Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
February 26, 2017
Since the early 1990s, a three-quarter mile stretch of Pennsylvania Highway 61 has been closed – blocked with berms of earth at both ends – because the ground beneath it is on fire.
The highway stretches south from Centralia, a town that was abandoned when a coal mine started burning underneath it, with no way to ever put it out. Most of Centralia’s buildings were bulldozed, but the highway was simply left to decay, probably in the belief that no sane person would ever want to visit it.
That theory, of course, proved wrong. The road attracted curious visitors, then visitors with spray cans (who christened it “Graffiti Highway”), and more recently visitors who perceive it as a kind of Damnation Alley playground.
A news story in the Pottsville Republican Herald reports that Pennsylvania state police are now ticketing people who visit the highway, after it was discovered on Facebook that a “Barbie Jeep Racing” event was being planned for the road, with about 1,000 people interested in attending. The race, according to the Republican Herald, “would have featured adults driving battery powered children’s vehicles.”
Purge, if you can, that disturbing image from your mind, and remember: the ground beneath the highway is on fire. Steam and smoke rise through cracks in the asphalt on cool mornings. One of the few buildings left standing in Centralia is its rescue squad, because people need rescuing after they fall into hot-pocket holes that have opened in and around the town, including holes on the no-trespassing Graffiti Highway.
The Republican Herald story ends by mentioning that, in addition to the highway, visitors aren’t welcome in Centralia, either, and that the town, despite its popularity, has been removed as a tourist destination from the county visitors’ bureau website.
February 16, 2017
Tourists who visit South Dakota’s Mitchell Corn Palace in 2017 may notice something familiar: the same outdoor Corn Palace murals that decorated the building in 2016.
For nearly 70 years the Corn Palace has filled its outside walls with large murals made of corn, each year tearing down the previous year’s artwork to replace it with something new. But this year, to cut costs, the murals that were new in the beginning of 2016 will be held over until the end of 2017.
Mitchell’s mayor and town council figured that few tourists would notice, since tourists rarely visit the Corn Palace two years in a row. What they didn’t count on was the amount of corn carnage inflicted on the murals by winter weather and hungry birds. And, unwisely, the murals they chose to carry over from 2016 depict well-known pop icons such as Willie Nelson. Maybe only a handful of visitors would have cared about a pockmarked leaf or a freckled buffalo, but everyone notices the ravaged face of Elvis.
In a news story in the Mitchell Republic, the Corn Palace director describes the mural damage as “worse than what I expected,” and quotes a dissenting councilman as saying, “I just think we made a mistake here, I really do.” And this is only February.
Will Michael Jackson have any skin left by July? Will John Travolta be disco dancing naked on Labor Day?
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February 8, 2017
How do you clean a collection of over 13,000 toys and action figures?
At the Toy and Action Figure Museum, it’s a matter of logistics.
“Over the years I’ve developed a system,” said museum founder and curator Kevin Stark. Every February he closes the museum for several days so its toys can be cleansed of a year’s worth of tracked-in dust and visitor off-gassing.
In the “Adult Collector’s Bedroom Diorama,” for example, volunteers break the display into two-foot-square grids, pile all the toys from a grid onto similar-size pieces of cardboard, carry them to a cleaning area, clean the toys, then move them to staging area to either be returned to the display or rotated into storage.
“The big thing is, you don’t want to lose the accessories,” Kevin said. “I know where every piece belongs, but I really don’t want to have to match all this stuff back up if I don’t have to.”
Kevin called his knowledge of every action figure tool and weapon “part of my wealth of useless information.”
For the cleaning, Kevin stressed the importance of texture. “Smooth, hard plastic toys are easy to get with just a duster,” he said. “Some toys are more rubbery; you gotta hit those with glass cleaner – but you have to be careful not to use anything wet on toys with paper stickers. Small toys you usually have to clean with cotton swabs to get in all the nooks and crannies.”
Toys are meant to be played with, and a rookie cleaner might assume that a piece of plastic or metal could survive a quick, vigorous scrubbing. Kevin, who trains all the volunteers, quickly instructs them to forget such ideas. “When I start telling them the value of some of the toys,” he said, “they get a lot more careful.”
We told Kevin about the Don Aslett Museum of Clean in Idaho, a museum known for its spotless surfaces and dust-free organization. Kevin was initially intrigued, but eventually conceded that Don Aslett “would probably think our place is a nightmare.”
Plus, Kevin added, the yearly cleaning gives him an excuse to play with the toys.
The dates for the cleaning this year are February 21-23.
