West Coast Road Trip: Our 5 Strange Art and Performance Vacations

We’re retreating from the cold this winter with plans for how to spend our summer vacations. We’ll have a separate list soon for high strangeness that can be found in New Mexico, but for now, let’s point out some of our favorite attractions for a West Coast road trip.

We’re retreating from the cold this winter with plans for how to spend our summer vacations.

We’ll have a separate list soon for high strangeness that can be found in New Mexico, but for now, let’s point out some of our favorite attractions for a West Coast road trip.

1) Museum of Jurassic Technology (LA)- They say you can better tell a lie if you mix it with truth and that’s what Los Angeles’ Museum of Jurassic Technology does best. On its face the museum looks like a steampunky version of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but some of the scientific displays on exhibition are complete fabrications. In the space of one visit, a lie can be adopted into your worldview much like an urban legend and the truth becomes all the more fascinating because it is surrounded by equally wild fictions.This creates a postmodern museum, in which the institution itself becomes the text of the experience. Who selected these exhibitions? Why? What do they mean by “Lower Jurassic?” And who the heck is that creepy moon-headed character who appears on the museum’s official seal?

2) Hoodslam (Oakland)Hoodslam is what would happen if the WWE were fused with Troma films in a terrible teleporter accident. Wrestling can be a divisive topic for people, but Hoodslam’s wrestlers have a commitment to the bit that anyone can appreciate and we’re passionate defenders of so-called “low” art at Meow Wolf. Hoodslam freely borrows characters from pop culture and throws them into the ring. Street Fighter-inspired performers face off against characters with names like Nurse Ratchet and Drugz Bunny. This all takes place inside a grimy, dimly-lit space that will have you diving for cover once the fists start flying. Everyone who visits speaks about it as though it’s the purest expression of wrestling, crazed fans doing what they love and getting it as hard as they can. Worthy of a West Coast road trip? Heck yeah!

Photo Above By Ossanha - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

3) Winchester Mystery Mansion (San Jose) — If I didn’t know any better I’d assume that the story behind the Winchester house is completely bogus. It has a history that is so fantastic it seems to bend reality itself. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, inherited her husband’s $20.5 million stake in the Winchester Rifle Company. In 1881 Sarah met with a spirit medium (as was the custom of the time, apparently) who channeled her late husband, telling her, ominously, that the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles were angry with her and that she must continuously build a home for them, lest they have their revenge. Carpenters worked night and day to build a mansion that followed no architectural plan. One hundred sixty-one rooms sprawled over the estate. Many of these rooms were designed to trick the ghosts with staircases that led nowhere and doorways that opened on nothing. I love that idea: that the departed live within a space that is just slightly more permeable than reality, but they still must follow certain rules of time and space. Now, why does this house look familiar to me? Hmm...

Photograph by David Swann. Courtesy of Winchester Mystery Mansion.

4) Musée Mécanique (San Francisco) — What if Wiggy’s Plasma Plex inside the exhibition spanned an entire warehouse and more than a century of games and exhibits? Located on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, the Musée Mécanique has arcade and carnival attractions that date back to the 19th century. The best part: everything inside is quarter operated so there’s no entrance fee. The collection includes more than 300 pieces such as mechanical circuses, mechanical boxers, risqué nickelodeons, and ancient shooting galleries. My favorite piece has to be an old temperance-era display that shows a drunk man in a graveyard seeing ghosts and devils as he suffers from the DT’s. The video game section is nothing to sneeze at, either. It is the only place I’ve ever seen “Battlezone,” a first-person tank shooter dating way back to 1980 and “Death Race,” a 1976 racer that touched off one of the first moral panics in video games because it encouraged you to run over stick figure skeletons. A word of warning, if Musée Mécanique makes your road trip list: Laffin’ Sal will haunt your nightmares for years to come.

5) Salvation Mountain (Niland, California) — I’d be remiss to not include at least one great piece of outsider art on this list of road trip vacation spots. Salvation Mountain outside of San Diego, California has a long and storied history that is almost as colorful as the mountain itself. It’s not until you realize that the final project was built on the bones of several failures that you truly start to respect the dedication of the late Leonard Knight, its creator. One day in 1970 Knight saw a hot air balloon fly over Burlington, Vermont. A devout Christian, Knight thought a hot air balloon with a message written on it would be a great way to witness to people. But try as he might — and he tried for 14 years— his DIY balloon never made it off the ground. It rotted where he had moved it, the desert just outside of Slab City (which, by the way, is the inspiration for our Fancy Town room).

He was left with just half a bag of cement, which he decided turn into a small monument so that his stay in the desert wasn’t completely wasted. With that he would end up building a mountain of concrete and sand over the course of four years as a dedication to God. It collapsed in 1988, but Knight would build a second mountain in its place, this time out of adobe and straw. Several native builders helped him with this work.

That third attempt at a message gives us the brightly colorful man made mountain we know today. Knight lived on site (sometimes sleeping in a trailer, other times in his truck), accepting donations of paint to keep his project growing. He was placed in a nursing home in 2011 and later died in 2014, but a group of volunteers continues to care for his work. Salvation Mountain is still somewhat of an oddity, but it does get its shoutouts in pop culture. A version of it appeared in the sprawling desert region north of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto 5.

We’re secular over at Meow Wolf, but one cannot look at the final work and see it as anything other than an outstanding expression of one man’s faith. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, but it’s inspiring because it was done by a normal person, just like you and me. It follows that if a run-of-the-mill guy like Knight can make such work, you can, too.

Check back here in a few days for a list of must-see stops on your summer vacation to Santa Fe, New Mexico. — Billiam Rodgers