Small town, U.S.A.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

The American version of Shangri-La comes with a white picket fence around the yard and a baked apple pie cooling on the windowsill.

Small towns are the nation's favorite image of itself. The enduring popularity of Norman Rockwell's homey prints may be evidence enough of the national love affair with Main Street, U.S.A.

But for those seeking hard numbers, consider that 62 percent of American adults -- about 87 million people -- spent part of their vacation visiting a small town at least once over the previous three years, according to a May 2001 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America.

Many come back to stay. The Census Bureau recently reported that in the 1990s, 2 million-plus more people moved to small towns from urban centers and suburbs than went in the other direction, reversing a 100-year trend.

All this before Sept. 11 made these littler worlds seem like safe havens from the anxieties of the big city.

The exact address of the very best small town in America has jumped around the map.

Elko, Nev. Mount Vernon, Wash. Nashua, N.H. Ithaca, N.Y. Simi Valley, Calif. All have topped some magazine or institute's list of the best small towns in the country.

Places from Cayucos, Calif., to Livingston, Mont., to Williamstown, Mass. have been pumped up with civic pride or feared a flood of out-of-staters heading their way after earning a place on somebody's best-burgs tally sheet.

The latest list to make a ripple came from Men's Journal, which this year named its "50 Best Places to Live" in the United States. Men's Journal's measures included everything from the male-to-female ratio (this is Men's Journal, after all) to cancer rates and land prices.

"There are certain things a man wants out of a town: clean air, access to the outdoors, nice neighbors, maybe a good bar," said the introduction to the magazine's list.

The winner: Driggs, Idaho.

I've never been to Driggs, but I have passed through dozens of small towns on my travels over the years. My personal favorites tend to have clean air and nice people, and a good bar helps (especially if it has a local beer on tap). But I also like towns that have a tale to tell.

So here is my highly unscientific, totally arbitrary list of my favorite small towns. Not the best -- there are too many contenders still to be visited. Favorites. I had a good time in each and think you might, too.

The list, roughly west to east:

Talkeetna, Alaska: An end-of-the-road town in an end-of-the-road state. Talkeetna is the last stop on a 14-mile spur road that splits off from the Parks Highway about two hours north of Anchorage. The town's main drag dead-ends at a rushing river. The only way out of town is to make a U-turn and go back the way you came.

Nobody is passing through Talkeetna (population 363). You have to seek it out. Talkeetna is home to a small air force of sightseeing planes that buzz around Mount Denali. Stay at the rustic Talkeetna Roadhouse, where you'll likely share breakfast with hikers and climbers making their way to the tallest summit in North America. Talkeetna Denali Visitor Center, (800) 660-2688, www.alaskan.com/talkeetnadenali/.

Kapaau, Big Island, Hawaii: Like Talkeetna, this is a town on the road to nowhere. Keep heading northeast on Highway 270 and you'll dead-end into the misty scalloped cliffs at Pololu Valley Lookout. Once home to six sugar mills that in 1883 produced 7,000 tons of the sweet stuff, North Kohala is now one of the last sleepy backwaters on the Big Island.

It's always rainy here, making for a lush tropical landscape -- a nice antidote to the endlessly rocky and volcanic (though unfailingly sunny) stretches inhabited by the west coast resorts. It's hard to get lost -- just 1,083 people call Kapaau home. Visit the Kamehamaha Statue, rescued from a 19th-century shipwreck, and the nearby Makapala Chapel.

Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, (808) 329-1758, www.kona-kohala.com/. A good Web site is www.gohawaii.com.

Petaluma, Calif.: If you've watched the movies "American Graffiti" or "Peggy Sue Got Married," you've seen Petaluma. Celebrated as the quintessential 1950s-style town, it has boomed in recent years, with the population plumping up to 54,548 -- surpassing the mythical 50,000-mark that traditionally defines what is or isn't a small town.

Weekends can feel overcrowded, and the nearby 50-store outlet mall hawking Ann Taylor leftovers doesn't lend itself to the mom-and-pop-store atmosphere small-town devotees seek. Still, on an off-season weekday, few places can match the slowed-down, old-time feel of Petaluma Boulevard, with its Victorian buildings housing bookstores and secondhand shops.

The town's agricultural past is celebrated each April with the Butter and Egg Days Parade. The town is conveniently located for visitors to San Francisco or the Napa-Sonoma wine country. Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, (707) 762-2785, www.petalumachamber.com.

Corvallis, Ore.: If I hit the jackpot tomorrow, I'd quit the rat race and move here. You'd soon find me at the New Morning Bakery with a big mug of coffee and a cinnamon roll, scanning the local real estate listings. I would hardly be the first -- the town has ballooned to 49,322 in recent years as word of its charms spread.

