Wherein a supernatural southern Gothic horror novel inadvertently inspires a trip into rural Wisconsin where hotdogs, UFOs, and peacocks run amok in the wild.
Hotdogs and crop circles.
That was my pitch to my kids to get them in the car for the drive to Mayville, Wisconsin.
They’re used to it: ice cream and a cemetery drive, taking the “long way” home past a historical crime scene, detours to cursed locations en route to a family wedding. Still, they didn’t think I was serious about the crop circles, or just didn’t really care, until I pulled over to photograph an empty field where crop circles appeared 17 years ago.
Most of my waking hours are spent on a computer, so I’m always looking for an excuse to jump in the car and explore.
The excuse for this trip began with a horror paperback and chocolate soda.
I started reading the novel Neverland by Douglas Clegg when it was reprinted in paperback in 2010 – the same year I launched Cult of Weird, coincidentally. I found it on the new release rack at the library and checked it out.
I don’t like borrowing books. Once a story gets in my head, I need to keep it around – a real, physical object taking up space in my life. Otherwise it’s just a ghost – dusty, cobwebbed memories of a loved one who’s long since faded away. Intangible and empty. But I was dirt poor in the first decade of the millennium. I had no education, no employable skills, a feast-or-famine freelance design career, and two young children. Buying books was not an option.
So I checked out Neverland, took it home, and managed to find just enough time to read the first few chapters before I had to return it. It was swampy, gritty, disturbing, and though I tried to move on, it has clung deep in my mind, thick and slimy and dangerous as a blood clot, for the last ten years.
It would randomly bubble up from the stinking black muck from time to time – the crumbling Lee home on Gull Island, the senile, wheelchair-bound grandmother who could hear the children’s thoughts, the thing in the shack in the woods. I would search it on Amazon, add it to my cart, look at my bookshelf lurking nearby where at least twelve books have random bits of paper poking out at varying intervals at any given time, then move it to my wishlist, instead, and close the tab.
Most nights of the week, I read to my son at bedtime. He loves story, but not so much the act of reading. I hope to change that. Not to mention it’s usually the only time I have to read something that’s not historical or Fortean-related research for the site. We’ve worked our way through Lovecraft, Gaiman, most of the Harry Potter series, and numerous others. Between books, we’ll read short stories from classic and contemporary horror, like Bram Stoker’s “Walpurgisnacht” and, more recently, “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca. I’ll sprinkle in some nonfiction, such as chapters from Colin Dickey’s Ghostland, or Bess Lovejoy’s Rest in Pieces.
Most recently, we completed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the latest volume of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, read about Jeremy Bentham’s last wishes, and Linda Godfrey’s The Beast of Bray Road. What was left? The next Harry Potter book? Ugh. I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. So I pre-ordered A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer.
Then, Neverland oozed back to the surface of my consciousness.
Maybe it was the recent heat and humidity that reminded me of the book’s sticky, insect-infested southern coastal setting, or an article about how the blood of horseshoe crabs is key to making a COVID-19 vaccine. Something reminded me of Neverland, and I decided it was finally time. A new edition on Amazon had a different cover, though, so I bought a retired 2010 library copy from a seller on eBay. I’m very particular about covers.
Neverland and A Peculiar Peril arrived at the same time. Any day that I find a book in the mail is a good day, so this one was spectacular. My sacrifices to the postal gods had paid off. A Peculiar Peril, it turns out, is bigger than I expected. I have Annihilation, which has a much smaller page count. This one would take us a while to get through, and while I know it will be worth the effort, I needed to get back to that shack in the woods of Gull Island.
So we started reading Neverland. And that’s when we got derailed by chocolate soda.
It’s important to note that this is not a children’s book. There are no pirates, fairies or ticking crocodiles in Neverland. Over the years, I’ve become quite adept at swapping a vulgar word or skipping a sentence without missing a beat. But Neverland has tripped me up several times so far with extensive details you probably don’t want to read aloud to your child. I find myself tripping clumsily through the text, using the excuse that I lost my place while I scan the page for a safe place to pick back up.
Aside from one of two mild moments, though, the introductory chapters are mostly innocent. It focuses on young protagonist Beau’s dysfunctional family on the drive in their station wagon to the annual getaway at their grandmother’s decrepit southern Gothic home.
