Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: on June 9th and 10th my wife Anne and I attended the 39th annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, IL, a grand bash in honor of the Man of Steel in particular and all the super-heroes who owe their existence and livelihoods to him in general.
Across the Ohio River from Metropolis is the city of Paducah, Kentucky. We first explored their downtown on our first road trip to the area in 2001, but had found mostly empty storefronts, a few old antique shops, a couple of murals, a scary comic shop, and easy access to the Ohio River in case we wanted to take our chances on a dunking of questionable content. On our second through fifth trips to the area, we bypassed downtown and limited our Paducah exploration to our hotels and the restaurants closest to them.
On the occasion of our sixth visit, we dug more deeply into our online research, now that more resources are available to us today than we had in 2001. We learned of a few roadside attractions we missed the first time around and we found encouraging evidence that they’ve made some upgrades over the past sixteen years. Once we’d had our fill of super-hero glory, festival food, and sunburn, we decided to hop back across the Ohio and see how they’re doing.
We dipped our toes gently into the area, first heading toward the National Quilt Museum. Based on the amount of advertising we encountered, the spaciousness of their shiny building, and the $11 admission fee, we gathered the National Quilt Museum is a big, big deal for true aficionados of extreme handcrafted bedding.
Photos and videos of all kinds were forbidden in the galleries for the sake of copyright protection on the artists’ behalf, we were told. Their official site provides several examples of what we witnessed, but we have no firsthand visual souvenirs of our own to prove that the works therein were largely ten times better than your grandma’s repetitious bedspreads, those dusty heirlooms composed of sixty copies of the exact same pattern sewn together into a single rectangle.
“Quilt”, it seems, has a broader definition than I’d been led to believe by the few practitioners we know, such as my own grandma or Anne’s stepmother. Part of me questions how many of their exhibits would actually be comfortable if tossed on my bed in the middle of winter, but the museum was pitifully lacking in interactive opportunities. Regardless, many of their exhibits were fascinating, more than a few would qualify as Works of Art even to the most bored macho observer, including one fantasy-inspired covering with a dragon or two. A placard for one of the more high-end examples described a painstaking process involving Corel Paint software and 16,916 hours of total one-woman labor. If your mental image of a quilter resembles either someone from the Ingalls family era or that granny from the Tweety Bird cartoons, then you’re as out-of-the-loop on the form as I am.
On the Quilt Museum’s lawn stands a quartet of statues paying homage to famed American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. History buffs know them as leaders of the famous 1804-1806 expedition that charted the continental geography from St. Louis to Oregon. Comics fans know them as the stars of Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts’ Image Comics series Manifest Destiny, which covers their journey but adds gruesome monsters. Their party’s fatality rate seems historically accurate, at least.
They weren’t just in the area one time. After their king-sized road-trip assignment, Clark later returned to the area in 1827 and became one of Paducah’s co-founders. Hence the special attention.
Downtown Paducah is not one of those ritzy cities where you need to worry about parking garages charging you five or ten bucks an hour. The museum has its own free lot, where we were surprised to encounter a patient doggie leashed to some other family’s touring vehicle. We saw no water left out for him in the summer heat, but at least the li’l trooper had a breeze and some shade. And thankfully the museum isn’t an hours-long perusing experience.
The downtown streets nearest the riverfront looked much healthier and more inviting than we remember from last time. Closer to their revitalized, actually trendy streets is a large lot offering hundreds of free spaces for anyone wanting to hang out and enjoy local culture. Paducah now has enough going on for them that the extremely gracious rep at their Visitor Center inundated us with far more dining and touring options than we could’ve possibly fit into a single weekend. Arriving as we did shortly before 4 p.m., we were disappointed to find several restaurants either closed by 2:00 (including one deli that was strongly recommended to us by other Superman fans) or wouldn’t open till 5. By this time we’d finally digested the last of our Superman Celebration snacks and were a bit desperate for something more substantial ASAP.
Enter Tribeca, a Mexican restaurant with a fairly standard menu but solid results. Anne enjoyed a plate of flautas; I diverged and went for a flauta and a chimichanga because it sounded good. And, thankfully, was.
At one point we wandered in the wrong direction and found ourselves strolling a few blocks that still resembled Paducah 2001. Not all of downtown Paducah has been reclaimed and gentrified yet.
Down the block and around the corner we returned to prettier looking spaces and came upon the River Discovery Center, a modest museum focusing on maritime life and history along the Ohio River. Paducah’s services have been invaluable to craft passing to and from the Mississippi River over the centuries. They’re pretty proud of that heritage.
We walked inside twenty minutes before closing time and weren’t prepared to pay full admission for a speed-walking tour. Their gift shop is free and contained one of our primary objectives for visiting downtown Paducah in the first place: a smashed penny machine. Anne is such an avid collector that she consults a specialty website for every road trip we take — even the short overnighters for occasional conventions — that tells her which attractions and businesses contain working penny-smashing machines.
The site relies on input and updates from users and isn’t always 100% accurate. For example, the Super Museum in Metropolis is on their list, but Anne was disappointed to find they were merely selling pre-packaged smashed pennies, no actual machine on site yet. It’s just not the same.
Last time we came to town, the flood wall along the Ohio had a smattering of murals celebrating Paducah’s history, industries, and accomplishments. By 2008 over fifty such murals had been completed and turned the riverfront into quite the art walk. The lead photo, for example, references that time from 1953 to 2013 when the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant provided uranium enrichment services for electricity production on a nationwide scale. It’s still in the process of being decommissioned and its Wikipedia entry contains several alarming sentences, but the mural is nifty.
Their official site includes an aerial video tour of the wall, but most of the murals are more interesting up close. A fraction of the other murals on display:
Fun trivia: other celebrities born, raised, or once resided in Paducah include actress Jeri Ryan, Oscar-winning Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman, teacher John Scopes, and — perhaps greatest of them all — Boots Randolph, the “Yakity Sax” guy.
Behind the wall is, of course, the Ohio River, which forms most of Kentucky’s northern border and keeps it away from Illinois, part of Ohio, and our entire home state of Indiana. If you look to the east, you can see where it merges with the Tennessee River.
By the time we finished gazing upon the long, long wall of murals, it was well past 5:00 and we’d been on the run since kicking off our Superman Celebration experience at 9 a.m. On the way back to the hotel we made one last stop for gawking.
Meet the 35-foot-tall Wacinton, twenty-eight tons of red oak carved in 1985 by artist Peter Wolf Toth. One of 74 such statues in his “Whispering Giants” series that once dotted every U.S. state (some, alas, are no more), Wacinton is specifically dedicated to the Chickasaw tribe, who ruled the area until the Jackson Purchase of 1818.
In all, our Paducah tour was a marked upgrade from the last time we wandered it. We’ll still have plenty to check out the next time we’re in town — the ice cream shop, the chocolate shop, the art-film theater (now showing as of June 10-11: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and Steve Coogan in The Dinner), two different non-chain donut shops, the restaurants that weren’t open at 4 p.m., and numerous other statues and markers throughout the city, not just downtown. That’s assuming the Superman Celebration lets us escape next time, of course.