What Would Tony Do? ~ Summer Trip 2020 Part 1

Ah, the memories.

Spring 2020: the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Toilet paper and Clorox wipes were out of stock in every store in every town. I decided not to go on a paranormal road trip adventure during my school spring break because, honestly, who knew what the heck was going on? I have kids and a great life of my own; I did not want to jeopardize that by being unnecessarily reckless. Better safe than sorry and all that jazz.

Summer 2020: four months into the pandemic. More information about the Coronavirus and how to avoid contracting it was coming in every day. Wear a mask, stay six feet away from other people (especially indoors), and liberally wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. No problem! I could do all that and go on an urban legend trip. I like cruising by myself on my own time and not being around a whole bunch of people anyway. Plus, I was feeling caged-in and antsy. It was go-time.

I can’t say I do a ton of research before I go day-tripping (see my infamous Helltown adventure). Still, I do try to do a smidge so that I’m not flying completely blind. For example, I’m in a bunch of Facebook groups that jive with my vibe of paranormal travel. You know, the ones with titles that start words such as “urban legends” or “folklore” or “day trips” and end with “in Ohio.” For some cosmic reason, stories of the ghost town called Utopia kept popping up in my feeds. Maybe it was just the name itself (who couldn’t use a dash of utopia in their humdrum life?), but I kept feeling a strong urge to check it out. As I dug into this day trip idea, though, I realized some drawbacks to my plan. First, it was a four-hour drive to Utopia. That in and of itself wasn’t a big deal; I find that a trip about that long is perfect for a one-day outing. However, “all” my research indicated that there was nothing substantial to see in Utopia (figures, right?). I believe I read the phrase “blink and you’ll miss it” somewhere. So I did something that was pretty foreign to me – I took out a map and checked to see what else I could explore along the way. However ludicrous it may sound to the average driving American, the simplicity of it amazed me. I found that 3 hours into my trip, I could stop at the haunted Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon, Ohio. Then I could take a half-hour jaunt and end up in Loveland – famous for its Frogman. Finally, I could hit up the main event, Utopia, and be home at a relatively decent time. My heart was zinging with anticipation as I jotted down the addresses I would be putting into my GPS on my newly planned adventure day.

Cute and appropriate

On July 23, 2020, after posting a cute picture on Facebook, I left my home under overcast skies about 9-ish am. I’d get to the Golden Lamb Inn around lunchtime. Perfect. However, about 45 minutes into the trip, I felt the need to make an unplanned stop. I was driving south on St. Rt. 13, which is the stretch of highway that will lead one to the Mansfield Reformatory. (I’ve been to the prison many times for ghost-related activities, but the sight of that gothic structure never fails to fill me with awe.) That wasn’t my stop, though. Before one gets to Mansfield, they have to pass through the small town of Fitchville. And right off the highway is Fitchville’s cemetery. And interred in Fitchville cemetery is my friend Tony Budd.

aka “Seize the Day”

While this side quest was more of a personal nature, I feel its story belongs here. Tony and I had an almost 20-year history as co-workers. In 1986, I started working as a part-time server in a Sandusky, Ohio restaurant that no longer exists. Tony was a line cook there when I started, but he worked his way up to kitchen manager, then head restaurant manager. Like most restaurant crews that I know of, our entire staff became friends that would hang out together outside of work hours. Even today, some of my best friends are those that I met at the restaurant. I broke my ankle slipping on a patch of ice in 2006 and decided the universe was telling me to quit waiting tables and focus on my teaching job full time. Eventually, though, I started another part-time job at a teacher supply store located less than half a mile away from the restaurant. One Sunday afternoon there in 2010, I heard ambulance sirens. I remember getting a pit-in-my-stomach sense of dread from their wails and remarking to my co-worker that those sirens sounded “serious.” I found out later that day that they were for Tony. He had been found unresponsive on the office floor of the restaurant. He remained in a coma for a few days, then passed away peacefully. I’m forever grateful that I had a chance to say my goodbyes at the hospital before he did. It turns out Tony had a congenital heart defect. He probably had it forever but just never knew about it. One of my former co-workers had rubber bracelets made that said “Bossman” and had Tony’s birth and death dates on them. Tony’s birthdate was only four months after mine. This hits me hard. I wear the bracelet as a reminder to “seize the day” because you never know what day will be your last. So as I was driving down Rt. 13 on this trip, I saw the Fitchville Cemetery coming up on my left, and I just got the urge to see Tony. There was no traffic, so I did a last-minute, left-hand swerve onto the path that winds up a slight slope through the headstones. I parked at the top so that I wouldn’t block the way of any other possible visitors.

