Internet Resources for Finding Offbeat Roadside Attractions

This blog has been reporting on road trips almost back to its beginning, including an early musing from me.  A road trip includes the objective of getting from point A to point B, but can encompass an enormous variety of recreational and entertainment activities.

Road trips are as individual and idiosyncratic as the people who take them.  The trips that I take with Miriam typically try to address both of our interests and traveling styles.  Prior to the appearance of the Web in the mid-1990s, printed guidebooks were the leading source of guidance for crafting a road trip, but now an overwhelming breadth and depth of information about what’s out there along your route can be at your fingertips within seconds.  Native American archaeological sites, Spanish colonial missions, Civil War battlefields, model solar systems, botanical gardens, giant fruit and vegetable sculptures–you can theme a trip on any or any combination of them and pull together an itinerary from Web sources (or probably from apps, but someone else will have to write that post).

A visit to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum in February reawakened my curiosity about the range of personal outsider/visionary/folk art projects that were to be found along the country’s back roads, and motivated me promote their place in our trip itineraries (I still regret that one of my favorite road trips, which included a visit to southern California’s Salvation Mountain, occurred a few weeks before the inception of the blog and never got blog coverage).  In addition to my old standby trip planning websites, I found new ones to guide me in my search for roadside attractions that embody particularly individualized creativity.  I’ve written up a number of the websites that were used to generate ideas for stops on the trips chronicled on Miriam’s Well over the last month or so and in mid-March in the hopes of encouraging readers who are interested in seeing visionary artworks (or just giant fruit) for themselves in situ.

Roadside America

Roadside America (www.roadsideamerica.com):  The name “Roadside America” comes from a classic roadside attraction, a miniature village in Shartlesville, PA that dates back to 1935.  As noted on this website, which has been around since 1994, “road trip know-it-alls Doug Kirby, Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins introduced readers to the world of offbeat tourist attractions with their books, Roadside America and New Roadside America.”  The site has allowed them to expand their coverage and keep it current, aided by an eager, crowd-sourcing crew of devotees of the unusual.  The site claims coverage of more than 12,000 distinct places, including a wide range from commercial attractions to personal, visionary creations and from the small to the massive.  Attractions get a “story page” that features a write-up of from one to many paragraphs, along with pictures, comments by readers, listings of nearby accommodations, and links to nearby attractions.  There’s also a blog, round up discussions of particular types of attractions (e.g., “Big Fruit,” “Mystery Spots,” and “Shoe Trees”), state maps, and features supporting the creation of personalized lists and trip itineraries.  An app is available for iPhone users.

Spaces Archive

Spaces Archives (www.spacesarchives.org):  This website is run by SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), described as “a nonprofit public benefit organization created with an international focus on the study, documentation, and preservation of art environments and self-taught artistic activity.”  The site is an extension of the organization’s mission of identifying, documenting, and advocating for the preservation of these environments.  Given its different mission, the site has many fewer attractions than Roadside America, and includes both international and now-destroyed “environments.”  For road trip planning, it’s probably best to use the “Explore by Map” feature on the front page.  One drawback is that many of the map locations are only approximate; I had to refer to other websites for more exact locations.

Detour Art

Detour Art (www.detourart.com):  Detour Art is “dedicated to the sheer joy of outsider, folk, visionary, self-taught, vernacular art and environment discoveries found all along the back roads (and side streets) around the world.”  There is a fair amount of overlap in attractions with Spaces Archives, but Detour Art also notes galleries and museums that feature the types of art that the site finds of interest.  The website describes the places that it covers both as “environments” (like Spaces Archive) and “sites.”  There are regional pages for the West, South, Midwest, and Northeast, and you can search by state, but I accidentally stumbled on what are probably their best geographical aids, their regional Google Maps mashup pages (the one for the South is here).  The most recent blog post is dated two years ago, leading me to be concerned about whether the site is being kept up.

