Oz Palimpsest

BY IVY RUTLEDGE

NONFICTION FINALIST

palimpsest, n. 2. a. A parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another; a manuscript in which later writing has been superimposed on earlier writing. b. In extended use: a thing likened to such a writing surface, esp. in having been reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record. 4. A structure characterized by superimposed features produced at two or more distinct periods.

—from the Oxford English Dictionary

Jack Pentes spent time kneeling on the ground at the top of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, imagining the landscape from a child’s point of view. As a visionary trying to bring a story to life, he studied the land, the rock outcroppings, and the natural slopes, deciding where to place the Yellow Brick Road. But before he got there, bears had been living there for almost five million years, and the Cherokee people had come and gone, taking their stories with them.

Grover Robbins was the man who thought up the idea of creating a space on Beech Mountain where people could act out the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. With his brothers, he bought the land in the 1960s, and they hired Pentes to make it happen. The ski resort there was young, and they believed a theme park would attract people in the off-season. Of the development, Robbins said, “We won’t mess up the mountain. We won’t destroy what nature gave us to work with.” Only one tree was cut down in the creation of the Land of Oz theme park.

The park opened in 1970 and operated for a decade. It was a time when American children everywhere popped popcorn and gathered to watch the 1939 movie on television. For this generation of children, it’s the most familiar version of the story. Watching Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Lion travel the Yellow Brick Road, singing along the way, was a special event that only happened once a year, and families watched it together. MGM took liberties in making the movie: it presented Oz as a place Dorothy dreamed about, rather than the real place Dorothy is taken to by the tornado. The Oz of the movie is a lighter and more colorful place than the Oz in the book.

In a scene from the original story, written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900, the Wicked Witch of the West sent 40 crows to peck out Dorothy’s eyes. This attempt at Biblical-style punishment was foiled by the Scarecrow, who grabbed the birds in mid-flight and snapped their necks. Baum had had recurring nightmares as a child about a scarecrow that had chased him, and the character made its way into the stories he told the local children who gathered in his general store in the Midwest. Between breaks in his storytelling, he wrote them down on scraps of paper, using the backs of receipts and lists. Since children had plenty of morality lessons already, he reasoned, they needed stories that were pure fun and entertainment. He used most of the conventions of traditional European fairy tales—magic, witches, and quests—and added a layer of American elements in characters like the Scarecrow and in the scenery of Kansas.

Somehow, Robbins and Pentes managed to paint the flatness of Kansas and Oz onto the rocky mountain peak. It must have been convincing, because the park welcomed hundreds of thousands of guests the first year. The children who came to visit are now in their 40s, and they remember being scared in Dorothy’s house during the tornado and then seeing the witch’s legs sticking out from under the house. Pentes laid out the park so that guests would begin with Dorothy’s Kansas farmhouse, experience the tornado, then emerge to see Munchkinland and the Yellow Brick Road. Along the way to the Emerald City, episodes from the story played out through small shows featuring the main characters. A hot air balloon ride built from the mechanics of a ski lift finished the experience, showing off the park from the air.

In 1975, the Emerald City went up in flames, and the park went downhill from there. Dwindling attendance led to the closing of the Land of Oz in 1980.

***

Mosses are one of the first plants to grow once people have abandoned a place. Long cursed by suburban lawn-tenders, mosses love compacted, acidic soil and will gladly send off their spores into the rough surfaces of rocks to find an egg to fertilize. In fact, mosses are the pioneers of growth in most bare areas, because they can take root in the shallowest of hollows and start to trap bits of dust and other particles that come their way. Plus, they’re patient. They will wait out a dry spell for weeks or months if they have to, plumping back up and producing chlorophyll again as soon as water soaks them. Leave them alone for decades, and they will have spread and formed a flourishing community on all the natural surfaces, avoiding the smooth, molded concrete that offers nowhere for a traveling spore to call home.

As time passed in the Land of Oz, plants and creatures settled into the land. The black bear population that had been dropping in numbers in North Carolina bounced back, and a healthy population spread across the entire state. Various props that had been left behind in the park gradually disappeared, snatched by visitors who wanted a souvenir. The brightly painted bricks of the Yellow Brick Road dulled and covered as the surrounding soil washed over them, and eventually the ownership of the land went back to the original owners.

***

In the 1990s, local Oz enthusiasts rediscovered the Land of Oz, and the work of recovery and renovation began. Now owned by Emerald Mountain Realty and Rentals—a company claiming to represent “The Most Enchanting, Elegant, and Adventurous Properties”—the park opens once a year in October for a party called “Autumn in Oz.” Local volunteers dress up as the characters, and the park is open for a single weekend for those lucky enough to get a ticket. Filling with crowds, the park comes to life.

