Have you ever noticed that Roanoke and Salem, Virginia share the same mileage distance while driving south down the interstate?  Sure enough.  Going south on Interstate 81 It makes for an interesting discovery when you see that Roanoke is in approximately 23 miles and SO is Salem.

And I also find it quite amazing how easy it is to overlook some pretty interesting factoids after going down that same, dearly loved familiar highway for decades.  It’s like we have blinders on until some realization snaps together in a new light at just the right time to register in our minds.

In terms of how this happens with Roanoke and Salem; apparently it has something to do with the equal sided curvature of both towns around the interstate exits giving the impression that the towns are stacked on top of each other.  Anyway, sounds like a good theory to me.

This made my mind think of other funny town distinctions that I have witnessed in my many years of driving around.

Like the Geiko commercial where the lovable, English speaking gecko’s padded green feet are standing on either or both the Bristol, Tennessee side and the Bristol, Virginia side (crossing state lines in the same city mind you!)—this kind of development makes one naturally very curious.

Yes siree–you gotta love the humor of our map makers and town formulators when it comes to clever ways to promote their little piece of real estate.

Case in point:  Glasgow Virginia where driving across the town limits you will quickly see signs proclaiming it “The Town That Time Forgot” and to see businesses share its main thoroughfare with at least a dozen full-size fiberglass dinosaurs.  All shapes and sizes of humanly sculpted dinosaurs pose over store fronts and government buildings.  As far as I can tell, there is no historical, archaeological connection to make this a salient feature of Glasgow.  It came about from some bored folks who desired a marketing scheme that could get modern day Glasgow, Virginia on the map with a unique claim of dubious fame.

Small towns all over America are full of such success stories. Sometimes it is made up out of thin air.  Sometimes it springs to mind because of the name association.   Like Metropolis, Illinois.  In DC Comics, Superman resides in a city called “Metropolis”, and hence, Metropolis, Illinois, has a statue of him on a main street in downtown Metropolis. The statue is located in front of the town courthouse. They hold a celebration annually in the second weekend of June called “The Superman Celebration” where comic book collectors come from all over the World.

On January 21, 1972, DC Comics declared Metropolis the “Hometown of Superman.” So naturally, on June 9, 1972, the Illinois State Legislature passed Resolution 572 that confirmed this, declaring Metropolis the “Hometown of Superman“.

Talk about real life imitating art!

Or how about erecting a historic plaque for a town ONE person removed from a famous celebrity?  In this case the birthplace of the Mother of the Wright Brothers historic plaque in Purcellville, Va. This truly gives credence to the point that while necessity is the mother of invention, there is nothing like the “MOTHER of inventors” to make it all possible!

I mean what’s to stop even more distant ancestral degrees removed from the actual famous person?  How about an Uncle.  How about the Great Grandparents?

One of the saddest reversals of a small town legacy has to be the tiny town of Burdett, Kansas.  When my Mom and I drove by it back in the 1990’s, it had an official highway plaque that spoke of the DISCOVERER OF PLUTO, (Clyde Tombaugh) having been born and raised there.  Yet only a decade or so later, the official ruling board of distinguished astronomer’s that decide such matters, reversed their ruling on the tiniest, furthest away planet of PLUTO, and BANISHED it from the league of planets in our solar system.

I don’t know about you, but I find it deeply unfair to strip the status of recognizing the most UNDERDOG planet imaginable from such an attention starved diminutive town in a part of Kansas which itself is also so often overlooked–replete as it is with dry, flat monotony and little relief in sight.

And finally, to top it off; though I actually never stepped foot in this particular town, my internet meanderings made me stop and pay close attention to Riverside, Iowa, which may have the most innovative, head scratching way yet devised for gaining a wider audience.  For this crafty town boasts an actual memorial that recognizes it as the “Future birthplace of James T. Kirk from the Starship Enterprise!”


Yes–this forward thinking Iowa town prides itself not only on something fictional, but something that isn’t even scheduled to happen for another 213 years — just check out the plaque commemorating the captain of starship Enterprise’s future birth in the year 2228.


And  so fellow traveler, any way you slice it, our towns and cities have some fascinating stories and side bars designed for self-promotion so as to get themselves stuck in the minds of tourists (like a pesky flyer that won’t dislodge itself from a car windshield).

So to recap—1) whether it’s grounded in real history (even before the town was officially incorporated) like Manassas, Va. and its famous first battle of the Civil War—2) made up out of thin air like the dinosaur models in Glasgow, Va.—3) or heck, even conjured up as a famous event in a fictional FUTURE like Riverside, Iowa—it all serves as a great reminder to turn off the interstates with their Cracker Barrel comfort zone, and plunge into the eccentric charms of small town America.

You  may not hit the jack pot right away with uncovering some household name historical figure or witness a Guiness Book of World Record feat right before your eyes (like the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas)—but you will forge special connections to parts of the road map you never knew or thought of before.

Embracing these local quirks and appreciating their evolution promotes a traveling lifestyle that offers rich rewards to what was previously a standardized trip on an anonymous stretch of highway.

And please—if you’re bothering to pull off the exit and commune with a smaller community, make sure you also take the time to sign the guest book of whatever museum or exhibit you visit.

Even if it’s not listed as a MUST SEE landmark and lacks Disney quality and financing—slow down enough to allow yourself to be caught by the slower paced charm and patriotic spirit flowing out of the heart of an old town.

Remember–from very humble sources emerge hall of fame figures and events.

Every town tells its own story.  And the spell that a small town leaves on you goes way beyond the validity of a marketing strategy as championed by a local chamber of commerce.

And when you look back on all the newly enhanced biographical and historical uniqueness that you recorded in your travel journal—you will feel a keener sense of connectedness that will compel you to continue being curious and attentive on future trips as well.



About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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