CLUI

The Center for Land Use Interpretation (clui.org):  CLUI describes itself as “a research and education organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the surface of the earth, and in finding new meanings in the intentional and incidental forms that we individually and collectively create.”  Road trippers will primarily be interested in CLUI’s Land Use Database.  As with the other websites covered here, each place has its own descriptive page; sights/sites can be searched or can be accessed from the map at clui.org/ludb.  Much of what they list are things like power plants, dams, and military bases, but they also cover land art and other large cultural installations.  As with Detour Art, there are signs that the Land Use Database content is not being kept up.

Atlas Obscura

Atlas Obscura (www.atlasobscura.com): Atlas Obscura purports to be “the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places,” covering over 9,000 places around the world.  It’s similar to Roadside American in its breadth of interest, and its editorial policy seems to allow for articles on a variety of cultural topics, not just physical attractions.  I’ve found the website interface less user friendly than some.  Individual entries include links to “Related Places” that I find somewhat mysterious (e.g., I couldn’t quite figure out why there was a link from Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park in Oklahoma to the Bettie Page Mural House in Seattle).

TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com):  Although I more commonly use it for its lodging and restaurant listings and reviews, the website does have an Attractions category.  Because of the huge number of people contributing ongoing write-ups, the reviews can be helpful for learning about relatively recent changes in the status of attractions.

Creating Your Own Trip/Route Maps

Although I’ve looked at a number of “Create your own road trip” websites, I have yet to find one flexible enough to let me create my desired road trip without a titanic struggle.  I had some success with Google Earth/Maps, but I did feel that I had to spend an excessive amount of time inserting places that weren’t in Google’s database and tweaking routes.  I do find Google’s Street View feature helpful to get a sense for what a place looks like from the road.  One mapping tool that I feel fondly towards, although it doesn’t do routes, is BatchGeo, from which you create a map by pasting labeled data from a spreadsheet, including latitude and longitude.  I’ve used it to create maps for several different purposes; here’s an example of a road trip map (there’s info about each marker below.

Batchgeo

Christian Roadside

In our travels through the south, it would seem inevitable that we’d find some Christian outsider or roadside art. Paradoxically, it was the least welcoming.
Here is the Minister’s Tree House:
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Presumably a house for spirit as well as flesh. (And looking like parts of the Mindfield). But unlike the friendly signage we were used to at such places, we found

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And then, hilariously, four trespassers hurtling over the gate (looking like middle aged church goers instead of vandals).

We also stopped at Millennium Manor Castle, built as a fortress in the late 1930’s to survive Armageddon. Surprisingly, we found the current owners working on it, and were treated to a tour of the rather eerie underground spaces, now sporting a medieval theme.

The 14 room fortress has a two-car garage and a gazebo. And a throne for Jesus.

We also, later on the trip, saw Foam Henge, which is what it sounds like–and rather amusing. Back to the secular (Or Druidic) and friendly signage.

What Is The Theme of This Road Trip?

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Well, obviously to get from here to there–from New Mexico to the east coast to visit relatives.

Or, to be on the road, to have fun. But what kind of fun?

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And, to eat.

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The themes of fun on this trip are several, including

archeological mounds
outsider/visionary/roadside art
Civil War sites

and, serendipity…

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These photos are of the MINDFIELD CEMETERY–it’s about the size of an electrical station. It looms high over Brownsville, TN.

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It is the work of one man, Billy Tripp, who is still building it.

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Next to it, is a very nice restaurant–The Mindfield Cafe. It’s sort of like a museum restaurant in a crazed outsider art setting.

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Kind of like Watts Towers. Kind of like…nothing else.

