Posts Tagged ‘rural’

It’s not always bad news…

Mullinville, Kansas

Reason #38- Roadside Attractions

One sunny afternoon in the flat plains of Central Kansas, we came across a field with hundreds of kinetic and other metal sculptures.  I had heard that there were unusual roadside attractions in the Midwest, but this was the first time I was taken aback by one.  Mullinville, Kansas, is a small town on U.S. Highway 400 and its claim to fame are these “totems,” as their creator, a reportedly ill-tempered M.T. Liggett, calls them.  They are made from junked farm machinery, car parts, road signs or railroad equipment.

From the giant dinosaurs in Cabazon, Calif., to “Carhenge” in Alliance, Neb., to the massive “Geese in Flight” metal sculptures in North Dakota, surprises around the bend will usually delight, if not impress.  There’s a giant elephant in New Jersey, the world’s largest thermometer in the California desert, and mammoth statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox, throughout North America.  Bring your own spray paint and help decorate the upended relics at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.

There are literally hundreds of these attractions scattered all over America, many on out-of-the-way back roads, and are the hope of each county or town near their location.  What makes them special is the quirky or humorous nature of the creations, the more unexpected the better.  For example, the World’s Largest Ball of Yarn doesn’t really cut it any longer, but New York State’s “World’s Largest Garden Gnome” will definitely have you cracking a smile.   Beneath an overpass in Seattle, there is a cement statue, the Fremont Troll, so large that a full-size VW bug fits in its clutched hand. 

There also seem to me popular themes to these attractions.  Treat yourself to a visit to the UFO Welcome Center in Bowman, S.C., or to the Little A‘le‘inn, a roadside café and motel on the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada.  Huge dinosaurs can be found in nearly every state, as can the “World’s Largest” almost anything. 

There’s a Foamhenge in Virginia, a replica of Stonehenge in  Washington State, the aforementioned Cadillac Ranch and Carhenge, and other “Henges” of various types across the country.  There are also umpteen metal horse, elk and buffalo statues on the plains and rolling hills of the Midwest and the deserts of Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona, some with Native Americans in chase.

We’ve seen bowling ball gardens, hot-dog-shaped cafes, coffeepot or teapot gas stations, giant rocks in a myriad of shapes, and a “city” of round rocks.  Ghost towns seem to be everywhere, as are an abundance of outdoor museums of farm and ranch equipment, and strange man-made structures like Bishop’s Castle in Colorado.  Many have expressed fascination with the over-painted Salvation Mountain in Slab City, Calif., or the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama.

All told, we wouldn’t enjoy life on the road as much without at least some of these respites from dreary highway travel, helping make the road less traveled much more fun.


Interestingly, my closing quote typifies why interesting roadside attractions are so often missed by tourists.  It was attributed to Gilbert K. Chesterton, an English writer who lived during the turn of the 20th century.  He wrote, appropriately, “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.

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It’s not always bad news…

Reason #22- Back Roads

From the first moment I received my driver’s license when I was a 16-year-old kid in Southern California, the back roads were calling me.  Perhaps that was because of the crowded city life, or perhaps I longed to be free from the congestion of L.A. traffic.  One thing was sure, once I took off for my first exploration of the Mojave Desert, I’ve always tried to avoid Interstates and major highways.

Now, freeways do have a great purpose — they get you from point A to point B in the fastest time possible, even if some of that time is spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  On a long trip, to completely avoid Interstates may add days to the journey, perhaps not a problem if you are retired, but definitely a consideration if just on vacation.  You can always count on gas stations, truck stops and fast food, not to mention bathrooms, along a freeway or highway, not so much on the less-traveled roads.  However, on the freeways, what you miss!

Dictionary.com defines a back road as “a little-used secondary road, especially one through a rural or sparsely populated area.”  The “rural” part is what makes it fun.  From the forest roads of Colorado to the country hamlets of Upstate New York, from Texas’ narrow “farm-to-market” routes to Oregon’s scenic coastal byways, the pure pleasure of seeing nature, wildlife, country living, farmland and quaint Main Streets is totally absent from a jaunt on I-70 or I-95.

Certainly, half the fun of parking our fifth wheel in a new (for us) region of the country, even during the pandemic’s “stay-in-place” orders, is exploring from our truck without any destination in mind (we often self-quarantined in the pickup), and our satellite navigation system almost completely ensures we won’t get lost. 

