100-Proof Americana

Our Towns: An Introduction

Jan 8, 2004
Outside Magazine
best towns America

   Photo: Jonathan Sprague

Welcome to Funville

Which small hip town is the best for enjoying the great outdoors?

AMERICA PICKED UP AND MOVED to the big city generations ago, and we've been second-guessing ourselves ever since. For every stifled small-town kid champing at the bit to split, there are a thousand grown-ups yearning to return—even if only for a weekend. We crave the comfort of community, but want wilderness and possibilities for wandering right out the back door. We feel an atavistic urge to put ourselves in a place where you have names for the faces. Where you can recognize a man by the tilt of his baseball cap. Where folks are not just citizens but characters. 

Approach any small town with a reverence for what you can learn. Memorize the population sign. Small-town people love to out-small one another, and you must be prepared. Go to the café, order quietly, and eavesdrop shamelessly. Wander the local cemetery, study the headstones, note the spans of birth and death. These stratifications of time compose the foundation of the town. Browse the community bulletin boards and all announcements taped to the gas station door. In short order you will have clues to who has what, who wants what, who can fix your deck, who can stuff your deer, and who can save your soul.

Drive the outskirts. Consider the look of the town in the rearview mirror, as opposed to through the windshield, and think about how you feel; happiness can be a matter of global positioning. More to the point, if you find yourself trapped behind an old man doing 35 in a 45, don't figure out a way to pass him—figure out a way to be him. And for the love of Pete, don't moo at the cows.

Temper your expectations. The sepia tones of small-town life have been digitized. Little gray satellite dishes are everywhere. Your average bib-overalled rustic is conversant on topics ranging from T-bills to transgender bull riding. But if you are patient, the timeless things—a friendly wave, a seat and a howdy at the breakfast counter, the sounds of nothing much happening—can be yours. Ease on in—truly becoming part of a small town is a more passive than active process. Announcing your presence on arrival will set you back 20 years. Just nod at folks. Eventually someone will nod back. And then you will begin to feel at home.