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10 classic Americana experiences
You can whine about U.S. foreign policy and eat Big Macs anywhere. To find the real heart of the country, you've got to be here
Afraid of returning to the States and feeling out of sorts?
Arriving on North American shores for the first time and wondering where to start “experiencing” the United States?
You’re in luck -- we know how to get your Yankee Doodle mojo working.
“We can derive great comfort from visiting a state fair or rodeo, and enjoying traditions not far removed from those of our great grandparents,” says Kurt B. Reighley, author of “United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters -- A Field Guide to the New Americana Roots Movement.”
From Reighley’s rah-rah to road trips, rebel yells and roller coasters, here are 10 experiences guaranteed to connect anyone with the classic American spirit.
Football and baseball might be considered the national pastimes, but rodeo embodies the legacy of the American West.
“A great thing about [rodeo] is that we’ve all had an opportunity to represent, to a degree, the Western lifestyle,” says rodeo legend Larry Mahan. “And how this game started from the agricultural industry; from the ranchers and the ranch cowboys to rodeo cowboys.”
Rodeos take place somewhere in the country every month of the year.
Check out the Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association website for a full nationwide schedule of upcoming rodeos. www.prorodeo.com
2.Road trip on Route 66
Yeah, a gallon of gas will likely push beyond $4 this year, but the best way to discover America is to drive straight through the nation’s heartland between the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean.
The country’s most famous old highway, Route 66, was laid out based on old trails and railroad tracks. As its namesake song says, the road “winds from Chicago to L.A., more than two-thousand miles all the way.”
Route 66 was removed from the U.S Highway system in 1985 (Interstates have made it obsolete for speedy travel, thereby preserving its back road cachet). But the “Main Street of America” still has enough roadside attractions, retro pump stations, seedy motels, ridiculous museums, kitschy signs, rolling tumbleweeds and long stretches of desolation to take you back to a time when freedom meant a full tank and enough bills to get you to the beach.
A slide show and turn-by-turn description at the Historic Route 66 website will prepare you for one of the world’s great road trips. Download a copy of Dwight Yoakam’s classic “This Time” CD to round out the experience.
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3.Civil War reenactments
Be they amateur “polyester soldiers” or more zealous “stitch counters,” who labor over the authenticity of every detail, tens of thousands of Civil War reenactors go to battle every year to show civilians how it all went down in the 1860s ... or how it could have gone down.
With the country recalling the 150th anniversary of the Civil War -- or the War of Northern Aggression, if your politics remain Confederate -- this is the perfect time to watch grown men dress in period military costume, wave guns and shout out antiquated insults.
There’s no shortage of opportunities for watching one of these battles unfold, including highly attended events in cities that never hosted a historic clash (although maybe if the war had just gone on a little longer …).
To really make it count, circle the first full weekend in July on the calendar and attend the Battle of Gettysburg reenactment.
Annual Gettysburg Civil War Reenactment, 1085 Table Rock Road, Gettysburg, Penn.; +1 717 338 1525; July 6-8, 2012; tickets $10-$54, depending on seating preference and number of days in attendance; www.gettysburgreenactment.com
Loud. Casual. Unpredictable. Advertiser-driven. It doesn’t get much more American than a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing -- you know it as NASCAR -- event.
NASCAR’s famed week-long tailgaters and high-octane excitement are centered around colossal speedways where hundreds of thousands of fans gather to watch their favorite drivers burn through hundreds of gallons of gas in an American-made car decked out in corporate logos as they race toward glory or death.
As "Rides" magazine editor Jonathan Millstein says, “No sport stems from American culture and remains rooted in American industry more than NASCAR.”
The sport itself actually stems from a different sort of industry. The first drivers were former Prohibition-era bootleggers who drove modified cars that helped them wind around Appalachian roads and outrun the law.
There’s a big race every month, none larger than the Daytona 500 held in Daytona, Fla., this year on February 26.
Visit www.nascar.com for information on upcoming races.
5. New Orleans jazz
The exact birthplace of jazz is hard to pinpoint, but there’s no debating the music is very much alive in New Orleans.
Preservation Hall is one of many jazz venues in the city, but some of the best music can still be found on street corners, in backyards and at funerals. It’s hard to find a spot in the city where jazz can’t be heard nearby.
Mardi Gras tends to steal the party spotlight, but the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is arguably the best music fest in the nation.
