ADVERTISEMENT

Meheeko

By A. Glover
June 4, 2005
Ya gotta go

south of the border

Keep reading

The Play's the Thing in Ashland, OR

An isolated hamlet in rural Oregon as a major U.S. theater capital? Sounds unlikely, but it's true: For 65 years, Ashland (population 19,500, just over the California border and about 80 miles inland as the crow flies) has played host to the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation's largest and arguably most respected regional theater, drawing 150,000 visitors to its 762 annual performances of 11 productions between February and October. In fact, only four of those productions are Shakespeare-written, the rest being American theater classics ranging from comedies like The Man Who Came to Dinner to dramas by the likes of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov, along with new plays such as Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit. Still, the festival's calling card remains its Shakespearean extravaganzas, staged outdoors in a reasonably authentic (but thoroughly modern) Elizabethan theater starting in June. Want more than just theater? Ashland's also an easy day trip from the absolutely glorious 250-square-mile Crater Lake National Park (a $10/car entrance fee gets you access to its hiking and skiing facilities) as well as the Oregon Caves National Monument with its remarkable array of flora and fauna. (For a more extensive list of visitor resources, check the Southern Oregon Vacation Guide at www.sova.org.) All this thespianizing, along with Ashland's other charms, has transformed a rural town slated for oblivion into a vibrant, thriving center for the arts, a retirement haven, and a surprisingly lively travel destination. And while the area's cultural bounty has sometimes resulted in prices that run a bit higher than your average small town in the Pacific Northwest, it remains magnificently affordable for those who use a bit of foresight. (Note: All telephone numbers should be preceded by the 541 area code unless otherwise stated.) Hot Tickets Ashland may be in the boondocks, but its ticket demand is the envy of Broadway. Popular plays often sell out early for the entire season; most summer performances become sellouts quickly. If you want good seats, get your order in immediately: The box office starts to process ticket requests in the order received, starting in mid-January. Last season, most full-price tickets went for $29 to $42, with a few box seats at $52. (Next year's prices aren't out yet, but they'll be close to last year's.) However, "value season" discounts take 25 percent off performances prior to June 4 and after October 3. A few off-season matinees were even priced at 50 percent off, and children ages 6-17 get 25-50 percent reductions, depending on the time of year. In addition, last-minute visitors should be aware that the box office frequently releases a few daily rush seats on the day of performance, and you usually find a thriving "aftermarket" in front of the box office. You can get tickets by mail (15 South Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon 97520) or phone (482-4331). The visitor section of the festival's brochure - much of which is duplicated on www.orshakes.org - provides a wealth of information on ticket prices, rooms, and activities. Living Inexpensively Ashland is a hotbed of bed-and-breakfasts (more than 60 at last count). However, they rarely dip below $90 a day for a double. Hotels remain, on the whole, a more cost-effective way to stay; in the height of the summer season, rooms start at around $60 - not exactly cheap, but not quite exorbitant. For $65 per night, the Columbia Hotel (800/718-2530, www.columbiahotel.com) is a solid, funky choice on the second story of a block of storefronts near the theaters. The location's great, but most rooms aren't air-conditioned. Two others among the in-town options are Knight's Inn for $58-68 nightly (800/547-4566, www.brodeur-inns.com) and Timbers Motel for $68 a night (482-4242, www.visionww.com/timbers). Both are typical 1950s/1960s-style motels with outside corridors; they're comfortable and well-maintained, though without a scintilla of charm. More recently built properties include the somewhat out-of-the-way Ashland Regency Inn & RV Park (800/482-4701), costing $70/night for a double, and the $68/night Super 8 Motel (800/800-8000, www.super8.com); both are equally efficient, if charmless. The choice of real economy travelers-especially young ones-is the $16/night Ashland Hostel (482-9217), a converted residence. For the best bargains, however, you need to head up the highway a short distance to Talent (4 miles), Phoenix (7 miles), or Medford (12 miles). In these three towns, the following are all clean, basic, serviceable 1950s-vintage lodgings, with little to distinguish one from the next other than proximity to Ashland: Goodnight Inn (Talent), $45-$58, 535-7234; Bavarian Inn (Phoenix), $42, 535-1678; Phoenix Motel (Phoenix), $49-$55, 535-1555; Crater Inn (Medford), $44-46, 776-9194; Knight's Inn (Medford), $45, 773-3676; Red Carpet Inn (Medford), $47, 772-6133; Royal Crest Motel (Medford), $40-45, 772-6144; Tiki Lodge (Medford), $37, 773-4579. In addition, most nationwide economy chains have one or more locations in Medford, with summer rates starting in the mid-$50-per-night range. For more motel information, check the Medford Chamber of Commerce Web site at www.visitmedford.org.

