In Chapter 32 of Moby Dick Ishmael catalogues whales for the reader. And while there are no whales in the story, there are many whales featured in many roadside attractions, but this is not about whales. It is about Sam’s favorite roadside attractions – a brief description followed by some comments from Sam and Henry.
Ted Husteads amazing stop, Wall Drug does actually have a pharmacy, was opened in Wall, South Dakota, “the geographical center of nowhere,” in 1931. Five years after opening, in a desperate move to stay in business, his wife thought of offering free ice water to travelers and Ted began making road signs. The rest, as they say, is history. Has to be seen to be believed. The jackalope is the most famous aspect of it, but it also has a miniature of Mount Rushmore suitable for pictures and more consistently viewable than the real thing. Wall Drug Store also features enormous art gallery, historical museum, and educational exhibits about real cowboys and Indians, three cafeterias, souvenir and jewelry shops, a large shopping mall and the backyard filled with 1,400 historical photos, South Dakota made products, toy emporium and children attractions. 15,000 to 20,00 people stop in every day for the free ice water and just to gawk.
Sam: (1963) The coolest thing about this place is it is simply there, in the middle of nowhere. The next coolest thing is all the billboards which used to be spread across the Midwest.
Henry: (1986) Without a doubt, the best thing about it is still the jackalope. The first time was with the whole family, Buster II included. Us kids had seen signs all over the place and were actually, for once, begging to stop. and couldn’t resist. I have a great picture of me on the bucking bronc. I am now the proud owner of a Wall Drug shot glass and Wall Drug T-shirt. And, of course, my official jackalope hunting license was renewed.
A white-domed home of the future, with locations in Kissimmee, Florida, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the Wisconsin Dells, the best is in Kissimmee. Xanadu is an environmentally sensitive sci-fi lifestyle, offering a peek at Tomorrow’s do-it-all domiciles. Xanadu champions a novel method of home-building: wet polyurethane foam sprayed over gigantic balloons to form the frame of this low-cost, energy-efficient structure. As J. Thomas Gussel, proponent of foam construction for the layman explained, “It’s like turning over a Styrofoam cup and living in it!”
Sam: (1966) The kids ran around it a few times, trying to spot crocodiles in the water nearby, and then were bored beyond belief. Is this really the way of the future?
Henry: (1986) When I was a kid, the place was dull beyond belief. Now, it seems to be a period piece of what people in the 1960’s thought the future might look like. It hasn’t happened yet and I hope the future doesn’t look like this. But it is interesting, like watching the progression of what spaceships might look like, from Buck Rogers and the “saucer movies” to Star Wars and Blade Runner. And while, I hope the earth of the future does not resemble Xanadu, I equally hope it does not resemble Blade Runner.
Located in Cochise Arizona, the billboards proclaim it to be the “Mystery of the Desert”, and the “Ghost of the Past”, proclaiming a “Large selection of collectible liquor miniatures.” It looks like a the stereotypical interstate gas station, but the cost of admission is cheap – less than one dollar. A 1937 Rolls Royce, a 1932 Buick, life size wood carvings of people being tortured. A tarantula diorama. No pictures allowed. Too good and cheap to be avoided.
Sam: (1965) There are a lot of things at The Thing? — all of which are covered with dust and labeled “this is a very expensive/rare/unusual example of a farm implement, automobile/deer antler chandelier/we’re not sure what this is”.
Henry: (1986) Probably parents pray the billboards for The Thing? stop showing up, but they never do – almost as omnipresent as the former Wall Drug signs, but more lurid. Admission is cheap. A good place to waste some time after gassing up, looking at and maybe buying some turquoise jewelry and eating pecan logs.
Created in Amarillo, Texas, by Stanley Marsh, who made millions selling helium (good doses of which would help), is ten graffiti-covered Cadillacs are half-buried, nose-down, facing west “at the same angle as the Cheops’ pyramids.” Have to take route 66.
