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On the Kitsch Highway

Freakiness abounds on a stretch of U.S. 101.

Paul Gerald

This is not exactly shocking news, but there is some very weird stuff going on in Northern California. We’re not talking about hippies here, or pot, or communes. We’re talking about a fight between everything that’s good about the natural world and everything that’s wrong with humanity. In this corner, we have the mighty California Redwoods. And in this corner, we have the Kitsch Highway.

Officially known as U.S. Highway 101, it is the center of a wackiness and tackiness contest that’s been going on for generations. It is a tourist trap hell.

If you’re driving south, you get your first suspicion that something is odd when you come around a corner and see a 49-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan, right next to Babe the Blue Ox. This is Trees of Mystery.

Trees of Mystery is a walking tour of, well, mysterious trees such as the “Family Tree,” with seven branches that grow up like smaller trees, and the “Cathedral Tree,” where a half-dozen redwoods have grown together to form an altar where hundreds of couples have gotten married. As if all this weren’t enough, the last part of the walk is the story of Paul Bunyan, told in chainsaw redwood sculpture with recorded narration.

Further down the road are things like World of Bigfoot, which is actually just a typical gift shop with a statue of Bigfoot, and Hobbittown USA. Hobbittown was hurting, by the way, because somebody stole Bilbo.

The best-known of these attractions, of course, are the drive-thru trees. They’re all about the same: You pay a couple of bucks and drive your car through a tree. If it fits. All of these trees were created before the environmental movement came along to ban such activities, and cars were smaller then. One tree, the official “Drive-Thru Tree” (not to be confused with the “Tour-Thru Tree”) is leaning and about to fall. It’s being held up with pins and cables, and in the meantime the locals have created the “Step-Thru Stump” and the “Drive-On Tree.”

One wonders how the life of this town will be permanently altered when that tree goes down. There have been unsuccessful ballot initiatives to create more drive-thru trees, by the way, and also to widen the ones that exist. It reminds me of a time when a traveling friend sent me a postcard from some place in Ohio that had the world’s largest wicker basket. My first thought was, “Gee, it makes you feel bad for the people who had the previous world’s largest wicker basket.”

But I digress: Back on 101, there’s the 32-foot-long One-Log House that’s actually on wheels and which, therefore, should be called the One-Log RV. There’s also Confusion Hill, one of these places where rooms are arranged to make it look like water is running uphill and people are walking on walls. And then there’s “The Immortal Tree,” which has been hit by lightning and still lives, but which shouldn’t be confused with the “Eternal Tree House,” which in turn shouldn’t be confused with the “World Famous Tree House.”

My personal favorites are the Cross Sections in Time -- you know the ones, where a massive stump lies on its side and rings that correspond to famous dates are pointed out. It’s a small reminder of the power of nature. “Why, honey, when Columbus landed, this here tree was already six feet wide!” I once saw a Cross Section in Time that had famous birthdays. Toward the center was the birth of Charlemagne. A little farther out was the birth of Henry VIII. Then the birth of George Washington. And near the very last ring it read, “Birth of the motherfucker that cut down this tree.”

And then there’s Carvings for Christ. In a world like the Kitsch Highway, this almost seems like a return to normalcy. Probably a good Baptist in here. Then you go in and find out that the man, on scriptural principle, does absolutely no religious carvings. It’s all bears and fish and whatnot -- the usual drivel. Something about “not carving graven images.” He told a local newspaper, “We’re really not doing this just for money. We’re doing this for the glory of our Lord.” Chainsaw carvings for the glory of the Lord. Well, it makes as much sense as anything else in this part of the world.