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Stopping Traffic by Degrees

How hot does it get on the way to Vegas? Hot enough for a soaring thermometer to snag tourists who might otherwise drive past.

April 11, 2005|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

BAKER, Calif. — This little speck off Interstate 15 was suffering an identity crisis. Tussling with Barstow and Nevada casinos for travelers with empty gas tanks or full bladders, the town first tried to lure them with a moniker, "Gateway to Death Valley." It didn't really work.

So in 1991, a local businessman built a reason for drivers to brake: a towering 134-foot thermometer, just 17 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty.

The pink beacon signals an oasis to eyes weary from the desert highway. Travelers sometimes mistake it for a flight tower or a casino gimmick. Then they spot the Bun Boy Motel's red neon -- with only the letters N, O and O blinking -- and hear desert radio stations touting the 700-person town's signpost.

"Baker," the ads say, "home of the World's Tallest Thermometer."

The tale of the nearly 13-story thermometer shows how roadside oddities, concrete dinosaurs and muffler men that dot the California desert and stand next to U.S. interstates are more than junkyard relics. They can not only boost a town's income, they can also bolster its sense of self.

Although travelers would inevitably make pit stops in Baker -- its sold-out motels brim these days with Death Valley wildflower-gazers -- its gargantuan temperature gauge is so intertwined with its identity that it was erected twice, braced with concrete once and dimmed to cut costs.

If the thermometer were dismantled, "it would be like not having a name at all," said Le Hayes, the unincorporated town's general manager. "We'd be back to 'that little town east of Barstow.' "

Roadside kitsch has pocked offramps since Route 66 rolled out from Chicago to Los Angeles. The so-called Mother Road gave birth to a giant wooden blue whale at Catoosa, Okla.; several wigwam motels and the Cadillac Ranch -- 10 Cadillacs half-buried nose down -- near Amarillo, Texas.

The desert, with a particularly large number of eye-catching attractions to flaunt, carries on the tradition.

The stops that snare drivers include apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex statues in Cabazon, a burlesque museum in Helendale called Exotic World and a Last Supper reconstruction in Yucca Valley, even though an earthquake severed some of the statues' heads and hands.

Although there are plenty of road warriors -- more than three-fourths of vacationers drive, the Travel Industry Assn. of America says -- interstate towns still battle for growling stomachs and people taking bathroom-breaks.

A giant thermometer functions "like a great ad that gets you to go to a restaurant," said Scott Harris, a marketing consultant in Thousand Oaks who has driven through 48 states.

"It's a clutter-buster: If you see nine gas stations and the tenth one has a giant Paul Bunyan statue, where are you going to stop?"

Willis Herron figured as much when he dumped $700,000 into a thermometer whose 4,900 globe-style bulbs lighted up the night sky and required him to pull down his window shades at his home across the street.

Glittering casinos on the Nevada border 50 miles away tempted drivers to power past the rest stop, and Herron, who called Baker home for half a century, couldn't watch the roadside town turn into a ghost town.

When he was co-owner of the Bun Boy restaurant, Herron overheard diners bragging on pay phones about the skin-searing heat. Somehow, that morphed into an idea for a thermometer that would track temperatures that often creep into triple digits.

"Awww, I know it's tacky," Herron told The Times in 1991. "But I also know people won't be able to pass it more than four or five times without saying, 'What ... is that?' "

So over the objections of his six children, who pined for a beachside condo, and some locals who fretted that the phallic symbol would sully their hometown, Herron built a thermometer big enough for Paul Bunyan. The idea sprouted from 60 feet to 134 feet after someone brainstormed that it should mark Death Valley's recording of the country's hottest temperature: 134 degrees in 1913.

"People would say Baker was a pit stop. They used that word: pit stop. I resented that," said Herron, 80, who once crowed that his creation would transform the town into Thermometer City.

Baker's biggest competition, International Falls, Minn., nicknamed Icebox of the Nation, dismantled its own thermometer in 2002 after it broke, though its 26-foot Smokey Bear statue remains.

The Baker thermometer's three sides broadcast the current temperature using strings of glowing ovals that climb in 10-degree increments -- from 30 to 130 -- though rain often hampers its accuracy and bulbs sometimes flame out.

The Bun Boy next door sells thermometer postcards and T-shirts, and its paper children's menu brags, "Our thermometer is 134 feet high! Cool huh? or ... really hot huh?"

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