Walking Vacations

Are you a "closet" walker? While others jog on their vacations, or go bicycling or white-water rafting, do you simply sneak off to walk, in utter bliss, for miles and miles? If so, you're one of a growing number of Americans who go away to walk--even to places thousands of miles from home. They believe, along with the American Heart Association, that brisk walking is the most healthful holiday sport, as aerobic as running (and far easier on the joints), and the best possible way to approach the life and people of an unfamiliar destination. The popularity of walking has resulted in the emergence of a surprising number of walking-tour operators covering every part of the globe. With some operators, you walk inn to inn while a van carries your gear ahead or brings you lunch. With others, you remain three or four days at a time in one base--a country hotel or a cluster of B&Bs--and walk from there. While England is clearly the most popular destination for walking vacations, few of the world's flatlands are spared attention by walking-tour operators. Because not everyone walks to the beat of the same drummer (nor at the same pace), we've divided up these "pedestrian" packages into three major categories: trekking (usually longer journeys that involve walking in exotic locations), country walking (casual strolls over fairly easy terrain in quaint country settings), and hiking (for serious outdoor enthusiasts). Many of these groupings overlap, so please forgive us for generalizing. An introduction to traveling by foot Though only the barest handful of travel agents understand the term--and some misuse it horribly--international trekking has become a substantial travel activity for at least 20,000 Americans each year, and is currently marketed by upward of five major nationwide organizations. In oversimplified terms, trekking is walking--the healthiest sport on earth--but walking of a special nature, elevated to a high art and mental adventure. Unlike the hiking and backpacking pursued by individuals, trekking is an intricate, organized, group activity in which porters or pack animals carry your camping gear, cooking utensils, and food from one overnight campsite to another. Relieved of that weight, you're able to go where roads and paths aren't, through the most exotic of nations, over breathtaking terrain, but without performing feats of endurance or possessing mountaineering skills. Persons in their middle age are a familiar sight on treks, as are families and even seniors into their seventies. That's not to say that minimal vigor isn't required--it is. Yet hundreds of perfectly ordinary, normally sedentary (even chubby) Americans are today found in such unlikely locations as the historic, 18,000-foot-high base camp in Nepal used by intrepid climbers for the assault on Mount Everest. They get there by trekking--organized walking--without setting a single metal wedge into stone or tugging a single rope. I used the examples of Nepal and Peru advisedly. For reasons not entirely clear to me, almost all international treks are operated to mountain areas of the world: the Himalayas, the Andes, the Swiss Alps in particular. (While you don't go atop them, you walk along their easy lower slopes, usually at elevations of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.) Though it is theoretically possible to trek through lowland valleys supplied with roads, it is apparently felt inappropriate and uninspiring to do so. The mountain kingdom of Nepal, at the northern border of India, is the chief trekking destination, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all treks. The associated Indian states of Sikkim, and Ladakh, and portions of Bhutan, Pakistan, and Tibet, draw another 10% of all trekkers. Together these areas flank the full length of the most remarkable geographical feature on earth--the 1,500-mile-long chain of the Himalayas, the world's tallest mountains. It was Nepal, almost entirely covered by mountains, that set off the trend to trekking. A country with scarcely any roads at all, isolated from the outside world until the 1950s, its widely scattered mountainside villages harbor 35 different ethnic groups, whose ways of life have been scarcely touched by outside influences. The people of Nepal have a particular tradition of hospitality to strangers. As you trek the trails from village to village along the south slope of the Himalayas, you are invited to tea in small council chambers, sometimes to stay the night in the homes of villagers or in monasteries. With unlimited access to the world's greatest mountains, in this peaceful Shangri-La whose