Road scholar
August 9, 2014 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Let's say you have a kid - 10-15 years old, so maybe grades 5-10 - and you decide to pull them out of school for a year. During that time, you are going to drive around the United States with the goal of learning, in an authentic way, as much as possible about American history, culture, and geography. Where do you go, and what do you read?

I am looking for individual pairings of places and texts - like, you go to Gettysburg and read the Gettysburg Address and The Killer Angels - as well as longer itineraries (to learn about the Vietnam War you visit x, y, and z sites and read/watch a, b, and c texts). For texts, I'm looking for nonfiction, fiction, movies, primary sources - whatever, but the really good stuff. For places, I'm looking for national parks, cities, museums, highways, get the idea.

Continental US only, please, for the moment. Also welcome: input on how you'd plan out the whole thing in terms of routes (both geographic and thematic).
posted by goodbyewaffles to Education (14 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My suggestions are more geography/natural history...but John McPhee! He's got a lot of books/essays about specific places. If you wanted a theme, you could drive along I-80 (bonus: Oregon Trail goodness) and follow the places he outlines in Annals of the Former World. It's a series of books about the geology of whole length of I-80, but follows individual geologists and cultures of various places. Or The Control of Nature has 2 essays, one about the Atchafalaya Basin & the fight to prevent the Mississippi River from being taken over by the Red River (and predicts Hurricane Katrina by 20 years), and one about LA and mudslides. All of these books have specific places you could visit, and you could talk about culture, history, and geography.

For a National Park theme, Death in Yellowstone, written by the park's historian, is a fascinating account of the history of Yellowstone by documenting all the ways people die there. While slightly morbid, it's the kind of morbid a teen would like, not graphic. (If you visit Yellowstone, stop by the museum in Cody - art, history, natural history, it's really excellent.) You could talk about how culture how changed as well as the history of America preserving natural places (and bring in John Muir's writings, and opens up Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada as a place to visit.) Then you could visit the Grand Canyon, and read Wallace Stegner's amazing book about John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, about the first rafting of the Grand Canyon, and how Powell changed his mind about water conservation and his work with the gov't. afterwards (as well as what Powell accomplished with one arm).

Another cool thing would be to follow the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and read their journals as you travel. This would bring in Yellowstone and places like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which has some very good texts and a museum at the battle site.
posted by barchan at 11:42 AM on August 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Two chapters in particular in Sarah Vowell's Take the Cannoli could work well (and probably give you some additional ideas for specific locales): "Michigan and Wacker" traces the history of Chicago from settlement to hub of industry, and "What I See When I Look at a $20 Bill" traces the Trail of Tears from Georgia to Oklahoma.
posted by scody at 11:55 AM on August 9, 2014

Best answer: I'd consider William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways (map). It's not really academic, but is a personal journey by a Native American and infused with that perspective.
posted by Rumple at 12:24 PM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some very specific locales and associated texts:

South Canyon Fire (Grand Junction & Glenwood Springs, CO): About the deaths of 14 wildland firefighters, it's opportunity to explore natural history, history, and culture, and considering that wildfire is a large part of living in the west and midwest. Texts: Fire on the Mountain by John Maclean

Galveston, Texas, 1900 Hurricane: Text, Issac's Storm. The 3rd most costly hurricane in the US and the deadliest.

Along the Mississippi: The 1927 flood was the most devasting flood in the U.S., vastly affected culture in the south, government, created a President, and is the reason behind the great dams in the west. Lots of texts, video, and photos -follow just the Wikipedia link - but a great accompanying text is Rising Tide.

Walden Pond and Thoreau

For the Civil War: Shelby Foote's 3 volume text. There's some legitimate criticism of this, but for a comprehensive history, it's excellent, and few books go into as much detail and follow the important western front of the war (where it could be argued the Civil War was actually won). These are the books Ken Burns used for his documentary. Also The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust for a great cultural aspect - you'll be amazed at the artifacts in our culture today that remain from the Civil War.

