By Phil Willen
“Are we there yet?” That quote is synonymous with children and traveling. Even if no children are on board, hours sitting in the captains or first mate’s chair might have you muttering that to yourself. Enjoyable as the open road may be, there comes a time when the eyes blur, knuckles become white from gripping the wheel and your bottom end becomes comatose. It’s time take that break!
Fortunately the road most traveled is studded with little gems of Americana and tributes to the offbeat imagination of those who pursued their dreams -- ideal places to take a break and maybe learn something new. We’ve come up with a few roadside attractions to get you out of the (motorized) house and on your feet.
Don’t forget your camera. All those larger than life props out there make for wild and wacky photos. Make a slide show on the computer. Fill and album with kids climbing dinosaurs, standing by a very tall Paul Bunyan, the family standing by the world’s largest ball of twine. These are the things memories are made of.
Rest Stop Rocket near Huntsville, Alabama
At a rest stop near the Alabama-Tennessee-border on I-65 stands a humongous Saturn 1B rocket. At a height of 224 feet, it isn’t hard to find. The 1B’s were used to boost unmanned Apollo modules as well as a few orbital trips in the latter 1990s. This particular rocket was placed here in 1979 as a tribute to the U.S. space program. Being a rest stop, this is an opportunity to stretch your legs and take care of other necessities at an opportune time.
Dinosaur World, Cave City Kentucky
What kid isn’t enamored with dinosaurs? If you are traveling along I-65, have children with you and are near Cave City, Kentucky, look for the gigantic T-Rex on the side of the road at Exit 53. That’s where you’ll find life-size lizards of the pre-historic kind as you walk along a trail through the forest. These gargantuan beasts are fiberglass replicas of the ones that stalked the earth millions of years ago. There’s also a museum where real fossils and artifacts can be found and gifts purchased. Children may dig through sand to find their own souvenirs. Cave City is between Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee. There are also Dinosaur Worlds in Florida and Texas.
Wigwam Village, Cave City, Kentucky
Still another Cave City attraction will delight kiddies as well as adults. Imagine staying, not in a motel room, but an Indian Teepee. There are complete rooms with one or two double beds, a bathroom and furnishings circa the 1930s. The original was built in Horse Cave, Kentucky but was later torn down, only to spring up again in Cave City. Two other Wigwam Villages are in Holbrook, Arizona and Rialto, California.
The location near Exit 53 of I-65 is close to Mammoth Cave National Park and other area attractions. Reasonable rates are $35 to $70, depending on the season and number of beds.
Carhenge, Alliance, Nebraska
Dubbed the second wackiest attraction in America by the Trip Advisor web site, Carhenge is a replica of England’s Stonehenge, with one huge difference. Cars painted the color of stone are substituted for the stones of the original. Located six miles north of Alliance and 160 miles from North Platte, the project was conceived by Jim Reinders as a tribute to his father, in 1987. Since then, more auto-themed sculptures have been added to the property, making for a surrealistic sight.
Number one wackiest attraction, by the way, was awarded to the Toilet Seat Museum in San Antonio, Texas.
Maryhill Stonehenge, Maryhill, Washington
The Stonehenge theme is continued at Maryhill, Washington, where a replica of the British original stands above the gorgeous Columbia Gorge. It was built by pioneer Sam Hill as a tribute to those brave lads from Klickitat County who died in World War I. It was started in 1918 and completed in 1930. One hundred miles East of Portland, Oregon, Maryhill is on Highway 14 (the Lewis and Clark Highway) across the river from I-84. There is also a museum nearby said to have the largest grounds of any museum.
Foamhenge, Natural Bridge, Virginia
Completing the Stonehenge trifecta is an unnatural exact replica called Foamhenge. As implied, this bit of kitsch is made from styrofoam blocks carved by artist Mark Cline, a roadside visionary. Each foam monolith is an exact replica of its relative in England. The blocks are anchored by rods and Mark is nearby to touch up those that may become damaged. Foamhenge is on Highway 11 South at I-81 Exit 180, near Natural Bridge, Virginia.
