Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
July 14, 2020
We live in wondrous (and confusing) times. Driving in our ever-smarter cars, we ingest up-to-the-minute data and maps, then take advice from robots about where to eat and pee. Yet, along America’s highways and back roads, dinosaurs still roam; pigs fly; and junked cars park nose-down in the ground. Pink elephants stare into the distance and quietly wonder who stole their martinis.*
Tim O’Brien might be able to answer that. He’s an expert at divining what may entertain you.
Our friend Tim is a huge fan — and an investigator — of roadside attractions. He’s been a frequent contributor to the Roadside America website. He’s an award-winning photojournalist, has been a senior editor at Amusement Business magazine, and spent ten years as a public relations executive for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!
Tim recently launched his 18th book: Tim O’Brien’s Roadside Pics & Picks — The Huge, The High, The Half-Buried. Publishing a book of roadside attraction photos during a lockdown pandemic might seem to be inauspicious timing — or it might be a perfect tonic for the new normal.
The book’s prelude starts with Tim’s warning: “I am a son of wanderlust and I have a camera.”
Roadside Pics & Picks is a photography exhibit of unique art environments, statues and other eye-catchers. It’s the visually weird stuff. The attractions are off the interstates, but conveniently along the highways and backroads — and accessible to all.
“I can’t imagine even one location featured in the book that is off limits or unsafe for a visit, ” Tim told us.
Tim’s photos exclusively feature each attraction — no tourists crowds or selfies. He groups themes of imagery — a leaping swordfish-on-a-pole in Ft. Lauderdale, FL shares a page with a catfish-on-a-pole in Burns, TN, and a spread of other skewered fish giants.
Many pages are devoted to scenes from RA mainstays such as the Forevertron, Salvation Mountain, and Cadillac Ranch — but also the less visited sites: International Car Forest of the Last Church, the House of Half-Buried Cars, and Boathenge. The images are large and colorful, and will leave you itching to hit the road yourself … and that includes us. Thanks, Tim!
Tim O’Brien’s Roadside Pics & Picks: The Huge, The High, The Half-Buried
174 pp, Casa Flamingo Literary Arts, Nashville, TN
From Amazon: Print: $34.99 Kindle: $19.99
* Excerpt stolen from the forward Doug wrote for Tim’s book.
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April 12, 2020
Here’s an early, unexpected casualty of the covid-19 virus: the Centralia “Graffiti Highway,” a three-quarter-mile stretch of former Pennsylvania Highway 61 just south of town. It’s been closed since 1993. Centralia sits atop a burning coal mine, and fumes could occasionally be seen venting from cracks in the abandoned roadway.
Decades of visitors — trespassing where they shouldn’t — had subsequently covered the asphalt with graffiti in chalk and spray paint.
According to a report on local news station WNEP, during the nationwide covid-19 shutdown, desperate (and really dumb) partiers converged on the highway and began setting fires, which they recorded on video and posted online. That was too much for the property owner, who in early April paid a local coal company to haul in 400 dump trucks of dirt and bury the roadway.
No more Highway 61, no more graffiti, no more parties.
A company spokesman told WNEP that “we’ll probably plant it, and hopefully there will be trees and grass growing there.”
March 20, 2020
We held our breath, scrubbed our smartphones, washed our hands, and decided we might have something to add to the endless stream of pandemic posts. Follow us down the rabbit hole for a glimpse of abrupt changes underway across America’s pockmarked face of quirky attractions.
In response to the COVID-19 situation, it’s no surprise that many roadside attractions are closing, or changing open hours and tour availability. In particular, even if a region’s leisure road travel is unrestricted, large indoor attractions and museums have paused activity to stop community spread. Hotels in many places are shut down, public festivals canceled or postponed.
It’s most important for you and your family to stay safe. Help slow down the virus spread by staying home. While cooped up, if it seems fun at all, poke around our website or app for ideas for a someday trip.
We conducted a quick Facebook and website check on a few of our favorite roadside attractions (see table below). Some have announced closings (not expected seasonality), some still appear to be open (barring a business operation restriction). Some attraction websites are late posting notification about closing (no surprise; an outsider artist with beer bottle palace skills may not be a WordPress wiz). One Philadelphia attraction — the Mutter Museum — announced its closing between the first time we checked and an hour later when we confirmed (on the plus side, when they do reopen, we anticipate great interest in their “Spit Spreads Death!” exhibit).
As the health crisis and response unfolds, some states have closed nearly all museums, indoor attractions, and theme parks. National park entrances fees have been waived, but many parks are closed (Yosemite N.P. gates shut today until further notice). In the last few days, California’s governor told everyone to stay home and non-essential businesses to shutter. Then Nevada, Illinois, Connecticut and New York issued similar emergency declarations. These restrictions will probably spread and tighten.
