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I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

Click on any image to enlarge

goode mapWhen I was growing up — in the Antediluvian Age when everyone smoked Lucky Strikes and cars all had clutches and carburetors — the maps in my grade school rooms had 48 states on them.

Those classroom roll-down maps were beautiful to my young eyes — all that green, yellow and ruddy brown in wood engraving density. They are maps that have never been equalled, and I knew, looking at the map, pulled down in front of the black chalkboard, that I wanted to go to every one of those states and see if Colorado were really the color of chestnuts, if Florida were really Kelly green. It seemed so lush.

Over the years, I’ve gone to — and written about — all 48 contiguous United States, seven Canadian provinces, a couple of edgings into Mexico and a few places in Europe and Africa.

In each of the places I’ve been, there is a top sight to see, like the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Yellowstone in Wyoming. And I’ve loved them all.

But there are also smaller, less well-known places that have quietly become some of my favorites. I’m sure everyone has the same: places where something special happened, or that sum up the qualities of a state or region, or that just seem so relaxed and beautiful that they draw you back over and over.

For me, such places are often remote from normal tourism attractions. I am a sucker for unspoiled grasslands in the Great Plains, for alligator-filled swampland in the South, for backcountry roads in the Appalachians. Others may look for happy crowds to join, for music and dancing or roller coasters. My favorites, however, tend to be empty of people, silent and to provide long views over a significant arc of the planet.

So, here are a few of those places, listed state by state.

edmund pettus bridge

Alabama

If you want to learn about the Deep South and how much it has changed, you should visit Selma. It is where the great Civil Rights march of 1965 began, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heading on to the state capitol at Montgomery. If you think the battle is over, you should visit Selma and see, despite how far we have come, how distant is the horizon.

Badger Springs Road 1Arizona

Of course, the Grand Canyon is on our license plates, but almost any other square foot of the state is nearly as wonderful, from Hoover Dam to Douglas, from Four Corners to Yuma. But I have a special place in my heart for an obscure exit ramp from I-17 north of Phoenix. Badger Springs Road is a bit of largely undisturbed desert, with trails and cactus, and I can always pull off the highway and find a bit of peace and quiet.

Arkansas


The state is rich in rural areas, craggy in the north, flat and muddy in the east through the Mississippi flood plain, steamy with hot springs toward the south. But the little town of Toad Suck in the center of the state seems even a little quieter, a little more remote than most, and is graced with a state park as well, along the Arkansas River. No hotels, but friendly people.

manzanar

Northern California

California is too rich; I have to split it in two. Even then, I could name a dozen places in each half: In the north — Tule Lake National Wildlife Reserve, Mono Lake on the eastern side of the Sierras, Lassen National Park, the Humboldt Redwoods, the tule marshes along the Sacramento River. But I keep coming back to Owens Valley, just below Mt. Whitney. From the soda-flat Owens Lake north to the ruins of the Manzanar Relocation Center — where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II — the valley is both picturesque — the Alabama Hills where so many Western films were shot among the wonderland of rocks — and historic — in addition to the concentration camp, there is the sorry and violent tale of how a thirsty Los Angeles stole the valley’s water earlier in the century.

Southern California

East of San Diego is one of California’s most pristine deserts. It is called Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and it is the primordial home of all those Washington palm trees that line the streets of Phoenix. Borrego Springs is a surprisingly kempt little town in the middle of it, but the rest of the park usually seems as empty as a college campus during spring break.

Pawnee Buttes 5 copy

Colorado

For most people, the state probably brings to mind skiing or expansion baseball, or an over-hyped beer, and certainly Colorado is best remembered for post-card mountains — all those “fourteeners” — but I love the Pawnee National Grasslands, one of the best places to get a sense of what the West was really about, what the Great American Desert was — not desert, but the Great Plains, vast, sweeping and grassy.

Connecticut

There is no more peaceful a river valley in the nation than the Housatonic north of New Milford. The Appalachian Trail winds along a portion of its banks. There are covered bridges, meadows and not too far away, near Cornwall, there is a large stand of virgin white pine, called the Cathedral Pines. U.S. 7 parallels the river most of the way.

