Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66

If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Photo of the Day – Route 66 Signage

Route 66, the legendary roadway of American lore, may be no more, but ghostly vestiges of its existence still remain. Take the lovely stretch of retro hotel signs in Albuquerque New Mexico – part of the old Route 66 route. Just off the University of New Mexico campus, you’ll find a scattered collection of these aging neon beauties, sprouting like weeds among discount furniture stores, flophouses and trendy coffee shops. Today’s gorgeous example is brought to us by Flickr user Christian Carollo Photography. Pop quiz – can any of our Gadling readers name the TV show this exact sign recently appeared in?

Have any great travel photos you’d like to share with the world? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

The Country’s Biggest Tourist Trap: South of the Border

There is a tourist trap in South Carolina called South of the Border. A combination truck stop, motel, roadside attraction, carnival and snack stand, it’s high kitsch of the first order, bordering on exploitative with its stereotypically Mexican “mascot” Pedro. A couple days before the Fourth of July, when I drove through, it’s also a bonanza for fireworks, all manner of which are legal in South Carolina, even if they’re sold at exit one, just south of the border with North Carolina.

Traveling the American Road – Exploring South of the Border

It started as a half-way point on the haul down to Florida, a convenient place for New York- and Boston-area families to spend the night while driving to Walt Disney World and Miami. But faster speed limits, not to mention cheaper flights, a growing number of chain hotel outposts and the economic downturn, have left South of the Border as more of a curiosity than a much-needed overnight waypoint. It’s hokiness is no longer a draw but rather something to be snickered at after you get back in your car and continue down I-95.

One saving grace is Fort Pedro, an explosives depot masquerading as a fireworks stand. A $699 collection of bombs, mortars and various other sparklers was the most expensive package I saw; simple firecrackers seemed unavailable in any quantity shy of 1,000. Packages as bright as the magnesium blooms they promised went on, row after row, as giddy shoppers stacked their carts. One group had assembled an arsenal so formidable it seemed destined for either resale in a control state or the ultimate end to the chunk of South Carolina in which they’d be ignited.

My friend Rob, who was along for this part of the ride, suggested we buy dozens of sparklers to hand out during the Fourth, the better to make friends with. Our best find were yard-long behemoths, in a pack of eight, for about a buck a pop. We declined to purchase super-light hot air balloon-inspired lamps, like you see in Southeast Asia, for fear that we’d spark yet another Lowcountry brush fire. I did buy a South of the Border bumper sticker for a dime.

The rest of the attractions were by turns unappealing or disappointing. The reptile house didn’t seem worth an outlay of $8. The hat shop had precious few hilarious headpieces. The most that can be said of the ice cream stand is that it serves ice cream.

Visitors can ride to the top of the famed South of the Border sign, taking in the view from the “sombrero.” But the open road was waiting. We didn’t feel the need to hang around any longer: we had real stops to make.

Six roadside attractions made out of salvaged materials

The most famous example of a compulsive building project is the Winchester Mystery House, a 160-room Victorian mansion in California that was continuously under construction for 38 years. But not all people who build obsessively have the funds of a widowed gun magnate, and unlike Sarah Winchester not everyone is propelled by a need to appease spirits. Like the Winchester Mystery House, the “scrap shacks” listed below are compulsive building projects, but these roadside attractions are made mostly out of recycled materials. Most of them are considered works of folk art, and all of them have stories that are as interesting as the end result. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.The World’s Largest Treehouse (aka the Treehouse Church)
Crossville, Tennessee
Built around an 80-foot white oak tree, the 10-floor treehouse pictured above is estimated to be as large as 10,000 square feet. Proprietor Horace Burgess calls it “God’s Treehouse,” and says he received his inspiration in a vision that came to him in 1993. He’s been building ever since. Most of the materials are recycled pieces of lumber (and besides the white oak, there are six other support trees), but Horace estimates he has sunk about $12,000 and 258,000 nails into the project.
Photo by Wonderdawg777, Flickr

The Paper House
Rockport, Massachusetts
In order to prove that paper makes good insulation in the 1920’s, Elis F. Stenman (a mechanical engineer) decided to built a two-room summer home entirely out of paper. Two years and 215 layers of newspaper later, the walls to the Paper House were complete and Elis moved in. Later he decided to go on and make all the furnishings and decorations out of paper, too, so the project went on until his death in 1942. Wood was used for the frame, floor and roof of the house, but everything else is made entirely out of paper donated from friends and family (it’s re-varnished from time to time for preservation purposes).
Photos by Danielle Walquist Lynch, Flickr

Tombstone House
Petersburg, Virginia
At first glance the Tombstone House looks fairly ordinary, but a closer look reveals that the house has been constructed some very unusual building blocks: the tombstones of over two thousand Union Soldiers from the Civil War. Oswald Young got his hands on the marble tombstones in 1934 after cost cutting efforts during the Great Depression forced cemetery workers to uproot the tombstones, cut off the lower portions, and lay them flat on the ground (the result was less maintenance). The bases were then sold to Young for a whopping price of $45.
Photo by Tombstone House, Facebook

Beer Can House
Houston, Texas
Ripley’s Believe It or Not estimated that over 50,000 cover the Beer Can House, a true monument to recycling. Retiree John Milkovisch started the project in 1968 when he “got sick of mowing the grass” and covered his front and back yard with concrete, inlaying thousands of marbles, rocks, and glittering metal pieces into the mix. Later, he began adding aluminum beer can siding and eventually strung garlands made of cut beer cans from the edges of the roof. Today the house is a museum.
Photo by Saturne, Flickr

Heidelberg Project
Detroit, Michigan
The Heidelberg Project is an ongoing community art project that was started by Tyree Guyton in 1986 on a block that was once home to drug dealers in Detroit, Michigan. Today, the street is filled with brightly painted houses, plus trees, cars and signs that have been turned into sculptures with the use of salvaged bikes, vacuums, stuffed animals, dolls, televisions, tires and more. Although project has faced complete destruction twice over the years, it is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Photos by Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village
Simi Valley, CA
This folk art piece is the single handed work of Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey, a self-taught artist. She started the project at 59 years old when she needed materials to build a privacy wall for her property but could afford very little. At its peak, Bottle Village had 23 buildings, plus shrines, walkways, sculptures and more all created from recycled bottles and other items from the local landfill. Unfortunately, the site suffered damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake and only three buildings remain fully intact.
Photo by Laurie Avocado, Flickr

Have you seen other obsessive places while on the road? Let us know in the comments below.

The Ultimate Road Trip Detour: Go Kart Racing?

At the outset of this road trip, I invited friends and readers to jump in the car with me. After more than a month on the road, one of my buddies finally took me up on the offer, planning to meet me in Virginia Beach after I toured Colonial Williamsburg.

I’ve known Rob for more than 10 years, and while we get along wonderfully, we love competition. So it being a road trip, there was no better place to spar than on a go kart track.

Traveling the American Road – Go Kart Racing

By a fantastic coincidence, Virginia Beach Motor World has a loop inspired by Watkins Glen International, a place I’d visited earlier this summer–and driven on the pro-level track. It wasn’t an exact replica, but I planned to put some of my driving experience in Upstate New York to good use in Virginia.

Rob and I have raced before, in Chile of all places, in super-speedy karts that required helmets. Splitting a few races this time around, we still haven’t determined a champion. We’re hoping to do that when we get to the Orlando Kart Center. But first we have a stop to make in the Outer Banks.