Almost 20 years ago, one of my daughters was playing host to a French penpal. We had agreed to the visit with the understanding that our vacation plans would not change. We drove from central New York to my mother's home in Virginia Beach, ten hours or so. The next day we drove to Palm City in Florida to stay with cousins, fourteen hours or so. Within 48 hours of landing in the US, this unfortunate young French girl had ridden nearly 1400 miles over 24 hours. Had she driven 1400 miles from Paris, she could have been in Turkey or Russia or on the southern edge of the Sahara. All she saw here was a lot of I-95 and portions of nine states, a pretty thin slice of America.
But ... I digress. The topic is what should folks see - especially Americans - to understand who we are? I've identified about two dozen locations I think are essential or at least central to that goal. There are, of course, dozens more that could easily be added. I hope, dear reader, you will do so in your comments. Please note I'm focusing on things man created or did rather than Mother Nature.
1. Concord, MA. Sure, you could go into Boston and see Old North Church or Old Ironsides or even Plymouth Rock, but for my dollar, standing on Old North Bridge (newly rebuilt, of course) where we forced the Brits to retreat for the first time creates what I call "the feeling" - sort of an "Oh, wow. This is it." Or maybe it's a tingle. I don't know, but it happened there. Bring on the Revolution.
2. New York City, NY. So much to see here, but I mention it because of the Statue of Liberty. Melting pot. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..." While you're there, I suppose the Empire State Building or Broadway is worth a visit. Most important after Lady Liberty, however, is to take in a game at Yankee Stadium. Our national pastime, after all. Whether you love them or hate them is irrelevant; they are our most iconic team. Unfortunately, it will have to be in the new stadium - which is beautiful, but it's not the House that Ruth Built.
3. Philadelphia, PA. Our capital from 1790-1800. Independence National Historic Park - the Liberty Bell and Carpenter's Hall, but most importantly Independence Hall where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted.
4. Gettysburg, PA. To drive or walk among the many fields that were part of this epic battle or to reflect on Lincoln's immortal address is profoundly moving. " ... take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
5. Washington, DC. Lincoln Memorial - stand atop those steps and look eastward. Wow. I'm always thankful for what others have been given for my freedom when visting the World War Two Memorial - which you're looking at in the distance. John Kennedy's grave never fails to get to me, and climbing onto the huge lap of Einstein on Constitution Avenue always brings a smile. Way too much to see here. Way.
6. Colonial Williamsburg, VA. What a wonderful space and experience. If you're a history glutton, Jamestown and Yorktown are close by.
7. Kitty Hawk, NC. Ah, the Outer Banks and the Wright Brothers. The birthplace of aviation. Head a little farther south also and see the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest in the US.
8. Savannah, GA. A wonderful city for walking and pausing in the many squares. Drink in that southern experience; life is like that. Box of chocolates, anyone?
9. St. Augustine, FL. 1565 - oldest city in the continental US. Forget Ponce and the Fountain of Youth, it's the Slave Market you need to see.
10. Orlando, FL. Of course, Walt Disney World. For this list, it's the Magic Kingdom, but it's not my favorite park. Pure America.
11. Atlanta, GA. Speaking of pure America, you're here to visit the World of Coca-Cola. It's a walk through American history - at least our history since 1886.
12. Nashville, TN. Find your spot on a bench and experience the Grand Ole Opry. It's no longer at the Ryman Auditorium, but it's still a good show - whether you like country or not.
13. St. Louis, MO. The Gateway Arch. Awesome even though the ride to the top is like getting into your dryer. Just incredible.
14. New Orleans, LA. Revel in the French Quarter and take a walk down Bourbon Street - but not during Mardi Gras. I suppose a look at Jackson Square or the Saint Louis Cathedral wouldn't hurt a bit. Maybe even ride a streetcar out to Garden District. Sorry though, the streetcar line to Desire Street is now a bus line.
15. St. Francisville, LA. Rosedown Plantation. The Old South. It's beautiful but troubling at the same time. While you're here, think of that Slave Market you saw earlier.
16. San Antonio, TX. The Alamo. 1836. Davy Crockett. Jim Bowie. Lt. Col. William "I shall never surrender or retreat" Travis. Shouldn't need to say any more.
17. Keystone, SD. On your way to Mt. Rushmore from Texas, be sure to notice the prairies your traveling through with their amber waves of grain. Deer and antelope playing. Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln - all larger than life.
18. Crow Agency, MT. Battle of Little Big Horn. Custer's Last Stand, yet somehow I feel bad for the Indians.
19. Santa Fe, NM. Visit Bandelier National Monument. Evidence of human occupation from about 10,000 years ago. View pueblo homesites, kivas, rock paintings, petroglyphs, and most impressively the cliff dwellings carved into the stone walls of the canyon about 900 years ago. There is powerful spirit in this place.
20. Tucson, AR. Why not? Visit the movie sets at Old Tucson where so many westerns were filmed. OK Pilgrims, you can almost see John Wayne everywhere you look. Get those wagons in a circle.
21. Boulder City, NV. Hoover Dam.
22. Las Vegas, NV. For no other reason than to drive down the strip at night. All glitz, little substance. Fun though.
23. Pasadena, CA. Could you manage to be there for the Rose Bowl Parade? You'll have to time it just right. And stay for the football game - it's the granddaddy of them all.
24. Hollywood, CA. The sign, the stars on the Walk of Fame, Grauman's Chinese Theater with all of those hand- and footprints in cement. Got some time? Drive right on to the Pacific and the Santa Monica Pier.
25. San Francisco, CA. It is such a thrill to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. And back too - unless you want to see those giant redwoods or Napa Valley.
If you've made it this far, then you've made a good start at visiting many of the iconic symbols for America. Now start your trip anew but this time check out all the museums and regional foods. Take your time. Oh, and don't forget "the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth. It's only four hours from here."
Fill 'er up.