For those of you who may not have committed to memory the complete works of Jane and Michael Stern, here is an interesting factoid. At the same time we wrote the original edition of Roadfood, published in 1978, we also wrote a companion book called Amazing America.
It is a lame title for a book that should have been called “Weird Shit You Can See Along The Road.” It was a different kind of guidebook because it did not lead the reader to big and important sights. Instead, we told you where to see the world’s largest ball of twine (Cawker City, Kansas), a house made entirely of paper, and a coon dog cemetery. Obviously, there were many people who loved this stuff as much as we did because the book was a success and became the inspiration for a lesser known John Travolta movie, directed by Nora Ephron: Michael. This was not about Michael Stern, but about Michael the Archangel (Travolta) who falls from heaven and goes around the USA with a copy of Amazing America looking at weird shit.
Like Mom and Pop cafes on town squares, these types of low-rent roadside oddities have become harder to find over the years. Apparently there was a time in mid-20th century America where you could make a living setting up a museum near a highway that featured something bizarre and allegedly educational. Museum and Educational are rather grand words for these ramshackle dumps where you paid to see a taxidermized jackalope or an outsized paper mache sculpture garden that was an homage to King Kong, Jesus, or a dinosaur, and sometimes all three. To us there was no better way to spend a dollar.
One of the memorable places we discovered in our travels was a site called The Thing. Driving along Interstate 10 in Arizona, you saw an endless series of fading road signs that tantalized the bored motorist with the promise of seeing the scariest discovery of a lifetime. After the umpteenth roadside we were slavering to see The Thing.
The Thing Museum was a ramshackle outfit by the side of the road, located in a place where land was cheap and tumbleweed plentiful. We paid our admission and sauntered in, eager to be both amazed and educated.
The Thing museum was filled with decidedly non-Thing related memorabilia, a collection of stuff that any old desert dweller might have found by the roadside: glass insulation caps, a desiccated lizard, some wood in the shape of something or other. We rushed through the boring displays until we got to The Thing itself.
It turned out that The Thing was a person who lived a while ago, died and wound up wrapped in bandages, like a mummy. But The Thing was not a museum-grade Egyptian mummy. It was neither elegant or mysterious. It was sad: just some anonymous human who came to the end of his life and was made into an educational exhibit.
As we left the The Thing museum Michael and I philosophized on what we had paid a buck to see. Of course the reality of The Thing did not live up to the road sign hype, but then again these things seldom do.
What struck us was that The Thing had once been a person who died and was not claimed by anyone nor buried. The Thing was not scary or awesome or educational. It was poignant and lonely and made us think that there are many Things languishing in Potters Fields or morgues, very few of them winding up in private museums and billed as the scariest thing ever seen.
Michael asked, “I wonder what The Thing would have thought of his fate when he was a boy? Imagine that you are just a normal kid playing catch or growing up pumping gas at the Texaco Station and 50 years later you are swathed in bandages and on display. You no longer have a name, you have now become The Thing instead of Bobby or Sally.”
It is the pathos of these roadside attractions that appealed to us. Unlike Disney World, “The Happiest place on Earth,” the two-bit wonderments felt deliciously desolate and depressing.
It is kind of amazing in this day and age when basically nobody is impressed by anything (except perhaps Kim Kardashian’s ass) that there was a time when a regular Joe would think people would flock to his door to see a two headed pig or the world’s smallest chair or The Last Supper carved on a toothpick.
Maybe this overreaching spirit is still alive in other parts of the world. Michael and I were in England traveling through Cumbria a few years ago when we saw the sign for The Pencil Museum. It was where pencil lead had been mined: a local bragging point. The Pencil Museum was a bunch of pencils on display in glass cases: as boring as anything you could ever see.
When we came to the last case at the entrance we looked up to see a six year old boy with pink cheeks looking ecstatic. “Mummy… Daddy,” he said, clutching his parents’ hands. “If I am a good boy will you buy me a new pencil in the gift shop?” he squealed.
Faith in the less than sensational is sometimes easily restored.