I discovered the park through some online conversations about the annual event, but it had already sold out. Intrigued by the idea of an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park, I decided I’d put it on my bucket list. I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned places: exploring an old place is perfect for someone like me—a lover of imagination, history, stories, and slow earthbound adventure. Although the October event was sold out, I continued to read about the park and look at pictures of it, imagining having the place to myself. My friend Katie had the same interest in the park, so we partnered up for some good old-fashioned trespassing. We chose a Tuesday in March, which turned out to be one of the first warm days of the year after months of Tuesday snows.

Katie and I knew each other through a few English graduate classes we had taken together—we had a mutual interest in publishing and fantasy stories, but we didn’t know each other well outside of class. After the three-hour drive from Greensboro to Beech Mountain, we had developed a rapport that included the comfortable silences that introverts need. She navigated while I drove the curvy roads, up and around ski slopes and mountain homes. We knew we had found our destination when we came to a dead end in the road and faced a pile of yellow brick rubble. We could see the Yellow Brick Road snaking through the woods above, thrilling our inner geeks as we got out of the car and stretched, ready to explore and imagine.

We scrambled up a small, steep hill and emerged through the woods straight onto the Yellow Brick Road, where an eight-foot tall iron birdcage presented itself in a small alcove. It enclosed a pole to which were attached about a dozen colorful birdhouses. Nearby, more birdhouses were nailed to a tree. They all sat empty, a curious mixture of nurture, assault, and captivity. Katie and I racked our brains to figure out which part of the story this display was meant to embody, thinking it had something to do with the story of the Scarecrow, but we shrugged off the confusion and moved on.

Looking around, we saw the Yellow Brick Road extending from left to right, and we faced the rocky outcroppings at the base of the mountain peak. Large cheap ribbons in bright yellow and orange lay in a heap at the edge of the road on the hill leading up to the right, evidence that others had traveled the Yellow Brick Road in the not-so-distant past. A clump of what may have been part of the Scarecrow lay trapped among the hollows of the rocks; his story had been played out in this spot.

Empty and overwhelmingly colorless like the Kansas of Baum’s books, the park had been absorbed back into the mountain, and it was hard to imagine the crowds, costumes, noise, and hustle and bustle of an active place. The colorful ribbon heap emerged from the grays and browns of the outcropping and tree skeletons. Even the Yellow Brick Road was a patchwork of paint that had worn to gray in places and had cracks where leaf stems had elbowed their way down into the soil. The rocks were covered in rock tripe, edible dark-gray leathery lichen that attached itself like large flaps. I teased Katie that we could eat it if we ended up trapped on the mountain and desperately hungry. She cringed at the thought.

Since we had joined the Yellow Brick Road in medias res, we decided to find the beginning, which would be Dorothy’s house. Indeed, the Yellow Brick Road began from a white farmhouse sitting catawampus high on a hill to our right. It was a real life-sized house, decently maintained and locked up. Through the windows I saw rooms of stored props and equipment, and one room that was no doubt part of the tornado set: the pictures on the wall were askew and a chair was on its side. This is where Dorothy landed after the tornado, and in front of the house was a large circular starting point, like we were in a bright yellow and gray game of Candyland. From there, the Yellow Brick Road circled counterclockwise around the peak of the mountain.

Munchkinland spread out to the right of the Yellow Brick Road as we came down the hill from Dorothy’s house. To the left was a panoramic view of sky through the trees and downward slope—untouched land under the watchful gaze of the small childlike statues that dotted the Munchkinland garden area. A tiny stone staircase led up into this space and up the hill. Moss covered the ground and rocks, but not the small concrete people. They clutched flowers and appeared about to reach or twirl. A dozing gnome rested on the graceful terrace, his smooth gray surface in contrast to the dark green surrounding him.

Scattered along the Yellow Brick Road beyond Munchkinland were trees that wore a mask of hardened foam, formed into sneers and long, looming noses. One of them stared with a startled look in its eyes, an empty beer can in its open mouth. Deeper into the enchanted woods and closer to the witch’s castle, Spanish moss hung from the trees, so far north of its range that it couldn’t possibly have been alive or there on its own accord.

