10 Weird Places in the American Southwest

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The American desert is a strange, strange place. It’s a surreal place where you can see nothing for miles and miles, as far as the horizon reaches. But it’s also a destination where you’ll find some pretty bizarre things and weird places, if you know where you look.

10. The Mojave Phone Booth

It’s called the Loneliest Phone Booth in the World, but bizarrely, the Mojave Phone Booth has garnered something of a cult following since the late 1990s.

It’s perhaps even more bizarre because, let’s face it, phone booths are a dying breed. They’ve already been replaced by the mobile phone, but there’s one thing that a mobile phone absolutely doesn’t have – a sense of mystery.

mojave-phone-booth (Image: Angelicbve37 via YouTube)

In 1997, Wig Out magazine ran a letter describing the phone booth, which sits in a desolate area of the Mojave Desert that’s more commonly frequented by cows and coyotes than people. The letter was read by Godfrey Daniels, who decided that he was going to try to call the number every day. For a long time, exactly what he expected happened – nothing.

Until someone answered.

From there, the legend of the phone booth continued to grow, to the point where people not only called it on a regular basis, but also made pilgrimages out into the desert to be there to answer it. Those people are like 51-year-old Rick Karr, who says that he received a holy vision requesting that he go answer the phone. So he did, camping out in the desert for 32 days and answering more than 500 phone calls from people from as nearby as Phoenix, as far away as Newfoundland, and as strange as the ones from “Sgt. Zeno from the Pentagon”.

mojave-phone-booth-2 (Image: Derek Roberto via YouTube)

Pacific Bell, because they’re absolutely no fun, temporarily disconnected the phone number and, at the request of the National Park Service, removed the booth in 2000. Thanks to internet hackers, though, the number’s back up and running and – most importantly – connecting people from all over the world with this tiny, isolated patch of American desert.

The phone booth itself was in rough shape. The glass was long gone, the paint was worn and chipped, and the countless visitors had left a variety of offerings from signed license plates to naked dolls. But as long as there’s even the remotest chance that there’s someone on hand to answer the phone, people will still try to call it.

And the number is 760-733-9969.

9. Prada Marfa

prada-marfa-2 (Image: Marshall Astor, cc-sa-4.0)

The relatively small, inconspicuous building sits on US 90, where it’s made even smaller by the seemingly endless Texas sky. It’s not a building, really, it’s an art installation. Created by Michael Emlgreen and Ingar Dragset, Prada Marfa is an $80,000 art installation, to be precise.

It’s the only Prada ‘store’ in Texas, and it was built with the intention of letting it go to ruin, of letting nature reclaim it in whatever way was deemed appropriate. Meant as a commentary not only on the fleeting nature of the things that man creates, the artists also recruited the help of Prada (who gave approval to use their logo and even donated the shoes and handbags that went inside the store) to add another layer of meaning to the construction – on the fleeting nature of fashion.

prada-marfa (Image: LifeHarmonizes, cc-sa-3.0)

The whole thing hasn’t been without its difficulties, though. There’s no working door on the building, but that didn’t stop vandals from breaking in and stealing all the contents before the installation’s official unveiling. While that’s pretty much what the artists had in mind for the fate of the building, they did have to re-stock and re-paint before it opened – and this time, they re-stocked it with merchandise pre-damaged to deter more looting.

They also ran into trouble with the Texas Department of Transportation….. almost ten years after it originally opened. It took them that long to decide that the piece was what they deemed ‘illegal advertising’, and for a time, it was slated to be torn down. It dodged its potential fate, though, and was reclassified as a museum. It still stands, an ironic landmark in the stark, hot Texas landscape.

8. Cadillac Ranch

cadillac-ranch-texas (Image: Richie Diesterheft, cc-4.0)

Art is in the eye of the beholder, but in this case, the beholder also has a chance to make their own mark.

In 1973, Stanley Marsh 3 (he didn’t like the pretentiousness of the III, so 3 it is), joined forces with a San Francisco group of artists to create a unique, monumental masterpiece on his ranch just outside of Amarillo, Texas. The final product of the collaboration is 10 past-their-prime Cadillacs with their noses buried under the desert ground. The cars are all between the years of 1948 and 1963, were all purchased from junkyards for no more than $200 each, and have all taken on a life of their own.

Originally, the cars were buried as they were bought, with their factory-spec, rusting paint jobs untouched. Over the years, though, graffiti artists from all over the world have come to leave their mark – albeit temporarily – on the cars. Art and artwork, paint and scratches… nothing lasts long, until it’s covered by something else. Both the Ant Farm and Stanley Marsh 3 have long encouraged the ongoing, ever-changing artistic monument.

cadillac-ranch-texas-2 (Image: Marcin Wichary, cc-4.0)

The monument as a whole has been moved once since it was installed; in 1997 it was dug up and re-buried about two miles from its original place to keep it outside of the boundaries of the ever-expanding Amarillo. All the surrounding debris and garbage was moved with it, so it remains much the same as it once was.

