This Country Is Fun, Dang It!
We may not be the prettiest people on the planet (but danged if’n we ain’t purtier than the British).
We may not have the biggest country (that would be the Great Northern Bear, Russia).
But America gets to wear the Big Foam-Rubber “We’re #1” finger for lots of other stuff.
What I Like About Us
I’m not what one would call “patriotic”.
Jingoistic rhetoric annoys me – it represents attempts to be folksy by appealing to the lowest-common-denominator knee-jerk reactionaries. One can love one’s country without waving a flag to the point of wearing out a set of wrists doing it.
This truly is a great country, though.
Having visited countries other than our own wondrous land of unicorns, bunnies, rainbows, Keebler Elves, and Sarah Palin, I must say the United States, for all its flaws, is still probably the best place on this planet to live. I don’t say that out of ethnocentricity. I say it because it’s true: overall, we in the US enjoy a better standard of living and quality of life than any other group of cosmological accidents in history. That’s us, Big Foam-Rubber novelty hand and all. Yay, team! [Now, if we just weren’t so danged overweight . . . ]
My favorite aspect of this country’s character is its tourism and vacationing possibilities. The US has been surprisingly good about preserving its heritage (older buildings of significance, places of historic events, etc.).
Yeah, Europe, I hear you – you’re older, you have older stuff, but we have old stuff, too. Maybe not as old, but old stuff nonetheless. And the truly great thing is I’d bet every state in this fabulous Union has things of interest and merit. [Oh, yeah, one more thing: “Hey, Europe! Eat our Florida!”]
So (after the long-winded rant preceding this) I now get to my point. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, or even stray very far from your own home, to have an interesting or enjoyable vacation. And as proof, I will relate some of the fun I’ve had across this great land of ours.
I have an intense interest in history – the places, people, and things that molded our current state of affairs. I’m also endlessly fascinated by the changes we’ve made on the face of the landscape: our monuments, our tall buildings. [Which, I might modestly add, I am capable of leaping in a single bound. Oh, and shiny objects hold me spell-bound for hours . . . ]
My beloved Commonwealth of Kentucky (although I am not a native, I have lived in it long enough to call it home) has provided me (sometimes with nothing more than a half-day’s drive time and a fistful of dollars) much amusement and brain food.
The state boasts many natural attractions. Two of my personal favorites are well-known.
The first is Mammoth Cave (the largest mapped cave system in the world) in Cave City, Kentucky. I have been there many times, and I never get tired of it. Hours can be spent in this underground labyrinth, and the park offers tours that range from short walks to the more-adventurous spelunker’s tours (where you’ll don a helmet and grub around on your hands and knees). There is an underground river upon which canoeing tours are given. The cave’s life forms (almost all sightless and albino) exist in a microcosm.
The added bonus of visiting this cave system isn’t simply the beauty of an awe-inspiring natural, underground world of crystal, limestone, and amazing rock formations. It’s the human element it harbored as well. Native Americans used what’s known as the “Historic Entrance” (it is the only naturally occurring opening to the system) as a habitation, off-and-on, for centuries. Mummified remains of Native Americans (accidents of environment and not by concerted efforts to make mummies) hundreds of years old have been discovered in the cave along with the attendant artifacts of a people passing through the pages of history.
The Cave City area also offers up other visitation opportunities as well. The region is a tourist draw, and other parks, museums, and recreations make the town a vacation destination for many. Best of all, the only functioning “tepee” motel in the US is in Cave City. You’ve all seen pictures of it in Life magazine from hundreds of years ago: a motel whose “rooms” are individual white concrete-and-plaster tepees set in a semi-circle behind a central “lodge”. I’ve stayed there and enjoyed the uniqueness.
Natural Bridge State Park, also in Kentucky, is a favored place. Once one makes the climb to the top of this naturally occurring stone arch the vista is breathtaking. The area where the Bridge rises is relatively remote, so from the heights of its span the view is fairly unobstructed by human “crud” (radio towers, Justin Bieber, etc.) Crossing the bridge to the opposing cliff faces and gazing back at the span one can try to imagine what the very first people to stumble upon this phenomenon (certainly Native Americans, then later settlers) thought when they saw it. It’s gorgeous, and admission is free (just don’t throw trash around my park, dang it!).
I lived in the worst town in Missouri for about a year and a half once. However, this armpit was smack in the middle of Mark Twain country. Again, with nothing more than a tank of gas and time on my hands, I visited Florida, Missouri (Samuel Clemens birthplace). It is a rural crossroads (gravel!) and not well-developed. It fronts a river, so at one time it was a burgeoning trade stop.
Clemens’ boyhood home has been carefully removed from Florida and placed in a nearby roadside structure (protecting it from the elements and vandals) for visitation. The house is amazing – swaybacked and out-of-plumb, roughly two very large rooms, in which the Clemens family and a slave lived (it looks like the shack in which Navin Johnson – Steve Martin – grew up in the movie, The Jerk, only it’s pale blue). Twain himself would later write that as a boy he believed his home was a mansion; as an adult, he chanced to visit it again to be disappointed that it really was nothing more than a hovel.
