The Rand McNally and USA Today contest for the "most beautiful small town in the United States" began this weekend in Jim Thorpe.

Best of the Road 2012 Rally team members Nikki and Dusty Green, both Texas natives, arrived in downtown Jim Thorpe on Saturday afternoon. They were welcomed by dozens of locals and tourists, including members of the Mauch Chunk Players in historic attire.

Their ride into Jim Thorpe is the start of a whirlwind journey across the country that will be documented online as part of Rand McNally's and USA Today's Best of the Road 2012 Rally. The Greens, along with a small camera crew, began their cross-country trip Friday with an opening ceremony and filming for the Travel Channel in Washington, D.C. The road trip will be featured in a Travel Channel documentary later this year.

"We are just thrilled and excited, and looking forward to the competition," said Pat Handwerk, a member of the Jim Thorpe Chamber of Commerce and local organizer for the rally. "We have a cross section of things that are so unusual and diverse, more than any other town. We have beautiful history, incredible architecture, and scenery that is absolutely breathtaking. I think that we do deserve to be named the most beautiful town in America."

More than 650 towns across the country were nominated for the Best of the Road 2012 Rally in five categories: most beautiful, friendliest, most fun, best for food, and most patriotic. After learning that Jim Thorpe was in 42nd place nationwide and voted the second best small town in Pennsylvania, Handwerk asked area residents to support the town and vote during the contest.

"I thought it would be a fun thing for us to accomplish, and the residents agreed," she said. "We truly believe that this is the most beautiful town in America. Everyone got behind it and started voting."

By the end of the contest, Jim Thorpe had received 442 votes in the "most beautiful" category and 510 votes overall, earning fourth place and the right to compete in the "most beautiful" category. The six finalist towns in each category will be visited by a team of rally members, who will document their road trip through online blog entries, pictures and videos.

The Jim Thorpe rally tour began in the Josiah White Park with a welcome by Mayor Michael Sofranko and a presentation of the keys to Jim Thorpe. Sofranko encouraged the rally team to enjoy their stay and the beautiful surroundings.

"We know that the beauty of Jim Thorpe lies in our residents," he added.

"What a great welcome. You guys did it up right," said Nikki Green. "You guys look beautiful," she called to the Mauch Chunk Players. "We can't wait to see what your town has to offer."

The rally team spent two nights in the historic Inn at Jim Thorpe. While in town they viewed some of the most popular attractions of Jim Thorpe, including the Harry Packer mansion and downtown businesses.

The team also took a trip to the top of Flagstaff to get a birds' eye view. They spent much of Saturday afternoon taking in the local scenery while biking and white water rafting from the Glen Onoko access point. Tours were organized by the Jim Thorpe eXperience.

For organizers of the rally, their goal was to highlight the most beautiful portions of Jim Thorpe while still leaving room for the rally team to choose their own activities for the weekend.

"We tried to prepare everything so that they had lots to choose from," said Handwerk. "We wanted to give all of our businesses a chance to be a part of this. We also wanted to give the residents a chance to show off their town."

After leaving Jim Thorpe, the rally team will travel to the other five towns vying for the title of "most beautiful." Over the next six weeks, the rally team will visit Tybee Island, Georgia; Danville and Bardstown, Kentucky; Sedona, Arizona; and Baker City, Oregon.

Dusty noted that the annual Best of the Road Rally was designed to bring recognition to the best small towns in our country, towns which might otherwise be overshadowed by big cities.

"Being from a small town, we're so excited to be on this journey and put these towns on the map," he said. "When you look at a map, you see the east coast and the west coast and the larger cities. You don't see all that is between the two coasts. As small town kids, we know how important that is."

The couple has lived in large cities, small towns, and everywhere in between. In the end, they chose to settle down in a small town similar to where they were raised.

"We tried living in Austin for about a year, but it's just too big. We're used to small towns with a slower pace, where you have that sense of community," said Dusty.

The Greens, along with four other rally teams now crossing the country, will gather in Seattle on July 15 for a Best of the Road 2012 Rally closing ceremony. The best small town in each category will be announced during this ceremony.

Until that time, local residents can follow their journey through Jim Thorpe and around the country at www.bestoftheroad.com [2]. Their travels to the six "most beautiful" towns will be documented with photos and posts at www.twitter.com/TeamTwo4TheRoad [3].