4 Weird Places Found Roadtripping America’s West

Though the social media firestorm has died down a bit since the fateful U.S. election a couple weeks ago, every conversation we’ve had with friends and family back home has had a slightly apocalyptic air to it. No one expected this outcome. Thinking about it though, we shouldn’t be so surprised by the bizarre turn of events in which we will soon have “an angry draft-dodging little orange groundhog” as our President (thanks to our fav Jon Stewart for that magical string of adjectives).

But in all seriousness, America is weird.  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, and rather than despair over the current state of U.S. politics and life, we wanted to revisit some of the weirdest places and experiences we had during our road trip around 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. 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!

bar-gernika_

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.

basque-mural

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 throughout the Western portion of the U.S., and got us even more excited for our upcoming move to Spain.

sjb-its-great-to-be-basque_

sjb-basque-restaurant

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.”

welcome-to-fabulous-las-vegas-2

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.

We felt right at home (not). Note the roller coaster.
The resemblance to the actual city of New York is amazing! Right down to the roller coaster!
location-location-shopulation
Yay consumerism!
Who needs to go to the real Grand Canyon only a few hours away when you can just have the experience in Vegas?
Who needs to go to the real Grand Canyon only a few hours away when you can just have the experience in Vegas?

 

This wedding chapel was located directly next to a 711 parking lot.
This wedding chapel was located directly next to a 711 parking lot.
No...it can't be...oh wait, yes, yes that is a 24/hour drive-through wedding window.
No…it can’t be…oh wait, yes, yes that is a 24/hour drive-through wedding window.
As we drove further down the strip, we got to the older Las Vegas. The nostalgic look was at least a little more interesting and not so opulent.
As we drove further down the strip, we got to the older Las Vegas. The nostalgic look was at least a little more interesting and not so opulent.

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.

cornucopia-slanty-house

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.

halfway-car-and-church halfway-liquor-store

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).

Mist rising off the hot springs.

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 old surgery room, complete with torn old surgery table.
The old surgery room, complete with torn old surgery table.

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!

This room was left in its unrenovated condition to show what the hotel looked like in its abandoned state.
This room was left in its unrenovated condition to show what the hotel looked like in its abandoned state.
All of the old surgery equipment was shoved into a dark room off the main hallway.
All of the old surgery equipment was shoved into a dark room off the main hallway.
A life-size doll sat propped up in a room set up to demonstrate what the hotel looked like when it was a sanatorium. Could it get any creepier?!
A life-size doll sat propped up in a room set up to demonstrate what the hotel looked like when it was a sanatorium. Could it get any creepier?!

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.

hot-lake-hallway

Being open and flexible to spontaneous experiences is part of our travel philosophy. Roadtripping around the US 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!

roadtripping America's West

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been?

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Sam and Veren have joined forces to become the Internet Blogging superhero, AlternativeTravelers. Blending two creative styles (and stubborn brains) together - some would call this a miracle.
  • Practical Wanderlust

    This is fantastic! My husband is also Spanish Basque (we’re going to Spain to explore the area next month!) and his family has a little Basque community in Bakersfield, California – there’s a great Basque restaurant there named Wool Growers!

    • That’s so cool! I’ve heard Bakersfield is a hot spot for the Basque diaspora too, but we ended up only passing through there because we got a little behind in our roadtrip haha!

      Whereabouts in Basque Country are you going? I love the whole region, it’s so beautiful and the history and culture is fascinating. If you pass through Madrid let me know – we live there and love showing people around =)

      • Practical Wanderlust

        Honestly there’s not much to see in Bakersfield, you didn’t miss out 😛 We’re tentatively passing through Bilbao and Santander in Basque Country., as part of our road trip And we are planning to pass through Madrid, we’d love to meet up! Email me and we can chat 🙂

  • Haha we’re going to Las Vegas at the beginning of Feb! I’m kind of scared to now!! 😀

    • Haha I’m sure there are some cool things away from the Strip. I’ve heard there are some beautiful natural parks nearby and there is also a legendary vegan place called Vegenation that we somehow missed. I think more what bugged me is that Las Vegas is in the top 5 most visited places in the U.S., and I’m like “ahhh our country is not like this at all!” Though then part of me thinks, maybe this is the epitome of U.S. consumerism, lol. Anyway I’m curious how your trip goes! How long are you staying?

      • I’ve wanted to go since I was about 6, and feel like I owe it to younger me (even if she has zero taste)! Vegenation sound dope! Oo is it going to be like a theme park version of the US!! Consumerism is so disgusting! But can be fun to look at I think. Just for three days, we’re ‘ticking off’ three places we’ve always wanted to see: San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas 😀

        • Haha yeah you’re totally right, it was kind of amusing how absurd it all was. I mean a Coca Cola bottle the size of a building? It was so weird. And nice – Cali life! Hehe =) I’m sure you’ll have tons of fun!

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