Sam: (1973) OK, this makes no sense, but I like the place. Cadillacs painted and stuck into the ground, a celebration of the American Tail Fin. Nice to watch the sun set over and through them.
Henry: (1986) I think pop lost it on this one. I see nothing redeeming about it, but, then everybody to their own, I guess. If you cannot get here but for some reason find yourself in western Nebraksa – try Carhenge
I don’t really need to describe, do I?
Located in Dillon, South Carolina, it was originally a beer stand created by Alan Schafer, just south of the North Carolina Border. When his shipments of beer began arriving labeled “Schafer Project: South of the Border”, genius inspired by beer and boredom hit Alan. He started importing Mexican souvenirs. The Mini Mex Golf is an indoor put-put course unlike any other. It has RV campgrounds and 300 motel rooms. The Sombrero Rooim offers the best Mexican Food in South Carolina (wonder how hard that is to do?) and the Las Maracas Restaurant, inside a building shaped like a Mexican sombrero makes a decent enough steak. All the employees are called Pedro.
Sam: (1962) Think a neon Tijuana where you can drink water straight from the tap and where everyone is called Pedro. The amazing accident that named it. The food is pretty good too. The kids really liked the place, playing miniature golf for hours on end while me and ma sat drinking margaritas and watching the fun.
Henry: (1986) Halfway between New York City and Florida, give or take a little, a huge sombrero nearly 200 feet high suddenly appears in the distance, not suddenly, because there are over a hundred billboards announcing it, but it still surprises. Kind of a cool place – good for a day or so. But there was one family from Northern Georgia who claimed they vacationed there every year.
America’s Taj Mahal, located near New Vrindavan, West Virginia, overlooking forest hills and valleys, it is almost impossible to describe. Countless flower gardens surround it, perched high on an Appalachian hill. Thirty-one stained glass windows, crystal chandeliers, intricate marble floors, highly polished marble inlaid walls, murals depicting ancient classics painted on the ceilings in the tradition of Renaissance masters, a 4,200 piece crystal ceiling weighing thirty tons under the main dome.
Sam: (1976) About as far from disco (thank God or Krishna, given the surroundings) as one can get. Only regret is the kids didn’t come with.
Henry: (1986) So this is where all the Hare Krishna’s went when they left the airports. Amazingly beautiful and the residents are not as pushy as they were in the airports.
The City of Mermaids, located in the town of the same name in Florida, population 9. Mermaids have performed in the crystal water of the natural spring since 1947, and numerous other “fun things to do” have sprung up over the years. Perhaps the best way to sum it all up is with the offical Weeki Wachee mermaid anthem:
We’re not like other women
We don’t have to clean an oven
And we never grow old
We’ve got the world by the tail
Sam: (1963) Love those mermaids, could watch them forever.
Henry: (1986) Now they have camps to teach young girls to be mermaids.
Probably the single largest tourist trap in the county and, actually downright fun. The Wonder Spot, where water flows uphill, Storybook Gardens, Biblical Gardens, a water-ski show, Big Chief Go-Cart and on and on and on. Paul Bunyon’s cook shanty (how the heck did he get here from Minnesota).
Sam: (1971) Just go.
Henry: (1986) Agreed. Spend at least two weeks at a time and just forget about the rest of the world.
Be transported to Salem in 1692 experience Witch trial adapted from the 1692 historical transcripts performed by “professional actresses.” A good trip to take in the fall when the leaves are turning.
Sam: (1963) While the acting was not exactly up to Broadway standards, the story in simply – well, how could we have gotten so wrapped up in the hysteria. I tell myself we couldn’t anymore, but then there was McCarthy and Nixon in the ’50’s looking for communists under every rock, so maybe we ain’t as advanced as we like to think.
Henry: (1986) Now the play is just plain bad. But the train ride from Boston is fun, visiting the dungeons under the play is engaging and Salem is a wonderful town to just walk in and have lunch on the ocean.
I am sure many will disagree with this listing, but they are my personal favorites. And isn’t disagreement what we hope to conjure when we make top ten lists?