Although nothing encapsulates summer adventure quite like the excitement of the open road, we have to admit being stuck in a car for hours on end can get a bit monotonous. Scenery is pretty and all, but we think the best parts of a road trip are the roadside attractions, offering unexpected, quirky detours along the way for the weary, bordering-on-bored traveler.
Dotting highways and small towns across America, many attractions hearken back to times past, decades when ogling the largest ball of paint or the local three-ring flea circus was considered legitimate “entertainment”. Although our tastes may have changed a bit since then, there are still some unusual things out there that are definitely worth pulling over for.
1. Shoe Tree, U.S. Route 50, Middlegate, Nevada
Unlike most roadside attractions the Shoe Tree isn’t some sort of gimmick or money making scheme. Instead of flashy signs and entrance fees, this is simply a lonesome and mysterious tree laden with hundreds, if not thousands, of shoes located on a deserted stretch of highway between the cities of Ely and Reno. Although no one makes a profit off the bizarre beauty of this tree, many people have contributed their shoes to the tree over the years and it has amassed a kind of cult following.
Although there is no “official” story as to why people began knotting up their laces and throwing last season’s kicks into this particular tree, a certain urban legend prevails among the shoe-tree-aficionados.
The story goes as follows: A couple on their honeymoon got in a fight while camping under the beautiful tree and the woman threatened to walk out on her husband. To make sure she wouldn’t follow through with her threat, her husband threw her shoes up into the tree. The two passionate lovebirds somehow ended up making up and started their life together. (Warning, this is where the story gets terribly cheesy.) When their first child was one year old, the couple brought their kid’s baby booties to the tree and tossed them up there as well, to show how their love had come full circle.
Who knows if the story is true (or why the story of a couple who almost split up on their honeymoon should be glorified!) but no matter the origins, we’re grateful to whoever tossed the first shoe and started such an eerie and beautiful tradition.
Since more shoes appear daily, the grandeur of the tree continues to grow year after year. When visiting, make sure not to miss looking down to see the immense “shoe graveyard” that has amassed bellow the tree itself consisting of old shoes that have fallen off (and a few shoes from people with bad aim). Some of the best times to view the tree are in winter, when a blanket of snow makes it look especially cool.
2. Prada Marfa Store, U.S. Route 90, Valentine, Texas
Image: Marshal Astor – Food Pornographer/Flickr
Texas may be the biggest state in the continental U.S. but one thing it doesn’t have any of is Prada stores. The one it does have was built with no door, doesn’t have any customers or sales people, and only stocks 20 left-foot heels and six purses. Located on a lone stretch of highway, many miles from its namesake town of Marfa, the store’s only visitors are those that happen upon it by chance, and decide to stop in sheer disbelief.
Seem too weird to be true? It totally is! The store is a permanent sculpture instillation piece built in 2005 and designed by German artist duo Elmgree and Dragset. The piece was intended to be a type of time capsule that will stand sans-repairs or updates. Eventually the adobe structure will breakdown and disintegrate back into its surroundings.
Although the long-term prognosis for the store isn’t good, fashion aficionados don’t need to fret! The artists were granted permission to build the piece by none other than Miuccia Prada herself, who also had the honor of choosing the 20 shoe styles that are on display.
Image: a L p/Flcikr
3. World’s Largest 10 Commandments, Highway 294, Murphy, North Carolina
Roadside attractions and The World’s Largest (insert obscure object here) are unquestionably a classic combo. There’s the largest ball of twine, ball of paint, pistachio nut, catsup bottle, and for the real thrill seekers out there, there’s even the largest basket-shaped building. Although those are all pretty exciting, the World’s Largest 10 Commandments really has something special to offer.
Located at the Fields of the Wood Bible Park, the massive commandments are only one of the many Christianity-themed large and in-charge items up for viewing. Also on display in the park is the worlds largest New Testament bible statue, a swimming-sized Baptism pool, and a full sized replica of Jesus’ tomb. Voted by a local tourism website as the “Number One Family Attraction in the Entire Smokies” in 2003, this roadside attraction paradise appeals to true believers and kitsch-lovers alike.
Image: Polished Lance Photography/Flickr
4. The Coral Castle, South Dixie Highway, Homestead, Florida
The Coral Castle was constructed by Ed Leedskalnin over a 28-year period in honor of his long lost love, Agnes Scuffs. A Latvian immigrant, Ed was stood-up at the alter by Agnes who was 10 years his junior (and only 18 at the time of her scheduled nuptials).