Rock City Barns
A popular family attraction on Lookout Mountain, Georgia is Rock City, featuring naturally formed streets and avenues, gardens, Fairyland Caverns, gnome statues imported from Germany and more. From Lovers leap, seven states can be seen. In 1936, artist Clark Byers was hired to paint barns all over the country to publicize the attraction. Farmers were told that they could get their barns painted free if they would let three words, “SEE ROCK CITY”, be painted on the roof. Between 1936 and 1950, Byers painted 900 barns from Michigan to Texas. Today, only 70 are still standing. A list with pictures and directions can be seen at seerockcity.com. Lookout Mountain and Rock City are six miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee. From Chattanooga, take I-24 east to Exit 178.
Lucy the Elephant, Margate, New Jersey
What kid wouldn’t want to walk around inside an elephant? If you’re near Atlantic City, standing tall in a town called Margate (formerly South Atlantic City) is Lucy the Elephant, a 65 foot high example of pachyderm pulchritude. Lucy was born in 1881 and is made of wood covered with metal plates. She was originally made to generate publicity for a real estate sale and like the Hollywood sign became an area icon. It is said that a million pieces of timber and 8,560 ribs or arches, 200 kegs of nails, and four tons of bolts and bars were used. It required 12,000 square feet of tin to cover the structure. After nearly burning down in 1904 and falling into disrepair over the years, Lucy was moved to Margate in the summer of 1974 where she has become a must-see attraction. A howdah (a carriage on an elephant’s back) on Lucy’s back serves as an observatory. The interior is spacious enough to have been a Victorian hotel at one time. It has become a national historic site.
Worlds Largest Catsup Bottle, Collinsville, Illinois
While on the subject of behemoths, we must mention the Worlds Largest Catsup Bottle. On Route 159, just south of downtown Collinsville, Illinois stands a water tower in the shape of a catsup bottle. The 170 foot tower was built for the G.S. Suppiger catsup bottling plant, bottlers of Brooks Old Original Rich & Tangy catsup. It was restored in 1995. Collinsville, about 12 miles east of St. Louis, Missouri, is a Route 66 and a Route 40 community. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2002. The World's Largest Catsup Bottle Festival and Car Show is held each July.
Cabazon Dinosaurs, Cabazon, CA
OK, kiddies, more dinosaurs. Near the town of Palm Springs, CA stand dinosaurs like Dinny, a larger than life size Apatosaurus and Mr. Rex, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, 100 ton structure. These are off the Cabazon exit of I-10 and were originally built to promote the Wheel Inn Café around 1964. The concrete and steel beasts move and make dino noises. The T-Rex is fun to climb into and has a small museum inside. Inside Dinny’s belly lies a little souvenir shop. The current owners believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed; the attraction now has a religious theme. There is a museum, a gift shop and a 60-room motel at the Main Street exit in Cabazon.
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox, Klamath, California
If you are headed up the California coast on Highway 101 toward Oregon, about 36 miles before the border you will see a logger standing 46 feet tall, waving and holding a 25 foot long ax. That would be Paul Bunyan. Next to him is Babe the Big Blue Ox standing a mere 35 feet tall. These larger than life figures are at the entrance to the Trees of Mystery. Paul talks to you as you enter. Babe just stands there.
Trees of Mystery, Klamath, California
This area is known for its giant redwood trees, including one so large you can drive your car through the trunk. At the Trees of Mystery, there are trees in all shapes and sizes, some shaped like pretzels, strands of DNA and a cluster of six redwoods growing from a single trunk, called the Cathedral Tree. Many weddings have been performed there. The Sky Trail will have you soaring above the treetops in a gondola, an experience not soon forgotten. The Klamath area, near the Klamath River, is a beautiful place worthy of further exploration.
