America is one of my favourite places to road trip. Along with a plethora of national parks, stunning scenery, buzzing cities and beautiful beaches (and so much more), there’s a fascinating smattering of oddities scattered across the country. Here are my top 10 picks.
Cadillac Ranch – near Amarillo, Texas
Cadillac Ranch is a public art installation in a cow pasture outside Amarillo – it was originally in a wheat field, but was moved
in 1997 as the city expanded. It was created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, part of an art group called Ant Farm. The installation is made up of ten Cadillacs, buried them nose-down in the ground. The classic cars trace the evolution of the tail fin from 1949 to 1964. That may be so, but most people visit to add to the artistic endeavour with spray paint, ensuring the cars evolve as artworks by the hour. One of the cars was set on fire in September, 2019, burning the paint off, but within days visitors had sprayed it back into artistry. The original patron of Cadillac Ranch, Texas millionaire Stanley Marsh 3, now deceased, has other installations in Amarillo, one of which is a collection of odd road signs placed all over the city.
Carhenge – near Alliance, Nebraska
Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge in England, constructed with vintage American cars covered in grey spray paint. Built by Jim Reinders and his family as a memorial to his father – I’m not sure whether mine would appreciate the sentiment – it’s been around since 1987. It was dedicated at the June 1987 summer solstice, of course. It’s made up of 38 vehicles arranged in a circle measuring about 96 feet in diameter. Some of the cars are held upright in pits, boot end down, and the arches have been formed by welding cars on top of cars. The heelstone is a 1962 Cadillac. In addition to the replica of Stonehenge, there are a number of other artworks created from car remnants in the same grassy area, now known as the Car Art Reserve.
Dr. Evermor’s Sculpture Park – Town of Sumpter, Wisconsin
Dr. Evermor’s Sculpture Park contains the work of Tom Every, a former demolition expert who has used scrap metal to create fantastical sculptures. The centrepiece is the Forevertron, purportedly the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, standing tall at 50-feet and 120-feet wide. The sculpture incorporates two Thomas Edison dynamos from the 1880s, lightning rods, high-voltage components from 1920s power plants, scrap from the nearby Badger Army Ammunition Plant, and the decontamination chamber from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. There’s an entire story built around the Forevertron and its inventor – according to Every, Dr. Evermor is a Victorian inventor who designed the Forevertron to launch himself into the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam. The Forevertron alone is worth detouring for, but there are numerous other sculptures in the park. A number of these are birds made partly from musical instruments. They are simply beautiful.
East Jesus – Niland, California
East Jesus used to be a relatively unknown spot in a relatively unknown location, hence the name, which means the middle of nowhere. Behind the town of Niland near the Salton Sea in the Sonoron Desert is Salvation Mountain, another fascinating step outside the norm that should be on your list. Behind that is Slab City, an off-the-grid desert community. Behind that is East Jesus. When I stopped by there was a sign that said Population: 1. That person was Charlie Russell, who left his tech job, packed up his life and created East Jesus, surrounding his two art cars with recycled sculptures. After his death in 2011, a non-profit developed to run and expand the site. It’s more visited than when I swung by a few years back – it now touts itself as “a refuge for artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, scientists, laymen and other wandering geniuses.” Make sure you read the visitation rules before you go, but go you should – the art park is spectacular.
The Enchanted Highway – Gladstone to Regent, North Dakota
The Enchanted Highway is a 32-mile stretch of road that would be mundane if it weren’t for seven enormous scrap metal sculptures, one of which, “Geese in Flight” is currently listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the Largest Scrap Metal Sculpture in the world (Sorry Dr. Evermor.) The sculptures were created by artist Gary Greff, who resides in the tiny town of Regent at the end, or start, of the Enchanted Highway. The sculptures are all on the side of the road, with parking areas that you’ll likely have to yourself, giving you the opportunity to walk around each sculpture and take in the enormity of these artworks. There’s also a gift shop in Regent, and a bonus sculpture next to it – a "whirlygig", which animates at the press of a button. Greff runs a hotel, tavern and steakhouse in Regent called the Enchanted Castle Hotel and Tavern, which is housed in the former high school.
