In the last few years I've been on several all-American road trips that I have failed to share with the internet. Ideally, I would drop all the photos into a Kodak slide carousel, invite you all into my darkened living room, and let you enjoy a slice of pie as I cycle through photos to the sound of Esquivel records. A series of blog posts will never come close to that, but you can still eat pie if you want.
Only one of my outings was a pure vacation where I got to choose the destination and route. The rest were unrefusable opportunities or ride-alongs which limited my roadside kicks to places that happened to be on the way. When there's a bigger goal, a schedule to stick to, and the route is at the mercy of a carload of independent wills, each successful stop is an unexpected triumph. When Fate is your bus driver, that lack of control can be offset by a near-overdose of serendipity when things do turn out great.
For my first post, I'd like to make an addendum to the massive write-up of my 2015 visit to the Archie McPhee headquarters. It was so massive that I didn't try to squeeze in the sights we saw along the highway. The first one was a doozy, Casa Bonita in Denver, Colorado.
I've been meaning to pay tribute to the Casa Bonita franchise since the earliest days of this blog, but the subject is overwhelming. When I was a kid the Tulsa location was like a local taste of Disneyland. The interior resembled a Mexican village on a starry night complete with a maze-like cave and a huge video arcade. I'd heard legends of the flagship Denver location for years, with its cliff divers and magic shows, but this was my first visit. I'm only going to include a couple token photos here to leave open the possibility for a dedicated post in the future. But I will say that it was immensely bigger and better than I had dreamed. I couldn't have been more excited to discover that this location had spooky stuff too, like a walk-through monster cave!
There is an elite class of roadside attraction that uses dozens, if not hundreds of billboards to tantalize drivers down the off-ramp. "Rock City Gardens" in Chattanooga and "South of the Border" in Dillon, South Carolina are my favorite examples. The multitude of signs I encountered for a place called Little America resembled a collection of stock photography, but the "billboard onslaught technique" always works on me.
I immediately got the sense that this place was a major highlight during the golden age of American road-tripping, and Wikipedia confirmed it. Little America opened in 1952 and soon became a fixture of the Lincoln highway, the nation's first transcontinental road. It doesn't need to boast any novel amusements because in the unforgiving Wyoming countryside all it takes to become a traveler's oasis are the basics: fuel, food, lodging, coffee, "spotless restrooms," cocktails, and a service garage, most of these available 24 hours a day. Its sixty-five gas pumps made it the world's largest service station for a time. Such a comfy, ample, supply depot can make a driver reluctant to return to the lonely road. It feels like leaving the Prancing Pony to wander the barrens of Middle Earth.
(Here's some foreshadowing...)
The complex has two competing themes. The name and the presence of penguins refers to a base in Antarctica reminding visitors that this dose of civilization is highly secluded. According to a legend on an old advertising flyer, the founder, S.M. Covey, made a vow to build this place into a "haven and a refuge" after he was once stranded in a blizzard on this very site. He deemed its construction "a promise kept...a dream come true."
Covey had a real penguin shipped across the sea to serve as a living mascot. The bird died in transit, and the stuffed carcass is still on display in the lobby— a reliquary to a corporate martyr. I couldn't get a photo of "Emperor the Penguin" because it was in the process of being cleaned. So at least they clean it.
Penguin statues are scattered among the other visual motif, Georgian style architecture of early America. The mix of zany and historic gives the place a unique vacationland appeal.
Speaking of unique appeal, I knew nothing about the history of the place, but I got the sense that it wasn't itself anymore. Like the sign out front, it seemed somehow incomplete. Sure enough, online photos show that a cartoon penguin was part of the original design. Unfortunately, they look to be in the final stages of shedding their mid-century whimsy. The newest signs attempt to class up the joint.
Their billboards went from this to this...
(60s billboard photo by John Margolies, new sign photo via)
Trying to play it straight goes against the very DNA of the establishment. Little America was designed from the ground up to cater to the boom of new families adventuring in their new family sedans. The shapes and colors of comic strips spilled into the real world to summon fun-seeking tribes. Regardless of the signs, this place will always be more like a theme park than a Colonial Williamsburg.
The overcast day of my visit emphasized the way the color and flavor has been drained. And now, so help me, I'm looking at vintage postcards for this place. I ache for a lost world...
All I want is this: It's 1966, and I'm a traveling novelty salesman. I coast into the Little America parking lot as smoke pours from under the hood of my Nash Rambler. I'm stranded for a week until a new part arrives, leaving me no choice but to survive on their amenities, and wander the grounds chatting up fellow tourists. During the week I break my personal record for rubber skeleton sales.
When you're traveling hundreds of miles through featureless plains, a couple of simple stone monoliths are enough to get everyone excited enough to stop. The Ames Monument was part of Union Pacific's effort to improve their reputation after a financial scandal in 1867. It's a tribute to two brothers who financed the first transcontinental railroad during a time when many proclaimed the duo to be "kings of fraud."
