Wandering the West
November 9, 2010
Back when I was growing up on the Minnesota-South Dakota state line, our big adventure each year was a trip to the Black Hills on Highway 16, before I-90 was completed. And at that slower pace on a two-lane road, there was plenty of time to read every sign. First I read the Wall Drug signs, promising everything but aspirin. Then the Reptile Gardens signs appeared, followed by those for House of Mystery and Rushmore Cave.
The wonders on Highway 16 were probably the last places Mom and Dad wanted to stop, but those signs were meant for the backseat passengers, and with enough nagging, my brother and I generally got them to stop. Dad warned us they were "tourist traps," but we wanted to see all the wonders of the road — the rattlesnake pit with its wrangler, the free ice water and rows of tacky knickknacks at Wall Drug, and the uphill floors that actually ran downhill when you stepped on them at the House of Mystery.
And while we suckers were inside, the boys in the parking lot were sticking a bumper sticker on every car advertising that you were one of the fools who paid money for the traps.
Those ticky-tacky roadside attractions seemed to be at every junction in the West back in the ’50s and ’60s, but as interstate highways bypassed the small towns, it was harder to pull drivers off the road to spend a few hours marveling at turtles, snakes and terrariums full of scorpions.
In western South Dakota, the two great survivors are Wall Drug and Reptile Gardens. And most every state has a few survivors of the old days when big-finned cars full of families on vacations pulled into the parking lots, lured by the siren call of billboards and backseat voices.
Here are some of the oddball survivors. In Utah, ten miles south of Moab, you can’t miss Hole ‘N The Rock, the former home of Albert Christensen. Ol’ Albert used dynamite to hollow out 5,000 square feet of living space inside a big red sandstone fin. After years of bypassing such an obvious tourist trap, I pulled in on a father-son trip for a tour. It actually was sorta worth the money, to see how homey a cave could become, but also how just plain weird it was to live in a windowless rock-walled hole in the rock.
Recommended Stories For You
Out in Baker, on the road from Vegas to L.A., you can’t help but notice there, in the Mojave Desert of California, a 134-foot-high thermometer with digital readouts for the temperature. It is the world’s largest thermometer according to town boosters, with the 134 feet signifying the 134 degrees once recorded there. I also remember Baker as the first place I saw gas for over three dollars a gallon.
Wyoming’s weirdest monument has to be Jackalope Park in Douglas, about 130 miles north of Cheyenne. Someone long ago in Douglas got some thread and probably more than a few beers and sewed together the front and back halves of the state’s two most plentiful wild critters, marrying a jackrabbit and an antelope into a "jackalope." The attraction in Jackalope Park is the statue of the eight-foot creature seen only in the wild late at night by those who’d had too much to drink.
In Idaho, try the Idaho Potato Museum in the Potato Capitol of the World, Blackfoot, about 25 miles southwest of Idaho Falls. Inside the old train depot you’ll find the world’s largest potato chip a two-foot-long Pringle, and a spud hand signed correctly by Vice President Dan Quayle, who famously misspelled "potato" while emceeing a spelling bee an appropriate duty for an American vice president.
In Lincoln, Montana, the Silver Dollar Bar and Casino boasts a bar made of silver dollars. Back in 1952, Rex Lincoln cut a hole in the top of his bar and put in a silver dollar and covered it clear plastic. Similar silver-dollar bars hold the drinks at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming, and the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar around the corner.
And speaking of Jackson, that’s where you’ll find elk-antler arches four of them. But you’ll find the biggest one an hour farther south on Highway 89 in Afton, Wyoming.
Keep your eyes open and you’ll find vestiges of formerly famous roadside attractions along other two-lane highways bypassed by the interstates. There’s Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska, and Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo. There’s the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and one I know I’ll visit if I’m ever near Boston the MOBA the Museum of Bad Art. How could you pass up a place that wears its name so proudly?
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.