Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of

Vacation of a Lifetime

Bemidji Bunyan and Babe.

For a generation of roadside fans, the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) defined the horror and wonder of the American road trip. Despite the film’s premise, its filmmakers didn’t actually travel to too many places (National Lampoon was notoriously cheap). But the film did provide a roadside snapshot of sorts during its opening credits, when its peppy theme song played over a montage of 50 “vintage” postcards (some were faked).

Many people view those images with a pang of nostalgia, sad that they’ll never be able to see those attractions of yore. Those people are mistaken! Most of the classic attractions seen on the postcards in National Lampoon’s Vacation are still standing, and can be visited today, even though the film is itself now old enough to be vintage.

Many of the postcards were of generic scenes (“Shady Country Lane”), or buttocks/outhouse gags (“Having No End of Fun”), or fantasy photos of giant vegetables on railroad cars. Several were of places so famous that they probably won’t disappear in our lifetimes (Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge), or of neon motels that were already gone when the film opened in 1983.

Drive-thru tree.

But among the postcards were those for a number of classic roadside attractions, most of them still delivering wonder to travelers. Here are the attractions in the order in which they appear:

Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree – Leggett, CA

Mount Rushmore – Keystone, SD

Maid of the Mist – Niagara Falls, NY

Wigwam Village Motel No. 7 – Rialto, CA

Santa’s Workshop – Cascade, CO

Hat ‘n’ Boots – Seattle, WA

Mystery Spot – St Ignace, MI

• Trout Haven – Black Hills, SD (still there)

Gatorland – Kissimmee, FL

Big Fish Supper Club – Bena, MN

Lucy the Elephant – Margate City, NJ

Boxy Paul Bunyan and Babe – Bemidji, MN

• Tower of Pizza – Green Brook, NJ (gone)

Cabazon Dinosaurs – Cabazon, CA

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Don’t Pave On Me

Tree in Road, Brayton, Iowa.
Tree in Road, Brayton, Iowa.
Roads rule in America. The idea that something as easily bulldozed as a tree could force a detour seems preposterous. Yet it has happened, and the stubborn stay-putters have become pilgrimage destinations for the rest of us. We draw strength from their tenacity; perhaps we, too, will not be asphalted over — either metaphorically in life or literally in death (as some “I’m-not-budging” graves demonstrate).

A surprising variety of objects have bested the paving machines. Here are a few of our favorites:


In a field-first, often shadeless state like Iowa, this huge cottonwood stands in the middle of an intersection, unmolested.


Too big to move (apparently it’s the tip of a giant boulder), so the town just paved a street around it.

Tree in Rock, Buford, Wyoming.
Tree in Rock, Buford, Wyoming.

Tree in Rock

America’s most famous detour. Tree in the Rock not only splits a major interstate, it jogged the railroad tracks that were there earlier.


Nancy Barnett’s final resting place was protected from the road crew by a grandson with a shotgun.

Oil Well

An oil well has been pumping in the middle of Main Street for nearly a hundred years, and its town is proud of it.

Oil well in road.
Oil pump in road, Barnesdale, Oklahoma.


When a celebrity spacecraft crashes into one of your avenues, you’d be foolish not to mark the spot. This historical footnote has survived countless repavings.


As far as we know, this is the only execution spot in America deemed important enough to reroute a street. And the dead guy wasn’t even American.

And one that didn’t last:

Booze-Hating Churchman

An in-asphalt plaque marked the spot where minister George Haddock was gunned down during a prohibition battle. It was eventually dug up in 2013, but the churchman had defied the asphalt gods for 77 years.

Booze hating Churchman plaque..
Booze-hating churchman died here. Sioux City, Iowa.

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Building the Roadside Capital of the World

Will Russell
Will Russell
Cave City, Kentucky, is the Roadside Capital of the World.

The world doesn’t know that yet, but Will Russell does.

Will is the 21st century P.T. Barnum behind Lebowski Fest (the annual multi-city celebration of the film The Big Lebowski) and WHY Louisville (a retail attraction that ennobles the quirkiness of his hometown).

