I read the book American Gods a while ago, and in tribute to Neil Gaiman I wrote this piece. In this book Neil Gaiman has two major characters, Wednesday and Shadow, who go on the classic American road trip, for reasons I’ll leave you to discover should you read it.The characters visit tiny towns and roadside attractions throughout the States. Along the way Wednesday explains to Shadow how people recognize places of power. That they knew there was some focusing point in these places that made them special. As a result, in Europe, people would erect cathedrals, stones circles, etc. In the USA, people receive the call from the “transcendent void,” as well, and respond to it by building random strange structures in out of the way places. The full quote can be found here (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1417397-so-what-is-this-place-asked-shadow-as-they-walked)
I go on a lot of road trips, so this work appealed to me for a lot of reasons. In particular, his words continually cross my mind whenever I visit any of these strange roadside attractions. I have been all over the world and have seen countless temples and cathedrals, but it is at American Shrines that I feel most at home. To be honest, you reach a point of diminishing returns looking at the endless reds and golds of the temples in Southeast Asia, with a half lidded Buddha smiling serenely. Or the stone slabbed cathedrals in Europe with stained glass windows and intricate tapestries. In comparison, the shrines in America are glorious in their tacky loud strangeness. A new place of worship for the modern man.
Recently I took off on a road trip to Tennessee for work. Along the way I stopped to worship at the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo Texas, a shrine to the god of Cadillacs. Here you can find various hollowed out Cadillacs that were upended in a barren field along the side of the I-40. The Cadillacs are spray painted nonsensically with vibrant colors, with empty or half empty bottles of spray paint littered around. People come and take their pictures and half heartedly tag a part of these old relics in tribute to our American gods. Although the visitors were few, I heard accents from all over, including Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It struck me as odd, here I was, a place I had never heard of until I googled “cool things to see on the I-40” and yet here were people from all over the world that had sought this place out the same that I had.
Another example is Salvation Mountain. An out of the way part of Slab City that you won’t just stumble upon. Leonard Knight built the thing over the years by throwing endless cans of paint on bales of straw with the message “God is Love” plastered boldly on the top. I only heard of it while pouring over a plethora of road trip ideas in California. To reach it, you had to pass Mecca and the Salton Sea. In other words there was no chance of accidentally stumbling upon it. To reach this place you have to want to reach it, and you should want to reach it.
It’s not any different from me going to Perfume Pagoda in Vietnam. A temple I had never heard of before I actually got to Hanoi. All my fellow western backpackers and I were gathered up and taken to this place deep in the mountains that you can’t get to until you take a boat, climb a mountain, and take an air gondola. In other words it is the most traveled to, out of the way spot ever.
I suppose there is no real magic in these places, but they are fascinating and still hold a power on the imagination. I will forever continue seeking out these random weird places, and pay tribute to whatever spirit commissioned them, whether actually divine or simply the human spirit.