Posts Tagged ‘roadside america’

An old stretch of Route 66 in Dwight, IL

I like roadside attractions. You know this by now. (See: Cabazon Dinosaurs for previous stop.) And in the US at least there is no place for roadside stops quite like Route 66.

Route 66 has become, in and of itself, a bit of a roadside attraction in its own right. Begun in 1926 and decommissioned in 1985, it nevertheless remains in the cultural consciousness of the US. It was the road that could take you from Chicago to Los Angeles, the Main Street of America, the Mother Road, and it embodies the automotive spirit of America like nothing else. Countless communities along it prospered as long as the traffic came. And did that traffic come! Especially after WWII, the whole stretch of Route 66 became one of the most popular road trips in the country, and the little towns and mom and pop shops along it became iconic stops. But the traffic got to be too much, and the Interstates were born.

You can still find most of Route 66 if you know where to look. It’s been recognized by Congress and the World Monuments Fund as a significant cultural site, and there is an organization committed to preserving what remains. The National Park Service even has a published itinerary with links to popular roadside stops and essays and maps. And there’s something really enticing about it, after all. Two lane roads and tiny diners and places ranging from the comfortable to the just plain bizarre.

I’ve been to the beginning, in downtown Chicago. I’d like to go to the end some day, in Santa Monica. In the meantime, I’m exploring the section that’s within a day’s drive of where I currently reside.

The Lily-pad Room in Onandaga Cave State Park‘s Cathedral Caverns.

For the July 4th weekend, we followed I-55 (which runs parallel to the old Route 66) down to central Missouri and the northern stretches of the Ozarks to meet friends who live in Kansas City. It was a lovely trip, but on the way down and again on the way back, we made a point of stopping on Route 66 as often as we could. Even our final destination, at Onandaga Cave State Park, is part of the cave system that includes one of the oldest stops along the famed highway, Meramec Caverns.

Jesse James Wax Museum outside of Meramec Caverns

Outside of the Meramec Caverns visitor center is a Jesse James Wax Museum that combines my love of roadside attractions with my love of interesting conspiracy theories: the museum posits that the famous outlaw Jesse James faked his own death and lived to be 103, dying in the 1950s. It was bizarre and entertaining and worth the price of admission (if you like that sort of thing, which I do).

The Mill on Route 66 in Lincoln, IL

On the drive home, we stopped at a site called The Mill which has just re-opened after about a decade of fundraising and refurbishment. If you look at some of the old photos, this place was brought back from near collapse by a dedicated team. I like that it sits right at the intersection of the train tracks and the old highway.

We’ve made a few other stops along Route 66 over the last couple of years, but these are the most recent. Have you driven any of Route 66? Do you have a favorite roadside stop that I should add to my list?

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I told you last week that I have a particular soft spot for odd roadside attractions, and since I’ve recently been to one I thought I’d share a little bit about it. I’m as much interested in the stories behind the peculiar stops as the stops themselves, and this one is no exception: the Cabazon Dinosaurs.

The first dino, Dinny the apatosaurus, was completed in 1975 and “Large Marge” the t-rex was as close to being finished as she’ll ever be in 1988, at the time of the creator’s death. The dinos were meant to be a good advertisement for the Wheel Inn, the diner located in the adjacent parking lot, but have now outlived the restaurant, which was bulldozed in late 2016. There’s a, well, peculiar museum attached now, but you don’t need to pay admission to take photos of the giant dinosaurs, nor to go into the gift shop inside Dinny’s stomach (entrance in his tail). Free is the best way to go for this one, if you ask me.

These two were all over TV in the 1980s, and appeared in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, so they’ve got a good bit of nostalgia appeal, plus, y’know, they’re giant dinosaurs. They are a fun place to take photos.

The stairs for the gift shop go through Dinny’s tail….

It’s a kick to be able to actually sit on these guys’ feet, and to go up into the gift shop (even if you’re not going to buy anything) because it’s a chance to actually touch something and interact with it.

My friend Kara stood on Marge’s toes!

That’s one of the best things about a good roadside stop– the tangible connection not only to it, but to all the people who’ve come before. Kids climbed on Dinny before I was even born.

It’s a little surreal to see these massive figures standing above the palm trees, with the California mountains behind them, and they are obviously much larger than their fossilized counterparts, but that adds to the whimsy and charm of the experience.

I was recently there because of a weekend roadtrip with a couple of friends that took us to Joshua Tree National Park (if you follow my instagram, you’ve seen all the desert spam lately!) and this was along the highway on our drive back to San Diego from there. Definitely worth the little detour.

Have you visited the Cabazon Dinosaurs? Or do you have an off-beat roadside stop you’d recommend? I’m always looking for new places to add to my list! 

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