Archive for May, 2009

Never seen the Grand Canyon? That's un-American!

Never seen the Grand Canyon? That's un-American!

It happened again last night. I was at a café with friends when one, who has traveled extensively in Europe, asked me for advice about an inexpensive summer vacation for herself and her two college-age-ish sons.

I suggested Cody, Wyoming, right outside the east gate of Yellowstone National Park. (“I hate hiking,” one son grumbled.) I suggested Boulder, Colorado. I suggested Seattle. I suggested they drive cross country and get a sense of the whole shebang.

“Are there cheap fares to Europe these days?” my friend asked.

Wrong question, especially after I have a few glasses of sangria in me.

“You should see your own country!” I opined loudly, pounding the table, startling them all and making the last few bites of my chocolate éclair bounce in its paper frill.

But really … why see Big Ben every few years if you’ve never seen Big Bend? What has Paris got to offer for the sixth time that is so much better than seeing Portland, Oregon, once? The Alps are spectacular, but get to know the Rockies, too.

To her credit, this friend has lived in California, New York and New Jersey and been to Santa Fe, Texas, New Orleans, Disney World and the Grand Canyon. Disney World and the Grand Canyon are on my list of required sights for all Americans, along with Las Vegas, Ellis Island, the Pacific Coast and a few other choice spots. So she’s not a total loss. But her sons haven’t seen nearly as much of the nation.

OK, I understand that not everyone wants to sit in a field in Oklahoma watching chickens dance. That’s mainlining America, you have to work up to that sort of thing. But I am frankly intolerant of people who think travel must entail crossing an ocean, who don’t open themselves up to the diversity of Flyover America. My gosh, we barely even speak the same language coast-to-coast.

Sure, I love the heck out of Europe. Asia is thrilling—the most foreign foreign place I’ve ever visited. And I hope not to die before I see more of South America. I have nothing against anyplace else. Some of my best friends are other places in the world.

But still, if you’re traveling the world while ignoring the United States, shame on you. I pound the table in your general direction.


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Photo by dawnzy58 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo by dawnzy58 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

For so many, the first true travel excitement comes compliments of Mickey Mouse and co.

A few years ago, I talked to my nieces on the phone just before their first trip to Disney World. The little one, just shy of four, didn’t usually have much patience for phone conversations. That day, she just kept talking and talking, offering excited (and rather detailed) explanations of all the things she wanted to see. Both girls were delighted when I told them about my own visits to Disney World as a kid. We all got kind of giddy thinking that, just maybe, there was some slight chance they would end up riding in the same It’s a Small World boat I sat in 30+ years ago.

And, of course, there was the thought of meeting him: Mickey Mouse. While both girls were already doing their best to pretend they were tweens (and could sing the entire High School Musical soundtrack by heart), Mickey remained the same big deal he was for me when I was a wee traveler.

Considering all that, I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that I got a bit choked up when I read that Wayne Allwine has died. He was the official voice of Mickey for the last 32 years. He was my main Mickey. He was my nieces’ only Mickey. We may not be able to mimic his falsetto but we can all hear it in our heads. (You’re hearing it right now, right?) And even though the Mickey that walks around Disney World just smiles and waves, no high-pitched anything escaping the mask, Allwine’s voice takes over in the imaginations of all who meet him.

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Photo by TheTruthAbout via Flickr

Photo by TheTruthAbout via Flickr

A certain type of traveler, the “I-only-watch-PBS” type of traveler, scorns the Interstate. These travelers are all about the blue highways, those small rural roads that require time and patience and don’t send you hurtling through America’s heartland. (Today’s rumination is brought to you courtesy of this New Yorker cartoon, which got me thinking when it turned up in my email inbox.)

But I love America’s great Interstate system, officially (and a little frighteningly) called The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

I love the scale of Interstates, the signs that direct you not from town to town, but from great city to great city: SOUTH—MIAMI; WEST—LOS ANGELES. These signs give me the same thrill as an international airport. They speak to the adventurer in me. I love the sight of a major interchange, with underpasses and overpasses cutting through the sky, shuttling us around in our little pods. This is industrial art on a most massive scale. (And I swear, I wrote this post hours before someone turned me on to this fabulous Field Guide to Freeway Interchanges.)

A long-distance drive on the Interstate system is the best way to comprehend the size of America and her spectacular geography. It’s like time-lapse photography, revealing how the hills of the East relax into the plains, which then start furrowing like a worried brow before the ground heaves and the Rocky Mountains burst from its crust. Then the ground flattens again and parches before we reach the jagged western edge of the nation.

I’ll never forget my first cross-country drive with a couple of friends when, after days driving past hypnotic corn fields, we spotted the first, barely discernible purple glimmers of the Rockies in the distance. “I’ve always wondered,” one friend mused, “how the pioneers must have felt after weeks and weeks slogging across the prairies, then seeing … that.” Ah, but we can cut right through those mountains lickety-split if we choose, on the Interstate. The Interstates go underground and over water, along the coast and through the desert. They take us from city to town to the middle of nowhere and back again. (Interstate trivia: The longest route in the system is I-90 from Seattle to Boston, I learned on the government website about the system.)

