Certain folks were quick to catch on to the Automobile Age's equation of commerce: Anything on the side of the highway is a form of mass communication. If you add products or services to sell, the sum total might just be big profits.
These people were the first on the new roadside scene. They learned, just like in the movies, that if you build it, they will come. Better put, they might come. These pioneers honed their drive-by propaganda skills over the years, crafting advertising carefully concealed as outlandish art.
Others possessed particularly clever schemes and built (and, in some cases, continue to build) something so bold and so different that it was an attraction in itself. They didn't depend on their creation to sell something -- it sold itself and lured in hordes with money to spend.
When communities realized this was the case, they often got in on the act, with local governments authorizing the construction of a work of public art that was excessive in one way or another.
Still others never cared about dollars and cents; they just wanted to make a statement. These people just wanted to build something that would tell everyone, "Yes, we were on the planet Earth for a spell. And we left our mark. There it is, on the side of the road."
Whatever their motives, many people have worked their fingers to the bone creating lasting works of roadside Americana. And a road trip in the United States would lose a coat or two of its luster without their efforts.
Sure, there are picturesque peaks, plunging canyons, wide-open spaces, and resort destinations, but the manufactured spectacle is a nice complement to the traditionally beautiful sights of nature.
In a few instances, a particular roadside landmark has transcended its purpose and origins to become an American icon in the same league as the Empire State Building or the Grand Canyon. People all over the country and, in some cases, all over the world, know of them.
Wall Drug. The Hollywood sign. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. These are all places that mark the end of the rainbow on a road trip, pots of gold next to which you just have to pose for a few photos.
These places are the things of childhood nostalgia. The mental image of the family at Wall Drug is cemented in many a brain right next to the trip to Yellowstone.
Ultimately, the best roadside diversions are the ones that remain etched in your memory from the second you first lay eyes on them. In this article, you'll find some that rise to the top based on longevity, publicity, or just plain originality.
Let's begin our look at roadside landmarks with an import from England: the old London Bridge in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Read about it on the next page.
6. London Bridge: Lake Havasu City, Arizona
After local authorities determined the old London Bridge, built in 1831, was sinking into the Thames River, the crumbling granite went up for auction as plans were drawn for a replacement.
The winning bidder -- Lake Havasu City founder Robert McCulloch -- paid about $2.5 million for the old one, then shipped it to Long Beach, trucked it to Arizona, and rebuilt it over a manufactured lagoon as a tourist attraction. It was rededicated in 1971.
Let's move farther west and take a look at one of L.A.'s famous landmarks -- the Hollywood sign -- on the next page.
5. Hollywood Sign: Hollywood, California
Before it became an icon of impending celebrity to newcomers with stars in their eyes, the Hollywood sign, built in 1923, was a real estate promotion that actually read "Hollywoodland."
The last four letters didn't survive, but the first nine did -- albeit barely. By 1973, the sign was falling apart -- one "O" had toppled down the hill, and an arsonist had set fire to an "L" -- prompting a $250,000 reconstruction.
From Tinseltown to Tinkertown -- one man's expression of what you can create with old bottles and a little handiwork. Check out this roadside attraction on the next page.
4. Tinkertown: Sandia Park, New Mexico
A lifetime of carving and collecting by the late Ross Ward is the bedrock for a sprawling and charmingly eclectic tourist attraction in Sandia Park, New Mexico, just northeast of Albuquerque on Old Route 66.
The museum is surrounded by barricades fashioned from bottles and includes a miniature town -- Tinkertown -- that Ward began carving in the early 1960s. His catchphrase: "I did all this while you were watching TV."
Learn about another man's creation -- The Blue Whale -- in the next section.
3. The Blue Whale: Catoosa, Oklahoma
Hugh Davis originally built this happy beast in the early 1970s as an anniversary present for his wife. The 80-foot smiling cement whale attracted so much attention on Route 66 that it became the showpiece for a reptile zoo and swimming hole operated by Davis until shortly before his death.
The community of Catoosa, Oklahoma, has since rallied around the Blue Whale, refurbishing it and applying thousands of gallons of blue paint in the process.
Check out the unique decorating technique used by the people of the "Corn Capital of the World" on the next page.
2. Mitchell Corn Palace: Mitchell, South Dakota
Mitchell, South Dakota, is "Corn Capital of the World," a designation backed up by this one-of-a-kind community center.
Since 1921, locals have been decorating the outside of the turreted, czarist Russia-style palace with murals each year. But there's a twist: The medium is not paint, but thousands of bushels of corn and other South Dakota grains.
After the annual fall harvest, pigeons devour the palace's second skin, leaving it to wait out the winter in the buff.
Learn about roadside attractions like the Tower Conoco Station on Route 66 on the next page.
1. Tower Conoco Station: Shamrock, Texas
Route 66 is not remembered as simply a conduit between Chicago and Los Angeles but as a passage to the heart of American cool.
With the convertible top down and the sun-soaked beaches of paradise somewhere over the horizon, day-to-day life was temporarily forgotten in the rear-view mirror. Because the road snaked right through the heart of numerous cities and towns, the opportunities for fun were plentiful.
The architectural style and roadside art of Route 66, such as the Tower Conoco Station, are now irrevocably linked to the image of 1950s and 1960s American cool, as all things retro are continually recycled into new and hip.
Now represented by a patchwork of interstates, two-laners, and decrepit stretches of asphalt, old Route 66 doesn't really exist, at least in the eyes of Congress or mapmakers.
But it still exists for the nostalgic tourists -- an unusual mix of bikers, travelers, and RVers -- who stick as close as possible to the roads that were once Route 66 and see the old sights that have withstood the test of time, as well as the ones that haven't.
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.