Whilst road tripping in the US, Jo Stewart finds out how this small town made a name for itself.
Road trips can be hit or miss but there are certain things you’re guaranteed to get along the way: bad food, motels of modest charm and some ripping good town names.
For name spotters, the United States delivers some bona fide beauties.
On a recent drive through Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, town names like Carefree, Oracle and Snowflake (unbelievably enough, founded by Mr Snow and Mr Flake in 1878) deliver the goods.
Some towns are worth stopping at and some are just plain creepy, best viewed from rolled-up car windows. Some hide suitably quirky stories and dastardly, dark histories. Others – like Pie Town – deliver disappointment. Not only were there no pies in Pie Town, it’s not even really a town but a cluster of run-down houses on a dire, dusty road.
After the anti-climax of Pie Town, driving to New Mexico’s Truth or Consequences (a tiny dot on a hamburger grease-splattered road map) seemed risky.
Completely out of the way and adding eight hours driving time to the journey, Truth or Consequences – known as ‘T or C’ to locals – didn’t have much going for it but its glorious name.
Committing to the caper under a brilliant, blue sky, the long drive reveals red rocks, giant cacti and prisoners in orange jumpsuits picking up trash on the side of the road. Bells jingle-jangle when you open shop doors, American flags hang limply in the dry air and locals tip their hats when you pass on the street.
Formerly known as Hot Springs, the town was renamed ‘Truth or Consequences’ on April Fool’s Day 1950, after a popular radio quiz show asked a town to rename itself after the show. The genesis of its name is as strange as its people.
First impressions are unforgettable: scenes of an elderly man sitting on a standard-issue office chair in a rubbish-strewn yard, tumbleweeds rolling carelessly around a vacant lot, and a horror film-worthy cemetery are a little ominous (as is discovering that someone known as the ‘Toy Box’ serial killer once stalked the area).
Yet the outlook brightens considerably on Main Street, home to a vintage theatre called El Cortez (showing movies released months ago), cute coffee houses, volunteer-run thrift stores selling crusty cowboy boots and dog-eared paperbacks by Stephen King (who strangely enough has the keys to the city), and the most endearing book shop I’ve ever visited.
I don’t know what’s more impressive about Black Cat Books & Coffee: the effortlessly retro fit-out, the book section named ‘Woo Woo’ or the fact the owner runs the store without having an email account or using the internet. It’s mind boggling. Forget ecommerce. How does she pay her taxes? Order stock? Contact customers?
Around the corner, the Sierra Grande Lodge is a suitably New Mexican place to stay; a terracotta building filled with cowboy paraphernalia yet run by a woman with a thick, English accent.
This is the allure of visiting small towns in America – they’re full of wildcards. With big cities you know what you’re going to get: chain stores, a mass transit system of varying comfort and all the major hotel brands. But America’s sweet spot is far from here. Once you get past the suburban sprawl, the gun shops, pawn stores and Walmarts, you get to the good stuff. Forget the speedy wi-fi and convenience of the cities; give me the slow burn of the faded fringe towns any day.
But not everyone shares my enthusiasm for small-town America. Pulled over by a bored State Trooper while leaving Truth or Consequences, the road trip suddenly morphs into an episode of Cops. Not satisfied that anyone would bother visiting this town, very soon it’s all “Ma’am, step out of the vehicle” and “Are you carrying any firearms”? The drug squad is called because obviously there’s something highly suspicious about an Australian being in ‘these parts’. I know we are deep in Breaking Bad territory but isn’t this all a little excessive?
Standing in the scorching sun on the side of a remote highway while police officers search your bags and a German Shepherd paws the interiors of your rental car isn’t exactly convenient. It’s one of those classic travel moments: harrowing at the time but humorous with the benefit of hindsight (and a few beers).
With Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Spaceport recently being built nearby, Truth or Consequences is in for some change. It’s now the nearest town for space tourists to visit before heading into oblivion. But forget space tourism; potential intergalactic interlopers should spend a night in Truth or Consequences – it’s otherworldly enough and comes without the million-dollar price tag.