I’m utterly amazed that this sign is still here; that I can refer to it in present tense, rather than with “Once upon a time.” I’m gobsmacked that it’s been so lovingly maintained; that (with the exception of switching from white to its current blue) the lettering is completely unchanged; that the façade is still white as the name suggests. I remember passing this sign a million times as a kid, and being attracted to it even then. I have a sneaking suspicion that this sign may be the reason I ended up becoming a lettering artist—that Sno-White taught me to love a slab serif and a good old-fashioned script.
On this morning I took a hike in a part of the world I know very well. Yet while the path was familiar, the rocks seemed to get more alien the more I stared at them. I kept trying different angles and colors, but I never did manage to nail down what I was looking at. I guess it’s sort of the visual-arts equivalent of proofreading: the more you concentrate on something, the more odd and unfamiliar it seems.
Another reason I sometimes draw in black-and-white is when I’m racing a moving target. I may yet add color to these doodles someday, but on the day I drew them, I was more concerned with jotting down each animal before it moved away. It’s a good exercise if you want a drawing challenge—or if you like being frustrated…
Just like the neighboring town of Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs is filled with midcentury neon signs and fabulous Googie lettering. This sign is one of my very favorites. It’s been altered a bit over the years, but the fact that a relic like this still exists in a town that’s changing and expanding at a rapid pace—well, it feels like a bit of a miracle to me.
Well, if I’m going to spend all this time talking about roadside attractions, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the legendary Muffler Men—guardians of gas stations, presidents of photo ops. If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you’ve probably seen at least one of these guys along the way.
These behemoths started appearing in the early 1960s (the very first one was on Route 66), to promote the brand new International Fiberglass Company in California. For whatever reason, they usually ended up in front of gas stations, holding giant mufflers—hence the nickname.
By 1970 there were thousands of them around the country, but the 1973 oil crisis forced the decline and eventual demise of International Fiberglass. These days the muffler men are an endangered species, down to just a few hundred stalwart lads (and a handful of lasses, too!).
For me, finding them has turned into something of a quest—and not just because I’m a completist (though, of course I am). You see, the most fun thing about these guys is that they’re not identical—there are many, many variations on the original design (and a few knock-offs, to boot).
Probably the most common variation is the Paul Bunyan—they’re certainly the most recognizable, even when their axes get stolen.
And when they’re spiffed up to their original glory, they’re unmistakeable. (This one is a mobile muffler man! When he surprised me at the local Daffodil Parade a few years ago, it felt like Christmas had come early.)
And best of all are the mutant modifications that have happened to some of these guys (you should have heard me squeal when I found this one!). Some have been altered so much as to be rendered almost unrecognizable. But you can’t fool me—once a muffler man, always a muffler man.
So tell me: have you found any muffler men in your travels? Do you have one in your neighborhood? I’m always on the look-out for a good one, so if you have any recommendations, I’m all (rabbit) ears.
There are some roads I have traveled so often that I have permanently etched into my memory every landmark, every sign, every single geographical feature along the way. The seventy miles between Colorado Springs and Denver is one of those stretches. When I was a kid, I knew exactly how far we were from our destination by which butte we passed; the profiles of every mountain in every season; and which hill was next to appear on the horizon. Every time I go back, no matter how much farmland has been converted into brand new suburbs, the mountains never change—and my mental map gets retraced with the same lines. On this day, I sketched while the Tailor drove, but I just as easily could have done this from memory—laying out every hill and peak along the route on one long, continuous sheet of paper.
Manitou Springs has been a tourist attraction since the 1870s—first for its “medicinal” mineral springs, and then for its wild-west remnants and mountain location. For decades it’s been chock-a-block with midcentury motels and vintage neon—and by some miracle, nearly all of them are still around.
Every time I come back here, I run around town to do a sort of frantic inventory of these places, always amazed and relieved to find things more or less as I left them. These signs have been my old friends for over twenty years. I’m hoping against hope they’ll fare better than Giuffrida’s, and that there’s still a lot of life left in them.