America is weird.
But sometimes it takes leaving your home country to realize the true strangeness of that place. Looking at anything from a distance, whether it be a relationship (platonic or romantic), a particular situation, or even a country, often gives a newfound and sometimes startling perspective.
In this light, we wanted to revisit some of the weirdest places and experiences we found while roadtripping the Western U.S. this summer during housesits in Salt Lake City, and remember that America can be weird in good ways too.
1. The U.S. Basque Diaspora
One of the things we connected on during our first date back in New York was our Basque heritage. The Basques are a fiercely independent people that live on the coast in the north of Spain/south of France and speak Euskera, a language unrelated to any other. (If you’re interested in learning more about the Basque people and language, The Basque History of the World is an amazing book).
My great-grandfather was Spanish Basque (I’m still sad I didn’t inherit that cool Basque last name), and Veren’s grandmother was French Basque. Spending time slowly walking through País Vasco was one of my favorite parts of walking the Camino de Santiago, and I can’t wait to return to the north of Spain.
So imagine our surprise when we made a road trip stop in Boise, Idaho and discovered an enclave of Basques living in the middle of downtown Boise. Our original stop was made for vegan clotted cream and biscuits (disappointing – we ended up getting some Idaho potato fries instead), but we were happy to discover that Boise was a cool little city with a vibrant downtown, cool street art, and of course, Basque history!
The Basque Block is all that survives of a previously much larger community of Basque workers that moved to Idaho from Spain and France to work as sheepherders. The street has a Basque heritage museum, a Basque cultural center, a Basque Bar (Bar Gernika), a 19th-century Basque boarding house, a mural, a Basque market…they even celebrate Basque festivals.
Another bit of Basque randomness came when visiting Veren’s hometown of San Juan Bautista in the Salinas Valley of central California. We were walking around the sleepy town when we came across a Basque restaurant. It was very cool to find little enclaves of Basque culture sprinkled around while roadtripping the Western U.S., and got us even more excited for our upcoming move to Spain.
2. The Las Vegas Strip
We both have adamantly vowed never to step foot within 500 miles of the casino-filled city of all-you-can-eat buffets and marriage chapels on every corner. So naturally, we ended up driving through on our road trip – the only thruway for miles around goes right through the heart of Vegas, but we decided to get off early and drive down the famous Las Vegas Strip so we could successfully say, “Been there, done that, don’t ever need to do it again.”
Veren drove the rental car while Sam snapped a million photos of the opulent consumerism and tourist activity. We’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Warning: comments may contain extreme sarcasm.
3. Halfway, Oregon
Halfway, Oregon, has to be one of the most random spots of the United States that we’ve found ourselves in. It’s the hometown of our good friend Liberty, and when we went to visit him, he took us on the local’s tour of eastern Oregon. Halfway, home to less than 300 people, is curious for a number of reasons, starting with its name, which comes from its location halfway between the towns of Pine and the now-ghost town Cornucopia, which we also visited, despite some apparently new (and menacing) No Trespassing signs.
Not to be left out of the weirdness of the nineties, in 1999 Halfway legally changed its name to Half.com as an advertising gimmick for the company. In exchange, the town received $100,000 and 20 computers for the local school district (though our inside source told us that the computers sucked and the money wasn’t used properly). Now, the few hundred residents are back to using the town’s original name.
The town itself seemed outside of time, and we walked around feeling a little conspicuous in a sleepy town that clearly doesn’t get many outside visitors.
4. Hot Lake Resort, Oregon
Another stop on our local’s tour of Oregon was Hot Lake Resort, built in 1864 as a luxury resort and sanatorium due to the supposed healing benefits of the hot springs on the property. They’re so hot that you can’t go directly in the lake unless you’ll be boiled alive (something that may or may not have happened to a nurse that used to work there).
The complex at Hot Lake took turns after its stint as a sanatorium, later serving as a nurse’s training facility in World War II, a retirement home, and a restaurant, though probably the most notorious usage was when it an insane asylum. With such a history, it’s not surprising that Hot Lake is rumored to be haunted. Visitors and caretakers (though not the current ones) have claimed to hear screaming and crying coming from the surgery room, witness rocking chairs moving on their own, and even a piano that plays of its own accord (a piano that was formerly owned by Robert E. Lee’s wife).
The property stood abandoned from 1991 – 2002 until the current owners bought and began to restore it to its former glory. While it was abandoned, the complex was featured on the Scariest Places on Earth documentary series – yikes!
It was a strange visit as the video at the start of the tour mainly featured the current owner’s artwork, there was barely anyone in the giant complex when we were walking around in the middle of a May afternoon, and there were still many remnants of the building’s past tucked in corners here and there.
Being open and flexible to spontaneous experiences is part of our travel philosophy. Roadtripping the Western U.S. gave us a chance to experience the country in a way we hadn’t before. Try ditching the destination list and your next adventure may surprise you!
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been?