Nothing says “American road trip” like hokey road-side attractions. And as a foreigner, ever since we had planned to do a USA road trip, Mook had been insistent in his desire to explore all the quirky Americana he’d heard about through years of watching The Simpsons. I, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about the world’s biggest ball of twine or simultaneously standing in four different states at Four Corners.
But while usually there was enough to do in every state that we didn’t have to resort to barns full of pickled baby animals, Kansas was a little too boring. There were plenty of rolling green corn fields, factory farms, and Jesus-themed billboards, but not much else to entertain the eye or the mind. We had, however, read online about a tiny town in the middle of the state called Lucas, which was billed as something of a grassroots art mecca. With a couple hours before our rendezvous at an Airbnb in Kansas City, we decided to make the trek through the countryside and give it a go.
At only 1.5 square kilometres, Lucas was small. There was a small grid of residential streets, along which a number of hand-painted signs pointed towards folk art attractions. Our first stop was the town’s general store, where we had gone in search of sandwich making materials. The haggard middle-aged ladies at the register frowned at us when we entered, missing nary a beat of their drawling gossip. When we got to the check-out, the cashier looked at us over the top of her glasses, and rang us up with little cordiality other than sucking air through her teeth.
Sandwich stuff in hand, we sat in a small park next to the shop that was decorated with some local art—cement birdbaths covered in pieces of broken tile or bottle caps, and figures made out of welded scrap metal. There was a mural painted on the side of the nearest building, which was unremarkable except for its incredibly moving subject (see below). All the locals that walked by stared at us with disapproving looks from under their cowboy hats. Despite Lucas’ drive to be an art capital, the locals didn’t seem to like tourists much.
We learned quickly that “American grassroots art” is a rather intellectual term for “kitschy stuff made with rubbish by old people”. It was littered all over town, from the giant hand-painted plate near the main road (billed as the “World’s Largest Souvenir Travel Plate”) to the “crafty” birdbath in the park. We could only wonder, how much beer was consumed to generate all the painted bottle caps necessary to build the legend that is Lucas?
Our first stop was the Garden of Eden, which we had seen on Atlas Obscura and whose name reverberated in our minds because of the numerous billboards we’d been bombarded with for miles down the highway. The Garden of Eden is a sculpture park built by a Civil War veteran and “free thinker” who demonstrated his ideas through bizarre and occasionally politically-motivated concrete sculptures. He even constructed his own mausoleum, and for the bargain price of $7, visitors can be taken on a guided tour and even check out the old guy’s resting place.
But actually, we could see most everything from the outside, it was pretty ugly, and $7 per person is an awful lot to have someone lead you around and describe the obvious about ugly concrete sculptures. So we skipped the Garden of Eden.
Just down the road, however, was a brilliant, true American roadside attraction: The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.
Yes, read it again. The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.
The WLCoWSVoWLT is pretty much what it says on the package. Local artist Erika Nelson travelled around the USA looking for the classic “World’s Largest” things—from cow skulls and chili bowls to wigwams to wine bottles. She then photographed the objects, and created tiny, tiny models of them, which she now displays in an old school bus in Lucas. With its carnival-like decor and unintentionally-humorous commentary signage, the WLCoWSVoWLT is pure kitsch. But the models themselves are lovingly crafted, and the collection is a testament to America’s obsession with being number one in something—anything.
The WLCoWSVoWLT bus was at rest outside of a small wood-sided bungalow, the yard of which was littered with junk and oddities that were unrelated to the collection. It looked like either a metal scavenger’s stash or a hoarder’s undoing, but we could only imagine that the objects were some kind of art installation. You can never be too sure in Kansas.