This Week: roadsideamerica.com
They are the rest stops that give America's highways true personality: roadside attractions. Unplanned by focus groups and unfranchised by mega-corporations, roadside attractions are instead individual expressions of weirdness. Call them commercial folk art on a large scale. Often created by lone dreamers, these ersatz museums, parks, shops, and curiosities offer the kinds of unique spectacles you won't find listed in official visitor guides: anatomically incorrect dinosaurs, Miracle Tortillas, toilet-seat art, giant Muffler Men To find out about these eccentric bits of Americana, you need only turn to roadsideamerica.com. Originally published as a book by Ken Smith, Mike Wilkins, and Doug Kirby, Roadside America is now an Internet institution with over 4,000 oddball attractions listed. Kirby, a writer and designer living in Middletown, New Jersey, explains the lure of the roadside attraction.
How did roadside attractions first begin?
People have traveled great distances for thousands of years, but no one knows exactly who took the first vacation. One of the crowning accomplishments of Civilization is leisure time, and roadtrips are an instinctive urge for many. So, naturally, local entrepreneurs cashed in with tours of famous battle sites, and set up stands to sell a saint bone or a lovely souvenir gourd with Hannibal painted on it.
Ken Smith, Mike Wilkins, and Ithe Roadside America Teamchronicle the history of roadside attractions at our headquarters, with embossed metal labels on an 8-ft. wide redwood tree cross-section. The post-crucifixion "Calvary Hill Tour" is very near the center, centuries of growth-rings radiating outward. "Max Nordeen's Petrified Leech" came on the scene in the middle of the 12th century (not appearing in his museum until the 1980s). The "Mutter Museum's Soap Lady" didn't bubble up until the late-18th century. Unfortunately, most of the milestones are crowded into the last inch Birth of the U.S. Highway, Invention of Miniature Golf, Discovery of the First Cypress Knee, First Glass of Free Ice Water (offered at Wall Drug), Earliest Floaty Pen, Federal Ban on Interstate Billboards, 55 mph Speed Limit, Jugs of Pee Outbreak, etc.
Are roadside attractions a dying art or a lively one?
By our definition, it is still very much a vibrant landscape.
For those who pine for historic Route 66 and wish there were more Googy motel signs to photograph, it is dying. But so are they!
We report frequently in our Tourism News section on the shifting fortunes of old and new attractions. For every Story Book Land that collapses or Wild West Town vaporized in a ball of flame, new wonders crop up. The roadsideamerica.com world of attractions includes not only tourist traps and wacky theme parks, but also odd museums, statues, symbols of civic pride, celebrity pet graves, folk-art environments. Most importantly, they make us laughbut they also bewilder, educate, humble, and terrify.
We think we've helped expand the definition of what makes for a good stop on a trip. For example, our Pet Cemetery section presents stories on over 70 animals and pets that are stuffed, enshrined or remembered in some way, from Iowa's Wandering Moose to Andy the Footless Goose. Another sectionSalad of the Godscharts the giant vegetable and fruit landscape. And even though Muffler Mengiant fiberglass gas-station statueshaven't been mass-produced since the 1970s, they continue to move around the country, switch heads and bodies, and tantalize a growing army of M-Man tourists.
makes for a great roadside attraction?
A boldness in self-promotion, a personal vision outside the norm, something best served up in garish colors and neon with too-loud narration. An attraction has the formula right when they take an otherwise predictable tourist trap concept and crank it up a notch. Drive visitors in a tram around your prehistoric park, then hand out plastic M-16 rifles so they can KILL THE DINOSAURS! If your town is known for its prairie chickens, make sure you have the WORLD'S LARGEST poised in fiberglass near the interstate off-ramp. Performing birds are fun, but birds that act out SCENES FROM THE BIBLE are even better! Sadly, we note that Dr. Wendell Hansen, who performed his Bible bird show for over 60 years, passed away just this past September
What are some of the roadside-attraction "greats"the hall-of-famers?
The Roadside America books selected "Seven Wonders," singularly amazing attractions. The A-list has changed over the years, but includes: South of the Border, Precious Moments Chapel, House on the Rock, and Rock City. We also salute the "Dreamers"folks who have built castles out of crap, weird sculptures, strange machines, and ridiculous collections of objects. They doggedly pursue a vision that turns into a public spectacle, garners media attention, attracts visitors, who end up distracting dreamers from their dreams. The dreamers get old and die. Then preservationists step in to save the bottle house filled with pencils or the mason jars filled with two-headed piglets
Who are some of the most accomplished creators behind these attractions?
