The gentle voice of Johnny Cash fills the air in my partner’s battered, forest-green Camry as my eyes dart about, rapidly scanning the horizon. Early afternoon sun streams through the windows as we coast down the highway, painting the interior with liquid gold. I squint into the light, searching; it must be near here somewhere.
My friend in the back seat points out the window. In the distance, a massive white cross stands at the peak of the upcoming Pine Hill, its domineering height scraping the cloudless sky. For my traveling companions—locals of the area—this is a familiar sight, a childhood reminder of “almost home” on long car rides. For myself, it speaks of a new mystery waiting to be explored.
The Camry takes Exit 22 off I-84 in Waterbury, a left, a right, another left, and exactly three unassuming residential streets later, we arrive at our destination—Holy Land USA. Originally opened in 1958, Holy Land was a small attraction which took visitors through the time of Christ using smaller-than-life depictions of various biblical locations and events. Visitors could walk through Bethlehem, view the inn where Mary and Joseph were turned away, and even hike a miniature version of the Twelve Stations of the Cross. Holy Land closed for improvements in 1984, but never reopened after the death of owner John Baptist Greco in 1986. Despite cleanup efforts by local religious groups and Boy Scout troops, it has since fallen into disrepair. While not open for business, Holy Land is currently open to the public during daylight hours.
After the slight ordeal of parking—Holy Land boasts only four parking spaces in its small lot—my trio entered Holy Land. As we pass under the arched gateway, just a bit too short for our tallest member, we are met with a view of Bethlehem taken straight from a post-apocalyptic daydream.
The first structure we see beyond the gate is one of the larger ones in the area, a small building labeled “Herod’s Palace” in tarnished steel letters above the doorway. Vines curl out of the open doors and windows; nature herself welcoming you into the home. A quarter of the roof has been broken away, revealing a glimpse of its hidden contents. The ground inside is littered with cigarette butts, coffee cups, and crushed beer cans, no doubt left by worshippers taking a final revenge against the man who ordered the death of Christ.
Just a few steps up the path is the focal point of this part of the park. Christ’s manger lies in a cave of white concrete behind a cage of rusted iron bars. The door in the center of the gate sits ajar. The lock, still closed around the useless piece of metal which once held it secure, snapped off from age and rust, and surely no shortage of tampering. The manger itself is in decent shape, being one of the few parts of the park which has benefited from local cleanup efforts. It is a set of simple white painted wooden cutouts in the shape of the holy family under a peaked roof, sitting on a ledge within the faux cave. The facade of the cave ends a few feet in, and by looking up, one can see the uncovered bolts which poke through the sheet metal ceiling like so many tiny stalactites.
Behind the manger cave, a collection of miniature buildings are built into the side of the hill, attempting but not quite accomplishing a forced perspective of the town of Bethlehem.
Moving on and up the paved path a bit, we find a staircase winding up the hill ahead, carrying us along the journey Jesus may have taken when he dragged his cross. Headstone-like markers hint to an agnostic like myself of the major events in this journey to his crucifixion on Golgotha. Beyond the markers reading “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and “Jesus Meets His Mother” sits a structure which even my companions, both of a far more religious upbringing than I, can not explain. It appears almost like a twin bed, only made of concrete with three walls and a roof, covered with various quotes from the son of God himself. The quotes are impressed into the concrete, and filled in with blood-red paint, dripping morbidly from the letters in messy trails. One quote on the right hand wall of the structure is entirely unpainted, save for one crimson “He.” It reads: “He poured water into the basin.-St. John 12-1.”
Up beyond this mystery, we are dismayed to find our private passion play cut short, as the path which leads to the cave—where I am told Jesus was buried—is too overgrown to venture down. We are only able to catch glimpses of this landmark by standing on a stone marker and peering over the wall of thorns. All is not lost, however, as our detour pushes us up a more direct path towards the apex of the hill and into the arms of the most striking location in the park. Just before the summit, we encounter a concrete and wood structure identified to us by a painted stone set in the ground as the “Pater Noste Sanctuary.” On the concrete posts of this roofless structure, a careful hand has left a record of their experience on this holy ground. One post reads “NAIL ME TO YOUR CROSS AND RAIL ME” in teal paint. A broken marker lies in the dirt and reads “EAT PUSSY,” “PRAY THE GAY TO STAY,” and “LOVE WOMEN” in alternating teal and gold. Finally, two posts, side by side, read “SHE TASTED HER FORBIDDEN FRUIT” in gold, and “AND IT WAS DIVINE” in teal. We pause upon reading this, suddenly struck with awareness of the experiences of the strangers who, perhaps giddy and in love, hiked here and made this corner of Holy Land their own. Here, in the heart of a tribute to a religion which continues to condemn queerness, there stands an unapologetic celebration of queer love.
We reach the top of the hill. The massive white cross casts a shadow down the path leading to its base. A couple sits in the shadow, speaking softly to one another as they hold hands. Nearby, a set of three smaller wooden crosses stand and a pair of women circle them, praying in Spanish. We walk the final yards up the rocky path to the brick pedestal the iconic cross is built on. Its scale is staggering up close. The pedestal is topped with an iron fence, which is itself topped with barbed wire, making climbing any closer impossible. We are at the highest point of Holy Land. Facing away from the cross, I look out across the town below, watching cars speed along I-84, and I wonder if this is how people imagine heaven.
“I used to think this was the real cross,” my friend Alice says. “My young Catholic brain justified it perfectly, like, obviously you can just see it from wherever you are.” Though raised Catholic, they haven’t been to church in many years. Being transgender, the community which had promised unconditional love became extremely hostile to the point where they no longer consider themself religious at all. “I went to Catholic school right near here, actually. We could see this cross from the windows of my homeroom.” Our day at Holy Land has been cathartic in a strange way for them. Exploring the symbols of Catholicism as though it were a relic of the past gives a sense of peace.
We climb back down the hill, taking the longer path which circles its way to the parking lot. We awkwardly turn the Camry around and out of the steep residential streets, a right, a left, and another right, and by the time we are back on I-84 heading home, the sun has set entirely. In the distance, glowing bright white, I see the cross illuminated against a darkened sky, towering above the city. I gaze at it, contemplating, though I don’t know what. The cross gets smaller and smaller as we drive and, just before it disappears from view, I turn away.
Madeline Christensen-LeCain is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
The iconic Holy Land cross across a field. / Photo Credit: Madeline Christensen-LeCain