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MapI have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.

In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.New York 3

I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.

But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast gravy.red maple

I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.

There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.

If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a relationship.nc church jesus saves

A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.barista

I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.

From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.Seattle docks

There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.

When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.

There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.Badger Creek Ariz

Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.

There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.

My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture.  We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.

The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.

To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.

At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.

We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.

What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.

When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.

And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.

But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.Chicago, Ill

For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.Joes Colo haystacks

But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.

It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains  was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”

There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.

Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.Pawnee Buttes 5

Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?

Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.

I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.

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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.mobile bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.mobile bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

ny title

A cityscape is also a timescape.ny schist

And a visit to New York City is time travel. Roll the tape forward and back, and see the time-lapse version of the city, from the hard antediluvian schist that crops up in Central Park to the latest high-rise office complex.

We tend to think of America as a place that eats up its past, tearing down the old and erecting the new with no regard for history. And New York certainly has an energy that feeds on tomorrow.

But it is surprising how much of the past is still there, just left alone, standing in a multi-era crowd, with a brownstone wedged between a modern glass tower and a Beaux Arts library.

I suppose all of us who love the city have our defining frames in the time-lapse film. There is the fedora-topped bustle of New York in the 1940s, the World’s Fair gleam fighting the decay of the 1960s, the rhinestone Trumpification of the 1990s.

The city you remember best depends on how old you are and which version you first came to love.

But all of the versions are still there.

I first knew the city in the 1950s, and my memories are of Con Ed steam erupting from the streets in winter, diesel fumes filling the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street like color fills a Titian, the squeal of the AA train (now the C train) as it fought the big curve between 168th and 175th streets. When I was a boy, we ice-skated at Rockefeller Center and window-shopped at Macy’s.ny in the subway

When I go back now, the subway still squeals, and the fumes are still the glorious aroma of the city, the garlic in its stew.

My city is still there, a little buried maybe, its face turned away.

That is not to say there aren’t chunks missing: Penn Station is gone; the Horn & Hardart Automat is gone; the current Madison Square Garden is a generic shadow of the old one; the Coliseum has been replaced by the gaudy Time Warner Center. Others, such as the Edward Durrell Stone Gallery of Modern Art, at Columbus Circle, have been given a new set of clothes.

Even Yankee Stadium has been torn down — Yankee Stadium, which I expected to last as long as the Roman Colosseum. (No such longing for Shea Stadium.)ny hudson river

Although some of the carcasses still exist along the Hudson River, the great ocean-liner piers are dusty, sagging, hollow or demolished.

And these don’t include the most obvious loss.

When I flew cross-country in 2005, the plane passed over Manhattan, and, from 30,000 feet, the missing place of the World Trade Center looked like nothing so much as the empty socket of a pulled tooth.

Yet, much of what I knew of New York when I grew up is still there.ny camilles

Four decades ago, I stopped at a coffeehouse just outside Columbia University. It was when coffeehouses, not Starbucks, were the natural accoutrements of student life. You had to step down from the sidewalk to the below-grade tables. Someone was playing folk songs on guitar. It was called Cafe Ole. Two years ago, I accidentally found the same spot when I stopped for breakfast. It’s now Camille’s, but the uneven brick floor was still there, and the steps. Forty years squeezed together like an accordion.

You didn’t have to be born there: New York has a historical presence for most of us. We saw it in the movies and newsreels, in gallery photographs and paintings.

The New York of the mind comes from seeing King Kong, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The French Connection.

Not to mention the best evocation of the city ever transmuted to celluloid: Woody Allen’s Manhattan, that cinematic mash note:ny dusk

“He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion — er, no, make that: He romanticized it all out of proportion. Yes. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”

That New York of the mind is largely black and white. Or shades of gray. Even the snow in winter is gray. Like statuary, New York expresses form more than color.

Times Square sits in the mind like the black and white of Alfred Eisenstaedt, who photographed the famous V-J Day kiss there in 1945. The Staten Island Ferry does, too, and the crowds of people you pass on Sixth Avenue. (It will always be Sixth Avenue.)ny pizza

Enough people fill a block there, as lunch hour begins, to populate a ballpark, but most of them might as well be alone in the wilderness that Manhattan once was. People avoid colliding but never seem to make an effort to miss each other. There’s a subliminal awareness of the crowd, but you can see in their eyes that they aren’t primarily aware of the here and now: They are thinking of the meetings they are required to attend today or whether their husband has remembered to buy the potato salad for dinner tonight. Pairs or trios walk along talking, but they are leaves floating together downstream in a current.