The monument has been repainted – officially – a few times. In 2002, the cars were repainted again with their factory colors, and in 2003, they were painted black to commemorate the death of one of the original Ant Farm artists. But all in all, Marsh has expressed nothing but delight over the graffiti that covers his cars, the windows that have been broken and the hub caps that have long ago been stolen. He intended the monument to be a tribute to the great American car, and always had nothing but appreciation for those who went out of their way to contribute to it.

Sadly, Marsh passed away in June of 2014.

7. The World’s Largest Thermometer

worlds-largest-thermometer (Image: Gerald Thurman, public domain)

Death Valley, California, has earned its name. It’s known as one of the hottest places on Earth (with recorded temperatures of 134F/57C) and the driest place in North America (getting less than 2 inches of rain every year. It’s a fitting place for the World’s Largest Thermometer.

The 134-foot-tall thermometer towers over the desert landscape in nearby Baker, California. It was built in 1990-1991 by a local businessman, and the original intention was to commemorate that record-breaking, 134F temperature record that made the area the hottest on Earth. The thermometer, which can display up to 134F, hasn’t been without its difficulties. It’s not the original one that stands now, as that was blown over in a windstorm and needed to be rebuilt. It was also non-functioning for a while; after the owner of the thermometer got an $8,000 electric bill in the mail.

The thermometer weighs about 33 tons, and contains almost 5,000 lights.

It was only recently – in July of 2014 – that the thermometer was lit again. Willis Herron, whose dream was made real by the giant thermometer, died in 2007. It had changed hands several times, but in March of 2014 the Herron family reacquired the thermometer and saw Willis’s dream re-recognized.

6. The Giant, Concrete Arrows

giant-arrows-desert (Image: via Messy Nessy)

They look like something out of a science fiction novel, slabs of arrow-shaped concrete in the middle of the vast, nothingness of the desert. Landing beacons for extra-terrestrials, maybe? Area 51 is right around the corner, after all…. and it’s not too far from the truth.

The arrows point a path all the way across the country, from New York City on to San Francisco. They’re huge, situated about every ten miles and they were meant to be seen from above.

In 1924, air travel was the new thing, and air mail was cutting the transit times of letters and packages into a fraction of the time. Navigational equipment hadn’t quite kept up with the need, though, and those who have driven across the United States know what a vast country it is. So Congress approved a massive construction project that would help guide mail planes safely across the country – and they were built on the concrete arrows.

giant-arrows-desert-2 (Image: Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Originally, there were also towers constructed alongside each of the arrows. The towers had not only a rotating light at the top, but most also had a small house on the site as well, the home of the keeper of the tower and his family.

As World War II approached, there was not only an increase in the amount of navigational technology pilots had at their disposal, but there was also an increased need for metal. Not needed any more, the towers were dismantled for the war effort. Only a few still remain, scattered along the original cross-country route.

The concrete arrows are still there, though, pointing their way across the country, once lifelines for early pilots, now a reminder that the country was once much bigger than it is now.

5. Groom Mine, Nevada

groom-mine-nevada (Image: via Air-Attack)

There’s absolutely no way to talk about UFOs without mentioning Roswell, New Mexico and other weird places like the notoriously off-limits Area 51. The remote desert location has long been the subject of suspicions and accusations of the hiding of alien technology and aircraft, but you don’t have to believe in aliens to appreciate some of the seriously shady stuff going on around Groom Lake.

To be fair, the 1950s were a different time. There wasn’t much that was known about the long-term effects of radiation and the bombs that were being tested in various military facilities, and that was one reason why Area 51 became a military testing site. It wasn’t entirely remote and it wasn’t entirely abandoned, however.

tickaboo-peak-nevada (Image: Geckow, public domain)

The Sheahan family had long owned and worked Groom Mine, pulling silver from beneath the desert. When the military began testing in 1951, it wasn’t entirely without warning – not that the family most likely had any say about it. Downwind of the testing grounds, the Sheahan family and their mine were regularly doused with radioactive fallout during the days when there was nuclear testing going on. Levels were monitored by keeping track of radiation levels in the air and water, but it wasn’t long before they started realizing that the rain was just as dangerous. Cows and horses would emerge from rain showers covered with radiation burns, and in the end, the mine was forced to close for up to 12 days at a time before radiation levels turned bearable again.

They were also plagued with problems from shock waves generated by other tests – testing was planned for times when weather conditions would carry the fallout and the shock waves away from more populated areas…. which meant they were invariably headed straight for the Sheahan family mine.

The Sheahan family continues to own the property and are allowed to visit, making them the only people without the highest levels of security clearance to be granted access to Area 51.

4. Stonehenge II

stonehenge-replica-texas (Image: mlhradio, cc-nc-4.0)

Stonehenge has been around for thousands of years, but those who live in the United States and don’t want to go all the way to England to see it can stop by Stonehenge II for a glimpse at what the megalithic monument would have looked like before thousands of years of weather took its toll.

And, if the monument had been built at about 60 per cent its original size.

And, if it had been made out of metal and plaster instead of stone.

And…. if it were guarded by two of the Moai heads from Easter Island.

