If all had gone according to plan, about now Rich and I would have been leaving Albania replete with amusing anecdotes, zingy photos, and shqeto soup from the Lunxheri region of Gjirokaster. Instead, we’re in my home region of California for the next few weeks, possibly months, to support family during a difficult time. And we are happy — honored — to be able to do it. But every once in a while I catch Rich gazing wistfully at his suitcase or a map he’s putting away in a drawer, and I get to thinking about smaller, closer-to-home adventures we might be able to squeeze in while we're here.
It turns out that my home state is peculiarly rich in goofy roadside attractions. Some don’t actually seem worth going very far out of our way to see: the World’s Largest Raisin Box at the Sun-Maid store, for instance, or Glass Beach, whose “pebbles” are a relic of days when the city threw its bottles and other trash into the sea, or Toad Hollow, a series of underpasses constructed by the city of Davis in a well-intentioned but dubiously successful effort to ensure the local toad population could cross safely under a new six-lane highway to reach their favorite wetlands. There is, of course, a Bigfoot Discovery Museum which explores the really important questions, like whether Bigfoot is paranormal and what UFOs have to do with it all.
Some “attractions” are little more than clever marketing. Weed City (motto: “Weed like to welcome you!”) was a fading lumber town until entrepreneurial spirits realized Americans would drive miles out of their way to take a selfie against the backdrop of a town sign that apparently referenced marijuana. Other sites have a bit more to offer, but clearly aren’t for everybody. Bumpass Hell (yes, named for a Mr. Bumpass who discovered it) is a 16-acre geothermal quagmire of boiling springs, oozing mud pots, hissing steam vents, and slits in the ground belching sulfurous gas. To me, that sounds about as much fun as visiting the real Hades, but if you decide to give it a go, I want a full report.
Family fun can be found at events such as Gilroy’s famous Garlic Festival, held the last weekend in July. “Pyro chefs” prepare garlic-laden dishes of every variety over vast, roaring fires, and if you need to refresh your palate afterwards, try the free garlic ice cream. There are a few “vampire friendly” (non-garlic) dishes on offer, but why bother?
Another place I’ve heard about forever but never visited is Esalen, where everybody (including my mother) went to find themselves in the seventies, jumping into New Age workshops and the famous clothing-optional hot tubs (which my mother allegedly skipped). Today the consciousness-raising courses continue, with subjects such as EcoMeditation, Visionseeker: the Shaman's Path to Illumination, and Navel Intelligence: a Journey into the Core of You. I feel more enlightened just reading about this stuff, don’t you?
California may be a hotbed of offbeat destinations, but it’s not the only state with offerings designed to make you blink. America’s love affair with highway travel gave rise to Nebraska’s Carhenge, a reproduction of Stonehenge constructed (you guessed it) out of automobiles and trucks. In Texas, an art installation called Cadillac Ranch features a long line of cars buried nose-first in the dirt at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Adding your own graffiti to the Cadillac Ranch installation is encouraged; amazingly, it's totally frowned on at the Great Pyramid. Go figure. And if you're anywhere around Detroit (known to its friends as the Motor City or Motown), you might want to swing by the airport for a glimpse of the World’s Largest Tire, a 12-ton, 80-foot-tall monster that began life as a Ferris wheel promoting Uniroyal at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
I’m not sure I’ll be driving 2,380 miles to Motown to gawk at the World’s Largest Tire, or even 94 miles to the Bigfoot Discovery Museum. But I greatly appreciate all the zany cultural artifacts this country has to offer, many of which are close enough to visit on a day trip or weekend if I need a quick getaway. I may not be able to sample Albanian shqeto soup right now, but then again, how many Albanians get to eat garlic ice cream?
Have you visited any offbeat roadside attractions? Tell me all!
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind. All roadside attractions, goods, and services mentioned in my blog posts are included solely because I believe you might find them interesting and/or useful in planning your own adventures.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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