Want to check out a house in the shape of a shoe? Or a duck? How about a building shaped like a cup of snowball ice? Maybe you prefer a cemetery safari–poking among tombstones, reading inscriptions, taking photo ops. Some places have buried the famous, such as Mother Goose, and some, the infamous, like axe wielding Lizzie Borden. Or maybe you are entranced by the disappearing landscape of the roadside. Old dilapidated barns, run down motels, and most especially, those gorgeous vintage neon signs, flickering one last time.
Well, you are not alone! More and more people are taking themselves off in their car and using the roads less traveled. They’re tired of the super highways in which each exit looks like the one before, and you can’t tell what state you’re in, except the state of confusion. And boredom. So considering this new or should we say, neo-vintage desire to travel for the unusual, the strange, or the nostalgic, what travel books can one look for that caters to these type of places and scenes?
I’ve found that the Weird books, begun by New Jersey residents, Mark and Mark, to be a super sized source for wacky, sometimes downright bizarre locations and roadside attractions. But, here’s the rub–local B&Ns won’t carry out of state Weirds. In other words, if you live in Maryland, they’ll carry that state’s book, but if you are in Michigan and want to travel to Maryland and check out Black Aggie, the haunted tombstone angel, you need it, not your home state. I would love to check out some independents for the titles, but there aren’t any new independent bookstores around anymore. So the inevitable happens–amazon. Sigh. But they have them, in droves, and cheap, if used. And why not buy used? You’ll only destroy it anyway, when folding down particular must sees, or must visits. Underlining towns is the usual way to search for certain places, and naturally, you want an idea of where the private condemned insane asylum resides, that you wouldn’t dream of trespassing upon. (The Marks take no responsibility for idiots who read their books and then decide to break the law)
Within each state’s weirdness, a guest writer pontificates upon various subjects, from ghost stories, to alien tales, to mythical monsters seen. I skip that stuff–what I can’t see, doesn’t exist. I’m out for the roadside oddities, like a giant chair, or acorn, or peanut. Or old style storybook lands, such as there are in NY state and abandoned in NJ. Each state’s book has large page after page of photos and wacky artwork in the background. These books are not meant to be perfect proper guides to museums or historical sites, they’re for the adventure of exploring where the next Muffler Man is hiding, or where the house made out of Union soldiers’ tombstones is.
Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman started with a simple Weird NJ newsletter, which just grew and grew and took on a life of its own. Because as anyone who lives in this state can tell you, weirdness abounds. So much so, that the Marks were compelled to dedicate TWO volumes to the Garden State–and there’s not one garden tour within. They publish the newsletter twice a year, and people send in tips of roadside oddities or ghost stories they’ve come across in their NJ travels. That’s how the transition was made to books, too many tips, not enough newsletters. And of course word spread, and other states wanted to get in on the deal. Hence came NY, PA, MD, NC/SC (not enough weird in SC for their own book), IN, CA, IL, New England-(another seemingly lack of peculiar, except for CT and MA-they are represented seperately.) OH and I believe recently TN made the grade, as well as LA, VA, KY, MI, TX, MN, and not a state per se–unless you include poverty-Las Vegas, and I suppose many more I’m missing. The point being if you are doing the road trip thing, as plenty of us kids did way back, these books show you many spots that will satisfy your craving.
Many, but not all. Another source found is the Oddities series. Less pictures, smaller and paperback, but wittier and better written, if truth be told. And occasionally different strangenesses to see. North Carolina, Curiosities, Roadside Oddities, and other Offbeat Stuff was invaluable to us this recent road trip. Excellent sources, directions, and descriptions are found within. And there are many states represented, just like the Weird books. I’m not certain who published what when, but my gut feeling is the Oddities were first out of the gate, and Weird followed after–but don’t quote me, I’d hate to appear to have dissed the Marks.
Oddities found us a super teeny museum in High Point NC full of old dolls and miniatures–but the best part was discovering an entire mini circus, side show included in doll and figure form. All the animals, clowns, circus performers you could think of, in long cases. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, however there’s bound to be other quaint or bizarro museums for everyone’s taste. A Pencil Sharpener museum for example, or salt and pepper shakers collections. I could go on, but why spoil your fun? The Oddities will also give phone numbers! A major help when trying to decide to go all the way to Cave City’s wax museum, or remain in Rock City walking among stones and gnomes.
And there are other guides not in the typical tourist classifications–Roads Less Traveled, best places for your dog, best food joints, probably even a tour of lighthouses across the nation for all I know. There are coffee table books with sleek lush photos splashed liberally across each page, illustrating the most famous of all odd places. Nice, but the real road trip enthusiast wants to find their own oddity and tell the world. So tips are good, but prettier pictures than what I can produce, just causes depression.
And naturally, besides these hand in fist guides, there is the online wonder called Roadside America. com. Usually they have the same stuff both books offer, but some are updated–for example, if a Muffler Man stood outside a pizza joint, and now it’s been moved to a butcher’s place, someone somewhere will have noticed and inform RoadsideAmerica.com. On the other hand, sometimes no one updates and you’re reading information for a Gingerbread Castle that closed 8 years ago, but since no one updated that info, you still trek to the wilderness to find nothing.
I’ve no data on how well these books sell or if current indie bookstores should carry them all, but from a fellow travelers point of view, a copy of each in a place where a book conscious person could purchase without feeling icky, like I do when I go to amazon, wouldn’t be all that weird or odd a thing to do!
Footnote–top left hand picture is of the Frog Bridge in CT
For anyone interested in seeing pictures from some road trips, here is a good place to start: