Everywhere I go I see old neon. These signs remind me of the my youthful days in the 1960s and 70s when we traveled. Alas, for many, the only signs they see are the same unoriginal fast food, gas station and motel chain signs all over the place. But, in the by gone days there were few McDonald’s and Motel 6 spots. Instead, there were the little cozy motels with the old metal chairs in the front and the unique neon signs. There were the local burger joints with their big shiny signs. And there were the drive in movie theaters and the downtown theatres with their unique names. Here is a trip down memory lane with neon I have captured along the less beaten paths and just a few comments, when appropriate.
Of all of the unique neon signs, perhaps the hotel and motel signs are the most fun and bring back the fondest memories. My first ever motel stay was in some non-descript motel in Amarillo, Texas in 1968. At the time I was only 12. It was exciting to sleep in a motel bed, see the paper covered drinking glasses, taste the strange tasting water, sit on the metal rockers on the front porch. We watched the news and stock reports on the local television and ate pancakes at a local cafe before heading to our new home in Richardson, Texas (we were moving from Albuquerque, so yes, we were on Route 66 back then).
And to round off the trip, how about one of the more famed ones….
CAFES AND RESTAURANTS
After a nice evening a a comfy motel, what is better than starting the day off with a great breakfast at a diner, a pancake house or a local cafe. The servings are always big, the mom and pop service is better than any fast food joint. Of course, while on the road you can also stop for lunch and even a big dinner, in some cases even more than you can manage if you are willing to take the chance (think Amarillo, Texas!!)
How about some burgers for lunch?
Perhaps you want to try an ORIGINAL Cozy Dog….a Route 66 Classic indeed. This one deserves two photos
Don’t want a burger or a corn dog? How about a Maid-Rite Sandwich?
Or perhaps some great authentic Bar-B-Q?
And a little Ice Cream for an afternoon treat….
Okay. So this next one is not neon. But it is certainly Vintage. And who can resist stopping for an ice cream at a place that LOOKS like an Ice Cream?
There are lots of places that you can get dinner…many of the old neon places are a combo bar/grill or bar/restaurant. And many have unique signs. Personally, I don’t drink alcohol, but I have certainly enjoyed a few good meals at some of these kinds of places.
And let’s not forget two of the most iconic vintage neon places for travelers….
Maybe you prefer something a bit more ethnic in the evening….
Or perhaps just a late night Philly Cheese Steak? How about two choices and they are just across the street from each other in the triangle….(I actually tried one at each place on the same evening – add the whiz!)
Movie Theaters, Drive-In Theaters and Music Halls
Perhaps you have had a long day on the road and need a break from motel room TV. A visit to an old drive in theater with some popcorn and thus fuzzy little speakers hanging in your window will do ya.
Too cold outside? Then there are some classic old movie theaters around that show some cool movies or maybe even will have a live band playing in them. Many of the old theaters are multi-purpose nowadays, but their old neon signs still draw you in and bring back the memories of 1960s childhood.
Following are a few classic looks with neon I have seen over the years as I travel the back roads of America.
VARIOUS AND SUNDRY OTHER PLACES
Sure, I meant it when I included “Sundry” in this section. That term seems old fashioned now, but the old five-and-dime shops had “sundry” items. There were also the old drug stores that sold magazines, had fountains in the shop and they sold “sundries.”
I also include the “various” in here since there are a few odds and ends neon signs that I want to include in this section.
Now, wasn’t that just a yummy adventure through the past?
I love to travel the back roads of America. I also love to see Offbeat Attractions. Of course, I must drop by those strange named towns (see photo above). But, I also want to visit historical sites, National Parks, scenic locations, covered bridges and more that may be along the way. So, in this post I will lay out the “Sumoflam Guide” and the process I go about in planning almost all of my trips. Hopefully, you as the readers will be able to glean some helpful information in your plans and do as I do…..ENJOY THE RIDE!
WHERE DO WE WANT TO GO?
For the purpose of this particular guide, I am going to create a sample trip from St. Louis to Kansas City and back. My approach to this trip will begin at the St. Louis Arch and end up back there with very little back tracking along the way. Further, for simplicity, I will plan this as a four day round trip.
