Sunday, June 22, 2008

Vanishing Roadside Culture.

Inevitably when June comes around my mind starts to wander to the idea of the open road. Granted this concept is a bit naive in today's age, with the cookie-cutter homogeneous sprawl that threatens to engulf our nation. Maybe that's just the bias of a lifelong resident of the US Northeast. In theory I believe that something as free as the "open road" does exist... say, somewhere in Montana. Either way, compared to my workaday existence, a day-trip down to West Virginia seems like a little slice of heaven. So now I've started to think about how I might make something like that happen this summer. Certainly I have more obstacles to that type of carefree travel nowadays, but I have faith that I can make it work somehow.

Even if I am still contained to a 9-5 existence, I can get on the internet and daydream. One of the sites I like the best for this purpose is It is a vast collection of offbeat travel destinations categorized by state. It documents a culture that has largely vanished in our modern age. There was a time in our nation's history when people anxiously interrupted long car rides for the most minor of attractions. That's why someone thought it would be a good idea to exhibit the world's largest frying pan (Wilmington, DE), and the large kettle once used to boil the flesh off of "Mad Anthony" Wayne's bones (Erie, PA). Such oddities lured weary drivers from the claustrophobia of their family-filled automobiles.

Now folks are generally in too much of a hurry to get wherever it is that they are going. Leisurely travel seems ever increasingly to be a thing of the past. The country's highway system is based upon convenience and simplicity. You can go hundreds of miles without encountering a stoplight. Corporate fast food joints now have a monopoly, with the institutional glare of service centers offering a brief respite to the harried wayfarer. Good luck soaking up some of the local color in between your home and your ultimate target. It all looks and smells the same. Occasionally you may catch a glimpse of something interesting advertised on a road sign, but how often do you actually exit the highway to check it out?

Still some of this vanishing culture exists on the back roads and the alternate routes. I remember my family stopping at Roadside America (no relation to the aforementioned site) off of Interstate 78, near Shartlesville, PA. This is a "miniature village" model train setup complete with tunnels, mountains, bridges, farms, town squares, a mountain trolley, a grist mill, woods, and even a little zoo. Incredibly this vast tableau was largely the work of one Pennsylvania Dutch man- Laurence Gieringer. We all marveled at the lovingly crafted scenes, and the old school animations that visitors could trigger with the push-buttons along the periphery. Fortunately for all of us, the place still functions through the maintenance of Gieringer's offspring.

The magic of this traditional stop inspired what has become for me a lifelong love for such oddball attractions. These little petting zoos, family-run theme parks, cave tours, and idiosyncratic one-room museums seem like the last remaining vestiges of authentic mid-Twentieth century Americana. They are disappearing quickly with the growing dominance of our corporate monoculture. Thank god for the small group of obsessive weirdos that invest their time and money, often rehabbing and preserving the essential qualities of these treasures. If not for their efforts, freaks like me couldn't dream of experiencing the unique pleasures of stuff like the Secret Caverns (Cobblesville, NY) God's Garden (McCarthur, OH), or the One and Only Presidential Museum (Williamsfield, OH).

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