On a quest to find the best alternative town in the US, our writer takes a road trip through the north-west. Along the way he finds plenty of contenders with great diners, bookshops and easy access to the outdoors, but which place gets his vote?
Out on Route 21 in Washington state, the long golden prairies of wheat stretch out on either side of the road, lapping against distant purplish mountain ranges. Abandoned farms dot the landscape: gaunt timber-framed skeletons, their owners given up and gone to California or Seattle. I even spy a lone grey wolf, standing and staring at my passing car. He must have come across from Canada, heading south for winter maybe.
Some of the towns are no longer alive, but Pomeroy, in the south-east of the state, shows signs of hope. Theres a great bookshop where the owner, John, swears things are on the up. Dont call us Pomeranians though. Thats a dog.
I tell him about my quest: a search for the perfect funky small American town, a place with a buzzing homespun coffee shop and a great little deli, a town with some youthful exuberance and a shared passion for the great outdoors plus, of course, friendly bookshops such as his.
To me, those towns are where America is at its best. Its the new American dream. It seems particularly appropriate that Im doing this in the middle of a vicious election battle between two very different visions of America. John swears that Pomeroy is heading for success, but after a look around town I can see the battle is not quite won. I mark Pomeroy as a maybe.
Alternative funky towns of America. Id spent the previous year compiling a list of possible locations. After I discovered a rich seam of internet discussion on the subject, my list had grown inordinately long and covered almost every state in the union. But what stood out was that north-west corner: northern California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. The area was obviously catnip to people who wanted something more from life than can be bought in Walmart. I drew lines on the road atlas. I discounted the cities Portland and Seattle too big and well-known. I caught a plane to San Francisco. I got on Highway 101. I went north.
That first night I made it as far as the Benbow Inn near Garberville, on the cusp of redwood country. Next morning, I had breakfast in the Woodrose Caf and decided that all my towns would need somewhere just like this: a busy little diner serving kickstart-the-day food for lumberjacks.