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- Posted:Thursday, June 27, 2013
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What would you say is at the heart of American culture? This is an answer that's eluded generations of travellers who visit American landmarks each year searching for that... something.
One phenomenon which is often overlooked but is uniquely American is that of roadside attractions. You know what I’m talking about – the world’s largest ball of yarn or gardens made from glass bottles. These places are generally a little odd, quirky and memorable – and definitely worth visiting.
In his book ‘American Gods’, author Neil Gaiman wrote, “Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
Many of the most amazing roadside attractions are located out in the countryside, far from the city, making them difficult to access for anyone without a car. But that’s no reason for you to miss out; I looked at our top American cities and picked out three of the most interesting, fun or just plain kooky roadside attractions in each of them.
New York City
Sewer Alligator Sculpture
If you’re on the subway, watch out for this funny little guy. Tucked away under the staircase from the A platform to the L platform at the 14th Street subway station is a bronze statue of an alligator dragging a businessman into a manhole – a tribute to the city’s sewer alligators of legend. It’d be a bit creepy if it wasn’t so cartoonish and cute.
At the south end of Union Square is this complicated art installation by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, set on the side of a building. On one section is a golden spiral that belches steam at midnight and noon. Next to it is a confusing digital clock which can be read forwards and backwards, depending on whether you want to see what time it is or how much time is left in the day.
Set at the bottom of a former elevator shaft, NYC’s smallest museum can be seen 24 hours a day, since it looks out onto the street through a glass wall. On weekends you can even go inside to see up-close the bizarre collection of modern-day artefacts, such as toothpaste tubes from around the world and children’s bulletproof Disney backpacks. You’ll find it downtown on Cortland Alley off Franklin Street.
This very famous roadside attraction is a road itself – specifically, a car-ruining section of it with eight hairpin turns on a steep hill. It’s an iconic sight in San Francisco and a must for anyone visiting the city. The speed limit is only 5mph so you’ll probably get down it faster on foot, getting wonderful views of the skyline (including Coit Tower) all the while.
Walk out to the end of the Yacht Rd jetty, near the Palace of Fine Arts, and you’ll find what looks like ancient Roman ruins. This is, in fact, a burbling, gurgling sound sculpture made from tombstones and monuments salvaged from a ruined cemetery. PVC pipes poke out of it, and as sea water laps at the bottom of the tubes, they make strange, organic noises, especially at high tide. It's maintained by the incredible Exploratorium.
What would a roadside attraction list be without a giant sculpture?! Down the Embarcadero at Rincon Park, an enormous bow-and-arrow rises out of the ground, 60 feet high and 140 feet long. It was created by husband-and-wife team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, who said they were inspired by “San Francisco's reputation as the home port of Eros”.
Museum of Jurassic Technology
This museum doesn’t actually have anything to do with the Jurassic era, presumably since stegosaurus didn’t have the dexterity or brainpower to use tools. Instead, it exhibits an impressive collection of all that is quirky, questionable and quasi-scientific, from “mice on toast” (no, really) to a sculpture of Pope John Paul II carved from a single human hair. Curiosity piqued? It’s quietly nestled in a residential neighbourhood at 9341 Venice Boulevard.
La Brea Tar Pits
You can still get your prehistoric fix in LA by heading down to Hancock Park, where you’ll find the famous La Brea Tar Pits, a National Natural Landmark. It’s a weird sensation to come across these bubbling pits in the middle of the city as they seem like something better suited to the hot springs of Yellowstone. Over tens of thousands of years, these tar pits trapped and preserved mammoths, dire wolves, sabre-toothed cats and more, many of whom have been excavated and displayed next door at the George C Page Museum.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Such is the force of Hollywood that even its main cemetery has a glint of showbiz. You can go on guided walking tours around the beautiful grounds and see the graves of film legends like Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B DeMille and even Vampira. Best of all, during the summer the cemetery screens classic movies projected onto the side of a mausoleum, while in October it hosts what is possibly the greatest Day of the Dead celebration in the USA, with music, food and performances.
This fairly low-key roadside attraction is one of history’s forgotten bad ideas. Standing just south of the White House, this small monument marks mile zero, the place from which all road distances in the States would be measured – or at least that was the plan when it was built in 1923. Though based on Rome’s Golden Milestone, this idea never caught on, possibly because the US is such a big country and the west coast is some 3,000 miles away.
The American Acropolis
Continuing the DC fascination with Roman design, the National Capitol Columns in the National Arboretum are definitely worth checking out. This modern classical ruin features 22 sandstone Corinthian columns that were originally part of the Capitol building. Two other columns lie broken elsewhere in the park, adding to the “ancient ruin” illusion.
House of the Temple
What’s this? More Roman-style monoliths! This time it’s the opulent headquarters of the Freemasons, located at 1733 16th Street NW. Despite the notorious secrecy of the Freemasons, you can get a guided tour of the premises Mondays to Thursdays. You’ll see all sorts of weird stuff, from huge marble sphinxes and altars to the bible used at George Washington’s funeral – even the Scottish Rite flag that Buzz Aldrin allegedly carried on the moon. Don’t forget to ask your guide about the two men entombed in the walls!
Hood Milk Bottle Building
Parade floats, the Weinermobile, all of Las Vegas – Americans really like to build stuff in the shape of other stuff. One of the most charming examples is the ice cream stand in front of Boston Children’s Museum. Shaped like a vintage milk bottle, it was originally built in 1933 and – true fact – if it was a real bottle it would hold 58,620 gallons of milk! Get yourself an ice cream and admire the view over the water.
Ever wanted to walk through an inverted globe of the world made from stained glass? Well, here’s your chance. Standing three stories tall, this globe is viewed from the inside and offers a unique perspective on the world, not least because it was built in 1935 and many political borders have changed since then. Keep an eye out for Yugoslavia, French West Africa and Siam. The globe also works as a whispering gallery – speak quietly at one end of the galley and anyone on the other end will hear you just as if you’re standing next to them.
The Big Orange Dinosaur
Possibly my favourite feature of this entire list is the Big Orange Dinosaur in Saugus, just north of Boston. This maniacally grinning fellow stands more than 12 feet tall and looks over the road from a mini-golf course. There are actually tons of tacky and delightful oddities all along Route 1 and in Saugus, so if you do have a car it’s worth the 20-minute drive out of Boston to see big fibreglass cows, a Leaning Tower of Pizza, a 30-foot-high neon cactus sign and more.
by Heather Thompson