But Will is prepared to expand his horizons, to graduate from promoter to builder, from Barnum to Disney. Cave City is the canvas on which he intends to create his masterpiece.

“I want Cave City to be a Land of Roadside Attractions,” Will told us. “I genuinely feel like I have been preparing my entire life for what I am about to do.”

(Full disclosure: Will tells us he was propelled down this path partly by his purchase of the Roadside America App for iPhone. “That app changed my life,” he said. “I will testify publicly on that. It turns any vacation into a great vacation.”)

The Colonel is all in.
The Colonel is all in.
For starters, Will is buying the old Guntown Mountain attraction in Cave City, just off Interstate 65. He plans to kick out the guns and transform the place into Funtown Mountain, a pop culture Valhalla for fans of post-ironic fun. It will include, among many attractions, a Kraken Waterslide; the Sunset Dragon (“which you can walk up into and watch the sunset from the mouth”); an Ewok-inspired Treetop Village; and the ImaginationLand Museum.

“The ImaginationLand Museum was inspired by the Alamo tour in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” said Will. “There’ll be a series of terrible dioramas, just horribly done. Chicken wire. Body organs. I’m gonna have a whole wall of singing taxidermy.”

The side of Funtown Mountain facing the interstate will be enhanced with Kentucky Rushmore, an idea bubbling in Will’s fever-brain since 2011.

“I imagine,” said Will, “eventually I’ll just grow a big, weird beard and move up on top of the mountain.”

Yet Funtown Mountain, fantastic as it sounds, is just part of Will’s plan for Cave City.

The Haunted Hotel. “Cave City is already incredibly special,” said Will. “It already has Wigwam Village and Big Mike’s Mystery House and Dinosaur World. All that’s needed is for someone to shine a light on it.”

First, Cave City will be branded the Roadside Capital of the World, or the Roadside Attraction Capital of America, or something like that. “It is because we say so,” said Will, who plans to use his social media clout to make it happen. “It’s easy to do. And everybody’s already, ‘Okay, cool.'”

Next, Will plans to erect “See Cave City” billboards up and down Interstate 65, inspired by the iconic See Rock City barns and the stark “Jesus Saves, Hell is Real” billboards familiar to any modern freeway traveler. “We will hype this town for hours,” said Will. “And when you get to Cave City there’s already a giant dinosaur by the side of the road!”

Model for Kentucky Rushmore by artist Raymond Graf.
Model for Kentucky Rushmore by artist Raymond Graf.

Finally, Will intends to become the town’s principal property owner. “Cave City is for sale, man, and I aim to buy it,” he said (This includes Wigwam Village, where Will said he eventually wants his ashes scattered). Cave City will rise from its long sleep as a remodeled, self-contained tourist destination. “Part of the reason is defensive. I don’t want Walmart coming in there. I don’t want adult books stores. I want Cave City to be an affordable family experience. I want people to spend a weekend there.”

Kicking all of this off is the Carnival of Fun/Funtown Mountain Wondershow, which will be departing Louisville on April 17, with stops and shows in Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Nashville, Memphis, Lexington and then Louisville. Packed into an airstream trailer, among many marvels, will be a live band, a Colonel Sanders dummy in a remote control wheelchair, and a performing chicken.

Funtown Mountain is scheduled to open on June 19.

You may be asking yourself: Where is Will getting the funding to accomplish all of this? “We’re getting lots of money coming in from lots of places,” Will told us, citing several impressive and deep-pocketed business partners and funding entities. “It’s gonna happen. There’s no way to stop it.”

“This is the grand finale for me,” Will said. “Act One was Lebowski Fest. Act Two was WHY Louisville. This is the grandest effort I’ll ever make.”

Will Russell and his animatronic gorilla pal.
Will Russell and his animatronic gorilla pal.

[Update, Nov. 17, 2015: Will Russell filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. Funtown Mountain is closed.]

