Take the High Way
Supersizing your drive
By Dwight Young | From Preservation | Septembe/October 2006
You can learn a lot from roadside attractions—those eye-popping, mind-bending creations that loom into view when you're driving and make you slam on the brakes in grinning amazement. You might learn, for instance, that the Indians who once inhabited southwestern Colorado were both warlike and gigantic. The evidence is sticking out of the ground beside Highway 160 near the town of Mancos: a cluster of enormous arrows—they must be 30 feet tall—obviously shot from the equally enormous bow of some long-ago warrior with anger-management issues.
Here's what I learned from another of these highway heart-stoppers: Dinosaurs aren't really extinct. I know this to be true because I've laid my own eyes on a herd of them. Oblivious to the roar of passing traffic, they loom beside I-10 a few miles west of Palm Springs, Calif.
They aren't alone. The American landscape is liberally—and gloriously—dotted with what Eric Peterson's book Roadside Americana describes as "goofy, brightly colored, oversize things on the side of the road."
"Oversize things" indeed. On Route 30 near York, Pa., there's a shoe as big as a house—a five-story, three-bedroom house, to be exact, built in 1948 by a shoe manufacturer with a gift for self-promotion. Allen Park, Mich., boasts the world's largest tire, an 80-foot-tall behemoth that was originally a Ferris wheel at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Gaffney, S.C., celebrates the chief local crop with a water tower in the form of a giant peach—though in certain slants of light it looks rather like a giant baby's bottom, mooning travelers on I-85.
Oversize critters abound. What is surely the world's biggest Hercules beetle beckons visitors to a natural history museum near Colorado Springs, Colo. A duck-shaped roadside stand on Long Island, N.Y., became a design icon when architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown declared that every building is either a "duck" or a "decorated shed." And in Margate, N.J., an elephant named Lucy—she's 65 feet tall and has stairs in her legs and rooms in her belly—has been gazing out to sea since 1881.
Oversize people, too. Gigantic roadside statues of Paul Bunyan that can be found from Bangor, Maine, to Klamath, Calif., have a rival in the colossal Jolly Green Giant that lords it over the Minnesota town of Blue Earth. On Highway 61 in Natchez, Miss., a restaurant called Mammy's Cupboard is housed in the skirt of a huge plantation cook; in a gesture toward political correctness, her once-black face has been painted a nondescript beige, leading a writer on the www.roadfood.com website to label her "Esperanto Mammy."
And then there's Muffler Man. Copies of this lantern-jawed fiberglass giant, named for his frequent appearance as an advertisement for auto parts stores, stand from coast to coast. They're readily identified by the distinctive position of their arms—bent at the elbows, with one palm turned down and the other facing up to cradle the eponymous muffler—but many have undergone a costume change over the years: One has donned cowboy duds to welcome folks to Woodstown, N.J.; another, wearing a spacesuit and brandishing a rocket, advertises an Illinois drive-in. He's been cast in so many guises, in fact, that if preservationists ever decide to name a patron saint of adaptive use, Muffler Man would be a good choice.
Summer vacation season is almost over, but you can spot these quirky roadside delights any time of year. If you're so inclined, you might ask yourself what they mean. Are they simply monuments to civic boosterism or individual hucksterism? Or do they say something profound about the American spirit? Did the urge that drove our forefathers to settle the West also drive their progeny to populate the highways with huge fiberglass strawberries and concrete jackalopes?
Of course, if you're not the philosophical type, you can just relax and enjoy them. And learn. Did you know that American waters once teemed with awesomely gigantic fish? If you doubt it, you obviously haven't seen the four-story-tall, 143-foot-long muskie in Hayward, Wis. Check it out. It has an observation platform in its mouth, and I bet there's a gift shop inside.
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