Beyond Hartford: Middletown

If Instagram is to be believed, summertime in Connecticut looks like lobster rolls, blue skies, and glasses of Rosé on a sailboat.

Inside of It’s Only Natural, a damn good vegetarian restaurant.

My summer — every attempt to take a short trip for one or two days — looks so different. The weather has ranged from dreary with light showers to unrelenting sheets of rain requiring multiple wardrobe changes. This translates into leaving the camera behind so it doesn’t get trashed and doing the best I can with the phone’s built-in camera; this happens all while holding an umbrella overhead. It’s not ideal. There will be no trip to the shore. Instead, I open my notebook that is one long list of places I want to see. Wild Bill’s Nostalgia is the first item listed under the Connecticut section.

This was by no means my first trip to Middletown. As a Connecticut native, it may be shocking that I have never been to Martha’s Vineyard nor Block Island, nor have I ever actually tasted a lobster roll. But I have been to Middletown plenty.

Shop window display on Main Street

One remarkable trip was to see Amanda Palmer play a ninja gig at Wesleyan, her alma mater. It was a free concert, barely advertised, that ended with the musician singing within arm’s reach, and that was from her wandering into the audience who was sitting or standing in a field.

Middletown’s appeal is that it is what a college town should be. There is room for both those affiliated and unaffiliated with Wesleyan, something that is possible when an institution is more artistic than elite (or pseudo-elite). There are multiple places to get coffee. Restaurants are all along Main Street, from O’Rourke’s Diner to Eli Cannon’s to It’s Only Natural to First & Last Tavern. Meeting up with friends here is easy because if one place is packed or someone in the group decides the menu is bullshit, you can walk a couple blocks to another restaurant. On the very walkable main drag you can see Black Lives Matter shirts in shop windows and actual flyers stuck on poles. The riverfront has a few access points, one of which is a creepy tunnel that takes you under the highway.

There are worse places to spend a day.

 

How did it take so long for me to find out about Wild Bill’s?
A simple explanation is that it is on a road I never travel on. Another is that nobody directly told me to go, and though I had read about it here and there, nothing really compelled me. That is, until its owner passed in April and I happened upon an article about him and what is possibly the most magical place in Connecticut. I wrote a note to myself to check this out when I had a chance.

 

 

Don’t bother with GPS. On Route 3, Wild Bill’s stands out from the colorless stripmalls and car dealerships you will pass on the drive down.

 

 

Wandering aimlessly on the grounds is encouraged. If it’s weird, old, disturbing, or some combination of those things, you can find it here, on a total of 45 acres. Taxidermy? A massive Tonka truck? Murals of Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, and The Wizard of Oz? Zombie Michael Jordan? Clowns to give you nightmares? Marilyn Monroe matryoshka dolls? Yes.

 

 

It’s a mix of pop culture and counterculture, with splashes of conservatism thrown in. You’ll see multiple Elvises, Pee-wee’s bicycle, Garbage Pail Kids, and way more than your brain can absorb at once. If you’ve been trying to find vinyl, it’s here, along with books, posters, postcards, t-shirts, and buttons.

 

 

Soaking through my second pair of sneakers that day, I came across a pile of broken pianos while exploring the property. Nothing strikes you as odd when everything is odd. Why shouldn’t there be piles of busted instruments yards from an arrangement of painted old boats sticking out of the ground?

The next day, on Instagram — mixed into what was a steady stream of people’s blurry shots of fireworks displays — appeared video of those piano remnants ablaze. Every year a free festival called “Piano Burning” takes place at Wild Bill’s. It features camping, live music, and a viking funeral (see video) for instruments beyond service.

 

 

Free to roam around, as educational as most museums, and one of the few places in these here parts where people indeed let their freak flags fly.

 

 

[Thanks to Stephanie for permission to use her video]

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