Morning mist was still clinging stubbornly to the ground when we pulled into the parking lot. My partner in crime rubbed the tiredness out of her eyes, which grew wide as soon as she realized what she was looking at.
“Did I lie?” I asked her as I pulled into a parking spot adjacent to the bottom row of chipped white concrete teeth that were part of the lower jaw of a gaping T Rex mouth that served as the entrance to White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land. To our right were two more dinosaurs, one a brontosaurus, the other one of those two-legged beasts that, because no one knows exactly what it is, simply gets called an allosaurus. They were frozen in mid-menace of an Amoco gas station sign. To our left, just visible on the crest of a hill, was a giant octopus locked in mortal combat with a prehistoric shark. In front of us was a sign:
20′ Kong! 60′ Shark! 90′ Octopus! Christmas Shop!
“Just like prehistoric times,” she said as she slid out the door. I held her hand as she stepped gingerly over the row of dinosaur teeth and into the maw of the beast. Christmas bells tinkled lightly as I opened the door for her, and the smell of cinnamon rolled out in waves. The room inside was an expansive open area lit by sickly fluorescent tube lighting. One of them, situated over a wall of motley colored rubber dinosaur figures piled high in bushel baskets, was flickering stubbornly, unwilling to completely commit itself to full lighting, as fluorescent tubes are sometimes wont to do. A heavyset man with close-cropped white hair was jabbing it angrily with a broom handle.
“You’re just gonna break it doing that,” a woman said from behind a square fortress of glass display cases filled with pewter figures of dinosaurs and, for some reason, Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters. She was the man’s match in age and weight, with a fluffed white bouffant hairdo perched precariously on top of her head.
“Sometimes you just gotta give ’em a good whack. Stirs up the molecules and makes ’em light up,” the man responded as he tapped the tube with the broom.
The room was roughly sectioned off into three distinct flavors. We’d stepped through the door and into a dinosaur emporium full of outrageously painted prehistoric beasts and racks of dinosaur-themed children’s books and “scientific exploration” kits. Another group of people was here, parents with two young boys who had discovered a stash of authentic prehistoric plastic ninja swords and were busy striking Power Rangers poses.
The middle section was dedicated to all things Christmas, and here in June, a pint-sized animatronic Santa was shaking his hips with an audible whirring of gears while a tinny recording of “Jinglebell Rock” crackled out of a cheap speaker built into the base. He was surrounded by glittering red and green garland and fake foliage sprayed with that “frost in a can.” The far third of the room was apparently dedicated entirely to shellacked slices of wood adorned with paintings of beautiful American Indian women whose hair was being swept back by the wind to form the image of a white wolf. There were also some paintings consisting of various configurations of American flags, eagles, and Harley Davidson motorcycles, also on lacquered cross-sections of wood.
“I’m gonna give that Santa a good whack if he don’t shut up,” the man added.
The woman made an admonishing “tsk” sound. “Don’t say things like that. He is a saint, you know, Saint Nicholas, and you shouldn’t threaten saints.”
“Ahh, he’s the saint of pains in my butt,” the man said, which caused him to break into a fit of wheezing laughter as he abandoned his pinata treatment of the fluorescent light and turned to us. “How you folks doing?”
“Good,” I said. “We came in here because I heard there were some singing Santa I figures I could try out.”
“Shht,” the man breathed in that way people do when they don’t want to commit fully to simply saying “shit,” especially when children are around. He brandished the broom handle. “Now don’t make me use this on you, too!” Another fit of wheezing laughter erupted after his threat.
Dinosaur Land first opened the jaws out front in 1968, peppering the back roads of Virginia with enticing billboards screaming, “Spectacular!” and “Unbelievable but True!” There was no way a family station wagon was getting past the place without a pit stop to marvel at the assembled behemoths and pick up some quality dinosaur toys or dreamcatchers in the souvenir shop. After all, what does the soft green beauty of the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains have over a garishly painted assembly of monsters gathered behind an Amoco? Roadside attractions like Dinosaur Land are largely memories, brief spots on “Remember When” specials that air on the Travel and Discovery Channels but have otherwise disappeared from much of the American landscape. Dinosaur themed parks, however, seem to have fared better. Somehow, dedicating yourself to extinct animals is a good way to keep your business from becoming extinct itself, though unfortunately it didn’t seem to save Agar’s World of Kong, opened by B-movie mainstay John Agar.
