Monday, December 29, 2008

Hail to the Chiefs: Presidents Park, Williamsburg, Virginia

A hilarious Gerald Ford imitation outside Air Force One

Williamsburg, Virginia is best known for the college of William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg, but it is also home to a gem among eccentric roadside attractions. Presidents Park is a beautifully landscaped garden setting off Interstate 64 that features 18-foot high white concrete busts of all the presidents except Barack Obama. The statues are the work of famed sculptor David Adickes, who must be one heck of a presidential history buff to take on such a project. At first glance the park looks like a presidential-themed mini golf course (now there's an idea...the Watergate water hazard around Nixon, the James K. Polk "Manifest Destiny" hole), but on further investigation it's a really nice, tranquil, educational, pleasingly nutty place. Each bust has a plaque with historical facts and they even have a chunk of one of the Air Force Ones used by the White House that you can go inside and poke around in. The park is nonpartisan: obscure presidents like Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes are equally represented here right beside Washington and Lincoln. Finally, a place where Democrats, Republicans, Whigs and Know-Nothings can comingle harmoniously. Here's their website:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Season's Greetings from Lizzie Borden, Al Mac's and Fall River, Mass.

Lizzie Borden Bobbleheads make great Christmas gifts
Al Mac's of Fall River, justly famous since 1910

That's good eatin', and don't you forget it.

Fall River, Massachusetts, a hardscrabble New England town, is the home of the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast, an inn converted from the house where Lizzie's father and step-mother met their hideous demises by axe-murder in 1892. The home was built in 1845 and was owned by Lizzie's father, a miserable crank who forced his family to eat rotten food and use an outhouse well past the advent of indoor plumbing and very well could have driven Lizzie to commit hari-cari with a sharp-bladed wood-handled instrument. Lizzie was acquitted and lived out the rest of her days wealthy but shunned by the Fall River society she so desperately wanted to belong to. Our tour guide Dee led us around the rooms, beautifully restored to the period of the crime (with no blood stains, however). Tasteful Christmas decorations sprinkled amongst the ghastly crime scene photos and wonderfully tasteless souvenirs in the gift shop add a festive touch. If reliving a notorious double-murder leaves you hungry, I highly recommend taking a short 4-minute drive to Al Mac's Diner, a classic original steel structure from 1954 whose sign boasts "justly famous since 1910." It is our civic duty to patronize local neighborhood diners... you'll be glad you did. Here's the Lizzie Borden B&B website:

Lizzie Borden's house slideshow

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pink's Hot Dogs of Hollywood: The pink of perfection

Paul and Betty Pink

The Walk of Fame dog
James Taylor likes Pink's, and so should you
When the stars want hot dogs, they come to Pink's

While visiting L.A., we wanted to sample a place Angelinos consider the real deal. Such a place is Pink's Hot Dogs, near the corner of La Brea and Melrose. What began as a simple hot dog cart in 1939 by founders Paul and Betty Pink has become a Hollywood legend among celebrities (Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Snoop Dogg) and common folk (me), who line up for, among other delights, the Today Show (2 hot dogs in one bun, mustard, onions, chili, cheese & guacamole), the Rosie O'Donnell (a 10" stretch dog, topped with mustard, onions, chili and sauerkraut) and the Martha Stewart (a 10" stretch dog, relish, onions, bacon, chopped tomatoes, sauerkraut & sour cream). I chose the Walk of Fame: a dog topped with cole slaw and diced tomatoes, and it was yummy. Their wall of fame boast dozens of autographed photos of celebrities singing the praises of this humble wiener emporium, and who can blame them... the place has a good sign, good eats, and a great name. Here's their website:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office Gift Shop: Bargains dead ahead

Not just law and science serving the community, but tasteless souvenirs, too!
This is where you park your carcass.
Come on in!
Something for the golf corpse.
What do you get the person who has everything?
How about a body bag?
Children's Corner (no, really!)
There's more than one way to "check out" at the Coroner's Office,
you know.

The very name "L.A. County Coroners Office Gift Shop" is a punchline unto itself, and thoroughly qualifies as an eccentric roadside attraction. Never at a loss for dubious taste, the city of Los Angeles provides a gift shop whimsically called "Skeletons in the Closet" in a room off the main entrance of their staid, bland-looking government building on North Mission Road, just off the 101. Who says death has to be gloomy? While you're identifying the mortal remains of your dearly departed, why not pick up a souvenir or two? They've got t-shirts, golf balls, and doormats emblazoned with a chalk-outlined corpse, dry cleaning bags that simulate body bags, even a Children's Corner (or is it Children's Coroner?). My only quibble is no mention of Quincy, TV's crusading L.A. medical examiner. I'd have gladly spent a few bucks for anything with Jack Klugman's face on it. The gift shop may be tasteless but the proceeds do fund a program to educate youth about the dangers of drunk driving, so lighten up, wouldya! Here's their website:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Clifton's Cafeteria of Los Angeles: Happy trays to you!

