Monday, August 13, 2007

Roadside America

If you travel America's highways with any frequency - particularly its older, pre-interstate arteries - you know all about classic tourist kitsch, the "tourist traps" of a bygone era now featured prominently in books (Weird U.S.) and websites ( I've mentioned these oddities - for example, Carhenge and the numerous giant Paul Bunyan statues - while heralding the virtues of the "great American vacation." Several years ago our family found one of these classic places on I-78 in Shartlesville, PA, east of Harrisburg. With the name "Roadside America" we just couldn't pass it up and, thankfully, weren't disappointed. Roadside America was started in the 1930s but has the feel of the 50s, right down to the linoleum-tiled floors and gift shop that still sells Davey Crockett-era coonskin hats.

The main attraction is a gym-sized room with a massive Lionel train layout featuring the farms and towns of an America that scarcely existed as portrayed here. It's a romanticized vision of the country, complete with speeding Lionel locomotives and miniature citizens populating the spectacle. (For the model train enthusiast, this must be heaven. Some of the vintage Lionel engines and cars would doubtless fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay.)

That alone would be enough to warrant the $5 admission for adults. But it gets better. Every half hour the room slowly dims and the lights on the buildings, churches and farmhouses flicker on. As the trains continue their endless circle through villages and alpine tunnels, the sound system begins to play the "Star Spangled Banner" and spotlights focus on a painting of the Statue of Liberty rendered on a far wall. Then, as the lights of an electric dawn signal a new day, a very Catholic image of Christ is projected on the wall while the speakers blast Kate Smith singing "God Bless America."

The first time I saw this, about three years ago, it proved a surreal experience. When I saw it again last Thursday afternoon, it was just snicker-inducing humorous. On the one hand this display is hugely anachronistic amidst interstate rest stops and exits that feature KFC, Burger King, Cinnabon, and gas under the same roof. Yet for some of the viewers with whom we shared this experience, Roadside America was a spot-on representation of a thoroughly mythologized American past, a golden age for which they no doubt pined. This is the America conservatives long for, an America that exists only in their idealized fantasies of the Eisenhower years. For the elderly in the room it was a heavenly experience, prompting some to wipe back tears. For the Amish tourists who ventured in from nearby Lancaster County, it must have seemed magical. My kids admired the electric trains and - like our first time here - were shocked that one guy would have made this his passion and put so many years into creating such an elaborate display. Thankfully, they haven't become so cynical and spoiled by video games and the Internet that they weren't able to enjoy the spectacle. Indeed, my older son's initial response was a gratifying, "Awesome!" If you're ever on I-78 in eastern Pennsylvania, I heartily recommend it. Far from being a tourist trap, it's a time machine back to a pre-suburban tourist age, for only $5 per adult, with no long lines, over-priced food, or slick marketing ploys.

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1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

You made this "spectacle" sound interesting. Surreal, but interesting. If I find myself in that part of the state, I'll be sure to check it out. It reminds me of a movie but I can't recall the title...