We never took a plane to go on family vacations when I was a kid. In fact, the first time I flew, I was 19 years old. What we used to do instead is what most American families did back then: road trips. My dad built special wooden cabinets to fit the back end of our Chevy station wagon and we’d all pile in and drive for days and days on end up the spine of California to Oregon.
This was back when the Interstate, I-5, was just being completed and small towns were being bypassed. This had a tragic effect on such iconic highway businesses as the Giant Orange stands that once dotted Highway 99 in towns like Chowchilla and Merced.
Some towns lost so much business that they resorted to circus-like promotions to get travelers to pull off the Interstate. Things like bottle houses and train rides through trees or giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (I think when Mr. Bunyan was finally retired, his ax was replaced with a golf club and he ended up waving from the side of a driving range in L.A.)
One such oddity that always fascinated me was Thunderbeast Park near Crater Lake in Southern Oregon. We’d be driving down Hwy. 97 through some endless pine forest and all of a sudden you’d pass by this odd beast that looked like a cross between a giant sloth and a dairy cow standing alongside the road. A sign promised more pre-historic wonders inside the park. I was smitten by the possibilities. We only stopped once. But it was enough. I just remember it as being one of the strangest places I’d ever been. Sort of funny but also a little creepy.
RoadsideAmerica does a better job of describing it than I ever could so I’m just going to go ahead and quote them: “There’s no T-Rex, brontosaurus, triceratops, pterodactyl—none of the mainstream crowd pleasers. Instead, the creatures highlighted—from the uncelebrated ‘Eocene Epoch’—are low-to-the-ground puzzlers like the Glyptodont, the Dinohyus, and the Platybelodon.
“The oddly painted statues are cartoon-like—such as the Dodo Bird-ish ‘Diatryma’ a nutty flesh-eater—and resemble farm animals dressed for Halloween. The Uintatherium is a cow wearing a mask of Styrofoam coffee cups.”
I mention this because yesterday, as we drove east over the Cascades towards the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, through miles and miles of hot, dry, rolling landscape greened up only by the large tracts of farmland sustained by irrigation projects off the Columbia River, we stopped for a break in the little rural community of Granger. And in the parking lot of the gas station was a green dinosaur. And across the street was a wire mesh and steel sculpture of a spinosaurus sitting on a pedestal that said, Granger, “Where Dinosaurs Roam.”
There was a pterodactyl just up the street from the DinoJava coffee shop and a triceratops blazing across the Granger Travel Plaza. I immediately had flashbacks to my visit, decades ago, to Thunderbeast Park, although I have to admit the dinosaurs in Granger were more artistically rendered. Still, it was…odd.
There was a Granger public works employee getting coffee at the gas station’s food mart so when he lumbered back to his pickup truck (which had a tyrannosaurus stenciled on the door), I asked him what the hell was the deal with Granger and dinosaurs.
Well, he said, sipping on his coffee from a Styrofoam cup, it was kind of a long story. He said a hundred years ago, Granger was a hot little town, located as it was along the confluence of two rivers. Later, it had a clay mine that made bricks and tiles, but that closed up back in the ‘60s. “From then on, we just seemed to get smaller and smaller until folks worried we were just going to disappear.”
Back in the early ‘90s, the locals tried to figure out a way to get people traveling between Seattle and the Tri-Cities to do more than stop for gas in Granger. “Someone remembered that back when the clay mine was open they found the bones of a wooly mammoth in the pit and that got us to thinking.” A wooly mammoth, as you probably know, is, an elephant-looking animal perhaps best known as the pal to the stupid sloth, Sid, and acorn-loving squirrel, Scrat, in the movie Ice Age.
Now wooly mammoths roamed all over North America (they recently dug one up near the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles) and they’re not dinosaurs, having evolved thousands of years later, but what the hell. They’re not trying to sell the steak in Granger, they’re trying to sell the sizzle.
So in 1994, the first Granger brontosauraus showed up and they’ve been creating dinosaurs in and around the town ever since (there’s a pterosaurs in the middle of Granger’s manmade pond).
Has it increased tourism? The public works employee just shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Don’t forget that we’ve also got the menudo festival this month,” he said, getting into his truck.
I hope Granger does better with the dinosaurs than the old woman who built Thunderbeast Park. But I think it’s wise that they’ve got the menudo festival as a back up plan.
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