One thing I truly love about traveling this great country of ours is its abundance of odd off-the-highway tourist traps. Dylan and I were on a muy romantico trip to Solvang, a faux Danish town whose oddness warrants its own discussion. On our way from Highway 101 to the town, we passed a sign near Buellton: OSTRICHLAND USA. Naturally, we had to go.
Ostrichland USA — which, in my mind, is a Bizarro World version of Opryland USA, except with animatronic country-singin’ flightless birds — looked a little run-down from the outside, but shouldn’t this sort of place lack polish? We parked before walking into a small gift shop that offered ostrich plumes, feathered pens, hokey souvenir tees, enormous eggshells, ostrich-themed masks, and ostrich meat. I loved it right away. Inside, an Ostrichland USA employee charged us each $4 admission, which was such a phenomenal deal that we dropped a few bucks more to feed the birds.
“Now, they’re faster than you might think,” the woman said, handing us each a dustpan with a bowl screwed into it. “So hold on to the pan with both hands. And don’t get too close, because they’ll snap at you. And don’t think about trying to pet them, because they’re strong. Now, you two have fun.” It was then that I noticed the signs releasing Ostrichland USA from liability for any nibbles or ensuing bloodshed that may result from feeding the birds. Outside, where more than a dozen ostriches congregated in the feeding area, a sign read, “Yes! We like to bite!” Superb.
You could say the birds were penned in, but as I looked around, I realized that we were penned in by their larger enclosure. A four-feet-tall wooden fence separated us from the ostriches, which looked mellow from a distance. As we approached, they cocked their heads and eyed us curiously. They’re ridiculous-looking creatures, with bodies seemingly Frankensteined from snakes, dinosaurs, and birds. Their necks craned and undulated in serpentine waves, while their enormous two-toed feet stomped the dust. What a marvel, evolution.
Ostrichland USA had a few ostrich facts on display, none of which hinted at how much more powerful the birds are than yours truly. It’s fine and well to learn that ostriches actually don’t stick their heads in the sand, but facts about this flightless bird abound. Had I known some of them, I may not have approached the birds. For instance, did you know that the ostrich is the world’s fastest two-legged animal and can keep a steady pace of more than 30 miles an hour? Or that with its sharp toe claws, an ostrich can disembowel a human with a single blow? Or that an ostrich can cover up to 16 feet in a single leap? I didn’t know these delightful nuggets at the time, but I instinctively made Dylan feed the birds first.
As an animal lover and longtime vegetarian, I like to imagine that animals like me as much as I like them. The ostriches easily did away with that notion. As soon as I was within snapping range, their necks shot out toward the food, and they quickly pecked the food pellets from the dustpan-bowl. The frenzy was fast and, while not violent, was in a nearby uneasy realm. I remember laughing a lot, but it was uncomfortable, ha-ha-this-is-terrifying laughter.
The birds ate the food impressively quickly, at which point we had little to do but stroll around the grounds. Some of the young ostriches and emus were cute in a bizarre way, and one ostrich seemed convinced that my camera was food. (I stayed at least four feet away.) Some children were perilously close to the fence that divided humans and birds, which provoked me to ask the proprietor a question as I bought a postcard.
“So… how often are children bitten here?” I asked.
She looked at me, pulled out a big smile, and smoothly said, “Oh, we’ve never had any problems with that happening.”
I didn’t believe her, but here’s the thing. This is why I love roadside oddities, the curious off-the-beaten-track places that are memorable and endangered. Some are seedy; some, like this one, are just amusing. Their worn signs and simplicity are the draw, the reason I always want to stop. I hope I always will.