We pay tribute to some of them in our Hall of Immortals. You'll find Sam Dinsmoor, who built the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, then had himself put on display in a glass coffin after his death. He's green and mummified today. Then there's Edward Leeskallin, who built Florida's Coral Castle for a mysterious, unrequited love. He expended his energies for 20 years, and died in 1951, though the Castle is still a very popular tourist attraction.
there any roadside attractions that are truly weird
Some trips this summer allowed us to fully document some old favorites, and uncover new oddities: The Shrine of the Holy Tortilla, Lake Arthur, New Mexico is a must-see, and it's only a half hour south of "UFO Capital" Roswell, another important stop. Over in Coffeyville, Kansas, we checked out a really strange photo op. The town was the scene of a historic shootout between the Dalton gang and citizen defenders in 1892. Four of the gang were killed and laid out on the sidewalk for a photo. Today, you can sprawl on a painted sidewalk mural that recreates the famous dead outlaws pose. The town is very proud of its shootout.
Do other countries have roadside attractions like these?
Hah! They wish
Japan has a noodle museum, Australia and New Zealand boast of some large fruit and animal statues, Europe has its kitschy sex museums and torture exhibits from the Middle Ages. But they lack the statistically dense commitment to commercialism found on America's highways. You'll not likely see a 300-mile stretch of Eurobahn with billboards proclaiming "Senor, our honeymoon suites are 'heir-conditioned'."
What is it about roadside attractions that appeals to you personally?
I love that moment when you see or hear something new and strangewhen your host throws open a door into a 180-ft. deep decommissioned missile silo (Bachelor Missile Pad), or to a tiny alcove stacked to the ceiling with unused Sanitary Napkin products (Museum of Menstruation). There are still plenty of surprises out there. And the folks who run them are almost always friendly and eager to tell their stories.
was the first one you visited?
My first attraction might have been Niagara Falls, when I was four years oldraincoat-clad on the Maid of the Mist boat tour and hoping to see a barrel come tumbling down. My parents carted the whole family around the country every summer, so I enjoyed my share of Reptile Ranches and Petrified Forests. I bought souvenir rocks at Wall Drug, ran through the Corn Palace, posed with a street-corner Indian chief in Cherokee, N.C. Just your typical vacation experience. Future collaborators Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins were on roughly the same trajectory.
After college, Ken, Mike, and I put our heads together on the Roadside America books (along with Jack Barth, who moved on after the first edition). At the time, nobody seemed to be surveying the "field" in any coherent way, or their approach was too serious/academic. We wanted to have fun researching and visiting all the attractions. We tried to capture the excitement and hilarity of our experiences in print.
So it wasn't a hobbyit was a career!
How many have you visited?
I've visited maybe 1,500 of these places; Mike and Ken can claim similar tallies.
How did roadsideamerica.com come to be, and how long has it been up?
We launched the site in 1996. We'd had a brief taste of online publishing in 1994 when we conducted a virtual vacation for the early Hotwired crew, published each day on AOL and the Web. We'd conducted carefully planned "Hypertours"super-compressed cross-country tripssince 1992, and the Web seemed like a natural place to share our experiences. After years of visiting places, our backlog of stories and images simply wouldn't fit into another edition of the Roadside America books. The three authors research and write features for the web site, I design and webmaster, and my wife Susan handles the business and marketing end.
The site allows us to cultivate a great connection with our fans and other lovers of roadside attractions. Tipsters have proposed thousands of new sightings and attractions to add to our list for future field research. The web site lists over 4,000, and we have another 5,000 in an offline database that we draw from for stories and trip planning.
What kinds of people love these things or contribute to your site?
These places are cherished and appreciated by a wide audience, so our site entertains a diverse and enthusiastic fan base. They range from teenagers to octogenarians, roadtripping college kids to vacationing physicians and their families. Couples have written to us about romantic honeymoons comprised only of visits to offbeat tourist attractions! And, of course, we hear from everyone back from an adventure, wild stories and digital photos burning holes in their hard drives...
Do you think you'll ever run out of attractions to include?
There are enough current attractions to last for about a century of "Site of the Week" features before we deplete the Strategic Reserve.
What's next on the roadsideamerica.com agenda?
We're developing ideas for a new book and upcoming tours. We hope to expand the use of video and audio on the site using our extensive collection of interviews and trip footage. And we have to finish writing up everything from this summer's trips!
Know of a cool pop culture website? Tell us all about it!