Roadside attractions lure you to spend a while -- and money

Let others mourn the passing of drive-in movies, burger stands with carhops and other bits of fast-vanishing Americana. What I miss most are the roadside attractions. The salvation of parents on long road trips, these Caverns of Mystery, Lost Dinosaur Worlds and World's Largest Balls of Twine not only broke up the drive, their billboards -- which usually began to appear hundreds of miles before you got there -- also provided hours of fevered anticipation to children who'd otherwise be punching each other black and blue in the back seat. They've mostly disappeared, along with the two-lane highways that once constituted the country's interstate system. But recently I discovered a surviving collection of roadside attractions, in all their misleading and addictive glory, in the redwood forests of Northern California. Some are no more than gift shops with inventive marketing strategies, but what matters is that they are still there to distract us in our journeys and cause us to utter, "Can you believe this place?" On a recent weekend I found that Highway 101 and the Avenue of the Giants, a 33-mile detour that meanders along the picturesque Eel River in Humboldt County, are loaded with roadside attractions. The fun begins with the Drive-Thru Tree Park in Leggett, where you can, as the name so eloquently implies, maneuver your car through the trunk of a 315-foot-high redwood called the Chandelier Tree. No matter what your ecological views, it's hard to deny yourself a drive through a towering, 2,400-year-old landmark. The first rule of roadside attractions is that they inevitably lead to a gift shop. To set the hook a little more firmly, Drive-Thru Tree Park gave us a coupon for $1 off any purchase of $5 or more. But having learned from the impetuous spending sprees of my youth, I knew there was a better souvenir (or at least the same one, perhaps at a better price) to be had at many of the other gift shops yet to come. Just down the way, in Piercy, is the World Famous Tree House of Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not fame. It's an impressive, 4,000-year-old tree hollowed out into a 21-foot-by-27-foot room with a 50-foot-high ceiling. This attraction is free but can only be entered through -- what else? -- the gift shop. Among the several tree houses in the area, this is the finest. Antique, quarter-operated dioramas that depict scenes from yesteryear crowd the dimly lit, hollowed-out room in the tree, and unlike most quarter-operated contraptions (besides slot machines), these are as much fun for adults as kids. Next up was Confusion Hill, a strange, carnival-like place where water runs upward and gravity obeys no rules. According to the garish yellow-and-red signs, mysterious magnetic currents upset the laws of nature and are responsible for the unusual phenomena that allow visitors to walk on walls and stand at a 45-degree angle. It was, I'll say, a disorienting, topsy-turvy place. While I doubt the truth behind most of the advertisements at Confusion Hill, signs that warn of side effects such as dizziness, wooziness and physical discomfort were true to their word. In fact, I was feeling too off-kilter to spend any time browsing in their gift shop. No matter. I'd seen the same laminated "suitable for framing" placemats, key chains, redwood boxes, carved figurines and live burl at gift shops throughout Humboldt County. There would always be another opportunity to pick up a little something I would later regret having purchased. Further up the road we came to my favorite attraction, the One-Log House. In 1946, this 2,000-year-old, 40-ton log was turned into comfortable, but snug, living quarters. The little home has all the accoutrements of a studio apartment in the city. At only $1 for a peek, why not? Here's what you see: A tiny living room, sleeping area with two beds and a kitchen with a two-burner stove. After touring the country for a while, the One-Log House has come to rest in southern Humboldt County alongside another roadside attraction called "the Grandfather Tree." This one exists for no apparent reason other than to sell souvenirs and chainsaw artwork. We caught a live demonstration of chainsaw sculpting right out front. I asked the clerk in the gift shop about the tree's name. "That's just what the previous owner called it," I was told. End of story. But that's the beauty of the roadside attraction: It needs no purpose other than to lure road-trippers off the highway. Give it a suitably intriguing name and you can set up a souvenir shop. In Phillipsville, not far from The Chimney Tree (another tree house), we pulled off the highway at Hobbiton USA. It turns out that the land of the Hobbits is not in Middle Earth -- or even New Zealand -- but in Humboldt County. In the early 1980s, the proprietor installed plush toys, plywood decorations and concrete statues depicting scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien's book to augment a 30-minute nature walk through a scenic redwood grove. At the end of the walk, I was told to check back at the gift shop for a complimentary golden ring. It was my first souvenir of the trip, it cost nothing (beyond the $5 entrance fee) and was one trinket that couldn't be found at any of the other shops along the highway. Now there's one for Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not. ••• Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 2004 •••