THE PLANNING “TOOLS”
Before I ever take off on a trip, I first get out the “tools” of the trade and begin mapping out a course.
First and foremost I go to Google Maps. This helps me see the general course I will be taking. It will allow me to hone in on probable routes, preferably off of the Interstates and perhaps even on county roads, if time allows. Obviously, my goal is NOT to take the fastest or most direct route, but to take the one that provides me the greatest mix of places to visit, sites to see and photographs to take.
After determining probable routes, I then go to my handy-dandy OFFBEAT ATTRACTION site – Roadside America – for the ultimate guide to the best offbeat attractions in my route area. I will provide details on this later on below.
There are a number of other reference sites I may visit depending on the routes and locations. I will list a number of my favorites later in this post. They include websites that cover the quirky, the offbeat, the giant/big things, National Parks and Monuments, historic sites, etc.
Finally, since there will likely be hotel stays along the way, I typically go to my favorite site for hotels, which is Choice Hotels. Since I am a “Choice Privileges” member, I gain points and free nights by staying in their hotel brands whenever possible. But, there are many other sites out there, so choose your favorites.
After mapping things out, I glean information about towns from Google and Bing. I may do a search on a town or an offbeat site to get more information, look at images, etc.
For many towns I may also do a search in Wikipedia. This is a great source of detailed information
Finally, after searching through all of those, I find my way to the numerous town websites, tourist sites, chamber of commerce sites, etc.
Isn’t the World Wide Web Wonderful?
MAPPING OUT THE ROUTE
Google Maps is an amazing tool and it is also fun. With their Street View program you can practically take a virtual trip to anywhere — from the comfort of your home. Of course, there is really nothing like being there in person.
Google now has a new version of Google Maps, which has some nice features. But, I prefer the Classic Maps version chiefly because I can include multiple destinations. Returning to the sample trip from St. Louis to Kansas City, this is what the initial search would give me on Google Maps:
On the map above you can see that I mapped a trip from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. It provided me with two driving routes — one direct down the Interstate and another quite a bit out of the way (if you are wanting a direct route). However, if I wanted to map an intermediate destination, I would not be able to include it and also include Kansas City. So, I will use the “Classic Maps” version by going to the settings in the upper right corner and select Classic Maps.
The best part of the Classic Maps view is the multiple destination selection option. With this option you can select up to 25 locations for Google to map out and create a route.
Following is what I used to create the ROAD TRIP! shot above:
After selecting the main destinations – in this case, St. Louis to Kansas City, it is time to dig deeper and find those offbeat attractions and other places of interest and then plug them into Google Maps.
NOW THE FUN BEGINS – FINDING THE PLACES ON THE ROAD
The guys at Roadside America are phenomenal. They offer maps, directions and tourist attraction details as a convenience to their users. As they say it on their website – “RoadsideAmerica.com is a caramel-coated-nutbag-full of odd and hilarious travel destinations — over 10,000 places in the USA and Canada — ready for exploration.” I should note that any content from Roadside America used on my site is done so with the written permission of Roadside America. The wonderful thing about their site is that they take hundreds of user submitted photos and details and include them on the site. It is THE Honey Hole of Offbeat Travel!! If you have never visited them, check out their About Page and learn all about the great work that Doug, Ken and Mike have compiled over the years.
The next step in a fine back road trip is finding the unique places. The first stop should ALWAYS be Roadside America. Once on their site, click on the “Maps” link as shown above. You will get to the Roadside America Maps Page as shown below.
Since we are doing a Missouri Trip, you would click on the Missouri part of the Map (or select the state on the left hand list). This will bring up the Roadside America Missouri Page.
On each state page there is a ton of information….best sites, oddities, etc. There is also a small link to the Missouri Offbeat Attractions Map. Click that link and you will get the map below:
Each red pin on the map represents a unique site which you can refer to in conjunction with you Google Map trip plan. There is also an alphabetic list (based on town name) on the left side of the map. For convenience, I have circled the area from St. Louis to Kansas City to provide an idea of how many attractions there are. Bear in mind that these are predominantly the Offbeat Attractions and may not include historical museums and sites, national and state parks, scenic locations, etc.