Colorado Plateau Nerds

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Driving west of Bernalillo, looking for the fault line. Rich and I have become Colorado Plateau nerds—and interested in where it starts and stops. Just ahead, beyond a red sign advertising WELDING in red caps I see the plateau’s uplift—formations in white rock, red rock, and in uranium rich yellow.
The traffic sign reads HILL BLOCKS VIEW—which Rich points out should be posted frequently all over New Mexico. It’s the first day of Daylight Savings. We’re on the checkerboard of the Navajo Rez, skirting the boundary, passing chapter houses. Watertower, tiny town, butte—could be anywhere in any desert—but the name is in Navajo, printed on the tower. In Arizona, the state is on “God’s Time” (i.e. Standard Time) while the Rez is on Daylight Savings (i.e. to line up with Utah and New Mexico.) Today Arizona is the only one of the Four Corners we’ll miss.
We pass a very long army convoy, and debate a picnic lunch. It’s about 50 degrees F., windy. Rich finds this perfectly acceptable picnic weather—I’m less sure. We head towards Dad’s Diner in Farmington. We can be entertained—and are—by a giant chicken or rooster on the roof of a store. Or, more oddly, a truck lifted on a pole—with its bed carrying a large crucifix. Maybe best not to parse this one too closely.

snow-capped mountains
seemingly reflected
in the clouds

Dad’s is a Starlight pre-fab, built about twenty years ago, I think. We sit at the counter beneath the pressed tin ceiling and above the green and white checkered tile floor. And eat a lavish meal, which includes both salsa and pancakes. The teenager next to me is reading THE LAST UNICORN, and she’s charmed when I say I love it.

red bluffs seem to flow but it’s the green river that streams by us

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People of the Road Trip by Richard Feldman

People of the Road Trip

Part of my education from living with a creative person has been learning about the two-way interaction between one’s creative activities and his or her other activities.  I think that Miriam is somewhat representative in the way she makes slots for doing her writing (or revising) by setting aside certain times of the day or week, or going off to a writer’s residency for a week or two, or just driving an hour and checking into a motel for a night.  However, the activities in her life that aren’t directly about writing are also a source of creative material.  Travel in particular can work both as a way to create a structure for writing and as a source of material.

Personal travel is a common source of material and inspiration for artists or creators of all types.  People differ in their styles of going away.  For some, it serves primarily as a chance to rest and recover from the wear of regular daily life.  For others of us, it’s a chance to be stimulated and indulge interests that we aren’t able to fit into our regular lives.

The road trip tends to fall into the category of stimulating as opposed to restful.  I love road trips to a degree that, for almost any destination I’m visiting recreationally, I notice myself trying to turn the vacation into a road trip.  This behavior has extended even to visits to Hawaii’s islands and Juneau, Alaska, not places that are generally thought of as prime road trip territory.  (I think of road trips as being able to be conducted either in one’s own vehicle or by hitchhiking).

Although Miriam would be perfectly happy to spend her vacation on a beach, reading, I have won her over to the road trip as a recreational travel style by assembling itineraries that are built around her interests, and it’s become one of our favorite shared activities.  The experiences of travel tend to have a freshness that’s much less common in the daily activities of one’s regular life.  For many years now, Miriam has mined our travels for material for poems and essays; with the creation of the blog, she uses them as a source of material for that.

I can usually gauge quickly whether other people are fellow road trip enthusiasts.  When some people hear that we recently went on a road trip to Cloudcroft or Tucson, they look blank; others look envious and sigh and comment that we’re always going somewhere and they wish that they could fit a road trip into their schedules some day.  However, the fellow devotees will nod knowledgeably and comment on the prettiness of some part of the drive, or ask if we took such and such road.  They’ll then report in turn on their latest trip.

Of course, road trip narratives are a popular sub-genre of travel writing in general.  Books such as Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Kerouac’s On the Road and Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways are considered classics, and all have their fans, although each of these three titles left me somewhat disappointed.  (I’d be interested in finding out other road trip narrative recommendations).

I now look forward to our road trips both for the experiences themselves and out of curiosity as to what parts of them will find their way onto the physical or virtual page.  I hope to reflect some more on road trips, including how they’ve been affected by the growth of online social networking, in an upcoming post.