The Best and Worst Places in America
As you can tell from the messy map below, I've traveled a fair bit around the U.S. I've seen more of America than probably anyone
I know. Yes, there are folks who've driven coast-to-coast dozens of times on Interstate freeways, but that's not seeing
America. That's watching an endless stream of McDonalds fly by the windshield. I'm talking about discovering America by traveling
the two-lane highways, reading historical signs, walking the city streets and mountain trails, talking to locals, visiting offbeat attractions,
and learning about this wonderful, amazing country first-hand.
Above: My road trips from 1980-2002. This doesn't include my more recent
trips or the dozens of road trips I took with my family before 1980. Kids, don't try
this at home.
While most of my friends were settling down after college, getting married, buying houses, having kids, climbing the corporate
ladder and stashing away 401(k)s, I was exploring America in my Toyota pickup truck.
So while I got a late start on the "American Dream," I have driven through every state several times, reaching my
50th state, Arkansas, before I was 25. And I've camped in every state except West Virginia (give me time, I'm working on it).
I've also lived in more than 20 cities in eight states so far, in most parts of the country.
wrong with settling down or living your entire life in one town, and sometimes I wish I had that mindset. But I don't. Instead,
I've always wondered what's beyond the horizon and around the next corner.
I don't recommend this type of behavior, since it's not conducive to maintaining relationships and is probably one reason I've never
gotten married or had kids. Heck, who'd want to marry someone whose ideal vacation is hopping in a pickup truck and going for a 5,000 mile
drive while living on Double Whoppers, Nacho Doritos, Krispy Kreme donuts and Pepsi? (Actually I drink Diet Pepsi, not Pepsi, because
I'm a big health food fanatic). But traveling and wanting to experience new places is just in my blood -- along with all that cholesterol from
eating the Whoppers, Doritos and Krispy Kreme donuts.
Knowing how much I've traveled around the U.S., people sometimes ask me where's the best place to live in America. But of course, I
can't answer that, since each state is unique and special in its own way, and everyone looks for different things, and at different times
in their lives. Heck, I can't even tell you where you should go for lunch.
I always laugh whenever I read magazine articles that rank, "The best and worst places to live" in America, because those types
of rankings are ridiculous. Most of the authors have never traveled outside their own cubicle and instead have simply compiled statistics
or are repeating what others have said. I mean, seriously, have these authors actually BEEN to every place in America? I know people
who've moved to places that are usually near the bottom of these lists, like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, who've loved it. And I know folks
who've moved to desireable places, like Austin and San Diego, who've hated them and couldn't pack and leave fast enough. If you're going
to publish a smug ranking like that, at least visit all the places on your list -- and a lot more, so you have a basis for comparison.
As much as I've traveled around this country, I certainly haven't been everywhere. Therefore, I can't tell you where the "best"
place in America is. Maybe it's that little town in Tennessee I bypassed back in 1984 while driving on the Natchez Trace Parkway, or that
village in Vermont I never quite made it to. So instead of listing what I think are the best and worst places to live in America, I'll do
it a little differently and use a mix of criteria, some useful and some inane. Each state has its own personality and quirks and is wonderful
in its own way. And everyone has different opinions about America's best places, which I respect.
But for what it's worth, and based on the places I have been to, I've listed here my opinions about the best and worst of America:
I used to think the South was the friendliest place in America. I've traveled through the South a lot and have found most Southerners to
be pretty courteous and I believe the concept of "Southern Hospitality" is alive and well. On my most recent trip, though, I had some
bad experiences during my several weeks in the South. While I met a lot of incredibly friendly and helpful folks in the South (as I do every time
I go there), I also met a handful of intolerant jerks.
Overall, I think the friendliest place in the U.S. is the rural Midwest,
especially the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. While rural Midwesterners have a reputation for being stodgy and behind the times,
during the three months that I traveled through the Midwest on my most recent trip, I didn't meet
anyone who wasn't nice. Not one person. I only wish the winter weather in the
Midwest was as warm as the people there.
Above left: Some friendly Midwesterners. Here are my grad school friends, Brad and Cynde (left)
in Madison, Wisconsin.
Above center: And some more friendly Madisonians after a few beers.
Above right: Maybe this is why Midwesterners are so friendly. This is the
annual Beer Festival in Madison.
If you're an American who doesn't happen to speak French, like me, the least friendly place in North America is the Canadian province of Quebec.
