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Home > Close-Ups > Best and Worst Places in America

 

 

The Best and Worst Places in America

 

 

As you can see from the messy map below, I've traveled a fair bit around the U.S.  I don't brag about my travels, but if folks ask, I'm always happy to convey my opinions about places I've been.  Come to think of it, and without trying to sound arrogant, I've probably seen more of America than anyone I know.  Yes, I've met 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.  Caution: Do not try this at home. 

While most of my friends were settling down after college, getting married, buying houses, having kids, 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, I reached 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.  There's nothing wrong with settling down or living your entire life in one town, and sometimes I wish I had that mindset.  But I don't, and instead I've always wondered what's beyond the horizon. 

 

I don't necessarily recommend this type of behavior, though, since it's not real 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 and Pepsi?  (Actually I drink Diet Pepsi, not Pepsi, because I'm such a health food fanatic).  But traveling and wanting to experience new places is just in my blood -- along with all that cholesterol from the Whoppers and Doritos.

 

Americans are famously restless, always looking for a better place to live, which I think is a good thing.  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 to 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.  Many of the authors have never traveled outside their own cubicle and instead have simply compiled some 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 places that are usually highly-ranked, like Austin and San Diego, who've hated it 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 whole lot more, so you have a basis for comparison.

 

As much as I've traveled around this country, I certainly haven't been everywhere, so 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 the Natchez Trace 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:

 


  • Most Friendly:  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, including Minnesota and Wisconsin but 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 friendly.  Not one person.  I just 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.

  • Least Friendly:  If you're an American who doesn't speak French, 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 these places, and while I've met some great folks there, I've met a lot more who are abrasive, pushy and only out for themselves -- kind of like Donald Trump, but with better hair. 

  • Worst Drivers:   Florida has the worst drivers.  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 college kids visiting during spring break 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.

  • Best Drivers: 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 

6. Florida

7. Boston

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...

  • Steepest Roads 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 ranger buddy 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 way up ahead. 

Above right:  Rock Reef Pass in the Florida Everglades at a staggering elevation of 3 feet.  I better downshift.

  • Flattest Roads:  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...

  • Most Interesting:  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, without a doubt, 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.

  • Least Interesting I like Hoosiers and think they're wonderful and kind people.  But to be honest, the most boring state is Indiana.  Simply put, 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, which only confirms my belief that nothing interesting has ever happened there.  My apologies, Hoosiers.

  • Most Unusual: 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!

  • Most Attractive Women California has the most attractive women.  Maybe it's because looks count for a lot there or maybe it's where the most attractive men are (being a guy, I wouldn't know about that), but both the Beach Boys and Katy Perry have sung about the splendors of those California Girls.  Utah is a close second, though.  I don't know what's in the water those Mormons drink, but Utah women are incredibly beautiful... and very blonde.  The city with the prettiest women is Boston, partly because there are more than 50 colleges and universities there.  And no, I'm not a sexist pig. 

  • Most ArrogantTexas, 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 genuinely feel sorry for anyone not lucky enough to be born there.  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 easy-going, and I do admire their state pride.

  • Most Wacky:  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 North Dakota and Oregon.  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.  Oregon's 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 "Cigarette in Salem."  Oregon's capitol building looks like they never finished it.  I love Oregon, but the capitol building... not so much.

  • Most Materialistic:  California, especially around L.A., where I lived for a few years while going to college.  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 that way, though.

  • Least Materialistic:  Vermont and the Dakotas.  Many folks here 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 embody what's best about Americans.

  • Most Snobbish:  New England, and especially Massachusetts, with Connecticut being a close second.  The aristocracy there doesn'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!  Boston is the most snobbish city in America (and has the worst drivers), but despite that, it's also one of the most fascinating cities in the U.S. and a place I truly love.  As noted above, Boston also has the most beautiful women in America -- perhaps one reason I love it so much!  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 good facilities.

       

Above left:  Heceta Head State Park, one of the 70 state parks that line Oregon's 360-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, I believe) 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.

  • Least Historic:  Nevada and Michigan.  Other than some mines at Virginia City (remember "Bonanza"?), there aren't many historic sites in the Silver State.  Pioneers either avoided Nevada altogether or they hurried through it as fast as possible on their way to California.  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 it's not as hot as California.  And no bugs.  Washington summers aren't too shabby, either.

  • Worst Summers:  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.

  • Best Winters:  Hawaii, of course, but Florida's a close second.  That's the reason I moved there during the winter of 1987 -- and then left in May when it started getting hot and sticky.  Yeah, I'm a wimp.

  • Worst Winters:  Alaska, of course, but North Dakota is a close second.  I really like North Dakota (eh?) but the winters there are very, 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...

  • Best State:  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.  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 at all like what you envision. 

 

Before I moved to Oregon years ago, I figured it rained here all the time, which was anathema to this sunshine-lover, but after living here a while, I got used to the gray winters and came to appreciate everything else the Beaver 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, though again, I got used to it and came to love many things 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'd stayed where I was, which is always the easier path in life.

 

I know many folks who 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 for me 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 let their worlds shrink, which is all too common. 

 

I've moved to new cities over 20 times and, admittedly, was a bit apprehensive about every move, since it's always easier to stay where you are because inertia is 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 that 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, and 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, or on my advice, which isn't good for much more.  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.

 

 

A Fable

 

Regarding the unending American quest to find the "perfect place" to live, here's a story I read a few 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 said, "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.