Our 2022 Road Trip #27: Rutland on the Way Out

A mural painted on a brick wall depicting Batman busting through the wall. Flying next to him is a griffin with a superhero-stylized "G" on its chest.

Detail from the mural Batman vs. Griffin by Kathryn Wiegers.

As a comics collector since age 6, I’d love it if every single one of our vacations made time for at least one comics-related stop. Sadly that’s a rare theme among those who start up new tourist attractions that aren’t amusement parks. Once upon a time, our next stop in Vermont used to have deep connections with the wild world of superhero comics. I’d hoped to enjoy evidence of that, but we got the impression the place just isn’t the same anymore. The same, I’m sure, could be said of many places we’ve been, but my hopes were perhaps a bit too high going in.

Because I insisted we make time for it, Rutland ended up as the last city we visited before we left Vermont. It was not our favorite.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Since 1999 Anne and I have taken one road trip each year to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. After years of contenting ourselves with everyday life in Indianapolis and any surrounding areas that also had comics and toy shops, we chucked some of our self-imposed limitations and resolved as a team to leave the comforts of home for annual chances to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between. We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

For 2022 we wanted the opposite of Yellowstone. Last year’s vacation was an unforgettable experience, but those nine days and 3500 miles were daunting and grueling. Vermont was closer, smaller, greener, cozier, and slightly cooler. Thus we set aside eight days to venture through the four states that separate us from the Green Mountain State, dawdle there for a bit, and backtrack home…

Yet another shot of the Green Mountains covered in trees, as if we didn't already posted enough of them.

One last gratuitous shot of the Green Mountains before we left the Green Mountain State.

Since 1960 the city has been the proud home of the Rutland Halloween Parade, which features exactly what you’d expect and more. Its founder Tom Fagan was a comic-book fan who worked his love of superheroes into the very fabric of the parade itself. Numerous participants (including Fagan himself) walked in it as superheroic cosplayers before the term “cosplay” was coined. Some big-name comics creators were such fans of the parade that they’d accept invitations to stay at Fagan’s mansion and come hang out at the proceedings. Rutland has made numerous appearances in-story, cameos as well as plot points, in both Marvel and DC titles, and was even in an issue of WaRP Graphics’ Thunderbunny, a series that maybe ten or fifteen of us collectors remember. Fagan died in 2008 and his mansion is now a bed-and-breakfast, but the parade remains an annual staple when there isn’t a pandemic ruining everything worldwide.

Largely by design, we arrived in Rutland on Wednesday, the time-honored New Comics Day. Some publishers now ship their books in time for Tuesday street dates, but this violates sacred comics tradition and is therefore bad. When we did our pre-vacation research, though, I was surprised that this ostensible superhero stronghold had only one (1) brick-‘n’-mortar comic shop. I have my regular titles pulled every week at my local shop, but on past trips I’ve enjoyed checking out shops in other places and picking up extra reading matter, no matter how much backlog I have at home.

Thus on our way into town, we zeroed in on Night Legion Comics, sole flag-bearer of the Rutland hard-copy comics community. Their opening in July 2021 was kind of a big deal to locals who’d gone without a dedicated shop for at least a decade or more. I know that pain. Comic shop closures are always a heartbreak. Lord knows we’ve had our share in central Indiana throughout my lifetime.

Red flag-shaped sign bearing Night Legion Comics' white-on-black medal-shaped logo. Behind the logo are silhouettes of five made-up superheroes.

The Night Legion Comics red sign all but flagging down any passing readers. Not to be confused with Marvel’s Legion of Night.

A ground-level comic shop in a 2-story building with a long, unpainted wooden wheelchair ramp leading up to the open front door.

Night Legion Comics welcomes you with an open door, another things from the Good Ol’ Days.

