path? None of those options seem quite right for the odd location. Baffling.

And currently forlorn. It looked so sad just sitting there all padlocked and bruised and unused. Nothing but the trees and the subtle stench of the water keeping it company. I wanted to go to the city and ask them if I could take over the little place just so I could fix it up and stand there every day handing out maps of the park to passers-by and just giving the place a sense of purpose.

I've totally oversold this place now. Looking at the pictures I can't even begin to understand why I was so morbidly fascinated with this odd structure. Must have been the heat. Still for what it's worth, here's the 'Mystery' building in all its enigmatic glory-

That wing/blade feature was a signature look for the rest of the park's 'bus depot' buildings as well.

A closer look at the padlocked front window

The only picture that really does any justice to the 'abandoned-ness' of the place. You can see some of the broken glass blocks and a bit of the litter. I wish that I had gotten a better picture of the interior, but it made me nervous to get too close to the place. I'm weird that way.

The platform that the building sat on was a good two feet above the scummy water that ran underneath. Anyone who came out the back door on the right side of the above picture would have risked tumbling into the goop.

Like I said, totally oversold. I guess you really had to be there.

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