You don’t travel with, or indeed work for YPT if your favourite places to visit are on the well-established tourist path. Having lived abroad for a few years now, I’ve gotten the chance to speak with a lot of people from around the world who’ve visited the US, and find I’m often disappointed by the places they choose to visit. New York City and San Francisco always top the list, and while the two aren’t bad places to visit, I really don’t think they represent the most interesting things to see in my home country.
This doesn’t just apply to people from outside the US – many of us at home have the tendency to plan our vacations to one of three places: the beach, the city, or the national park. But anyone who’s taken the quintessential long-distance road trip through the US has seen the kind of places that make the best stories – places that are just a little bit off and weird, somewhere that just gave you the creeps in the kind of way that might have totally freaked you out at the time but you remembered for longer than your trip to Palm Springs.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of my favourite weird places I’ve come across at ‘home’ – some creepy, some kitsch, and some just plain weird.
The Branch Dividians swimming pool – Waco, Texas
For the uninitiated, the Branch Davidians were a religious group that originated as an offshoot of an offshoot of the 7th Day Adventists. If that still doesn’t mean anything to you, a cursory internet search will quickly reveal the nuances of these rather strange orthodox sects. The Branch Davidians took weird religion and made it even weirder, hunkering down in a compound in Waco, Texas. The history of the church’s formation is definitely worth a read it and of itself.
Well, in 1993 the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) was investigating the Branch Davidians on suspicion of having illegal weapons. They headed over to the compound, attempting a raid, and wound up in a standoff which lasted 51 days and left a total of 76 dead. Crazy, right?
Nowadays, the only surviving part of the compound is the swimming pool, which, if you wanted to, you can visit. It’s a strange and dark little relic of religious extremism/cultism in the United States and definitely worth a stop on a road trip through Texas.
Roswell, New Mexico
As tempting as it was for me to make this list entirely things in my home state of New Mexico, I held strong. But Roswell certainly deserves a spot on this list. You’ve definitely heard of Roswell – you know the places with the aliens? Not to be confused with Roswell, Georgia (the state, not the country) but the one with the ‘aliens’ is in New Mexico.
The whole Roswell-alien thing came about in 1947 when a ‘UFO’ (claimed by the US government to simply be a US Air Force weather balloon) crashed at a ranch near Roswell. Somehow, this sparked a slew of conspiracy theories questioning the government’s claim and theorizing that this ‘UFO’ came from outer space.
Being the good sports that they are (and having literally nothing else to attract people to their tiny city in the middle of nowhere), Roswell took the alien theme and ran with it. My favourite alien-themed novelties of Roswell are the yearly UFO festival, the small and super kitsch Roswell UFO Museum, the alien-head streetlamp globes, and perhaps best of all, the UFO-shaped McDonalds.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else to do in the city of Roswell (except hanging out in the pool at my sister’s house), so you’ll probably want to make this a day trip on your cross-country road trip. Be sure to eat some delicious New Mexico Green Chile while you’re there, too.
Conveniently located in the middle-of-nowhere, Nevada, Tonopah is an old mining towns that relies on people driving through’s cars breaking down long enough to drop some cash there. Okay, that’s not *entirely* true, but I’m certain the attractions in Tonopah aren’t the kind of things your average beach holiday goer is interested in.
So, what are these most notable attractions in Tonopah, you ask? How about a creepy clown motel – aptly named ‘The Clown Motel’ located conveniently next to a cemetery. You can’t tell me that isn’t a winning combination for some off-the-beaten-path tourism right there.
“So, Jim, what’d you do on your holiday in Europe?” “Saw the Eiffel Tower, it was pretty cool, what’d you do during your holiday in America?” “You know, the usual, stayed in a clown theme hotel next to a super creepy cemetery. No big deal.”
There’s a few other funky little things to check out here, like old mines, but I really feel like you haven’t lived until you’ve stayed at a place called ‘The Clown Motel’.
Winchester Mystery House – San Jose, California
I first learned about the Winchester Mystery house when I was 13 and doing a project for school. We’d do weekly presentations on some kind of theme, and that week we got to pick whatever we wanted. I’d just entered my I’m-really-cool-and-edgy phase, so I was looking up super creepy haunted places to find something weird to present on. And boy, did I find it!
