Route 66 Series: One Trip to Giant World
Did any of you play Super Mario 3 on Nintendo when you were a kid? You know, the one with the raccoon tail that made Mario fly (makes zero sense, but we loved it) and you had to move through all the different worlds to get to the end. My favorite world was giant world. Everything blown up to incredible, gargantuan sizes, with giant Goombas, giant mushrooms, and giant tunnels. Giant enemies pressing in from all sides. All while poor little regular-sized Mario had to fly and fight his way through the chaos.
It made me wish I could find my own version of Giant World here in the three dimensional land, and as it turns out – I did. That’s right, I found a corner of the world where very normal things are blown up to very abnormal sizes, things like forks, belt buckles, and rocking chairs. And I found them at the best place for encountering such quirky little road side attractions.
So, here for you is a tour of some of the giant treasures hidden all across America on the Old Mother Road. The “giant world” of Route 66, which felt fitting, since the road still feels like it’s larger than life. And hey, at least you don’t need a raccoon tail to work your way through it.
The Giant Bean
First of the gentle giants on Route 66 is the giant bean, arguably one of Chicago’s most famous landmarks. Originally known as “Cloud Gate,” the bean was sculpted by Anish Kapoor, who started it in 2004 and finished in 2006. It measures 33 by 66 by 42 feet and weighs in at a whopping 110 short tons (whew, that’s a lot of fiber). Although it’s one of the newer attractions on Route 66, that doesn’t make it any less popular. The sculpture is in fact a center piece of Chicago’s famous Millennium Park, and it attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors on a daily basis. It’s especially enjoyable to photograph with, given the reflective surface from the stainless steel plates welded together to create it. Kapoor’s design was inspired by liquid mercury, and the statue bends and warps the city in its shiny, illustrious surface. You can also see yourself in it, and wave while you’re taking a picture.
The Giant Men
This is a series of outlandishly huge and meaty men, some of them holding giant mufflers, and so earned the nickname “the Muffler Men.” Constructed mostly of fiberglass, they can be spotted in many places on the first half of Route 66. They came to being in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to a company named International Fiberglass, owned and operated by one Steven Dashew. Since he worked with many different companies back then, the intent of the giant men boiled down to a simple concept – advertising. Each company commissioned their own giant man, and the ploy brought in loads of business for both the companies and Mr. Dashew (indeed, managers told Dashew that customers doubled after installing the giant men). While the companies the Muffler Men represent are long gone, the men themselves remain standing – charming reminders of a time gone by when advertising meant constructing a giant statue for all the world to see. They also make excellent photo ops, if you can squeeze yourself and the large men into the lens, that is.
World’s Largest Covered Wagon
When it comes to Illinois, and perhaps the whole country, there is no more of a giant figure than Mr. Abraham Lincoln. In the records of history, he indeed looms large, being one of the most written about figures ever to exist. So I guess it was only a matter of time before someone made a large version of him driving a covered wagon. In this case, that someone was Mr. David Bentley, who completed his twenty-five foot oak and steel covered wagon, with a twelve foot Mr. Lincoln in the driver’s seat, in 2001. Just in time to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Route 66. And a gratifying way to satiate the curiosity of what Lincoln must have looked like driving a giant covered wagon.
The Giant Arch
This one might be stating the obvious, but hey, some people might not know there is in fact a giant arch in St. Louis, Missouri. Also known as “the Gateway Arch,” this National Monument was originally constructed to commemorate a smattering of US milestones including Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase, the first step in a transcontinental United States, and Lewis and Clark’s fantastic hiking trips with Sacagawea to forge a trail to the Pacific. Today, the arch also calls attention to some of the landmark trials that played out in St. Louis’s Old Courthouse. Including the trial of Dred and Harriet Scott, who filed suit there for freedom from slavery (a trial that unfortunately ended badly), and St. Louis suffragette Virginia Minor, who used Old Court House to sue the state of Missouri for the women’s right to vote. The designer behind this monument was Eero Saarinen, and construction began in 1963. It would end in 1965, with the tallest monument in the United States, and some say the entire Western hemisphere, standing at a whopping 630 feet. Those brave enough can take a tram up to the top, and gaze across the state of Missouri in vertigo-terrified wonder. If you’d rather stay on the ground, there’s a wonderful museum beneath the arch to celebrate the greatly diverse history of the early United States.
The Giant Belt Buckle
Almost as soon as you cross the state line from Illinois to Missouri, you will start seeing signs for the small, odd little town of Uranus. This tourist trap of a stop wasn’t included in our Route 66 guide book, but it didn’t need to be. Road signs plaster the old highway leading you right into the parking lot of this truly bizarre place. It boasts not only the world’s most joke-worthy name, but it also has quite the collection of world class homemade fudge, moonshine strong enough to grow chest hair, and any kind of salt-water taffy you could ever want. Not only that, but also tucked away behind fake aliens and other wild western town attractions, you will find the world’s largest belt buckle – comprised of rusty tin and just begging to be photographed with. Perhaps not worth a stop in Uranus on its own, but that moonshine certainly is.
