It’s an iconic American image – the endless expanse of the open road. And just like Australians can’t drive more than a few hundred kilometres before coming across a giant mango or something, Americans have their own quirky fondness for bizarre roadside attractions.
You won’t find the following wonders of kitsch in any Jack Kerouac novel, and they don’t pop up in many guidebooks, but in their own way they’re as American as apple pie. So the next time you’re road tripping down a dusty USA highway, consider taking the road less travelled and paying your dollar admission to these overlooked American landmarks.
1. The House on the Rock
Built precariously on a giant rock and opened to the public in 1959, the House on the Rock apparently draws more tourists than any other attraction in Wisconsin. The House is a collection of rooms and gardens, each a testament to the American spirit of doing and building whatever you feel like at the time. It’s the home of the world’s largest indoor carousel, a collection of automated music machines, a replica 1920s American street and an ‘infinity room’ with 3000 windows that defies gravity (and common sense) by protruding 66 metres from the house into mid air.
2. Centre of America
This isn’t the name of a new mall – we’re talking the literal middle point. In 1918 the US Geodetic Survey calculated the geographical centre of America as being just outside the small town of Lebanon, Kansas, just off highway 281. There’s been a bit of controversy over the location since then (probably by other nearby towns desperate for a landmark), but the location has been acknowledged with a rather forlorn standing stone and a small plaque. So the next time you hear a traveller or folk-singer talk of ‘finding the heart of America’, just hand them a street directory.
3. The Thing
If you find yourself driving down Arizona’s I-10 highway (and haven’t we all?) you’ll see a number of billboards that read, ‘What is The Thing?’ This isn’t a rhetorical question; a lot of tourists pay good dollars to find out. If you pull off exit 322 you’ll find The Thing, an adorably kitschy tourist site and home to the ‘Mystery of the Desert’. You pay your dollar, walk through a creepy door and follow yellow footprints until you come to… The Thing. So what is it? We won’t spoil the surprise, but we can promise it will definitely meet your low expectations.
4. The Forbidden Gardens
Texas is the last place you would expect to see a miniature replica of China’s ancient landmarks, although it’s hard to say where else you would expect to see something so pointless, and yet so impressive. Built to a 1:20 scale, the Forbidden Gardens in Katy, Texas, are a bizarrely authentic replica of the Forbidden City and other wonders: from the tiny Temple of Heaven to the scale model tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, complete with 6,000 teeny terracotta warriors. Appropriately enough, the whole thing was made in China too.
5. The desert of Maine
Driving through Maine can be a tiresome business: all those idyllic seaside towns, postcard-worthy lighthouses and rolling hills. So it’s nice to know you can break up the journey with a trip to one of the unlikeliest deserts in the country. In 1797, bad farming led to severe soil erosion of a 20-hectare stretch of land near the town of Freeport. Today it’s a desert and a Maine landmark, with coach tours running through the sands and a nearby butterfly park to explore. Think of it as a kind of reverse oasis in the soggy fields of Maine.
6. Dinosaur Park
Let’s get it out of the way right now: if you’re expecting Jurassic Park, prepare to be disappointed. Jeff Goldblum would have no problems with this South Dakota dinosaur theme park, if only because the only way these enormous rusting metal reptiles could actually hurt anyone is through an unlucky bout of tetanus. Built in the 1930s, the giant sculptures have a sort of Gumbi feel to them, but they still draw as many tourists each year as nearby Mt Rushmore. The park was created by the government’s Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which is unsurprisingly not a thing anymore.
7. London Bridge
Guinness World Records calls it the ‘world’s largest antique’ and in fact this Victorian-looking bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, is the actual bridge that crossed the Thames in 1831. By the mid-20th century it could no longer handle the London traffic, so it was auctioned off to an Arizona oil baron who somehow transported the whole thing and plonked it down in his home state. The whole project cost him nearly USD 10,000,000, which in the 1950s was rather a lot of cash. Was it worth it? Who can say? It may be a bridge too far…
8. The Mystery Spot
It’s a very American mind that looked around the towering redwood forests of Santa Cruz, the very embodiment of nature’s fortitude, elegance and strength, and said, ‘What this place needs is more tourist shtick.’ Enter The Mystery Spot. It’s a circular area about 150-metres wide, which claims to defy the laws of gravity. Visitors can see balls roll up a sloping plank of wood and other mysterious phenomena. The Spot’s website seems completely sincere, and even speculates alien interference. We’ll leave you to be the judge.
Inspired to check out America’s weirdest roadside attractions? Why not take some in on one of Intrepid Travel’s amazing North American itineraries.
Image courtesy of CGP Grey