An Ode To Small Town America

Chris shares his thoughts on his travels through small town America and the importance of local community stewardship

Chris Wartko, President

4 min read

As the co-founders of Into The Box, Maya and I come from pretty different worlds.  She’s an LA native, a Valley Girl through and through, whereas I grew up in suburban Kansas.  As any good Midwesterner will tell you, family road trips are a staple of middle class Midwestern life.

With Chicago, Dallas, and Denver, the nearest large cities, all over an eight hour drive away, summer trips often revolved around smaller, regional destinations.  (Sure, St. Louis and Wichita were both less than half that distance, but anyone who’s met me will tell you that I firmly believe both of those cities are two of the Gateways to Hell…  And if you’re from either of those cities, I’m sorry.  Not sorry that I said it, just sorry you have to live there.  Tell Lucifer I say hi when you see him.)

Anyway, maybe it was the frequent trips to the Ozarks that sparked my love of small town travel.  Maybe it was weekend lake getaways.  Maybe it was riding the backwards-facing seats on Thunderation during the Christmas season.  Whatever sparked it, I’ve been obsessed with exploring small town America for as long as I can remember.

When I built the Funky Bus, I wanted it to be something I could park in the heart of any city, large or small, and not draw attention.  While the bus has definitely seen its fair share of urban environments, from Dallas, to Memphis, to Atlanta, I’ve found that it really thrives on the freedom of the open road.  Taking the time to traverse the backroads of America has allowed me to stumble upon some of the most amazing hidden gems that you’ll never find on TripAdvisor, like a crystal blue swamp in the Florida panhandle, an abandoned resort town in Arkansas, or an old Frank Lloyd Wright inspired World’s Fair exhibition transported over 800 miles and reassembled in Wisconsin.

Some of the kindest, hardest-working people you’ll ever meet call rural America home.  From the mechanic in Houma, Louisiana who came to my rescue when the bus broke down on New Year’s Day, to the longtime owners of the Wisconsin Supper Club that I pulled into because it caught my eye, to the curators of this museum in a tiny town that inspired one of your favorite Disney movies, good people and authentic experiences run plentiful across our nation.

Maybe that’s my favorite part about visiting small town America. The best memories are the spontaneous ones.  There’s really no feeling quite like the freedom of waking up, getting on the road with no destination in mind, and seeing where you end up.  Visiting our country’s bigger cities is always a blast, but there’s a necessary degree of planning required.  Whether exploring Broadway, Santa Monica, Michigan Avenue, or South Beach, there’s a degree of authenticity missing.

When I was living in Atlanta to go to law school, I can’t tell you how many times I escaped the city to head up into the mountain towns of lower Appalachia.  It’s my happy place - from Clingman’s Dome, to the Blowing Rock, to the Symmes Chapel, to an abandoned amusement park in the sky. (you’d be surprised how many abandoned resorts and theme parks I’ve stumbled across!)  

Ultimately, the backroads of our nation are filled with amazing people, incredible food (as long as you’re not counting calories!), unique sights, and a sense of adventure in getting off the beaten path to see what you’ll stumble across.  I’m so excited to bring Into The Box to these communities, to share the wonders of small town American travel while bolstering and contributing to those communities, not exploiting them.  If you haven’t gotten a chance to read ITB Marketing Director Claire Pfitzinger’s post on Regenerative Tourism yet, click here to take a look.  As I see so many other short term rental startups proliferating across the country, it’s heartbreaking to see so many of them go into small towns, bulldoze a few acres of trees, and put up 30-40 units.  It strains the local economies, reroutes tourism dollars out of those communities, and adversely impacts small business owners who have been active participants in their communities for decades, if not longer.

If you got a chance to join our most recent webinar, you’ll know that part of ITB’s goals to promote regenerative tourism include only dropping a limited number of boxes in any one location, actively promoting local businesses and encouraging our guests to patronize them.  In 2022, let’s drop the tired, outdated narrative that small town America needs “saving”.  I’m not discounting the very real socioeconomic issues plaguing many of these communities across the nation - I’ve researched HUD, SBA, & USDA programs and policies aimed at fighting these issues extensively and agree there’s work to be done.  I am, however, saying that the last thing small town America needs is a bunch of Silicon Valley startups swarming into these communities under the guise of acting as a “white knight” of sorts.  It’s disrespectful, it’s unnecessary, and you have my promise as the President of Into The Box that we will act as good community stewards, uplifting our nation’s backroads, not exploiting them.

I’m so excited to be able to share the magic of small town America with our guests.  We have so many amazing opportunities and agreements currently in the works that I can’t wait to share with you all.  Until then, next time you’re out for the day, try turning off your GPS and taking the road less traveled.  You never know just where you’ll end up.