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The Roads Less Traveled

Never heard of America's Stonehenge? Never seen the paintings of Betsy the chimp? In the land of tourist traps, a good time is always just one shrunken head away

By Joshua Kurlantzick
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page W20

The first time you stand next to Niagara Falls, you can't help but be overwhelmed by its physical force. When my father and I visited the falls, more than a decade ago, we got as close to the lathery spray as we could without falling off the walkway. Niagara blasted our faces, burning off small pieces of skin like a police hose. We marveled at its sheer power, knowing we'd seen one of America's greatest treasures.

About 10 minutes after we'd arrived at the falls, we left. After all, we had to get back into town to visit the local Ripley's Believe it or Not! museum, where we spent the entire afternoon perusing its collection of shrunken heads.

An enormous ball of twine decorates the window of the American Dime Museum in Baltimore. (Chris Hartlove)

_____Fall Travel Issue_____
Party Line (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
Frontier Land (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)

It was hardly the first time my dad and I had made such a decision. Some parents drag their children through colossal art museums and march them through every national park in the country. I was raised to appreciate the most offbeat tourist traps.

For years, I suspected that many Americans shared my passion. The development of the Internet provided evidence: I found hundreds of news groups, Web sites and chat rooms full of people who spend their leisure time searching for attractions that cross the average limits of tastelessness, going far beyond the bounds of what would seem even remotely interesting or simply making no sense at all. I learned that some of the best-known tourist traps, such as Wall Drug in South Dakota (a pharmacy that has posted signs advertising its free ice water across the globe, including outside the Taj Mahal), actually are more famous than nearby national parks.

It makes sense to me. After all, it's our tourist traps that symbolize elements of American life: the dream of building something all one's own and skillfully selling it to the public; the potential to rise from humble origins and become famous.

The best way to uncover traps is still the old-fashioned way: cruising major highways and minor country roads, searching for signs that promise the unexpected, such as the world's largest ball of twine, a monument to the founder of gynecology, a museum of American plumbing. So, this past year, I drove up and down the East Coast until I found some of the finest and strangest traps this part of the country has to offer.

NEW HAMPSHIRE'S INTERSTATE 93 SNAKED THROUGH DENSE FOREST, cutting into mountain valleys formed by the austere granite peaks of the upper Appalachians. But I wasn't looking for a good view. I found what I wanted just outside Salem -- a sign advertising a place called America's Stonehenge. I turned off onto a gravel road, where more signs warned off trespassers trying to sneak a peak at whatever was on the grounds.

Inside the small visitors center, dioramas described America's Stonehenge as a spooky, maze-like series of man-made stone monoliths and chambers, possibly built by Irish druid monks who came to America around A.D. 1000. William B. Goodwin, who owned the property in the 1930s, and made the original claims that the site was founded by pre-Colombian travelers, had even named one of the caves the "Oracle Chamber" because it appeared to have a stone bed inside of it. Goodwin surmised -- and extensively publicized -- the idea that an ancient oracle had slept on the bed. Publicity from Goodwin and his successors made the site a tourist attraction, and it started drawing crowds in the 1950s.

Goodwin offered a medley of evidence to support his claims. Some of the monoliths, scattered across 30 acres of grounds, supposedly were arranged in a circle similar to Irish Celtic patterns, and one of Goodwin's successors claimed that stones found on the property were inscribed with notches and lines that resembled ancient Celtic alphabets. In the visitors center, a 10-minute film narrated by an appropriately deep-voiced orator reported that some of the earthen chambers might have been used for religious ceremonies. One 4 1/2-ton stone full of knife-like grooves, it suggested, might have been a site for sacrifices.

Just outside the center, Stonehenge staffers were raising a flock of alpacas, brushing the animals' fur and scooping up manure. "They'll bring more people in -- the children love them," one staff member said.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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