half-Hindu, half-Buddhist population coexists without conflict, your own near-spiritual reactions are almost too intimate to describe. You awake at 6:30 a.m., when a cup of steaming tea or coffee is thrust through the flaps of your tent by a member of the cooking staff. Accompanied by experienced Sherpa guides, you take to the trails, trekking seven to ten miles a day at your own pace. The trip starts and ends in the other-worldly capital of Kathmandu, reached by air via New Delhi or Bangkok. The Peruvian Andes, and that section of it known as the Cordillera Blanca, is next in popularity, accounting for perhaps 30% of all treks. From Lima you fly to Cuzco and there, your gear stowed atop a mountain burro, you embark on a five-day, 35-mile walk along the ancient Inca Trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu, passing awesome Incan ruins unseen by conventional tourists. Again from Lima, you go by car to Huaraz to embark on an eight-day trek through the heart of Peru's highest mountain area. In the Swiss Alps (a 10% share of the trekking industry), hut-to-hut trekking replaces the traditional variety, with vans bringing your food, clothing, and bedding to austere and unattended mountain lodges scattered among the mountain trails, a day's march from each other. The classic trip is of the Mont Blanc massif, on a trail dominated by the tallest of Europe's mountain peaks. Trips cost as little as $675 for nine nights (plus airfare to Switzerland), including lodging, some meals, and the services of a support vehicle that moves camp each day. Country walking tours (inn to inn while a van carries gear ahead)So much for mountainous treks that are high in terms of altitude and adventure. Next up are walking tours in environments that are less challenging, but just as rewarding in terms of cultural exchange and quaint scenery. REI Adventures, P.O. Box 1938, Sumner WA 98390 (phone 800/622-2236) offers year-round biking and hiking trips (as well as nearly every other outdoors sport you can imagine) all over the globe. Sample European adventures include "Czech Wonders" (ten days from $1,795) and "Ireland Coast to Coast Hike" (11 days from $2,199). In Asia, one can explore the "Treasures of China" (15 days from $2,595) or hike, bike, and raft in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal on the "Active Annapurna" tour (16 days from $2,599). Groups are generally limited to 16 participants. Accommodations vary according to destination and range from camping to bed and breakfasts or local inns and hotels. Most trips also include luggage transfer from place to place, as well as the majority of meals and necessary equipment. A lifetime membership to REI is $15--all members receive a special discount on trips (between $125 and $200). View the REI Web site for further information at reiadventures.com/. Journeys International, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, stresses the cross-cultural aspects of a walking vacation. It makes an intense effort to bring about meetings between walkers and the locals of each area. Even prior to departure, Journeys involves its travelers in cultural training for the trip, then delivers daily briefings en route and along the trail by speakers ranging from Buddhist monks and naturalists to ordinary villagers (through interpreters). Specialists to Asia, especially Nepal and Ladakh, since 1978, and highly regarded even by its competitors, Journeys also offers departures to Latin America, Asia, Antarctica, Europe, the Arctic and Africa. There are even a handful of departures arranged for specialty groups (women only, families, etc.). Rates charged are between $150 and $300 per day depending on destination, airfare not included. Contact Journeys International, 107 Aprill Dr., Ste. 3, Ann Arbor, MI 48103-1903 (phone 734/665-4407, Web: journeys-intl.com/, for a well-written, well-illustrated catalog. If biking, walking or hiking through Europe on your own sounds appealing, Randonnee Tours' "self-guided" trips might be the thing for you. Trips run year-round (May to October is the high season) primarily through France, but also to Italy, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada. Most walking trips average between $200 and $250 a night, and some as much as $300 per night. Each day, you follow a detailed itinerary that Randonnee has created specifically for you, based on your abilities and preferences. The only restriction is that you must arrive each night at a proscribed destination--usually a small hotel. On some walking tours, accommodations are inexpensive B&B's to keep prices down (such as a tour in France, which starts at only $126/day). Luggage is transported separately from place to place. The company is in its 13th year now and has built a loyal following with a generally older crowd of travelers. For more information, contact Randonee Tours, 100-62 Albert St., Winnipeg Manitoba R3B 1E9 (phone 800/465-6488 or 204/475-6939, or view the extensive Web site at randonneetours.com/.) Forum International Travel, of Pleasant Hill, California: In business for 38 years, it claims to be one of the oldest and largest of America's bicycle and hike operators. It achieves that status primarily through its strong ties with regional European bicycling and hiking outfits, offering about 30 different hiking trips between May and October. Like Randonnee (see above) most tours are independent and "self-guided" -- which means that you walk on your own, following a detailed, written itinerary that directs you to from inn to inn. Luggage is transported separately. In many instances, costs are as low as $80 to $120/day, including accommodations and breakfast. Tours in Europe and other parts of the globe are also offered with escorts in the standard group fashion, and tend to cost more. Contact Forum Travel International, 91 Gregory Lane, Suite 21, Pleasant Hill CA 94523 (phone 925/671-2900 or 800/252-4475, or visit the Web site foruminternational.com/ for more information. A Vermont-based company, Country Inns Along the Trail offers several unique bike, hike, and ski touring itineraries in this quaint yet rugged part of New England. Country Inns Along the Trail takes care of accommodations at lovely inns and B&B's in the Green Mountain State (with dinner and breakfast usually included), and maps out an detailed itinerary for you, based on your requests and endurance. It also provides some pickup and drop-off services if inns are spread too far apart for you. Prices vary depending on what kind of accommodations you select and the time of year, but expect to pay between $130 and $150 per person per night with two sharing a room. For more information, contact Country Inns Along the Trail at P.O. Box 59, Montgomery, VT 05470, phone: 800/838-3301 or 802/326-2072. Find more details on the Web at inntoinn.com/. California has a wonderfully long and varied coastline, and while you could drive along the crowded Pacific Coast Highway, nothing beats taking in the views and breathing in the salty air at a walker's pace. A non-profit group called Coastwalk arranges dozens of affordable walking tours throughout the state. You can trek along the beautiful sands of San Diego, the dramatic vistas of Big Sur, or the rugged coastlines in the north, all starting at only $50 a day for adults. Hikes vary widely in length and difficulty, and you sometimes have choices within each trip. On Coastwalk's eight-day "Lost Coast" trip in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties in northern California, for example, you can choose to join the group for the first four or the last four days, or walk along for the entirety of the trip. For all Coastwalk journeys, your gear will be transported ahead, and you'll only need to carry a daypack. In exchange for the baggage transport and bargain prices, you are expected to help out with some chores such as cleaning dishes and unpacking bags. Most trips involve camping and all trips include dinner. On some itineraries you'll stay at hotels, or eat at nice restaurants, in which case there is a surcharge on top of the regular fees. For more information, go to coastwalk.org/. HF Holidays of England and Scotland (011-44-20-8905-9556) is another of our favorite budget-minded tour operators. While its rates are always reasonable (the most expensive tour is only £665, for 10 days in Greece) prices recede quite a bit in September and shrivel even further for October walks, although it is by no means too brisk at that time of year for an enjoyable tour. These prices don't include airfare. Web: hfholidays.co.uk/. As for other walking tours of Britain, a group known as the Rambler's Association, at 2nd Floor, Camelford House, 87-90 Albert Embankment, London UK SE1 7TW (phone 011-44-207-339-8500), London, publishes a magazine called The Rambler, (an electronic version can be seen on the Web site at ramblers.org.uk/) which describes walk opportunities and lists self-guided tours throughout the country. There are also forums for meeting up with people to walk with. Some avid walkers are upset about the commercialization of strolling through Britain, believing the activity should always be do-it-yourself in style, sans tour operators. Such is the belief of Richard Hayward, of Seattle, Washington, who teaches classes in the area