Water and a Cross in Texas: The Value of Roadside Attractions
The road in Carson County, Texas is long and the land is flat. Driving there, it’s almost impossible to think about your destination because it doesn’t seem like it’s anywhere close. So, you have to think about what’s immediately around you or you have to sit with your thoughts and either let them flow as they will or sort through them, and we all know that can either be a roller coaster or it can be downright boring. But sometimes, it’s neither of those things.
Long drives aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time. But, there’s often a point when your drive transforms from a monotonous butt-ache to a pleasantly therapeutic sky-gazing opportunity (or, sky-glancing, I guess, since you have to keep your eyes on the road.) And it’s when you slide into that space in your mind, you can reach the feeling of freedom and wonder that road trips are all about.
When my friend Christine and I took a long road trip from Atlanta to Albuquerque, I went into that ethereal place in my mind in Groom, Texas (while she drove, muaha), and while I was there, I learned some things.
One of my favorite things that makes our great country weird is our collection of roadside attractions. I think it taps directly into our very American value of being constantly entertained. Riding along that road with my foot on the dashboard, I was able–for the first time–to think about that important aspect of the American stereotype (the need to be entertained) without cynicism. I was able to think about the value of entertainment and where it plays into our tiny lives.
I’d run out of productive things to think about by the time we got to Groom and expended all the energy to do if there was anything left, and when my eyes registered a massive cross along our path, I was shocked out of the random spiral of thoughts I’d been having about how much I’d failed to do in life. Instead, I was forced to focus on the humongous cross that loomed there and the short, flat building beside it.
This cross, I later read, is nineteen stories high and is the second largest cross in the western hemisphere. It’s an attraction to visit for many and a genuine pilgrimage for some. For me, it shocked me out of my thoughts when my guard was down, and my first reaction was an odd one: I got wrapped into the emotion that went behind putting it up. Regardless of your religious affiliation, it’s an impressive specimen, and an homage to a force that brings many people solace in the middle of a road that threatens to (pun semi-intended) drive you crazy. Just when you think you’ve gone too far in the wrong direction and may have missed your turn somewhere, there’s this giant symbol like a beacon for many a weary traveler. For us, it was a cause for escaping our own monotony to say, “wow,” and eventually wonder about the depths to which people have gone to misuse that very symbol. It is my hope that Groom, Texas has none of that history, but my assumption that it does. Everywhere in America does.
A few moments later with these ruminations still fresh on my mind, Christine’s voice broke through my thoughts, “Is that… going to fall over?” She was pointing. Ahead of us stood a water tower that seemed to be leaning over… America’s very own leaning tower! We gaped at it as we rode by. I later learned (via one of my now-favorite websites) that it is also a known roadside attraction. The tower reads “Britten U.S.A.,” and its story is short, sweet, and defiant. Basically, a man (whose last name was Britten) bought the water tower for the town. But, since it wasn’t up to code, they weren’t allowed to use it for the town. Britten decided he would have a water tower, and using engineering ingenuity, he made it lean.
I have to admit that this spectacle seemed more of an accident leftover from the recession than an intentional use of influence, but it was a spectacle nonetheless. Along I-40 (which was built alongside the famed Route 66), there are more attractions, like Slug Bug Ranch, beat up, spray-painted cars sticking up out of the ground, and Six-Shooter Barbecue, two big pistols directly across the street that are actually barbecue grills. These attractions, however weird and however recalcitrant, are made to entertain and distract from the long road that awaits the weary traveler. They are the artist’s way of reaching out to say, “Look, something interesting goes on here. Life doesn’t have to be all one way. It doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to be serious”.
It may be a cliche to believe that setting out on the open road is therapeutic, but it represents more than freedom to me. Taking road trips and long drives are humans’ way of finding questions that can also be answers, releasing tense emotions we didn’t know we had, and opening our minds to wonder how things got to be the way they are.