Sections: Attraction News, Coming Soon

Looking Forward: Walk-Thru Shuttle, Sidewalk Sea Monster

2015We’ve been at this game long enough to know that promised roadside wonders have a way of vanishing like icy beverages out of a back seat cooler in July. Rumors, press releases, and premature news stories set the stage for disappointment. And yet, 2014 was a year when many promises came true, even those that sounded preposterous just a year ago.

There really is, right now, an 11-story-tall statue of Pegasus killing a dragon in Miami, and a giant slot machine that spits out people on a zip line in Las Vegas. The Morbid Anatomy Museum opened as promised in New York City, and 2014 saw the surprising return of old favorites such as the Rocky and Bullwinkle statue, the World’s Tallest Grandfather Clock, and the Recycled Roadrunner. Even the World’s Largest Thermometer has been switched back on.

Slotzilla zip line, Las Vegas
Slotzilla zip line, Las Vegas

And for 2015? It should be the year that the future is decided for Foamhenge, which will either remain as part of a new state park or will be moved to one of several nearby towns vying to be recipients of its mysterious tourist-attracting powers. We’ve seen reports that the Palace of Depression, a construction project decades in the making (although that’s not why it’s depressing), may finally open to the public in 2015, as may the long-abandoned Holy Land USA after an extensive clean-up. The Tank Museum, which was supposed to move last year, may move in 2015 or it may not: tanks are not easy things to move. The same issues with mass have impeded the relocation of the World’s Largest Fire Hydrant, which was supposed to move in 2014 until it was learned how much it would cost.

Tesla Coil
Tesla Coil, Mid-America Museum, Hot Springs, AR

Definitely scheduled to reopen in 2015, after lengthy closures for repairs, moves, and upgrades, are the Cincinnati Police Museum (with its stuffed hero police dog), the Mid-America Science Museum (with its lighting-spitting Tesla coil), and the Texas Musicians Museum (with its slightly used coffin of The Big Bopper). The Dillinger Museum will be a welcome site of blood and mayhem when it reopens in March, as will America’s Largest Pyramid (in April), and America’s only floating bridge (in May). The bridge has been closed for seven years; the pyramid for eleven.

New attractions promised for 2015 include the Space Shuttle Independence, a full-size Shuttle replica bolted to the roof of a real 747 in Texas, that you’re supposed to be able to walk through and strap yourself into; a giant Kraken sculpture busting out of the streets and sidewalks of a town in Oregon; a Museum of Osteology (human and animal bones) that will open in Orlando; and a huge statue of Christopher Columbus, as big as the Statue of Liberty, which is supposed to go up in Puerto Rico. Oh, and the RoboCop statue in Detroit, which was originally promised for 2011, then 2012, 2013, 2014, and now 2015. Goes to show that building things in the real world takes time.

Of course, every year there are complete surprises. At this time in 2014 we knew nothing of Shark Girl, or Machine Gun America, or the Giant Licking Cat Head. What unforeseen marvels await in 2015? Dunno — but we’ll tell you about ’em when we do!

Sections: Coming Soon
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Dr. Mütter: Surgeon Behind the Specimens

Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum started as the ultimate cabinet of curiosities, and for all the right reasons.

Since our very first visit, we’ve loved it and its world-class collection of 19th century pathological specimens and anatomical models. Walls of skulls, organs in jars, cutaway brains, rows of eyeballs… a perfect blend of elegance and oddity. Unlike a full-body road trip rash, museums such as this don’t just spontaneously appear; they are the result of careful and dedicated collecting and preservation.

Thomas Dent Mutter
Thomas Dent Mutter
The Mütter Museum started with the bequeathed collection of the museum’s namesake, Thomas Dent Mütter, a pioneering Philadelphia surgeon and medical school teacher. The first biography about Mütter’s life, researched and penned by author/poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, vividly reconstructs the wild world of medical science circa 1820-1860, and how important Mütter was to some of its advances. It’s essential reading for  Mütter Museum fans and anyone interested in medical history (or who enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s cable drama The Knick).

book cover In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, Aptowicz transplants the reader ringside into the first American operating theaters. Fully awake patients were cut open without anesthetic by doctors with unwashed hands and filthy instruments.