The Yellow Brick Road opened up to a large concrete patio from which an enormous sandcastle rose into the sky. Made from some sort of crumbling concrete-plaster material, it had a room hollowed out at its base. Stepping inside, I became the witch, delighted with the real iron cauldron, something else on my bucket list. I’ve wanted a cauldron to play with for years, and so far I’d just managed a plastic one. Iron cauldrons are heavy, and no doubt that was why this one hadn’t been stolen. Dusty webs and droppings provided clues that rodents, spiders, and molds thrived in the small dark space, hosting interlopers until the next “Autumn at Oz” party. Standing at the window, I shook my fist through the bars at Katie, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too!” As if on cue, a large black mammal blurred through the air from the rocks above the patio. A cat the size of Toto landed next to Katie and begged for attention. Whether it was someone’s pet or a stray, it was obviously well-fed, and it took a few minutes for my adrenaline to recover from its surprise appearance. Katie had begun to pet the cat and bond with it, and I laughed as it wound itself between her feet as she tried to walk. Oddly, it stayed behind in the enchanted forest as we moved on.

The hot air balloon ride had been out of use for over three decades, but I spotted some remnants and decided to check them out. The pillars were far off the Yellow Brick Road, where Katie decided to stay. They lay covered in a variety of mosses. Thick bolts thrust up into the air to offer a dirty rusty surface, likely home to some tetanus bacteria ready to work their way into a host. Concrete had served as substrate for the mosses that now covered its surface, their sporophytes full and tall and waving in the air. It seemed early in the season for the mosses to be sending out spores, but I figured they knew what they were doing. Carry on, hot and bothered mosses, I thought, and looked upward.

I climbed up a steep bank and behind a shed full of nebulous mechanics. Just a bit farther up was a path through the brush, and beyond was the promise of a glorious view of far-off horizons. The path was worn, so I followed it, despite needing to stoop down to fit through the undergrowth. I found myself nearly at the very top, able to see out for miles at the other mountains and beyond, at the tiny roads and houses, and all the people doing ordinary Tuesday things. I spent a long moment there, indulging myself and taking photos. I decided it was definitely worth the climb to bask up there in the sunshine and be so high in the sky.

Scrambling a bit to return to lower ground, I had to stop to avoid a big pile of bear scat. Nested in a flattened circle of grass, it was large enough—and fresh enough—to jolt me out of the action-adventure mode that had been driving me farther and farther up the mountain. Although I’m sure I’d heard the advice that you should make plenty of noise when a bear is nearby, I went silent instead. I stood up and circled my gaze. With it being the first warm day of spring, it was easy for me to imagine a den of bear cubs waiting for Mama to bring them back some food, and I was sure she was lurking just around the corner. My instincts told me to get back down to the Yellow Brick Road, and at some point I must have gotten my feet moving again. I slid down past the concrete pillar and jumped back down onto the Yellow Brick Road. In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that I’d imagine a bear being contained up there by the Yellow Brick Road, but that’s exactly how I’d proceeded. It was as though the Yellow Brick Road was a dividing line of sorts, separating the wildness of the mountain peak from the human development below it. I described the scat to Katie without specifically saying it was from a bear. I just said that it was big enough to have come from an animal we wanted to avoid. We picked up the pace and rounded the corner to the final stretch.

Up ahead was the gate to the Emerald City, where the quest would end for Dorothy and her friends. It was just a large wooden gate with two doors, the whole thing painted in gaudy shades of green and yellow and declaring, “Land of Oz.” One of the doors swung open in a gust of wind, and through it we could see the fancy houses on Oz road. Going through the gate and back out into a public place, we felt exposed. Katie retreated back into the park, but there was a path, and I wanted to see where it went.

“I’ll be right back; I just want to check out that path. Although … what time is it? I bet if we hit the road soon we can be home before rush hour.” Our conversation broke the spell of the park. I squeezed in one last look before we turned around.

The Emerald City had been gone for so long that the land had been reclaimed. To the right was the wilderness of the mountain that we had just circled nearly around, and foregrounding it was the single remaining hot air balloon from the heyday of the park. This last balloon had been returned to the park sometime during the recovery work of the 1990s. Up on a post, it framed the trees and sky. The only motion was the beech leaves, dried and animated by the wind, their stems firmly attached, waiting for a new leaf bud to push them out. Some of the leaves had already fallen—faded from their bright golden fall color to a shade of pale book pages, they layered the ground beneath the steel frame.

Originally from Rhode Island, Ivy Rutledge lives in the Piedmont of North Carolina. She has a Master of Arts in English and is interested in ecotheology and simplicity. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches workshops on nature journaling and commonplace books. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, Home Education, Mom Egg Review, The Copperfield Review, and Ruminate. You can read more at IvyRutledge.com.


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