“Reading old travel books or novels set in faraway places,” writes Phil Cousineau in The Art of Pilgrimage, “spinning globes, unfolding maps, playing world music, eating in ethnic restaurants, meeting friends in cafés . . . all these things are part of never-ending travel practice, not unlike doing scales on a piano, shooting free-throws, or meditating.” Not every summer, or year, or decade includes a trip to an exotic destination. But as Cousineau reminds us, “There is something sacred waiting to be discovered in virtually every journey.” And that holds true for journeys around your home area.
The first step is looking at familiar surroundings with fresh eyes, starting with the assumption that we do not, in fact, know everything there is to know about the place in which we find ourselves.
1. Act like a first-time visitor and Google your town. You may have visited the main attractions, such as major museums and amusement parks, but if you dig a little deeper, you may be astonished by the obscure, oddball offerings all around you.
2. Go on a GPS treasure hunt. Geocache is a free, worldwide treasure hunt that anyone can join using a smart phone or GPS. With a million locations, chances are there’s a geocache hidden near you.
3. Check out weird roadside attractions. If you were on vacation in another part of the world, you’d drive miles out of your way to see kooky stuff like Carhenge, a reproduction of Stonehenge built of old cars.. And even if the site itself isn’t alluring to you, aren’t you just a wee bit curious about seeing the people who might choose to visit it?
4. Spend a day at a country fair. Agricultural shows, county fairs, and other rural gatherings offer a rich mix of animal events (don’t miss the herd dogs or the pig races), humans at play (pie eating contests, demolition derbies), band music, and the chance to buy weird household gadgets.
5. Shop at a flea market. It’s the cheapest form of time travel on this planet, and you can take home wonderful, one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
6. Tour a quirky museum. If the Trash Museum doesn’t appeal, there’s always the Museum of Bad Art, the Oasis Bordello Museum, or the UFO Museum. Chances are there’s something seriously oddball in your neck of the woods.
7. Attend an exhibition, convention, or show. Are you a sci-fi fan? Love comic books? Tattoos? Dogs? Reptiles? Even if you’re not nuts about these things, you’ll likely get a kick out of seeing die-hard fans going to extremes.
8. Visit a ghost town or cemetery. There’s nothing like rambling around an old graveyard or an abandoned town to give rise to profound thoughts about life, death, and the meaning of it all. (Afterwards, proceed directly to #9.)
9. Pop into a dive bar or speakeasy. Oh sure, you can visit the high end places too, but beer simply tastes better when sipped in an old roadhouse, slightly seedy waterfront bar, or Prohibition-era tavern with a secret door behind the bookcase.
10. Take a food tour. Once found exclusively in such culinary hot zones as Paris and New York, gourmet experiences are now easy to come by anywhere from Alabama to Albania. Great food, a bit of history, and a nice little walk. Perfect!
11. Host a wine or beer tasting. Round up a few friends or relatives to compare local beverages. We did a beer tasting at a family reunion, and the connoisseurs were aghast when Budweiser won the blind taste test over several chic microbreweries.
12. Sample a regional specialty. Is your town famous for its barbecued ribs, haggis, or chicken-fried steak? Pay homage to these fine offerings on their home turf.
13. Dine with people you don’t know. Today’s sharing economy makes it easy to connect with local cooks just about anywhere in the world via such sites as EatWith, VizEat, Feastly, Cookening and Eatwithalocal. Online reviews help you identify those with skill, flair, and a mouthwatering menu.
14. Host a movie theme night. For instance, tonight Rich and I are making Chinese shrimp with broccoli for an evening that includes a double feature of Big Trouble in Little China and Chinatown. Chopsticks required; costumes optional.
15. Attend a poetry slam or beatbox contest. Maybe it’s not your usual thing, but the originality, energy, and occasional edginess give such live performances a lot of zing.
16. Hang out in a pool hall. I used to be intimidated by them, assuming everyone there was an expert, if not actually a hustler or a Hell’s Angel. But it’s mostly local blokes playing for a bit of fun. Still, don’t bet more than you can afford to lose.
17. Take a free walking tour. Think you know your town’s history? You’ll be amazed.
18. Sign up for a meetup group. Most likely there are people nearby who shares your interests, however obscure; find them by scrolling through the listings on Meetup.
19. Read the bulletin board in a bohemian café. Even if you never pursue any of them, just skimming the notices — “Cure anything through fasting!” “Mindful Sexuality” “Screenwriters wanted” — is mind-expanding.
20. Watch the world go by from a sidewalk café. Even if it’s a cookie-cutter Starbucks, plunk yourself down at an outdoor table, sip an espresso, and enjoy the passing parade, just they way you would if you were abroad.
Sounds like a fun summer! And all the while you’ll be honing the skills you need to go adventuring. Because when it comes right down to it, adventure isn’t about geography, it’s about opening up to the world. All journeys are really inner journeys, and you don’t need a plane ticket for that.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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