There is perhaps nowhere in the world where one can find items as kitsch, as bawdy, as the United States Highways.
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In 2004 I was still working as a graphic designer and animator for a PBS affiliate out of Erie, Pennsylvania. I liked the job, it was creative, but I was looking to expand my horizons, and so when the yearly call for submissions came in from the higher ups asking for ideas for new programs, I pounced. My pitch was that we’d do a documentary on US Highway 20, which is both America’s longest road and one of the dwindling number of remaining coast-to-coast highways. My boss liked it, and immediately began throwing out ideas. “The World’s Largest Ball of String”, was his first one, I believe.
I was not impressed. The documentary I had in mind was Kerouac-esque, it was a testament to driving a convertible Mustang down a dusty two lane highway, it was James Dean and desert sunsets, and here he was talking about filming giant crosses and wacky hot dog stand museums. Without the funding, and therefore input, of PBS, I went on the trip anyway, filmed the documentary, and gave the contents entirely away. I was more satisfied with the pursuit of the film than with the potential it’s watered down version could be, so I lived the filming and left it at that.
As the years went on, and my belt was notched over and over again as I traveled nearly every one of the old US Highways, I realized that this stuff is not only gawdy and kitsch, it’s beautiful. In an America where so many towns are becoming homogenized, identical to the next, where the Interstate Exits are home to big name gas stations, Subway and a Starbucks, always, these roadside testaments are the last relic of the bygone days of motor lodges, drive in movies and girls on rollerskates.
And thus, after many years of wondering whether or not there was something morally wrong about selling cheap versions of formerly handmade Indian trinkets out of fake teepees, we present to you some of the weirdest and most interesting roadside attractions we’ve ever come across.
We should begin light, with the Shoe Tree found along Nevada's stretch of the Loneliest Highway, US Route 50. The epitome of a roadside attraction, free (save the cost of participation I suppose, that being exactly 1 pair of shoes), relaxing and in the middle of nowhere. Photograph by Rasputin Henry Ford is said to have attempted to capture the dying breath of Thomas Edison. Of his own museum, he has stated I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used.... When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition. The inventor of the modern automobile lives on this roadside attraction like no other in, appropriately of course, Dearborn, Michigan. Inspiration for the Boss' track by the same name, the Cadillac Ranch installation art in Amarillo, Texas doesn't quite conjure up the same feelings as when Bruce took us down to the river, but instead lives somewhere between apocalypse and a bit of pretense. Photograph by fPat Murray Just as England's Stonehenge dances with the sun every solstice, so does Nebraska's Carhenge. The primary difference between the two seems to be that while ancient Old World man puzzles us over his ability to hoist and maneuver such massive stones, modern American man simply uses his car. Photograph by Robert Bruce Murray III Cheesy and with a bit of a story, a gas station owner by the wonderful name of E.F. Boydston decided to cover his gas station in petrified wood sometime in the 1930s. He proceeded to cover an accompanying restaurant and motor lodges (perhaps America's most tragic extinction) in the stuff, only so that years later it might fall into ruin. Luckily, his descendants have restored the place and it lives on for those WTF in Decatur, Texas moments. A man with a message from God. That directive? Build this massive treehouse. Is anyone else thinking that a kid with a whispering machine may have been involved in this? Frank Kehren, Photographer The concept of a man known perhaps best for his appearance in the perpetual desire for travel movie, Into the Wild, this mountain-cover praises love and praises Jesus, and seems to do so without all of the typical guilt we've become so accustomed to seeing in more apocalyptic versions of the roadside attraction. It's longevity is unknown as its creator, Leonard Knight, has been hospitalized for dementia since 2011. Photograph by Chuck Coker Symbol of our freedom or not, Homer, Alaska was so overrun by bald eagles that rumors began spreading that residents were given license to shoot them, or if not license, a blind eye. Reality seems to tell a stranger tale, instead of issuing licenses to kill the majestic birds gone pigeon, a ban on feeding them was opposed in hopes of directing their feeding attentions elsewhere. With one exemption, of course, extended to a particular local woman who goes by the name of the Eagle Lady...because she's been feeding them raw fish for decades. Photograph by Carl Chapman Not far from Salvation Mountain, the Salton Sea was formed essentially by man-made good intentions gone accident. Originally a sandy sink, nearly as deep as Death Valley, it found itself rushed upon by a purposeful aversion of the Colorado Rivers full power over a period of years, and after high hopes of seaside resorts and afternoon golf games were shuttered by the winds of reality, now lays mostly dormant as the water becomes more salinized over time. Streams trickle in, but evaporation is the only way out for the body of water, and immense biodiversity has arisen from such an odd act of man tinkering with nature. Photograph by Alejandro C. Strife A testament to the notion that you must see it before it is gone, the Forbidden Gardens was a collection of dozens or hundreds of terracotta soldiers along Texas Highway 99. Closed in 2011, the owner seems to have made a small fortune in exchange for you chance to never see it again. Photograph by Ed T Elvis. They say he is still alive, but all we can say for sure is Graceland lives on, ridiculously fabulous as a testament, these days in the middle of a rather ghetto side of Memphis, Tennessee. Photograph by Thomas Hawk Christianity has never seemed to be too concerned with contradiction or fact; however large and in charge has always been something the more conservative side of this nation have enjoyed. Residents of Effingham, Texas are no more concerned with fact in the case of their World's Largest Cross, which despite coming up some 60 feet shorter than a thinner, more elegant one in St. Augustine, Florida. Photograph by a Castaway in Scotland Shoes on display through the glass windows, a store front as real as though the salespeople would be returning from a short break any moment to unlock the front door, this oddity in Texas appears to those unknowing lost or vagabond souls out of nowhere and the nothingness of all around it, save for a few other mysteries worth spotting in the immediate area, disappears just as quickly. Photograph by Will OHare Perhaps aliens, perhaps the effects of peyote, locals, tourists and ancients alike have claimed to see lights in the sky above Marfa, Texas, not far from the Prada installation mentioned elsewhere in this article. Photograph by Angi English Nestled along the banks of US Highway 1 just over half an hour south of Miami lives a castle made of coral limestone fashioned together by a man Wikipedia refers to as a Latin American Eccentric Immigrant. The sculptor, Edward Leedskalnin, is said to have been healed by magnets after nearly dying of what some might call a broken heart, only to spend the next nearly thirty years constructing the marvel in secret. His tool of choice? Something he called a perpetual motion holder. Photograph by Christina Rutz Hmmm...is that a real VW Bug? Words truly can not describe how epic such a statue is. Photograph by Alex Rabb Back when skateboarding was still a rebel sport kind of thing to do, the thrashers of Portland started building a park underneath the Burnside Bridge. Tons of concrete, ollies and heavy spills later, and now sanctioned by the city, Burnside is a legend among skaters and, on a good day, is like getting a free ticket to the X-Games. Photograph by Ed Devereaux Used to be a car would go by down the road every 10 minutes. Now it takes me that long just to cross the road., or so says Bill Shea, owner of this gas station that seems to be set up specifically as a ad shot for American Pickers. Everything about it is what we roadtrippers of today wish we could experience, even just once. Photograph by Heaton More Roadtrip Ideas from Wandrly Magazine