The popular T-shirt reads “Keep Austin Weird,” but in our view, there are plenty of places in the United States that are more out-there than Austin, Texas. Take a look at some of these and you’ll probably agree: Austin doesn’t even make the cut. This is oddness with an alluring edge, quirky places that are worth seeking out as you explore America.
As the mayor, clerk, treasurer, librarian, bartender, and tavern owner in Monowi, Neb., 86-year-old Elsie Eiler is the most powerful woman in town. She’s also the only woman in town — or man, for that matter. Snugged between two rivers near the South Dakota border, Monowi is the only incorporated town in the US with a population of one. It was once a bustling railroad stop, with a peak population of 150 in 1930, but as folks moved to cities, the number of residents dropped to 18 by 1980. By 2,000, there were only two Monowians left, Elsie and her husband, Rudy. When Rudy died in 2004, Elsie started a library in his honor — now, running the library is just one of her duties. She serves burgers, gizzards, and beer to customers at Monowi Tavern, and basically runs the town, creating its road plan, paying its taxes, and nominating herself for mayor — in a contest that isn’t hotly debated, given the one eligible voter.
There’s not a lot to see in Monowi, since it encompasses only one-fifth of a square mile, but visitors come anyway — Monowi has become a famous dot on the map, and a must-see pitstop along Nebraska’s 231-mile Outlaw Scenic Byway, Highway 12. www.visitnebraska.com
The medium is the message
Founded in 1879, the tiny hamlet of Lily Dale, N.Y., is home to 52 registered mediums. Guests come from far and wide to this spiritualists’ summer retreat for readings, sweat lodges, seances, workshops, and spiritual healing. Situated on Cassadaga Lake in Chautauqua County, about an hour southwest of Buffalo, the Lily Dale Assembly is the world’s largest spiritual community, based on the faith of Spiritualism. The summer season begins on June 26 this year; the event calendar includes sessions such as “Unleash the Power of Your Dreams,” and “Vortex Energy Activation.” Several Victorian B&Bs on the grounds are available for overnight stays, with names like Angel House and Aurora’s House of Light & Joy. Best souvenir: a tie-dyed T-shirt that reads “Old Soul.” Don’t miss the Lily Dale Fairy Trail, marked by pink fairies on the trees. Visitors and residents have constructed fairy houses, gnome houses, and small villages along the trail. www.lilydaleassembly.org
Happy haunting grounds
Lovely Savannah, Ga., is all sweet southern charm, until you dig a little deeper — literally. The city was constructed on Native American burial grounds, and its roads were paved atop ancient cemeteries. Dubbed “the most haunted city in America,” Savannah has a history that includes epidemics, hurricanes, and battles galore, resulting in scores of unsettled souls, if you believe the stories. Several local haunts are open for visitors. Among them: the Hamilton-Turner Inn, where guests report sightings of a strange, cigar-smoking man sitting on the porch; and the Marshall House Inn, used as a hospital during yellow fever epidemics and said to be crawling with spirits. The Moon River Brewery is considered the most haunted place in the city, thanks to a crew of rowdy ghosts known to throw bottles and pull pranks. Strange apparitions are also on the menu at the 17 Hundred 90 Inn and restaurant. Guests report sightings of a lovelorn ghost-girl, Anna, haunting the upstairs rooms. You can tour the Spanish moss-draped Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous in the novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” but beware — it is supposedly haunted by a pack of ghost dogs. www.visitsavannah.com
For wannabe gold-diggers
Montana is full of ghost towns that date back to the gold rush, but one is very much alive: Virginia City. The Old West Victorian mining town seems frozen in time (1865-75, more or less). Located just 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park, it’s worth a stop — you can take a stagecoach ride, see a Wild West show, and just revel in the gold-dusted atmosphere of the gold mining era. When gold was discovered in Alder Gulch, it drew hordes of gold-diggers and hangers-on, and various “cities” emerged as trading and amusement centers for free-spending miners. Virginia City became the capital of the territory in its heyday. And what a time it was! At current prices, Alder Gulch yielded about $2.5 billion worth of gold, they say. The gold ran out, but Virginia City (and neighboring Nevada City, 1 mile away) remain. The bawdiness is gone, but they’ve retained or re-created family-friendly elements like train rides, a live theater show, a creamery, an old-time candy store — and even gold-panning at an old mine. Stay at the historic Fairweather Inn on Main Street. www.aldergulchaccommodations.com; www.virginiacitymt.com
Marfa, Marfa, Marfa!
You’ve probably heard of Marfa, Texas, population 1,800. It’s become a fashionable escape in recent years: Beyoncé and Matthew McConaughey slept here. Anthony Bourdain dined here. Vogue magazine ran a feature story. But the vibe of this high desert town in West Texas is refreshingly offbeat, not Hollywood. Attractions include a Prada store that’s actually a permanent art installation, and the mysterious Marfa lights, viewed nightly from a platform about 9 miles east of town.
It takes some effort to get to Marfa (you fly into El Paso, and then drive another 200 miles to town), but the reward is a minimalist, artsy vibe, experienced in spaces like Ballroom Marfa, a contemporary art and performance space housed in a 1920s-era ballroom (www.ballroommarfa.org; currently closed due to COVID). The famous Prada Marfa is actually 30 minutes outside of town but well worth a trip; it’s an art piece created by Berlin-based artists Elmgreen and Dragset as a commentary of Western consumerism. Stay in the Hotel Paisano (www.hotelpaisano.com), where James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor bunked down while filming “Giant” in 1956. After coming this far, make it a West Texas road trip — head south to Terlingua Ghost Town and then on to Chisos Basin at Big Bend National Park. www.visitmarfa.com
We’ll always have Frankenmuth
Looks like it’ll be a while until we can visit Europe again. In the meantime, there’s always — Frankenmuth. Located about 90 miles north of Detroit, Frankenmuth, Mich., is known as “Little Bavaria” thanks to its German roots. Founded in 1845 by German-Lutheran missionaries, Frankenmuth looks the part: its downtown is chockablock with Bavarian architecture. At noon, 3, 6, and 9 p.m., a 35-bell carillon peals from the glockenspiel tower at the Bavarian Inn, adding to the quaint appeal of this small (population, around 5,000) town. The Bavarian Inn Restaurant, opened in 1888, is a major draw for hearty German fare, while Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth has attracted diners since 1856 for its famous chicken dinners with German sides. Cheese and sausage factories and breweries are among the places to visit; learn to roll your own pretzels at the Bavarian Inn Bakery. (We can thank German immigrants for bringing pretzels to our shores.) Take in a bit of Austria at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, home to a 56-foot replica of the chapel in Oberndorf/Salzburg, where “Silent Night” was first sung on Christmas Eve in 1818. www.frankenmuth.org
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com