5 Weirdo Things I Saw While Driving Across America

In August and September, I drove 9000 miles around the United States. This is a big, bizarre place, with a lot of things you can really only see right where I saw them. They all tell their own stories about this weirdo country. Here are some of those things, from roadside attractions to monuments to the Cold War to an iconic warehouse past its prime.


 

The Mitchell Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD

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When you drive across the country, you plan to see some things ahead of time, and other things you just stumble across. The Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota, is something I planned to see. The defining characteristic of the Corn Palace is its corn murals — giant panels that cover its walls, outside and in, depicting various midwestern scenes, composed of twelve different colors of corn. Outside, the murals’ theme changes every year. The 2014 theme is “Remember When,” and so the murals are all devoted to nostalgia for a “simpler” time. Like this mural, of an outhouse.

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Inside, the murals inside attempt to portray a history of collaboration between Native peoples and white settlers, but the whiteness of the locals and tourists visiting seems to suggest otherwise.

You can also buy a lot of things at the Corn Palace. Like this hat:

I did not actually buy this hat; I thought just taking a picture would be enough. I'm still not sure if I was right or wrong.

I did not actually buy this hat; I thought just taking a picture would be enough. I’m still not sure if I was right or wrong.


Minuteman II Missile National Historic Monument

Unlike the Corn Palace, the Minutemen II Missile National Historic Monument was not something I planned to see, but when I saw a brochure for it in a rest stop, I knew I needed to go. The idea of a monument to a weapon of mass destruction makes me slightly nauseous, but it is “the only national park to tell the story of the Cold War,” and I wanted to see how the story is told.

Launch Facility Delta-09 via NPS

Launch Facility Delta-09 via NPS

At the visitors’ center on the eastern edge of Badlands National Park, the very nice ranger offered me a screening of a ten-minute video about the Missile. She even gave me a pencil, so I can take notes. The video is titled, “Partners in Peace.”

“The people of South Dakota never realized they were in a war zone,” says the narrator, referring to the hundreds of nuclear warheads secretly deployed across the Great Plains, armed and ready to be launched across the North Pole at a moment’s notice to destroy the Soviet Union. The Monument is so damn earnest in its insistence that hundreds of missiles with warheads, which were each, “equal to 60% of all the munitions used in WWII,” kept people safe. Peace maintained by the threat of certain destruction seems like a twisted kind of peace to me. The video outdoes itself when a Pete Seeger song, “Little Boxes,” plays at the end. Is it a joke? A jab at the late great Seeger’s socialist politics?

I don’t ask the ranger before I leave.


The Museum of Clean, Pocatello, ID

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When I stayed with Mey in Pocatello, Idaho, she took me to the big sights of the city, prominently featuring Don Aslett’s Museum of Clean. When we arrived, we joined a tour led by none other than multimillionaire vacuum sales mogul, Don Aslett, himself. Aslett took us and the other visitors on the full tour of his expansive collections of vacuums, brooms, mops, toilets and bathtubs, including a collection of cleaning-supplies-sculptures, mostly made by his brother. He kept up vivid commentary throughout, telling us how everything worked and what he’d paid for each artifact. He also shared all kinds of his ideas about gender, like “women design the best houses,” because they have to clean them, though his advice to me was that, “I should find a man who can sweep.”

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Aslett wouldn’t want you go about the rest of your day thinking that the Museum of Clean is just about washing away dirt and dust. He sprinkled the tour with allusions to his ideas about moral and spiritual cleanliness. “Clean is the most important word, after faith,” he told CBS News. I’ll leave you here with the Museum’s mission statement:

“The ultimate mission and vision of the Museum of Clean is to sell the idea and value of clean, to put clean into the minds of all who visit. We want to expand the scope of clean into areas like clean homes, clean minds, clean language, clean community, and a clean world.”

Photo of a Young Don Aslett carrying his toilet briefcase.

Photo of a Young Don Aslett carrying his toilet briefcase.


Craters of the Moon National Monument

LITERALLY the floor is lava!!

LITERALLY the floor is lava!!

Two hours beyond Pocatello, past the nuclear research lab, Craters of the Moon National Monument preserves acres and acres of cooled lava and cave systems sprawled beneath the surface. Mey and I hiked out to Devil’s Orchard, which was one of the most grim National Parks Service trail exhibits I’ve ever seen. Interpretive signs were placed along the trail, telling a cautionary tale of how footprints, pollution, and human presence in general has destroyed many of the geological formations in the lava flows by causing erosion, breakages and oxidation. It basically admonishes you for feeling entitled to be there at all. I thought it was kind of awesome. Most National Parks signage encourages you to consider conservation of the natural world without guilting you for obviously having a role in destroying it. Craters of the Moon told it like it was. I wondered if this sort of interpretive signage is considered off-brand for the National Parks Service.

