Roadside attractions – these are a reason to pull the car over, take the exit you weren’t planning on, extend your travel distance, take the backroads, and drive with an extra level of alertness. If you possess a seeking mind, these unusual buildings, trinkets, statues, displays, and museums are a delight! Your passengers, if they share your interests, can act as a second set of eyes, to ensure you don’t miss the opportunity to experience the wonders of being on the road.
What will you see?
You’ll discover giant pencils, enormous balls of yarn, and corporate buildings in the shape of woven baskets. You’ll explore dinosaurs as tall as buildings, with an internal staircase that lets you climb to the top, to watch the sunrise (as featured in the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure). You’ll gasp, as you stumble upon the tallest, the longest, the biggest, and the greatest. Sometimes you’ll be stopped in your tracks, as you discover that you’ve unearthed the smallest.
Why are these wonders here, anyway?
Consider the tourist money brought to the small towns where these attractions are located. Consider the money lost, when a new highway is built, circumventing that small town. Disney’s animated film Cars depicts the unintended results that come with progress. (Who doesn’t love Owen Wilson, the voice of Lightning McQueen, who declares: “Speed. Faster than fast, quicker than quick. I am Lightning. Speed. I am Speed.” “Ka-Chow!”) (IMDv TV and Pixar Films)
Lifelong travelers and weekend tourists alike are awestruck!
Sure, the scenic overlooks and rolling landscapes are stunning to look at (and photograph) too. But, there’s a special appeal in the overly manufactured, shamelessly marketed, roadside attraction. These are, without a doubt, “monuments” built just for the sake of attracting tourist dollars. With successful marketing, you should be left wanting to make a U-turn, were your to blink and miss the object of your search.
Be sure to take a selfie, post to social media, and use the appropriate #! This week, I’ll bring you along, to visit just a few of the attractions I’ve had the pleasure of visiting!
First up, pull over at Koontz Coffee Pot, Bedford, PA:
Built in 1927 by David Berton Koontz, to attract business to the gas station next door, Koontz Coffee Pot in Bedford, PA is larger than life. You can almost smell the coffee brewing, but there is no French Roast or Hazelnut Cream being offered. I wished there was a local coffeeshop nearby, on the cold, grey day that I visited. Luckily, Pennsylvania is rife with Sheetz, and I had fueled up there. My coffee thermos was full!
“It was made of bricks and covered in sheet metal, and was 18 feet tall and 22 feet wide. The Pot changed hands at various points, becoming a diner, bus station, and a bar. In the 1980s, the Pot closed, and languished in disrepair.
The Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor bought the pot in 2003 and, with the help of a state grant, moved it from its old location to the Bedford County Fairgrounds and restored it. It now acts as a museum for the Bedford Fair” (Atlas Obscura)
The attraction was closed the day I visited, but my penchant for coffee, especially the Hazelnut-flavored variety, made this stop a delight. The metal pot, with its side-handle, looks like it belongs in an old 24-hour diner, where stories are shared, jokes are botched, coffee is spilt, proposals are made, and hearts are broken.
The pot has this distinctly old-fashioned air about it, bringing to mind a simpler time, when sitting around drinking coffee was more about the conversation and the company – a time when refills were always free, and the accompanying pie was house-made.
If you like your coffee with strength and grit OR style and elegance, it’s worth a visit.
Next, visit “Big Pencil,” Wytheville, VA:
It’s no Dixon Ticonderoga – a favorite of my father, a reading and language arts teacher, and (allegedly) Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – but the “Big Pencil” is impressive! It’s attention-grabbing, and worth a drive into downtown Wytheville. Often a town that travelers drive past, on their way to some other destination, downtown Wytheville has seen some years of improvement and city-wide financial investment.
“One of the most eye-catching sights on Main Street, the “Big Pencil” as been a landmark for over 60 years at the Wytheville Office Supply. Constructed in the 1950s, it is made of metal and is approximately 30 feet long.” (“Wytheville. . . there’s only one” – visitor brochure)
The pencil is mounted to the front façade of the office supply company, which sells all the usual things – reams of paper, office chairs, and file cabinets. It was nice to see a small-town specialty shop — one that was not put out of business by a big box store, an Office Max or Staples. Perhaps the enormous pencil out front, along with the store’s reputation for friendly customer service, has something to do with its longevity!
“Impressive scribbler points down to the entrance of an office supply store, frightening those who fear impalement by a big pencil.” (Roadside America, tip 1369) Is this a common phobia. . . ?
I wouldn’t drive excessive distances to Wytheville, just to see this pencil, but if you’re passing through, it is worth a stop. Isn’t that the whole idea of these roadside attractions? This would be a fun stop for teachers and students alike, as well as writers, readers, librarians, and all variety of pencil pushers!
If you’re up for an adventure, visit Cabazon Dinosaurs Palm Springs, CA:
If you’re looking for an attraction that is entertaining as well as educational, consider the Cabazon Dinosaurs, featured in the 1985 film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I take that back – the creationist museum that now occupies the site is. . . questionable, in its credibility and authenticity, as an educational museum.
“The dinosaurs were built back in the 60s by a former Knott’s Berry Farm model sculptor named Claude K. Bell as a roadside attraction to attract people to his restaurant. However, after Claude’s death, they were sold to a group who turned them into a creationist museum.” (Vice.com)
However, what kid doesn’t like a giant dinosaur?
Pee wee Herman’s character is one of the biggest kids, at heart! For a price, visitors can climb high into the dinosaur’s head, as Pee Wee did, and look out at the landscape, through the dinosaur’s enormous teeth. Pee Wee watched the sunrise, after a long night of conversation with Simone, a truck-stop waitress, and hopeless romantic.
First it’s. . .
Simone: “Do you have any dreams?”
Pee Wee: “Yeah, I’m all alone. I’m rolling a big doughnut and this snake is wearing a vest. . . “
Then. . .
Simone: “I know you’re right Pee Wee, but…”
Pee Wee “But what? Everyone I know has a big “But…?” C’mon, Simone, let’s talk about *your* big “But”.
What kid doesn’t like a silly butt joke? A visit to see these dinosaurs is a nice way to imagine yourself in the movie. What are your dreams? Are you going after them. . . or do you have a big “But”?
Keep traveling. . . In this transitional period, into a post-COVID reality, road trips are certain to be on the rise. Car dealerships are counting on it – they are advertising with that messaging in mind!
If you’re looking for a distraction, aren’t in a hurry to get wherever you’re headed, or just want to enjoy the journey as much as the ultimate destination, consider what might be roadside!
There are many books, documentaries, and websites dedicated to guiding travelers to some of the more obscure locations. For example, Atlas Obscura, Roadside America, and Roadtrippers educate curious tourists – I’ve provided a number of links, below.
Join me on my next adventure,
Wytheville, VA: Visit Wytheville, Virginia | Visit Wytheville
Musical Highway: Musical Highway – Albuquerque, New Mexico – Atlas Obscura
IMDb: Cars – Ligtening McQueen: Cars (2006) – Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen – IMDb
Roadside America: Roadside America – Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions
Roadside America, Tip 1369: Wytheville, VA – Big Pencil (roadsideamerica.com)
Roadtrippers: Get Roadtrippers Plus | Roadtrippers
Dixon Ticonderoga: Dixon Ticonderoga – Wikipedia
Cabazon Dinosaurs: Pee-Wee Herman’s Dinosaurs Are Actually a Creationist Museum (vice.com)
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (dinosaur scene): Guided Tour: The Dinosaurs from ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ | NBCLX – YouTube