The acclaimed writer John Updike died last January 27 at the age of 76. He crossed our Eccentric Roadside universe on our 2006 roadtrip and we are a little late in paying tribute to him, but better late than never, so here goes. Even though he was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and one of America's foremost literary figures, he wasn't too big for his britches to sign his name in concrete at North Dakota's Fargo Walk of Fame in 1989. His block sits proudly next to REO Speedwagon. Gob bless you, Mr. Updike. Rabbit is at rest.
I'm always delighted at the site of an abandoned drive-in, and a nice one greeted us upon our arrival back in 2006 in the pretty town of Moab, Utah, near extraordinarily beautiful Arches National Park. There didn't appear to be a screen anymore, just a cool old retro sign, a disheveled hut at the former entrance and lots of tumbleweed-like growth surrounded by stunning Utah landscape. Must have been quite the time, watching "Son of Flubber" under the stars in this awesome Western locale back in the day. The handy website driveintheater.com tells me there was a drive-in in Moab called the Grand Vue at one time so I assume this is what's left. A grand view indeed.
I unearthed some more photos I shot of another abandoned drive-in theater, probably some time in the early 1990s. This one looks to be the Meadowbrook, but I can't say from where. I originally thought it might be in Florida, as I travelled there back then and vaguely recall taking pictures of a place like this. However, the flora doesn't look very Florida-like. An internet search tells me there was a Meadowbrook Drive-In in Middleboro, Massachusetts that closed in 1987. This is probably it, but I don't remember being in Middleboro. My archivist brother would be reprimanding me for not labelling these precious artifacts properly. If anybody knows anything about the Meadowbrook, I'd sleep better having solved this mystery.
I was rummaging through some old photos and came across some striking pictures I took of an abandoned drive-in movie theater in 1991. I made no indication on the back of the prints where they were shot, but as best I can figure, they are the Lincoln Theatre of York, Pennsylvania. We were in that area around that time, as I recall, because Sherry's cousin Bobby was getting married in southern Pennsylvania, and I also remember it was kind of rainy on that trip. I consulted the excellent website driveintheater.com and they list a Lincoln Drive-In in York, so it makes sense to me. I can never resist taking pictures of drive-in theaters if it's at all possible without causing a 10-car pileup or being shot at by an angry land baron in the process. They're so, so cool in so many ways, bringing back happy childhood memories. I also love the weird irony of these big, once-gleaming, hulking icons of the past rotting away. I would imagine by now the Lincoln is long gone and a Staples or Home Depot now sits where snack bars and pajama-clad kids, Moms and Dads on a budget, and young lovers once frolicked. If someone out there can verify or enlighten me a bit further about the fate of this grand old lady, I'd love to know.
Death Valley is a beautifully eccentric place. Especially worth noting is the section called The Devil's Golf Course, if for nothing else, its goofy name. Who, exactly, does the devil play and what's his handicap? Is there are a Devil's Clubhouse? Does the devil wear really loud plaid pants and drive a Buick? Is there a Devil's Mini Golf Course for all the little Satans? As you may have gathered by now, the Devil's Golf Course is not an actual golf course, but a salt pan formed of large salt crystals with a surface only the devil could play golf on, or so the story goes. It's located in Death Valley National Park. Oddly enough, there is a real, honest to goodness golf course elsewhere in Death Valley in the Furnace Creek area, so don't be confused.
