As you squint through the windscreen, the freeway emerges from a heat haze in the lonely heart of the Nevada desert. Amid miles of featureless landscape, a single cottonwood tree suddenly looms. But you do a double take: Instead of flowers, thousands of shoes bloom from the branches. This is no mirage: This is the Shoe Tree, one of America’s strangest roadside attractions.
Arresting roadside oddities have been around for more than a century, the catalyst for their creation the ever-decreasing attention span of the average motorist.
Since the days of Henry Ford, cars and their occupants have hurtled by at increasing velocity. To sell their wares, many highway retailers created giant architectural follies to evoke the goods sold inside: teahouses were represented by giant teapots, hot dog stands resembled hot dogs, Muffler Men held mufflers … it all made a weird kind of sense.
But what do a ball of string, an avenue of birdhouses, or a cement troll have to sell? It turns out that some of the most unfathomable roadside attractions are also the most fascinating.
“The roadside is perfect for artists because there’s a built-in audience in the passing traffic,” says Steve Badanes, Seattle artist and sculptor of the Fremont Troll, an underpass ogre that has become a local landmark in the Emerald City. “Passengers are taken by surprise. They were not intending to come and look at art. There’s always something going on at the Fremont Troll … tourists taking photos, rappers making videos … it has a life of its own.”
While not many people would be tempted to drive four hours to visit the second largest ball of twine — as Clark Griswold (a.k.a. Chevy Chase) did in the film "National Lampoon’s Vacation" — any long-distance driver can attest that after hours at the wheel, twine of any size becomes a strangely appealing diversion.
And hokey charm is certainly an appeal of roadside attractions.
In spite of its ugliness, for example, there’s something strangely sweet about the Big Blue Bug in Rhode Island. Other quirky pit stops, on the other hand, are all about size.
“We’re all attracted to the world’s biggest stuff…it’s a childlike fascination,” says Badanes. “I mean, who would drive across the country to see the world’s smallest anything?”