The Fitchville Cemetery is not very big, but I had a hard time finding Tony’s grave until I just closed my eyes and said in my bones, “lead me to Tony.” When I opened my eyes, I just walked, and in less than a minute, his headstone appeared in front of me. I talked to Tony a little and told him that my “do the things” lifestyle was partly in his honor. There were many mementos on and around his headstone, and it made me smile sentimentally to see the ones that pertained to two of his favorite things in life – Jack Daniels and Ozzy Osborne. I didn’t have anything Tony-ish like that on me, so I walked back to my car and got a coin and left that. I felt a renewed sense of purpose as I resumed my trip; creating experiences is what makes life worth living.

Sadly, it was not a primo traveling day. Shortly after I left the cemetery, it started to rain, which turned into heavy downpours off and on for the next couple of hours. My sense of peace from seeing Tony deteriorated as I continued my journey. Rt. 13 is a two-lane highway. With the rain, visibility was low, making it hard to pass, and people were driving like three feet of snow was falling. Lots of stop-and-go traffic = lots of brake lights = majorly annoying travel. Between all that and the added cemetery stop, I got to the Golden Lamb about 45 minutes later than my original plan. I parked across the street and realized the day was far from lost despite the white-knuckled, frustrating, road-rage-inducing excursion I’d just completed. I took a deep breath, reset, then took a good look at the Golden Lamb Inn.

The building is certainly impressive. It is a 4-story, square brick structure with tiers of white, wrought-iron balconies running along the bottom of the second and third stories. The street-level white columns in the front had narrow representations of the American flag hanging on them. As I walked past them, I saw a primitive-looking cut-out of a white lamb standing on a black iron rod hanging from two chains. From the rod on which the lamb was standing, also hanging by two chains, was a square black sign proclaiming The Golden Lamb Inn to be the oldest Inn serving as a hotel in Ohio.  

Walking through the Golden Lamb Inn door gives one a sense of stepping into the colonial-era past. As I made my way through a front room lobby towards the restaurant entrance (mask on, of course!) I noticed a fireplace that appeared to be original to the building with a massive sculpture of (what else?) a lamb hanging over it. After the hostess sat me in the restaurant, I noticed it had the same decor – shaker furniture, copper cookware hanging from hooks, and paintings of people on horseback. I tried to be semi-good/healthy and ordered their signature salad with chicken. While I waited for my lunch, I busied myself by sending some notes of a recent paranormal investigation to a teammate and, of course, checking Facebook. One of my friends had commented on my cute travel post that she had stayed at the Golden Lamb Inn overnight once and had had odd experiences on the second floor. That comment just solidified the fact that I would have to ask my server about the place being haunted.  

When you’ve been chasing the unknown as long as I have, you can sometimes sense how strangers will react to being questioned about paranormal experiences. Some people respond with eager enthusiasm as if you asked about their favorite kitten. In contrast, others seem to drip contempt as though you showed them something that just came out of your navel. I decided to order lemon curd cheesecake for dessert as I felt the latter vibe from my server and had to steel myself for the asking. Besides, the salad had come with a side of rolls with bacon jam so healthy, schmealthy. 

