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

3 Waterfalls and 4 Diners

Looking back at a recent trip in upstate New York with my husband Rich, I’m still thinking about tourism and pilgrimage. For example, we saw:

3 waterfalls

4 diners (in one the waitress had the same name as our cat, which was startling!)

5 farmer’s markets (5 for Rich, 3 for me)

John Brown’s Farm and grave

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Harriet Tubman’s grave and house

Seneca Falls monument to the rights of women

3 Indian Mound archeological sites

Bela Bartok’s cabin in Saranac Lake where in the last year of his life he wrote his third piano concerto and viola concerto

a shrine to the Blessed Kateri

Robert Louis Stevenson’s cottage

Glimmerglass opera

All of these affected me, but in varying ways and degrees. Stevenson’s cottage was a cluttered tourist trap while Kateri had an exquisite chapel with Native American art. Some are tourist spots for everyone, but not everyone is collecting diners. Of course I cried at Harriet Tubman’s tomb, but the atmosphere was enhanced by dusk, a sprawling cemetery, and mounds in the background.

John Brown’s farm evinced confusing emotions—was he a hero or homegrown terrorist? The monument to him looked very patriarchal to my eyes but fascinatingly was put up in the 1930’s by an African-American club in Philadelphia dedicated to his memory.

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The New York State historical signage is often atrocious to a New Mexican’s eyes—also dating from the 1930’s it is unabashedly expansionist and imperialist and heavy on the “savages.”

Years ago, someone costumed as a city worker with power tools removed the phrase “Savage Indians” from a monument on Santa Fe’s Plaza in my one my favorite guerrilla art acts of all time. Well, upstate New York’s historical signs could use a little editing.

Wayfaring Pilgrim

There are different ways to leave home for a sojourn elsewhere. A person might be a pilgrim, a tourist, a traveler, a wayfaring hobo, or a nomad. A journey for pleasure didn’t exist in Europe’s dark ages, for example, when travel could only be unpleasant and dangerous. Religious pilgrims are considered the first tourists, as Chaucer’s characters will attest. Pilgrims, like tourists, are in search of a particular specific experience—hopefully one that also comes with food, drink, lodging and possible souvenirs.
My family of origin’s style combined pilgrim and tourist. We approached sites—the Grand Canyon!the Louvre!—with the religious fervor of pilgrims and the prescribed circuit of tourists. That is, we saw only what we planned to see. Great works of art—yes. Unknown cafes, cats in alleys, stationary stores—no.This drove me insane when I was a child. I wanted to wander, go here and there. I sobbed and refused to get of a mini van and see the cathedral in Milan (which I regret to this day) but I was just too burnt out on official great monuments.
And yet paradoxically I retain a taste for an identifiable destination.
On the road with my husband Rich, I’d say we are traveling. Moving between places, motion and designated points of equal importance. In Alaska, we were called independent travelers—we were on ferries and not cruise ships—we trod our own circuit. And of course we liked the moniker.
But I’m a pilgrim too. I want to see a certain writer’s house or studio, a battlefield, a grave, a painting, a diner. I want to go and worship at the shrine of beauty or history or just plain quirkiness. I want to taste the shoo fly pie or the kim chee.
And I bought a snowball to shake, glitter falling on Niagara Falls. And keep it in the bedroom where I can look at this cheap chintzy item and remind myself—there is elsewhere.