Ed never really recovered from the heartbreak, and he spent the rest of his life creating what has been called the “Taj Mahal of the Americas”, the Coral Castle. Although both the Coral Castle and the Taj Mahal were constructed as a tribute to women, that’s pretty much where the similarities end – mostly because the Indian palace was built by several thousand slaves and the Coral Castle, on the other hand, was built by one man who stood barely 5 feet and weighed in at just about 100 lbs.
How in the heck he did it is the greatest mystery of the Coral Castle. An incredibly secretive man, Ed often carved at night and used only basic tools to form over 100 tons of coral rock into elaborate structures. When asked how he managed the feat, Ed coyly skirted the question saying he was good with using weight and leverage.
Although Ed passed away in 1951 without ever being able to show his beloved Agnes his final work (that hussy never returned his invitations to come over), there is one man who fully appreciated Ed’s undying love for underage women. Billy Idol wrote his song “Sweet Sixteen” in honor of Ed, and even filmed the music video at the Coral Castle.
Today the castle is open 7 days a week to visitors, and even hosts weddings.
5. Boll Weevil Monument, Intersection of College and Main, Enterprise, Alabama
The boll weevil is a nasty little beetle native to Central America, whose favorite meal is the bud of a cotton plant. Although the boll weevil isn’t native to the US, in the early 1900s the bug migrated from Mexico into the Southern US states, decimating the cotton crop along its way. Since the primary crop for many southern farmers was cotton, farmers and their families were devastated by the infestation. And the small town of Enterprise, Alabama was no exception.
But instead of letting those horrid little beetles steal their livelihood, the farmers in Enterprise got together and decided to try a new crop, peanuts. The peanut’s full potential (and the deliciousness of peanut butter) was still just being realized around the turn of the century, and the next year there was a boom in demand for the versatile little nut. The farmers ended up making the money back they had lost and then some, and along the way they learned the value of diversifying the types of crops they grow.
Instead of holding a grudge against the boll weevil for the season of crops it munched on, the town of Enterprise was so excited about their new diverse-crop-growing-system they decided to dedicate a monument to the boll weevil in thanks for getting them out of their cotton monoculture. The monument was fabricated in Italy and when it was initially erected in 1919, it was a statue of a woman in a gown holding a fountain of water. In 1949 the fountain was replaced by a enlarged boll weevil, which is how it stands to this day.
Shockingly the boll weevil part of the statue has been subject to unrelenting robbery attempts and vandalism. It has been snatched many times, and in 1998 the theft was featured on the Daily Show on a segment called “See No Weevil” with the premise that,
For generations, inhabitants have worshiped the boll weevil with a pagan fervor centered around a sacred idol to the insect pest in the town square. And all was well in Boll Weevil City until someone stole their magic weevil. – Weevil Wonderland
The Daily Show “reporters” also talked to local senior citizens who thought they were being interviewed for a legitimate news program. The skit was met with “mixed” reviews from the residents of Enterprise.
Thankfully the boll weevil was returned, and currently the statue stands proud on one of Enterprise’s main streets.
[Ed. Note: We were unable to locate said clip of the Daily Show, if anyone knows where we could get it, fill us in!]
6. Paper House, MA 127, Rockport, Massachusetts
The wooden structure of this home was built by Ellis F. Stenman, a mechanical engineer who, on an unrelated side note, designed the machine that created paperclips. What began as his curious family project of insulating the house with newspaper in 1922 was never intended to become anything more than a summer hobby. Although the intentions were meager, the abode that was finally created has been a much beloved roadside attraction since the ’20s.
Image: Danielle Walquist/Flickr
The exterior of the Paper House consists of approximately 100,000 newspapers layered, pasted, and rolled to form insulation. After the exterior was complete, the family moved on to the interior, fashioning tables, chairs, lamps, and bookshelves. What’s especially neat is most of the papers can still be read, even after layers and layers of varnish.
When visiting make sure not to miss reports of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight that can be spotted on the writing table, Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign which can be perused on the radio stand, and the grandfather clock containing the flags from all (at that time!) 48 states.
7. The Corn Palace, North Main Street., Mitchell, South Dakota
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Mitchell, South Dakota may be a small town, but it sure has a lot of one thing: corn. So in 1892 when the town was trying to lure more farmers to their corn-friendly state, they decided to build a castle in honor of the starchy veggie. The Corn Palace started as a simple wooden structure on Mitchell’s main drag, decorated with folk art made from corn husks and kernels. Today this “palace” still exists, and has had a pretty interesting evolution from the initial building.