about the joys of unorganized walking tours. The whole point of walking, in Hayward's view, is to meet people of the host country. It is especially easy, he says, to meet Britons, "for whom walking is a national pastime. They care about the countryside, and if they meet you in that setting, their old-world reserve melts away and you are one of them. Organized walking tours can be a waste of time and energy because you don't meet the people as readily." Hayward has written several books about walking all over the UK. Backroads, 801 Cedar St., Berkeley CA 94710-1800 (phone 800/GO- ACTIVE or view the Web site at backroads.com)%20recently/ joined forces with British Coastal Trails. Backroads is better known as a bicycling operator, but it will also take you walking throughout the U.S. and to over 40 destinations on five continents, on tours that range from the walk-and-camp variety (which still tend to be rather expensive--over $225/night) to those using elegant inns for hikers' overnights (which are no doubt expensive--approximately $500/night). Among the least expensive walking vacations are Backroads' camping itineraries in places such as the Canadian Rockies, Utah's Bryce Canyon, Washington's San Juan Islands, and the Canadian Rockies. The luxury-loving Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond Street, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B IX3 (phone 800/678-1147) is another outfit known primarily as a deluxe bike operator, but one that has its share of walking tours too. Walking tours are offered in Europe's most chic areas (as well as in a few spots in North America, Asia, and Africa). Butterfield only uses top-quality lodgings and charges its traditionally high prices ($5,995 per person for seven days strolling the vineyards and hilltowns of Tuscany, is typical). Also online at butterfield.com/. Hiking holidaysSierra Club, the non-profit lobbying group with 750,000 members, is more than a mighty arm of the environmentalist movement. It's also an inexpensive tour operator with wilderness based adventures throughout the U.S and abroad. While the majority of its overnight hiking trips are in California and other areas of the West Coast, it offers a handful of options east of the Mississippi. Tennessee is home to swelteringly hot summers, but mid-September is a lovely time to get outside and hike around the Volunteer State. In 2002, Sierra Club had a five-day hiking trip in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area in remote northern Tennessee just after Labor Day. The trip costs $475 per person, and all food and cooking supplies are provided. You'll need to bring a tent or arrange to share one on most of Sierra Club's hiking vacations. Trip offerings vary from year to year, but a typical U.S. weeklong backpacking trip costs between $500 and $700, including all meals. The group hikes a manageable 25 miles total amidst beautiful gorges, rolling hills, and rushing creeks. To find out more about Sierra Club, visit sierraclub.com/, or call the Outing Department at 415/977-5522. Despite its name, Knapsack Tours says that backpacks are never needed on its 10 to 12 tours each year, with destinations such as Switzerland, Yosemite National Park, the Canadian Rockies, Montana, Washington State, and France, Italy and New Zealand. Either vans carry your luggage or you keep all your belongings at a base camp or other lodgings and head off on foot each day. Daily hikes are three to six hours long, and there are usually a few options to choose from (moderate to strenuous). Prices are kept down by the use of modest lodgings (tents, dorm-style, mountain huts, or simple hotels) appropriate (in our opinion) to the unpretentious nature of the activity. Occasionally singles can share rooms; if not, there is a $100 singles supplement. A five-day package with daily hiking in Yosemite led by naturalist guides, three meals a day, and a mix of dorm and camp accommodations (real toilets and hot showers every night) starts at $575/person. Five-day trips in Washington's Olympic or Montana's Glacier National Park, both of which include cabin or bunkhouse accommodations (no camping or tents to worry about), begin at $780. Find out more by contacting Knapsack Tours, 2586 Chinook Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94598 (phone 925/944-9435 or fax 925/472-0536, e-mail KThiking@aol.com, or check out the Web site knapsacktours.com/ ). Active Journeys is a good outfit for tours that combine kayaking and rafting with hiking throughout Europe, and a few spots in the Caribbean, Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa and Australia. While all of these tours