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Book Review: Off the Beaten Path: A Travel Guide to More Than 1,000 Scenic and Interesting Places…

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Off the Beaten Path: A Travel Guide to More Than 1,000 Scenic and Interesting Places Still Uncrowded and Inviting is a gorgeous road-trip/coffee-table book compiled by the editors of Reader’s Digest. Breathtaking photos and updated state maps for the entire U.S. accompany descriptions of the unusual, authentic places in America that are still unspoiled. Some of the entries describe museums and natural wonders deserving of our attention and well worth a turn off the highways.

The book’s handy index with thorough references, clear layout and fabulous photographs makes it a pleasure to browse American history. Two earlier editions of the book started with the Reader’s Digest editors studying the maps and history of every state in the US. They searched for, and found, out-of-the-way and unusual places. This third edition includes information on an additional 200 places, and includes over 400 full-color photographs.

Opening the book at random today, I didn’t stop until evening, when I realized it was getting too dark to see. That’s when I found out Missouri was once a 30-million acre prairie. A 4,000 acre park now protects the largest remaining preserve of tall-grass prairie landscape. Delight in trails that pass through the prairies and streams. The book sweetly refers to the time when pioneers used to call their wagons “prairie schooners” as they rolled through the open prairie paths of grasses and flowers. Bison and elk still roam some areas of the prairie.

I was surprised to learn Fulton, Missouri has a Winston Churchill memorial and library. President Truman invited Churchill to speak at Westminster College in 1946. When the college decided to honor Churchill’s visit, in the 1960s they reconstructed The Church of St. Mary, a 12 century London church that was destroyed in World War 11.

North of Fulton is the Mark Twain birthplace, now a state historical site and state park. Besides the small cabin where he was born, you can view Twain’s manuscripts and visit the adjacent state park. It’s your chance to live the Tom Sawyer life with fishing boating and swimming, as well as a rugged walk to Buzzard’s Roost to observe the sheer cliffs.

Off the Beaten Path takes you off the highway to enjoy unusual adventures, such as Three Capes Scenic Drive in Cape Meares State Park in Tillamook, Oregon. Drive or bicycle through 35 miles of coast, dunes, and small villages

Explore Oregon’s past in Bakercity where you can tour a turn-of-the-century lumber and mining industry by riding in open-air rail cars powered by an authentic wood-burning Heisler locomotive. The once prosperous Sumpter Valley Railway operation has a restored track bed thanks to volunteers, who offer you a colorful trip back to what the Old West was like.

The International Crane Foundation near Baraboo, Wisconsin is the only place in the world where you can see all fifteen species of cranes in a natural tall-grass prairie and wetlands area. This nonprofit looks after the crane breeding facilities on a 225-acre site with guided tours on summer weekends.

I drove through Nebraska once and didn’t think there was much to see. But Off the Beaten Path showed me what I’ve been missing. Beyond the state’s many historic parks and museums lies the Willa Cather Foundation, honoring the Pulitzer prizewinning author. At the foundation office you can obtain maps of self-guided driving and walking tours of more than 190 sites that found their way into Cather’s books. The Willa Cather Thematic District is the largest historical district in the US dedicated to a single author.

American quilt lovers and crafters will enjoy the Quilt Study Center and Museum, with quilts on display from 24 nations. It’s the largest known public collection of quilts from around the world. The museum is housed at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Would you ever guess that the smallest state in America would be home to over half-a-million cooking utensils? Rhode Island’s Culinary Arts Museum of Johnson & Wales University includes items dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece and China, and thousands of cookbooks, some over four centuries old.

Southern New Jersey’s natural resources include sand, soda, ash, silica, wood. Is it any wonder it is known as “the birthplace of the nation’s glassmaking industry”? Since America’s first successful glassmaking factory was founded there in 1739, the state now boasts one of the nation’s first amphitheater-style hot-glass studios and the Museum of American Glass.

In my own state, I never knew there was a 12-acre Japanese garden in Rockford, Illinois. Inspired by seeing a similar garden in Portland, Oregon, a businessman named John Anderson created a special garden in Rockford embracing the tranquility and inspiration found in the peaceful artistry of Japan’s garden designs. This gem shares space with the Garden of Reflection, a five-story high waterfall, and has opportunities to spot migrating birds.

The Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area in Herod, Illinois shows the effects of hundreds of millions of years of wind, wearing the limestone and sandstone. The result is spectacular ridges and canyons. As you can imagine, it’s a popular spot for photographers, birdwatchers and climbers. The Garden of the Gods area overlooks a 3,300 -acre forest with six trails, including a River-to-River trail for hikers and equestrians to enjoy startling vistas along a ten mile trail.

Obscurities covered in Off the Beaten Path include:

  • a small general store, operating since 1831 in Kentucky
  • a lavender farm on hillside at the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii
  • a collection of 30 wind-powered whirligigs, wacky works of art with motion and sound in North Carolina.

Off the Beaten Path makes a lovely gift for armchair travelers with fond memories of road trips, back when the road was our primary means of escape. More than an atlas for vacation planning, it’s a great way to map out an extended trip, to experience rather than bypass the best our country has to offer.

The book’s impeccable organization includes color-coded tabs for each state and a snapshot state map on the opening page for each state. All articles are coded and numbered with references back to the map, and include web addresses and phone numbers where relevant.

Lots of Americana trivia and a listing of seasonal events in each state will ensure you don’t miss any wine festivals, great music, or ballooning adventures on your journey.

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About Helen Gallagher