Last year, I was in a gas station an hour outside of Madison, Wisconsin, clutching my road trip staples of beef jerky and ginger ale in the aisle with the magnets and key chains, when suddenly I saw It, shimmering seductively against the wall. I…I…I couldn’t move. I stood transfixed in front of a giant, light-up tableau of the Last Supper. LED lights placed behind the heads of Jesus and his prophets made glittering, pinprick halos, and they slowly turned different colors, from gold to red to purple. It was the length of my arms outstretched, and it was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. It was $200.
Gently, gently, like a hesitant child reaching up to pet a horse’s nose for the first time, I stroked the picture with my finger. It was warm to the touch. Jesus’s robe turned a piercing robin’s egg blue. I got out my wallet.
CJ, my girlfriend, was standing right behind me. She’d seen me staring at the tableau when she came out of the bathroom and was completely comfortable in her role as Life-Ruiner.
I grew up Mormon, a religion where church decoration and crucifixes are a serious no-no. This might be why I love the creepy/meaningful symbolism of tasteless Christian figurines and pictures, and if there is a terrifyingly graphic crucifix or a plastic Virgin Mary statue within my vicinity, I must, must have it. So, needless to say, I begged loudly for that Light-Up Last Supper in front of a lot of burly truckers. I wasn’t asking for much! Wouldn’t it look amazing in the living room? What if I never bought anything ever again and just bought this? What was $200 in the face of something Truly Beautiful we’d have forever? Why didn’t CJ want me to be happy?
In the end, I didn’t get it, because it was 200 dollars, and the truth is, I think about it almost every day. I’m not kidding. Because can I just go ahead and say it? American roadside kitsch is literally the best thing ever, and by that I mean the weirdest, most wonderful thing in the world. We the people create enough of a market for unbelievably tacky objects that they continue to be manufactured and sold. The stuff you find when you’re on a road trip in America is some of the strangest, most unnecessary stuff on the planet. And it is my serious goal in life to own and display all of it. I may die alone, surrounded by shelves of seashell art, like the kind you’d find in beachside souvenir stores in southern Florida. It’s OK. I will die happy.
Ceramic thimbles with tiny painted pictures of vacation destinations on them, like a quarter-inch painting of Abraham Lincoln to commemorate Springfield, Illinois? Yes! Actually, I gave this away to the lucky friend who watched my pet rabbit when I went out of town. Lady Liberty foam hats? Don’t mind if I do! What better chapeau for taking the ferry to Ellis Island? Actually, any kind of foam hat at all stuns me, particularly an oversized Texas cowboy hat. Style. Sophistication. Elegance. (Loud. Mass produced. Brashly memorable.) And it’s all within reach. What could be better than having a T-shirt with an American flag being struck by lightning while an eagle soars triumphantly overhead? I’ll tell you what: NOTHING.
Who wouldn’t want an exquisite black velvet painting of a mysterious tiger sitting quietly in the tall grass underneath a moonlit sky? Because you can admire and buy black velvet paintings next to the highway at shifty, tented swap meets all over the country. Really! Look for the words “swap meet” on big florescent signs along the road, and you will enter a whole new world of terribly wonderful souvenirs. From the Pacific Northwest, where the black velvet “art” leans heavily on wolves and pine forests, to Scottsdale, Arizona, which favors coyotes and scantily-clad “Native American” women holding pots, to New England, where you will find more wolves, some bears, and lighthouses sending their beams into the inky velvet murk, there are swap meets, and all I ever want to do is go to them. (When I was traveling for a living and sometimes driving from city to city for weeks on end, I would pull over so fast if I saw a sign for one.)
You simply cannot find this level of kitsch in your average airport gift shop. Keychains with spinning dice in them? Pssh, please. What if you found an old guy with eight fingers outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who makes pocketknives with handles carved from the antlers of the buck he shot last fall, and then he gives you a mini-lesson in knife-fighting when you buy one? He’s out there, folks. There are memories to be made. But you have to be on the ground, doing real reconnaissance work, enjoying the road along the way to your destination. A TRUE LONE WOLF needs a souvenir of her lone wolf travels through, um, a big box store in Phoenix. (Keep your eyes peeled! Even if you can’t make it to swap meets or flea markets or tiny souvenir stands, there are often region-specific treasures to be found in big chain stores.)
But appreciating terribly wonderful tokens of Americana does not have to be about buying things. (Although Amurrika needs you to buy things! Do your duty!) No. You can love and adulate tackiness without pulling out your wallet and dragging home gorgeously obnoxious knickknacks. American kitsch extends to Giant Roadside Attractions, preferably shaped like an animal, preferably made out of plaster and hollow inside, so you can walk through it. Ever been to Lucy the Elephant in New Jersey? How about the Big Duck in New York? If you have, you know a secret: they’re not that great. You look up from the window of your car and go, “That’s a big duck,” and you go inside for a second. Sometimes there’s a gift shop. And that’s it. So what exactly makes these ridiculous roadside attractions special? Why would anyone in their right mind drive out of their way to see the World’s Largest Beagle?
Because it’s there. One of the great glories of America is that it is so unfathomably large, so unbelievably vast and relatively empty, that anything–-anything!–that can provide even a few minutes of boredom-relief on long stretches of highway in the middle of nowhere is thrilling. If you build it, families will drive up with cameras to pose next to it.
Now I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where I could go to see these wonders without having to spend five days in the car? There is! It’s called Wall Drug, and it’s in South Dakota, and it is paradise for the true kitsch-lover. What was once a humble drugstore is now almost an entire Western-themed town, and you can see the mystical jackalope and drink strawberry milkshakes and look for belt buckles made out of glass with scorpions floating inside them while rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other thrilled, like-minded travelers! WHEN ARE WE GOING?
I get that a lot of people like this stuff because they find it ironic, like an inside joke that we can share as we laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I, too, love tacky crap because it’s hilarious. But please understand: I am not just ironically interested in kitsch. It’s gone beyond that now. I genuinely love it and appreciate it and want to marry it. It used to be that I would see a black velvet painting and go, “Oooh that’s so baaaad,” and then love it, but now I can see the same painting and love it without even acknowledging its hideousness. My ironic taste has warped into my actual taste. See the painting below?
Those majestic wild stallions standing at rest under a stormy sky gallop through my dreams at night. The painting hangs over my bed, the culmination of a years-long search through every side-of-the-road swap meet I ever went to. I remember the sweet, sweet moment I found it leaning up against the side of a tent at a flea market outside of Cincinnati. I knew–KNEW!–this was my dream painting. It was magic, and the guy only wanted $50 for it (translation: he actually wanted $20 for it), and I had enough trunk space, and I was headed home. In that moment, my kitsch universe came together. I’ve had it for over a year now, and still, every morning when I wake up, I have to pinch myself and wonder: “How did I get so lucky? How did someone ever think to make something so tacky, and then frame it in a giant gold gilt frame?”
Folks, being on the road, happily heading somewhere with a little extra time for wandering, is an extremely diverting place to be. America is a weird and very proud country, and there is nothing like a coffee mug from Dollywood–an extremely weird country-glam theme park dedicated to Dolly Parton and proof that dreams really do come true–to help us remember that. We still have marvelous things here, like old-fashioned diners where the employees wear paper hats, and restaurants, like Cozy Noodle in Chicago (go!), where every possible surface in the bathroom is covered with glued-down Pez dispensers. All this crap–all of it!–is a reminder that the strange and even ugly things in life can be beautiful to the truly discerning eye. ♦