It all started in 1989, when Doug Hill had some limestone left over from a patio he was building. He gave it to his neighbor, Al Sheppard, who promptly stood it on end, stuck it in the ground, and decided that there was no way it was visible enough. The two then went on to construct replicas of the rest of the stones from Stonehenge, recreating the ancient megalith out of metal, plaster and steel, then painting it with concrete to give it a more authentic look.

They finished with the monument, but they hadn’t finished building. Eighteen months after the stones were completed, they added two 13-foot tall, Easter Island Moai to the piece.

Why? We’re pretty sure the answer is just: Texas.

stonehenge-replica-texas-2 (Image: Billy Hathorn, cc-sa-3.0)

The monument was originally constructed in a privately-owned pasture just outside of Hunt, Texas. When the property was sold in 2010, a local arts council raised the money necessary to move it to the nearby town of Ingram, where it still stands.

And, most bizarrely of all, that’s not the only Stonehenge you can see on your way through Texas. There’s another one in Odessa, built in 2004 in a 6-week undertaking that the Stonehenge Replica Team proudly states has successfully led to the recreation of Stonehenge…. better than the original, as it was built with Tractors and Technology.

3. Lancaster, California’s Musical Road

musical-road-california (Image: The Civic Project via Flickr)

Like it or not, you have to admit that it’s a pretty brilliant piece of marketing. In 2008, the Honda Motor Co. approached civic officials from Lancaster, California, and asked them to participate in a marketing campaign. Specifically, they wanted to cut grooves into one of their roads that, when driven over at the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, would play the William Tell Overture. The company fronted the money to re-do the road, then filmed their cars driving across it.

Unfortunately, it was less of a hit with the people who lived within earshot of the road – and there were a lot of them that were suddenly subjected to hearing the theme song from The Lone Ranger over and over and over again as cars drove past. The whole thing turned into a bit of a nightmare as people continued to argue over whether the rumbling pavement was a good idea or not. Problems didn’t just include the noise from everyday traffic, but also from people who came to drive the street just to hear the tune – then whip a U-turn and listen to it again. And again.

And again.

Fortunately, an agreement was reached. The original musical road was paved over, but it was re-created near the city’s airport in a much less annoying location – letting proponents keep their one-of-a-kind attraction and letting opponents keep their sanity.

2. The Branch Davidian’s Swimming Pool

branch-davidian-pool-waco (Image: Hans Watson, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

There are certain moments in history that will live on well after those that saw them have passed on. One of those moments will – tragically – be the massacre of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas in 1993. Regardless of who the blame truly lies with, the death toll remains the same.

Decades later, there is only a single thing remaining of the building that was home to Vernon Howell, known to his followers as alternately David Koresh and their messiah. Visitors can still go to the grounds that were bloodied by the FBI and cult followers alike, but one of the only things left to see is the swimming pool. The pool is massive, large enough to completely hold a few tractor trailers. It’s also filled with water, black and stagnant.

branch-davidian-pool-waco-2 (Image: Daniel Tobias, cc-sa-4.0)

There are, of course, other buildings in the area. There’s a small chapel and memorial to those who died that day in 1993, and the surviving Branch Davidians have continued to wait and worship in the hopes that their messiah will return to them. The site is now called Mt. Carmel, overseen by a man named Clive Doyle; he’s kept the flickering Davidian flame alive for two decades in the hope the messiah will return, but with an aging population of members, many of whom have left for one reason or another, it’s unclear how long the flame will burn.

1. Austin’s Moonlight Towers

moonlight-towers-austin (Image: Matthewrutledge, public domain)

When it comes to weird places in the American Southwest, Austin is up there with the strangest of them. We talked about Austin’s infamous, Ripper-esque serial killer here, and now we’re taking the opportunity to talk a little bit about one of the breathtakingly ingenious ways the city tried to stop their killer – by turning the night into the daytime.

Austin officials purchased 31 of the so-called moonlight towers from Detroit in 1894, planning on using them to make the city safer at night. Many were installed in 1894 and 1895 – even though they weren’t installed until well after the killings mysteriously stopped, they were still credited with the continued safety of the city’s residents. The towers, standing about 165 feet tall and supporting six 6,400 watt lamps, turned night into day – their light was so powerful that local farmers feared that it would disrupt the natural rhythm of their chickens’ egg-laying habits. (They didn’t.)

moonlight-towers-austin-2 (Image: Paul Adonis Hunter, cc-nc-nd-4.0)

A bit of fun trivia – the area immediately around the bases of the towers is known unofficially as the First-Kiss Zone, for all the romances that begin there in the artificial moonlight. Curious visitors can climb at least a bit of the tower, as there’s open access to a lower catwalk. The upper catwalk is technically off-limits, and maintenance workers who do go up there are usually lifted up by bucket truck – as opposed to using the hand-operated elevator that would have been used in the years of the towers’ first operation.

The moonlight towers were famously featured in the movie Dazed and Confused, bringing back something of an interest in the towers. Only 17 of the original 31 still stand, and they also still work.

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