We told them we didn't have White-nose Bat Syndrome and they let us go into a cave!

We told them we didn’t have White-nose Bat Syndrome and they let us go into a cave!


Lisa Frank’s World Headquarters, Tucson, AZ

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Did you read the article last year about Lisa Frank’s Tucson headquarters? Of course you did. I spent a week in Tucson on this trip, and as almost an afterthought, I decided to see Lisa Frank HQ on my way out of town. It looked how the article described it: hearts, stars and music notes decorating the walls secured behind a fence, the silver unicorn, missing its horn. The building has clearly seen busier days. The parking lot was nearly empty, and 20 truck bays, painted in a rainbow, seemed far too many for whatever goes in and out of the giant building these days. Honestly, I never cared that much about Lisa Frank stuff as a kid. My fascination with this spot has much more to do with the view that this semi-abandoned rainbow-colored warehouse on the fringe of Tucson sprawl gives us of how cultural phenomena rise and fall, both guiding and being guided by the economy.

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Have you been to any of these places? What weirdo things did I miss?

Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. How about global weird places. Such as Mother Shipton’s cave in England, which has a petrifying well and costs too much to visit. You can go see Teddy bears which have turned to stone.

    • I always used to see the brown signs for Mother Shipton’s cave on the way up to uni, but alas never visited. Now I fear it can never live up to the grandiose weirdness it conjures in my imagination.

      I think my favourite weird English tourist destination in recent years is the Shell Grotto in Margate. It has the elegant external appearance of a whitewashed concrete hut:

      But inside is a mini-labyrinth of shell-encrusted corridors, the interpretation of which is left to the visitor. Obviously, I chose to interpret most of them as vulvas:

      However, my favourite part of the experience is this snippet of a travel account by a Victorian novelist, which is surely the definition of a back-handed compliment:

      • Amazing! Good old Margate, I think my Grandfather’s family hail from that direction. And no the cave doesn’t live up to the hype or the ticket price, it is pretty weird though and an impressive natural phenomenon. The area around it is beautiful and the view of sunset from the castle is stunning…and free!

  2. I LOVE ironically awesome-awful tourist destinations! I’ve been to a number of head-scratchers but the one that immediately comes to mind for me is “The House on the Rock” in (Iforgot), Wisconsin, which I visited about 10 years ago. Its weirdness took me completely off-guard because it’s legitimately advertised regionally…Anyway, it’s this *house* on a *rock* designed by a famous architect. But the weirdness factor is this massive, creepy museum that has nothing to do with the house that they tacked onto it and continue to expand so that it goes on for miles. Took us several hours to walk through.

    • It’s featured in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; if I ever go on a cross country trip I want to stop there. Good to know it’s as strange as it sounded. Did you see the carousel?

  3. isn’t craters of the moon amazing?? what a strange and incredible place and no one seems to know about it!
    a ranger friend described it as a little piece of Hawaii in idaho & he nailed it.

    also awesome if you’re into crazy volcanic landscapes is lava beds national monument in California… tucked just under the oregon border – crazy lava tubes you can explore all day- be sure to bring a hard hat!

  4. I also loved the Corn Palace and the Minuteman Missile Silo! South Dakota really is the finest tourist destination in the US. See also: Wall Drug, Deadwood. Not so keen on Mount Rushmore.

    • Yes, I LOVED South Dakota. I went to Wall Drug, because how could you possibly not after driving past their billboards for hundreds of miles, but I was only there for about a minute before I got too overwhelmed to even buy a snack.

      Also saw: the Badlands. Amazing. Skipped Mount Rushmore.

  5. If you are ever in Wilmington, NC, you must check out the Cape Fear Serpentarium. Not only is it full of awesome snakes, but the director is one of those chem trail conspiracy theorists. There is an absolutely HUGE mural in the lobby full of pictures and theories about how the government is trying to kill us through chem trails. It’s… completely irrelevant to the snakes. But fascinating.

    Also, the descriptive signs in the place give lots of good information about the critters, especially when it comes to the effects of various snakes’ venom. We are talking EXTREME detail here. It was weird. You should go.