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February 2, 2017
JFK – that’s James Frank Kotera, not John F. Kennedy – turned 70 on Groundhog Day, 2017. JFK is the creator and solitary roller of what may be the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. He’s been wrapping it for almost 38 years.
We called to wish JFK a happy birthday, and to ask how the twine ball was coming along. He said that he still adds to it every day, but not yet on his birthday because it was 12 degrees below zero outside (He and his outdoor twine ball are in northern Wisconsin). JFK asked if we were stopping by (he enjoys visitors), and we said we’d probably wait until it was a little warmer.
JFK told us that his twine ball currently weighs 22,425 pounds. We then checked with Linda Clover, caretaker of the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” in Cawker City, Kansas, and learned that its current weight is 20,230 pounds. Both weights are best guesses since neither ball sits on a scale, but clearly this is a Golden Age of Giant Twine Balls with two active ten-ton behemoths vying for size supremacy.
JFK said that he had to run to get to his job at the town dump, but planned to add to his twine ball later in the afternoon. “When it warms up,” he said. “It keeps me young.”
January 21, 2017
In a time when Americans yearn for someone to bring them together, David Bakara knows who that someone is.
David and his wife opened the Expedition: Bigfoot! attraction in Georgia last year. He told us that becoming a Bigfoot researcher was his first step into a larger world of… well, other Bigfoot researchers. He also said that people interested in Bigfoot put aside the petty problems that typically divide us.
“For people who don’t believe I say, ‘I respect you,'” David told us, words notably absent from today’s impassioned rhetoric.
Could Bigfoot-as-public-servant heal the wounds of a divided nation? He clearly meets at least some of the criteria for office: Bigfoot is American-born and he’s certainly old enough. And the idea of a national leader as a crazy-haired inhuman creature no longer seems impossibly farfetched.
But Bigfoot doesn’t need to win an election to improve our lives. According to David, he’s already won our hearts.
“I went looking for Bigfoot, and instead I found myself,” David told us, describing his fellow Bigfoot believers as “neat friends” who are “down-to-earth” and who “drop all the complications.”
That sounds like the kind of Americans our forefathers hoped for when they kicked out the divide-and-conquer British.
“In the Bigfoot world, we all trust each other,” David said. “We find out we’re all decent people.”
January 16, 2017
Does the price an American pays for a wax President reveal how Americans feel about the Presidents themselves?
Nah… but the recent Gettysburg auction of all the dummies from The Hall of Presidents and First Ladies was too good an opportunity for the media to pass up. Who are we to turn up our noses at such a ready-made story?
Randy Dickensheets, the auctioneer, forwarded us a list of the winning bids for all of the Presidents and First Ladies. The auction, he said, was packed with about 300 eager buyers, many of them attorneys and doctors looking to add a Mr. or Mrs. President as an office decoration. Also present were some distant presidential relatives, as well as the usual pop culture junkies and political packrats.
Priciest of all the wax Presidents were Abe Lincoln $9,350; Teddy Roosevelt $8,800; Ulysses S. Grant $6,820; George Washington $5,610; Andrew Jackson $5,610. Grant clearly benefited from being a Gettysburg favorite. Jackson’s strong showing was a surprise, placing him ahead of more modern presidential heartthrobs such as JFK and Ronald Reagan. Our personal favorite President dummy in the entire collection, Zombie Bill Clinton, fetched only $2,750.
The least-loved Presidents were Lyndon Johnson $1,870; John Adams $1,760; Franklin Pierce $1,430; James Madison $1,430; and poor James Monroe at $1,100. Randy told us that he began bidding for each President at $1,000, so Monroe only mustered one or two feeble fans.
First among the First Ladies was the obscure – and evidently rare – Jane Irwin Findlay, who served as White House hostess during the 32-day administration of William Henry Harrison. Rounding out the top five: Mary Todd Lincoln, Grace Coolidge, Hillary Clinton, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Randy told us that all of the dummies went to what he felt were “good homes,” except perhaps Hillary. “I thought the guy bid high ($742.50) because he really liked her,” Randy told us, but he later overheard that the winner planned to turn her into a toilet paper holder for his bathroom. “We’re a split country,” Randy said with a sigh.
Other notable items from the auction included a “large amount” of old black and white postcards “including five different styles of Abraham Lincoln” ($385); and – clearly the steal of the day – the audio tapes that narrated the entire attraction for a mere $38.50.
“This is your heritage!” the announcer cries, now for an audience of one. “The story of the Presidents as they might have told it! The story of America!”
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