Delaware

Delaware is a tiny state, and most people notice it, if at all, for the chemical plants and refineries that stick their bellowing smokestacks into the air, and the highways that pass through it on their way elsewhere, up over the twin Delaware Memorial Bridge. But there are the “Hooks” — Prime Hook and Bombay Hook national wildlife refuges, swampy and woodsy on the broad mouth of Delaware Bay.

Florida

If you cannot get enough of the Everglades, or if the national park is too crowded, head north off U.S. 41 on any of a dozen gravel roads into Big Cypress National Preserve. Or take the loop road to the south, through incredible cypress wetlands, with sagging Spanish moss and blackwater swamps.

Okefenokee

Georgia

The Okefenokee is my favorite swamp. That’s saying a lot. I’ve seen more wildlife in it than in any other. Drive up Georgia 177 from Edith into the Stephen C. Foster State Park and rent a canoe. Paddle within inches of swimming alligators. Look into the trees for the snake birds — anhingas — with their darting necks and their wings spread out in the sun to dry.

Idaho

With its camas prairies, steep mountains and gaping canyons, the Nez Perce Indian Reservation is one of the most beautiful parts of this beautiful state. You can see the valley where Chief Joseph began his tragic 1,500-mile unsuccessful flight to freedom for his people in 1877.

Mississippi barge

Illinois

Chicago has big shoulders in the north, but down at the very bottom are the forlorn toes of Cairo, one of the most memorable of Mississippi River towns. It is aging, with peeling paint and boarded up storefronts, but you can feel in the humid air the history behind it. And you can see the conjoining of the muddy Mississippi water with the clearer, faster moving Ohio River. Boats and barges move past in the misty mornings like iron dreams.

Indiana

If you want to find the prototype of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.,” you couldn’t do better than to see Paoli, in the southern part of the state. No more perfect quiet little Middle-American village can be found. There are no tourists and nothing to do, but imagine what it must be like to live there, under the spreading chestnut trees just off the town square.

Iowa

Iowa is sometimes surreal: At the bottom of the bluffs of the Mississippi are cities filled with Victorian architecture. There are trees and vines. On top of the bluffs, there are endless rolling farms, with silos instead of trees, like some Grant Wood painting. The best of the cities is Dubuque, one of the greatest surprises of my travels. It is one of America’s most beautiful cities.

Kansas

If you want to get away from civilization, you can hardly do better than the middle of Kansas. Just north of Lebanon is the “Geographical Center of the Conterminous U.S.,” which is a highly qualified title to be proud of. But    you stand there, looking out over the grass and wonder, if they dropped the Big One here, would anyone hear it?

harlan county ky

Kentucky

   The state is mud in the west, limestone in the center and coal in the east. Among the stumpy, round-bumped mountains of coal-mining Harlan County and neighboring Letcher County, are some of the poorest homes and interesting people of the country.

atchafalaya thicket

Louisiana

It surprises even me, but one of my favorite places is along the Interstate. For 20 miles, I-10 rises on piers over the Atchafalaya Swamp. Take an exit into the dark woods and drive along the river into old, mossy river towns, built where the terra is not so firma. Even the pavement seems squishy beneath your feet.

Schoodicwaves2x

Maine

Everybody heads to Bar Harbor, where the T-shirt shops and frozen yogurt stores are chock-a-block. Pass on that and head to Schoodic Point further north. Also part of Acadia National Park, it is one of the ruggedest, rockiest parts of the rocky Maine coast.

Maryland

Antietam National Battlefield, near Sharpsburg, is the most emotional Civil War site I have visited. Every aspect of the fight, and all the blood and bullet-holes, seem spread out graphically, and the spirits of the dead and suffering seem almost palpable at the sunken road called Bloody Lane.

Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

Massachusetts

Arrowhead is the one-time home of Herman Melville in Pittsfield. The house is actually a character in many of his stories, and you can look out the second-floor window of his study, where he wrote Moby Dick, and see the saddle-back peak of Mt. Greylock to the north, “Charlemagne among his peers.”

Michigan

The Upper Peninsula is a big place, but everywhere you turn, there are forests, lakes and rivers, including Papa Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River. It’s hard to pick a single place, but there is always the drive on U.S. 2 along the southern shore of the peninsula along Lake Michigan.

Minnesota

A river doesn’t really start from a single source, but the agreed fiction is that the Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca, southwest of Bemidji. The lake is not that large, by Minnesota standards, and seems quite placid. The “father of waters” begins at a reedy little outlet that you can step across and brag you crossed the Mississippi on foot.

Mississippi

The blues began in the Mississippi Delta, and they are still played in the shabby juke joints of Clarksdale, one of those old, cracked-concrete, grass-in-the-railroad-ties, dying-downtown Deep South county seats. Everybody you see, sitting on their porch fronts, seems more human, more profound. Maybe it’s the blues.

Missouri

The Ozark Mountains can be beautiful, with lichen-covered limestone and rivers that disappear underground. Like at Big Spring State Park on the Current River, where the river comes gushing back out of the rock like a fountain.

bear paw surrender site

Montana

Chief Joseph began his three-and-a-half month trek in 1877 in Idaho, he ended it on the flat, grassy, empty plains of northern Montana, at a place called the Chief Joseph Battlefield near the Bears Paw Mountains, only 40 miles from the safety his Nez Perce Indians sought in Canada. He was captured by the U.S. Army, and promised “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

bailey yard nebraska

Nebraska

People look at me funny when I tell them that Nebraska is probably my favorite state to visit. The sand hills, the puny “national forest,” the Platte River and Scotts Bluff — they all seem unbearably windblown and lonesome. I love them all, but in North Platte, you cannot feel alone at the biggest railroad freight yard in the country. You can watch trains all day.

Nevada

If Nebraska is my favorite state, Nevada is probably my least favorite. It is empty, true, but its emptiness seems hard and thoughtless, like a biker at a roadside bar and casino. But I cannot deny the beauty of such places as Big Smoke Valley, between the Toiyabe and Toquima mountains, and the wide sagebrush plains where you don’t see a car for hours, but maybe a dozen dusty pickups.

New Hampshire

The Kancamagus Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the country, winding through the White Mountains along the Swift River. It goes from Lincoln to Passaconaway and passes some stunning stony waterfalls.

pulaski skyway copy

New Jersey

This is the state where I grew up. I came to despise the suburban banality of most of the state, but I loved two things: the northwest corner, with its minuscule mountains and bucolic forests; and most of all, the industrial corridor of the Jersey Turnpike, with its refineries, chemical plants and the always-beautiful Pulaski Skyway.

New Mexico

At the top of the Sacramento Mountains, in the Lincoln National Forest is a place called Cloudcroft. There is great camping, wild animals and — usually — clean air that is so clear, it could cut diamonds.

Bear Mtn Bridge

New York

New York offers more than any other single state except California. There are dozens of favorite sites, from Montauk Point to Niagara Falls. But I will always have a special affection for Harriman State Park, along the Hudson River, and Bear Mountain, that looks down at the gorge, just south of West Point and its military academy. Seven Lakes Drive, through the park, is what nature in the East is all about.

Ashe County road, creek &dogwoo

North Carolina

No question here: Ashe County, tucked up in the northwest part of the state, above the Blue Ridge, is away from the normal tourist loop, but more beautiful than any other place north of the Smoky Mountains. Any gravelly back road will take you to something surprising and there is the New River to canoe down.

Sunflowers Zap North Dakota

North Dakota

It hardly counts for anything, and there is no real reason to visit, but I cannot get enough of Zap, a tiny crossroads, where the roads don’t go anywhere. Between Beulah and Golden Valley, Zap sits among the rising and dropping swell of the grasslands, with the occasional pond for cattle to drink from.