Mütter himself was fastidious, washing his hands before surgery. He was also a clotheshorse, dressing in colorful, expensive outfits that stood out among the stodgy hues of other surgeons. Yet he was respected for his surgical precision, his attention to detail, and, eventually, his groundbreaking ideas.

Young Mütter studied in Paris (where he acquired one of his first pieces — a wax model of a French woman with a horn growing out of her forehead). In Philadelphia, as a teaching doctor at the new Jefferson Medical College, he ultimately imported the best techniques he’d learned from Europe.

Medical students were trained about maladies, disease and injury by viewing specimens and handling anatomical models. Mütter acquired and preserved these valuable aids throughout his career.

skull Aptowicz also chronicles fascinating medical politics and professional rivalries. It’s hard to imagine, but there was broad doctor resistance to the use of anesthesia when it was discovered. “Dr. Mütter’s Marvels” describes how that game-changer advanced among the old guard and the new thinkers. Mütter apparently got it right away, and worked to convince his colleagues that there were better ways to judge effective surgery than by the volume of the patient’s screams.

In contrast to the bedside manner practiced at the time (which was essentially no bedside manner) Dr. Mütter was compassionate and interested in his patients as individuals.

Dr. Mütter had a special interest in “monsters” — people disfigured by accident, disease or congenital defect. Pickled specimens helped him and his students strive for cures and surgical solutions to conditions long thought incurable. His goal was always to return these “monsters” to normal lives.

Book chapter open.One example detailed by Aptowicz: treatment for women with horrible burns on their jaws and necks, from mishaps such as kitchen cooking fires igniting their layers of restrictive clothing. The resulting face melting might leave the victim alive but permanently disfigured, neck and jaw contorted. Mütter devised a radically innovative procedure, today still called the “Mütter Flap,” where healthy and flexible back and shoulder skin of a burn victim would be pivoted up to replace the immobile scarred tissue on the neck and jaw. Mütter was a pioneer in plastic surgery.

Dr. Mütter, often ill himself, died young at age 47. Aware his days were numbered, he was determined to teach beyond the grave with his extensive hoard of specimens and models. He willed his collection and an endowment in 1858 to a professional society, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, who constructed a building to house it all. The museum opened to medical students and professionals in 1863.

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Gotham, 384 pp)

(Photos: Woodcut from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter; From the Author’s personal collection.)

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The Do Nothing Machine

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine

The most oddball exhibit at the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, Carlsbad, California, is its Do Nothing Machine, a gear-punk marvel of inventor obsession. If you take the tour of the museum’s workshop, you’ll probably get to see it run… if it’s not broken.

Designed and built starting in the late 1940s over the course of seven years, Lawrence Wahlstrom of Los Angeles built an insanely complex contraption. It contains 764 gears and elements. Though it has been labeled at times as a “Flying Saucer Detector,” its complete lack of purpose has made the other name stick.

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine
Tour guide and master machinist Dave Belt extols the virtues of this one-of-kind gizmo. It’s driven by three motors, one extracted from an old slot machine.

The center of the Do Nothing Machine, hidden behind layers of belts and gears is part of a World War II Norden Bombsight.

It’s not exactly miniature in the sense of the other machines at the museum, but it is a marvel of excruciatingly elaborate mechanics. A posted fact sheet informs: “The three electrically powered motive forces are gravitationally free, non-syncronal, trapezoidal seclusion wound and in the Delta configuration.”

In case you were wondering.

Dave shows us a round gear driving a square gear driving an oval gear. Then he uses his always handy yellow pencil acts as a pathway for our eyes to arrive at the wonders within the Do Nothing Machine. “There’s a sprocket, with no axle, that stays in the same place.”

Someone has to keep the Do Nothing Machine running, and that duty seems to fall on Dave. In the course of a year, “it’s broken down about a dozen times,” he told us. He’s managed to coax it back to 100% pointlessness each time, to the delight of museum visitors.

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine

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