When you open a state map, you can mouse over a section and double-click and the map will zoom in (it uses Google Maps technology). this will provide you with a closeup view of the area and the related pins. Click on a pin and it will pop up the Offbeat Attraction for that pin. Each attraction also has a “More” link, which, when clicked, will open up the page with details on that specific attraction. There are over 10,000 of these pages on the Roadside America site.
By viewing the attractions page you can find out where it is, see photos of the site, get other visitor’s comments and also see a site rating to let you know if it is “Well Worth the Visit” or just a site that may be of interest.
And, while on the road, you can use the amazing Roadside America app for your iPhone. It even has a GPS locator and will tell you the sites closest to your location on the road. A must have for the back roads offbeat traveler!!
HONING DOWN THE ADVENTURE
Since the St. Louis to Kansas City trip will be a four day round trip, I typically will create a more detailed plan for each day. Since I can get actual addresses of sites along the way from Roadside America, Google and other sites, I can actually plug those into the Google Map directory. So, I will add the numerous sites from day one…initially with the sites from Roadside America. Then I will take my next step, based on those sites, and see if there are other sites of interest along the way, such as scenic views, state or National Parks, etc.
While adding these sites, I also create a document with the names of the places in their order. You can see from the map above that a number of places were selected in the St. Louis area. All of the locations on this map are just from Roadside America. Since Chillicothe will be the end point for the day, I will then fill in the blanks for other interesting sites along the way… As I look at the route, the following towns pop up along the way… St. Charles, St. Peters, Wentzville, Foristell, Wright City, Warrenton, Jonesburg, High Hill, New Florence, Danville, Williamsburg…and many more. I also notice that for a good part of the way I can go down Old U.S. 40 (called Booneslick Rd along part of the way and Old US 40 as well.) To me, this would be my option rather than the interstate, though, at many points it may parallel the interstate. When I hit Danville, it veers away onto some county roads, but returns to Old US 40 in Williamsburg. I will follow these roads until I hit US 54 which heads north at Kingdom City (which is an interesting place to visit by the way!!)
US 54 heads north to Mexico, Missouri, but veers off just south and turns into Missouri 22 before it goes into Mexico. So, basically, all towns along that route are game for my search for interesting places.
GETTING TOWN INFORMATION
Perhaps one of my more unique methods of finding interesting places on the route is by using Google Maps, Google Search, Google Images, Wikipedia and miscellaneous town websites in combination. It is almost like taking a virtual trip before I ever get on the road. And I typically plan to hit more spots than I am actually able, but it really provides for some flexibility and it is fun. Part of the reason for the flexibility is that you never know what you will see along the way that was unplanned.
Since it is halfway on the route, I randomly selected Mexico, Missouri to provide an example of how I go about finding places. I have never been to Mexico and so, as I write this, I have no idea if there is anything of interest in this small central Missouri town. My first step is a Google Search and then I switch over to images, some of which are above. I didn’t really see anything that struck me there, so I went back to Google and found a website for Mexico, Missouri. When I hit that page I immediately discovered that there is a Statue of Liberty in downtown Mexico (see photo below).
There are a few Statues of Liberty dotting the U.S. and it is always fun to capture them. Since Mexico is on the route, this is a definite stop for a photo. On further study of the Mexico website I also learn that it is the “Firebrick Capital of the World,” and that this industry has kept the town alive. They have a Firebrick Museum with memorabilia and other items, as well as a Firebrick walk in the front. This too could be of interest. Being from Lexington, KY, the “Horse Capital of the World”, I also find it interesting that one of the few Horse Museums outside of the Kentucky Horse Park is located in Mexico. It is the American Saddlebred Horse Museum and is the oldest Saddlebred Horse Museum in the nation. This information alone would warrant a stop in Mexico as we pass by on our roundabout trip to Kansas City.
I also have a fascination with Covered Bridges. I have seen dozens of these old monuments to bridge building history, so a stop at the Locust Creek Covered Bridge State Park naturally is on the agenda before I finally hit Chillicothe, Missouri for an overnight stay. By the way, Chillicothe is the “Home of Sliced Bread.”
Of course, I also explore interesting places to eat and scenic drives…and the list goes on and on. Hopefully, this provides a piece of my mind and thought process as I plan my road trips. The planning is almost as fun as the trip itself!!
