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.
Longhorn Grill: Amado, Arizona
It's difficult to imagine a restaurant more Western than one shaped like a giant longhorn skull. That's the case at the Longhorn Grill, a desert outpost of an eatery built in the 1970s in the saguaro-studded sands between Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico.
Besides functioning as a restaurant, the building has been used as a location for several movies, including Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
Blast off to the next page for a look at the Space Age Lodge.
Space Age Lodge: Gila Bend, Arizona
Now operating under the Best Western flag, the Space Age Lodge is the brainchild of Leo Stovall, who also opened a similar -- since-shuttered -- Anaheim, California, property down the street from Disneyland.
Built in 1965, the Gila Bend location is centered on a building that appears to be the landing pad for a flying saucer.
If history excites you more than the Great Beyond, see the next page for details on the Wigwam Hotel.
Wigwam Motel: Holbrook, Arizona
Established in 1950 after founder Chester Lewis spotted a similar complex in Kentucky, the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona, is one of the few of its kind still operating today.
The wigwams are made out of wood, chicken wire, and stucco, and on the inside they resemble a typical room at a mom-and-pop motel.
Check out an iconic food landmark -- Bob's Big Boy -- in the next section.
Bob's Big Boy: Burbank, California
The oldest operating Bob's Big Boy in the country is a Burbank, California, landmark, adorned with a 70-foot neon sign, architecture that defined a time (the 1950s) and place (Southern California), and a statue of the restaurant's mascot out front.
The place is named for a pudgy kid the founder spotted after inventing the double-decker hamburger.
See the next section for a food landmark that is located a stone's throw from where the Boston Tea Party took place.
Hood Milk Bottle: Boston, Massachusetts
Likely the most memorable structure on the Boston Wharf, this 40-foot milk bottle stands a stone's throw from the site of the Boston Tea Party. It was constructed in 1930 but was relocated to its current spot in 1977.
While it currently houses a snack bar, it could hold about 50,000 gallons of milk if push came to shove.
In the next section, you'll find the World's Largest Penguin.
World's Largest Penguin: Cut Bank, Montana
To commemorate its hometown's status as the coldest town in the United States, this concrete penguin was constructed in 1989. At 27 feet tall and a solid five tons, it beckons to passersby from its spot in front of the Glacier Gateway Inn, a furniture-shop-turned-motel.
The penguin talks (when its speaker works), bleating out the slogan, "Welcome to Cut Bank, the Coldest Spot in the Nation!"
Our final section features information on the Hobo Inn, located at the base of Mount Rainier.
Hobo Inn: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Near the foot of majestic Mount Rainier, the Hobo Inn is the place to bed down for the night for an experience that melds creature comforts with the hobo lifestyle.
Around 1990, the proprietors converted about a half-dozen vintage cabooses into motel rooms (scarf on a stick not included).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A Denver-based freelance writer, Eric Peterson contributes to numerous periodicals and travel guides. His recent credits include Ramble: A Field Guide to the U.S.A. and stories for Sky, the New York Daily News, and Westword.
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