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Offbeat Tour U.S.

Discover more than you ever imagined right here in America.

Tours of the United States

One thing that never fails to amaze me is the number of Americans who have done a fair amount of traveling around Europe yet have seen so little of their own country.  It was different with me.  I had explored, or at least driven through, more than forty states before my first trip to the Old World.  Since then I've taken countless "mini trips" by car, and have visited all but three of the lower 48 twice or more.


What's true in other countries is also true here: the tourist magnets are places like New York, San Francisco, the White House, the Grand Canyon.  All worth a look, to be sure, but it's a great big country with a  lot to see.  I remember what a thrill it was for me, on my first cross-country trip, just to see a sign reading "Welcome to Indiana," even though Indiana is hardly famous for anything except a car race.  (Actually it's a mellow state, so Hoosiers please do not take offense!)  I'm sure the idea of seeing places far from home still excites most high school kids - at least those who don't spend every waking minute checking their text messages.

United States Tour

As a tour coordinator, I must confess that traveling here at home holds a special appeal.  It's the least complicated and least expensive kind of tour, especially if there are no flights involved - and unless you're headed two thousand miles away for a short trip, there's no need to take to the air.


Offbeat Tous in The USA


To give you an idea of how I like to combine fun and education, I'll condense the two most recent trips I made with my son.  (Incidentally, we usually camp because we like the outdoors and I like to save money; we stay in motels at most twice a week.  I kind of doubt that all the kids in your group prefer to sleep in a tent, but if they do, it can be arranged!)


Leaving by car from Long Island, we made Kentucky and West Virginia the focus of our latest trip, for which I was only able to allot one week - a bit of a rush job, unfortunately.  Both states are "not quite" south, but south enough so that when folks talk you know you're a long way from New Yawk.  Passing through Louisville, we joined a factory tour to see how Louisville Sluggers, the famous baseball bats used by most major leaguers, are made.  An hour to the south is Bardstown, rightly called the most beautiful small town in America, as a walk down Main Street, frozen in time, will attest.  Bardstown is the gateway to bourbon country; most of America's big distilleries are located around here, and most conduct tours showing the entire process of how this kind of whiskey is made, from raw grain to fermenting in vats to aging in barrels to bottling and packaging.  We toured the Jim Beam and Maker's Mark distilleries, which were highly informative; Maker's was quite humorous as well.  (Abraham Lincoln's birthplace and boyhood home are in the county next door, but pressed for time, we didn't visit them.)


The next afternoon was spent exploring Mammoth Cave, the world's longest cave system - with a guide, of course.  There are a variety of tours available, from one hour to an intensive full day experience.  From here we started heading back east.  I've eaten some strange things in America's roadside cafes, but this was the first time I saw brains and eggs on a breakfast menu.  (I'll try anything once.  I don't recommend it.)  A long drive took us to the southeastern corner of the state - coal country.  Here, in the tiny town of Lynch, we went deep by rail car into Portal 31, at one time a highly productive mine, but now inactive.  The adjacent area of West Virginia is the heart of Appalachia, and some of the country's most religious yet also most poverty-stricken rural areas.  Taking back roads, we passed through many small towns that were half-abandoned, but all had at least one church, many bearing the message that the final days are upon us.  No one comes to these parts, which makes it that much more educational.


West Virginia is the wildest state this side of the Rockies, with vast tracts of unspoiled wilderness.  We pulled into the small city of Beckley in time for the annual Appalachian Festival, with outdoor bluegrass band entertainment and an indoor folk art exhibition - beautiful and useful handmade items of every description that I've never seen in any store.   Our timing was not as good in Cass, a remote mountain village where in the summer one can take an excursion steam train up a steep eleven-mile grade on the same tracks where timber was hauled out a century ago.  There are only about a dozen restored steam engines running in the entire country, and this is one of them.  How many kids these days know what a steam locomotive is, let alone taken a ride on a train pulled by one?


In the quaint and beautiful town of Seneca Rocks you can have dinner with a great view, as we did, on the upstairs outdoor deck above Harper's Old Country Store, the state's oldest general store, which opened for business in 1902.  Outdoor activities abound in this area, such as river rafting at every level, including a gentle stretch where one encounters only a few "baby" rapids.  A picnic lunch or barbecue dinner can be prepared by the crew on the river bank.


A trip like this, or something similar in neighboring states with more add-ons - such as a few days in Washington D.C. - can be done in spring or summer.  It's an easy trip to arrange for any school in the East.