Had an idea for a theme that would take you all over - following the aerospace explosion during/post WWII. From Los Alamos (and see the Trinity Site on April 1! then go to White Sands Nat'l Monument) to Huntsville, MIT/Princeton/U of Chicago/JPL etc., Texas and Florida, California, Boulder CO, Minuteman Missile Sites in the midwest - there's a ton of places you could go, texts, and movies to use along the way (quick suggestions: American Prometheus about Oppenheimer - great for culture at the time; The Right Stuff (movie and book); Richard Feynman's books...there's a lot going on there).

(I also forgot in my above recommendation - if you did something that followed Lewis & Clark, Ivan Doig's books about Montana, like Bucking the Sun, about Fort Peck Dam and the damming of the Missouri River, would be good, as well as stopping by the Mann Gulch fire along the Missouri and reading the classic Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. Also as you did this, a good question to pose to the kids would be, where does the West begin? Why? Has this changed through history? etc.)
posted by barchan at 12:26 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Ford Museum in Detroit was one of the most incredible places I've ever been; it's a museum that specializes in the history of technology and transport. The array of topics covered seem different from the ones in most other museums and it gives much more of a perspective on day-to-day life throughout the twentieth century because it's full of the things people encountered and handled, as opposed to trying to illustrate great arcs of history as many other sources do. It's immense and probably worth at least two days' investment.
posted by XMLicious at 1:06 PM on August 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: John James Audubon's short essay "Early Settlers Along the Mississippi" is nice and vivid and would be a good quick read when you're somewhere in the region. Perhaps while crossing the John James Audubon Bridge. (It would've been written during the first half of the 19th century, of course, though I'm having trouble digging up its original publication date in a cursory search.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:41 PM on August 9, 2014

There are a LOT of caves in this country. ..when I drove across it, I became fascinated and visited every one on my route. Also, if you go to Niagara Falls, be sure to check out the Art Gallery of Buffalo. ..really well curated.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:48 PM on August 9, 2014

Best answer: If you are in New York City at all:

* Luc Sante's Low Life is a fascinating look at the "underbelly" of New York at a particular time in the city's history.

* E. B. White's Here Is New York is one of the most elegant things ever written about this city.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:51 PM on August 9, 2014

Best answer: Maybe after you've already covered some introductory Vietnam War stuff there's the restored 1968 documentary In The Year Of The Pig, Oscar nominated and directed by Emile de Antonio, free to watch on Youtube, which I found through this AskMe "Best Vietnam War documentaries". Really fascinating to see it from the perspective of partway through the war instead of entirely in the rearview mirror, and it fleshed out for me much of what preceded the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which my high school history teachers would sort of vaguely handwave their way through because there wasn't enough time in the school year.
posted by XMLicious at 1:51 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Son of the Morning Star and the Custer Battlefield.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:25 PM on August 9, 2014

Henry Ford also collected historic buildings. Noah Webster's house and the Wright brothers' bicycle shop are among the collection at the museum in Dearborn.
posted by brujita at 3:56 PM on August 9, 2014

Also the two remaining buildings from Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey were moved there in 1929.
posted by XMLicious at 4:31 PM on August 9, 2014

As a geologist, (but Canadian so I don't have specific American references), you can get some SUPER COOL science on a trip like this. Appalachians are absolutely ancient mountains and you can see what the *core* of what modern day mountains looks like. Grand Canyon needs no further explanation. Yellowstone and St.Helens... also cool.

I still remember fondly my family's road trip from Ontario to the middle of Mexico by way of deserts and the Grand Canyon when I was 6 or so. I got my first rock book, started my little collection, saw the Grand Canyon and all sorts of other was awesome.
posted by aggyface at 8:42 PM on August 9, 2014

Best answer: James Loewen's Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong would be a fantastic thing to read with a kid that age, because it would expose him/her to the whitewashing of history.

For instance, read the chapter on Fort Pillow as you pass Fort Pillow State Park in West Tennessee. The signs will tell you it was a "contested" place during the Civil War in which hundreds of soldiers "were killed." The reality is, the Confederates who took the fort in 1864 summarily executed all of the black soldiers they captured with shots to the head. "Remember Fort Pillow!" became a battle cry for the rest of the Civil War.

There are dozens of sites detailed in Loewen's book whose histories have been sanitized or obscured. It'd be an invaluable lesson in the lies we tell ourselves in the form of ostensible history.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:35 AM on August 10, 2014

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