Weekend Wanderlust: Crossing into Eerie, Indiana

A monthly guide to day trips across Ohio and beyond

Kevin J. Elliott
Garfield dressed as James Dean at the Fairmount Historical Museum in Indiana

There was a short-lived series in the early '90s called "Eerie, Indiana" — almost like an "X-Files" with kids as the protagonists. Despite its shelf life, the premise has always stuck with me whenever I travel through the titular state. Under a veneer of the ordinary, there’s something not quite right about Indiana. No matter how plain, there’s a spirit of strangeness.

When I crossed the border in the village of Willshire, Ohio, west on Rt. 33, towards Decatur, Indiana, it was unceremonious, but also uncanny — like driving into a mirror. Vast, flat farmsteads turned into vast, flat farmsteads. And while that may not sound like much of an endorsement to make this trip, once you start digging for things to do, you’ll find a modest streak of weirdness that becomes endlessly fascinating. 

My first stop was the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center in Huntington. While I’ve spent some shoe leather discovering the history of our state (the “Mother of Presidents”) in regards to the nation's highest office, Indiana claims to be the “Mother of Vice-Presidents.” Six veeps have called Indiana home. The Quayle Center has artifacts connected to all 49 individuals to hold the office, from John Adams all the way up to a newly installed panel for Kamala Harris. There’s a small wing devoted to hometown hero Dan Quayle and some questionable signage about Hoosier Mike Pence’s “courage.” There was no mention of how Pence does, in fact, exude those freaky Indiana vibes. He did, after all, find Jesus at the Christian-rock Woodstock, Ichthus

The bulk of my travels in Northeast Indiana focused on chasing two of the most recognizable figures in all of pop culture: James Dean and Garfield. 

South of Huntington is Fairmount, Indiana, the birthplace of Dean and Garfield creator Jim Davis. Judging by the ubiquity of both in the area, you’d be hard-pressed to decide who is the most famous of the two. With its multi-stop Garfield Trail, Grant County would make you believe it was the orange cat. Like an analog version of Pokemon Go, the trail features 11 larger-than-life statues of Garfield, all posed in activities and garb according to the location. I managed to visit nine statues. There’s Dr. Garfield in front of the Marion General Hospital, Garfield blowing glass in Gas City, and Garfield with a pile of books in hand adjacent to the Van Buren Public Library. (Given this is Garfield’s stomping grounds, one had to wonder where he would find a good lasagna.) In front of the Fairmount Historical Museum, worlds collide as Garfield is dressed as Dean.

Garfield at the Van Buren Public Library

The most mythical Hoosier of all, James Dean, who died in 1955 with only three films in his repertoire, may be one of the most iconic figures in our collective memory. Though I don’t particularly connect with Dean, or even consider him a great actor, his image of rebellious, indifferent cool has burned on. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his hometown.

On this day, there was a surreal stillness to Fairmount and its bucolic surroundings. It seems progress stopped on the day Dean died. Just taking a brief walk through Fairmount's quaint downtown felt like I was an extra in East of Eden. It’s a living museum, of sorts. From the north you can find Dean's church, the farmhouse where he spent his teenage years, the motorcycle garage he frequented and, of course, Park Cemetery, where you can pay your respects to his bedazzled grave. There are two museums dedicated to Dean paraphernalia (both closed on my trip, but now open), and during a weekend in September, Fairmount will bring back its annual James Dean Festival, complete with vintage car show and look-alike contest.

The grave of James Dean

From Fairmount I journeyed to Muncie to explore the life of one last oddball Hoosier: Bob Ross. Though not a bona fide native of Indiana, Ross filmed his wildly popular "The Joy of Painting" for Muncie public-access channel WIPB-TV in the historic Lucius L. Ball home. Now a part of the massive Minnetrista museum complex, flocks have come to visit the newly christened Bob Ross Experience. There in the home, curators have re-created the studio in the exact spot where it was filmed and gathered artifacts that detail Ross’ charmed life, as well as a number of his original landscape paintings. Happy little clouds abound.

The Bob Ross Experience

I ended my day with a small pepperoni pizza from Pizza King (Indiana has several locations), another place stuck in time, where you have to order using a telephone at your booth. Declining to eat in, I drove for miles out of the way, through those vast, flat farmsteads, to Hoosier Hill, the highest point in Indiana. With an elevation of 1,257 feet, there’s no sweeping vista, no strenuous climb. It isn’t even really a “hill,” only a small thicket of trees with a bench and a rock signifying this insignificant landmark. It was a fitting end to a trip through a place where things are never really as they seem.

Hoosier Hill