Worlds Largest Twine Ball, Darwin, Minnesota
Have a ball…of twine that is. Another bigger than life exhibit is the largest ball of twine created by one person. Francis A. Johnson, a man who must have had a lot of time on his hands, started rolling it in 1950. When it got too big for the house, he rolled it to the front lawn and lifted it with railroad jacks. He added to that sphere for 29 years until 1979 when it weighed 9 tons and had a width of 12 feet. Weird Al Yankovic, the offbeat song writer, even wrote a song about the ball. Mr. Johnson is gone now, but not forgotten. His life’s work resides in a wood gazebo for all to see. There is even a Twine Ball Days festival on the second day of August. Darwin is located in the middle of the state, about an hours drive west of Minneapolis on US Highway 12. darwintwineball.com/
Worlds Largest Twine Ball II, Cawker City, Kansas
What could be better than a giant ball of twine? Why, two of course. In the little town of Cawker City (population about 600), another sisal saver devoted himself to creating a monster. Frank Stoeber started this ball of twine in 1953. Alas, he passed on in 1974, without catching up to his predecessor in Minnesota. The town didn’t give up, continuing to wrap as a community project. Every year a twine-a-thon is held in conjunction with the annual Cawker City picnic cook-off and parade. A painted trail leads visitors on a walking tour of classic paintings copied with a ball of twine inserted, including Mona Lisa, American Gothic and The Scream. All were created by a minister’s wife.
Haines Shoe House, York, Pennsylvania
In 1948, Colonel Mahlon M. Haines, the owner of a shoe store chain, had a building erected in the shape of a boot to publicize his business. It was finished the following year, standing 25 feet tall and 48 feet long. The windows were stained glass shoes with the one in the door showing the owner holding a shoe in each hand. Out front was a shoe-shaped mailbox; a doghouse shaped like a boot sat out back. A boot-decorated fence surrounded the yard. Thirty-eight elderly couples were treated to a free weekend each year, while newlyweds could spend a romantic week complete with a live-in maid and butler. Today, it’s a tourist attraction with a snack bar in the heel, serving “Toe Dogs and Heelbasi”. The building is located eight miles east of York, near the Hellam exit of US 30.
Wall Drug, Wall, South Dakota
Would you vacation at a drug store? You could if it was Wall Drug in South Dakota. Bought by a young couple during the great depression in 1931, the business floundered for five years until they had an epiphany: cars were whizzing by on the nearby highway without the benefit of air conditioning. What would entice them to stop in? Free ice water! Signs, modeled after the ubiquitous Burma Shave signs, were made up and posted along the highway. Parched travelers began to flock in and a legacy was born. Today there are 76,000 square feet of free attractions, including an animated T-Rex, train station water show, picture-taking props in the free picnic area and much more. There is a gourmet coffee shop, art gallery/restaurant and a pizza parlor. You can buy cowboy boots, Native American artifacts, western clothing and the list goes on. Nowadays up to 20,000 people stop by daily. Wall is about an hour’s drive east of Rapid City on I-90.
Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota
Further east on I-90 in South Dakota, you find the town of Mitchell, in the southeast part of the state. The town’s claim to fame is a building that mixes agriculture and architecture. The Corn Palace is a multi-use building decorated on the outside with corn in the style of folk art murals. Every year, the murals are completely re-done by a local artist. During the summer months, free guided tours are available. This is the third incarnation of the palace, which located at the present site in 1921. It is used for high school proms, dances, banquets and sporting events and whatever else might come along, including the Polka Festival on September 17, 18 and 19, 2010.
Muffler Men, Various Locations Across the Country
Do you know the Muffler Man? Driving across the U.S., you are likely to see giant figures that have been dubbed Muffler Men. These are large, fiberglass icons made from an original Paul Bunyan mold in the 1960s. They stand 18 to 23 feet tall, with their right palm up and the left palm down. The hands were designed to hold Mr. Bunyan’s axe but were also handy for mufflers or tires. Crafted by the International Fiberglass Company in California, they were ordered by large oil companies Phillips Petroleum and Texaco, as well as restaurant chains, to attract attention to their business. Uniroyal Tires ordered a female version. As they fell out of favor, many were bought by independent businesses and re-made into new personas associated with their current owners. You can see current versions dressed as cowboys, bare-chested Indians, spacemen, golfers and more, holding props related to their current association.
Finding the Fun-derful
Local chambers of commerce are also excellent sources of information on area roadside attractions. They will be happy to furnish you with brochures and maps of local attractions. Auto clubs such as AAA usually have free detailed guide books for the entire country. Books on the subject are available at popular online or brick-and-mortar bookstores. Look for “Roadside Attractions: Cool Cafes, Souvenir Stands, Route 66 Relics and Other Road Trip Fun”, “Route 66 Adventure Handbook” and similar titles.
Okay, let’s get busy and start planning a vacation that will stay with your family forever. Road trip!