  6. I haven’t been to any of these places(though I have been to Arizona), but I did see The Mitchell Corn Palace on the Colbert Report last year if I am not mistaken and it seems like an interesting place to take a short visit. On a side note the bit was interesting as it talked about the corn drought causing some issue for the murals.

  7. YES! THIS!

    I did a road trip from San Diego to Conneticut when I was 18 with a 28 year old so-cal guy (long story). We spent a night in Vegas, camped under bleachers and down by the missouri, tripped at Big Sur…but the best part was all this stuff in the middle. I saw the world’s largest pecan, and a museum with the longest ever museum name including the word ‘prehistoric’ and ‘monument’…and it was a garden full of papier mache dinosaurs.

    I try to describe this stuff to people I just can’t do it justice. Now I’ll just show them this post.

  8. Also the city hall in Denton TX has a whole exhibition of famous figures made from pecan shells by the most amazing guy. He died, and his wife (I think?) donated his art to the city hall. There are celebrities and superheroes and politicians and more. My heart nearly burst.

  9. These places sound awesome! And your trip, too!

    Over on the East Coast: Foamhenge in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It’s essentially a replication of Stonehenge but made out of foam. Apparently, the pieces are assembled and are “astronomically correct.” I am still unsure what this means.

    I’m also quite partial to the International Museum of Cryptozoology in Portland, Maine. It’s dedicated to hidden or unknown creatures – essentially, it’s a museum about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and yetis. Also tiny, also weird.

    Last shout-out goes to the Unclaimed Baggage Store in Scottsboro, Alabama. Feels like a giant thrift store, but it’s all the remnants of people who leave their baggage behind at airports. Baggage remnants, not people ones.

  10. Ooh, I want to visit the Craters of the Moon so badly. Along with pretty much every national park or national monument. If I won a large sum of money, I’d probably plan a giant national park road trip around the entire continent. Also I feel like the museum of clean would make my life complete. And the Lisa Frank headquarters looks so bizarrely cool and eerily beautiful.

    My cross-country road trip story:
    Remember when northern Colorado had the flooding disaster back in September of 2013? That’s when I had the genius idea to pack up all my worldly possessions, cram them into tiny car, and make the spontaneous move from Boulder to Seattle. At 10:00 pm. They were issuing warnings all over the radio as I left. I think I should get a trophy for most miles covered in a single rainstorm. And that’s saying a lot, considering I grew up in Washington. Needless to say, I didn’t see much other than rainy darkness until Salt Lake city.

    Once in eastern Washington, I stumbled past the Zillah teapot gas station, which was kind of cool. Zillah is a weird little town. There’s also a Church of God there. (Get it? – Church of God, Zillah. Though I guess the name isn’t as bad as Boring, Oregon.)

    Anyway, if anybody is ever road-tripping Seattle, I’d recommend seeing the Fremont Troll. Fremont in general, actually. And also in 2015 there is apparently going to be a cat cafe (!) (http://www.seattlemeowtropolitan.com )…But I digress.

  11. I dunno if you’d call Battleship Park in Mobile Alabama weirdo or not but their website is undoubtedly weird.

    http://www.ussalabama.com/about.php

    Smiling familes shopped into pictures of a war memorial park just creeps me out y’all.

    The weirdness IRL on site would be all the tanks and other war machines chilling in a field next to a practically a canal where a south dakota class battleship is permanently anchored. Oh and the submarine on custom made cement blocks.
    It should be solemn and inspiring but it’s just strange.

    In New Orleans,or just the whole state of Louisiana really, there’s too much weird to comprehensively list or quickly rattle off.
    All the kinds of weird exist here.

  12. First off, I would just like to say that Craters of the Moon is *still technically active*- they’re expecting it’ll probably erupt in the next 100 years or so, based off its past eruptive cycle.

    As for my favorite odd place, nothing beats the Channeled Scablands in Eastern Washington- it’s the result of catastrophic megafloods after the ice dam on Glacial Lake Missoula failed and sent a wall of water 800 feet high move with the force of a firehose coursing over the landscape. The terrain is unreal, especially if viewed from air.

    Also, the Titan II Missile Silo Museum outside of Pima, AZ is similarily disturbing to the Minuteman one.

  13. I’ve been to the Craters of the Moon National Monument! I was staying in Pocatello for a choir festival and that was a daytrip. Its such a strange place that I didn’t remember the name of until reading this, just had vague memories of wandering through a bunch of awesome black rocks all day. Sadly enough, the Museum of Clean was not on the itinerary.

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