A pretty college town in the Willamette Valley, Corvallis has that nostalgic Rexall Drug Store on Main Street ambience, while being hip enough to have a couple of good restaurants and micro-brew bars. Add a few good independent bookstores, a climate and soil that makes my green-thumb wife swoon, no state sales tax, 50 parks and 60 miles of bike paths, and you have a potent recipe for the good life. Corvallis Visitors and Convention Bureau, (800) 334-8118, www.visitcorvallis.com.

Bisbee, Ariz.: I love old mining towns, and this village of 6,090 mostly non-miners just beyond Tombstone, on the road southeast of Tucson, is one of the best. Stay at the Copper Queen Hotel in the Teddy Roosevelt Suite or out at the Shady Dell, a collection of shiny metallic Airstream trailers parked across the highway from a huge copper mining pit.

Tour the Lavender Pit, where 380 million tons of ore were ripped out of the ground, or visit the collection of artisan shops that have opened in the old storefronts of the twisting roads that hug the hillsides. Greater Bisbee Chamber of Commerce, (520) 432-5421, www.bisbeearizona.com.

Ennis, Mont.: Ennis is one of my serendipity towns -- places where I hadn't planned on stopping, but was sure glad when I did. The population has boomed to 884 people since the days when the sign on the edge of town boasted "660 people, 11 million trout." Most people come for the fishing and hunting. But I spent most of my visit enjoying the icy cold rivers, the big blue sky and a downtown that seems to have one foot in the Wild West and the other in an REI outfitters catalog. Ennis Chamber of Commerce, (406) 682-4388, www.ennischamber.com.

Mitchell, S.D.: The centerpiece of this Great Plains town of 14,588 is the Corn Palace, the Empire State Building of American folk art. Since 1892, locals have decorated the town's auditorium with fantastic historical-themed murals made out of the ears, husks and dried nibbles of corn. The perfect place to take in a small-town Fourth of July parade, led by the local Dakota Wesleyan University Marching Band. Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 257- 2678, www.cornpalace.org.

Americus, Ga.: The "big town" (population 17,013) just up the road from Jimmy Carter's place in Plains (population 637-- not counting Secret Service agents). While Carter's presidential political legacy may be debatable, his effect on the area's tourism isn't.

The chance to attend Sunday school taught by an ex-president keeps a steady flow of tourists coming to Americus. Many of them stop in for the night at the lovely Victorian-era Windsor Hotel or take in a show at the handsomely restored Rylander Theatre.

The headquarters of the Carter-supported Habitat for Humanity charity helps give Americus a more cosmopolitan flavor than other Southern towns of its size. Americus-Sumter Chamber of Commerce, (229) 924-2646, www.americus-sumterchamber.com/.

Lititz, Pa.: I used to live just down the road in Lancaster, a place that sells itself as the center of the simpler universe envisioned by the Amish. When we wanted to get away from the tourist crush in Lancaster, we'd often head up the pike to Lititz, where the Sturgis Pretzel House (which says it's the nation's oldest pretzel maker) still churns out its twisted treats as it has since 1861. Nearby the Wilbur Chocolate Co. factory fills the air with the sweet scents from its bubbling vats.

The General Sutter Inn is the onetime home of the guy who owned the mill in Sacramento where gold was discovered in 1849. He settled back in Pennsylvania.

Just 9,029 people call it home. Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau, (717) 299-8901, www.800padutch.com.

Dublin, N.H.: New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and western Massachusetts are practically a catalog of great small towns, with their village greens typically flanked by the church on one side and the town hall on the other.

Dublin is my favorite. Partly because the town of 1,533 is home to the Old Farmer's Almanac and its sister publication, Yankee Magazine, whose small offices send out the tales of the rural paradises to be found in the northeast corner of the U.S.A.

The editors need to look no further than out their windows to find a fine example of the type: an angular white church with a skyscraping steeple, Georgian-style red brick buildings, and lots of maple trees that turn fiery red and orange in the autumn. Visit New Hampshire, (800) 386-4664. A good Web site is www.keenenh.com/towns/dublin.htm.

Cooperstown, N.Y.: Though it has just 2,032 full-time residents, the village can sometimes seem overrun with visitors, and its shops catering to the hordes of summertime tourists have a bad case of the faux colonial "cutes." Still, Cooperstown on a late autumn midweek day has the idyllic charm of a classic small American town. It's an image that's closely tied to the mythology of its main drawing card, the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

A story, since widely debunked, had a Civil War general inventing the game in the New York burg. It may not be true, but after strolling the leafy streets and peeking into the white-framed windows of the red brick buildings on the main street, you'll wish it were. Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce, (607) 547-9983 or www.cooperstownchamber.org/.

Annapolis, M.D.: The fantasy of what an American seaport should be, with shady sidewalks, brick-lined streets and colonial-era town houses. Annapolis isn't just another nautical-themed Atlantic Coast village living off its past. As it is home of the U.S. Naval Academy, its streets are filled with young men and women in crisp white uniforms training for careers at sea.

Annapolis is also the capital of Maryland. A lot of pull for a town of only 35,838 residents. Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau, (410) 280-0445, www.visit-annapolis.org.

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