So my apologies to Celine Dion -- but I'm sure her heart will go on. In the U.S., the least friendly cities are New York, Boston, and
Philadelphia. I always have to steel myself when I visit those cities. While I've met some great folks there, I've met a lot more
who are abrasive, pushy and self-centered.
Florida has the worst drivers, by far. As I learned many years ago when I
lived near Tampa, you take your life into your own hands when you get on the
highways in Florida. Why? Because of the retirees who don't know where the
accelerator is, the spring breaker college kids who don't know where the brake pedal is,
and out-of-state tourists who don't know where they're going. The roads in Florida are a real zoo,
especially in the spring.
The Northwest has the best drivers with the Midwest close behind. Here's how I rank drivers from best to worst:
1. Oregon and Washington
2. The Midwest
3. The Rest of the West
4. The Southeast
5. The Northeast
By the way, if British Columbia were a state, it would
rank below Boston. Now that I've insulted most North Americans, let's move on...
The steepest paved roads are in Colorado. Road elevations here range from 4,000 feet on
the eastern plains to over 12,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Regionally, the steepest paved roads are in the
Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. It doesn't matter if you take U.S. 14 or U.S. 16 through the Bighorns, they'll
both tear up your transmission with their 15% grades. Got brakes?
Above left: Colorado has the steepest roads. Here's my buddy, Ranger Laurie, working on my favorite road in the
Colorado Rockies: Engineer Pass, near Lake City, at 12,800', one of the highest roads in the nation.
Above center: And speaking of steep roads, here I'm heading up into the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. Note
the steep roadcut on the side of the hill up ahead.
Above right: Rock Reef Pass in the Florida
Everglades at a staggering elevation of 3 feet. I better downshift.
Louisiana is the flattest state, though Florida and Illinois are close behind. Louisiana is interesting because you
can drive a hundred miles straight north through the bayous and gain less than 100 feet in elevation. There's standing
water on the sides of the road everywhere in Louisiana -- along with armadillo road kill. Florida is flat, fascinating,
and goofy. Illinois is also pancake-flat but, unlike Florida and Louisiana, it's not very interesting. And speaking of that...
Although Louisiana is pretty interesting, with its endless swamps and its Cajun culture, the most
interesting state is California. I lived there for many years and I think it has more interesting
places, and a more interesting history, than any other state. It's like a microcosm of the U.S.
But it also has more people than any other state, which is why I'll never move back. That and the
outrageously expensive housing.
I like Hoosiers and think they're wonderful and kind people. But to be honest, I think the most boring state is Indiana
because it's flat, plain and dull. Yeah, states farther west like Iowa are just as flat, but at least you can
see things there. Indiana, on the other hand, is covered with trees so there are no vistas... anywhere.
I'm a history buff and always stop to read historical signs along the roadside, but I've never seen one in the Hoosier State.
Utah, hands down. Not only is the Beehive State an unusual place physically, with spectacular mountain ranges in the north and red
sandstone landscapes in the south, but also culturally, with its large Mormon population and polygamist settlements. Yes, despite being
banned by the Mormon church, polygamy quietly thrives in Utah, especially in more rural areas. Demographically, Utah is ranked
either near the top or the bottom of the 50 states in almost every category. As you can tell from the map above, Utah is also one of my
favorite states to visit. But say what you will about Mormonism, it does makes Utah the most unusual state in America.
Above left: An egret in Louisiana, the flattest
state in America -- and one of the most fascinating. C'est bon!
Above center: Here's my wonderful Toyota pickup truck (260,000 miles and counting) at Capitol Reef National
Park in Utah, the most unusual state in America. No polygamists here.
Above right: Everyone knows your name at the Cheers bar in Boston. Boston is
the most snobbish city in America and also has the worst drivers. But despite all that, I still love it!
Texas, by far. I dealt with thousands of Texans every summer when I worked as a ranger in the Colorado Rockies and they're a unique
breed. Yep, Texans are mighty proud to be from Texas -- and they feel sorry for anyone not lucky enough to be born
in Texas. You see the Lone Star flag everywhere in Texas. Yeah, they're arrogant and will brag about being from
Texas, but most of them are pretty friendly. And I do admire their state pride.
Florida is a lovely state but it's just plain weird. There are more strange
tourist attractions in Florida, by far, than any other place in America.
Florida is a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there -- as opposed to the
Midwest, which is a great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there. Well,
actually I did live in Florida once, so I can affectionately say that it's one wacky, tacky place.
Prettiest Capitol Building:
I've visited 45 of the 50 capital cities so far and think the prettiest capitol building is in Madison,
Wisconsin. Madison's capitol looks a lot like the U.S. capitol building,
and when it's lit at night it's absolutely beautiful. Just like the city.