Death Valley is an eccentric roadside attraction unto itself. People look at you funny when you say you're looking forward to visiting there, but it's a stunningly beautiful place and home to a really swell offbeat museum. The Borax Museum sits in the oldest structure in Death Valley, a house constructed in 1883 by F.M. "Borax" Smith, founder of the Pacific Coast Borax Co. If I ever decide to have a nickname, I think "Borax" would be a pretty cool one. Borax, or sodium borate, is a non-toxic laundry product that could also clean and deodorize virtually anything in the house. In the late 1800s, a large deposit of it was found in Death Valley by a small-time miner, who made a fortune when he sold it to a San Francisco businessman. The location was so remote and ungodly hot that 20-mule teams were needed to haul the borax to a more hospitable processing location. People of a certain age are familiar with this scenario from the popular radio and TV series "Death Valley Days," at one time hosted by Borateem-pitchman and future president Ronald Reagan. The museum is in the Furnace Creek development of Death Valley and features lots of photos and artifacts and a friendly gal that will tell you all about them. A lot of sweat and toil was put into this product that's mostly forgotten today, but Borax may make a comeback as a green alternative to regular detergents. So stop in and see The Borax Museum... mule be glad you did. Here's some more info: http://www.hotel-online.com/News/PR2008_2nd/May08_FurnaceCreek.html
If a bridge that has four giant frogs sitting on huge spools of thread (frogs? thread?) doesn't qualify as an eccentric roadside attraction, then I'll eat my hat. The eastern Connecticut town of Willimantic was once known as Thread City because The American Thread Company had a mill on the banks of the Willimantic River, and was at one time the largest employer in the state as well as one of the largest producers of thread in the world. Like many other mill towns, the main industry eventually left, leaving a slightly depressed but never-say-die college community (UConn and Eastern Conn. colleges are nearby) in its wake. When an old bridge needed to be replaced, town officials decide to capitalize on Willi's colorful past with a bit of whimsy and an archectually beautiful bridge decorated with frogs on thread. The thread part makes sense, but why frogs? Why indeed! The town has a legend called Frog Fight, when, in 1754, townsfolk were awakened from their beds by an unseen screeching menace. The next morning, they discovered scores of dead frogs, who had fought for the last remaining puddles of water in a drought-stricken lake. The four-lane bridge, which opened in 2000, is officially state road 661. It's toadally cool.
Grandma's Alpine Homestead is a fine restaurant/tourist trap in the Amish Ohio town of Wilmot that boasts the world's biggest cuckoo clock. This bit of bravado is a little bit controversial in large cuckoo clock circles, as a Michigan town makes the same claim. It would have to be a pretty darn big one to beat Wilmot's timepiece, though. We stopped by in 2007 and were lucky to view the clock in a newly refurbished luster. According to roadsideamerica.com (the bible, if you ask me), 16 volunteers spent 80 hours painting, varnishing and regrouting this tribute to German-Swiss timekeeping that would make a Swiss Miss cry in her cocoa. Hampton Hotels also coughed up $20,000 for the clock's on-going care (cuckoo! cuckoo!). Our visit's timing was excellent. After a little browsing in the gift shop we made our way to the patio for a recital featuring Old World characters doing their cuckoo clock shtick as the clock struck. You'd be cuckoo if you didn't stop and see this. Here's some more info: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/1008
Ohio has some lovely Amish country that's worth taking a drive through if you're ever in the eastern part of the state. Along Country Road 77, you'll find Heini's Cheese Chalet, a lovable emporium that takes great pride in being cheesy. They've got a retail outlet, a country gift shop, a lace boutique, a fudge factory, an art-of-cheesemaking video and even a history-of-cheesemaking mural. And they have a childishly funny name, too. Here's their website: www.heinis.com
McLean, Texas is abundant with true Americana and eccentric roadside attractions. One of its best is this beautifully restored 1927 cottage-style Phillips 66 gas station, commissioned after the U.S. Government decided to create a little coast-to-coast highway known as Route 66. This site hearkens back to a time when a gas station was a little oasis for road-weary travellers looking to fill their tanks and radiators and mop their brows and be greeted by friendly bow-tie wearing servicemen who wiped your windshield and offed you a map. Maybe the Joads stopped here on their way out of Oklahoma.
The tiny burg of McLean, Texas offers one of the best quirky museums we've ever been to: The Devil's Rope Museum. In it, they tell the history of barbed wire. That's right, barbed wire. How could something so mundane be so significant you ask? Well, barbed wire revolutionized the keeping of livestock and the settlement of the west itself. Joseph Glidden's invention in the 1860s created a frenzy that produced 570 barbed wire design patents. That's a lot of patents, you know. Somehow this was deemed nonreligious, so religious groups (God bless 'em) protested, giving the pointy stuff the name "the devil's rope." Then, the Fence Cutter Wars (I'm not making this up) ensued between land owners and trail drivers. The land owners won, and barbed wire was here to stay. There are many different patterns of barbed wire and once you look at them, they're like snowflakes. Hard, painful, razor-sharp snowflakes. There is a devoted following of barbed wire collectors who are part of the larger fence-enthusiasts group. You can't get much more Americana than this place, and it's on Route 66, to boot. Also housed in the same building, a former brassier factory, is the Texas Old Route 66 Museum and a swell gift shop. Here's their website: http://www.barbwiremuseum.com/DevilsRopeMuseum.htm
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!