In 1904-1905, Mitchell attempted to usurp the state capital-hood from Pierre. Mitchell didn’t succeed, even though it did build an even bigger corn palace as part of its campaign. In 1937, a little Moorish charm was incorporated into the palace, and domes and minarets were added for pizazz.
Today, the exterior of the Corn Palace is decorated every year with a new theme by local artists and the building serves as huge tourist attractions, bringing in half a million visitors a year.
In a slightly incongruous addition, the Corn Palace also serves as a basketball stadium for Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell High School, making it an especially perfect road trip stop for all those folk-art-loving-basketball-enthusiasts out there.
8. Miniature Graceland, Riverland Road, Roanoke, Virginia
Hand built in the mid ’80s by Donald and Kim Epperly, Miniature Graceland was once a “must-see” detour on the Elvis Pilgrimage Trail (a 210 mile drive that starts in Nashville and ends in Memphis,stopping at all the ultra-important Elvis landmarks). Don and Kim’s tribute to the King is located in their backyard, and the couple incorporated all of Elvis’ most important life moments, including Graceland, the building in Tupelo where Elvis was born, and notable performance halls from his career.
Although bus-loads of Elvis fans used to pile out to visit the Epperly’s creation, much has changed for this attraction since the ’80s. Reportedly, Donald fell ill in the late ’90s and was unable to continue the strenuous upkeep of his family’s masterpiece. The attraction hit rock bottom in 2005 when a tree branch fell, narrowly missing the entire display. Sadly the branch blocked the entire collection from public view until it was removed months later.
Although overgrown bushes and blooming flowers have overtaken most of Miniature Graceland, word on the street is Donald and Kim’s son has taken over the care of his family heirloom and is trying to restore it to its former glory. More recent visitors have reported Miniature Graceland is in much better condition, and new additions have even been seen taking shape.
9. London Bridge, North McCulloch Blvd, Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Although this may sound like some shady, Vegas-style trickery, it is not. Lake Havasu in Arizona really does have the London Bridge. And it is Arizona’s second biggest tourist attraction, right behind the Grand Canyon.
Built in 1831 to span the River Thames, the London Bridge worked out OK for a while, but as London became even more populated the bridge couldn’t really keep up. By 1896, the London Bridge was the busiest point in London with 8,000 people crossing by foot and 900 crossing in cars every hour. Even after being widened in 1902, the London Bridge began sinking into the river under the proverbial and physical weight of London.
In 1967 the bridge was finally put on the market (yes, they can totally do that!) by the Common Council of the City of London and it was purchased the next year by oil mogul Robert P. McCulloch for $2,460,000. McCulloch had grand plans for the bridge. Namely, to ship it to Arizona, piece by piece, and recreate it near a development community he was building on Lake Havasu, a large man-made reservoir on the Colorado River. The reconstruction was completed in 1971 and put Lake Havasu on the map for southwest vacationers.
Need a little more incentive to visit this massive roadside attraction? Then we suggest watching the clip bellow from the made for TV movie “A Bridge Across Time” staring a dashing David Hasselhoff. In the “film”, The Hoff is forced to save his girlfriend from Jack the Ripper whose soul has been accidentally transported to Arizona in a brick from the London Bridge. What a classic!
All images: Go Lake Havasu
10. The Beer Can House, Malone St., Houston, Texas
Everyone wants an uncle like John Milkovisch. He always smiles in pictures, is handy around the house, and when asked what his favorite brand of beer is, he answers, “Whatever’s on special!”.
Image: Beer Can House
Not only is John not very picky when it comes to his beers, he is also a pretty resourceful recycler. After retiring from an upholsterer position for the Southern Pacific Railroad, John spent his retirement crafting his home with around 50,000 beer cans.
A man of practicality, John explains he, “got sick of mowing the grass” and, “I guess I just thought it was a good idea. And it’s easier than painting”, and so he adorned everything from the ground to the siding on his home with elaborate decorations made out of cans of beer that were consumed by him, his wife, and their neighbors.
Although the house was closed for some time, it is now open to visitors and is considered a Houston landmark. After being purchased by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, the home has come to be recognized as a notable work of folk art. Although who knows if John would have approved of that! He was quoted saying,
Some people way this is sculpture but I didn’t go to no expensive school to get these crazy notions.
Whether you see the Beer Can House as an artistic masterpiece or a craft project on steroids, make sure to check out all the ridiculously neat antique beer cans on display inside the home.
Been to another amazing roadside attraction we missed? Leave us a comment!
[Feature Image: Chrispitality/Flickr]