7 Gas, Food and Lodging Landmarks

Often a gas station, motel, or restaurant uses a huge statue or other gimmick to lure customers.
Often a gas station, motel, or restaurant uses a huge statue or other gimmick to lure customers.
Publications International, Ltd.

The triumvirate of road-trip necessities: gas, food, and lodging. All three are typically readily available along the American roadside, which makes for some heated competition among the sellers. And when it comes to the intersection of commerce and the road trip, kitsch sells.

Therefore, many roa­dside merchants have employed a strategy that mixes equal parts P. T. Barnum and I. M. Pei. They saw their gas station, diner, or motel as a blank canvas that could be artfully decorated as a means to higher profits.

They crafted big emblems of their trade -- be it a donut or a muffler -- and bolted them to the roof. They built structures that were so unique in their design they were sure to demand a driver's stare. But some of the cutting-edge features they found so eye-catching at first have not aged well and today come off as pure kitsch.

The whole phenomenon of these roadside landmarks can be boiled down to a hypothetical scenario along these lines: Say you are driving through the middle of nowhere and you notice that your gas gauge is a hairsbreadth from 'E.' On one side of the road is a typical service station, standard issue in every way. Across the street stands the competition, a station identical to the first except for the fact it's capped by a 20-foot-long wrench. From which are you going to buy gas?

For many, wherever the gas is cheaper. But if a gallon costs the same at both establishments, the one with the giant tool on top is the natural choice, simply because it has a giant tool on top.

Some motels and restaurants conceal their quirkiest details within a nondescript exterior; you might find a prehistoric cave dweller-theme suite in a motel that looks completely stereotypical from the street.

But if the proprietors don't manage to communicate at least a hint of the place's wacky inner-child on the surface, then they're not getting their story across to the passing carloads, at least not loudly enough.

Why? It's simply because these places are the most blatantly commercial examples of roadside Americana. They exist to sell gas, motel rooms, and combination plates, and the atmosphere is a mere by-product.

Their origins are rarely mysterious, and their message is clear: Eat here. Sleep here. Fill up here. This is the place. Stop and spend money. When it comes to advertising, you've got to be obvious, and you've got to be direct. So why not use a massive statue or exceedingly unusual architecture?

But chain motels, chain restaurants, and chain gas stations dominate the modern American roadside, and modern corporate honchos don't put much stock in roadside kitsch.

As a result, when chain properties put the squeeze on their independent and older competitors, they put the squeeze on kitsch. This trend has put roadside landmarks that double as businesses on the endangered list.

So, while we can, let's enjoy these landmarks to their fullest. We'll begin with the Longhorn Grill on the next page.