It's the area that surrounds Harrisonburg that often clinches the deal. The Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive, and the Shenandoah Valley, along with its namesake river, are a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts from skiers and spelunkers to hikers and kayakers. And the 1.8 million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forests extend along virtually the entire western edge of Virginia; Crabtree Falls Trail features one of the most impressive vertical-drop waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Toss in the wineries and apple orchards tucked away on winding back-country roads, and it's an appealingly bucolic picture. Meanwhile, the downtown area is showing signs of new life, with an active farmers' market and a handful of hip coffee shops and ethnic restaurants.
Median home price: $126,000
As is true in most state capitals, government jobs are plentiful in Lincoln, which also has the advantage of being a university town. When it comes to the political climate, however, Lincoln parts ways with many of its academically oriented peers; Nebraska is known for being a hard-core conservative state.
You'd better be prepared to enjoy football—and more specifically the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers brand. The beloved Huskers dominate everything else during their season, when Memorial Stadium turns into the third-largest city in the state, locals say with a straight face. Otherwise this is a sleepy town, though one with its own airport and another nearby in Omaha for those who like to keep traveling as well as working. Getting stuck in traffic is very rare, unless a game has just let out.
Median home price: $117,494
When the last of their three children headed off to college, Cody Buck, now 58, and his wife, Starr, 53, decided they wanted to explore a new career together. Once they graduated from nursing school last year, the former banker and former owner of a childcare business had no problem landing jobs here in the city known in the '50s as home to Buddy Holly and his band. Moreover, they've both since been recruited by another hospital in Lubbock, whose low unemployment rate (5.3 percent in 2009) and cost of living have contributed to population growth of nearly 9 percent since 2000.
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"I think there's always going to be a job open for a good nurse," says Cody, who works three 12-hour shifts a week at UMC Health System, Texas Tech University's teaching hospital. He makes less money than he did as a banker but enjoys the work more. "I am moving to a stage in life where I am looking for some type of reward other than just financial," he says of combining a paycheck and a calling. "I think as people age, everybody has some kind of additional need to make some kind of contribution."
Lubbock residents enjoy a thriving university life, following the Texas Tech Red Raiders, attending concerts at the Buddy Holly Center in the old Fort Worth and Denver Railway station, and showing visitors around the American Wind Power Center. (On an exceptionally windy day, locals say, you have to lean far forward to make any headway in this city.) The Wind Power Center features 90 vintage windmills spread across 28 acres and a modern 240-foot wind turbine that provides power for the center.
Median home price: $180,000
Just two hours from Chicago as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile rolls, Madison is a hot dog of a spot for a second phase of work life. Since the early 1990s, the state capital has undergone steady economic growth and even in recession boasts low unemployment (5.7 percent), a low crime rate, and a robust economy nurtured by the University of Wisconsin and its expanding research centers as well as state government jobs. High-tech and biotech ventures have created opportunity as well. And Oscar Mayer has been a Madison fixture for decades.