Keep in mind that an attraction’s status may change, and many don’t update online. Call or email them directly to find the most current info, and be patient if you don’t hear back right away or at all. These plucky businesses and projects — mom & pop, independent, volunteer-run, educational, nonprofit — may need your love and tourism attention when the dust settles.
Status of Select Roadside Attractions
As reported on attraction FB and web pages up to March 20, 2020:
|AL||Birmingham||Sloss Furnaces||Closed until further notice|
|AL||Cullman||Ave Maria Grotto||Open, Grounds, Gift Shop|
|AL||Huntsville||U.S. Space & Rocket Center||Closed thru April 12, 2020|
|AZ||Dragoon||The Thing||Listed as open|
|AZ||Green Valley||Titan Missile Museum||Closed until further notice|
|AZ||Holbrook||Wigwam Village Motel No. 6||Listed as open|
|AZ||Picacho||Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch||Listed as open|
|CA||Felicity||Official Center of the World||Listed as open, outdoor only.|
|CA||Klamath||Trees Of Mystery||Listed as open|
|CA||Leggett||Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree||Listed as open (stay in car)|
|CA||Niland||Salvation Mountain||Unofficial outdoors|
|CA||Piercy||Confusion Hill||Closed through April 6, 2020|
|CA||Santa Cruz||Santa Cruz Mystery Spot||Closed through April 7, 2020|
|CO||Colorado Springs||Dragon Man’s Military Museum||Closed until April 5, 2020|
|FL||Homestead||Coral Castle||Listed as open, outdoors|
|FL||Kissimmee||Gator Land||Closed until further notice, post daily "School of Crocs" video|
|FL||Weeki Wachee||Mermaids of Weeki Wachee||Closed until further notice.|
|GA||Lookout Mountain||Rock City||Closed until March 28, 2020|
|KS||Cawker City||World’s Largest Ball of Twine||Outdoor unattended attraction|
|KS||Lucas||The Garden of Eden||Closed until further notice|
|KY||Williamstown||Ark Encounter and Creation Museum||Closed through April 1, 2020|
|LA||Abita Springs||Abita Mystery House||Closed until further notice|
|LA||New Orleans||Mardi Gras World||Closed until further notice|
|MD||Baltimore||National Great Blacks In Wax Museum||Closed until April 2020|
|MD||Silver Spring||National Museum of Health and Medicine||Closed until further notice|
|MI||Dearborn||Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation||Closed until April 5, 2020|
|MI||Ishpeming||Da Yoopers Tourist Trap||Listed as open, partly outdoors|
|MN||Darwin||Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota||Outdoor unattended attraction|
|MO||Branson||Titanic Museum||Closed until April 10, 2020|
|MO||St. Joseph||Glore Psychiatric Museum||Closed until further notice|
|MO||St. Louis||City Museum||Closed until April 2020|
|NE||Minden||Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village||Listed as open|
|NJ||Margate City||Lucy the Elephant||Closed until April 2020 (reopened July 29, 2020)|
|NV||Primm||Bonnie and Clyde’s Death Car||Closed until further notice|
|OH||Wright Patterson AFB||National Museum of the United States Air Force||Closed until further notice|
|OR||Gold Hill||Oregon Vortex||Closed until April 15, 2020|
|PA||Philadelphia||Mutter Museum||Closed until further notice|
|SC||Dillon||South Of The Border||Listed as open|
|SD||Wall||Wall Drug||Listed as open|
|TN||Memphis||Graceland||Closed until April 4, 2020|
|TN||Pigeon Forge||Alcatraz East||Closed until further notice|
|TX||Amarillo||Cadillac Ranch||Outdoor unattended attraction|
|TX||Houston||National Museum of Funeral History||Closed until further notice|
|UT||Moab||Hole N" The Rock||Listed as open|
|VA||Danville||AAF Tank Museum||Closed until April 1, 2020|
|VA||White Post||Dinosaur Land||Listed as open|
|VT||Shelburne||Shelburne Museum||Closed until further notice|
|WI||Spring Green||House on the Rock||Closed until further notice|
|WV||New Vrindaban||Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold||Closed until further notice|
I’m very patient.
March 18, 2020
J. Seward Johnson passed away on March 10 of cancer. He was 89. His father was a Johnson & Johnson millionaire, and Seward himself made millions from a long career as a public sculptor, churning out artwork that average Americans loved and almost all art critics loved to hate.
Seward’s first roadside-worthy sculpture, The Awakening, featured a buried human giant clawing his way out of the ground — but it was an stylistic outlier. Seward really began infiltrating the public space when he started making full-color life-size bronzes of everyday people standing around, doing everyday things, which he would place on downtown sidewalks. The figures were so boring and realistic (except for their gold-tinted skin) that passers-by sometimes thought they were real people. The most conceptual of these early pieces, “Return Visit,” features Abe Lincoln talking to 1950s crooner Perry Como. Seward sold that one to Gettysburg.
