From the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia to the Sonoran Desert near the Mexican border, there's a fresh wave of picturesque hamlets calling out to upscale urbanites seeking refuge.
Thomas, West Virginia, comes as a bit of a shock. One minute, you’re swerving around roadkill on the back roads of the backwoods. The next, you’re in a clearing on a mountaintop where a tiny town is assembled, snow-globe-like, on only one side of the street. There is something preposterously lovely about the century-old brick storefronts, with their gingerbread trim and flowerpots. But despite the period atmosphere, Thomas (population 600) feels strangely modern and almost suspiciously Instagrammable. East Avenue, its main drag (which many Thomas residents call Front Street), contains a third-wave coffeehouse, a vintage-record store, a craft brewery, art galleries, and smartly curated antiques shops. An upscale, seasonally minded restaurant, Rudolph’s, is scheduled to open soon.
Hidden in Tucker County, one of the least populated parts of West Virginia, Thomas was not long ago an emblem of Appalachian decline: the decrepit shell of a formerly prosperous coal town, abandoned save for a mean biker bar and a novelty Christmas shop. Things began to change in 2002, when John Bright opened the Purple Fiddle, a mountain lodge in an old country store that has become one of the best and most eclectic places in the region to hear live music. On any given night, you might catch a hillbilly quintet playing fiddlesticks, or a Joni Mitchell look-alike performing barefoot in a peasant dress, or a troupe of Tuvan throat singers who sound like human didgeridoos.
The Fiddle established Thomas’s reputation beyond the Alleghenies. With the arrival of Cooper House, a quirky “bed and cocktail” that serves afternoon cocktails instead of breakfast, and Front Street Grocers, a natural-foods store, nearly every storefront on once-deserted East Avenue is occupied. On weekends, the town fills with first-time visitors who’ve driven from Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh (both less than four hours away). They wander around in a state of confused wonder. They’ve heard about this place, yet they can’t quite understand how it exists.
Thomas is only one in a constellation of newly modish small towns across America. As midsize metropolises from Denver to Austin to Portland to Pittsburgh have flourished, once-ordinary hamlets in the orbit of those cities have undergone makeovers to cater to young knowledge workers and “creatives” who desire weekend destinations that offer not just proximity to natural wonders but also proximity to natural-wine bars. These towns are the successors to communities like Ojai, California; Woodstock and Hudson, New York; Taos, New Mexico; and Sedona, Arizona — specks on the map whose fame seems out of proportion with their populations.
The urban transplants who have helped reshape these towns, hipsters in a former life, are sometimes called “hicksters.” There’s an obvious pejorative cast to the term, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the changes these newcomers have brought to places that now combine small-town charm and big-city culture in one cozy package.
On the other side of the country, Salida, Colorado (population 5,300), a laid-back hot-springs town and ski village in the Rockies three hours south of Denver, has become a year-round retreat for artsy, free-spirited folks who wouldn’t go to Vail even if they could afford it. “I think we now have more dogs here than humans,” says Philip Sterling, who recently moved to Salida from Dallas with his fiancée, Kaitlyn Canfield, to open the Amigo Motor Lodge, a swanky Southwestern “boutique motel” with a tepee out back. The pair was inspired by the Hotel San José, Liz Lambert’s popular motel revamp in Austin, but wanted to undertake their project in a town surrounded by nature, a place that felt like it was still a blank slate. “If we had done this in Dallas it would have just been another hotel,” Canfield says.
These days, all it takes is a single influential project to push curious city folk out into the country. In 2013, Tyler Hays, a luxury-furniture designer and big-bearded polymath, bought a century-old general store in Lostine, Oregon (population 300), a farming community in the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains in remote northeastern Oregon. Hays revamped the store, M. Crow & Co., adding his gallery-quality furniture and artisanal knickknacks to the stock of meat, vegetables, and hardware. Now enough people make the trek out from Portland (five hours away) to support a high-concept hostelry, the Kickstarter-funded Jennings Hotel, in an old brick building in nearby Joseph.
While towns like Lostine and Thomas rely on visitors to grow and sustain themselves, sometimes their charm and possibility prove so seductive that visitors become part- or even full-time residents. That’s what happened to Genevieve Anderson, a visual artist and filmmaker who recently moved from Los Angeles, where she had lived for 23 years, to Tubac, Arizona (population 1,200). This frontier village turned artists’ colony an hour south of Tucson is known for its pottery shops and well-preserved Spanish fortress. “Tubac is really close to Mexico, so there’s a little bit of this lawless feeling,” Anderson says, “almost like you could just fall over the border into another world.”
Part of the appeal of these small towns is how removed they can feel from the anxieties that complicate life elsewhere in the country. But as much as they serve as refuges, they also offer a measure of hope by challenging the currently popular notion that an insurmountable divide has opened between urban and rural America.
The idea of the small town as a bridge-builder is something that Chris Quattro, the baby-faced son of the mayor of Thomas and a fixture on East Avenue, can attest to. When he’s not working as a sound engineer at the Purple Fiddle, he performs music in the window of his record store/vintage clothier/bookshop, Quattro Music Co. “I think Thomas would be a rare and special place anywhere, but especially in West Virginia,” he says. “Our grocery store has a rainbow awning in front of it. As a town, we happen to be extremely liberal, but we’re also open to everyone. You don’t have to travel very far to see rebel flags and NRA signs. There’s never any real animosity. Maybe it’s that small-town thing, but everyone just gets along.”
The New Small Towns: A User’s Guide
Thomas, West Virginia
Stay: The art-filled Cooper House hosts an afternoon cocktail hour. doubles from $100.
Eat: The TipTop café has the best avocado smash in the state. 216 East Ave.
Do: The Purple Fiddle, the music venue that made Thomas a destination, also offers lodging.
Stay: Take in the mountains from the hot tub or fire pit at the 16-room Amigo Motor Lodge. doubles from $100.
Eat: Try sophisticated small plates like moules frites at the laid-back gastropub the Fritz. entrées $10–$16.
Do: Rent a mountain bike and ride the Arkansas Hills Trail through the Sawatch Range.
Lostine and Joseph, Oregon
Stay: The Jennings Hotel has stylishly rustic rooms and a redwood sauna. doubles from $95.
Eat: Embers Brew House serves pub food and regional beers.
Do: Shop for luxury home goods, furniture, and clothing at M. Crow & Co.
Stay: Bing Crosby cofounded the Spanish-colonial Tubac Golf Resort & Spa. doubles from $124.
Eat: For organic dishes and a mean prickly-pear margarita, head to the Goods.
Do: Hike to the old Spanish presidio along the lush Anza Trail.