There is a mention early in the story of stopping at a gas station for a Yoo-hoo chocolate soda. My son made a gagging noise as I read it. The words “chocolate soda” sparked a memory, the way a particular scent can sometimes transport you instantly into a distant moment from the past. I drifted back to my early childhood and remembered, for the first time in my adult life, that whenever I visited my grandparents at their home in Milwaukee, my grandmother would always have a cold chocolate soda waiting for me in the basement fridge.
She would pop open the can, pour it into a particular glass mug reserved for me, and place it on a TV tray in front of me with some snacks.
I don’t remember the brand, just the brown aluminum can. It was probably a knockoff from a company that makes flavors like Dr. Thunder and Mountain Lightning. I couldn’t tell you what it tasted like, either, but after reading a description of Yoo-hoo, I don’t think they’re the same thing. I hope not, anyway. A Yoo-hoo chocolate soda sounds more a chocolate drink, not the carbonated, artificially flavored chocolate soda I was remembering.
I shared this memory with my son, and we (maybe just me) decided we needed to find chocolate soda. Would I like it now? Would the flavor bring back more memories? Did it even still exist?
More importantly, was it a sufficient distraction from a summer devastated by the pandemic? There are no county fairs this year, no museum trips, no weird adventures to Wisconsin Dells. This chocolate soda thing would have to do.
A cursory search on my phone listed nearby purveyors of old-fashioned fountain sodas, handmade chocolates, and chocolate malts. No chocolate soda.
An authentic malt, however, was something I realized my kids had yet to experience, and a place in Mayville called Bridge Street Eatery, where one could procure a chili dog and a malt made from any flavor ice cream, sounded enticing.
Furthermore, Mayville was the site of an extremely rare crop circle incident 17 years ago that I’d been planning to eventually track down. Wisconsin has a rich UFO history, but crop circles are fairly uncommon. I know of two cases that occurred close to Cult of Weird HQ, both highly unusual. Between them, however, the Mayville case has something the Dundee crop circle doesn’t: An eyewitness.
Hotdogs and crop circles. Suddenly we had an expedition, and I was ready to get out of the house.
Early evening a few days later, I wrapped up the day’s tasks at my kitchen table, where I’ve been working remotely since March, closed my laptop (that’s a good feeling) and set out.
Mayville is a half hour drive from Cult of Weird HQ through rural Wisconsin. It’s a small town with a population of less than 5,000. We found Bridge Street Eatery in the historic downtown district just a block from the river. We got the food to go (I highly recommend a Munchie Madness malt, by the way) and drove a few miles out of town to Dodge County Ledge Park.
The Ledge is the portion of the rocky Niagara Escarpment that runs above ground through Wisconsin. It is a significant geological feature considered to be the “backbone” of North America. For indigenous cultures, it had mystical properties. They carried out ceremonies and burials near it.
Dodge County is home to hundreds of Native American effigy mounds, and petroglyphs that align with the solstice sun have reportedly been found in Ledge Park.
We didn’t see any of these.
In fact, once we arrived in the park we opted to eat in the car instead. Despite an empty picnic table with an amazing view looking out over the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area and the setting sun hanging low in the sky, the pterodactyl-sized mosquitoes were foaming at the proboscis and scratching at the windows the moment I stopped the car. We barely made it out alive. We’re lucky to have all our limbs, honestly. I think they left claw marks in my bumper.
We didn’t even have the opportunity to find the mysteriously named “Contemplation Tree,” so that’s an adventure for another time.
We set out from Ledge Park to find the field where the crop circles had appeared, driving down about 10 minutes worth of winding country roads. I had to stop and let a peacock casually stroll across the road at one point.
A peacock. In rural Wisconsin.
Surely the work of aliens.
Finally we arrived at the top of a hill where a 2003 photo captured a member of the US Air Force, parked on the side of the road looking out over the field through binoculars.
It really was a great view of the field. The empty field.
I’m sure my kids were thrilled.
It was here that retiree Art Rantala watched from his workshop 17 years ago as a storm moved in, and the wheat in this field flattened into three circles – one at a time – right in front of his eyes.
Because of certain unique geological anomalies that even early indigenous cultures attributed power and meaning to?
The bizarre evidence in this case tells a story of significant forces existing in this world that we do not yet understand, and only two things are certain: 1. I may never find chocolate soda, and 2. The peacocks are not what they seem.