Seward had made one oversized sculpture of an everyday thing — a giant tooth — and it proved so eye-catching that Seward began creating giant 3-D statue-versions of famous photos and paintings, which continue to be leased to cities and attractions for a year at a time, or permanently if they have the cash. There’s “Unconditional Surrender,” replicating the iconic sailor-nurse smooch at the end of World War II, and “Forever Marilyn,” mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s well-known pose in her billowing dress over a subway grate. Seward made a giant version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Renoir’s “A Dance at Bougival.” He even made a 31-foot-tall version of his own oddball Abe-Lincoln-Perry-Como statue, and cities happily pay to display it as a patriotic tribute.
Seward used some of his millions to create Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre park that displayed his artworks between their city-stops (and exhibited the sculptures of other artists as well). It was equipped with a foundry where Seward could pump out more sculptures for culture-starved Americans, who would rather see a giant Lincoln than abstract or high-concept public art. According to his various obituaries, Seward was busy making copycat sculptures right until the end.
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February 27, 2020
Lucy, a six-story-tall elephant-shaped building on the Jersey Shore, has long been advertised as “the only elephant you can go into and come out of alive.” She will soon be the only elephant that you can go into, take a nap, and emerge undigested the next morning.
According to Save Lucy Committee Executive Director Richard Helfant, overnight stays for two people will be available on March 5, through Airbnb, for three days only: March 17, 18, and 19. Lucy’s innards will be decorated Edwardian-style, from the sheets to the rugs, to replicate how they looked in 1902 when a family from England used Lucy as a summer home.
Although Lucy offers a view of the beach through her eyeball-windows, there is no running water inside the elephant — just like in 1902 — so overnighters will have to walk outside to a bathroom trailer with a shower, toilet, and a sink.
Because Lucy is 138 years old, the price per couple will be $138. Helfant has hinted that if this first experiment goes well, Lucy may again welcome overnight sleepovers — although that’s unlikely to happen during the summer crush of sunburned Lucy fans.
Day visitors during March 17-19 will be able to see the retro-interior between its overnight guests. Then Lucy’s innards will return to their usual tourist-friendly, non-digestible configuration.
Sections: Attraction News
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December 1, 2019
Little remains of the original soft drink Mountain Dew except for its name, its garish red and green label colors, and the fact that it has enough sugar and caffeine to choke a mule.
It was concocted in 1946, in Knoxville, Tennessee, by two brothers who didn’t want to sell it or drink it straight. They used it as their own personal mixer for their whiskey. When it first hit the market in 1951 it was sold in little 7 ounce bottles, not enough to quench a 12 ounce thirst, but enough to mix with a shot or two of bourbon.
Mountain Dew in those days did not sell well, and tasted something like 7-Up. The flavor that Dew drinkers know today was invented in 1960 and first put into Mountain Dew bottles in either Marion, Virginia, or Lumberton, North Carolina (Both towns claim credit). The South loved the new taste so much that Mountain Dew was bought by Pepsi, which took the drink nationwide with a five-year-long hillbilly marketing blitz. Today the neon green beverage is the third most popular soda brand in the world.
Modern “Game Fuel” Dew drinkers have little awareness of the beverage’s corny origins, which is why Knoxville’s Museum of East Tennessee History is hosting a surprisingly sprawling exhibit that chronicles Mountain Dew’s history.
The timeline goes back to the day of moonshine stills and Prohibition, introduces cultural cousins such as Snuffy Smith and Barney Google, Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, and ends with Mountain Dew’s post-hillbilly marketing that associates the soda with everything from NASCAR to snowboarders. Rare vintage bottles are on display — there were over 900 different early varieties, making Mountain Dew popular with collectors — and there are lots of cartoony, bearded, barefoot hillbillies with flintlock rifles and floppy hats. There’s even an exhibit devoted to early Mountain Dew imitators such as White Light-ning and Hill Billy Joose. You can watch old TV commercials and listen to vintage radio spots with titles such as “Raidin’ Varmint” and “Airyoplane.”
Displays show how Mountain Dew abandoned its hillbilly roots in 1969, then flailed for decades with flop ad campaigns (“Taste the Sunshine,” “Get That Barefoot Felling”) before embracing its sugar-and-caffeine formula to become the fuel of choice for gamers, programmers, and insomniacs in general. There’s been a homecoming of sorts as well; one showcase displays limited-time retro-brews such as Mountain Dew Throwback that have resurrected the original 1940s image of a jug of cork-popping Dew shooting a hole in a hillbilly’s hat.
The exhibit runs through January 20, 2020.
Sections: Attraction News
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