By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
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By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
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"Arizona isn't in the top quartile, but it's definitely above the midpoint," says Wilkins, awarding the state an "above average" rating in terms of goofola tourist appeal. "You've got a good Route 66 exposure. You've also got The Thing? [a combination old car/mummy museum in Benson]; it's a classic."
Kirby was particularly taken by the giant "umbrella" that protects Coolidge's Casa Grande Indian ruins from the elements. With an indeterminate degree of seriousness, he wonders what's to protect the ruins from the "umbrella," should it ever collapse.
"Arizona isn't a place like the Wisconsin Dells, a 'mecca' where you've got a weird attraction every 50 feet," explains Kirby, a multimedia producer for AT&T who makes his home in New Jersey. "Arizona is one of those states where you have to do a lot of long-distance driving to get anywhere. But at the end of the road, there's really something satisfying."
@body:While the first two books in the Roadside America series feature approximately 800 of the most unusual sights the country has to offer, during the past ten years, Wilkins and his buddies have amassed information on nearly eight times that many attractions. All of that information is fed into a computer data base cross-indexed by state, attraction type, key words and virtually every other way imaginable. Quizzed about a giant Dixie cup that stood outside a manufacturing plant in Missouri 30 years ago, Kirby punches in the word "Dixie." While the computer search turns up no listing of the big cup, the computer does generate data on "Heart of Dixie," "Dixie Truckers Home" and the intriguingly named "Dixie Stampede Dinner." Enter the phrase "Zombie Army" and the computer spews out a complete listing of every mummy, shrunken head, preserved merman and skeletal remains the trio has ever run across.
Of the 4,700-plus attractions currently on file, many are admittedly so dull that most people wouldn't bother turning their heads to look at them, much less walk across a street for a peek. They are so incredibly lame, in fact, that the writers showcase some of these marvels of the mundane in the "Boring Tour," a soporific side trip that includes the Soup Tureen Museum (Camden, New Jersey), the Maytag Washer Exhibit (Newton, Iowa) and, last and certainly least, the Agricultural Drainage Hall of Fame (Columbus, Ohio).
So what drives grown men to fishtail down recreation's off-ramp, spending every waking leisure hour tracking down diving pigs, gravity-gone-awry "mystery spots" and Scripture-spouting parrots? "Doug and I were the kids whose parents took them to all these places," says Wilkins, a magazine and screen writer living in San Francisco. "[Collaborator Ken Smith] was the kid whose parents wouldn't take him to any of them. So we're all coming to this from different directions." But when Wilkins and his partners do get together, it's a cinch that they'll converge at some place like the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum (St. Augustine, Florida, home of Jayne Mansfield's death car and Lee Harvey Oswald's bedroom furniture) or at Reilly Stadium in Salem, Oregon (where a small plaque commemorates a urinal once used by John F. Kennedy). Not surprisingly, Roadside America contains few references to Disneyland, Sea World and other mainstream attractions. However, insists Wilkins, "If a place has become well-known for something we admire, it doesn't matter how famous it is--we'll still include it.
"In the first book, we wrote about stuff at the Smithsonian Institution because that's where Archie Bunker's chair is and that's where a replica of the A-bomb is."
Another one of the very few well-known attractions to make the cut is Dollywood, the hillbilly tourist haven in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Disappointed to discover that the pricey theme park was little more than a collection of gift shops and snack bars, the authors dismiss the attraction as a "rip-offarama" and urge readers to visit a free statue of Dolly Parton that stands in a nearby town instead. (Readers are also reminded that the statue's "breasts should be rubbed for luck.")
"You hear 'Dollywood' and right away your mind is jumping ahead to a flume ride in a giant bra cup," says Kirby. "Probably because we look at so much of this stuff, I sometimes think that we're three steps ahead of where the attraction really is. Dollywood was definitely one case where we'd built up in our minds an attraction that no one could possibly create."
And, of course, there are those attractions so monumentally jaw-dropping, no one, save their visionary creators, could possibly imagine them. En route to ogle Big Brutus (an 11-million-pound piece of mining equipment billed as the "World's Largest Earth Mover") several years ago, Kirby and Wilkins were sidetracked by billboards advertising the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Missouri. The ceiling and walls of the churchlike building are covered with quasi-religious paintings, inspired by the kitschy porcelain figurines of the same name, peopled with cartoonish depictions of teary-eyed dead babies and angels.
"When we're on the road and we discover something like the Precious Moments Chapel that we didn't know about, it's always very rewarding," deadpans Kirby. "There's almost a sense of wonderment that's kind of hard to convey by the time you get back home." The Precious Moments Chapel was so, well, precious that the globetrotting authors awarded it their ultimate accolade, designating it "One of the Seven Wonders of The New Roadside America."
Almost as rewarding, say the authors, is rediscovering an older attraction that has fallen by the wayside, like Wendell Hansen's Bible Bird Show in Noblesville, Indiana. Operated by an eightysomething Quaker minister who's been in the Bible-bird biz for 50 years, the ornithological passion play features a macaw that sings "Jesus Loves Me," a couple of doves that are ferried around in a chariot pulled by a parrot and a sequence in which the minister pours salt on a bird's tail. While profoundly moved by this pageantry, Kirby and company admit that some of Hansen's avian symbolism flew right over their heads.