It’s hard to encapsulate the full depth and variety of the USA – any nation that can marry cities as life-filled as New York, San Francisco and LA with landscapes as breathtaking as those of Alaska, Arizona and Hawaii is beyond easy summary. Its rewards come in droves, from all-American icons like baseball, blues and bourbon to the unbridled spectacles like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
As a travel destination, the USA’s possibilities stretch to the far horizon – with plenty of surprises along the way. Here are 7 of the country’s offbeat highlights from the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.
The saucy climax of Key West’s calendar is a week-long party known as Fantasy Fest. The old town is transformed into an outdoor costume bash, somewhat tenuously pegged to Halloween; really, it’s a gay-heavy take on Mardi Gras and flesh-flashing costumes. The week is punctuated with offbeat events, like the pet costume contest where dogs and their owners dress the same, and a sequin-spangled satire of a high-school prom.
Picture a nudist miniature golf course, an advanced pole-dancing workshop and a bunch of neon-painted bodies, and you may be getting close to imagining what Burning Man is all about. Every year during the last week of August, several thousand digerati geeks, pyrotechnic maniacs, death-guild Goths, crusty hippies and too-hip yuppies descend on the Nevada Desert to build a temporary autonomous “city”. Known as Black Rock City, this is the most survivalist, futuristic and utterly surreal show on Earth, where the strangest part of your alter ego reigns supreme.
As you manoeuvre your way towards the towering face of one of Alaska’s many tidewater glaciers, the gentle crunch of ice against the hull of your kayak sounds faintly ominous. It’s nothing, though, compared to the thunderclap that echoes across the water when a great wall of ice peels away from the glacier and sends waves surging toward you. Your first reaction is quite naturally a jolt of fear, but no need to panic: the danger will have dissipated by the time whatever’s left of the waves reaches you, leaving you to look on in awe.
Just after sunset, Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from the deep crevices of the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, flapping and squeaking in a long ribbon across the sky. An eclectic mix of townies and tourists watches from the south bank of Town Lake and from the bridge itself. Picturesque from any spot, the bats’ game of follow-the-leader is most impressive when you stand beneath the ribbon and look up – that’s when the sheer number of these creatures hits home. During the summer, the best viewing season, more than 1.5 million bats reside here, making it the largest urban bat colony in North America.
Underground tunnels, quirky museums, swingers’ sex clubs, crackpots, ghosts and geeks. These aren’t the stories you find in the official history of Portland, but in Chuck Palahniuk’s offbeat 2003 guide. One of Palahniuk’s top picks – and ours – is now Portland’s last true burlesque/drag show, the Darcelle XV Showplace. Expect hilarious stand-up comedy – prepare to be insulted – lip-synced Broadway hits and the obligatory Rocky Horror tribute.
The central plains may not seem the likeliest of places to find a weather wonder, but every long, hot summer these cornfield-flat states play witness to some of the most powerful storms on Earth. Behind every terrible storm is an even greater equipped team of daredevil storm-chasers who specialize in stalking tornados from vans loaded with the latest in GPS systems, Doppler radars, satellites and lightning-detector sensors. Few people know that you can join these professionals on the hunt, keeping an eye on the skies as they try to anticipate growing storms.
Your knees buckle slightly and you step in. The safety bar locks over your lap: there is no going back. Above the rallying cries of your fellow riders, one question screams inside your head: “Why am I here?” “Here” is Cedar Point, the roller-coaster capital of the world, which sits on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio. Seventeen dot the park – more than anywhere else on the planet – including a fair share of the fastest, steepest and longest thrill rides ever designed, like the perennial favourite, the Magnum XL-200. On cloudless days it’s even possible to see Canada from the ride’s zenith 205ft off the ground.
R. S. Ryan/Shutterstock
Top image: Fantasy Fest in Key West © Chuck Wagner/Shutterstock