Agar would be at home in White Post, though. We stepped through a rickety porch door and came face to face with a menacing, horror-faced fiberglass tree, the ominous open mouth of which was the only gateway through which one could pass to access the wealth of treasures beyond.
“I’m walking into a lot of mouths today,” I said as we ducked our heads and stepped into the tree’s waiting opening. “I really didn’t think I’d ever be in a situation where I’d say something like that.”
Inside the tree was a small, damp room made smaller by the presence of a skulking giant caveman statue that bore a striking resemblance to the caveman that used to chase Shaggy and Scooby around from time to time. We took turns posing with him until the two kids from the souvenir shop burst through the tree’s opening and stopped suddenly, apparently startled to discover two other people lingering about in the gut of a howling haunted tree. They recovered quickly, however, and immediately directed their attention toward the fiberglass caveman. We moved on, and as we exited I could hear a raucous explosion of laughter and one of the kids, struggling between his giggles,’ saying, “I punched the caveman in his wiener!” Beyond the tree, Dinosaur Land opened into a wide, wooded lot crisscrossed by gravel footpaths. From behind a distant thicket of trees, we could hear the high rumble of a lawnmower. Thrak of the Stone People out on his John Deere. I hoped when we saw it, it would be a stone cart with baby alligators strapped to the bottom.
The kids rocketed by us, dragging their parents in tow. The father was staring intently at the viewscreen of a camcorder, doing that slow pan that seems like a good idea when you’re doing it, but is always too slow or too fast when you actually get around to watching your video back home. The kids stopped beneath the dangling feet of a somewhat lumpy, brown pterodactyl suspended from a low-hanging tree branch.
“Sweetie, do your thing!” the mother shouted out as the father swiveled the camcorder around to focus on his children. One of them began flailing and jerking about in what I eventually deciphered to be some sort of imitation of Michael Jackson’s dancing style while the mother laughed and clapped. The other child grabbed her fifteen seconds of fame by slapping her brother on top of the head and screaming, “Dinosaur poop!”
We had lunch at the park’s picnic spot, nestled in a quaint spot just below the crotch of a T Rex that was ripping a huge gory hunk of meat from the throat of a hapless brontosaurus. The remainder of the park was populated by a variety of prehistoric beasts, including my old favorite, the ankylosaurus, plus the giant cobra, giant mantis, giant sloth, and towering statue of King Kong with one hand extended so that you could sit in his palm and have your picture taken, provided you didn’t mind sitting in a pool of cold, brackish water. At one point, the Kong statue had been pestered by a biplane suspended from a tree branch, but the plane had long since disappeared, presumably stolen by the proverbial “hooligans,” or possibly “young punks.” I vowed then and there that if I ever struck it rich, I’d purchase a new fiberglass biplane and donate it to Dinosaur Land. At the same time, I suppose it was nice for Kong to finally get a break from the incessant machine gun fire he’d otherwise have to endure.
These are the moral dilemmas that keep me up at night.
After wrapping our tour of Dinosaur Land and walking out of the souvenir shop with a bag full of little rubber dinosaurs, we headed over to see the white post for which the small town of White Post was named. The post was put in place sometime around 1750 by none other than George Washington himself, ostensibly as a marker to signify the way to the estate of one Lord Fairfax. I assume what Washington was really saying was, “Egads, man! When riding from stately Mount Vernon to visit Lord Fairfax, one simply must stop in to marvel at the lime green dimitredon on display at Ye Oldde Lande of Dynosars and Dragyns,” but my history is fuzzy on this account.