The Places We Discovered in 2023
(L to R) Alabama Travel, The Museum of Everyday Life, Yifu Wu, Kentaro Toma, Tyler Delgado, Infrogmation of New Orleans
When you amble through Wildsam’s pages, you’re here for well told stories about place, culture, the beauty in the contours of America’s vast and diverse landscape. This year, Wildsam editors traversed the country and a handful of locales met us with wonder. From the sensational art buildings in Iowa, to O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico, to legendary recording studios in Alabama, here are the places we discovered in 2023.
The Stanley Museum of Art, Iowa City, IA
You know those moments that you could not have planned with all the will in the world? The moments that make travel not just fun but worth it, in the deepest way. I experienced one at The Stanley. As small museums go, this one is sensational–brand new, cool architecture, the astonishing collections of the University of Iowa at its disposal. All good. But it so happened that on the afternoon I visited, opera singers and musicians roamed every gallery, rehearsing an “immersive opera” by (come to find out) composer Nathan Felix. As the ensemble practiced an elaborate choreography and swirl of music, I sat as still as I could, for as long as I could.
- Zach Dundas, Editorial Director
Studios of Muscle Shoals, Alabama
I headed to The Shoals as part of research for our Alabama book feeling like I knew some of the history where legendary recordings were made–Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Etta James, the Rolling Stones. But I had no idea the deep knowledge and skilled storytelling I’d find by the keepers of these humble spaces. Terrell Benton gives an incredible tour of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio where you can peek the small wood-paneled bathroom that once held Duane Allman’s amp, also where the lyrics of Wild Horses were finished. Across town at FAME Recording Studio, the walls hold a million more stories. It’s best to book tours of both as they’re interconnected in many ways and distinct in others.
- Jennifer Justus, Editor
Museum of Everyday Life, Glover, Vermont
What is your relationship to the things you use each day–the stuff that makes up your personal atmosphere? In a Northeastern Vermont barn, founder Clare Dolan catalogs ordinary objects as an ode to the mundane and off-beat. The self-service, always-rotating exhibits are a catalog of everyday objects (shopping lists! razors! sailing knots!); collected and in proximity to each other, it’s like walking through a series of evocative time capsules, lives in hyper detail. Outside of this permanent collection, special exhibits dive deep on topics like bathing and bathtubs, the toothbrush and dust.
- Sam Alviani, Editor
Appalachian Mountain Club’s 100 Mile Wilderness Lodges, Maine Highlands, Maine
I didn’t discover this chain of backcountry lodges this year (the newest opened seven years back), but I did discover how shockingly underutilized they are in summer. The AMC’s trio of rustic camps–deep in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness, home to the remotest stretch of the Appalachian Trail–fills with Nordic skiers in winter, skiing lodge to lodge through some of New England’s prettiest backcountry. But in June, I had a palatial bunkhouse to myself, with breakfast and a sack lunch awaiting me and one other dude in the lodge, then a mess of trails and trout ponds to myself. I paid $108 a night. Each lodge is within a day hike of the next, and unlike in winter, they’re all accessible by car (preferably with high clearance).
- Brian Kevin, Managing Editor
Georgia O ’Keeffe home, Abiquiú, New Mexico
It feels like a reverent experience to stand in Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio and take in her view of the magnificent New Mexico landscape. But it felt even more fascinating to me to see areas of the home like her kitchen–a space so practical and personal. A room so quiet that surely once hummed with the energy and aromas of making a meal. Her copy of the Joy of Cooking still sits on the shelf along with Heloise’s Housekeeping Hints and Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer with its tattered book jacket. Her plain kitchen table has a transistor radio at one end. The cabinets are filled with jars of dried herbs from the garden and the martini glasses from which we’re told she liked to drink one cold beer with a red chile.
Vaughan ’s Lounge, New Orleans, LA
The night before our wedding party, my husband and I met up with some of our friends at Vaughan’s, a most beloved neighborhood spot, site of too-late weeknight hangs and respite from things that ail. This particular night was the return of the best ever drag shows, back after two years of pandemic hiatus. Being anywhere with the people you love is a windfall–but Vaughan’s conducts a particular joy frequency that extends beyond to strangers and barstool neighbors. The best bars–the best places–are like this. By the end of the night you’ll be full up, enough to carry you through to your return to the corner of Lesseps and Dauphine.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
It’s one of those rare, ancient places sitting barely off the interstate and yet a world away. I made this pitstop while driving Route 66 this year, and the most breathtaking part to me? Winding through a collection of cone-shaped peaks called The Teepees. These formations of erosion seem to appear out of nowhere, striped in nearly perfect layers of blues, grays and purples. It feels like another planet–where it’s possible to see time in the land. A portion of Route 66 once ran through this area, and it’s commemorated in the park with a rusted Studebaker and remaining weathered telephone poles along part of the old roadbed. While man’s path was rerouted, nature endures.
Legacy Museum, Montgomery, AL
It really should be required viewing for every American. A brilliant feat of storytelling, it shares a brutal and ongoing history artistically and with a myriad entry points to learn and interact. It surprised me to see how exhibits also served as conversation starters among strangers such as the wall of 800 jars holding the varied shades of soil collected from lynching sites. The nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also by the Equal Justice Initiative, is a must-see too, and I hope to be back in 2024 when the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park opens along the Alabama River.
Backstreet Cultural Museum, New Orleans, LA
Backstreet started as a two-car garage display of carnival mementos and memory: now, it has the biggest collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes in the city, plus deep context on the tradition and history from local culture-bearers themselves. There are exhibits on Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs’ second line parades, jazz funerals and masking tradition, all housed in their (newly expanded!) St. Philip Street space.
Port Townsend, WA
Sometimes, you happen on a spot and think, “This ___ is the absolute epitome of ___.” This big-little town on the Olympic Peninsula’s far end fills in that blank for the Pacific Northwest. Moody weather. Deer everywhere. Vistas of sea and islands. Canada so close, you can feel the politeness. Wander around the piers, docks and old Victorian buildings, and you half expect a salty captain to reel around the corner, coming the other way. Finisterre is the spot to eat, Uptown Pub the place to carouse with townsfolk. Consider circling September’s Wooden Boat Festival on your 2024 calendar.