A lesson in perspective; If you are standing on flat, uninterrupted, ground the farthest you can see is about 3 miles. You may discern the tops of mountains or skyscrapers farther out since they rise above the curve of the earth but you are otherwise limited in what you can see. Also, if you are top of the aforementioned mountains and skyscrapers, you can see much further than normal because you are above the curve of the Earth. This is why, no matter how clear the weather may be, or how powerful your binoculars are, you can’t see from Chicago to Tokyo. Or even Duluth. Heck, you can’t even see Des Plaines from the Loop. I bring this up since I met a nice young lady yesterday who was very confused by the concept of time zones. My attempt to explain that the world is round and that the sun doesn’t shine everywhere at once ended badly. She simply could not conceive of anything that stretched beyond her horizons. And those were some narrow horizons. By the end of our train ride I felt the need for a shower for fear a palpable layer of her stupid had gotten on me.
She was not a person open to new ideas. I know I don’t have to be worried about her reading this today and being offended since, at one point, she noted that “the Internet is fading, people are going back to real life.” No, I had no idea what the hell she was talking about either so let’s move on.
You, however, are a person who lives in the real world. You are automatically better looking and smarter than your neighbors just because you’re here.
You are also someone who not only thinks outside the box, you often never even look at the box. You are the kind of person who would happily join me at a roadkill museum. Peter Jeary, Senior Foreign Desk Editor at NBC News, say’s that’s good to hear since there is such a place.
It also has rocks.
Very few people can talk about rocks and heavy machinery with the enthusiasm and care of a proud father. But for 79-year-old Juozas Stepankevičius, director and curator of perhaps the oddest museum in the world, road-making is an enduring passion.
Over a convivial glass of local moonshine, Stepankevičius described the transformation he had witnessed in highway construction in his homeland of Lithuania. “When I started out, we didn’t work with asphalt and heavy machinery — we used rocks and horses in those days,” he grinned.
Appropriately enough, his labor of love, the Lithuanian Road Museum, sits just off the main highway linking the country’s two largest cities, Vilnius and Kaunas. The museum opened in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of the road’s completion. Today, it attracts upwards of 6,000 visitors each year, many of them school kids and construction-industry students.
The museum’s exhibits – an eclectic potpourri of models, rock samples, documents, heavy machinery and road signs – chart the history of an industry that survived and occasionally thrived despite war, invasion, occupation and liberation. Huge wheels and pressed steel jostle for space in two large warehouses, and smaller displays are arranged in tidy gallery rooms on an upper floor.
Stepankevičius went through each specimen in detail. “This one has a Russian tank engine,” he said, pointing to monster dating from the 1950s. “In fact, it pretty much is a tank – just with a bulldozer blade on the front. The Russians were good at tanks.”
Clambering onto another huge earth-mover, he said that “the walls of the workshops rattled so much it caused all the engineers to run outside” when they first started it up.
A scale model of a Lithuanian highway intersection on display in an upstairs room had been used for a conference during the Soviet era as a design for other road engineers to follow, he said. “Then in the mid-1990s it was discovered languishing in a Moscow storeroom. It was Russian President Boris Yeltsin who said it should be allowed to come home.”
Stepankevičius began building roads after graduating high school – he saw a poster offering a stipend for students learning road construction and chose it over a course in plumbing, which didn’t offer as much money.
Gradually his career took him away from the back-breaking work of construction into administration and management, and slowly he began accumulating road paraphernalia.
“Of the five of us from my high school who took the construction course, four of us are still alive,” he said, draining his glass. “Managers live longer than laborers in the road business.”
The eccentric collection came together not by design, but due to his reluctance to throw things away: “The more things I saved, the more I wanted, so the more I saved,” he said. Eventually he found himself scavenging and scrounging for pieces to add to his collection.
Perhaps the most bizarre gallery combines Stepankevičius’ love of roads with another of his passions – hunting. Stuffed birds, beavers, foxes and other assorted mammals adorn display cabinets alongside hunting memorabilia. “Not all of them are roadkill,” he said, with a sideways glance at the beaver.
Despite the museum amassing 6,000 exhibits, Stepankevičius still sees his obsession as a work in progress. “It’s not like writing a book, where, when you have no more to say, you simply write ‘The End’,” he explained. “Here, there will always be things to collect. I am building for the future.”
When was the last time you could say the phrase “Over a convivial glass of local moonshine”? Yeah, it’s been a while for me too. But if we’re going to go there then I see no reason we shouldn’t hop a plane to the Toilet Park in South Korea or Australia’s Museum of Art Made from Poo.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that the world is round and we can’t see these things.