are "active," by no means do you need to be a mountaineer or world-class athlete to participate; each trip offers a variety of activities for persons at different levels of fitness. This is not a company aimed at the budget traveler, but many of its more active vacations average out to just $130-150 night. Some of its self-guided hiking tours seem to be especially good values. An eight-day hike in the lovely Cinque Terre region of Italy starts at $990, including standard tourist hotels, breakfasts, maps, and luggage transfers. A 15-night coast-to-coast hike in England (from St. Bees Head, on the Irish Sea, to Robin Hoods Bay in North Yorkshire) costs $1,525 with accommodations, maps, and luggage transfers. There are also hiking vacations offered in Argentina's Patagonia region, several spots in Canada including the Rockies and the eastern provinces, Australia and New Zealand, Mexico, Kenya, and all over Europe. Some itineraries should only be attempted by serious hikers, while others can be managed by casual walkers, so be sure to find out ahead of time what kind of a vacation you are signing up for. Find out more at the Active Journeys Web site (activejourneys.com/, by e-mailing info@activejourneys.com, or calling 800/597-5594. The major trekking specialists Wilderness Travel, of Berkeley, California, offers treks to favorite destinations like Nepal and the Alps, but also emphasizes treks to Europe, Africa (Mt. Kilamanjaro and the Serengeti is always a favorite) and South America (Macchu Pichu and the Inca Trail), to which a tenth of its passengers go. Both the founders of Wilderness Travel have spent considerable time in Peru and the Patagonian region of Argentina and Chile; fittingly, four of the company's expeditions in the region (each one lasting more than two weeks) are among its most popular programs. Impressive, too, are the expertise and experience of Wilderness's tour leaders, many with Peace Corps backgrounds or graduate degrees. (In a recent communication to us, they've noted that their clientele has gotten older over the years, and that, consequently, they've improved the amenities of their treks.) Prices average out to cost between $175 and $350 per night. For interesting literature, contact Wilderness Travel, 1102 Ninth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710-1211 (phone 510/558-2488 or toll free 800/368-2794 outside California. Or view the Web site at wildernesstravel.com/. Mountain Travel Sobek of Emeryville, California, is one of the largest and oldest of the companies, operating an extraordinary variety of treks on six continents. Called "deluxe" by its competitors, its rates--in my reading of them--are only slightly above the industry level: an average of $115 a day on camping-based trips in Nepal, from $150 to $300 a day in most other mountain regions (plus airfare, of course). (Prices are on the high side if you are on a trip with most nights in hotels or inns.) Those other areas include Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Switzerland, Scotland, France, Patagonia, and Tibet. Like all trekking companies, Mountain Travel Sobek provides the tents, foam sleeping pads, and cooking gear when necessary; you provide the sleeping bag. For the free, four-color 150-page Mountain Travel catalog, contact Mountain Travel-Sobek, 1266 66th St., Emeryville CA 94608 (phone toll free 888/MTSOBEK. Or view the Web site at mtsobek.com/.) Himalayan Treasures & Travel, of Pinole, CA, features treks led by Peter Owens, a former chemistry professor who since 1976 has conducted over 100 trips a year. Owens' treks exact extraordinary environmental care and set aside profits to subsidizing solar lighting systems for impoverished Nepalis. Prices vary widely among different tours and destinations: full service trips average $80 to $90 a night, while the more basic lodge to lodge trips are around $40 a night Prices are based on the size of the group--more personal tours for one or two people are $140 to $150 a night for full service, and $100 a night lodge to lodge. There are seven itineraries in Nepal (such as the seven-night "Nepal Sampler" starting at $810), as well as a sprinkling of tours throughout Asia, including Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam. Accommodations tend to be simple guest houses and basic hotels to keep prices low. Owens is very popular and his trips tend to sell out as much as a year in advance. Contact Himalayan Treasures & Travel, 3596 Ponderosa Trail, Pinole, CA, 94564, phone 800/223-1813 or 510/222-5307. You can also look up information on the Web at himalayantrekking.com/ or send an e-mail to govindsh@himtrek.com.