One of the more unique American traditions along the Less Beaten Paths is the recycling of auto parts for art. Indeed, a couple of the most famous roadside attractions in the US are made from cars. This post will look at a few pieces of “car art” that I have seen over the years and, then, at the end, I will note a few others that are out there and worth a visit from all of us — some that I hope to get to over the next couple of years.
Probably one of the two most famous Car Art pieces that I am aware of, this car shish-kabob called “Spindle” and created by artist Dustin Shuler (1948-2010), became ultra famous after being featured in Wayne’s World. It has also been featured in on the cover of a book (called Oddball Illinois: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places), on postcards, state tourist brochures, and maps. It was originally commissioned by the shopping center owner, David Bermant, who donated his BMW car to be placed second from the top of the sculpture.Shuler himself owned the red 1967 VW Beetle that crowned the sculpture.The foundation of the sculpture reached nearly 30 feet into the ground; the cost of erecting it was over $75,000.
The cars on a spike never did res well with some of the citizens of Berwyn, Illinois, and thus in 1990 they voted overwhelmingly for it to be removed. Nevertheless, the Mayor argued that it drew tourism to town and had become an icon. The owner of Cermak’s Shopping Center argued the same. But, alas, in July 2007, it was announced that the shopping center was to be redeveloped and that the site of the sculpture was earmarked for a new Walgreens store. New controversy ensued and finally, in May of 2008 the structure was taken down.
The impaled cars on the spindle, from top to bottom, were:
1967 Volkswagen Beetle, red
1976 BMW New Class, silver License Plate reads “DAVE”
1981 Ford Escort, blue
1974 or 1973 Mercury Capri, green
1978 Ford Mustang, white over blue
1981 Pontiac Grand Prix, maroon or burgundy
1980 or 1979 Ford LTD, light yellow
1981 or 1979 Mercury Grand Marquis, black
When I was at Cermak’s in 2007 I actually made a video of Spindle along with some of the other art at Cermak’s. Here it is….
Perhaps just as famous is the “Cadillac Ranch” near Amarillo, Texas. Like the “Spindle“, this site has had controversy and has been featured in movies, advertisements, comics, etc. It is most certainly one of the most well known Roadside Attractions in the U.S.
It was created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the art group Ant Farm, and it consists of what were (when originally installed during 1974) either older running used or junk Cadillac automobiles, representing a number of evolutions of the car line from 1949 to 1963, half-buried nose-first in the ground, supposedly at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
The cars have gone through numerous iterations…completely black, completely white, stc., when used for ads and commercials. But, soon thereafter, the tourists with the spray paint cans make their way to make their marks on the cars. So, this ends up being a “stationary attraction” always in a state of change.
Due to the popularity of Cadillac Ranch, there have been a few imitators, none of which I have been to yet, but hope to get to sometime in the near future. These include:
This place even has their own website (see combinecity.com). According to their site, “Combine City began with one Combine Harvester planted in the ground. Over time, that solitary Combine has welcomed 13 more. In total, 14 Combines are planted, standing as a tribute to the great nature of the West Texas farmer.” Unlike Cadillac Ranch and Slug Bug Ranch, Combine City does not allow folks to come in and spray paint.
Indeed, this is not cars…it is Airstreams, but these are a great addition to this collection. These are located at Bates RV in Dover, Florida and have been the subject for many photos in the past. My good friend, the musician Antsy McClain has actually done a photo shoot here for some Trailer Park Troubadours stuff (see below).
Like Cadillac Ranch and Slug Bug Ranch, the Airstream Ranch has not been without controversy. Neighbors have argued that it was unsightly, but, ultimately, the Tourist Attraction and Art Factors won out.
Like the other sites, this attracts tourists from all over and has been used in advertisements, etc.
The historic value of Airstreams in travel always leads to an interest in these aluminum domiciles on wheels. There are rallies all over the country and one can always see them on the road. Indeed, many are happy to be “Living in Aluminum” and following the Aluminum Rule – “Thou Shalt Enjoy the Ride”
Henry’s Rabbit Ranch is one of those iconic Route 66 stops on the back roads of America. Located just west of Interstate 55 in southern Illinois (and a short drive north of St. Louis), it lies along the old Route 66. Along with tons of Route 66 memorabilia, they have a set of buried cars.