In his tiny 1949 book, Here Is New York, E.B. White wrote, “New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities, it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants and needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”NY McDonalds

Stop at a storefront McDonald’s on a rainy November day and see the hordes lined up, warm against the cold outside, rubbing their hands as 40 people wait in ill-defined lines to be served. It’s noisy, yet quiet: The heat is steamy, the floor is worn. The bustle is enough to keep your ears electrified, but there is not much language to be heard outside the giving of food orders. The din is a roar of accelerating buses on the street, car horns, subways below the sidewalk grates and the incoherent susurrus of private conversation at tables.ny the met

It’s surprising how well people get on in New York, given the wide variety of types, ethnicities, politics and interests. The city makes room for all of them. Or, more precisely, the city takes equal lack of notice of all, so there is a kind of equality built in, an equality of negligibility.

It hasn’t always been that way. In the 1960s, the city seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The tourism slogan was “New York Is a Summer Festival,” but everyone in the city remembers it as “New York Is a Summer Fistfight.”

But now, allowing for the fact that you have 8 million people squeezed onto 300 square miles of land, the city is notably amicable: It has the lowest crime rate of the 25 largest U.S. cities, according to FBI statistics.ny grocery boxes

It is a city of diversity, and one that enjoys that about itself.

The last time I left the city, the hotel concierge phoned for a cab to take me to the airport. The cabbie was a large, bearded man with a black suit and an Eastern Europe accent; he drove a shiny black limo. Two blocks from the hotel, he pulled over. Another cab pulled over in front of us.

“If you please, my brother take you rest of way,” he said in a thick Boris Badenov voice. We emptied my bags into a second black limo.

The “brother,” who spoke with a Spanish, not Russian accent, explained as we drove that only one car in their fleet of cabs was authorized to pick up customers at the hotel, and so the first cab spent his day going from hotel to hotel, picking up customers and then redistributing them like a kindergarten teacher handing out cookies.

You come to expect such things in the city. It has always been this way.ny water tanks

What single image can catch the essential persistence of New York? The subways, the cabbies, Mott Street? For me, it is the wooden water tanks on the roofs of high rises. One would think they would have been replaced by something modern, something in stainless steel, perhaps. But they haven’t: All over the city, roofs are defined by their wood-slat water tanks, sitting on the tops of buildings like the acroteria on Greek temples.

A tourist will never run out of things to catch his attention, or his dollar. But the Statue of Liberty, the Guggenheim and The Lion King are not the images that boil up in memory for me. It is the water tanks.ny alleyway

My essential New York is built of alleys between apartments on the upper West Side, their trash cans waiting to be emptied.ny 172nd st elevated station

It is the elevated train station at 125th Street, looking like some obsolete, alien spacecraft landed on stilts in the gully called Manhattan Valley.ny gwb

It is the George Washington Bridge, which my grandfather worked on as an engineer in the 1930s.

There is no better way to enter the city than to walk across the GWB. You get the sense of crossing some large space that defines the difference between the comfortable world you know and the beehive world of the city. The bridge is a behemoth, covered in a putty of silver paint, with leopard spots of rust. The noise of the traffic as it passes blots out awareness; it is a constant ear-splitting surf.

But you arrive at 178th Street, and the neighborhoods begin. It is important to recognize that New York isn’t a single city; it is hundreds of individual communities, each with their life-support drugstores, groceries, shoe stores, churches and pizzerias. The city may not be as medievally immobile as it used to be, when most New Yorkers rarely left their two- or three-block turf except to go to work, but those neighborhoods are still the hearts of local patriotisms, each an axis mundi.ny apartment building

The two-story 1920s frame houses that line the streets of Queens, the brownstones of Brooklyn, the awning-beaked apartments of 59th Street in Manhattan — each neighborhood has its flavor, its architecture, its private history.

I look at my life and I know that although I am a grayhair 6 decades old, the 10-year-old kid who watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is still there somewhere, and so is the college graduate who came back to the city, and the married man who vacationed there, and now the senex who encompasses them all. And just as my whole life is a single long memory — a single speck of meaning — the city is the same: Everything that ever happened there is still there.

