By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In 1962, Grover Cleveland Thompson decided to spruce up the front lawn of his Sunnyslope home with a salute to the then-current Seattle World's Fair. Using concrete, marbles, broken pop bottles, shattered ceramic figurines and shards of brightly colored Fiesta Ware, the retired plant foreman created a nine-foot-tall replica of the Space Needle. Colorful as the structure was, it's unlikely that many passers-by even noticed the latest addition to a lawn that already looked like an overdecorated miniature-golf course. Thompson eventually spent 22 years transforming his three-acre property, a work-in-progress begun in 1952, into something resembling a walk-in mosaic, complete with grottos strung with Christmas-tree lights, seven fountains and 50-odd humanoid heads cast from dime-store Halloween masks.
Thompson died in 1978, and the fountains are no longer operative. "The water is not such a good friend to the concrete," explains Marion Blake, an art lover who purchased the house 15 years ago. Although Blake has conducted monthly tours of the grounds for years, she frets that her beloved folk-art fantasia still remains one of the Valley's better-kept secrets. But thanks to the authors of the country's quirkiest tourist guidebooks, all that's about to change.
@body:Vacational guidance counselors Doug Kirby and Mike Wilkins, co-authors of Roadside America, have left few stones unturned in their quest for America's weirdest and wildest tourist attractions. And during a fact-finding trek to the Valley last month, the pair turned up plenty at the Thompson utopia at 10023 North 13th Place.
And for these not-so-typical tourists, the biggest revelation about the Sunnyslope hideaway attraction was how Thompson had managed to score scads of the currently collectible Fiesta Ware he used to tile the property. Upon learning that many people had discarded entire collections of Fiesta Ware in the early Sixties following exaggerated reports the dishes were radioactive (reportedly, some glazes did contain minute traces of uranium and other radioactive material), the alternative travel writers found themselves trapped between a rock garden and a hard place.
Namely, where would they include this find in the next edition of their book, a tongue-in-cheek guide that focuses on funky folk art, obscure tourist traps, crackpot museums and other off-the-beaten-path vacation delights? Although common sense would dictate that the Sunnyslope Rock Garden be included with similar folk-art gardens in a section of the book called "Concretia Dementia," Doug Kirby argues that the radioactive Fiesta Ware factor just might land Thompson's legacy in the book's "Atomic Tour." If that's the case, the Thompson garden will be on a travel itinerary that includes Three Mile Island, an underground elementary school/fallout shelter in New Mexico and a pond that was created when a B-47 accidentally dropped a bomb on a South Carolina farmhouse back in 1958. Now collecting material for the third edition of Roadside America (to be published by Simon & Schuster in 1996), Kirby and Wilkins recently rendezvoused in Phoenix for four days of intense, eyeball-bending sightseeing. (A third collaborator, New Jersey-based Ken Smith, sat this trip out.) Using the Valley as a hub, Kirby and Wilkins drove more than 1,800 miles during their whirlwind tour, ogling some 20 attractions in three states in the process. In addition to the Sunnyslope Rock Garden, the duo took in the Buckhorn Baths, the Breck Girl Hall of Fame and the Mystery Castle while visiting the Valley; other pit stops around the state included Biosphere 2 (in Oracle), the World's Largest Totem Pole (outside Prescott) and Flintstone's Bedrock City (near the Grand Canyon).
Traveling into Utah and Nevada, the authors made pilgrimages to such disparate attractions as Antlerville (a Wellington, Utah, folk garden featuring 12,000 pairs of antlers) and the latest additions to the Las Vegas scene, ignoring the Strip's exploding volcanoes and buccaneer battles in favor of the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino. However, the intrepid wayfarers failed to locate a backyard geyser rumored to be somewhere in the vicinity of St. George, Utah; the owner had reportedly built a huge wall around the water spout so no one could see it for free.
Now something of a cult guidebook, Roadside America has attracted fervent followers, some of whom actually plan vacations around arcane attractions listed in the book. One Pennsylvania-based reader is such a fan that the book's second edition even includes excerpts from his long-term correspondence with the authors (No luck locating the 5-legged dog along the TN/GA border. Rumor has it that Rover + 1 no longer exists.") @rule:
@body:Roadside America doesn't just tell you what to see. It tells you how to see it. Fasten your seat belts and prepare for an alternative to leisurely vacationing Wilkins calls "hyper tourism"--an idea that sounds suspiciously like a variation on a seven-cities-in-seven-days European package tour, with home-grown attractions like Lawrence Welk Village and Trees of Mystery standing in for the Louvre and Notre Dame.
Wilkins describes how it works. "You go, you park, you look at the attraction, you take your pictures--but that's not your whole day. That's maybe a half-hour, tops. Stay longer and that robs you of your next stop.
"The faster you travel, the more rewarding your trip will be," he continues. "Say you see 50 different attractions during a weeklong, coast-to-coast trip. Ten of them don't pan out? It doesn't matter. Because you've had 40 good experiences, you've already forgotten about the ten bad ones."
Although Kirby and Wilkins facetiously claim they won't know for certain whether they had any fun on their Arizona "hyper tour" until they get the snapshots back from the drugstore, the pair tenatively deem the trip a success.