Virginia Kendall SP, Ohio 3 copy

Ohio

Just south of Cleveland, there is a small bit of woods and rock called Virginia Kendall Park. It is right next to the larger Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, and benefits from more people going there than here. There is a rocky bluff in the middle of the park and echoing voices in the forest among the leaf litter.

Oklahoma

One of the worst massacres of the so-called Indian Wars took place just outside of Cheyenne, along the Washita River. The site is now nothing but grass, a line of trees along the water, and some outcroppings of rock. But the surrounding Black Kettle National Grasslands can give you a real sense of what the land looked like 121 years ago.

Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

Oregon

The Columbia River Gorge is one of the scenic wonders of America, and one of the most scenic drives is along the old, outmoded Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway, which rises up the mountainside above the interstate highway, and takes you through more waterfalls than any comparable stretch of road outside Hawaii.

falling water

Pennsylvania

The second most famous house in America — after the White House — is probably Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a vacation home he designed for Pittsburgh’s wealthy Kaufman family beginning in 1934. It is also one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, sitting literally atop a waterfall and jutting out over the small forest glen.

Rhode Island

If you’re on the A-list, you’ll naturally gravitate to Newport and its extravagant mansions. I’m not on that list; I prefer the more humble Conanicut Island, where real people live. It sits in the middle of Narragansett Bay and gives you a good sense of what life on the bay is like.

South Carolina

Myrtle Beach gets all the traffic and spring-breakers, but Huntington Beach, 10 miles further south along Murrell’s Inlet, is the better place to be. With Huntington Gardens just across the street, with all those animal sculptures of Anna Hyatt Huntington, and a fresh-water alligator pond next to the salt marsh, Huntington Beach is a great — a great — place for seeing birds.

pine ridge rez

South Dakota

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation may be poor, but it is beautiful. And as with many places noted for its poverty, it is very real. The people take the time to talk to you and there is history at every turn in the road — not all of it very comfortable for an Anglo to remember.

Tennessee

Most of the crowds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park gather along U.S. 441 across the crest of the range, or in Cades Cove in the southwest of the park. But one of the great drives, and less crowded, is up the Little River Road through the back side of the park. It follows the cascading Little River most of the way, and finds its way back to the visitors center at Sugarlands.

lbj ranch grandparentshouse

Texas

Even Texans will tell you the center of their state is the best part: The Texas Hill Country is an oasis in the middle of a state that sometimes seems like nothing more than the world’s largest vacant lot. And the best part of the Hill Country is found at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City. It is no wonder that our 36th president loved his ranch so much. It is a jewel in a perfect setting.

Utah

Is there a square inch of the state that doesn’t deserve to be a national park? I haven’t found it. But one of the most overlooked gems is the ride along Utah 128 from Moab to Cisco. Through most of its route, the road seems to be the one you would imagine at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Well, perhaps that exaggerates it a wee bit. But it is special.

coolidge plymouth

Vermont

Near Plymouth is the birthplace and homestead of Calvin Coolidge, who has recently lost his title as the president we made the most jokes about. In fact, Silent Cal was a smart cookie and not at all the buffoon stand-up comics make him out to be. He was raised in a tiny Yankee village that is preserved as a state park.

Monticello Entrance Hall copy

Virginia

Virginia is another state that seems to have more than its fair share of special places. Perhaps it’s history, perhaps geography, but almost anywhere you turn, there is something that will draw you back over and over. Still, there is something special about Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello, a monument to just how profoundly beautiful a little nuttiness can be. The Age of Reason meets Henry Thoreau.

Washington

Eastern Washington is largely a blank spot in America’s consciousness. Seattle, the Olympics, the Cascades, Mt. Rainier — they are all in the west. But there is hardly an odder or more peculiar and spooky landscape on Earth than what is called the Channeled Scablands east of the Cascades. The Grand Coulee Dam blocks the Columbia River there, where a prehistoric flood scraped the earth clean for hundreds of miles.

