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Welcome to weird, wonderful America; so much more than LA’s swaying palms and the towering skyscrapers of NYC. On the lost highways and bi-ways of the United States, you’ll find Instagram holiday pics that are out of this world –you just have to know where to look! Here are eight insider tips to make your US trip something totally fresh.
A dusty highway in the middle of the Nevada desert is your path to outer space. Running alongside the vast Nellis Air Force Base, home of the mysterious Area 51, the Extraterrestrial Highway is so named because of the many UFOs seen hovering on the horizon, the strange lights zigzagging across the sky, and the bug-eyed, bald-headed Martians that are constantly trying to flag a ride (probably). Don your X-Files t-shirt and keep your camera and the ready because THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.
The Giant Arrows
Looking for a truly unique US road trip? How about a country-scale scavenger hunt? One truly unique way to see America is to follow the trail of the giant arrows, a forgotten set of markers mapping a path all the way from San Francisco to New York City. Measuring up to 70 feet (21 metres) in length, the giant concrete arrows were embedded in the ground in the 1920s to help guide US Mail planes across the country, but they soon became obsolete. With many of the arrows consumed by development, the remaining markers are gems of hidden history. Check this map for the remaining arrows and get set for a one-of-a-kind adventure.
A haven for misfits, eccentrics and artists, Slab City is “the last free place in America”, a lawless settlement of drifters who are living off the grid. Located in Southern California near the bones of the Salton Sea, The Slab is decorated with monumental works of outsider art, including the Bible pop majesty of Salvation Mountain and the wild sculptural madness of East Jesus – a living, growing art museum built from rust, salvage and dreams. You’ll meet real Americans in Slab City, in all their gnarly glory.
Out in far west Texas lies the town of Marfa, population: 2000. Once the site of a US Army base, Marfa is now one of the most strange and magical small towns in America – the last hipster outpost on the high desert plains. Artist Donald Judd moved there in 1971 and established the Chinati Foundation, a living art museum almost taken over by tumbleweeds, housing huge sculptural works including light works by Dan Flavin. Around Chinati has blossomed a unique contemporary art culture – a remote installation called Prada Marfa, the Marfa Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour and Ballroom Marfa, where bands including The xx, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo have recorded and played.
The House on the Rock
Built in 1959 by a rejected student of Frank Lloyd Wright, The House On The Rock is Wisconsin’s most oddball attraction. Jam-packed with objects and curios, the vast complex includes an outdoor section called ‘The Streets of Yesterday’, re-creating an early 20th century American town. A 61-metre whale-like monster dominates ‘The Heritage of the Sea’ zone while ‘The Music of Yesterday’ area showcases ghostly, automated instruments and “the world’s largest indoor carousel”. The centrepiece is the creaking ‘Infinity Room’, a tunnel room with 3000 windows that stretches 66 unsupported metres over the surrounding forest.
The Corn Palace
The Corn Palace is a monument to the grain that makes South Dakota great. The community hall in the town of Mitchell is a Moorish Revival building topped with minarets – a bit of Middle Eastern flavour in America’s Midwest – which each year is entirely covered with epic corn-based mosaics. For more than a hundred years, the people of Mitchell have been decorating the Corn Palace, celebrating the change of art at the annual Corn Palace Festival. Visit around August to eat local produce, take a carnival ride and watch the royal temple of maize don a fabulous new dress.
The Cincinnati Subway
In the early part of the 20th century, the town fathers of Cincinnati, Ohio began a doomed engineering project, draining the fetid Eerie Canal to 3.5 kilometres of underground subway tunnels. The project was abandoned in 1928, but the tunnels remain – the largest disused subway network in America. Brave urban explorers can head underground to wander the vast caverns and subterranean stations, where the ghosts of workers killed in the subway’s construction are said to roam free.
Lily Dale, New York
Lily Dale is a small hamlet in upstate New York where everyone knows everyone else’s business…because the town is entirely populated by psychics! Founded in the late 19th century, Lily Dale is the home of America’s spiritualist movement, which believes in a thin boundary between the living and the dead. Walk among the leafy trees to visit the Forest Temple, contemplate your life’s purpose at Inspiration Stump or book in with one of Lily Dale’s 200 resident mediums to glimpse through the fog of the future.
Honourable mention: A night at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. There’s a super majestic rock structure near Morrison, Colorado where concerts are given in the open-air amphitheatre. It has this huge disc-shaped rock behind the stage with a huge vertical rock angled outwards from stage right, several large ledges coming outwards from stage left and seating or up to 9,525 people in between. The line-up always complements the scenery with dreamy acts like Disclosure, The Flaming Lips, Jamie XX and Modest Mouse. Magic.
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Don’t just hit the tired old tourist trails. Turn your American trip into a real adventure and make sure you visit the beautiful, refreshing Rocky Mountains – home of Coors, the world’s most refreshing beer. Visit or follow on Facebook
Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and frequent flyer. She has written for The Age, The Monthly, triple j Mag, Paper Sea, Faster Louder and various other publications, and appeared on ABC Radio National, triple j and Melbourne's 3RRR FM. She has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark 'Chopper' Read, and she stashes a lot of her writing here.