Tag Archives: Highway 99

Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Kings of the road

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.

Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

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!).

Saloon Cowboy (Muffler Man) sketch by Chandler O'Leary

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).

Paul Bunyan Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Probably the most common variation is the Paul Bunyan—they’re certainly the most recognizable, even when their axes get stolen.

Paul Bunyan Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

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.)

Carpet Viking sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Though I’ll never pass up any iteration of Paul Bunyan, I’m most excited about the rare, extreme variants, the roadside sideshow—the Uniroyal Gals, the Happy Halfwits, the Carpet Vikings.

Harvey the Rabbit (Muffler Man) sketch by Chandler O'Leary

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.

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Bob's Java Jive sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Short and stout

I am pleased to tell you that Washington is the proud owner of not one, but two teapot-shaped buildings. (Well, one is a teapot and the other is a coffee pot, but since the designs—and even the colors—are nearly identical, I think that’s close enough.)

The first might just be, as advertised, world-famous. Tacoma’s very own coffee pot was once a well-known landmark along old Highway 99, until the Interstate was built and businesses along the old thoroughfare faded into obscurity (a story as old as the Interstate itself). The place is no longer a restaurant, but is still in operation—now a dive bar with a different name and a cult following. Now that the coffee pot shape is a non-sequitur, it seems like everyone in my town loves the place all the more.

Teapot Dome Gas Station sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Lesser known, slightly older, and much farther off the beaten path is the Teapot Dome Service Station. This beauty sits on the eastern side of the Cascades, though it has been relocated a few times around the area. It now sits, newly restored (though now with cheesy fake gas pumps), in the tiny orchard town of Zillah, WA. It’s much smaller than the Java Jive, and has more of a ho-made flair to it, but what really interests me is that it was a political statement.

In 1922 Zillah resident Jack Ainsworth constructed the building in response to the Teapot Dome oil scandal (bribes, conflicts of interest, no-competition bids for military contracts, corrupt land leasing, the works!), which was in the news at that time. I love that Ainsworth made such a witty statement about the oil industry by building a gas station.

And his patrons? Well, they would have stopped at the teapot for a tankful, probably asked in jest for a cupful—and in return received an earful.

Former Hostess Cake factory sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Disappearing act

All cities grow, shrink or evolve over time—but as Seattle is in the midst of yet another building boom, the place is changing so rapidly that I can’t keep up. Landmarks and local mom-and-pops disappear in a puff of smoke—while presto-change-o, mammoth condos and office blocks pop up, seemingly overnight. Painted plywood fences mask building sites the way a magician’s red velvet cloth covers the lady sawn in half. Whole arterial exchanges get picked up and moved elsewhere, my shortcuts and well-worn paths shuffled like a deck of cards. Not only can I not begin to record all the changes in my sketchbooks—sometimes I have to erase huge swaths of my mental map and completely redraw them.

The sweeping changes are disorienting, but small tweaks are everywhere, too. The big plans misdirect our attention while the little things shift by sleight of hand, well beneath our notice. This prestidigitation happens so often that I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one still peering closely, trying to discover the magician’s trick. If I’m the only one whose heartstrings are tugged with every posting of a land use permit.

So revisiting the Hostess Cake Factory, which I sketched last year, seemed like the perfect symbol of how I feel about all this. The structure is an empty, faceless shell now, awaiting a makeover, or a tear-down, or something else entirely. The only remaining identifying features are the building’s rounded corners and its location on the map.

Saddest of all, the red hearts the building wore on its sleeve are gone—which feels suspiciously like a metaphor for the whole neighborhood. Maybe the magician will surprise us and make those hearts reappear at the history museum down the street. Until that day, I’ll keep their memory safe in my sketchbook.

Elephant Carwash sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Pink pachyderm

If the Yoken’s whale is the queen of the east coast’s Route 1, then the Elephant Carwash sign surely must rule Highway 99 in the west. The restaurant inside the Space Needle can eat its heart out—this jumbo gal is my favorite spinning landmark in the Emerald City.

Elephant Carwash sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Seattle Hat n' Boots sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And a hat, to boot

For every alive-and-well Paul Bunyan statue out there, there’s a roadside attraction that’s gone to seed—or given up the ghost entirely. And since you don’t see a lot of vintage kitsch in museums or public trusts, these landmarks are too easily overlooked by community restoration projects.

Not so in Seattle, my friends.

Seattle Hat n' Boots sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The Hat-n-Boots have been beloved by Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood for sixty years. Originally the respective marquee and restrooms (!) for a western-themed gas station along Highway 99, these behemoths are the stuff of legends. (After all, they make a cameo in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Elvis himself supposedly stopped for gas there.)

Thanks to the introduction of the Interstate highway, the gas station was short-lived, and by the mid-eighties, the landmarks were crumbling. Yet rather than demolish them, the City relocated and restored them in 2003, making them the centerpieces of a neighborhood park.

For that, Seattle easily deserves a tip of one’s (44-foot) hat.

Seattle Hat n' Boots sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Rainier "R" sketch by Chandler O'Leary

R is for Return

Well, I’m no fan of beer, but I do love me a neon sign and a good swash capital. So while I couldn’t make it to the official relighting of the Rainier “R” in Seattle (link goes to my friend Jennifer’s blog, where there are some fun videos about the R), you can bet I moved a SoDo sketch session to the top of my priority list.

Hostess Cake factory sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Heart of the city

I’m almost hesitant to include this sketch in my week of kitschy food posts, because I’m in the camp of folks who firmly believe that Twinkies aren’t food. Yet I love this building so much that I just couldn’t leave it out. The old Hostess Cake factory in Seattle has seen quite a few changes lately—and not just with the demise of the original company. That part of town is also home to a number of major construction projects, which are in the process of completely rearranging the entire neighborhood. Most recently, the building was bought out by the Franz bread company—so who knows what this corner will look like in six months? I walked by two weeks ago, and already the Hostess signs had been removed. The silhouette hearts are still there, though (for now). Here’s hoping they have many more heartbeats ahead of them.

Motel signs sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Miracle Mile

More vintage goodness along Highway 99: sunny Redding, California is filled to the brim with old neon signs. On this day I was road tripping with a fellow travel blogger, my friend Mary-Alice (and her pup Chloe). The girls were remarkably patient with me while I insisted on stopping every thirty seconds to sketch more signs. But it was such a perfect day—how could I have passed it up?

Daffodil Motel sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Fresh as a daisy

This is one of my favorite signs on Highway 99—the old backbone of the West Coast. Everyone has heard of Route 66, of course, but the Old Pacific Highway is also full of aging neon and other vintage gems, from Canada to Mexico.

The Daffodil Motel sign has a special place in my heart because it references the daffodil farms that used to dominate the adjacent Puyallup Valley. Sadly, only one major daffodil farm is still operating in the valley—but those cheery yellow flowers are still a big part of the local culture here.

Fellow West Coast folks: what’s your favorite bit of neon on Highway 99?