TOUR DE FARCETHE AUTHORS OF AMERICA'S QUIRKIEST GUIDEBOOK PUT PHOENIX ON THE MAP
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.
"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.
"Did Jesus die so that someone would feed him a peanut?" they wondered in print.
Although their guidebook is not subsidized by Kodak, Wilkins claims there's only one hard and fast criteria regarding whether an attraction makes it into print: Can you take a picture of it? "There's got to be something there for you to see, even if it's just a plaque or a marker," explains Wilkins. However, the writer admits to bending that rule slightly so that the locations of several mysterious--but unmarked-- meat showers" could be included in the book.
Recalling how frozen hamburger patties rained down on Syracuse, New York, in 1957, Kirby reports, "The meat showers were too good to leave out. Plus, we needed something to flesh out our 'Meat Map' in the book." @rule:
@body:Distinguishing between true folk art and its faux equivalent gets trickier, since one man's twisted vision often looks a lot like someone else's self-conscious contrivance. Still, Kirby claims you only have to compare the artistic raison d'àtre behind the relatively obscure junked-car art project known as Carhenge with that of the visually similar (but much more calculated) Cadillac Ranch to get the general idea. A rough replica of Stonehenge fashioned out of automotive clunkers, Carhenge was built during a series of weekend family reunions held in Alliance, Nebraska, beginning in 1987. By contrast, the much-publicized Cadillac Ranch (a string of ten upended junkers planted along a stretch of highway just west of Amarillo) was funded by a wealthy Texas businessman working with an early-Seventies artists' collective known as the Ant Farm. "Cadillac Ranch is such a media darling that it crosses the line of being way too self-conscious," says Kirby. "Carhenge is a different story. It's about a bunch of people working on these piles of cars whenever they got together. There's something almost ritualistic about it that's very appealing to us. I don't get that same feeling from Cadillac Ranch at all." Significantly, Carhenge is listed in Roadside America, while Cadillac Ranch isn't.
"If you ever meet the original obsessive person behind one of these things, you can almost see the energy coming off them. And to have sufficient energy to keep going, they have to be angry or have some kind of a vision."
The distraught coal miner who constructed Antlerville on the lawn of his Wellington, Utah, home certainly qualifies on that count. Following a string of personal tragedies (including the death of a child struck by lightning), the miner tore out his lawn and began "planting" antlers he'd salvaged from nearby mountains. Says Wilkins, "His house was right on Highway 6, so as people, particularly truckers, heard about what he was doing, they'd drop off antlers on the doorstep every morning." Today the garden miner's widow welcomes visitors to the strange garden, which currently harbors more than 12,000 antlers.
@body:Elvis' X-rays. Rancid alligator pits. Moldering mummies. In days gone by, thrill-seeking motorists who stumbled into tourist traps could expect to see just about anything--except good taste. But Kirby and Wilkins sadly report that rampant political correctness has even infiltrated the world of the backwater tourist attraction.
Bowing to the PC powers-that-be, Dillon, South Carolina's South of the Border (a Tijuana-themed tourist complex) scrapped advertising brochures written in Speedy Gonzales-style pidgin English (all rooms weeth floor model color TV an' teeny weeny personal fridge!") in favor of bland copy Kirby and Wilkins believe to be written by "a goon journalism major from South Carolina Normal with blow-dried hair."
In a "Just Say No" mode, South Dakota's Deadwood has renamed its Chinese Opium Tunnel Museum the Chinatown Tour. And fearing a backlash from activists who object to efforts to humanize the animal kingdom, Monkey Jungle in Miami, Florida, no longer peddles postcards of a chimpanzee in an astronaut suit preparing to lift off in a garbage-can space capsule.
Though many people assume that the alligator farms, enchanted forests and other cheezoid tourist traps that fill Roadside America are hokey holdovers from the Burma Shave era, Kirby reports that a ten-year slump in the economy has been a fertile breeding ground for America's next generation of tourist attractions. Looking to tap into the tourist wallet, a number of cities have parked larger-than-life replicas of everything from shrimp to cherry pies in the town square. Just last year, the Hidalgo, Texas, chamber of commerce spent $17,000 to erect "The World's Largest Killer Bee" to capitalize on the swarm of Africanized honeybees that buzzed the border town in 1990.
"Small towns desperately look to tourism for their next meal," report Kirby and Wilkins. "Like ducks at a petting zoo, they know you have corn."
While a number of financially strapped communities stake their future on the drawing power of mammoth menageries, the town fathers in other hamlets wouldn't know a tourist opportunity if one hit them on their heads. Or so Wilkins discovered upon recently confirming a hard-to-believe rumor that, yes, a piece of the Russian satellite Sputnik really had crashed into a Manawa, Wisconsin, sidewalk some 35 years ago. "They had to give the real [satellite shrapnel] back to Russia, but they've got a replica piece in the town museum," reports an exasperated Wilkins. "They even put a brass star in the sidewalk to mark where it hit. Then, after all that, this thing isn't even listed in any of the town literature." Still, Wilkins shouldn't be too hard on the Manawa Chamber of Commerce and its neglected Sputnik sidewalk.
"When people come to see me in San Francisco and they want to know where to go, I'm sort of at a loss myself," confesses Wilkins.
"We do have Herve Villechaize's handprints in cement outside a movie studio that went out of business."
Sometimes, it's hard to see the forest for the Trees of Mystery. Or the radioactive Space Needle.
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