The check came, and I still hadn’t asked. Maybe it was the Covid keeping her distant and unapproachable. Or perhaps it was me reading something into a situation that didn’t exist. So, when she came back to pick up my card to run, I finally blurted out, “so what do you think about his place being haunted?” As I had already half-expected, my server had never seen anything paranormal. I nervously expounded that I’d heard there was activity on the second floor. I think she slow-blinked like a bored cat as she stated that the hotel part of the Inn was still not open due to Covid, but I could ask the desk clerk. She returned with my receipt; I signed it, trying not to appear as awkward as I now felt. Then quickly, without making any eye contact, I exited the restaurant back into the lobby.  

Not an actual photo, but an actual representation of my feelings…

The hotel front desk was across from the fireplace I’d noticed when I initially entered the building. At the end of the front desk counter closest to the restaurant, a young-looking male clerk chatted with an older gentleman. I walked up and stood at the other end of the counter. Sure, I was socially distancing. However, this position also offered a view up the steps of the hotel section of the building. A velvet rope barrier across the stairway indicated that only VIPs (like me, surely) could pass. I waited patiently for the desk clerk to turn his attention to me. Again, maybe it was Covid, but hospitality did not seem to be the Golden Lamb’s strong suit. I stood for well between 5-10 minutes without even an “I’ll be right with you” or any other acknowledgment of my presence. And then, when the other guest had finally exhausted his conversation, and the young clerk made his way to me, my request to go up the stairs was met with a big, fat negatory. I pledged that my possible Coronavirus tainted hands had been duly sanitized and would touch nothing. Still no. Ugh. I felt like I had broken a basic ghost hunter code: it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. The steps to the second floor were literally two feet away from me this entire time! I could have just gone up there while Mr. Young Clerk ignored me and talked to that other guy. But then again, I wouldn’t want to be that disrespectful dick that makes a staffer disinfect a whole area because I ignored the rules, spreading my germs like Slimer spews ectoplasm. I was disappointed and, combined with the cloudy gloom of the day, was already feeling that this road trip would no way match up to the Moonville Tunnel excursion of the previous year.

When I got into my car, I typed the address of my next destination into Google Maps. Discouraged but not deterred, I was on the search for the Loveland Frogman. As far as I could tell from my research, two police officers saw him near a bridge on Riverside Road adjacent to the Little Miami River. Kind of broad directions, to be sure, but I decided to rely on my trusty GPS to get me first to Loveland, then to Riverside Road. Then I would fan out my search accordingly. Good plan. My smooth-talking Maps lady delivered me straight to the town of Loveland, which was about half an hour away from Lebanon. But then things got wonky. When I typed in the address I had for Riverside Road, the GPS kept wanting to turn me around and head back for Lebanon. Ever see the episode of The Office where Michael Scott dutifully follows his GPS and ends up in a pond? I sometimes think that will be me. But, despite my crappy sense of direction, I just knew that wasn’t right. Frustration struck again.

Photo from the Ohio: An Unnatural History exhibit at the Rutherford B. Hayes museum

I pulled into a large parking lot and once more collected myself. While I was all irritated with Maps, I barely noticed that it was partly sunny and not raining in Loveland. This perked me up, and I decided to walk through Loveland’s downtown area to see if I could find any information about its notorious Cryptid. Maybe a placard or a wacky gift shop selling Frogman plushies. Nothing. It was a quaint town filled with cute boutiques and little restaurants, even a bike/nature trail. Although Covid protocols were in place, groups of people were milling about and enjoying the day. But, still feeling the sting of being shot down at the Golden Lamb, I wasn’t feeling all that confident about striking up a conversation with a random stranger and asking them about the Frogman. I decided to go back to my car and try to figure out what the heck was wrong with my directions. I kept Googling for perhaps a different address. I couldn’t find any, but I did keep finding sites about Loveland Castle, so I decided, why not? Cryptid or Castle, I felt the need to see something unique in Loveland to make my trip worthwhile.

Part two of this journey coming soon!

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