Books I've Read / Random Musings

Roadside Kitsch

I love a good road trip. The feel of the open road. The freedom to decide where you want to go, whenever you want to go there. The anticipation of a destination hours ahead of you and the adventures that await between you and it. The cheesy car games. Bad country music. (Or good, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing)

All of it. The whole road trip package. I love it.

Or. I did. Before I had kids. But that’s a post for a Monday.

I recently read the memoir States of Confusion: My 19,000-Mile Detour to Find Direction by Paul Jury.


In it Jury embarks on a mission: Drive through all 48 contiguous states in 48 days. When I first read that, I thought, “Impossible!” A day a state? How could it be done? But with some creative navigating, it’s definitely possible (so long as you have a reliable vehicle and enough money for gas…but that’s not the point). I mean, you really only have to visit a small part of a state to be IN it. You don’t necessarily have to drive through the entire thing. Of course, if you only visit the very tip of say, Iowa, are you really witnessing all the state has to offer? Or is one road just like the next and the next and the next? Only with different colored license plates and varying speed limit regulations.

That’s part of the fun of this story, and some of the questions Jury has to answer along the way. Is every adventure epic?

I completely related to Jury’s life view in the book. From the dates listed, I suspect we are the same age. In fact, I was starting my own “road trip” around the same time. Ironically, my big Life Changing Moment was moving to Chicago (you’ll understand the irony if you read the book).

But what I thought was missing, and mainly for my own enjoyment purposes because it’s not the point of the book, was road side kitsch. What’s a good road trip without it? Mystery spots, biggest ball of (fill in the blank), gift shops offering nothing but sea shells. That’s the good stuff. It got me to thinking of some of my own favorite road side spots.

1.) Mars Cheese Castle–Kenosha, WI

My husband’s family lives in Minnesota. Before I met him, I dated someone who had family in Milwaukee. Needless to say, I’ve driven the stretch of I-94 between Milwaukee and Chicago more times than I can count. When you see THIS sign greeting you from the highway, you HAVE TO stop. It’s like, a rule or something. Of life.

Image by Beige Alert (Michael Pereckas) on Flickr


Inside Mars Cheese Castle you’ll find an array of freshly made Wisconsin cheese and other dairy products (including cheese curds, which are also a road trip rule if you’re driving through Wisconsin), sausages, fruit, crackers, cakes, cookies, and sandwiches. But the best part is probably the gift shop. Where kitsch lives. Salt and pepper shakers shaped like cow udders? Yes, please!

These are udderly amazing! No kitchen is complete without them.

2.) Mystery Spot–St. Ignace, MI

Anyone who grew up in Michigan will tell you the thing to do on weekends is go “Up North”. Always. It’s never a question. Come Memorial Day, or Labor Day, or Friday, really, we went Up North.  Luckily for my family, my grandparents lived Up North. They owned a little motel in St. Ignace (gateway to Mackinac Island…and don’t you dare pronounce that “c” at the end). On the way we passed another sign which beckoned travelers from the road.

Image by Cjayn650 on Photobucket

Oh the pain my siblings and I must have been to my parents! Because they didn’t really believe in the same Rules of the Road that we did. Like I said, now that I have kids, I understand. But there was a point in my life where I thought, “If you see a sign advertising a Mystery Spot, you go.”

The fun (fun, fun) of the Mystery Spot, besides tourist trap kitschy souvenirs, is the super-magnetized, gravity-defying-ness of it. There are several Mystery Spots scattered throughout the country. The legend of the St. Ignace Mystery Spot (from its website) goes like this:

“In the early 1950’s, 3 surveyors named Clarence, Fred and McCray came from California to explore the Upper Peninsula.  They stumbled across an area of land where their surveying equipment didn’t seem to work properly.  For instance, no matter how many times they tried to level their tripod, through the use of a plum-bob or level, the plum-bob would always be drawn far to the east, even as the level was reading level.  As they continued their research of this land, they noticed a constant feeling of being light-headed.  Later, realizing their queasiness and problems with the surveying equipment only occurred in an area about 300 feet in diameter, they felt they had discovered a “Mystery Spot”.

Millions have visited they Mystery Spot and many return year after year to experience the unusual sensations that occur within its boundaries.”

Oooh. Balance is all out of whack. Cool. (Image by Betsy Weber on Flickr)

Visitors can climb a wall and not fall, or sit a chair with its back legs resting on a beam, but not the front legs. A-Mazing! And totally necessary if you are even a little bit adventurous.

3.) Giant Uniroyal Tire–Allen Park, MI

Along I-94 in Michigan, near the Metro Airport, is the Giant Uniroyal Tire. You can’t miss it. It’s not so much a tourist attraction, since I don’t know if you can actually go inside, as it is a roadside icon.

Giant Uniroyal Tire

The Giant Tire is roadside fair at its finest. (Image by Betsy Weber on Flickr)

The history books (or a PDF from Uniroyal) state the tire was originally created as a Ferris wheel for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in New York City. After completing its Ferris-y destiny, the wheel was relocated to Allen Park, MI. It’s received a few face lifts over the years, but it’s still there, turning heads every day.


Someday, so long as my children cooperate, I’d love to take a kitschy road trip and visit other destinations of man-made and natural wonder. What are your favorite road side attractions?

5 thoughts on “Roadside Kitsch

  1. The Mystery Spot reminds me of this one section of the Animatrix (yes, seriously). It’s a glitchy spot where things in the Matrix are all screwy. Wonder if they referenced the Spots or not? Anyway, you’ve seen some interesting places. I’ve driven from California to Houston, Texas at least five times now, and there aren’t nearly as many awesome, unique place, though there are some great pit-stops and even better dust devils in New Mexico. Haha.

  2. The Blue Hole in Ohio and Seashell City “Up North”. I tortured a few kids now & then by dragging them in.
    The best “kitschy” thing i’ve done is make your brother walk in the parade with me at Universal Studios as a balloon handler. Got the pictures to prove it. He hates doing “tourist” stuff…go figure!
    Love you.

  3. Clark’s Trading Post in North Woodstock, New Hampshire. That place has been around forever! My parents took pictures of me there while I was still in diapers, and I have a picture of my daughter there from 28 years ago when she was a 3 yr old. And I’m sure that my grand children will also visit there. Clark’s now has a website, and while that shouldn’t seem amazing to me, it still is…

    Thanks for the fun post! 🙂

  4. Used to drive by the giant tire on my way to the airport growing up. I forgot about it, but we used to watch for it as kids 🙂

  5. I’m a total sucker for all things roadside! I even created a “Roadside” pinboard on my DFD Pinterest page…sad, sad. But it’s just so irresistably fascinating! A snapshot in time…and it’s funny to see how so many “Muffer Men” and “Paul Bunyan” statues evolve over the decades, taking on new roles when implements in their weird concrete hands are changed (one hand facing up, the other facing down – the possibilities are ENDLESS!). ;-D

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s