Of course, for an intimate experience with America, you have to get off the main drag. But for a broad view, a bold view of everything America has, of her scale and breadth and splendor, we have our broad, bold, splendid Interstates. God bless ’em.

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Kane County Cougars. Photo by willowbrookhotels via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Kane County Cougars. Photo by willowbrookhotels via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Albuquerque Isotopes. The Clearwater Threshers. The Dayton Dragons.

Ah, minor league baseball. The team names alone are joy. The experience? That much better. While I’ve always found it a bit ho-hum to attend a major league game for a team that wasn’t my hometown favorite, minor league games feel more neutral.

They’re about hanging out eating stuff you shouldn’t eat on a (hopefully) beautiful spring or summer night and (hopefully) getting to see a little magic when some not-so-known player smacks one out or looks like he has the potential to pitch a perfect game. They’re about relaxing. And just kind of being in a place with, mostly, the people who live there.

Minor league games feel out of time. They feel hopeful.

No, not trying to be all Pollyanna-ish about it. Well, maybe a little. (I’ll admit to a bit of MLB overbloated stadium, ticket price, and player news fatigue.) In the minors, the stadiums may have some minor bells and whistles but there are also bouncy castles (at some) , decently priced hot dogs (at most), and, the best bit of the bunch, entire teams of players who still seem to get at least some joy out of playing baseball. Oh, and cheap tickets. And local fans who don’t start bitching about the ticket prices the minute the team falls a few runs behind. Instead, they root for them harder. They will them to win.

And then there are those names. No matter where you’re from, you can’t tell me you don’t want a T-shirt proclaiming your love for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

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Photo by Sophia Dembling

Photo by Sophia Dembling

When I heard about the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, Okla., my mind went directly to funnel cakes, face painting, and maybe a parade with a Lesser Prairie Chicken Queen. Sign me up, I said! I love small-town fests.

I’m kind of a moron sometimes. It wasn’t until I had my trip planned that I fully understood that a bird festival is where bird watchers gather to watch birds—in this case, lesser prairie chickens. Not only was funnel cake not part of the event, but the centerpiece of the weekend involved waking before dawn to spend three hours in a field watching chickens dance.

Well, what the heck. I’d never heard of dancing chickens before and I love Oklahoma. I was game. So I drove six hours from Dallas to Woodward, arriving on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning, I woke at 4:30 a.m., drank one cup of bad in-room coffee (no bathrooms at the blinds, and if I scared the birds away by peeing on the prairie I would have been garroted by birders) and boarded a van with people carrying expensive binoculars and cameras with lenses the length of my arm. Then I climbed over a barbed wire fence, stumbled through cow patties in the dark, crammed into a small blind in the middle of a field with a couple of real birders, and wondered what the hell I was doing there.

And then the chickens arrived and started dancing.

The males come to the lek (an area that’s sort of a prairie chicken singles bar) to show off their moves for potential mates. They flip up two feathers on the side of their heads, swell red sacs on either side of their necks, bob their heads like they’re sneezing, warble, and stomp their feet, which makes a surprisingly loud thrumming noise for such little guys.

It was absolutely adorable and deeply moving.

As the sun came up, revealing the glorious prairie all around us, I was struck by the image of those little birds, far from everything, dancing for their lives in a world where few people know they even exist.

Over the course of the rest of the weekend, I went on other bird-watching excursions, and attended a pair of programs by nature artist Debbie Kaspari and another about prairie ecology by wildlife biologist Dwayne Elmore, Ph.D. I learned that the prairie is under pressure from many things, including the encroachment of cedar, and the lovely little prairie chicken is a species at risk from wind turbines (they won’t nest under tall structures) and barbed wire. A highlight of the weekend for me was an hour spent tromping through the golden grass, marking barbed wire fencing so chickens don’t get snagged on it and die. Not only did I love walking in the prairie, but I got to do something for the chickens who had danced so nicely for me. Well, not for me, exactly—I wasn’t the target audience, but you get my point.

Sometimes, mistakes lead you to places you never imagined you’d be, and every time I travel, I learn to care about something new, even if it’s not what I expected. On this weekend in Oklahoma, I learned about the prairie, I learned to love the dancing chickens, and I forgot all about funnel cake.

Maybe I was a moron at the beginning of the trip, but I was smarter by the end.

This video of dancing chickens is by Sharon Stiteler, aka the Bird Chick, who was the event’s keynote speaker and is a very fun human being.

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Photo by Unlisted Sightings via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo by Unlisted Sightings via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Lately, the word best has been tumbling around my mind a lot. Blame it on the Beard Awards. Who was it going to be? Who would capture the crowns for best chefs in America?