The Garden of Eden – Lucas, Kansas
In 1907, Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, at the age of 62, starting creating his Cabin Home and the Garden of Eden, as both a residence and a source of income. Dinsmoor spent 21 years at work on his sculptural environment, which is in a residential area of Lucas, within walking distance of Main Street businesses and visible from the principal railroad track. He welcomed visitors and led tours of the site while the work was in progress. The unusual home is made from limestone, but it didn’t end there. Dinsmoor used 113 tonnes of cement to build 40-foot tall trees to hold the larger-than-life figures for his sculpture garden, which contains messages about politics, modern civilisation, and the Bible, many with humorous undertones. Dinsmoor also built a mausoleum and entombed his wife within a steel vault there. His own remains rest above hers – in a glass coffin – and the mausoleum is open to adult visitors. Slightly creepy perhaps, to see his mummified, papery remains, but fascinating nonetheless.
The House on the Rock – Spring Green, Wisconsin
This imagination-packed site was initiatied in 1945, when Alex Jordan began building a retreat as awe-inspiring as the view from the rock on which the house would be built. It’s hard to tell whether Jordan was a creator or a collector – perhaps he was both. Many of the items in the house were created there in the style of antiques, but to confuse things, some pieces are actual antiques. It's best to go thinking of the displays as pure entertainment, rather than museum pieces. Inside the mutiple structures, there are numerous mechanically operated music machines, 200 model ship displays, a cantilevered walkway, a 200-foot tall whale-like creature, a pyramid of elephants, one of the world’s largest collections of dollhouses, three theatre organ consoles, a recreation of a 19th-century street, and, wait for it, the world’s largest indoor carousel with 269 animals, 20,000 lights and 183 chandeliers. If you can imagine it, there’s a good chance you’ll find it here. If you're observant, you'll see a connection with Tom Every, too. Be prepared to be overwhelmed. It’s a lot to take in.
The Petrified Wood Park and Museum – Lemmon, South Dakota
The petrified wood park was built between 1930 and1932, under the supervision of Ole S. Quammen, an amateur geologist. The park now fills an entire block of the little downtown area of Lemmon. Amongst its 100-plus petrified items, the park features a wishing well, a waterfall, and a castle, which weighs 300 tonnes and boasts towering spires and turrets. There are also two museums, built of, you guessed it, petrified wood. The larger of the two is circular and has a petrified grass floor, along with petrified logs. Dinosaur claws, bird tracks and fossilised snakes can be seen in the swirls and patterns. If you’ve made it to Lemmon, it’s also worth going to Kokomo Gallery, where artist John Lopez displays his sculptures made from scrap metal and found objects. There are a few of the sculpture scattered around the town as well.
Margaret’s Grocery – Vicksburg, Mississippi
A few miles north of Vicksburg on Old Highway 61 is the remains of a roadside art environment created by Reverend H.D. “Preacher” Dennis. Back in 1985, Revered Dennis proposed to Margaret Rogers and promised he would transform her store into a place of pilgrimage if she married him. She agreed and he lived up to his promise. The Reverend used large cinder blocks painted red, white, pink and yellow and turned the store into a temple that represented his love for Margaret, God and humanity, with messages and proclamations painted on boards. He also transformed an old school bus donated by the City of Vicksburg into his roadside chapel. Margaret died in 2009 and the Reverend followed her in 2012. Since then, the site has declined and the chapel has been removed for preservation, so visit before it disintegrates. With any luck it won't – photographer Suzi Altman, who knew the couple, has made it her mission to preserve Margaret’s Grocery, so hopefully the bus-chapel will return one day.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens is just that – magical. Covering an indoor and outdoor space equivalent to half a city block, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens makes use of mosaic – a lot of mosaic – found objects, recycled and repurposed items, and a shedload of creative genius to form one glittering, captivating creation. In the 1960s, a group of artists and entrepreneurs including Isaiah Zagar began renting derelict storefronts and recreating the South Street neighborhood. In 1991, Zagar started working on the vacant lots located near his studio, constructing a wonderland of cement, bicycle spokes, bottles, ceramic shards and other knick-knacks. In 2004, the owner of the lots discovered Zagar’s installation and decided to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled. Community support ensured this didn’t happen, and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens was born,. It was incorporated as a nonprofit organisation and purchased the property, allowing for more tunnels, grottos and mosaic, with tiled passages weaving over- and across three city lots.