Related to this is Hannibal, Missouri (also very near the crummiest town in which I’ve ever lived). This fronts the mighty Mississippi, and one can certainly envision the steamboat traffic that inspired most of Twain’s writings just by standing on a small bluff in town overlooking the river. His father’s law office and some other related structures are preserved. Hannibal is a nice little walking tour of Twain-Mania. The only thing missing are the slaves (I guess Missouri’s Department of Tourism thought placing an ad in the paper for “Slave Wanted” would be gauche). Unfortunately, the restored town of Hannibal doesn’t even mention slaves lived there. [That’s usually my job on tours, by the way: I’m the guy who asks questions such as “Where’re the slaves?” or “Where did they poop?”]
Missouri is bracketed, east and west, by two large cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. St. Louis has the Gateway Arch. There is a whole underground complex featuring a museum, shops, and an educational center. The ride to the top of the arch is unique; the cylindrical elevators have an Orkian design so they stay oriented to the horizontal as you ride up. At the top is an observation area, and on clear days it’s an awesome view.
Kansas City, Missouri, is of course, immortalized in Wilbert Harrison’s song, “Kansas City” (“Goin’ to Kansas City/Kansas City, here I come . . . ”). The song was written by Leiber and Stoller in 1952, recorded by another artist that same year, but made into a Number One hit by Wilbert Harrison. It is a great piece of rocking shuffle – if you’ve never heard the song, you need to. Otherwise you won’t understand this next part (“Goan be standin’ on the corner/Twelfth Street and Vine . . . ”).
I purposefully drove all the way to Kansas City just to stand on the corner of 12th Street and Vine (once an amazing, jumpin’ party area for local blacks). Sadly, yuppie scum gentrified the area, complete with new condos, and a park featuring no children’s play equipment. As a nod to its rockin’ past, however, the city did leave a section of cobblestone streetway intact with a street sign marking the spot. So, I got to stand on the corner of 12th Street and Vine (minus the Kansas City baby and the bottle of Kansas City wine; I didn’t want to get arrested for soliciting a prostitute or for drinking in public).
Also in Kansas City is the Arabia Steamboat Museum (located at 400 Grand Boulevard). In 1856 a steam packet, the Arabia, was plowing westward on the Missouri River, laden with consumer goods bound for frontier general mercantile. The ship hit a snag in the river bed (a large tree trunk securely anchored into the river-bottom mud; the hull was splintered and it sank, along with all its stores). No lives, except that of a mule, were lost.
Over 130 years later (in 1988), the Missouri River, having shifted miles to the north, had left the Arabia buried beneath a farmer’s cornfield. An entrepreneur found it, got investors to finance a dig, and much of the boat and its supplies were recovered. A lot of what was recovered is on display in the museum and is a fascinating look into what frontier people used or coveted: fine porcelain ware from England, hand tools, clothing and cloth, and still-perfectly preserved foods sealed in canning jars. about the only thing scarce in the collection is toys: frontier people needed usable goods, not frivolities, but in the collection is a small doll and a toy carriage.
Texas is home to my favorite US city, San Antonio. This place is just plain fun: amazing night life, a decent zoo, an open air marketplace. San Antonio, however, holds a special place in my heart because of its Mexican demographic, specifically the Latinas. The chicas are the most beautiful women in the world, and San Antonio is just stuffed with ’em. And, hey, for the ultra lazy, what’s left of the Alamo complex is conveniently located right downtown!!
Texas also has Dallas. And it is there one finds a more solemn monument of sorts, the Dealey Plaza venue where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I have stood on TheCredit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011 Grassy Knoll. It was actually a moving experience to stand atop that small rise, the street below, the Texas Book Depository to the left. The area is more compact than photos lead one to believe – all of the important physical features are within a couple dozen yards of each other (the book building, the shot-spot, The Grassy Knoll). It’s very sobering to stand there quietly for a moment and reflect.
Mormons are my all-time favorite Christian group, and Mormon country is another preferred destination place of mine. Salt Lake City, Utah, is a masterwork of city planning. The streets are wide to the point of absurdity; the city’s founders built them broad enough so a settler could turn his wagon and team completely around in the street without having to back up. This city is clean. The high-mountain desert air is fresh. There is skiing in season. Temple Square (the Mormon Mecca) is gorgeous and has some masterfully wrought architecture, all carved out of the mountain stone and humped to the site by the Brethren. [And, yeah, I know about the Mormon Massacre in the 1800s when a Mormon hit-squad killed a wagon train of settlers in the Utah desert for no reason – but that’s another story, although it’s a good one).