Now, before you slam me for being anti-best, I’m not. I make part of my living off the damned, er, lovely word. As a travel and food writer, I package a bit of this from one place with a bit of that from another. Drape a coat of “best” on it—after extensive tasting and inner turmoil over who I’m leaving out—and, blammo, a list is born.

But I’ve been thinking about the intersection of Flyover America and, when it comes to food, the bests or the essentials. I’ve been looking back at my favorite food experiences while traveling the U.S. and, really, sometimes they’re not about the food. So, in considering working up a Best of Flyover America chow list, I can’t decide what it would look like. What information would help you when you travel the U.S.? While Bon Appetit’s The United Plates of America offers a great jumping-off point for debate over top tastes in each state, I think FA’s list will look a little different.

So help me, please. What do you think the criteria should be in developing a Flyover America best foods/restaurants/roadside stand list? Sure, taste is a priority. Consistency is always helpful. (After all, there’s nothing worse for a food fan than having your recommendations tossed back in your face with a why did you send me there?) Quality ingredients? Yeah, definitely—stale Oreos do not a good deep-fried Oreo make. And out-of-season ramps? Be gone!

But, more than any of that, I think the best Flyover America food comes courtesy of a shared moment with people (whether you knew them before you walked into the restaurant or not) or finding that crazy little place where, after a day of discovery, you kick back, try the local beer, and eat something that makes you want to move to that town. And, of course, there will have to be something about best breakfast spots—though they may require a list of their own.

What do you think? I look forward to figuring this all out with you…and then, in true Flyover America style, we’ll begin building our list(s). Hell, maybe we’ll even hand out an award or two. Can you goldplate a boiled peanut?

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nm road trip 2My husband Tom and I recently drove a loop south from Albuquerque. (Here’s an annotated map of our route, in case you want to follow in our tire tracks.) This was the first time I’ve Twittered from the road. Interestingly, the great to-Twitter-or-not-to-Twitter debate started up on World Hum while I was Twittering my trip and triggered a little metacognition about the process. Is it the right thing to do, and what makes a good travel Tweet?

Off the plane. In the car. On the hwy. Out of ABQ. Road trip!
I started composing this Tweet in my head before we were on the highway but refrained from posting it until it was true. I still like it. Its rhythm pleases me and it captures my glee and sets the scene.

Breaking into the gummi bears now.
Another important scene setter, since anyone who road trips knows how integral snacks are to the experience and we all have our favorites. (What are yours?)

The @blackstonehs is lovely. We’ll end our day with a soak.
Fail! This Tweet would have worked if I had provided a link. Without a link, it’s just a dull sentence—and incomprehensible unless you click through to @blackstonehs to figure out what it is. (Blackstone Hotsprings, a hotel.)

$30 of bliss—the Rio tub at the River Bend Hot Springs. http://tinyurl.com/dbzpmg
Not exactly lyrical but at least there’s a link. Note, too, that I posted this after our soak and did not distract myself from this trip highlight—an outdoor tub overlooking the river under a full moon. This kind of activity deserves 100-percent presence. No composing Tweets in your head, even. If you become more about the Tweeting than the traveling, then you’re doing it wrong.

My belly is happy after breakfast at the Happy Belly Deli.

Goofing around a small town. Nothing better.

Laughed ‘til we cried over vintage knitting pattern books in a TorC thrift store. Bought five of them.

Tweeting the small moments in my day was fun … it’s a moment to pause and review what gives me pleasure in 140 syllables or less. Some Tweets are stronger as a group and these three collectively describe an experience. It’s travel writing pointillism. (By the way, here’s a sample of what made us laugh.)

http://twitpic.com/326v8-The eagle has landed. NM Museum of Space, Alamogordo.
Goofy snapshots are a vacation staple. I like this one.

I have a room with a view—is it really so wrong to sit around and relax?

A couple of hours in the hotel lounge, sipping drinks and playing gin rummy. If that’s wrong, then I don’t wanna be right.

While just idle Tweets, these spurred some philosophical Twittering with @TravelWIthJulie about momentum vs. inertia during a trip. (We concluded that both in moderation are fine.) Nice to know someone was listening, too.

What time is it? Unplugged the clock radio cube when the alarm went off in the middle of the night. Turning it off was rocket science.
Are Tweets like this just Twitter clutter? That is a Twitter philosophical debate. Must all Tweets be useful? I like Tweets that just make me smile and assume anyone who travels has experienced the incomprehensible clock radio problem. I vote “yes” for this one.

So, what would I do differently? First of all, I forgot the hashtag that could have linked the trip Tweets. I remedied that on my next trip. Second, sometimes it’s best to hold a Tweet until you can do it justice with a link or pic or whatever will make it either more fun or more useful. Third, sometimes I Twitter just for me, because making up little word snapshots is fun. Judge me if you must, but I say there’s nothing wrong with that.

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