This story appears in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In Indiana, Marissa Gawel was given a slice of the world’s largest ball of paint. She stashed it in her backpack, where it joined other keepsakes from America’s strangest displays: an ornately decorated plastic-foam cup, nestled salt and pepper shakers, a handful of miniature hands.
During summer 2015, the now 25-year-old Detroit-based photographer traveled from Michigan to Louisiana on a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant. For three weeks she documented roadside America, visiting homemade attractions like a fiberglass replica of Stonehenge and a residence covered in 4,000 birdhouses. “It’s easy to see roadside attractions as this zany, oddball thing, but I’m trying to show that they’re a really incredible part of the landscape,” Gawel says.
She sought out handcrafted manifestations of an individual’s eccentricity. In Tennessee, Gawel was awed by a 13-story metal structure called the Mindfield; its 60-year-old creator climbs to the top without a harness. Photographing the sites and their founders, she became convinced that there’s an urgent need to preserve the country’s offbeat folk art.
The same traits that make each spot unique can also make preservation difficult. The once brilliant pink, red, and yellow cinder block towers of Margaret’s Grocery in Mississippi have faded and crumbled since its elderly proprietors died a few years ago. “A lot of these places are so tied to their creator that in the past when that person died, the place died as well,” Gawel says. One organization, the Kohler Foundation, currently maintains some of these orphaned attractions.
Gawel hopes her documentation will provide a record for posterity and a map for road trippers. “Many of these may not be here in 20 years,” she says. “But if they get a few more visitors, they could stick around.”