What better way to throw cares to the wind than rolling down the window, stepping on the gas and heading off on a cross-country road trip? East, west, north, south—the direction matters little; it’s the thirst for adventure that counts. Satisfaction is found not just in big-city destinations like New York City and Las Vegas but also in the small-town heartland of America, where personal passions for culture, cuisine and general oddities create a folksy panoply of food trails, festivals, museums and attractions.
Get off the beaten path (and out of the car) to see these 10 favorites on the northern and southern routes from coast to coast.
Start: West Coast
America’s hottest road trip follows the Gila River in southeastern Arizona, where a dozen Mexican restaurants, tortilla bakers, saloons and shops show off their spicy masterpieces chopped and diced from local tomatoes and chili peppers. Salsa love burns brightest during the annual SalsaFest, in September, when amateur salsa-preneurs compete for prizes.
The horizon along Route 66, west of Amarillo, Texas, forever changed in 1974, when three artists drove 10 classic Cadillacs nose-down into the ground and created Cadillac Ranch. Lined up in the sand, the battered cars have happily become canvases for spray painters over the years.
Thinking of selling your soul? Then head to the crossroads of highways 61 and 49, where blues legend Robert Johnson made his famous deal with the devil. Oversize guitars now mark the spot that’s just a stone’s throw from the Delta Blues Museum and Ground Zero Blues Club, which complete the experience.
Weeki Wachee, Fla.
Don’t be alarmed by the mermaids casually drying their fins on the banks of Weeki Wachee Springs, a natural spring and state park north of Tampa, Fla. Several times a day, the mermaids tell the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, complete with a battle between the prince and the evil sea witch—all under water, something they’ve been doing for more than 60 years at one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions.
Find the world’s largest musical instrument underground in the massive Luray Caverns in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The Great Stalacpipe Organ plays an unearthly concerto when you gently tap a rubber mallet against ancient stalactites found throughout 3.5 acres of surrounding caverns. Hear the music and tour the geological treasures inside, on guided one-hour tours.
Start: East Coast
Get your fill of flashing neon, funky fonts and advertising kitsch at the American Sign Museum, dedicated to the art of the sign. The collection dates back to the 1800s, with signs painted, carved, gold-leafed, plugged-in and hung on a mocked-up Main Street.
One man’s obsession with collecting magic memorabilia and artifacts was transformed into the American Museum of Magic, a novel museum halfway between Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor. Original posters, handbills and props—including Houdini’s custom-made milk can in which he was handcuffed and tossed into the Detroit River—highlight not only the giants of magic but also thousands of obscure, small-town conjurers.
What else can you do with corn besides boiling, steaming or grilling it? See for yourself at The World’s Only Corn Palace, of course. They’ve been coming up with ingenious things to do with the grain here for more than 120 years. The exterior of the palace is decorated with corn, other grains and native grasses in accordance with each annual theme.
For additional proof that cheese makes everything better, step onto this statewide Oregon Cheese Trail, created by the Oregon Cheese Guild. Benefiting from the state’s rich volcanic soil, and the cows and goats that graze on top, 16 cheesemakers turn out outstanding artisanal versions of chèvre, cheddar, cotija and caveman blue.
This city fell hard for the artichoke in the 1920s and ever since has considered itself the Artichoke Capital of the World. The annual two-day Castroville Artichoke Festival in June brings together artichokes prepared in a myriad ways—fried, sautéed, grilled, marinated, pickled, fresh and creamed—as well as cooking demonstrations, field tours and the crowning of the Artichoke King and Queen.
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By Mike Dunphy
Illustration by Joel Holland