Walking Vacations

Are you a 'closet' walker? While others jog on their vacations, or go bicycling or white-water rafting, do you simply sneak off to walk, in utter bliss, for miles and miles? If so, youre one of a growing number of Americans who go away to walk--even to places thousands of miles from home. They believe, along with the American Heart Association, that brisk walking is the most healthful holiday sport, as aerobic as running (and far easier on the joints), and the best possible way to approach the life and people of an unfamiliar destination. The popularity of walking has resulted in the emergence of a surprising number of walking-tour operators covering every part of the globe. With some operators, you walk inn to inn while a van carries your gear ahead or brings you lunch. With others, you remain three or four days at a time in one base--a country hotel or a cluster of B&Bs--and walk from there. While England is clearly the most popular destination for walking vacations, few of the world's flatlands are spared attention by walking-tour operators. Because not everyone walks to the beat of the same drummer (nor at the same pace), we've divided up these "pedestrian" packages into three major categories: trekking (usually longer journeys that involve walking in exotic locations), country walking (casual strolls over fairly easy terrain in quaint country settings), and hiking (for serious outdoor enthusiasts). Many of these groupings overlap, so please forgive us for generalizing. An introduction to traveling by foot Though only the barest handful of travel agents understand the term--and some misuse it horribly--international trekking has become a substantial travel activity for at least 20,000 Americans each year, and is currently marketed by upward of five major nationwide organizations. In oversimplified terms, trekking is walking--the healthiest sport on earth--but walking of a special nature, elevated to a high art and mental adventure. Unlike the hiking and backpacking pursued by individuals, trekking is an intricate, organized, group activity in which porters or pack animals carry your camping gear, cooking utensils, and food from one overnight campsite to another. Relieved of that weight, you're able to go where roads and paths aren't, through the most exotic of nations, over breathtaking terrain, but without performing feats of endurance or possessing mountaineering skills. Persons in their middle age are a familiar sight on treks, as are families and even seniors into their seventies. That's not to say that minimal vigor isn't required--it is. Yet hundreds of perfectly ordinary, normally sedentary (even chubby) Americans are today found in such unlikely locations as the historic, 18,000-foot-high base camp in Nepal used by intrepid climbers for the assault on Mount Everest. They get there by trekking--organized walking--without setting a single metal wedge into stone or tugging a single rope. I used the examples of Nepal and Peru advisedly. For reasons not entirely clear to me, almost all international treks are operated to mountain areas of the world: the Himalayas, the Andes, the Swiss Alps in particular. (While you don't go atop them, you walk along their easy lower slopes, usually at elevations of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.) Though it is theoretically possible to trek through lowland valleys supplied with roads, it is apparently felt inappropriate and uninspiring to do so. The mountain kingdom of Nepal, at the northern border of India, is the chief trekking destination, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all treks. The associated Indian states of Sikkim, and Ladakh, and portions of Bhutan, Pakistan, and Tibet, draw another 10% of all trekkers. Together these areas flank the full length of the most remarkable geographical feature on earth--the 1,500-mile-long chain of the Himalayas, the world's tallest mountains. It was Nepal, almost entirely covered by mountains, that set off the trend to trekking. A country with scarcely any roads at all, isolated from the outside world until the 1950s, its widely scattered mountainside villages harbor 35 different ethnic groups, whose ways of life have been scarcely touched by outside influences. The people of Nepal have a particular tradition of hospitality to strangers. As you trek the trails from village to village along the south slope of the Himalayas, you are invited to tea