America's Strangest Town Names
While driving through rural America, you pass an endless stream of monotonous exit signs. But some highway markers catch the eye. For instance, the green announcement that you're approaching Boring, Ore. might make you think twice about hopping on the exit ramp. And once you cruise by the community, you'll wonder: Why is that place called "boring?"
Whether it's Why (in Arizona) or Whynot (Mississippi), we decided to investigate these unconventional settlements and uncover the historical significance of their questionable names. Plus, we determine if they are actually worth visiting. So if you're a small town with a title that invites ridicule, it's time to the face the Truth or Consequences (New Mexico) of your decision.
[See a photo recap of America's Strangest Town Names]
Why not begin with Why, a rural town in southern Arizona. The common story is that this petit desert hamlet acquired its inquisitive name from its setting at the Y-shaped intersection of state highways 85 and 86. If you visit today, the name will seem even more perplexing, as you'll now find a normal T-shaped junction rather than a Y-shaped one. But before the Arizona Department of Transportation re-engineered the roadway, the town founders opted for the word "Why" instead of the letter "Y."
Now, "Why" should you visit this small community in the Sonoran Desert? There's not too much to do aside from taking in the scenery (and coping with the sometimes torturous heat). But the residents and frequent visitors wouldn't want it any other way. You can set up your tent or park your RV at the Coyote Howls campground. During the day, you can hike through the area's dry terrain to see Sonoran wildlife and vegetation, like the famous saguaro cactus. And for a short excursion, you can drive 11 miles north to the neighboring town of Ajo, which hosts some beautiful examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and the historic remains of the local copper mining industry. You might also take a longer daytrip to Phoenix (122 miles northeast) or Tucson (124 miles east).
Most parents praise good hygiene, examining their kids' teeth to make sure they've been brushed to professed standards. But we rarely scrutinize the healthy regimen of an entire populous. So is Colorado's Hygiene any good? Supposedly, one of the community's facilities garnered its reputation for cleanliness: In the 1880s, the existing German Baptist community established a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. The developing practice of medical hygiene used in the building, called "Hygiene House," is the assumed source of the town's title. As an interesting note, TB patients not only enjoyed a place of respite, but they were also driven to a nearby spring on Rabbit Mountain that was believed to contain restorative qualities.
The sanitarium is no longer there, but Hygiene may still hold some rejuvenating powers. Less than 20 miles north of Boulder, Colo., the town is now a picturesque, agriculturally driven community in the St. Vrain Valley. Don't visit looking for historic sites or museums. But for a breath of fresh air, you can't go wrong with a stroll or bike ride through Hygiene. Plus, you'll be within 30 minutes driving distance of Denver's many top attractions.
Looking at this quaint Midwestern town of roughly 4,600 residents, visitors may wonder: How did Peculiar, Mo. become so peculiar? And the tale goes back to the days immediately following the Civil War, when the first settlers couldn't agree on a town name. They sent several options to the postmaster general; all of which were already claimed by other hamlets. The trusting people wrote to the postmaster personally, saying, "We don't care what name you give us, so long as it is sort of peculiar." Feeling a bit cheeky, the postmaster responded, "My conclusion is that in all the land it would be difficult to imagine a more distinctive, more peculiar name than Peculiar." So, the answer to the original question is: a good sense of humor.
To this day, the affable folk of Peculiar maintain a jovial attitude toward their distinctive -- albeit unusual -- town name. Sitting a little less than 30 miles from downtown Kansas City, this small community overcame the bust-and-boom railroads era to come out looking quite normal. The most recognizable structures are the three-legged water tower and the century-old chapel. And although the downtown landscape hasn't changed significantly over the years, the town boasts a growing arts district with creative sculptures. If there is one thing to conclude about Peculiar, it's that the town embraces both its past and present with a smile.
No one likes to be embarrassed. Or do they? Embarrass, Minn. holds no qualms about its blush-worthy title. Its origins stretch way back into the 1700s, when French-Canadians settled in this region just east of Lake Superior. The river that flows through the area was used by loggers and canoeists, but it was so shallow that drift wood would frequently get stuck, clogging the passage of vessels and lumber. Therefore, French-speakers called it Rivière d'Embarras, or "River of Obstacles." Anglicizing the name, American settlers labeled it the Embarrass River. And when a predominantly Finnish group of immigrants established the town in 1905, they adopted the river's name.
Today's Embarrass citizens are unabashed by their town. Aside from the exceptionally frigid winters (the all-time low is 57 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), visitors can marvel at Embarrass' calm beauty in summer. The Heritage Park and Campground offers prime real estate near the town's flowing namesake. Additionally, from Embarrass you're only 86 miles from Duluth and less than an hour's drive from Superior National Forest.
Originally, no state wanted to claim the land where today's Hooker stands. This 40-mile strip of plains earned the status as "no man's land," which encouraged herders to drive their livestock through the unclaimed territory. But how did the settlement gain its unorthodox name? Sorry to disappoint, but it wasn't from illegal activities. The town's namesake was John Threlkeld, who moved to the area in 1873 and earned the nickname "Hooker" for his remarkable lassoing abilities.
Today, Hooker remains in the middle of nowhere -- i.e., the Oklahoma Panhandle. It's 232 miles from Wichita, Kan.; 267 miles from Oklahoma City, Okla.; and 320 miles from Colorado Springs, Colo. The town's isolated (or central, depending on your perspective) location means you're not going to simply stumble upon it. So we suggest you forgo visiting the quiet, wholesome Midwestern Hooker.
Last Chance, Idaho
Okay, we admit that this isn't a proper town, but we couldn't pass up this chance. Last Chance, Idaho is a small portion of Island Park, a rural community near the Montana and Wyoming borders. The quirky name is the result of the area's Last Chance Inn, which opened its doors in 1935. The inn's name served as a friendly reminder to drivers to fill up their gas tank before hitting the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park -- not a trivial consideration when wandering the wilderness.
You can now get gas between Island Park and Yellowstone in the resort town of West Yellowstone, Mont., but Last Chance still merits a pit stop. Visit the banks of Henry's Fork on the nearby Snake River to snap gorgeous photos of the rushing water and rising mountains. And if you wish to stay a bit longer, don't miss out on the exceptional fly-fishing opportunities. Plus, on your way out of Last Chance, you can still pick up necessities at its outdoor supply and grocery stores before venturing into the wild.
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
This small city off I-25 between El Paso, Texas and Albuquerque, N.M. is known for two things: its natural hot mineral baths and its fascinating title. And believe it or not, the two are actually connected. In the 1940s, the small settlement drew visitors seeking some desert R&R, but it was indistinguishable amongst a multitude of other resort spots. In fact, the town was unimaginatively named "Hot Springs." But, in 1950, the New Mexico State Tourist Bureau heard the producer of the popular Truth or Consequences radio program wanted a town to change its name for the show's 10th anniversary. The free advertising opportunity was too good to resist, and so the city's tiny population voted to adopt its new, unique name.
The savvy-yet-unconventional marketing decision continues to pay dividends (notice how we're still talking about it). But Truth or Consequences offers more than just opportunities for word play. Visiting will place you near scenic deserts, rugged mountains and ghost towns, not to mention the renowned bathhouses that first attracted tourists to the area in the 20th century. And now, the city's affordable resort and spa pricing is perhaps the biggest allure.