Old Car City USA
Shutterbug envy. It's the despair you feel when you compare your travel snapshots to the dazzling pics of others seen on the interwebs. "I was there," you say. "How come my photos look so lame?"
That probably won't happen after you visit Old Car City USA, where nearly everyone goes home with at least one good shot. Opened as a general store during the Great Depression, Old Car City gradually evolved into a very big, very old automobile junkyard. But it wasn't until 2009 that owner Dean Lewis -- who grew up on the property -- realized he could turn it into a tourist attraction because a lot of people shared his love of decomposing automotive carcasses.
"I told my son and daughter years ago that one day this would be showplace, not a sales place." said Dean. "I call it a 32 acre work of art."
One of Old Car City's many slogans is "Photographers' Paradise," and word of its heavenly attributes has spread. We saw many visitors with professional photography vests, tripods, reflectors, and cameras -- and a lot of typical tourists clicking away with smartphones. Entropy and rust, always favored by keen-eyed photographer-artists, is just a software filter tap away from Instagram glory. When we arrived at opening time, there was already a line of people waiting to get in.
Signs in the large entry building give a rough outline of the junkyard's history and rules ("Please no nude"). Dean uses a pen to point out some of the more popular cars in an aerial photo next to the sign-in desk, but it's a futile gesture; once we enter the six miles of meandering trails, we quickly lose our bearings and trust to luck and serendipity.
Most of Old Car City is in a forest. All of the cars -- over 4,000 of them -- are at least 40 years old ("Before they started making cars out of plastic," said Dean); some are even older than Dean, and he was born in 1937. Signs caution visitors to stay off the cars and out of the underbrush, which is home to possums, deer, foxes, and occasional bears.
Many of the cars are mossy or half-buried in pine needles and leaf litter. Some have been lifted into the air by the trees that grew beneath them. Others have roots and branches erupting out of engine compartments, trunks, and radiator grills. A 1939 Chevy with multiple trees grown through its windshield has been christened "The Two Ton Flowerpot."
Old Car City is annotated with hundreds of Dean's hand-lettered signs, distracting visitors with bad jokes, sage observations, and nuggets of wisdom. Many hang from the "Tree of Knowledge" toward the back of the property. "Gonzo means far-out journalism," reads one. "Black pepper repels rats," says another.
Dean insists that he's not an artist, not even an outsider artist. "I'm a doodler," he said. "I just do marks." This can best be seen on the second floor of the entry building, where Dean exhibits more than 3,000 styrofoam cups that he's individually decorated since 1978, when he began drinking convenience store coffee every day to quit smoking. "I do most of them at night," he said, "when I'm home in my recliner watching TV."
Downstairs, past the dressing room for models (There are a lot of professional photo shoots at Old Car City) and the Bonnie and Clyde photo op, we were treated to a rollicking version of the Old Car City USA theme song by its composer, "Fast Eddie" McDaniel. "Me and him grew up side by side, playin' in my daddy's junk cars," said Dean of Eddie, who resembles a gentler version of the Robertsons from Duck Dynasty, and who plays for tips at Old Car City every Saturday. "Eddie, he ain't made up," Dean said. "That's the way he is." We asked Eddie if the bear next to his piano was real. "Used to be," said Eddie. "He's pretty docile now."
Despite the appeal of Eddie and the art, top billing at Old Car City will always go to the cars. Depending on the light dappling through the trees, and the weather, and the time of day, and the time of year, a junker that looked drab on one visit can be enchanting the next time through. This keeps photographers coming back again and again. Dean clears the paths, but otherwise leaves the cars to the mercy of time and nature.
Visitors have given Dean a lot of validation over the years, congratulating him for his unusual idea. We asked him if any particular compliment stood out. "The senior senator from Georgia came up one day," Dean recalled. "And he said, 'Dean has took nothin', and made somethin'.' That made me feel good."