My friend from work Doug loaned me a terrific travel brochure put out by the Chevron Oil Company from 1964 and I scanned some of the pages. I love ephemera like this... car travel seemed so exotic back then, especially to places like the American West and all the must-see roadside attractions along the way. In all reality, travel to places like Monument Valley in 100-degree summer heat in a station wagon prone to overheating without air-conditioning with hot and bothered overtired parents and siblings was probably not the joyous occasion illustrated therein, but it sure looks like a slice of heaven in this beautifully illustrated complimentary guide. This was also back when gas stations were friendly places with bow-tie wearing attendants wiping your windshield cheerfully while filling your tank with hi-test. Need a map? Comin' right up! And don't forget your green stamps! The downer-1970s, when filling stations would become the minions of faceless evil oil corporations, were way off in the future, so live it up while you can, you lucky 1960s roadtrip travelers!
I've been doing this blog for a few months and it occurs to me that I have yet to mention any eccentric roadside attractions from my adopted home state of Rhode Island, and, believe you me, they've got one here that is a real dilly. Since 1980, New England Pest Control has had a 58-foot long, 9-foot tall, 4000-pound blue termite on top of their headquarters in Providence, right off of Interstate 95 south. Nibbles Woodaway, as he is known, is a beloved icon to all Rhode Islanders, although most of the natives refer to him simply as the Big Blue Bug. I can't think of a better way to be greeted to the pleasant metropolis of Providence that by an over sized azure insect. A lot of construction has been going on with I-95 lately, and now the highway is going to run even closer to Nibbles. When it's finished, you'll practically be able to reach out and touch him as you whiz by going 65 miles per hour. Rhode Island may be small geographically, but we think big when it comes to eye-catching roadsideabilia. Here's New England Pest Control's way cool website: http://www.bluebug.com/
No trip to Las Vegas would be complete without a visit to the Bonanza Gift Shop, the world's largest (and perhaps most taste-challenged) gift shop. It's a strip mall the size of a Vegas city block full of deliciously awful "gifts" and souvenirs. Need a Royal Flush potholder, fake vomit, squirting slot machine or a plush parrot that hurls obscenities at passersby? They got 'em and lots, lots more! I've always loved junky souvenirs and this place is the Nieman-Marcus of tasteless wares. It amazes me that a prime piece of Vegas strip real estate (Sahara and Las Vegas Blvd.) could be occupied by this old-fashioned kind of a place. It dates back to 1980 but feels more like a place I'd consider one of my favorite roadside attractions when I was a child back in the sixties. It's wonderful and a connoisseur of crappe such as myself could spend all day here. According to their website, the place is a "virtual cornucopia of Las Vegas souvenirs and gifts with a little bit of everything else thrown in. Over 40,000 square feet of shopping hysteria. The bizarre, the unusual, yes even the weird all available in one giant place." Celebrities who have visited the place include Angelina Jolie, Michael Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Cindy Crawford and Ringo Starr. As they say, when in Rome, buy fake Elvis sideburns like the Romans do. Here's their website: http://www.worldslargestgiftshop.com/cgi-bin/shop/index.html
We were just in Las Vegas a few weeks ago but didn't have time to see the Freemont Street area at night, so here are some pictures from our 2004 western roadtrip. You actually begin to feel uncomfortably warm standing near these signs because all those light bulbs give off an amazing amount of heat. All that energy put in the cause of luring you to penny slots and "easy" money seems like a colossal waste, but they sure do look cool. It's like a museum of Las Vegas's glorious dubious past. I could stand and watch them for hours, blinking away frantically... a true eccentric roadside attraction. As a wise man in an ill-fitting sequinned white jumpsuit once said, "Viva Las Vegas!"
Before our tour of the Neon Boneyard, we had a little time to kill so we walked around the Freemont area of Las Vegas. As far as eccentric roadside attractions go, and in the lexicon of the Rat Pack, this place is the livin' end, Charley. Big, bulbous retro casino signs dare you to come in and swing, baby swing. Inside, these casinos are a more rundown version of the ones on the strip, and their patrons are a bit more, shall we say, earthy too. But the signs are way, way cool. We were here in 2004 and saw the place all lit up and it's like you stepped back to 1962. If the casinos on the strip really wanted to do something different, they would build an exact replica of the Sands or Flamingo circa 1960, Las Vegas's glorious Mob-run era. Until then, this area reminds you of the old, the real, the groovy Vegas. We weren't able to see the place after dark this time but it was still worth the trip to see the mind-boggling craftsmanship behind this lost art form of neon and bulb. Ring-a-ding-ding!
One of the better eccentric roadside attractions we recently visited in Las Vegas was the Atomic Testing Museum. You don't think of Vegas as being much of a museum town, especially science museums, and yet this is one of the best science museums I've ever been to. It's run by the Smithsonian, so already you know this ain't no carnival on the edge of town. The reason the museum is in Vegas is because Vegas figured prominently in the testing of atom bombs from the late '40s on. So little was known of the bombs' effects that they used to fire them off within sight of the old downtown casinos and their oblivious gambling denizens (see the photo above). They also had bleachers for VIPs to get a good goggled-protected look at the mushroom blasts while seated in comfort. Irony and naivete abounds. There are cartoon reels depicting a glorious nuclear-based future. After all, splitting the atom was going to mean we would never have wars, sickness or fuel shortages again. There's a great collection of atom-based pop culture items (comic books, breakfast cereal) and also a wall full of many different models of Geiger counters. I love those things when they're clacking away. Who knew there were so many varieties and styles? They smartly play up Miss Atomic Bomb of 1957, an actually beauty pageant winner, complete with a mushroom cloud bathing suit and giddy what-me-worry expression. There couldn't possibly be a better place to be than America in the '50s. Check out the museum's website and don't miss it when you're in Vegas: http://www.atomictestingmuseum.org/
Las Vegas is a city full of eccentric roadside attractions. I've lovingly called it the bad taste capital of the world... a city that revels in vices and celebrates wretched excess. The Las Vegas strip of today, while exciting in all its electronic splendor, has changed with the times. Most of the casinos sport fancy modern hi-def-like TV monitors for signs. I much prefer the signage of Las Vegas past that's still found at the Fremont Street area: those monolithic boards lit by really hot individual light bulbs all blinking furiously in your face and real neon tubes bent in the shape of a sexy cowgirl or winking Marlboro Man. As a fan of both roadside stuff and decay, the Las Vegas Neon Boneyard is just about the coolest place I've ever seen. As Vegas's casinos get torn down to build even bigger, more up to date places to lose your kids' college fund, Las Vegas's Neon Museum's earnest preservationists have arranged to have the classic old signs dragged to an area on the outskirts of town. And thank God, for these signs are history. It's a surreal experience to take the tour, a real bargain at $15, and led by a local Vegas signage historian/fan. The Neon Museum is lovingly restoring the signs one by one and putting them up again. They look fantastic restored but I find them even more amazing in their state of ruin. The irony is overwhelming. Something that was once so glittery, happy, huge and spectacular is now rusted, busted, and rotting away. A trip to Vegas is simply not complete without a trip to the Boneyard. The Neon Museum uses the $15 tour fee to keep on restoring the signs so visit them, please. Here's their website: http://www.neonmuseum.org/boneyard.html
This blog is devoted to old fashioned American roadside attractions... the wonderfully big, bizarre, crazy, wacky, quirky, weird, funny, unique and mundane sites you see travelling cross-country by car in the USA, where getting there really is all the fun!