The full history of the house is worth a read, but basically, it’s a giant mansion that was owned by a woman named Sarah Winchester at some point around the turn of the 20th century. She went a little nuts after her husband and daughter died young, and inherited a ridiculous amount of money. So of course, like any normal woman whose family has just died, Sarah went to see a psychic medium to find out what to do. According to the story, the psychic told Sarah her house was cursed, her family was cursed, and she’d better move out west and build a house for all these haunting spirits to live in. The catch being that she should continue building the house until she dies.
And that’s exactly what she did. Sarah not only continued building this freaky house until she died, but she made it extra creepy for our enjoyment as well. Staircases that go straight to the ceiling, windows and doors that go literally nowhere, secret rooms that are still being discovered to this day – the list goes on.
Of course, there are also plenty of reports of paranormal activity in this house too. Winchester Mystery House does regular tours, including night time flashlight tours for special occasions. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, this house is such an oddity that it’s definitely worth a visit. It’s even close enough to San Francisco to stop by if you can’t manage a full-blown road trip to middle-of-nowhere America.
Slab City, California
Alright, admittedly I haven’t made it to Slab City personally yet, but you can ask YPT’s Lana all about it.
A little excerpt from Lana’s blog for an awesome description of Slab City:
“The short drive from Niland to Slab City is littered with dormant World War 2 viewing platforms and decaying vestiges of the sites’ military past. Once a Marine training base called Camp Dunlap, the base was once expected to prepare the United States Marine Corps for combat, but was abandoned in 1956. Since then the site—soon baptized Slab City (after the concrete slabs which remained from the barracks)—cultivated a community of visitors, travellers, and long-term residents attracted by the remoteness and lawlessness of life deep in the desert. This patch of land is totally decommissioned and uncontrolled. There is no rent, no charge for parking, and no tax.
The site has no official electricity, running water, sewers, toilets, or trash pickup service. This necessitates that the residents have Womble-like resourcefulness; makeshift homes being occasionally made out of old school buses, broken down trailers, or tents with added pallets and blankets for sturdiness, as well as fancy trailers with solar panels and extendable rooms. There’s even a church and a new library. People have survived the incredible heat and lack of state resources on Slab City’s 640 acres for decades. As “squatters” on state-owned land, it’s often referred to as “the last free place in America.” Indeed, many of us may have never even heard of the Slabs had it not been one of the settings featured in the Sean Penn film Into The Wild (2007) (the part where a “16-year-old” Kristin Stewart attempts to seduce the movie’s main character, Christopher McCandless).”
A trip to Slab City will inevitably include meeting a bunch of weird characters with some really cool stories to tell – one of our favourite things about travelling. And, it’s less than a day’s driving from LA!
Colorado City, Arizona / Hildale, Utah
If there’s one thing we do well in America, it’s definitely religious cults. Colorado City/Hildale, formerly known as “Short Creek” and referred to by locals as “The Creek” (pronounced ‘crick’), is the creepy hometown of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As this is a bit of a mouthful, it will hereafter be referred to as FLDS. Not to be confused with your average Mormons/Latter Day Saints Church, the FLDS are a fundamentalist offshoot who refused to stop practicing polygamy. The FLDS have been involved in ongoing scandals involving ‘unlawful sexual conduct’ with minors of varying ages. Former (but possibly still current) church leader/”Prophet” Warren Jeffs was arrested in August 2006 and sentenced to life +20 years in prison for two felony counts of Child Sexual Assault.
Despite the leader of the church being arrested for being a paedophile, the cult lives on. Colorado City definitely isn’t a tourist attraction, and visiting the towns can warrant some undesired reactions from the locals: creepy stares, being filmed, being followed, and even sometimes police harassment. If you’re just driving through and look inconspicuous there’s probably nothing to worry about, but if you’re going about town with a video camera and checking out every little thing you might run into some trouble. If you ever decide to drop in for a visit, do your research and exercise some caution.