As with the others above, there are buried cars, but, in this case the creators of Carhenge tried to emulate the famed Stonehenge of England. They too have their own website, including a history of the Jim Reinders creation. This 1987 piece of Car Art has 38 automobiles and there are other pieces of Car Art on “Car Art Reserve”. Like the locations above, Carhenge has been the subject of numerous commercials and film productions.
All of the locations above are big tourist attractions for the back roads adventurer seeking the offbeat and quirky. But, there are many other smaller pieces of car art and/or “car displays” around the country, many of which I have had the opportunity to see. Here are a few.
The flattened car (called “Pinto Pelt“) is another creation by Spindle artist Dustin Shuler and is also located in Cermak’s Plaza. This too went the way of the world apparently in the reconstruction project in Berwyn’s once famous shopping center.
The Art Car Museum in Houston, Texas is dedicated to true Art Cars, those cars that have had art added to them. According to the “Art Car Manifesto“, “an art car is a motor-driven vehicle which a car artist alters in such a way as to suit his own aesthetic. In other words, the artist either adds or subtracts materials of his own choosing to or from the factory model or he may renovate an earlier model to revive a beauty and style that once was. The result is a vehicle which conveys new meaning through design, mechanical or structural changes, renovation, and/or the addition of new images, symbols or collage elements.”
The Art Car Museum website has a great Photo Gallery of some of the more unique cars featured at the museum. When I visited in 2010 the museum was not open so I didn’t get a chance to get any good car shots. But, along the way I have found a couple on my own…
Some of the more unique pieces utilizing cars as art that I have come across in my travels:
“The Smoke Sax” was built in 1993 by artist Bob Wade of Austin, TX. It is 70 feet tall and is made of an oil field pipe, an upside down Volkswagen Beetle, beer kegs, canoe, hub caps, a surf board and chrome. Until March 2013 this was located at the Horn Bar and Grille on Richmond Avenue in Houston, TX. However, in March 2013 it was disassembled and will be eventually added to the unique folk art center called the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. They also are the sponsor of the Houston Art Car Parade.
Clear across the country in Wolf Creek, Oregon an artist has created two Spider Bugs out of old Volkswagens. Roadside America covered these and, it turns out that these are not the only ones around. There are actually dozens of them. The website Weburbanist has a fine page dedicated to a number of these from around the U.S. including Oklahoma, Idaho, California, Ontario, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and even in the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Heading back eastward one can venture into Kadoka, South Dakota, near the Badlands National Park and see a unique piece of art made from car parts, including a smashed car as a base…
Then there is the old truck with a Giant Potato on it at The Spud Drive-In in Driggs, Idaho
More emulation of Cadillac Ranch can be found at the now closed down Rio Brazos Music Hall in Granbury, Texas
Commerce, Oklahoma, one of those Route 66 touristy towns has used parts of cars for advertising
Then there are the places with Cars on roofs and signs and walls to draw people in:
Big Daddy’s is located in the heart of NASCAR Country in North Carolina. And to prove it they have a number of cars on their roof and on their lot.
The Route 26 Mart in Scottsbluff, Nebraska touts itself as an Americana Convenience Mart and has on old finned Chevy on its roof to pull you in….
The Pioneer Auto Show in Murdo, South Dakota tries to draw you in with advertising some of the unique cars…
Angel’s Diner in McAlester, Oklahoma uses old cars to advertise their 60’s themed restaurant and Happy Days Motel.
Of course, what would a Car Art post be without limos with Longhorns on their hoods??
I have run across a couple of places where cars have been integrated into the buildings. Here is one example from western Oregon:
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the iconic and well known Nash AirFlyte that sits outside of Antique Archaeology in Le Claire, Iowa, better known as the home of the History Channel’s American Pickers.
The only Corvette Factory in the world is in my home state of Kentucky, in Bowling Green. They are also the home of the Corvette Museum and they have a nice one on a pedestal…
Finally, there are all of those old trucks and cars that scatter the landscape in yards and fields around the U.S. These can be seen on back roads and some are obviously used as yard decor…
I have a dozen more of these, but I think you get the “pictures.” So, get out and Enjoy the Ride and be on the watch out for those old vehicles that helped someone else Enjoy the Ride in the past!!!