Many Americans are well traveled – only, not in America. They’ve been to the south of France, but not South Dakota. They’ve toured India, but not Indiana. They’ve visited Big Ben, but not Big Bend.
RVers know better. We know that there is a backyard world waiting to be explored. As I discovered while researching Small World, the second book in my trilogy of American travel memoirs, you can, indeed, take an international tour without leaving the States. You can visit places like Athens, Amsterdam, Prague and Paris, just by exploring America’s nooks and crannies.
That’s Athens, New York. And Amsterdam, Montana. And Prague, Nebraska. And Paris, Kentucky.
In some of these little hamlets, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of the culture that spawned the name. Athens (population 4,089) is charming village along the west bank of the Hudson River, four miles north of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. More than 300 of its 18th and 19th-century buildings are on national and state historic registers. But I was reminded of ancient Athens only by, well, the possibility of public nudity: A nearby RV campground, Juniper Woods, is “clothing optional.”
Amsterdam, on the other hand, is a slice of the Netherlands in the hinterlands – on the outskirts of Bozeman, Montana. Folks in the Amsterdam area – typical surnames include Flikkema and Van Dijken and Alberda – place Dutch figurines on their front lawns. There are large, decorative windmills on either side of town. And over the impressive Amsterdam-Churchill Bank, three flags fly – that of Montana, the United States and Holland.
The hamlet of Prague maintains equally significant ties to its roots. In the 1880s, after an influx of Czech immigrants to eastern Nebraska, the region became known (wryly) as the Bohemian Alps. In tiny Prague (pop. 303), the streets have names like Elba, Lusatia, and Danube, and there is an annual Czech Heritage Day. While you’re in town, you might notice men playing taroky, a Czech card game, or drinking a traditional Czech cocktail known as a red bulacek (beer mixed with tomato juice).
Finally, we’ll always have Paris – the seat of Kentucky’s Bourbon County, just north of Lexington. Like the streets radiating from the Arc de Triomphe, quiet roads fan out in all directions from Paris, winding their way through the countryside, past stately trees, verdant pastures and miles and miles of world famous horse farms. The most renowned: Claiborne Farm, a mile south of town, where six of history’s eleven Triple Crown horses have been sired.
When folks visit the other Paris (the one in France), they often opt for a side trip to Versailles. But there’s a Versailles less than 30 miles from Paris, Kentucky, too. Locals pronounce it “Ver-sales,” but there is an honest-to-goodness castle there – a turreted structure built in the 1970s on a hill overlooking Highway 60. It is now essentially a high-end B&B called Castle Post. That’s right, a palace (sort of) in Versailles.
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