International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
There is a sense of humour around every corner when you are driving in America. How else to explain those wacky, way-out-in-left-field roadside attractions you will stumble upon? Muffler men, mystery spots and antigravity hills are just the beginning. Here are our top 10 favourite offbeat spots.
1. Roswell, New Mexico: If you believe "The Truth is Out There", then the Roswell Incident is already filed away in your memory banks. In 1947, a mysterious object crashed at a nearby ranch. No one would have lost any sleep over it, but the military made a big to-do of hushing it up, and for a lot of people, that sealed it: the aliens had landed! International curiosity and local ingenuity have transformed the city into a quirky extraterrestrial-wannabe zone. Bulbous white heads glow atop the downtown street lamps.
Believers and kitsch-seekers should check out the International UFO Museum and Research Center (www.roswellufomuseum.com), which displays documents supporting the cover-up as well as lots of far-out art and exhibitions. The annual Roswell UFO Festival (www.roswellufofestival.com) beams down over the Fourth of July, with an otherworldly costume parade, guest speakers, workshops and concerts.
2. Salton Sea, California: California's largest lake in the middle of its biggest desert is an unexpected sight. After the Colorado River flooded in 1905, it took 1,500 workers and half a million tons of rock to put the river back on course. With no natural outlet, the artificial Salton Sea (www.saltonsea.ca.gov/) is here to stay. Its surface is 220ft below sea level and its waters 30% saltier than the Pacific.
Another unusual sight near the lake's eastern shore is Salvation Mountain (www.salvationmountain.us), a 100ft-high hill of concrete and hand-mixed adobe, covered with acrylic paint. With the motto "God Never Fails", it is the vision of folk artist Leonard Knight. Turn off Hwy 111 at Niland, drive east on Beal Road and you cannot miss it.
3. Cadillac Ranch, Texas: In 1974 the late, local eccentric millionaire Stanley Marsh planted 10 Cadillacs (vintage 1949 to 1963) headlights down in a deserted stretch of dirt outside Amarillo - and then moved them further out in 1997 because of town encroachment. The reason? He said he constructed what has come to be known as Cadillac Ranch (I-40 between exits 60 & 62) in a salute to Route 66, using cars he considered to represent the golden age of car travel. The accepted practice today is to leave your own mark on the art by drawing on the cars. Bring spray paint in case other visitors have not left any around. Occasionally the cars get a makeover, like when they were all painted pink in honour of breast-cancer awareness. To get here, park along the south feeder road, a couple of miles west of Loop 335, and walk the well-worn path.
The ground ̉around here seems to be fertile for growing cars - 18 miles east of Amarillo in Conway, there are five stripped-down VW bugs sprouting on Bug Ranch (Hwy 207 access road). The story goes that in 2002 the owners of a now-defunct convenience-souvenir store at the highway interchange wanted to attract customers, so they built the roadside attraction in parody of the classic Cadillac Ranch. It did not save the store, and the family has moved off, but the slug bugs in the dirt do attract attention. Again, feel free to leave your spray-painted signature. Both sights are visible from the 1-40 and accessible 24/7.
4. World's Largest Ball of Twine, Minnesota: There is much ado about which ball of twine actually holds the record these days. But why not pay your respects to the original that started all the fuss? Behold the World's Largest Ball of Twine in Darwin (www.darwintwineball.com), 62 miles west of Minneapolis on US 12. To be specific, it is the "Largest Built by One Person" - Francis A Johnson wrapped the 17,400lb whopper on his farm over the course of 29 years. Gawk at it in the town gazebo. Better yet, visit the museum beside it and buy your own twine ball starter kit in the gift shop.
5. Wall Drug, South Dakota: A tourist trap par excellence, this drugstore in South Dakota is famous for its roadside billboards that start advertising "free ice water" several states away, but it is a surprisingly worthy stop. They really do have 5 cent coffee, free ice water and enough diversions and come-ons to warm the heart of schlock-lovers everywhere. Do not miss the animatronic dinosaurs (www.walldrug.com).