Unexpected USA: 3 Remarkable Travel Experiences

Our Nomads share some of the most surprising and indelible moments from their travels.

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Photo © Getty Images / Diana Robinson Photography

Sandhill Crane Migration

The feathery squadron fans out across a cloudless sky, like lines of a composition book – thousands of sandhill cranes flying into the Platte River Valley. At a distance, the hazy lines of birds, described once as “whiffs of smoke” by legendary naturalist Dr. Jane Goodall, appear to be endless. I’m spellbound. What’s the chance that anybody could see cranes in such massive numbers within minutes?

I discovered that the possibility is almost certain – if you visit South Central Nebraska during March and early April. A key stopover point along the Central Flyway Path, the valley’s braided channels are a literal bird magnet for migrating species to rest, recover, and refuel before they continue on their journey to breeding grounds in the North.

The numbers are staggering; 80% of the world’s population of sandhill cranes migrate through the state – in total, that’s about 500,000 to 600,000 birds feasting on farmland grain leftovers and resting along protected river sandbars for six weeks. And, at four to five feet tall, with a wingspan of up to six feet, the sandhill crane is quite impressive in stature. I wanted to see this epic, annual “big bird” party with my own eyes.

The best way to view the birds en masse is at dusk or dawn, within the covert shelter of a blind, either at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary or the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center. Both organizations offer guided, educational migration tours with viewing opportunities from these enclosures.

Peering through the blind windows only a few feet from the sandbars, I see the wavy “whiffs of smoke” approaching. An inky haze begins to fill the sky. Hovering like helicopters, each bird suddenly drops down, claiming a spot on the coveted sandbar. I expect the courting rituals – dancing and curtsying – but not the deafening sound. I’m soon engulfed in the noisy vibration of fluttering wings overhead and the screeching and squawking of the crane reunion. I follow the orchestral performance with relish – it’s my portal to an event that’s been happening in the same spot for many millennia. - Gigi Ragland

Cranes on a snowy sandbar. Image credit: Getty Images / Diana Robinson Photography

Surf’s Up in...Sheboygan?

Sheboygan, Wisconsin may be the last place you’d think of to catch waves, but it’s in this lakeshore town (known as the “Malibu of the Midwest) where I have my first surfing experience.

While some coastal surfers might scoff at the idea of freshwater surfing, Lake Michigan is not for the faint of heart. Despite visiting in late September, I still need a wetsuit, since the lake’s temperatures hover between 30 and 50°F (-1 and 10°C) year-round. The absence of salt also makes the water far less buoyant, which means it’s a much greater challenge to pop up (go from a paddling to a surfing stance).

My instructor, Mike Miller, owns EOS Outdoor & Surf, the only surf shop in town, and is exactly the type of person I want teaching me a potentially hazardous sport. His calm demeanor echoes the surfer dude stereotype, but he, like the others in the hearty band of local hang tenners, has a charm that could only be cultivated in the heartland. Some popular surfing spots are famous for being unwelcoming to beginners and tourists, but the Sheboygan boys are hospitable to anyone willing to brave the chilly waters and share a beer post-surf (after all, it is Wisconsin). The group is helmed by local legend, Larry Longboard Williams, and his press-shy fraternal twin, Lee “Waterflea” Williams, who co-authored Some Like It Cold: Surfing the Malibu of the Midwest.

The group meets every morning at a local cafe to check the weather conditions. If a storm is on the way, it’s all the better for choice waves – but the early autumn weather is kind to me, and I have a gentle introduction to the sport.

Try as I might, I do not master a pop-up. Instead, I basically body board (or sometimes knee board) through the mild wake. A disappointment for sure, but I’m having too much fun to care. I even wind up missing my flight back home that night, but it’s worth spending extra time with the nicest brood in surfing. Gina Zammit

Surfing Lake Michigan. Photo credit: Erlien Design Photography

A Slice of Portugal on Cape Cod

Steering between Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs and sand dunes, I spin the car radio dial in search of music. What I find surprises me, because instead of pop hits or country, I pick up the haunting sounds of a fado song coming from a Portuguese station.

When I moved to New England a decade ago, I discovered a region rich in languages: indigenous Wampanoag people working to revive an ancestral tongue, neighbors calling Italian greetings in Boston’s North End, and the French Canadian accents I hear near my Vermont home. But it took a Cape Cod road trip to meet the Portuguese-speaking descendants of Azorean and Madeiran families who settled on the shores of Massachusetts.

I'm reluctant to switch off the radio when I pull into Provincetown, the town perched at the end of Cape Cod. While Plymouth, Massachusetts, is often remembered as the first landing-place of the Mayflower pilgrims, they originally touched down right here. There’s even a monument. But first, I make a beeline for Provincetown Portuguese Bakery, where a baker is rolling pieces of fried dough, called malasadas, in a generous layer of sugar.

Crispy and sweet, the Madeiran specialties are a favorite at the Provincetown Portuguese Festival that’s held every June. To ensure a safe year on the famously treacherous coast of Cape Cod, the fishermen line up their brightly decorated boats for a traditional blessing of the fleet.

Malasada in hand, I wander from the bakery to the nearby Pilgrim Monument. Locals call Provincetown “the end of the world,” but to me that fried dough was sugary rejoinder to the nickname. Because for hopeful immigrants from the Pilgrims to the Portuguese, Cape Cod wasn’t the world’s end, it was their first glimpse of a new one. Jen Rose Smith

Provincetown Portuguese Festival. Photo credit: Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce

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