This year’s event will be held April 27-May 6. The lineup features incredible gospel, blues, jazz, Dixieland and pop acts, along with The Eagles, Al Green, Eddie Vedder, Florence and the Machine, My Morning Jacket and John Mayer.
Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter, New Orleans, La.; +1 504 522 2841;www.preservationhall.com.
Find out about other New Orleans music venues at www.neworleansonline.com.
6.Bourbon distillery tour
In 1964, the U.S. Congress decreed bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States,” and established rules that distillers must abide by in order to earn the privilege to label their whiskeys as such.
Bourbon is also the base of three of America’s most definitive cocktails: the old fashioned, mint julep and whiskey sour.
Anyone who likes a good drink should tour a distillery so that they can better appreciate the industrious care that goes into this distinct whiskey.
You can knock out six distilleries in two days by embarking on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which covers Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail; +1 502 875 9351; tours available year-round; tickets $5; www.kybourbontrail.com
The first American barbecue was cooked up in the early 16th century in what is now South Carolina, when Spanish colonists arrived in the southern region of America and introduced the Native Americans to pigs. The Native Americans taught the Spaniards their art of slow cooking with smoke.
Barbecue was born.
Today, barbecue sauces and techniques stem from different regions, with different cultural roots. Each has its legion of die-hard supporters.
Barbecue is arguably the most American of foods, and there’s no shortage of festivals, restaurants (some of the best are attached to gas stations), contests and TV shows that prove it.
Two of the biggest and best annual barbecue events are Memphis in May: the Worldwide Barbecue Cooking Championship in Memphis, Tenn., (May 17-19) and the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, Mo. (October 4-7).
Memphis in May International Festival, +1 901 525 4611; May 17-19; www.memphisinmay.org
American Royal World Series of Barbecue, +1 816 221 9800; September 29-October 2; www.americanroyal.com
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Relieve a classic slice of Americana -- or at least the break-up scene from “Grease” -- by taking in a movie in a car. And taking your car into a movie.
The first drive-in theater opened in Camden, N.J., in 1933, with the movie "Wife Beware." By the 1960s there were around 4,000 open-air theaters catering to families and high schoolers who wanted to watch a public flick from the privacy of their own sedans.
Outdoor cinemas have been experiencing a mini-renaissance in recent years; there are currently about 350 in operation around the country.
DriveinMovie.com bills itself as “the Internet focal point for drive-in movie theaters” and maintains a database of theaters still in operation, arranged by state.
Carnies live the American dream. They spend their lives surrounded by rickety roller-coasters, freak shows, fun houses, scam games, corn dogs, fried Twinkies, fried butter, fried bacon, fried anything else, livestock and agriculture competitions, eating competitions, art exhibitions, and fair-goers from all walks of life and levels of gullibility.
Sprawling, fun and family-friendly, fairs can be found in all 50 states, usually during summer and, especially in the Midwest, during fall harvest times.
No state, however, does a fair quite like Texas.
Each fall Dallas hosts the biggest state fair in the country. Held at Fair Park, a 1.12-square-kilometer entertainment and exhibition complex, the fair features approximately 75 amusement rides, 8,000 livestock entries, 7,000 creative arts entries and, of course, endless corny dogs, which were invented here in 1942.
There’s even a blood-rivals college football game, the annual Red River Rivalry between the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners (October 13).
State Fair of Texas; +1 214 565 9931; September 28-October 21; www.bigtex.com
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Every American needs at least one regrettable weekend in this neon mecca to the seven deadly sins, located in the Mojave Desert, one of America’s most unwelcoming environments, made slightly more inhabitable by power and water management from the Hoover Dam.
Sleep at the hotel pool all day, check out Cirque du Soleil, gamble away your rent money, visit the Liberace Museum, catch a boxing match, go to the Gun Store on Tropicana Avenue and shoot every gun you’ve ever seen in a mobster movie, wander the Strip and try to leave without a wedding certificate.
One of the best times to be in Vegas is during the opening week of the NCAA “March Madness” men’s college basketball tournament.
Televised hoops action from around the country runs non-stop for four days; sports bars are packed with screaming fans and gamblers; and an influx of good times alumni and coeds livens up the already crazy city.
March Madness 2012 runs from March 13 until the championship game in New Orleans on April 2. Few Vegas weekends match the excitement of the opening rounds, held this year March 15-18.
Las Vegas Information Center; +1 877 847 4858; www.visitlasvegas.com