MAD DOG: On the Road -- A Shopper's Guide to Souvenirs

Being on the road is a game, the object being to travel from one coast to the other while seeing a lot of interesting people, places and sites without letting everyone you meet sell you something. This isn't easy, since your opponent's goal is to extract as much money from you as possible in exchange for the least useful item imaginable. (For the purpose of this discussion a useful item is defined as anything made in another country that has the name of a United States city or historical site on it.)These are called souvenirs. Souvenirs have several uses. One is to sit on a shelf in your living room behind seventeen other souvenirs as a fond reminder of what the Grand Canyon would have looked like had it not rained for four straight days while you were there. The other is to give it to someone else so they can reminisce about the two week trip you took to New England and wish it could be that quiet around the house now that you're back.The problem with souvenirs is that you can't pick up what you really want, like stalagmites from Carlsbad Caverns, shards of 2,000 year--old pottery laying along the path in the pueblo, or that hitchhiker on the side of the road that you hope will fulfill that fantasy you've had since the day you got your learner's permit. But that's not to say there aren't some incredible finds out there. Take Alamo crackers. These are like animal crackers except they come in the shape of boots, stars, cowboy hats, the state of Texas and the Alamo. One of them in my box looked a lot like Davey Crockett's coonskin cap but once I brushed the fuzzy stuff off I realized it was just another cowboy boot.The first real souvenir bonanza I came across was Graceland. In case you haven't been there, this is the house in Memphis where Elvis Presley showed the world that money can't buy good decorating or a refined palate. There's a mile-long stretch of road, oddly enough on Elvis Presley Boulevard, which is dedicated to making sure you remember the King. You can eat "Love Me Chicken Tenders," leave Fido at the "You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog Kennel," or shop at any one of the 1,482 gift shops whose only goal is to perpetuate the memory of a great singer. Thank you. Thank you very much.These gift shops stock nearly as many items as Wal-Mart, but are infinitely better since everything relates to Elvis, and besides, you don't have to run a gauntlet of aging greeters as you walk in the door. And yes, you can get virtually anything you can think of with Elvis' photograph, name, a song quote, or Elvis' favorite acronym (the highly appropriate TCB or "Taking Care of Business") imprinted on it. Whether you want dinner service for twelve, a snow globe so you'll know what Elvis would have looked like in a snowstorm, or a copy of his driver's license ("But Mr. Presley, this driver's license expired 20 years ago.") you're bound to find something which will gather dust on anyone's shelf.A close second to Graceland in the souvenir sweepstakes is the International UFO Museum & Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico, known to the locals as "the only thing that's kept this town from drying up and blowing away." There are exhibits documenting the 1947 Roswell Incident (when either a UFO or a large dose of LSD landed in the area), general exhibits on UFO sightings, and the Alien Caffeine Espresso Bar. No kidding.And just in case you don't manage to see enough drawings of that large-headed, doe-eyed alien that looks like one of those kids in a Margaret Keane painting, just stop in the gift shop on your way out. I don't know who first came up with the idea of making you walk through a gift shop to leave, but I'm sure they won a Nobel Prize in merchandising for it. Doing this serves three purposes. The first is to give you the opportunity to buy another thimble to add to the 4,384 you already have and don't use because, face it, no one sews by hand anymore. The second is to boost the local economy. Well, the ones in Singapore and Guatemala, anyway. And the final reason is to remind you once again what this country is built on -- money.But while Memphis easily has the most souvenirs, the UFO Museum may just win the prize for the most unique items. There's the barbecue apron with a picture of the alien holding a charred piece of something-or-other labeled "Unidentified Frying Object." There's the T-shirt with the alien dressed up in a Mexican straw hat, serape, sandals and a bushy moustache which reads, "Illegal Alien." And yes, believe it or not this alien has its own comic books, sock puppet ("Hi! I'm from outer space. Have you seen E.T. or ALF?"), pillows, dolls, potato chip bag clips, crayon holders, litter bags and 2 ounce packages of Honey Roasted "Planetary Peanuts." Did I mention the blankets, guitar straps, or welcome mat that says "All Aliens Welcome?"Interestingly, there's a common thread between these top notch souvenir shops -- the UFO Museum also offers music, not unlike Elvis'. Well, if you figure they're both based on an octave scale. It's a cassette of a song by Leon Rubenhold called "Down in Roswell" which includes the sing-along chorus of "Down in Roswell, New Mexico. Down in Roswell, we have a right to know." And as if that's not enough, there's also a T-shirt that shows a flying saucer with a sign hanging from it that reads "Looking for Elvis."I have to admit that I've bought very few souvenirs on the road, but I did buy a few at Graceland and the UFO Museum. That just shows what a good friend I am. Hey, I could have given everyone the same souvenir most people give their friends -- a two-hour slide show featuring overexposed shots of every mile of every road they traveled.

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