West Virginia

The Hawks Nest, on U.S. 60 between Gauley Bridge and Ansted, looks out over the deep declivity of the New River Gorge and is one of the great scenic views of the eastern U.S.

Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Wisconsin

Southern Wisconsin has many treasures, including the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, and the world’s largest six-pack of beer at La Crosse, but nothing can beat the genuine zaniness of the Dickeyville Grotto, a religious site in Dickeyville created out of broken bottles, seashells, stones and broken crockery. It is one of the great “outsider art” sites, and don’t miss the tribute to Columbus.

Wyoming

What’s the highest, most alpine road in America that actually goes somewhere? Undoubtedly, it is the Bear Tooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park. It climbs up over Bear Tooth Pass at 10,940 feet and provides more long Rocky Mountain views than any other road. Look out for the marmots.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

litle bighorn bluff with roadWhat you see in eastern Montana is grass, oceans of it, from horizon to horizon.

It was on this sea of grass that many of the plains tribes of Native Americans navigated in their search for herds of buffalo, and it was on this sea that the most famous battle of the Indian Wars was fought.

You can walk through the history and try to reconstruct the events at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument on the Crow Reservation south of Billings. On these grassy hills on June 25, 1876, George Custer died with more than 260 of his soldiers.

Over the years, “Custer’s Last Stand” has been the source of a great deal of mythologizing, on both sides of the battle. You have only to look at such Hollywood histories as They Died With Their Boots On to see a heroic Errol Flynn, fighting to the last with his brave men as they are inundated by hordes of screaming Sioux and Cheyenne. custer's last fight anheuser buschA famous chromolithograph, from a painting by St. Louis artist Cassilly Adams, hung in almost every saloon from 1896 to up till the Korean War. It was called Custer’s Last Fight, but almost everyone remembers it as “Custer’s Last Stand.” LIttle Big Man

In the heroic versions, Custer and his men are unundated by a sea of Indans and go down fighting to the last man.

An alternate version has taken hold since then, in which Custer is an egomaniacal buffoon who sees genocide as his ticket to the White House, and was personified by Richard Mulligan in Little Big Man.

Despite the hundreds of books and movies about Custer, none has ever resolved the contradictions of his character. Certainly, in the years just after his death, he was canonized — partly due to the propagandizing of his wife — and served as a rallying cry for those who wanted to end the “Indian problem” once and for all.

But Custer himself isn’t the only myth of the battle.

How often have you heard that there were no white survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn? As you drive through the battlefield, you learn the complexity of the fight and that fewer than half of Custer’s men were killed. Granted, that’s still a bloody battle, but it’s not quite the same thing as the legend.little bighorn evening

On finding the Indian encampment, Custer divided his troops into three groups and intended to attack the bivouacked Indians from both the North and the South. He took field command of one third of the forces and marched them north, along the hills above the Indian encampment.

The other two thirds of his forces, at the south end of the battle, took heavy casualties and eventually retreated to relative safety at the top of one of the bluffs on the eastern side of the river. Custer’s third of the force — about 225 men — was wiped out.little bighorn headstones

Yet, 328 men survived to tell the story, which they did to official inquiries.

Another myth is that it is the only battle the Indians ever won. That is wrong on both ends of the deal, since there were many battles won by Indians, but the Little Bighorn cannot really be counted as one of them.

The purpose of Custer’s foray into Montana was to oust the Sioux and Cheyenne from the Crow Reservation, where they were not particularly welcome, and nudge them back to their own reservations.

The battle ended when word of the approach of General Terry’s troops from the north came and the Indians decamped. Most of them wandered back to their own reservations. In other words, while the battle is remembered as a defeat for Custer, its military objectives were largely met, though such a victory is truly Pyrrhic.

You can read about the battle in any number of books, but you can’t really get the feel of it without visiting the site.little bighorn distant rain

It is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.

Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of lightning.

And you can get a much deeper sense of what this part of Montana was like 119 years ago, before the roads and visitor’s center, before the white crosses and shallow graves.