Roadside Kitsch

They are vestiges of simpler times, those long-ago days before theme parks when sweaty parents packed their sweaty kids into the family station wagon and headed out in search of something--anything--to entertain them. They dot the landscape from coast to coast, tacky, cheesy, weird and oh so very cool. They are America's roadside attractions, and decades after the Interstates passed them by, they are buzzing once again with hordes of curious vacationers.

The economy's shakier than an old wooden roller coaster but gas prices are steady and the combination has millions of Americans out on the road, looking for kicks and falling prey to billboards touting giant alligators, mysterious caverns and creepy ghost towns. A few bucks or even less gets you in, and if the 'gator's not as big as you expected or the cave's not as deep, just keep driving. The next big thing's just down the road.


No trip to Cawker City, Kans., is complete without a visit to The World's Largest Ball of Twine. Made from nearly 7 million feet of sisal twine, the ball weighs more than17,320 pounds with a 40-foot circumference. It was started by Frank Stoeber in 1953 and is still growing. Visitors can bring their own twine and add it to the ball, though new pieces are pushed into the center to maintain the ball's authentic look and feel. They don't keep official track of visitors, but caretaker Linda Clover says there has been a noticeable increase in the number of curious visitors. "We call it unique, but we know it's odd," says Clover, who has pondered the mysterious appeal of the ball. "I think it's something that makes people think of simpler times and nostalgia. We just appeal to human nature, we don't really know why."


Built in 1882 by James T. Lafferty, who patented his design, Lucy the elephant building is to Margate, N.J., what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Made of hand-shaped wood and tin, Lucy is 65 feet tall and weighs 90 tons. Adults pay $4 (kids $3) to wander through its pink rooms and take in the view from the enormous pavilion on its back. The operators say attendance is up 40 percent this summer over last. Lucy fell into disrepair in the 1960s and was almost destroyed. Thanks to a successful "Save Lucy" campaign by locals, she was restored and designated a historic landmark.


The Skowhegan Indian has loomed over Skowhegan, Maine, since 1969, when he was erected to honor the state's Native Americans in conjunction with Maine's 150th anniversary. Commonly referred to as "the world's tallest Indian," he's 62 feet high, is made of white pine and weighs 24,000 pounds. Like Lucy, the Skowhegan Indian fell on hard times, becoming a home to raccoons and other wildlife, and now needs about $20,000 in repairs. Thanks to this summer's influx of visitors, donations to the Chamber of Commerce's "Save the Indian" fund are pouring in.