Great 8: Kitschy Classics
Any tourist or traveler would be missing out if they never saw the National Civil Rights Museum or Kennedy Space Center or the Alamo or Gettysburg. Intellectual curiosity is fuel for the soul, and experiences that edify or illuminate cal fill you up. But there's nothing wrong with getting your fill of fun, too. Why not balance gravitas with a bit of goofiness? With that in mind, here are eight places--we'll call them kitschy classics--that make a road trip that much trippier.
Just follow the smell of spray paint. Located in a cow pasture along I-40--or, if you prefer, Route 66--just west of Amarillo, Texas, this is essentially a collection of used, graffiti-covered Cadillacs, half-buried, nose-first, all leaning in the same direction. It was the brainchild of a billionaire iconoclast named Stanley Marsh, who wanted a mysterious piece of public art. Mostly, he wanted to mystify the locals.
From the beginning, in 1974, people would stop, walk the hundred yards or so to view the cars, and inevitably remove pieces as souvenirs. Nowadays, public defacement is actually a rite of passage at this ritual site for travelers along the Mother Road. Visitors are encouraged to add their own graffiti. Art, of course, is a matter of perspective. One person's junkyard is another's public sculpture masterpiece. But either way, it's sort of irresistible. But remember: While Cadillac Ranch has lasted more than four decades, the artistry is fleeting. By the next day, it's likely that your personal contribution will have been painted over.
It is a serious and worthy cause. One might even call it a lesson, a cautionary tale. The National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, North Dakota, about 100 miles east of Bismarck, educates visitors about the hundreds of thousands of bison that once roamed the Great Plains. And there is a herd there, too--a few dozen bison were transplanted from Theodore Roosevelt National Park and now roam some 200 acres of pasture on either side of I-94. If you're lucky, you might see a few. If you're really lucky, you might spot White Cloud, an incredibly rare albino bison.
But you're guaranteed to spot Dakota Thunder. That's the 26-foot-tall, 46-foot-long cement sculpture known as the World's Largest Buffalo. It was built in 1959 by a fellow named Harold Newman, a local merchant who envisioned an eye-catching tourist attraction. And just steps from the sculpture, you can stroll through Jamestown's Frontier Village, a collection of storefronts and artifacts--a barber shop, a dentist, an art gallery, an antique store, a jail, a pony ride, a saloon, even a Louis L'Amour Writer's Shack.
Of course, Dakota Thunder is the big attraction. And why not, right? In a country where you can spot the world's largest thermometer (Baker, CA), spinach can (Alma, AR), ketchup bottle (Collinsville, IL), cheese wheel (Berlin, OH), even fake nose and glasses (Michigan City, IN), a super-sized bison doesn't seem all that strange. Of course, maybe the real bison are a bit weirded out.
One of the world's most enduring mysteries is actually rather easy to discover. There are various Stonehenges amid the American landscape. There's Carhenge outside of Alliance, Nebraska, a bunch of cars painted gray and specifically buried or balanced to replicate Stonehenge. There's Stonehenge II--about three-quarters the size of England's original--in the Texas Hill Country. And there's even Foamhenge, a full-sized replica made out of Styrofoam in Natural Bridge, Virginia. But Samuel Hill's in southern Washington was the first--and since it's made out of reinforced concrete, it should last.
While visiting England on a relief mission during World War I, Hill had made a trip to Stonehenge, where he was mistakenly informed that druids had constructed it as an altar for human sacrifice. He decided that modern warfare was an equally disturbing waste, so he decided to build a full-size, astronomically-aligned replica of Stonehenge and dedicate it to WWI soldiers who gave their lives in defense of their country. The monument was completed in 1929, two years before Hill's death. By then, he was suffering from depression, so perhaps it is appropriate that his creation stands on a lonely bluff south of the town of Goldendale, overlooking the sweep of the Columbia River.
The ancient Stonehenge remains a mystery. Was it an ancient observatory? A temple? A burial site? What visitors can see today constitutes the ruins of the Neolithic structure. But Sam Hill's Stonehenge is a meticulous approximation of how England's original may have appeared just after its construction several thousand years ago, with all of its pillars standing tall -- 40 of them (each 9 feet high) in an inner circle and 30 more (each 16 feet high) in an outer circle. And maybe this one is a mystery, too. Is it kitsch? Is it a serious monument? Is it a replica or a reinterpretation? Or maybe, like the original, it is all a matter of perspective.
The photo above shows a Bigfoot Burger, the specialty at The Early Bird restaurant in Willow Creek, California. That's two 1/3 lb. patties with cheese and three slices of bacon on a giant homemade French bun shaped like a foot. Absolutely ridiculous. Then again, this Humboldt County hamlet is the epicenter of Bigfoot Country.