Ugliest Capitol Building:
It's a tie between my home state of Oregon and North Dakota. The North Dakota capitol
in Bismarck, called the "Skyscraper on the Prairie" looks like an office building and
is unremarkable in every way. And North Dakotans wonder why the state has such a bland image.
I love Oregon but its capitol building in Salem is just plain ugly. The capitol dome looks like they
ran out of money while building it and had to put a flat roof on it.
The first time I saw Oregon's capitol building, I figured it wasn't finished yet.
But then I learned that it's been that way for 60 years.
Above left: The beautiful Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison.
Above center: And the not-so-beautiful North Dakota capitol building, the "Skyscaper on the
Prairie." You'd think it was an office building except for that sign in front that says "North Dakota Capitol."
Above right: And along with the "Skyscraper on the Prairie," here's
the "Salem Cigarette Butt." Oregon's capitol building looks like they never finished it. I love
Oregon, but the capitol building... not so much.
California, especially around L.A., where I lived for a few years in my college days. It amazes me how
Californians are in a constant race with their neighbors to earn more money just so they can buy more stuff.
There's an insidious and constant materialistic pressure there that's both sad and repugnant, and I feel it every time I visit.
Not that my friends in California are sad and repugnant, though. On the contrary. They're happy and... pugnant.
Vermont and the Dakotas. Many folks in these three states don't have a lot of money or
things, but they're well-grounded and relationships mean a lot more here than "stuff".
Vermont is incredibly different from the neighboring states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York, with
down-to-earth values and a slower pace of life. The folks in North and South Dakota are also terrific and, in
many ways, embody what's best about Americans.
New England and especially Massachusetts. Connecticut is a close second. The aristocrats in these states don't like to
associate with people whose ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower in 1620. Jeez, mine "only"
came over in 1626, so I'm a veritable newcomer! Along with having the worst drivers, Boston is the
most snobbish city in America. But despite that, it's also one of the most fascinating cities in the U.S. and
a place I truly love. Charleston, South Carolina (another fascinating city I love despite its
haughtiness), and Orange County, California (The O.C.) also rank highly on the snootiness scale.
Best State Parks:
Oregon has the best state park system in the U.S. There are state parks everywhere
throughout the Beaver State, especially on the Pacific coast with a park every few miles along
Highway 101. California's state parks are a close second, and Minnesota's state parks are
pretty nice, too.
Worst State Parks: Anywhere in the Southeast,
except Florida. Unfortunately, these states don't support their park systems and it
shows. There are few state parks anywhere in the Southeast and the facilities are generally in
poor shape. Even worse, there are some really big, scary spiders in the campground showers there.
Florida has a pretty impressive park system, though, with generally good facilities.
Above left: Heceta Head State Park, one of the 70 state parks that line Oregon's 363-mile coast.
Above center: Breakfast stop at Cape Sebastian State Park, with one of the best views on the Oregon coast.
Above right: Cooking brats (as in bratwurst) for dinner at Kilen Woods State Park in southern
Minnesota. Camping amidst the corn fields.
Most Historic: Virginia and
Massachusetts. Virginia is one giant Magical History Tour and you could spend weeks visiting
the battlefields and sites here and still not see them all. I know because I've
tried. Virginia is also home to more Presidents (eight) than any other state.
Massachusetts also has a lot of interesting sites and is a great place to
visit. The state is stuffed with fascinating places, from Plymouth
Plantation in the east to Stockbridge's Norman Rockwell Museum out west.
Nevada and Michigan. Other than some mines at Virginia City (remember "Bonanza"?),
there aren't many historic sites in the Silver State. The pioneers either avoided
Nevada or hurried through it as fast as possible on their way to California, and can you blame
them? Michigan, my home state, has no excuse. It's been around for a long time
and yet nothing interesting has ever happened there.
Weather or Not
Best Summers: California has the best
year-round weather of any state, but Oregon has the best summers. Oregon summers are
ideal with consistently sunny days, pleasant temperatures with very little humidity, and cooler
temps than California. And no bugs, either. Summers in the state of Washington aren't too shabby, either.
Anywhere in the Deep South, and the deeper you go, the
worse it gets. Can you say "Steam Bath"? Florida wasn't
even inhabitable until air-conditioning was invented. Everyone in the
South sweats constantly in the summer and if you drive without air-conditioning, be
ready to wash out the salt stains from the back of your shirt. It's nasty.