We took up one of the few parking spaces and found ourselves warmly greeted inside by the proprietor himself, who told us the place was about to celebrate its first birthday. As far as selection goes…it was much like a lot of other shops nowadays: an okay selection of comics from the major publishers, not too many obscure indie titles, all a bit dwarfed by the enormous selection of geek-friendly toys and pop culture collectibles across the hobbyist spectrum. I’ve seen shops that were plenty smaller, and I’ve definitely seen less thoughtful selections. There weren’t quite enough temptations to send me into a shopping-spree frenzy, but I did pick up a few singles while I was there, including an issue of Batman: Reptilian that I’d missed, as well as the Doctor Who Free Comic Book Day 2022 special that none of our local shops had had in stock that day. I left the place a happy customer.

Initial local-media excitement notwithstanding, six months after our visit the shop shut down. They lost their physical space because the sales just weren’t there, but the owner hasn’t let his dream die just yet. They still have an online storefront to their credit, and in recent months they were trying to get a Twitch stream going as supplemental income. I don’t do Twitch, but I hope it works out for them. With every chapter I write in a given road-trip miniseries I always conduct a bit “Where Are They Now?” follow-up to see how the businesses we’ve visited are doing, and…well, here we sadly are. As I said: always a heartbreak.

Though I now question Rutland’s loyalty to superheroes, we found evidence they at the very least still support Art in concept as we headed into the thick of downtown. Select works waved at us here and there.

A large two-story commercial building with a large mural depicting select constructs from downtown Rutland itself, mostly in blue.

Rutland City Buildings by Persi Narvaez.

A red brick wall with two giraffes painted on it, one adult and one kid.

Giraffes by Kathryn Wiegers

A metal sculpture of an unhappy greyhound straining against an invisible leash. Way behind it, I'm standing there with a puzzled expression and scratching my head.

The Leash, Patrick Villiers Farrow, 1984. Ignore the buffoon in the background who didn’t know his wife got him in the shot.

Beyond downtown, we took a quick drive around West Rutland Art Park, a roadside installation set up in 2013 by locals who bought a patch of hillside and invited nine artists from eight countries to come in and create new Art from metal and/or marble. Some of those works were still on the premises and viewable for free; visitors could view them while driving on a gravel road up the hill to a “Private Property” sign that informed us where the free exhibits ended.

A white sign with red letters: "West Rutland Art Park. Public Welcome!"

Another warm welcome, albeit by inanimate sign. No other humans were around.

A nearly full-size train engine composed entirely of recycled gadgets and gizmos, sitting on a grassy field.

Across Time and Space by Guohua Xu, from China.

A marble half-circle embedded in the grass with an ogre-sized birdf-oot-shaped hole in the middle.

Bridge of Winds by Nando Alvarez, from Spain.

A 7-foot-tall marble block with a faceless, big-boned marble woman attached on one corner, a foot above the ground.

Dance by Liliya Pobornoikova, from Bulgaria.

A big marble number 8 standing in a field.

Nobody online seems to know a thing about this marble figure-8.

After the comic shop but before the art park, we stopped for lunch downtown. We grabbed a parallel space one block from a Walmart, possibly the closest we’ve ever seen a Walmart to a downtown. Usually Walmarts and downtowns are polar opposites in every conceivable way. In Rutland they’re next-door neighbors.

A downtown corner with mostly brown brick buildings, including a bookshop. Lunchtime traffic is a bit heavy around us.

The view from our parking space. The Walmart is offstage right.

Anne had looked up the nearest restaurants and found a joint that sounded different from the meals we’d had so far on this trip — a wee place called the Yellow Deli. The sandwich selection on their site sounded like a change of pace. I’d like to state for the record we’d never heard of it before this trip and we didn’t poke around any more deeply than the menu. Restaurants don’t normally beg enough questions of us to warrant a fully forensic work-up before we approach them. No one does this, right? Right?

A two-page yellow paper menu, all done up in cutesy handwriting and some sense of whimsical design.

Points for creative menu design.