It was the Humboldt Times that coined the term "Bigfoot," although the collection of memorabilia and rumor surrounding supposed sightings is known as Sasquatchiana. In Willow Creek, the ape-like creature is everywhere. There are road signs that caution "BIGFOOT CROSSING." There is a statue of Bigfoot carved out of redwood. There is a Bigfoot Motel and a store called Bigfoot Dollar or More (with a bulletin board out front shaped like a big foot). And at the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, a regional history museum, there is a whole wing dedicated to one local fellow's Bigfoot Collection
The village newspaper is known as The Bigfoot Valley News. Every Labor Day weekend, the town hosts its Bigfoot Days, which includes a parade and even the crowning of a Li'l Bigfoot prince and princess. In 2003, the local Trinity Valley Elementary School was the location of the International Bigfoot Symposium. Of course, who really believes in Bigfoot, right? It's just an absurdity, a delusion. But bring your camera just in case.
When Woody Guthrie sang of this land being made for you and me, he decided to emphasize the redwood forests. Good choice. But it's okay to complement the wonder with a bit of whimsy. After a north-to-south drive through California's Redwood National Park, make a stop at Trees of Mystery. You can't miss it. That's because there's a 49-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan out front, next to a 35-foot Babe the Blue Ox. And, thanks to a hidden microphone and commentator somewhere nearby, the big lumberjack interacts in real time with the folks walking past or the kids climbing atop his left shoe ("Hey you two boys, you posing for a picture on my boot? Just say TREES."). Goofy, but try not to smile.
And then you can walk through some redwoods along an interpretive trail, where the fantastical trees have names like Elephant Tree, Family Tree, Cathedral Tree, Brotherhood Tree. You'll pass redwood carvings and stroll through the story of Paul Bunyan, himself. To top it all off, you can literally top it off. Take the Sky Trail, a gondola ride through the canopies of the redwoods.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the wonder-and-whimsy confluence occurs in western South Dakota. After a drive along the Badlands Loop, travelers find themselves in the town of Wall, where the mega-oasis of Wall Drug is a befuddling array of knickknacks and nonsense. The Badlands make you say, "Wow!" Wall Drug makes you say, "What the?"
It began back during the Depression when pharmacist Ted Hustead started advertising "free ice water" to travelers heading toward the Black Hills. It worked, and now Wall Drug may be even more famous for its marketing. If you drive through South Dakota and you don't see dozens of Wall Drug billboards, then you shouldn't be driving. Because you're probably asleep. It has been estimated that Wall Drug spends $400,000 annually on the billboards alone.
Wall Drug Store is essentially a shopping mall that operates as a single entity. But it is really a capital of kitsch where you can find everything from a western art museum to a chapel, and from a fiberglass giant jackelope to an 80-foot dinosaur (visible from the interstate) with light bulbs for eyes. And speaking of dinosaurs, Wall Drug makes no bones about being what it is--a tourist-snagging hodgepodge of "who really needs that?" But you just can't turn away. Just ask the more than one million people who stop there every year. As Bill Bryson wrote in his 1989 travelogue, The Lost Continent, "It's an awful place one of the world's worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won't have a word said against it."
Wisconsin Dells is centrally located (just an hour north of the state capital in Madison) and easily accessible (right off Interstate 94), so nearly three million visitors a year make a pilgrimage to this mishmash of man-made and nature-made wonders.
If it's scenery you crave, that's what originally drew visitors to the area. The beautiful Dells, from which the town gets its name, were formed by glacial melting 14,000 years ago and consist of rocky islands, gorges and cliffs. But of course you can explore these on vehicles with names like the Wildthing Jet Boats and Dells Army Ducks. Want thrills? Drop in for a 130-foot bungee jump at Extreme World. Get drenched at Noah's Ark, billed as the world's largest water park and featuring three-dozen water slides. Or grab a seat for the Tommy Bartlett Show, featuring acts like Aqua the Waterskiing Clown and the Man-Carrying Kite.
How's that for Wisconsin cheese? But there's plenty more. Only in Wisconsin Dells can you find attractions like a 60-foot Trojan Horse as part of a go-kart track, a Top Secret attraction housed in a building constructed to look like an upside-down White House, Monster Truck World, Bigfoot Zipline Tours, and a giant German glockenspiel.
Wander around the southernmost point in the continental U.S., and you might spot someone wearing a T-shirt that well encapsulates the spirit of the place: "We all live here because we're not all there." Think Berkeley-meets-Bermuda. Or a tropical Venice Beach. The sun and surf in Key West offer all kinds of possibilities--go kayaking, try parasailing, ride a jet ski, take an excursion in a glass-bottom boat. So there can be serenity in the scenery. But the kitsch is in the commercialism. For all the oyster bars and taverns and classic homes that lend authenticity to the place, there are far more souvenir and T-shirt shops in between.
And then there's the Sunset Celebration, a nightly festival at Mallory Square Dock that has been described as a "multicultural happening." Each evening a group of arts and crafts exhibitors and street performers gather to (theoretically) celebrate the sunset. But let's be honest, they're just trying to make a buck. In recent years, the performers have had names like Southernmost Silverman (one of those silver-painted statue guys) and the Great Rondini (escape stunts). Or you might see a guy juggling a torch, a knife and a hatchet while riding a unicycle. Only in Key West.
But oh, that setting sun.