My brother-in-law's brother, "Uncle" Stephen, always shows a great time when we visit him in L.A. A fellow eccentric traveler, he knows just the kind of places that will float our boat. On our last visit he took us to Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria on South Broadway in downtown, and the place does not disappoint. Like many other great downtown metro areas around the USA, this once-great neighborhood is a little rough around the edges, but the Clifton Cafeteria remains steadfast, serving up poached haddock, potato leek soup, pickled beets, jello with stuff in it, and enough pie and donuts to choke a horse to its loyal denizens who have been patronizing the place since 1935. The decor is to die for. Original owner Clifford Clifton wanted the place to resemble a redwoods lodge. A 20-ft. waterfall cascades into a quiet stream that meanders through the dining room. The interior has a "lived-in" look, to put it kindly, as do the customers, making it all the more homey. They have elaborate terrazzo inlayed sidewalks depicting scenes important to California history that you won't find at Applebee's or TGIFridays, and tiled exterior walls feature display cases bragging of salad samplers, children's plates and quality desserts. I miss cafeterias like this. They remind me of fun childhood visits to my see my grandparents in Florida and I hope Cliftons never goes away. Here's their website: Go here for a well-written review from Randy Garbin's Roadside website:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

East Los Angeles: Muffler Man Tony: He's Grrrrreat!

We were cruising around East L.A. with our good friend (and oddly distant relative) "Uncle" Stephen last September when what should appear off in the distance but a really swell Muffler Man. Muffler Men (MM) are legendary among those that follow eccentric roadside attractions. They're a rare breed of former advertising mascots from the 1960s that have been redistributed around the nation and given new leases on life by local, perhaps eccentric, merchants. Their crude, frightening faces draw you in and say "Hey Motorist! Yeah you! C'mon In! I dare ya!". This MM was in front of Tony's Transmissions on Cesar Chavez Boulevard and he was a handsome specimen. Made to look like an able (albeit, slightly insane) service man in natty blue pants and crisp white shirt with "Tony" embroidered on it, this guy had a robust south-of-the-border olive complexion and a rakish Burt Reynolds-style moustache. I begged we stop the car so I could photograph him baking in the midday L.A. sun and Uncle Steve cheerfully obliged. is the ultimate source for researching and locating Muffler Men coast to coast. Their website is awesome. Visit them here:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Yermo, California: Peggy Sue's 50's Diner: Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue, pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue

Autographed picture of comedy legend Kaye Ballard

On Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is another little barely populated western town, the kind I love so much, called Yermo, California. In it is a wonderful truckstop/dinery place called Peggy Sue's 50s Diner. Nestled in the dusty Calico Mountains, it beckons weary roadside travelers to stop and wet your whistle with a nice Mr. Pibb and fill your tummy with delicious epicurean delights such as the Tina Turner tuna sandwich or a John Denver omelet. The original diner was built in 1954 and was revived in 1987 by Peggy Sue (really) and her husband Champ, both veterans of show biz. They have an extensive memorabilia collection displayed, as well as a 50s dime store, soda fountain, ice cream parlor, and a park outside with funky metal sculptures of dinosaurs and other beasts, making this place not just a great diner but one that should be included on any list of great eccentric roadside attractions. We stopped for lunch and had delicious omelets served to us by authentic diner waitresses: friendly yet businesslike, they're dressed in real uniforms and when they call you "hon," they mean it. The place is located off I-15 on Ghost Town Road in Yermo. How can you not love a place that's on Ghost Town Road? Here's their website:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jean, Nevada: a Jean-ial community

The splendor of Jean

Thirty miles west of Las Vegas on Interstate 15 is the blink-and-you'll-miss-it community of Jean, Nevada. Jean does boast one heck of a casino, though: the Gold Strike Hotel and Gambling Hall. We were looking for a night's lodgings and were amazed to get a room at this high rise-in-the-middle-of-nowhere hotel for a scant $35 a night. Lovely room, too, with a fridge and a microwave and, eerily, almost the whole floor to ourselves. It seemed more like a movie set casino than a real one. I especially liked the large, folk art-ish Old West twin prospector statues that greet you as you enter the high-capacity parking lot. Unlike the Muffler Men and Uniroyal gals, these two behemoths are probably less than 10 years old, I'm guessing, but they have that same old, decaying roadside-attractions-of-the-past look. Their big, goony faces stare at you, menacing you to come on in and set a spell, pardner... or else. Apparently, Jean is a lovely place to visit but not so much to live in: according to Wikipedia, as of 2006, Jean's population consisted of only two permanent residents. Two? I guess when they vote on something there, it's either unanimous or a tie.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Baker, California: World's tallest thermometer, aliens and much, much more

World's tallest thermometer!

Baker mundane

Alien jerky, anyone?

We drove from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on our last trip and stopped for gas in the sleepy little hamlet of Baker, California. What a wonderful little town this is, all dusty and rustic with remnants of roadtrips of days gone by. It sports bonafide eccentric roadside attractions including the world's tallest thermometer. It's 134 feet tall and its height commemorates the hottest temperature ever recorded in the USA: 134 degrees Fahrenheit, measured in nearby Death Valley in 1913. Baker bills itself as "the gateway to Death Valley" which, let's face it, is pretty big, gateway-wise. There's a Big Boy restaurant which apparently used to be a Bun Boy restaurant, as the Bun Boy sign still remains. I'd love to know about the Big Boy/Bun Boy brouhaha, if anyone can enlighten me. There's also an Alien Fresh Jerky store, because when you think of extra-terrestrial beings, the first thing that comes to mind is jerked meats. They've got more kinds of jerky here than there are U.S. Government-UFO cover up conspiracy theories (or something like that). Baker also offers some lovely western mundane scenes. These are some of my favorite parts of roadtrips: overlooked melancholy sites no one really pays any attention to. I find them inspiring. So a big tip of the hat to Baker: it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.