The interior was cramped and woodsy. Their unisex bathrooms were labeled “WHATEVER U R”. The staff stuck to a dress code — the men dressed in Sunday-morning thrift-shop hand-me-downs (no ties), while the women were weighed down in Laura Ingalls dresses and hairpins. Instrumental bluegrass hymns lilted at us from unseen speakers, sometimes loudly enough to challenge my lousy hearing when folks were trying to speak to me. Waitresses kept in motion, but a few gents just hung out motionlessly in assigned spots for long minutes at a time, like fantasy-village NPCs waiting for a player to walk up and click “X” to prompt their scripted dialogue.

Every employee was reserved and friendly to us…too, too friendly. Their demeanor ranged narrowly from “meekly polite” to “delicately restrained because their psyche was once shattered into several pieces and had to be painstakingly glued back together”. They’d take turns coming up to us at randomly spaced-apart moments and strike up conversation about whatever details they could spot on us for talking points. One gent noticed my camera and showed me his own, and pulled up a shot he’d taken of the nighttime stars twinkling behind someone’s house. As he kept talking, I got the impression the house wasn’t his, nor had he been on the premises as a guest.

It didn’t take too many minutes for me to start feeling deeply weirded out. I pulled up their site on my phone, which I didn’t notice was a dot-org, and clicked past the menu to one of their “about” pages. It was very, very long for an “about” section and quoted lots of Scripture, a familiarity to this traveling Christian couple. Their overall company setup described them like a Christian commune, which reminded me slightly of the Amish and other such communities. But the long screed got increasingly, bizarrely defensive as it kept going, apparently concerned about others who’d spoken ill of them. Like, lots of others. Their lengthy rebuttal of unseen, unspecified haters was not endearing, reminded me more of Scientology than the Amish, and did not alleviate the weirding-out vibe.

For the blog-standard mealtime record: I had their “Deli Rose” sandwich — roast beef, corned beef, pepper jack and provolone cheeses, topped with onion, tomato, butter, mustard, and an ambiguous “spicy red sauce”. (I didn’t ask.) It was served with a cole slaw made of cabbage grated so finely that the texture was nearly granular. Anne had one of her childhood faves, a Reuben with no thousand island dressing, but served on plain rye bread (untoasted, ungrilled) with a side of ordinary chips. In and of itself, the food was fine. But I did not feel like lingering over this meal or staying one minute longer than we had to. Thankfully no one barred our exit.

Afterward we stopped briefly at a record shop a couple doors down called Mountain Music. I don’t buy much vinyl and prefer CDs, and yet I grew up on cassettes, so go figure. They had an okay-sized shelf of used CDs, but not alphabetized, which always drives me nuts. I grabbed Peter Gabriel’s So to replace a faded bootleg copy I’ve had since junior high, a Sting greatest-hits compilation to go with my old Police box-set at home (his solo work rarely hit me the same way), and a Gang of Four release that turned out to be just a single with no B-sides. I would’ve preferred better selections, but I cut my browsing short because I couldn’t shake that weirded-out vibe. I skipped two Rutland bookshops on my to-do list for the same reason. One or more of the voices in my head really wanted to put some distance between me and that deli. How weirded out? I stopped taking photos of anything in Vermont altogether, that’s how weirded out.

Months after that afternoon, I dug more deeply and learned the Deli is part of a nationwide chain run by an organization so notorious that it has its own Wikipedia page. “Religious movement” is one term that could be applied to them, but the word “cult” seems to come up with a lot more search results. There’s the time Middlebury College (whom we were just driving through three days earlier!) sent staffers undercover to the commune and found evidence of child abuse, among other problems. Or the essay by a former member who repudiated a few of the unsavory allegations about them, but confirmed many more of them. Or write-ups from various concerned media and documentation about troubles near their other locations in Ithaca, San Diego, North Carolina, and especially Denver, among others. The paper trail goes back years.

We had no idea going in. None. Why would we have known? They don’t have a beachhead here. Yet. That we know of.

In retrospect we finally had an idea why the waitress at the Waybury Inn had made a face when we’d casually mentioned our Rutland plans and used the word “sketchy” in her response. By the time we put Rutland in our rear-view mirror and crossed the border into upstate New York, the phrase “superhero parade” was far from my mind.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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