World’s Largest Rocking Chair
And Missouri must be in the business of upstaging the country with giant things. Because it also lays claim to the world’s largest rocking chair, situated just off Route 66, in a perfect place to stop and stretch your legs. The giant chair is constructed from steel and pipe, and brags an impressive forty-two feet in height and twenty feet of width. A chair so large that it had to be put in place with two cranes and weighs over two tons. As an extra impressive feat, the chair was actually built to rock. But the owners feared a most assuredly fatal accident were the chair to tip over – so they eventually welded it in place. And while you can’t climb up in the chair and sit in it (it is much, much too tall for that) it still makes for a fantastic photo op against the bright blue sky. Not to mention the store right there where you can stock up on snacks, candy, and Route 66 souvenirs.
World’s Largest Fork
Rounding out Missouri’s “world’s largest” collection on Route 66, we have… wait for it… the world’s largest fork. But you won’t be able to eat anything with this, as it weighs an astounding eleven tons and stands about thirty-five feet high, and that’s with it being titled at an angle. But Missouri got embroiled in a slight controversy when Colorado also laid claim to having the world’s largest fork. I’m not sure which fork won the official crown, but I can tell you this is still a fun sighting and photo op. One among many on the charming old Route 66.
World’s Largest Gas Pump
Once you get further West on Route 66, the giant landscape starts to overtake the actual giant things. But the travel-trained eye can still spot some leftovers from Giant World. Like the World’s Largest Gas Pump in Oklahoma. Situated outside the town of Sapulpa, this 1920s-inspired pump was commissioned by the nearby auto museum, a renowned Route 66 attraction. They built the pump to attract more tourists to the area, and it could be considered a success, since it won the Best New Attraction in Oklahoma Award in 2018. The pump was meant to stand symbolically at sixty-six feet, but wound up a bit taller, as it was originally supposed to include a spiral staircase and observation deck at the top. And while you can’t climb to the top of it (and don’t even think about pumping gas out of it), it’s still a worthy photo op stop.
The Giant Soda Bottle
And last but certainly not least comes the giant soda bottle, made of steel and coated in LED lights, located just outside the town of Arcadia deep in the prairie lands of Oklahoma. Nailing the symbolism at sixty-six feet tall, this giant soda bottle is a welcome beacon for thirsty, weary travelers, since it marks the entrance into one of the coolest gas stations you will ever see. Not to mention the first one you encounter for many miles around. “Pops,” the proud owner of this giant soda bottle, is a newer Route 66 attraction that only first opened in 2007. Not only can they lay claim to the largest soda bottle around, but they also have a valid claim for the largest soda collection around – with a vast array of bottled pop flavors for sale, numbering well into the 300s. Any kind of flavor you could think of, they probably have it. They also have candy, snacks, t-shirts, and many other forms of Route 66 souvenirs. One of the most worthwhile stops in Oklahoma, my husband and I certainly enjoyed ourselves at Pops.
As we passed out of Oklahoma and into the wild desert of the Western United States, my husband and I encountered less and less giant things. In fact, they seemed to stop all together once we reached the Texas panhandle – replaced by stunning and rusted car art and vast, open desert landscapes. But the Giant World captured our hearts while we drove through it. Any time our guide book mentioned a giant something or other, we had to go chase after it. I had to have my visit to Super Mario’s Giant World. And it wouldn’t have been complete without that giant fork.
Because sometimes, in a world as crazy as ours, you have to remember to be a kid again. To just play, whether it’s on a fabulous road trip chasing the giants of the world, or just tossing a ball around your front yard. Playtime keeps our hearts young, it keeps the smiles coming, and it makes the day a little brighter. And most importantly, it can create Giant World memories that loom large in your own troubled heart.
Route 66 Road Trip, 2019
The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley
Route 66: The Mother Road – M. Wallis
Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor
Roadside America (www.roadsideamerica.com)
Most photos by M.B. Henry – my husband and a kind stranger took a few of them 🙂 For more from Route 66, click here.
My Dear WordPress friends, I pray you’ll forgive me for the sparse articles as of late – as it turns out, a book release comes with A LOT of extra work, and I have just been buried in launch parties, signings, marketing, and all other sorts of stuff that has pulled my attention from this site. Please bear with me while I figure out the right balance between my beloved blogosphere and my novel writing! A big thank you to those who have stuck with me through the madness. And if you would like to learn more about my debut novel, released on May 10, you can click here.