I'm learning all of this now because I couldn't be bothered to read the three plaques at the foot of the pyramid. I was just happy to find an empty lot where we could stretch our legs and let the powerful winds hold up the weight of our leaning bodies.
About twenty miles down the road there was a more self-explanatory attraction, The Wyoming Abraham Lincoln monument which has been at this location since 1969.
The visitors center looked disheveled. I like that.
This view from the Lincoln monument looks like something that would be framed on a wood-paneled wall in the corporate headquarters of a trucking company...
These back to back attractions were followed by an empty expanse that made me wish I had an electric car. Wyoming could do a better job with their monument dispersing.
A couple hours later I was relieved to find a gas station, but to call it that is an understatement. This was a Travel Plaza of great significance, The Sinclair station in Sinclair, Wyoming that's positioned in front of the Sinclair Oil Refinery. This gave me the opportunity to pump my favorite brand of gas (based solely on the corporate mascot) while staring at the place where it was concocted.
Considering that the refinery is close enough for them to drop off the gas during their coffee breaks it would stand to reason that the fuel would be cheaper. Not so.
On the way back from my Archie McPhee adventure I was more relaxed. I was thrilled with my visit, and in no hurry to return to real life. Following a tip from a friend we stopped at Multnomah Falls, Oregon.
The humid, cool air was refreshing, and the hovering scent of firewood from the visitor center made a blanket of cozy. The moss covered surfaces were like cushions for your eyes. It's no secret that I'm crazy about the junk food equivalent of roadside attractions, but I can absolutely appreciate such a nutritious place.
For lunch we stopped at Spooky's Pizza in The Dalles, Oregon. I still don't know what the mascot is, or why it's called Spooky's but I love both of those things. I'd like to think he's a ghost in a bow tie, but I'm often prone to thinking that things are ghosts. All their web site says is that it opened in '66, closed in the 80s, and reopened in '99. (That's '66 upside down!)
Like Pizza Hut, there is synergy between the signage and the rooftop. But they've topped the hut with multiple pinnacles and clerestory windows that match a functioning chimney.
The chimney looks to be attached to this massive fireplace. The Pizza Hut of my youth also had a massive fireplace. This taught me that pizza tastes better when you're near hot black iron. (Another example is in this old Pizza Parlour review, from back when 22 comments on a post was normal.)
This painting was a clue that there may have been more to the Spooky's experience...
Customized vending machines are the sign of a next level pizza joint.
A number of the yelp reviews that I read mentioned fond childhood experiences at the restaurant. Spooky's obviously embraces their history. Contrary to Little America, I'll bet that seeing old photos of this place wouldn't make me feel like I'd entirely missed out on something wonderful.
We stayed the night in Denver, and after my family settled in for the evening I went in search of the secondary market. There are times when I get powerful cravings to be surrounded by old media. Thus far, the trip hadn't offered much of that, so I hit the thrift store circuit. Once they'd all closed I got turned around in a complex of strip malls. A single store was still lit up. I made a moth-like approach and discovered Black & Read Books, Music, and News! It was exactly what I was itching for.
I opened one of the front doors and had to step around stacks of newly arrived boxes of VHS tapes. The store had the energizing aroma of paper goods slowly deteriorating. The vast inventory was organized with aging signs hand-written in Sharpie. I held monster manuals, board games, laserdiscs, and Heavy Metal magazines. It was open late, and the prices were very good. After buzzing for a couple hours, I left with mostly movie soundtracks on vinyl. There are still several more titles I wish I'd picked up. I returned the next morning to confirm that it wasn't just a dream...
The last leg of the trip took me by a place I have tried but failed to visit in the past. The home of the world's largest prairie dog. I missed it by about a year, but I think I'm okay with that. Online reviews are not kind. They have titles like, "Heavy with shame for seeing this." The problem was that the accompanying "zoo" seemed terribly mismanaged. Here's what remained...
The tantalizing fence was there to make sure that you paid your $10 entry fee...
The fake giant prairie dog was long gone when I got there, but Google images does not forget...
Here are some other sights from the road...
That's a skeleton on the grill in April. Respect.
Buford, WY, with a population of one (which is now called PhinDeli Town Buford.)
The gas station where I learned that pumping your own gas was (at the time) illegal in Oregon...
Thankfully, there's no law against ninjutsu supplies and skeleton art...
The windiest observation deck that is adamant about covering up vandalism...
The Mall in Hays, Kansas bucked all the new trends in outdoor signs for decades, and now they are better for it.
The same mall ignored all the graphic designers' doublespeak about the need for a unified logo, and they absolutely made the right decision.
UPDATE: I found a postcard that indicates the above was the original logo, and the orange striped version is the update. And look, the interior was so warm and inviting. The stripes were once on the mall exterior too! Why, as a society, have we given up on color?
More lost road trips are on the way!