Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 13, 2017

When Dinosaurs Roamed the … Highways?

Soon after humans started driving automobiles across the United States, untold numbers of other people saw an opportunity. Those travelers needed food, fuel, and places to stay. Kazango! The roadside travel industry was born.

If the U.S. had been carefully organized as a socialist economy, there’d have been a network of strategically placed travel centers offering standardized products and services. We chose another route, so to speak. You know what we got.

Gallup Brad Nixon 4913 (640x419)

Competition. That happens to be old Route 66 in Gallup, New Mexico, but it could be almost anywhere in America.

Competition meant businesses required something to stand out from the crowd: signs, banners, gimmicks of all kinds. Websites, museums, archives and coffee table books galore document the artifacts of Roadside America. No one who travels with a camera can avoid shooting a few pictures of the clever, iconic or laughable “attractors.” I have, and I’ve posted a few Under Western Skies articles about some of them, like the Big Donut/Donut King chain in Los Angeles.

Donut King II Brad Nixon 2274 (640x480)

Out in the vast spaces of the American west, dusty roadsides sprouted attractors of all sorts: gas stations, motels and restaurants themed in every imaginable fashion. It didn’t matter if you were one of several businesses clustered at a crossroad, or the only place to stop for 40 or 50 miles; you had to get those cars to pull in.

Some of the attractor campaigns have become classics: The slogan, “Rock City: See Seven States!” appeared endlessly on barns and billboards along thousands of miles of American roads.

Crossing 300 miles of dry, high plains in South Dakota en route to see the Badlands? Every few miles, there’d be another billboard touting “Free Ice Water: Wall Drug Store, Wall, South Dakota,” along with innumerable other marvels awaiting you once you’d quenched your thirst.

If my father had NOT stopped after several hours of those signs, there’d have been a riot among the 5 kids in the back of the car. You can still visit Wall Drug. Enjoy the ice water.

Across the continent, every local mammal, reptile, fish, tree and legend is represented, including Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, leaping fish, snapping alligators, rampant bears and towering redwoods.

Naturally, in the Wild West, a lot (perhaps most) of the gimmicks were western themed: cowboys, cacti, Native American life (not always respectfully portrayed). That photo of Gallup, above, includes the El Rancho Motel, the Lariat Lodge and the Blue Spruce Lodge. The Arrowhead Lodge is just out of view.

The Mother Road, Route 66, was lined with such places. Granted, to the uninitiated, the glory of the desert scenery can wear thin over the long, hot miles.

AZ desert Brad Nixon 3814 (640x479)

Those roadside entrepreneurs were determined to get the road-weary travelers to pull in.

Today, Interstate 40 has replaced 66, but the old attractions are still there, vying to lure your speedometer down from 80 to 0.

I40 TeePee Brad Nixon 3838 (640x395)

I40 figures Brad Nixon 3822 (640x426)

The West has another big attraction, though. Across vast swaths of mountain, prairie and desert; in canyons and cliffs and coulees, the earth is filled with the fossils of Dinosaurs! That’s true in Fruita, Colorado, near a deposit of Jurassic Dinosaur fossils, as proudly noted on this grain elevator:

One of the first firms to adopt a Dinosaur theme was a large oil refining company, and the green Sinclair Dino has graced gas station signage for many decades, as here in Colorado on Route 160, between Durango and Mesa Verde National Park.

Colorado Sinclair Marcy Vincent (527x640)

Yes, the photo was shot a number of years ago: Gas was $1.50/gallon.

The Brontosaurus (now rechristened Apatosaurus) is a popular Dino, as at this restaurant, also in Fruita:

There are countless Bronto/Apatasauri along the highways. None, perhaps, more compelling than the one along Interstate 10 in Cabazon, California.

Morongo bronto Brad Nixon 2382 (640x480)

Walk up inside the figure to visit the gift shop. To read more about that place, and see a photo of the equally gargantuan Tyrannosaurus Rex on the property, click here for my 2010 bog post.

Interstate 40 through Arizona is peppered with dinosaur figures, reflecting a theme I’ve encountered in nearly every state, from Florida to California and north into New England. I rarely stop, but if you have your camera ready, you might grab a shot of them menacing you as you speed past.

AZ dinos Brad Nixon 4939 (640x403)

There are more. Stay alert.

Back to Wall, South Dakota for a moment. As you reach the Interstate 90 exit for Wall, you’ll encounter this:

Wall Drug Dino Google

80 feet tall. Want more traffic? Get a Dino!

As a lifelong Dinosaur fan, I’m always happy to see them. They’re out there in great numbers, some elaborately constructed like the Morongo beasts, or, as below, in Farmington, New Mexico, forged using the skills and materials on hand in an automobile repair and welding shop.

Farmington T Rex Brad Nixon (640x497)

If I needed my radiator fixed, I’d stop there.

Have a favorite roadside attraction? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Sinclair sign photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Wall Drug Dinosaur image © Google.


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