Roadside Attractions: Stopping Along the WayPage Overview
Roadside attractions are a uniquely American phenomenon. They run the gamut from genuine folk art installations to the lurid and tacky The Thing?, Mystery of the Desert, located off Interstate 10 in Arizona. There are the ubiquitous Muffler Men, originally designed as a 20-foot tall advertisement for Midas Mufflers, now seen in a variety of costumes ranging from Paul Bunyan, a spacemen, a Viking, wearing a serape and there's even a couple who have undergone extensive plastic surgery, turning the otherwise manly muffler man into a ringer for Alfred E. "What, me worry?" Newman of Mad Magazine fame.
Roadside attractions, also known as tourist sites or tourist traps, are at least as old as the automobile. Most of them are found along the highways and byways of America, originally designed as a marketing or tourist attraction in the days when American regularly took to the roads in pursuit of pleasure. Many of what became roadside attractions started out as humble "filling stations" as gas stations were called then, or perhaps a small "mom and pop" diner, coffee shop or even a "motor hotel" such as the ones in the movie Psycho, a charming precursor to the soulless motels of today.
Though humble in origin, not all roadside attractions remain modest. The once-lowly Knott's Berry Farm, located in Buena Park, CA., right next door to The Magic Kingdom is a prime example of growth.
Walter Knott bought the land in Buena Park to use as farm land on which he grew crops of vegetables and berries. It was Walter Knott who gave the world the boysenberry by helping a friend figure out how to grow the newly hybridized cross between the red raspberry, the loganberry and the blackberry.
During the struggles of the depression, Walt and his family began making pies and preserves to earn extra money from their crops, and later, began selling chicken dinners. Walt, not unlike his other roadside attraction kinsmen, installed a series of themed areas where his dinner customers could pass the time while they awaited a table. As late as the 1960s Knott's Berry Farm was little more than a place to stop for a good chicken dinner and stock up on jam and jelly on the way home from Disneyland. Now a huge and respected theme park on its own, it is in direct competition with Disneyland and continues to grow each year.
With the expansion of such roads as the famous Route 66, the roadside eatery, motor hotel, and gas station business grew like wildfire. Pretty soon, there were so many places to stop along the way, none of these businesses were making any money. The easily discouraged gave up and moved elsewhere or on to different careers. The more entrepreneurial sprits remained and found that if they could make themselves just a bit different from their competitors, and do a little advance advertising, they could easily fill up the cabins, sell the coffee and pie, gas up the cars, and make themselves a tidy living.
Motor cabins thus changed into a courtyard full of plaster teepees, a huge dinosaur sat alongside a gas station, and the family with the house made of bottles found that they could earn a bit extra by conducting tours and even selling a postcard or two. America fell in love with these dusty denizens.
The advertising was a large part of the success of these tiny, somewhat humble roadside attractions. The proprietors caught on to the fact that they had a somewhat "captive audience" and by advertising, sometimes as much as 100 miles from their establishment, they could capture the imagination of bored children and adults who were otherwise engaged in games of License Plate Bingo.
Some of the more intriguing roadside attractions include a huge underground Bible Town, the world's biggest ball of twine, the Cadillac Ranch, where a group of artists have half-buried a series of Cadillacs (trunk end up) in the dry Texas dirt.
In Nebraska, you can find the amazing Carhenge that is, yes, you guessed it, a Stonehenge replica made with discarded automobiles painted to resemble stones.
California has a collection of life-size dinosaurs at the Claude Bell's Dinosaurs, off Interstate 10 near Palm Springs; and in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there's another Stonehenge, only this one is made of old refrigerators.
Of course, crop circles can be seen from time to time, but they are rarely around long enough to become a roadside attraction. Some farmers will use part of their fields to build a maze in the fall, but there are not many permanent growing mazes in the U.S. One exception is in Hawaii, where a part of the giant Dole Pineapple Plantation is given over to a maze made of hibiscus hedges, the center of which is built in the shape of a giant pineapple.
Driving our nation's highways we see images of giant food including nuts, berries, donuts, coffee cups, ears of corn, and more. A whole book could be written on the things that have been done to innocent grain elevators, water towers and other large landmarks. Many a mystery spot exists, too, in places like Santa Cruz, California and along Highway 101 in Oregon. Brooms stand on end, balls roll uphill and the souvenir trinkets just fly off the shelves!
Some of these roadside treasures have gone by the wayside due to urban and suburban sprawl and encroaching civilization. But never fear, as long as there are roads, you'll always be able to find at least one fun, offbeat, scary, or fascinating attraction along the way.
Be adventurous the next time you take a road trip. Look for special places to make your trip memorable.
Here are several resources to help find roadside attractions:
Roadside America, Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions is the place, bar none, to find the latest and the greatest roadside attractions.Other Topics in This Section
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- Planning Your Getaway
- RV Handling & Driving Tips
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- Getting Off the Beaten Path
- Roadside Attractions: Stopping Along the Way
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