Five Things to do in an American Summer

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The American Obsession

When you think about the American summer, what springs to mind? 4th of July fireworks? BBQ and Bud Lite or (shudder) Pabst Blue Ribbon? How about young love at summer camp or taking a break from it all in a cabin by the lake?

Off topic, but check out Joss Whedon’s new movie, The Cabin in the Woods. It’s tops.

The fact is, there are more cliches when it comes to an American summer than almost anything else. Living in Australia, we’re fed a steady stream of US TV shows, books, and movies – so it’s not a surprise that the idea of spending summer in America has always held appeal to me. From Grease to American Pie to the works of Stephen King, I’ve always been enchanted by and drawn to the American lifestyle.

That might be obvious given my track record with American girls – my current girlfriend is from Maryland and I dated an Idaho girl for two years as well. There was a lass from Seattle in there at some point as well.

So, when I received an invite to my friend Rob’s wedding earlier this year, I was most excited to read it would be held in Chicago in early August. As soon as I got to China and had my feet under me, I’d put in for five weeks leave so that I could experience an American summer first hand. And boy, did I!

I’m talking fireworks over Miami, theme parks, walking the boardwalks of Ocean City and Santa Monica, hiking in beautiful Yosemite National Park, collecting seashells on Sanibel Island, drinking beer on the Oregon Coast, kissing pretty girls on hot summer nights, and eating entirely too much fast food along the way.

There’s a whole slew of entries to come about a lot of the above, but for now, I thought I’d recount five quintessentially American experiences that anybody should experience before they die.

Five Things You Must Do in an American Summer

Summer is almost over in the United States for another year, so perhaps put a few of these on your own bucket list and save them for a rainy day. When you’re next stuck in traffic, listening to your mate ramble on about his boat finance in WA, or staring listlessly out the window at work, conjure up a few of these travel daydreams and start putting money aside. For me, an American summer is an experience any traveler (not from the US) should experience.

Rollercoaster at Ocean City, MD
The rollercoaster at Jolly Roger’s boardwalk amusement park in Ocean City, Maryland.

The Boardwalk Experience

There are few images quite as iconic as the garishly lit boardwalk in summer. The sun is setting over the ocean and the air is thick with the smells of hot dogs, cotton candy, fresh popcorn, funnel cake, and burgers still sizzling on the grill. Couples young and old are wandering hand in hand and the distant purr of the ocean is oftentimes drowned out by the tinny music of carnival attractions and the hustle and bustle of a crowd of merry makers.

The food may be heart-stoppingly bad for you and you’re likely to come home with more tacky souvenirs than you’ll ever need, but there’s just something ubiquitously American about boardwalk culture. Whether you’re enjoying the street performance or trading in game tokens for a stuffed toy, it’s hard not to be transformed back into a kid under the brightly colored lights.

Bixby Bridge, California
Driving Route 101 was one of the highlights of my US trip this summer. Bixby Bridge is pictured here.

Go on a Road Trip

I spoke at length about the best US road trips only last week, and I enjoyed a few lengthy drives myself during my recent tour. Movies like Road Trip and Into the Wild have glamourized the road trip and made it more mainstream, but it’s still very much the same as it’s always been. Friends, a car, a cooler full of drinks, and liberal stops at roadside service stations and fast food joints to ‘refuel’.

With a few good mix tapes (or playlists, these days) hooked up and sleep coming in shifts, the road trip transforms what is sometimes the worst part of travel into the most exciting part.

A good road trip also has the benefit of giving you freedom to travel at your own pace. No tour groups, no boarding times, and no fat guy snoring next to you on a long haul trip. Unless, of course, you invite one.

Arizona State Fair
At the Arizona State Fair in the fall of 2009. Good times.

Attend a State Fair

This one may seem similar to visiting the boardwalk, but a state (or even county) fair is another experience you just have to have. While we do have our own equivalent in Australian (agricultural shows or just ‘shows’), they rarely aspire to the same level of decadence that I saw when attending the Arizona State Fair in the autumn of 2009.

There are rides and food stalls aplenty, but there’s also the usual horde of sideshow games as well. But the true piece of Americana, and the reason I suggest a visit to the fair as part of any American summer itinerary, is to experience the culture of the locals. Tractor pulls, rodeos, concerts of local music, and arts & crafts exhibitions are all an excellent way to better familiarize yourself with the people and their day to day lives.

While the freak-shows of the dust bowl era may be well and truly behind us, there are still strange sights to behold. Over-sized cattle, giant white gators, fried insects to nibble on, turkey legs the size of my bicep… and let’s not forget the opportunity to people watch, either. Seeing locals out having a good time is a big part of the draw too.

Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field
Cody offers us a wee bit of funnel cake at the Mariners v Blue Jays game during my recent US trip.

Spend a night at the baseball

Often recognized as the American pastime, the American summer is baseball season and with over 2,300 games being played in the MLB alone each year – it really is something you should be able to find time for.

The barkers selling hot dogs, the organ playing songs like Take Me Out to the Ballgame, over-priced beer, foul balls heading toward outstretched gloves, and kids clambering for a glimpse of their favourite player combine to make a day at the baseball one of the most iconic American experiences a traveler can have.

I was lucky enough to attend a Seattle Mariners game during my trip, and that’s an experience I’ll share soon. But if the price of the MLB is too much for you, don’t forget there are minor league teams scattered across the United States. You don’t need to spend big bucks to enjoy a hot dog, a beer, and a good game of America’s most popular game.

Hayden Lake, Idaho
Soaking in the sun in Hayden Lake, Idaho back in 2009.

Rent a Lake House

In my eyes, nothing screams ‘American summer’ more than a lake house – but there’s no reason why a beach house shouldn’t feature in your itinerary either. Coming from Australia, a weekend or week away at the beach isn’t so unusual – but the idea of roughing it out in the wilderness by a lake is just alien to me. Australia just doesn’t have large bodies of fresh water.

I fell in love with Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho when I first laid eyes upon its many lakes, and exposure has in no way dulled my fascination with these deep, blue, mysterious bodies of water. Maybe it’s reading too much Stephen King or watching too many movies – but lake houses just speak to me.

Above: My first leap into chilly Hayden Lake in the early fall of 2009.

The pine forest, the isolation, the stereotypical dock out over the deep water, and the everything that comes with a trip away to a lake house. Toasting s’mores, telling ghost stories, drinking from a red solo cup while floating in a tube. BBQing burgers and brats… I’m getting itchy feet just thinking about it.

Santa Monica Pier, California
Santa Monica Pier – arguably America’s most famous boardwalk.

Your Say

I’ve chosen five, but this list could easily be expanded to ten or fifteen. Hitting an amusement park, visiting a farmer’s market, heading to a National or State Park to do some hiking or biking, sailing, sunbathing, and countless other things leap to my mind as soon as I think I’m done compiling a list.

Summer anywhere in the world is a chance to get out and enjoy the warmer weather, but an American summer – to me – just can’t be topped.

What are your favourite things to do during the American summer?

Haven’t been? What do you do in your own country when summer rolls around? Do you think summer at home is better than a summer in the US?

The preceding post brought to you by Westralian Auto Finance.

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9 comments

  1. I think you got it right! Excellent list. If I were to add something, it would be a southern cookout. How about Oz? What are some quintessential summer things to do?

    • Ooh, now that’s a post all to itself. I could create a shortlist here though:

      – Hit the beach early in the day and be gone before midday
      – Have a Christmas Day BBQ
      – Play (or attend) cricket
      – Check out the lights leading into Christmas and attend Carols by Candlelight
      – Go camping in a national park

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