Hit the (Back) Road

Are you in the midst of planning a summer vacation? Maybe it's time to turn your back on crowded theme parks and over-priced resorts and turn your attention to small-town America. At least that's the advice of Irv Gordon, the guy who gained fame by driving his '66 Volvo P1800 more than two million miles to set a Guinness-certified world record.

The 61-year-old retired science teacher from Long Island, New York, estimates he has stopped at more than 5,000 small towns in his red sports car over the past 37 years for coffee and conversations with the locals. After having a chat with Gordon, we can understand why. Friendly to a fault, the guy loves to talk, and he takes his party with him wherever he goes. Plus, as you would expect from a guy who has been driving the same car since 1966, he has a maven's appreciation of the oddball.

"Why fight with 12,000 other people to sit cramped on one grain of sand on a crowded beach in a bustling city?" he asked. "Get off the grid-locked interstates and take a state highway toward one of our thousands of peaceful small towns. You'll find that each small town is a jewel packed with bizarre attractions, important history and plenty of fun."

Gordon suggests 12 great towns to drive to this summer:
  • McLean, Texas (I-40, Exit 141)
    Gordon calls this place "an old Route 66 town where time has stood still." A must-see is the Devil's Rope Museum, with a fascinating history of the manufacture and use of barbed wire.

  • Belle Fourche, South Dakota (I-90, Exit 10)
    This "quaint little open sky town with beautiful parks and friendly people," is just 20 minutes from the "Geophysical Center of the U.S.," which might mean something to somebody, but we're not sure what.

  • Cave City, Kentucky (I-65, Exit 53)
    It's home of Mammoth Cave National Park, with the largest caves in the United States, and Gordon's Volvo baseball cap still resides at the bottom of one of them.

  • Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Highways 30 and 222)
    Covered bridges, rolling hills and Pennsylvania Dutch cooking make this an appealing stop.

  • Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin (I-94, Exit 59)
    A Northwoods town, home of the Leinenkugel's Brewery and the Glen Loch Candy Shoppe.

  • Stein's Ghost Town, New Mexico (I-10, Exit 5)
    When the trains stopped running, this town was frozen in time. Now only two people and a mean guard turkey inhabit the place.

  • Montauk, New York (Highway 27)
    On the tip of the southern fork of Long Island, Montauk has everything from beautiful hotels, where you're pampered like a baby, to camping areas and a dude ranch, says Irv.

  • Opportunity, Montana (I-90, Exit 208)
    Irv likes the town for its "great name," and notes it's a great place to mail a letter or post card. He opines, "The kids will find the nearby World Museum of Mining interesting," which shows he knows a lot about towns but not much about kids.

  • Blythe, California (I-10, Exit 232)
    Stopping for gas, Gordon discovered "what must have been the largest outdoor flea market on the planet," and he spent the entire day looking at everything from rock collections to antiques.

  • Florence, Oregon (Highways 101 and 126)
    Breathtakingly close to the Pacific Ocean, this home of the American Museum of Fly Fishing is also just a few miles from the Sea Lion Caves, where you can walk among hundreds of seals resting on the beach.

  • Tupelo, Mississippi (Highways 75 and 45)
    Irv advises a visit to the tiny shotgun house that was Elvis Presley's birthplace topped off by some local barbeque and some Tupelo honey.

  • Gothenburg, Nebraska (I-80, Exit 211)
    The sister city to Gothenburg, Sweden, where they make Volvos, it also has one of the few Pony Express stations still in existence. "Tell the locals you own a Volvo, and they'll buy your breakfast," Irv said. "Tell them you've driven your Volvo in Sweden, and they'll let you take them to the prom."
As we said, Irv Gordon takes his party with him. Drive on.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini enjoys traveling off the beaten track, and he will never forget the week he spent in Peoria one day.