Hawaii, of course, with Florida being a close second. That's the reason I moved to Florida during the winter of 1987
-- and then left in May when it started getting hot and sticky. Yeah, I'm a wimp.
Alaska, of course, but North Dakota is a close second. I really like North Dakota
(eh?) but the winters there are very long and bitterly cold. No wonder North Dakota's population has
been dwindling for decades. Every January I think about my friends in Bismarck with empathy.
And The Winner Is...
Every state is wonderful in its own way, and hopefully every person will think wherever they live is best, because
that's why they live there. I live in Oregon, so not surprisingly I think Oregon is the best state (despite its
drab winters). Oregon has nice folks, good weather, progressive politics, great scenery, and unlike California,
it's uncrowded and affordable. Yep, it does have an ugly capitol building, but there's no state that can top Oregon.
And I hope you feel the same way about wherever you live.
So... Where IS the Best Place to Live?
I frequently get e-mails from people looking for the "perfect place" to live, asking me where they should move to. I can't
answer that because everyone is different, looking for different things. You may not even realize what you're looking for, so I think it's
important to keep an open mind about places, because they may not be like what you envision.
Here's what I mean: Before I moved here to Oregon years ago, I figured it rained all the time, which was anathema to this
sunshine-lover. But after living here for a while, I got used to the gray winters and came to appreciate
everything else this state has to offer. Several years before that, as I prepared to move to Wisconsin, I figured I wouldn't
like the flatness or bitterly cold winters. Once again, however, I got used to it and came to love many things about Wisconsin
that I previously had no concept of, like drumlins, pastys, Leinenkugel's, and watching the sunset on Lake Mendota. In both cases,
I discovered many wonderful things about those places that I wouldn't have if I had stayed where I was, which is always the easier path in life.
Many (most?) folks are complacent, being content with where they are or what they're doing. And that's fine for them.
Sometimes I wish I was like that, but I'm not. Years ago while living in Florida, I visited some sedentary relatives in Tampa and
described to them my recent trip to the Everglades. "You should go there sometime" I said to them a few times, and after
the third time, the wife finally said, "But we like it here!" As a lifelong traveler always yearning for the horizon,
that statement puzzled me and I thought to myself, "But if you go see it, maybe you'd like it there." It was an odd thing
to hear but it summarizes the way many people think. And while I respect that attitude, I often wish people would take more chances in life
and break out of their comfort zones, especially as they get older and allow their worlds shrink, which is all too common.
I've moved to new cities over 20 times in my life. Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive
about every move, since it's always easier to stay where you are, inertia being such a powerful force. But
looking back, I'm glad I made every one of those 20-plus moves, because I learned a lot about places, about others, and about myself, that I
wouldn't have otherwise. Many of my friends have lived in the same place their entire lives, and that's fine for
them. But looking back, and without trying to sound like those travel snobs who I detest so much, I'm glad I pushed
myself out of my comfort zone and kept trying new things, because I've learned a lot. As I say on my Home Page, a change
will do you good. As I also say there, taking the road less traveled has made "all the difference."
So if you're thinking about moving somewhere: good on ya, mate. But check it out
for yourself first instead of relying on some magazine's ridiculous ranking of the "Ten
Best Places to Live," which is always good for a laugh. Don't rely on my
advice, either, which isn't good for much more than a laugh.
So whether you're thinking about moving or just taking a weekend trip to someplace new: get
off the sofa, take a chance and hit the road, Jack (or Jill), because life is too short for
regrets and the saddest words ever said were, "What if." But for
those who prefer the security and comfort of familiar surroundings, I
can understand that, too. One of the most important things I've learned
from my travels is that there's something wonderful and special about every place in the
world. Since contentment is much more in your mind than in your surroundings, I'm
convinced you can make any place "home." And as a young girl from Kansas
said many years ago, there's no place like home.
Regarding the unending American quest to find the "perfect place" to live, here's a story I read many years ago:
An angry and bitter young man named James once wandered through the countryside in search of a place to live. He
arrived in a town and asked an elderly gentleman there what the people in the town were like. The older man asked, "What were
the people like in the place you used to live?" James said, "They were rude and unfriendly." The older man
aid, "Well, that's what the people here are like, too." Upon hearing this, James moved on.
A while later, a kind young man named George, also in search of a place to live, arrived in the same
town. He asked the same elderly gentleman what the people in that town were like. Once again, the older man asked, "What
were the people like in the place you used to live?" George said, "They were polite and warm." The older
man said, "Well, that's what the people here are like, too." Upon hearing this, George decided to stay.