I had a funny conversation with my sister last week where we attempted to estimate exactly how much time we had spent staring into Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park as children. It was my dad’s favorite. Every year (sometimes twice a year), from the time we were in preschool, all the way into our teens, we were forced to stare into that hole for hours and hours on end. What is it about humans that makes them love to endlessly gawk, mouth agape, at things like giant watery holes, or other such wonders as the world’s largest twine ball, while muttering things like “Man, that is one big ball of twine!”? I suppose it doesn’t matter why we do it, it only matters that we do. And as a result, this country is stuffed to the gills with wild and crazy, weird and creepy, completely majestic and utterly unbelievable road trip worthy stops for a little slack jawed ogling.
The Superlatives: These are the classics—biggest, oldest, longest, fattest, most expensive. If you are in the mood to pay a tour guide $10 to point at the world’s tallest filing cabinet, and then sell you a t-shirt to let everyone know that you did it, these are most definitely for you. Every single state in the union (and probably Puerto Rico) has at least one giant/ridiculous/ bizarre attraction that you can stand in front of and wave like a big dork while someone snaps your picture. This year, why not get a shot of yourself riding an enormous jackalope or peeking out of a giant roller skate to put on your Christmas card?
Where to find them: Roadside Wonders has a fantastic (and photo-filled list) of shockingly giant things from sewing needles to easter eggs.
The Crazies: This is probably my favorite category of them all, attractions built of pure madness. You’d be surprised how many eccentric folks have built monuments to their passions and paranoias in order to share them with the world. Generally referred to as “outsider art”, these impressive structures have a sincerity that is equally as captivating an as their general bizarreness. Built by a local postal worker, Houston’s The Orange Show, is a loving (if occasionally cryptic) tribute to a favored citrus fruit. Florida’s Coral Castle was built entirely by the hand of a 100 lb. man who claimed to know the “secrets of the pyramids”. Forget the historical society tour, and take a wander through the minds of mad men instead.
Where to find them: Roadside America is probably the best attraction site on the web, with a great blog, comprehensive search engine, visitor tips, route planner, reservation station…and yes, there is an app for that (Editor’s Note: The co-founder of Roadside America is an old colleague and friend of mine. -ChrisCavs).
The Creepies: Why visit a regular historical site, when you can up the ante and visit a haunted one? The edge of supernatural is enough to make anything commonplace instantly more intriguing (I’m talking to you Col. Buck’s Cursed Tomb). Did you know that you can actually spend the night in the house where Lizzie Borden took her 40 whacks? Or wander the twisting hallways and doors to nowhere in the insane creep-fest that is the Winchester Mystery House? Best to pack your Ouija Board and some extra underpants, because as it turns out, the road can be a pretty scary place.
Where to find them: The Haunted Places Directory is pretty thorough, but if you want the real inside scoop, you can always check in with local ghost hunters (in my random sample, everyt single state I Googled had their own paranormal team!).
The Parties: An attraction doesn’t have to be a permanent fixture to be a worthy roadside pit stop. The US has incredible (often incredibly wacky) events and festivals of all kinds (hell, Maine has its own Moxie Festival—imagine what the other states are doing!), and if you can time your road trip just right, you may be able to get in on the action. Maybe you’re willing to brave the debauchery at the spectacle that is Burning Man, or perhaps you’d rather just stuff your face full of Buffalo Wings? If you’re looking for something a little more interactive than a $2 tour, from eating contests to air guitar championships, you can throw yourself into the middle of these crazy tornadoes of local culture. Or, if you’re more the gaping type, there is more than enough action just to sit back and watch.
Where to find them: National Geographic just picked up a really incredible documentary photo & film series called American Festivals, but if you’re looking for something more utilitarian, WhatsOnWhen has an entire section devoted to the weird & wonderful.
The Natural Wonders: Though not roadside attractions in the traditional sense, natural wonders are also just as worth taking a minute to pull over and ogle (just ask my dad). Sure, things like the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful are classics that even the Brady Bunch couldn’t pass by, but don’t underestimate the powers of natural weirdness cropping up all over the US in not quite National Park worthy places. Who could forget about the Desert of Maine? Or what about New Jersey’s mysterious and devil riddled Blue Hole? If you like a little fresh air (or possibly a serious hike) with your roadside peeping, these awe inspiring and often bizarre formations do not disappoint.
Where to find them: State tourism websites and guidebooks.
And then there’s the rest… all the little shops and stops that look like they could be the perfect combination of interesting an terrifying. As I always say, it’s all about memories and bragging rights. There’s a whole lotta crazy in this world that doesn’t show up in any guidebook, so for the love of god if you see something interesting… PULL OVER!