Greg Cayea holds the Guinness World Record for the longest road trip in the world, having traveled more than 30,000 miles across America in three months. He's back, with endless stories to tell about the country's lesser-known corners. Here's Greg:
Small American towns and two-lane highways are the thread that keep the fabric of America pumping with culture and history. Some of the most interesting towns are, for some reason, rarely talked about, and often never even heard even heard of by regular folk who don’t drive 36,123 miles weaving up and down every state in search of the perfect place to live. Turns out a town like that doesn’t even exist! However, I did find a few parts of the country that I’d like to chat with you about, that curiously, never seem to be the talk of the town. Let me shine the light on them!
Here are ten of my favorite underdog towns in America:
1. Ouray, Colorado
From historic mining town to famous sulfur-free hot springs attraction, Ouray is one of the more beautiful towns in Colorado. Very off the beaten path, just a bit North of Telluride and about 8,000 feet above sea level, you’ll find this Rocky Mountain town a bit hidden off highway 550. It’s a touristy spot, with a signature tourist attraction: a big hot-springs-styled spa spouting steam from a resort-like organic pool. But here’s the kicker… it has no tourists. This little nook, blanketed by the Rockies, is the perfect surprising vacation spot whether you’re on a budget or not. And if you need some romance to kick the ol’ gears back in motion, or if you want to surprise your lover to prove you’re still adventurous… it makes for a very tasteful getaway.
2. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
This is probably the weirdest place in America, and if you know of anywhere weirder, please write the second installment of this article. Pigeon Forge is right at the outset of the Smoky Mountains National Park entrance. The town consists of a long drag, a strip that runs for miles, full of nothing but country music themed go-carts and s***ty one-off adventure rides. There are dinner theaters and music venues oddly programmed with family-oriented shows and it’s home to Dollywood, in case you haven’t yet been. Quite simply, it’s a young southern teenager’s wet dream. Lotta Nascar fans here.
3. Alpine, Texas
This is one of my favorite little towns in Texas. Alpine is a bit East of Marfa, and about a hundred or so miles north of Big Bend National Park. Right by Mexico on a high plateau in the Chihuahua Desert, the town maintains an authentic downtown look with no chain stores or modern architecture. It’s very much a wild-west cowboy town but with a slight mix of some college students from Sul Ross State University. And where there’s a college, you’re sure to find a centrally-located café. Plaine Coffe sits on the corner of two desert roads, serves cold brew, and I’ll bet the barista probably voted for Bernie. Sorry Texas, but it’s just a hunch.
4. Jerome, Arizona
In the Black Hills overlooking the Verde Valley from 5,000 feet in the air, on the outskirts of Sedona, is an old copper-mining town called Jerome. With a population of only 450 people, the historic ghost town is nothing but biker bars and haunted houses with weird Halloween skeletons hanging from below the window-sills of vacant resorts, now turned into stylish B&Bs. There are a bunch of museums and isolationists and artists and all kinds of crafty folk in this town. You can walk into pretty much any shop and buy a pair of brass knuckles, a samurai sword, a political T-shirt, a cowboy hat, and an Arizona-themed bong. To sum it up, Jerome is the most functioning ghost town in America.
5. Moab, Utah
Moab is red-rock paradise. It’s the epitome of the Southwest, with the Colorado river running right next to it. Centered between six national parks — Canyonlands, Arches, Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion — Moab offers a unique community of snowboarders, mountain bikers, nature enthusiasts, hippies, rock climbers, local artisans, and musicians. If Flagstaff and Boulder had a threesome with Alpine and one of them got pregnant, Moab would be born. I found this town while I was looking for a place to sleep and googled "hostels in Utah," and a small joint called the Lazy Lizard popped up. I drove there in the middle of the night and awoke to Earth-jutting mountain-sized red rocks growing from the ground in every direction. The whole town looks like a National Park, with great outdoor activities and good local grub running up and down the main street, it’s easy to see why people leave their hometowns and settle in Moab. It’s a Southwestern postcard-looking paradise.
6. Pioneertown, California
Pioneertown is bizarre. It’s an unincorporated village right by Joshua Tree National Park that nearly burned down completely in the Sawtooth Complex Fire in 2006. It started out as a Western movie set that provided housing for all the actors while filming, so they didn’t have to trek back and forth from Los Angeles to the real wild west every day. But now it’s an eclectic enclave with a few pieces of commerce to keep the town afloat, and some genuine locals that appear to be at a never-ending music festival, based on their attire. Oh, and Pappy and Harriet’s restaurant and music venue is still standing, having been there since the beginning. They still invite bands from all over and house audiences of all sizes. Simply put, the town still looks like a movie-studio attraction, but it’s real, and you cannot believe it actually exists, even as your feet are covered in the dusty, pavement-less road that makes up the entire town.
7. Biloxi, Mississippi
Biloxi still stands after hurricane Katrina nearly wiped it off the face of the Earth. Mississippi feels like the most Southern place on Earth, and Biloxi is one of its shiny rubies that everyone should experience. Today, it’s a bustling casino town with endless nightlife and long stretches of white sandy beaches along the gulf coastline. If you can’t make it to Vegas, or don’t want to, Biloxi makes for a fine substitute. Plenty of luxurious hotels and actual hospitality when you’re checking in, it’s the perfect vacation spot for any couple looking for something a bit out of the ordinary… or any gambling addict that’s been blacklisted from Reno. You get serious bang for your buck in this beachfront city, which is probably one of my favorite attributes. Where else can you find Vegas on a calm, white, sandy beach?
8. Port Jefferson, New York
Most people think of Long Island and they think a few things. First, maybe Montauk and the Hamptons and all those fancy beachy towns. Then you might think of the Gold Coast, or the Northshore of Nassau County. But deep into Suffolk County, on the North Fork of the island, is a town full of young tattooed families that don’t want to live too close to the city, neither do they want to live on a winery or farm a bit further inland on Long Island. So, they move to the maritime-esque port town of Port Jefferson, full of boutique cafes and handmade jewelry shops with hilly neighborhoods to boot. It’s affordable and classy and makes you feel like you’re living on vacation. In the summer, it doesn’t get much better, and for some reason, it’s not often talked about. Oh, and if you want to escape New York, take the ferry to Connecticut ‚ it's right there.
9. Winthrop, Washington
The town of Winthrop is at the entrance of North Cascades National Park in Northern Washington, right on the border of Canada. The small town of 350 first lured people to migrate with high hopes of striking gold. The Methow River runs through the middle of town and the main street still maintains an American, old-West type of architecture, which has made it a bit of a tourist attraction even though the national park doesn’t seem to get the proper attention it deserves. It’s home to small, ski-resort hotels, bookstores, and local restaurants to feed, house, and entertain those that make the trek to the most underrated national park in the United States — in my opinion — North Cascades, or the few ski mountains right around the corner.
10. Wiscasset, Maine
Another town filled with historic architecture, Wiscasset’s New England charm is all around — it offers the Maine Heritage Village, and it's known as the home of the best lobster roll anywhere. That's thanks to Red’s Eats, one of the two competing roadside lobster shacks that give Wiscasset the lobster crown. The town is struggling economically, so it’s worth tossing them some business if you’re driving down coastal Maine along the many bodies of water to your west and the Atlantic to your east. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the country — like the Pacific Coast Highway of the East coast. Oh, and it also has the smallest church in the world. So, if you’ve got a few small sins — stop here and atone!
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