How American Landmarks Show What This Country Really Stands For
Vacations are wonderful, but these quirky roadside attractions prove that getting there is often half the fun.
My husband and I were driving down I-65, still in Tennessee but near the Alabama border, when a statue of a giant chicken caught my eye. It was standing in front of a truck stop near Elkton. I am grateful to be married to a man who will instantly pull off the highway when someone says, “Hey, let’s take a selfie with that chicken!”
That particular chicken is an advertisement for the Shady Lawn Truck Stop’s fried-chicken plate. It is wearing a chef’s hat. Its wings hold a giant fork and a giant carving knife underneath them. The combination makes for a troubling message: chicken as both dinner and diner. It is also covered with graffiti, mostly people’s names but also an exhortation to “Read More.” Unlike the existential conflict at the heart of the chicken’s identity, that’s a message I had no trouble decoding.
Between Nashville and the Alabama Gulf Coast, where my husband and I were heading, there are quite a few unusual roadside attractions. An actual NASA Saturn rocket, all 168 feet of it, is posed as if for blastoff at the Alabama welcome center near Ardmore. The Ave Maria Grotto, where a Benedictine monk built 125 miniature replicas of famous buildings, religious sites, and shrines—all made in part from found objects such as cold cream jars and toilet floaters—occupies a four-acre park in Cullman.
Fifty-five miles south of this “Jerusalem in miniature,” in Birmingham, the cosmology goes back even further. Rising above the city is a mammoth statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge. It is the world’s largest cast-iron statue, but during the years when I was growing up there, its fame lay primarily in its peculiar attire: Vulcan is wearing nothing but a blacksmith’s apron and knee-high sandals, and his bare buttocks shine a moon right at the adjacent city of Homewood.
Perhaps because that image is still fresh in mind by the time drivers on I-65 reach Chilton County, center of the Alabama peach-growing region, it’s hard not to see a connection between Birmingham’s famous landmark and Chilton County’s water tower, which was built in the shape of an authentically cleft peach.
Ten miles down the road, as if to punish such thoughts, there’s a billboard directing motorists to “GO TO CHURCH or the Devil Will Get You!” that graced the interstate near Prattville for many decades before a storm knocked it down in 2016. In 2017, heavy rains kept the surrounding soil too wet for the necessary repairs. “The devil is trying to knock it all down, but we’re going to get it back up,” the son of the Montgomery man who first erected the billboard told a reporter. Satan apparently lost the battle last year: The sign is now back in place, the original red-tailed devil intact. And the monstrous red scythe the devil is holding could surely take even the Elkton chicken’s carving knife in a fight.
Nearby Montgomery boasts the World’s Largest Brick Made of Bricks. We didn’t stop to see it, but we did stop for five more giant chickens—some metal, some concrete—that were standing in front of various small-town establishments off the interstate.
These are some of the roadside highlights along one stretch of one highway, mind you. The peach-shaped water tower in Chilton County is half the size of the Peachoid in Gaffney, South Carolina. The giant chicken outside Elkton has nothing on the World’s Largest Prairie Dog in Cactus Flat, South Dakota. I know because we stopped to see the prairie dog in 2006. We also stopped in Collinsville, Illinois, to see the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle. Both stops occurred on the way to Mount Rushmore, which my husband still calls “The World’s Largest Carving of Presidential Heads.” Check out these must-see sights you can only see on Route 66.
All across the country stand an uncountable number of homespun reminders that American ingenuity and wit have not yet been Walmartized out of existence. Think of Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska, a replica of Stonehenge made entirely of vintage automobiles. Think of Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho, a bed-and-breakfast that doubles as the World’s Largest Beagle. Think of the 13-foot-tall peanut smiling with Jimmy Carter–style teeth outside of Plains, Georgia; the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, claimed by Cawker City, Kansas; or Lenny, the World’s Only Life-Size Chocolate Moose, in Scarborough, Maine. Every state has them. Virtually every road in the country is the site of at least one.
They are most visible on leisurely summer road trips, when a detour to take a selfie with a chicken or to snicker at a 112-year-old statue’s bare butt won’t make anyone late for the cranberry relish or the Easter ham, but they are always there.
Often meant to be advertisements for local enterprises, they are inevitably much more than the mercantile economy requires. They are also evidence that human imagination will always resist homogenization, that daring art isn’t found only in galleries and museums, that wit and wile are everywhere among us. When interstate exits are marked by the instantly recognizable icons of a dozen fast-food restaurants and gas stations supplied by the same multinational oil companies, the giant roadside chickens will always remind us who we are. Next, read up on the strangest roadside attraction in every state.