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Fifteen Things I'm Thrilled to Have Experienced On My Search

December 30, 2017

There are so many reason's to love America and the promise of opportunity contained between our eastern and western shores, the 49th parallel and the Gulf of Mexico, Rio Grand and our southern border with Mexico. Traveling 14,000 miles around the country gives you an appreciation of the vast diversity contained in our 3.8 million square miles and the raw power expressions like "Earning the Rockies" once contained. So as we round the corner to 2018, here are fifteen things – gifts, really – not in a strong "ranked order", that I am incredibly grateful to have encountered on this first, and by no means last, Search for America.

 

 15. Big sky

Its everywhere once you're past the Missouri River and pointed west and as long as you stay away from city centers. The sky becomes a chimerical companion that can change as quickly as a mountain pass or slowly morph around you on the open plain. Sometimes, like where the Rio Grande opens into the Amistad Reservoir, it can feel like the sky is pushing right down on you. At other times, say in Moab or high up on the Columbia plains, its falling away, retreating. 

 

14. The Hoover Dam

There aren't too many things more essential to modern civilization than the conversion of flowing water into electric current. And as far as such projects go, while it may no longer be the largest, the Hoover Dam between California and Arizona is a remarkable achievement. Now operational for nearly 80 years and providing the West with anywhere from 1,400MW to 4TW of power, the Hoover Dam combines romantic elements of national thinking with brute industrial power and the narrative of empire building. The attention to engineering and artistic detail is something everyone should have the chance to experience.

 

13. ADX Portland

Makerspaces are becoming part of the landscape of institutions that democratize creativity, learning and entrepreneurship by making tools, spaces and community available to their members. And ADX Portland is an incredibly inspiring space that has enlivened the lives Portlandians young and old, and helped to infuse authenticity into the city's DIY urban arts and craft scene. Not only are the tools, spaces and the products made with them impressive - the people are amazing too!

 

12. Old School Manufacturing

Even though its not as competitive as many highly automated factories, I had the chance to tour an incredible family-owned business that manufactures amusement park rides, including carousel figures. What was most exciting to me was to see the entire process within one facility, and how much hand-work went into each piece - from high tech roller coasters to awe inspiring creatures fantastic and realistic. In particular I was captivated by the men and women who hand finished and painted the cast creatures that would animate children's imaginations around the world.

 

11. Petroglyphs

Throughout the American southwest I came across petroglyphs that mysteriously recorded an history that long preceded my own on this continent. From ghostly and inaccessible rock faces along the Virgin River to deeply gouged and graphic works in the heart of the Gila desert, petroglyphs record the presence of generations of people who lived and loved, prayed and told stories, worked and played and raised families along routes that are now abandoned or serve as modern thoroughfares.

 

10. Marfa, Texas

This quixotic town began as a railroad watering station, was the setting of at least two of my favorite movies (GIANT and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), and is today situated at the confluence of rancher, Hispanic, and high art cultures. The combination of social experimentation and architectural minimalism – all rooted in an aesthetic world created by the American artist Donald Judd – makes visiting Marfa an entirely engaging experience.

 

9. Escalante/Grand Staircase National Monument

One of the most spectacular regions of the country, this protected area features numerous geologic and archeological wonders as well as spectacular wildlife and forestry. The last part of the Utah Territory and "great basin" to be mapped by the U.S. government, the legendary John Wesley Powell described the area as beyond word, "The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic arts are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

 

8. The Oregon Coast

Even though I'd grown up in Seattle, Washington and spent many summers in Southern California, the Oregon coast never once made it into the family vacation itinerary. So when I had the chance to drive from Portland to  San Francisco, I took as much time as I could to roll down the Oregon coast. This 360 mile stretch of beach and rocky coastline has some of the most stunning beaches and dunes I've seen on the continent, as well as spectacular camping thanks to a network of nearly two dozen state and private campgrounds.

 

7. Native Hostel

This little charmer in East Austin is at once an off-putting stylecamp for the moneyed Austin tech set and an endearingly authentic arts-voice-as-business. As a hostel, Native offers a "tramp art" inspired accommodation experience for a reasonable price – the rooms are gracious and clean, with easy key-card access separating the overnight guest lounge and kitchen from the bar and restaurant that serves the community. All enclosed by a building graced by murals, an interior that serves as a rotating gallery, and management that finds ways to support the East Austin arts scene.

