Route 1, Lubec, Maine
Route 66 will forever be the “forgotten” highway, a road that acts as a metaphor for classic America. People retrace old routes like 66 searching for an ample dose of soul retrieval. And these treks across America usually deliver, from staggering landscapes and terrain to towns so small they feel like they appeared out of nowhere.
Fortunately, whatever part of the country you’re in, there are hidden historic highways waiting, and Route 1 in Maine is one of them. If you begin at Maine’s northeast tip in Fort Kent, it’s hard to believe you could follow it all the way to the Florida Keys. But that’s exactly where you’ll end up if you have the wherewithal – and time.
If instead, you’re looking for some of New England’s most intense landscapes, as well as its most eclectic townships, staying right in Maine should do the trick. Route 1 travels closely along the coast, passing through or near popular destinations like Kennebunkport and Old Orchard Beach.
When you’re closing in on Maine’s border with Canada, a slight jaunt off Route 1 leads to the historic town of Lubec, the easternmost point in the United States.
“The nearest traffic light is 40 miles away, the closest parking meter even further. The only way in is also the only way out,” John Rule said. He’s been a writer for the local paper for 13 years and deftly describes the town’s beauty.
“We have lighthouses and twenty-four-foot tides, whales and eagles, miles of cliffside trails over thundering surf, and fresh seafood,” he said.
Visitors often crowd around the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse to welcome the rising sun and the first day of the new year.
Originally, the area could only be reached by water. But once motorized vehicles arrived, the Post Road was extended north from Boston and became what is now Route 1.
“Lubec and the Down East region today are on the cusp of another kind of development,” Rule said.
Climate change has made the area’s cool days and moderate winters more desirable. And with acres upon acres of open space for outdoor recreation, it has become an increasingly attractive getaway.
“To borrow a phrase from the Maine Office of Tourism, this ‘is a place to pause, to reawaken your senses,’” Rule said.
Route 84, Galena, Illinois
“Galena shares a lot of the feel, warmth, and character of the quintessential New England town,” Dave Lewis said of the Illinois town where he lives. It’s one of many that can be found along the Great River Road (Route 84), which runs from Minnesota all the way to New Orleans alongside the Mississippi River.
But there’s something special (or many somethings) about Galena.
“It’s worthwhile, it’s unique, it’s historical and it’s so well-preserved and well-presented,” Lewis said. Which is why his in-laws first decided to move there from Chicago back in the ‘90s and open a business.
Since then, Dave and his wife opened a Main Street staple called Great American Popcorn Company. It’s known for dozens of unique popcorn flavors, including blends like Freaking Hot, Dill-Icious, and Birthday Cake. There are plenty of old favorites to choose from, as well, and boxes for those with a sweet tooth, a love of cheese or a penchant for all things spicy.
The downtown surrounding the shop is entirely situated within the historical district and, in fact, 98 percent of the town fits that category. In its heyday in the 1850s, Galena had a population greater than Chicago’s and was a shipping mecca along the Mississippi. Now, the town has a population less than 4,000 but is the state’s third most visited city.
“We get upwards of a million and a half visitors a year through our little town,” Lewis said.
The large tourist economy can be attributed to the work of some “very thoughtful people,” Lewis said.
In the mid-1970s, a group of forward-thinkers started investing money in “getting the town put back and polished the way that it should be,” he said. Today Main Street is home to 150 small businesses of all shapes and sizes.
“There are similarities in other towns that lend themselves to do what we did here,” Lewis said. The results have been good for travelers and the community alike.
“There are so few towns I’ve personally been to that I could put on par with Galena. It definitely is worthy of the effort to get here,” he said.
Highway 385, Marfa, Texas
In contrast, the remote town of Marfa, Texas, a short aside from historic Highway 385, requires an open mind according to resident, Ann Marie Nafziger. The entire town is a mile wide, making it possible to walk or bike just about anywhere.
But it’s not the place for anyone hoping to run to Target for necessities.
“The more that visitors understand that and are maybe even wanting that…what it’s like to really be very away from the contemporary culture, the better their experience will be,” Nafziger said.
For her, the remoteness is what called her to Marfa 20 years ago from the Pacific Northwest.
“I’ve always been a person that’s really interested in finding new experiences, new contexts,” she said. As an abstract artist, intriguing landscapes are essential to her. And visiting the southwest’s border region “was very eye-opening.”
High desert areas, striking national parks, and jagged landscapes define the region, which Nafziger returned to paint and ultimately decided to call home.
“The light, the colors, the landscape, the climate, the culture, the people—it was all really compelling,” she said.
When she first settled in Marfa, it was not known as a destination for artists. However, it has since developed a remarkable creative culture, housing multiple foundations rooted in the arts, as well as world-class museums and galleries.
The artists who live in Marfa work in a diverse range of mediums. For Nafziger, her abstract painting requires deep interaction with the natural world.
“I do a lot of hiking, walking, looking, and focusing…then back in the studio, working from those experiences I’ve had,” she said.
But why Marfa?
“The isolation is beyond rural,” she said. “It can be harsh in its beauty; it is iconic.”
But that is exactly the attraction for the right person.
“I think folks who appreciate that kind of natural beauty are going to be drawn to this place because it feels so different,” she said.
Marfa is often one of three remote towns people hit by swinging over from Highway 385. It’s part of a triangle with Alpine and Fort Davis, historic and ideal for outdoor enthusiasts in their own right. Nafziger recommended people contact the Marfa Visitor Center to help them “scratch below the surface” during their journey to the region and really discover what makes this lovely and sometimes lonely part of the U.S. so captivating.
Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer who assists with news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on rural issues held in Keene, New Hampshire. This year’s event is September 27-28.