Salt Lake City boasts the Great Salt Lake. The Lake, however, like the Dead Sea, is “dying” (its evaporation rate is greater than its supply rate). The shoreline over recent years has receded from the highway that abuts it. Through human intervention, though (and I haven’t delved into the mechanics of how this works), one-half of the lake is fresh water, the other saline (those danged Mormons sure are smart!).
There is a former amusement pavilion (abandoned, now in restoration a bit at a time) on the lakefront called Salt Aire. The lake front once abutted the rear of this attraction. [If you want to see what it used to look like, Salt Aire is featured as the primary setting of the cult-film horror classic, Carnival of Lost Souls]. I schlepped several hundred feet (through a mucky, black, salt-encrusted goo and swarms of blackflies) all the way from the Salt Aire pavilion to get to the lake itself (ruining a killer pair of black buckskin boots in the process). I reached the water, dipped my finger in, touched it to my tongue, said “Yup, that’s sure salty,” and left. The cost of this experience was absolutely free (plus the boots).
The King Daddy of Vacation & Touristy Things has got to be New England, more specifically the Greater Boston metro area.
Now, it is my sincere belief that all of the New England states (pretty rinky-dink) need merging into one regular-sized state and renamed New Vermachusshire Rhodeicut (okay, I’m still working on the name, gimme a break!). This would save billions of dollars annually by eliminating several state government bureaucracies.
Boston could be the capital. That’s because there are so many captivating sights in or near Boston (all within reasonable drive times, assuming you don’t fly into Logan International as your starting point – just getting out of the airport is nightmarish).
Beantown is the bedrock of American democracy. The City of Boston even put down a brick pathway for you to march your little tootsies over to see all the good stuff. This path takes you to the decks of the USS Constitution, Paul Revere’s house, The Old North Church (an Episcopalian house of worship that still holds regular services), and many other historic sites. The Breed’s Hill Monument, commemorating the misnamed “Battle of Bunker Hill”, is close at hand. Other many remarkable things about Boston are its ethnic restaurants, its ethnic neighborhoods, Beacon Hill, the colonial cemeteries, and Boston Commons (imagine the sheep grazing).
Because Massachusetts is so small, Plimouth Plantation is only a hoot-and-a-holler south of Boston. This place is amazing. Sincere efforts were made to insure a relative degree of historic accuracy. The fort is staffed by re-enactors who stay in character no matter what you say to them. The houses are all faithful reproductions of the simple, functional homes constructed at the time. This living museum also features Native American re-enactors, building a lodge, etc., who will actually take the time out to sit and talk with you about the life experience of the Natives relative to the newcomers.
You can board the Mayflower II, a replica built on specs of ships of its class. [For the record, it’s a tub. There isn’t enough money in the world for me to spend a couple of months at sea on this retrofitted trade ship, tiny, cramped, smelling, and rat-infested. And, as always: Where did they poop?] Also, “Plymouth Rock” is set in a memorial structure near what is traditionally held up as the original Puritan landing site. The stone is an obvious fraud; the Puritans did not remark upon or commemorate the specific “rock” themselves. All they said was, “Dang, I’m glad to get off that crummy boat!”
A history buff (such as I) carries a mental list of things to see. Fall River, Massachusetts, is also just a short trip south of Boston. There’s an infamous house on Second Street (an address recalled from years of obsession) across from the bus station in Fall River. It was the residence of Lizzie Borden, accused of killing her father and step-mother with an ax (specifically, a hatchet). She was acquitted, however.
The house has been recently restored and remains much as it was during the time of the murder. It functions as a bed-and-breakfast (yeah, you can sleep in Lizzie’s bedroom or in Andrew Borden's room, among others). The home is popular with the idiot “ghost hunter” types but, better than that, the care put into the place makes it easy to step into the period. Tours are on specific days, and there’s a web-site you can consult for information (find it yourself; I’m not shilling for anybody!)
Finally, a “must-see” in the Boston area is Danvers/Salem. The original perpetrators of the persecution now known as “The Salem Witch Trials” quietly let the houses and other relevant sites disappear from the landscape from embarrassment (as well they should have. Witches: yeah, right).
Most of the Witch-A-Bilia has been reconstructed from the historical record. [And this case was extremely well-documented, right down to the wart on Goodwife Prudence Bridey-blah’s nose.]
Near the touristy stuff (which is fun, horrifying, and educational all at once) is the preserved home of one of the trial judges, Hathorne. A direct descendant of his changed the surname to “Hawthorne” and famously wrote as Nathaniel Hawthorne. [“Vanna, do we have a ‘W’?”]
I have been fortunate to have traveled extensively. The sites and experiences mentioned here are but a small sampling of what this country affords in vacation and educational opportunities.
So, I guess I’ll take off my Big Foam-Rubber “We’re #1” finger for now, and just urge you, no matter where you live, to get out there and see America. But start in your own back yard first – you never know what you might find just a short drive away. But don’t throw trash in my dang country, dang it!
Be inspired by our patriotic world dominance!
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Steve Martin, an American icon, in his finest 94 minutes!
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