 

6. North House Folk School

Just beneath Thunder Bay, in the lakeside town of Grand Marais, is the North House Folks School where Northern arts and crafts thrive, from boatbuilding to blacksmithing, storytelling to fiber arts and outdoor living. Tucked behind Artists' Point and into the placid shore of Grand Marais Harbor agains the spectacular mass of Lake Superior, the North House Folks School is a modest campus of half a dozen well-formed buildings that offer a permeable learning experience between indoor and outdoor, times and traditions, media and materials. It would not be difficult to spend many summers absorbing all that the School's substantial events calendar has to offer!

 

5. The Eerie Canal

Originally running from Albany and the Hudson River to Buffalo and Lake Eerie in New York, this east-west artery in the Empire State had an significant impact on the development of the region's economy, especially on the cities and towns that dotted its lateral progress. In opening trade with the west, the Eerie Canal was a major migratory route for labor, capital and goods. Today, at about 360 miles in length, the canal serves as a wonderful recreational ribbon through time, at some points bucolic as any French country river and others bearing all the signature details of an industrial engine. Having the chance to explore the towns that dot its spine, and experience some of the stories of New York's growth through it is a thrill.

 

4. Urban Caravanning in Wichita. 

Thanks to enterprising AirBnB users, in a few cities across the country its possible to enjoy spartan, low-cost and centrally located private accommodations in...a trailer or RV! I had the chance to test one out in Wichita, Kansas in the late fall. And even though it was a little cold, it was a lot better than car camping and the prize location near the city's old town district more than compensated for such a mild complaint. For someone like me who hasn't spent a lot of time in an RV, I won't deny a little bit of giddiness at the adventure and easy comparison with a boat.

 

3. North Central Arizona.

Home to Arcosanti, the San Francisco Peaks, the Roden Crater project of American artist James Turrell, Meteor City and the Coconino National Forest, this part of the country was a revelation to me. Flagstaff, the largest city in the area, received its name for a particularly magnificent flag pole harvested from its forests and used to celebrate the nation's centennial in 1876. The forest is also among the largest pine forests on earth. Throughout the regions are numerous cinder cones,  formed by relatively recent volcanic activity that spewed quickly cooling magma that formed enough hole-peppered pebbles and rocks to create dozens of hills across the landscape. And the sky at night - mindblowingly fantastic, especially of you love the milky way!

 

3. KEXP Seattle

What public radio should be about, the KEXP headquarters in Seattle are an incredible asset for the community. One part cafe, another public meeting and presentation space as well as broadcast studio and administrative offices, the KEXP headquarters reside at the Seattle Center in the shadow of the iconic space needed. The coffee shop, La Marzocco, doubles as a showroom for the world-famous espresso machine maker and provides a ready excuse for taking in some art at a small gallery in the space or fingering records in their well-curated second-hand shop. Coffee, music and community - what could go wrong!

 

2. The Interstate System

Its an imperfect wonder, and a marvel nonetheless. Once the traveler gets out of the crowded and over-programmed highways and "welcome centers" of the east, our network of more than 45,000 miles of interstate highway bring drivers efficiently to all parts of the country. If you choose to stop at many of the more humble rest areas, you'll often find nicely curated tidbits of history and local fundraisers. As you work west, each state has its own identity, offering amenities from pet areas to camping, local food and art to viewpoints. My favorite? Ruby shoes in Kansas!

 

1. American hospitality

To the best of my knowledge, its alive and very well. With the thinnest of connection in many cases (often just an online referral) I have been welcomed in so many homes, taken on generous local tours, fed hot meals, and engaged in incredible conversation with a truly remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable group of people. Paella in Oregon, homemade chili in MN; seasonally killed venison sausage in Indiana and locally raised beef chili in Montana. Amazing urban grown and raised plum sauce shared in Oakland, California. A southern breakfast in Georgia and even putting together an impromptu pasta carbonara with new friends in Cloud Croft, New Mexico. My biggest regret is that I had so little time to linger, to relax and enjoy more conversation and getting to know one another!

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