 Part 3: A chance to pull overroadside america exterior

 

The central Appalachians — through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York — is the natal home of the cheesy roadside attraction. Many are now gone, but many also remain, often looking cheesier and more shopworn than ever. The Catskill Game Farm is no longer there, but Santa’s Workshop is still going strong.

They are also home to many early resorts and vacation hotels, pitched on mountain ranges not far outside the cities of Philadelphia or New York, where urban dwellers could spend a week or two breathing healthy mountain air — the Poconos or the Catskills.

And hikers can follow trails through the many state parks, or the long Appalachian Trail, which courses through the three states, weaving a path that avoids urbia and suburbia and finds the long, bent ridge lines of the breadloaf mountains.

Roadside America

Roadside America

This section of the Appalachians is the most highly populated, but there are still bits of woods and rock. But that population also meant it was economically feasible to build those legendary roadside attractions — Crystal Caves and Frontier Towns — that once punctuated the now-forlorn backroads and highways.

The quintessential tourist mecca is Roadside America in Shartlesville. It is a model-train layout the size of a department store. Opened in 1941, the exhibit is run by the descendants of its creator. Stay for the simulation of night, when all of the buildings light up and Kate Smith sings God Bless America while a spotlight shines on the Statue of Liberty. roadside america 4

Not much can live up to that. But there is the Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, which is the nation’s oldest operating pretzel factory, where you can learn the craft.

Also in Lititz are the Wilbur Chocolate factory and the Heritage Map Museum. wilbur chocolate facade

In nearby Ephrata is the Ephrata Cloister, which has a dozen well-preserved 250-year-old wooden buildings, including dormitories for the communal society of religiously celibate German Pietists.

In York, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, you can visit the Weightlifting and Softball Hall of Fame and the Harley-Davidson assembly plant and museum.

In Columbia, there is the Watch and Clock Museum, and Meadeville is the ”birthplace of the zipper.”

And near Harrisburg, Three Mile Island and its remaining nuclear power plant is on the Susquehanna River. Gettysburg, Pa copy

More serious sites include Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial near Johnstown, where the National Park Service is showing its version of an Imax-style film with stunning special effects re-creating the devastating 1889 flood that killed more than 2,000 people.

Only a slice of the Appalachians cuts through New Jersey. The most important stop is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the Delaware River. There are some exhibits, 200 miles of roads through the mountain country and uncounted hiking paths. high point state park

High Point State Park is the highest point in the state. Both it and the Water Gap include portions of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,000-mile footpath that runs along the Appalachian crest from Georgia to Maine.

The rest of New Jersey’s mountains are kind of pathetic: The Watchung Mountains in the center of the state peak out at 879 feet above sea level.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls

But New York, home to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, is one of the champions of roadside kitsch. There are dinosaurs, giant lumberjacks, recreated 19th century villages and Niagara Falls — the granddaddy of all vacation (and honeymoon) hucksterism.

Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, N.Y., is called the oldest theme park in the U.S. It opened in 1949 and used to have a petting zoo. There are dozens of Santalands and Christmas villages around the country, but this one, in northern New York, was the first, and it still gives an idea of the old-fashioned roadside attraction that has been eaten up by the Disney Worlds and Five Flags of the world.

Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley in such stories as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. His estate in Tarrytown is called Sunnyside and is a delightful look at life in the early part of the last century.

Sunnyside

Sunnyside

A little farther north and on the other side of the river are Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks. Seven Lakes Drive takes you through the crisp lake country of Harriman, and Perkins Drive takes you to the summit of Bear Mountain, where, on a clear day, you can see as far as Manhattan.

Just north of Bear Mountain Bridge is the National Military Academy at West Point, with its parade grounds, faux medieval architecture and stunning view of the Hudson River and Storm King Mountain.

And naturalist John Burroughs’ birthplace and final home are commemorated in the John Burroughs Memorial Field, near Roxbury. On the way, don’t miss Kaaterskill Falls, one of the most famous and oft-painted waterfalls in the country.

John Burroughs' Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, NY

And in Cooperstown, there is not only the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Fenimore House, the home of James Fenimore Cooper, best known as the man who invented John Wayne — aka Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, the Pathfinder and Natty Bumppo — and the Farmer’s Museum and Village Crossroads, home to the Cardiff Giant, greatest archaeological hoax of all time. cardiff giant recumbent

NEXT: New England Appalachians

Part 1: In which the mountains change character

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

If you look at a map of Pennsylvania, you will notice that all roads through the central part of the state seem to travel in long parallel curves, sweeping like lines of marching soldiers taking a ”column right.” eastern pa map

In few places in the country do the road maps so accurately reflect the topography: Those highways follow the valleys between the Appalachian ridges that bend through the state. One ridge lies behind another, lined up like so many pleats in a curtain.

