Those American places everyone visits aren't so bad


CHICAGO -- People use all kinds of rationale to decide where to travel. What's a "must see" to some is "b-o-o-o-ring" to others.

In search of offbeat America, many travelers skip the obvious because they consider them cliches.

Well, bless William Zinsser's heart. In his new book, "American Places" (HarperCollins, $20), Mr. Zinsser searches out 15 places that he deemed "this country's most visited and cherished sites." He chose them because, much to his own chagrin, he had never visited them.

Mr. Zinsser wrote well on his 15 sites: Mount Rushmore (S.D.), Lexington and Concord (Mass.), Niagara Falls (N.Y.), Yellowstone Park (Wyo.), Hannibal (Mo.), the Alamo (San Antonio, Texas), Appomattox (Va.), Montgomery (Ala.), Mount Vernon (Va.), Kitty Hawk (N.C.), Abilene (Kansas), Chautauqua (N.Y.), Disneyland (Anaheim, Calif.), Rockefeller Center (N.Y.) and Pearl Harbor (Hawaii).

When Mr. Zinsser asked himself why he had never been to such places as Mount Vernon or Mount Rushmore, he found his answer unpleasant. "I think I took a certain pride in never having been to the big places -- the places where everybody else went."

So Mr. Zinsser selected his sites and visited them over a year and a half. What emerged, he wrote, is "a reporter's book about the ideas that shaped America." Some of his observations:

* Mount Rushmore: "If I was looking for iconic places, nowhere had the nation's icons been so baldly foisted on the nation -- four pharaohs in the sky. Nor was there another monument that so baldly displayed the traits of personality that got America cleared and settled and built: raw energy, brash confidence, love of size, crazy individualism. . . . I never quite took it [Mount Rushmore] seriously; it was one of those Depression-era oddities. . . . Why are those four men up there? The longer I looked, the more I felt the question working on me, stirring patriotic juices that went back to the classroom of my childhood."

* Lexington and Concord: "Somebody told me about the annual Patriots Day re-enactment of the Battle of Lexington, which, on April 19, 1775, along with a skirmish later that morning in nearby Concord, launched the American Revolution and linked those two Massachusetts towns forever in the new nation's mythology." When Mr. Zinsser, not an early riser, arrived at Lexington Green at 6 a.m. for the battle, he wrote: "What I never expected was that 12,000 people would be at Lexington Green ahead of me."

* Niagara Falls: "One misconception I brought to Niagara Falls was that it consisted of two sets of falls, which had to be viewed separately. I would have to see the American Falls first and then go over to the Canadian side to see their falls, which, everyone said, were better. But nature hadn't done anything so officious. . . . Suddenly all the images of a lifetime snapped into place -- all the paintings and watercolors and engravings and postcards."

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