The roadside attractions worth stopping for
Words by Alli Patton
The South is dotted with roadside attractions—pit stops, tourist traps, head-turning monuments erected in honor of all things odd.
Glimpses of these man-made landmarks—as they dance by smudged windows and restless eyes—may paint the South as an unusual place to those just passing through. And it is, but there is magic in the madness.
These attractions are not necessarily destinations in themselves, but they have created a topography all their own—a road map to a place meant to be discovered: the weird and wonderful South.
Running through the belly of the coastal South is I-95, an immense interstate that snakes from Florida to Canada, along the way revealing one oddity after another.
Beginning in Florida, wonders abound in the form of kitschy mini-golf courses and airbrush T-shirt stands. But the Sunshine State holds even more treasures as unkept secrets, keeping visitors coming back again and again. You can drink from Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth hidden in St. Augustine’s Spanish colonial fortresses, or hunt for the Bigfoot of the Everglades at Ochopee’s Skunk Ape Research Headquarters.
Further north, just off the interstate in Bowman, South Carolina, resides the UFO Welcome Center where, no matter what galaxy you’re from, you’ll meet Southern hospitality in action. A stacked flying saucer, 46 feet in diameter and near dilapidation, may look abandoned to the untrained eye, but it is a rest stop for humans and aliens alike.
Continuing along I-95 into North Carolina, the state houses all the creature comforts on a monstrous scale. From the World's Largest Chest of Drawers, towering over High Point at 38 feet tall, to the World's Largest Duncan Phyfe Chair taking up 30 feet of air space in Thomasville, you’ll feel right at home.
Just farther north a ways up the interstate, Virginia fills the belly and feeds the soul. There, you’ll encounter the World's Oldest Edible Ham in Smithfield. Cured in 1902, the ham is currently celebrating its 121st year, hanging out in the Isle of Wight County Museum next to the world’s oldest peanut. In Centreville, you can also whet your appetite for history and behold Foamhenge, a full-size styrofoam replica of the monolithic English ruins that have inspired awe for generations.
From there, heading southwest to I-64, a misty West Virginia appears, hiding mysteries among the pines. From mummies to mothmen, the state pays homage to both, providing comfort in the unexplainable. Thanks to Philippi’s very own farmer-turned-Dr. Frankenstein, two mummified female cadavers can be seen on display in the Barbour County Historical Museum. A winged statue has also been erected in honor of the region’s famed cryptid, the red-eyed half-human, half-insect Mothman of Point Pleasant.
Then across to Kentucky, the heart of Appalachia—a place often shrouded in a kind of backwoods mysticism—harbors its fair share of curiosities. Like the skulls of Lexington’s Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum—teeth exposed in an eternal grin—and the inescapable smirks from every corner of Ft. Mitchell’s Vent Haven ventriloquist museum. Either way, you’ll find a place full of smiling faces.
The South is often depicted as burning with religious zealotry, and further southwest into Arkansas you can stand at the feet of a sixty-seven-foot-tall Christ in Eureka Springs or dance with a cloven-hoofed beast named Hogeye in Fayetteville.
A straight shot south will take you farther into a hotbed of oddities just waiting for a double take. The Gulf Coastal Plain, especially, is home to a number of offbeat offerings. In the marshy belly of Louisiana rests the quirky Mystery House of Abita Springs. The old gas station-turned-funhouse brims with animated displays, kooky creations, and a monstrous twenty-two-foot-long bassigator named Buford. Of course, New Orleans is not without its curiosities, such as the Voodoo Museum and the scrapyard of old parade floats that is Mardi Gras World.
Continuing east to Mississippi, there you’ll find a lost history among the unusual. Having survived the Civil War only to be brought down by a lit cigarette years later, the Windsor Ruins of Port Gibson harbor the ghosts of time within its crumbling columns. And the bead-adorned graves of the king and queen of the gypsies whisper of a past very few can recall.
Alabama begins to beckon further east on I-20 where the hum of industry and aeronautical advancement is hushed by sights far more impressive. Birmingham’s African Village in America is a front lawn-turned-treasure trove of handmade shrines and totems. Made up of pickup truck parts, plywood, biblical passages, and moral messages, the village is just as much educator as head-turner.
Headed northeast, things are not always as they appear. In Georgia, you’re bound to spot Lookout Mountain where atop Rock City Gardens sits. It may seem like your average stop for panoramic views, but the grotto exploration takes visitors through a fairytale land where nursery rhymes come to life. Up into Tennessee, more wonders are born in Clinton’s Museum of Appalachia. The sixty-five-acre museum houses the usual rural artifacts such as saw blades and moonshine stills, but deeper within you’ll come face to face with histories of a different breed.
The next time you find yourself traversing the region—a land teeming with just as much obscurity as beauty—seek out the unusual. The story of a weird and wonderful South can be found in the stops along the way.