The high, wild Appalachians of the South give way to the rural hillsides of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The central Appalachians are even pronounced differently. In the South, the middle syllable rhymes with the ”a” of ”apple;” in the North, the ”a” becomes long and rhymes with ”hey,” a word you will hear with increasing frequency the closer you draw to Philadelphia. harvestore silo and barn

So, as the ”Apple-LATCH-ins” give way to the ”Apple-LAY-chins,” the whole character of the land changes. Hardscrabble family farms give way to large dairies. Small gray weatherboard barns give way to large red barns with blue Harvestore silos. Tobacco gives way to coal mining and steel mills.

Finally, as you travel north and east near Philadelphia and New York, the land becomes suburban.

The roads do manage to cross the ridges occasionally, although something as big as the Pennsylvania Turnpike finds it easier to tunnel under Tuscarora and Blue mountains on its way to the flatter eastern portion of the state.

What is more surprising is that at least three major rivers cut through the mountains, too.

Susquehanna River

Susquehanna River

The Susquehanna and Delaware rivers in Pennsylvania slice through them in what are called water gaps. The most famous of these, the Delaware Water Gap, knifes through the Kittatinny Ridge and divides its Pennsylvania and New Jersey halves.

Old post card

Old post card

And in New York, the Hudson River cuts through the Ramapo and Catskill mountains as it drops south from Albany to Manhattan.

These rivers helped create the history of the area, providing routes for early settlers to cross the difficult mountains.

Most famous among the early settlers are the Pennsylvania Dutch peoples of Lancaster and York counties — although you will find them north well into the mountains. Among them are the Amish and Mennonite ”Plain People” of the popular imagination.

They were German immigrants who began coming to the religious-tolerant commonwealth in the 1600s. Others were Swiss, and French Huguenots.

The Pennsylvania Dutch, though, were not Dutch. They were mostly German, and the German word for themselves, ”Deutsch,” was mistranslated.

By 1790, they made up a third of the state’s population.

But there were many real Dutch immigrants up the Hudson River Valley. Their influence is found in such names as Yonkers, Peekskill, Staatsburg and the Catskills.

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

All through the region you can find the influence of ethnic groups unheard of in the more culturally uniform Southern mountains: There are Irish, Italian, Spanish and Jewish enclaves in the mountains. It is in the Catskills of New York that the famous ”Borscht Belt” of Jewish resorts gave rise to a whole generation of stand-up comics. Does the name Shecky Greene ring a bell?

Shecky Greene

Shecky Greene

What may be surprising, though, is how much nature there is surviving in the central Appalachians. So close to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, there are still forest and wild lands.

You can find much of this along the Appalachian Trail as it curls through the region.

The footpath, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, enters Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, climbing through the Michaux State Forest and along the ridge of South Mountain. Geologically speaking, this is the northernmost tip of the Blue Ridge. Snowy Mountain, Mount Alto and Pleasant Peak are all just about 2,000 feet high.

Devil's Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

Devil’s Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

The trail crosses the Susquehanna just north of Harrisburg and climbs along Blue Mountain, the largest of the parallel ridges.

Big Mountain, Penn.

Big Mountain, Penn.

There it passes Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where geology and prevailing winds create a perfect spot to view migrating birds, and especially a series of birds of prey, including Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles.

On the ridge, at about 1,500 feet, you can see the quilt of farms and forests that spread out in the valleys below. The gray Tuscarora sandstone is tumbled about the peak, covered by patches of green lichen.

Past the resort-area Poconos, the trail follows the Kittatinny Ridge to the Delaware Water Gap and on into New Jersey, following the wooded northwestern edge of that state past long, clear lakes and Boy Scout summer camps to High Point State Park, at 1,800 feet the highest elevation in the state.

The trail loops to the southeast for a short bit before heading north into New York near Greenwood Lake.

There, it follows the Ramapo Mountain into Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks, finally crossing the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge before heading north again, across the Taconic Mountains and into New England. Hudson panorama

At the bridge, the Appalachian Trail is only 35 miles north of Manhattan and only about 100 feet above sea level.

