What if all roadside attractions disappeared? Would anyone notice? Would anyone care?
Good question. The answer is most people probably would not. The “roadside attraction” is a fading remnant of an earlier America. An America crisscrossed by two-lane roads. Highways that forced you to slow down for town and read home-made signs touting the World’s Largest This, the Birthplace of That, or the Whatchamacallit Hall-of-Fame.
Hey, the world changes every day. Nothing is permanent. Like a good Boomer, I have one foot in the past and one planted on the endless treadmill that is progress. I don’t remember a world without interstate highways, but I do remember when the highway network was incomplete and you might detour onto back roads, knocking you off-schedule and into a time warp of sorts.
We remember such scenes through a nostalgic glow, thinking of them as natural, home-grown ecosystems that sprung up alongside the asphalt ribbons. Much preferable to the endless repetition of chain-store colonies that cluster around the off-ramps of today’s highways.
And thus, the once-tacky becomes quaint, and what may have been derided as a “tourist trap” in the 60s and 70s has become “Americana.”
I enjoy finding these oddities. I own guidebooks such as “Roadside America” and “Weird Colorado.” My family spent years travelling across Kansas, primarily on I-70, to see the in-laws. Surely one of the most boring trips one can imagine. Our family learned that taking the occasional byway was often worth the extra time. We saw the Worlds’ Largest Ball of Twine, the Garden of Eden and of course – Mingo (the geocache). These diversions made the trips more tolerable.
Inside one of the most modern air terminals in the world – Denver International Airport – is the ultimate shrine to this rapidly disappearing slice of America. On the fifth level, between the baggage carrels and the grand tent-like main concourse, is an amazing art piece. Two maps constructed of varnished wood and framed black-and-white Brownie camera photos. It is called “America: Why I Love Her” and it was made, not by a world-renowned artist, but by former Continental Airlines customer service agent Gary Sweeney. Mr. Sweeney took a summer off, mid-career, and re-traced the trips he took with his family as a child. He photographed roadside landmarks, then arranged them on handcrafted maps, preserving them for all to enjoy.
To find such a treasure tucked away in a major transportation hub is unexpected, but oddly appropriate. Appropriate because if you leave the airport and turn east rather than west (like most visitors), you embark on a journey to the wild and wooly heartland of America’s roadside attractions. The Great Plains, where there is little in the way of nature’s bounty or man’s architectural grandeur to compete with striking views of giant buffalo, giant prairie dogs, giant coffee pots, giant balls of twine. Where prairie provocateurs, driven to madness by living in the (figurative) shadows of Minuteman missile silos, silenced their fiery, apocalyptic visions by building monuments to ordinary animals or objects, as if to deny the End Times forebodings droning from so many sod-bound churches.
In order to enshrine this shrine in our collective meta memories, I have created the tribute of tributes, an eponymous geocache. It is a multi-stage cache designed to get some eyeballs on this wonderful piece of art. First stage is virtual (because its in an airport), second stage is physical. The second stage is some miles away, but still located in a place that visitors and locals may find convenient. If this type of creative challenge appeals to you, please see my geocache page: America: Why I Love Her, GC5XXPA.
I’ve been to maybe ten or fifteen of the roadside attractions depicted on the piece. They are all special in their own way. I hope to visit many more. But I want to share a story of one that is gone, but not forgotten:
The Wonder Tower
The Wonder Tower “See Six States!” in Genoa, Colorado. A rickety old tower with 22 adjoining rooms, packed floor-to-ceiling with bizarre clutter, including thousands of arrowheads and glass bottles, a stuffed two-headed calf, and deformed animal fetuses pickled in giant Mason jars. The Tower’s cheerful owner, Jerry Chubbuck – a man descended directly from P.T. Barnum – would greet us at the door. We’d pay our $1 per-person entry fee, then try to identify the 10 “curiosities” that Jerry presented to us, in order to get our entry fee refunded (we never came close). Then we would tour the tower, climbing the semi-spiral stairway that narrowed to a vertical ladder for the last 10 feet. Emerging onto the open-air platform with the much-heralded view, while the relentless prairie wind battered the tower, we would shake our heads and wonder how the hell Jerry was able to get the place insured.
Eventually I placed a geocache around back, with Jerry’s permission, of course. I filled it with small items that I purchased at the Tower. Over the years, it probably pulled an extra hundred or so visitors off the road and into Chubbuck’s emporium. Every little bit helps, I figured, to keep this wonderfully-odd attraction afloat.
The first sign of trouble was, oh, around the summer of 2010 or 2011. We pulled up on a summer weekday, the only car in the parking lot, as usual. To our surprise, Jerry was not manning the cash register. His wife, Esther, told us Jerry was in bed, not feeling well. We started to peruse the contents of the “Rock Room,” when we heard a familiar voice. In bounded Jerry! He probably glimpsed our car from his bedroom window and couldn’t stand the thought of not personally greeting a visitor (or maybe missing a chance at a sale).
We talked to his daughter once, on a later visit, and she mentioned Jerry was verging on kidney failure. Those last couple of visits were bittersweet, knowing each might be the last. Jerry died in August 2013.
As we expected, his kids weren’t interested in taking over the place and the contents were auctioned one year later. I heard about the auction during a casual conversation with a couple I met when I hiked to the top of Bergen Peak. (I later found out it happened that very day.) The auctioneer said there were at least 10,000 items up for auction. I hope that translated into a nice windfall for his family. I’d like to think that Jerry was able to leave a decent inheritance behind, for all his hard work and devotion.
The Wonder Tower is a reminder of the impermanence of the little things that dot the landscape we hold dear. The last news I heard is that the family is looking to sell it to a nonprofit, as a potential museum site. If so, I hope they can reclaim enough items to restore at least one room to its former glory.
The message behind my story, and the purpose of my geocache, is to remind people to seek out the remaining roadside attractions. Make the time, drive a little out of the way, spend a little money (they are usually very cheap), but most of all, spend some time with the colorful people who create and maintain these amazing anachronisms.