Our previous trip was more ambitious.  To my mind, South Dakota, in particular the far western part of the state known as the Black Hills, is the most ideal and overlooked place in America to get a real feel for the old West.  The most famous sight here, Mount Rushmore, does of course bring in visitors, but it's nothing compared to the hordes that descend on Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.  Better still, there are fantastic natural wonders and hiking opportunities nearby like Needles Highway and the Badlands, the latter where you are likely to see, as we did, one of the country's few wild bison herds.  And construction continues on the Crazy Horse memorial, a project that began in 1948 and is far from completion; visitors can watch the dynamiting of massive rock at designated times.  The whole area is rich in cowboy and Indian lore, with not only Crazy Horse but folk heroes like Wild Bill Hickok leaving their mark.


Traveling here, as we did, in early August, we made it to the annual Lakota Nation Powwow on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a very colorful three-day event featuring rodeos, horsemanship competitions, and best of all mass dances in full Sioux finery.  I couldn't believe that there were only seven or eight other white people attending a celebration as festive as this.  There has been intermittent friction between the Indians and state authorities for a long time in these parts - the infamous Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, marked by a monument, took place just a few miles away - and most outsiders seem to think that Indian reservations are dangerous places.  They're not.  True, not all Indians are friendly, but neither are they hostile; at worst you'll be ignored.  We spent an entire day and night here, pitched a tent among hundreds of other tents and a few teepees, and no one gave us any grief.


If that weren't enough, the world's largest motorcycle rally takes place every year during the first full week of August in Sturgis, population 6600, when a half million bikers from all over the country roll into town.  There's a wild and free element here, but it's perfectly safe to walk around, and there's never a dull moment.  Whether or not you find this educational - I do, in a way - it's really something to see!


Devil's Tower, a huge volcanic plug standing starkly alone on the high plateau, is a must-see landmark only a two-hour drive across the state line in northeastern Wyoming.  Further north, in Montana, is the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, better known as Custer's Last Stand.  A self-guided tour takes in the battle sites and cemetery.  If you have a special interest in the history of the American West, there's no better place to visit.  And what's really nice is that you can base yourself in one of several small towns within thirty miles of Rapid City, and with the exception of the Custer Battlefield, make easy day trips to everything I've written about here.


Getting there is also part of it, and for kids who know nothing about trains, a 17-hour Amtrak ride from New York to Chicago, which is how we got there,  will be something they'll remember.  One full day in Chicago to see the sights suffices, and for a group we can pick up a van here - as we did a rental car - and head west.  Illinois and Iowa are crossed to reach South Dakota, but halfway we cut north, stopping to have a look at Minneapolis and take in a Minnesota Twins game.


Iowa has no world-famous sights but that doesn't mean it's boring.  Pleasant oddities dot the state, and make for a delightful meandering drive among the endless corn and soybean fields.  Two examples that we checked out: what is billed as the world's smallest church (it seats 8) in the tiny town of Festina, and the Bily Clock Museum in equally diminutive Spillville, which houses more than twenty intricately carved wooden clocks, the lifetime work of two Czech immigrant brothers who used only hand tools to create them.  There are also county fairs and local festivals galore across Iowa in the summer; we stopped at two.  These reflect the agricultural roots of the state, and suburbanized teenagers will learn a lot by wandering through the many livestock and crop exhibits that their midwestern peers put so much time into; after all, this is where their food comes from.  And there's always something entertaining going on at these annual fairs, because for many hardworking farm families this is their only "vacation."  There's also the possibility of touring a working farm, and maybe spending a night on one.  (We did this years ago on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania; it was well worth it.)


On the way back to Chicago we dipped south into Nebraska, stopping in North Platte where, from the top of the Golden Spike Tower, we watched the action in Bailey Yard, at eight miles long and nearly two miles wide the world's largest and busiest freight train terminal.   Further east, in Gothenburg, we had a look at an original Pony Express station and museum.  Nebraska, like Iowa, has a lot of unusual things to see, but we didn't spend as much time there.


This, then, is my idea of an educational tour, with plenty of fun thrown in.  There's no exact script to follow, of course; I can work around your budget, preferences and interests.  With the aid of the wonderful little invention called the internet, it wouldn't take me long to create a great itinerary.  And what's most important to me is that when it's over, and for the rest of their lives, each student will look back and say, "That was a great experience!"