The woods along the trail are increasingly littered with boulders — chunks of granite or sandstone torn from the bedrock by the continental glaciers of 18,000 years ago. It makes for a beautiful woodland vista, but it is hell for farming.

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

And unlike the woodlands in the South, cluttered with undergrowth, the woods of Pennsylvania and New York are easy to traipse through. There are rocks underfoot, but not a lot of shrubbery. You step through a cushion of rotting leaves, brown and soft to the sole of your shoe.

It is true that the central Appalachians are less distinctively mountains than their brothers to north and south. They often feel more like hills. Yet the farther you manage to find yourself from the population centers, the more you will uncover the familiar Appalachian culture.

In the plateaus south and east of Pittsburgh, for instance, you still can be eyed suspiciously by a farmer who wonders why you are taking a photograph of his farm. If you hear him talk, you still will hear the short syllables and clipped speech of the mountaineer. You will find homesteads with kitchen gardens and men on autumn weekends walking the gravel back roads with their sons, shotguns slung middle-broke over their shoulders and the two in matching red plaid coats, out for a bit of hunting, hoping perhaps to scare up a turkey.

NEXT: Home of the diner

olana

Everyone likes a home with a view. If you are rich enough, you can afford to buy such a property, and if you are an artist, you can design such a house.

Frederic Edwin Church was both of these things, and the estate he created, Olana, is now a state park near Hudson, N.Y., where it sits on the top of a hill overlooking the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. catskills from olana

Church worked obsessively on the house and grounds from 1860 until age and arthritis forced him to give management of the estate to his son in 1891. Always, Church’s goal was to create natural landscape views from every turn of road on the 250-acre estate and from every window in the house. And he knew something about landscape views.

Church was one of the most famous of American painters of the previous century. His work commanded the highest prices of any American art when it was new, and inexpensive prints made from them were sold by the thousands to his middle-class audience.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

He found in the New World apt subject matter: the American landscape, from Niagara Falls to the volcanoes of South America. The land he painted was vast, romantic and sublime. It told of a new Eden, almost a new covenant for which America was the herald.

The Heart of the Andes

The Heart of the Andes

Frederic Edwin Church

Frederic Edwin Church

From the 1850s through the next two decades, Church’s paintings glorified America’s vision of itself and the Manifest Destiny that was the root of the vision.

Others painted the same subjects. What made Church distinct was his scale and detail: His paintings were big enough to be exhibited like movies, in their own venues with an admission charge, and they didn’t generalize or idealize their flora and fauna, but instead painted them in Peterson field-guide detail. You can name the plants in a Church painting; you can almost name the week and month by their stage of development.

Rainy Season in the Tropics

Rainy Season in the Tropics

The same kind of obsessive detail marks his house, too. Church couldn’t stand an empty wall or a broad expanse of window. Victorian houses are often chock-a-block with bric-a-brac, but Church is notable even by these standards.

The house was originally intended to be a French chateau-style building. But when Church and his wife toured the Middle East in 1869-70, they became infatuated with what they called ”Persian” architecture. It was actually a little closer to the Arabian Nights style Hollywood eventually adopted for its version of Baghdad. olana front hall

They called it Olana after an ancient treasure-fort in Persia. olana studio

Inside, Church displayed all of his many souvenirs. Most look like they’re straight from Pier One Imports. One lesson to be learned: Being an important artist doesn’t automatically confer good taste.

One room avoids the Scheherazade look. The dining room instead mimics a Medieval castle. And on its walls are the paintings Church called his ”Old Masters.” In fact, they are old, dusty souvenirs of Europe, sans provenance, sans signatures, sans anything else but an old look. If a painting was too bright for his taste, Church himself dimmed it in brown varnish.

The dining room is also one of the few places in the house without a view. Everywhere else, each window or balustrade frames what could as well be a painting. view from olana

In 1884, one visitor wrote about her trip to Olana: ”Mrs. Church met me at the Hudson and we drove up here, several miles, through thick woods, like the ascent to the Alhambra. In fact, Olana is placed somewhat like that, on the top of a cone-like height commanding the Hudson. The house is large and all open on the lower floor, with wide doors and windows a daux battants, so that everywhere you look through vistas to shining oak boughs at hand, and dim, blue hills far beyond, middle distance omitted because so far below.”

The Icebergs

The Icebergs

The house stayed in the Church family until 1966, when it was purchased and later donated to the state of New York. It had fallen into a bad state of repair, but renovation has brought the property up to code and turned it into a beautiful place to spend a day.