The quirky “World’s Largest” items in rural towns, the awe-inspiring fields of kinetic sculptures, the pure majesty of a redwood forest or a rugged coastline, the jaw-dropping views of the tallest jagged peaks, or a thunderstorm you can see 50 miles away, all of these things are experiences most likely missed on an Interstate highway.  I take most of my photos of landscapes, wildlife, wildflowers and interesting rural scenes on these expeditions on back roads.

Something interesting to do, which we plan on attempting in the future, is to take U.S. Routes 66 and 20 from end to end.  The famous Route 66 was one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System and begins and ends in Santa Monica, Calif., to the west and Chicago, Ill., to the north.  Most of us have been on parts of this historic highway already, but few have taken it from start to finish.  Likewise, Route 20 is truly coast-to-coast, spanning 3,365 miles with endpoints in Boston, Mass., and Newport, Ore.  Our living in Western New York gave us glimpses of this rural highway and we saw much of the western portion when we camped in Oregon.  Both of these routes have been usurped in some sections by freeway, and it can be quite a task to try to stay on the original routes as much as possible, but even that process can be fun (if you like maps and navigation).


My ending quote for this topic comes from Down Under, where Australian writer Robyn Davidson said, “By taking to the road, we free ourselves of baggage, both physical and psychological. We walk back to our original condition, to our best selves.

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If you have been following our travels, you may already realize that we managed to visit America’s “five corners” (Southwest California, Northwest Washington State, Northeast Maine, Key West and the Brownsville/Padre Islands area of Texas), the latter of which we are currently enjoying.

I think since leaving Colorado four years ago and living full-time in our fifth wheel, we have visited 36 states.  But this is not a travel post, nor is it one of my “50 Reasons to be Happy.”

​One underlying theme across every state we’ve seen the past two years is the obvious distress or demise of America’s small towns.  At one time, soon after the Interstate Highway System was built over 50 years ago, there was a migration to the suburbs from the many urban jungles.  Now there’s a great migration away from small towns for a variety of reasons.

Nadyne has lived in a few tiny villages, mostly in Arizona.  I grew up in the Los Angeles area but spent many years in Eastern Washington State, where I used to enjoy outings to hamlets throughout the Cascade mountains.  Enjoying regional museums and cute Main Street storefronts has always been an enjoyable diversion for both of us.

Most successful small towns have one of these two advantages.  First would be a natural feature that feeds a large tourism economy, such as Yellowstone or Arches National Parks.  The other would be a major employer that keeps the bulk of its citizens working.   In each case, the dependent town often has all their eggs in one basket.  If a natural phenomenon stops enthralling the public or is lost due to a catastrophe, the small town’s workforce must find other sources of income.  Likewise, purely beyond the control of any nearby towns, a corporation can close down or move a facility, leaving workers scrambling.  These towns cannot sustain their basket disappearing and soon a blight replaces the thriving business they once enjoyed.

In town after town, we’ve seen Main Streets with 50%-90% of the shops closed and boarded up.  Towns often don’t have the legal right or the financial ability to keep their primary storefront avenues looking presentable, so they are usually shabby and unseemly.  Just outside of town, one can witness nature reclaiming large warehouses, factories, farmhouses, barns and smaller box stores.  It’s a snowball of major proportion rolling down from the economic hilltop.

Worse, the neighborhoods in and around these towns can be extraordinarily poor.  Often we are amazed when what looked like an abandoned or even condemned house with overgrown hedges and grass sported a satellite dish, a late model car and sometimes newer plastic toys strewn about in the back yard.  In one section of Louisiana, these were the majority of neighborhoods.

When we lived in Western New York a couple of decades ago, one of our weekend pastimes continued to be driving to and strolling through quaint bergs scattered throughout the region.  “Main Street USA” funding had helped rebuild and enhance old downtowns and they were a pleasure to visit.  After moving to Kansas, our jaunts through the countryside regularly brought us to villages obviously in the beginning stages of financial struggle.  It wasn’t until the first two years of full-time travel, however, that we saw the almost incomprehensible scope of the problem.

The scourge doesn’t have to continue.  Major funding or tax incentives are awarded to large corporations and mid-size businesses all the time.  At some point a governor may see to it some are spent to support their declining towns.  Circumstances may be be cyclical and a rush back out of crowded cities might be the next large population migration.  Retired communities, which do not need active jobs to survive, might sprout where dilapidated towns used to sit.  ​

​We can only hope that the unique style of living that small towns can provide will draw residents and be thriving communities once more.

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