in small council chambers, sometimes to stay the night in the homes of villagers or in monasteries. With unlimited access to the world's greatest mountains, in this peaceful Shangri-La whose half-Hindu, half-Buddhist population coexists without conflict, your own near-spiritual reactions are almost too intimate to describe. You awake at 6:30 a.m., when a cup of steaming tea or coffee is thrust through the flaps of your tent by a member of the cooking staff. Accompanied by experienced Sherpa guides, you take to the trails, trekking seven to ten miles a day at your own pace. The trip starts and ends in the other-worldly capital of Kathmandu, reached by air via New Delhi or Bangkok. The Peruvian Andes, and that section of it known as the Cordillera Blanca, is next in popularity, accounting for perhaps 30% of all treks. From Lima you fly to Cuzco and there, your gear stowed atop a mountain burro, you embark on a five-day, 35-mile walk along the ancient Inca Trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu, passing awesome Incan ruins unseen by conventional tourists. Again from Lima, you go by car to Huaraz to embark on an eight-day trek through the heart of Peru's highest mountain area. In the Swiss Alps (a 10% share of the trekking industry), hut-to-hut trekking replaces the traditional variety, with vans bringing your food, clothing, and bedding to austere and unattended mountain lodges scattered among the mountain trails, a day's march from each other. The classic trip is of the Mont Blanc massif, on a trail dominated by the tallest of Europe's mountain peaks. Trips cost as little as $675 for nine nights (plus airfare to Switzerland), including lodging, some meals, and the services of a support vehicle that moves camp each day. Country walking tours (inn to inn while a van carries gear ahead) So much for mountainous treks that are high in terms of altitude and adventure. Next up are walking tours in environments that are less challenging, but just as rewarding in terms of cultural exchange and quaint scenery. REI Adventures, P.O. Box 1938, Sumner WA 98390 (phone 800/622-2236) offers year-round biking and hiking trips (as well as nearly every other outdoors sport you can imagine) all over the globe. Sample European adventures include "Czech Wonders" (ten days from $1,795) and "Ireland Coast to Coast Hike" (11 days from $2,199). In Asia, one can explore the "Treasures of China" (15 days from $2,595) or hike, bike, and raft in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal on the "Active Annapurna" tour (16 days from $2,599). Groups are generally limited to 16 participants. Accommodations vary according to destination and range from camping to bed and breakfasts or local inns and hotels. Most trips also include luggage transfer from place to place, as well as the majority of meals and necessary equipment. A lifetime membership to REI is $15--all members receive a special discount on trips (between $125 and $200). View the REI Web site for further information at reiadventures.com/. Journeys International, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, stresses the cross-cultural aspects of a walking vacation. It makes an intense effort to bring about meetings between walkers and the locals of each area. Even prior to departure, Journeys involves its travelers in cultural training for the trip, then delivers daily briefings en route and along the trail by speakers ranging from Buddhist monks and naturalists to ordinary villagers (through interpreters). Specialists to Asia, especially Nepal and Ladakh, since 1978, and highly regarded even by its competitors, Journeys also offers departures to Latin America, Asia, Antarctica, Europe, the Arctic and Africa. There are even a handful of departures arranged for specialty groups (women only, families, etc.). Rates charged are between $150 and $300 per day depending on destination, airfare not included. Contact Journeys International, 107 Aprill Dr., Ste. 3, Ann Arbor, MI 48103-1903 (phone 734/665-4407, Web: journeys-intl.com/, for a well-written, well-illustrated catalog. If biking, walking or hiking through Europe on your own sounds appealing, Randonnee Tours' "self-guided" trips might be the thing for you. Trips run year-round (May to October is the high season) primarily through France, but also to Italy, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada. Most walking trips average between $200 and $250 a night, and some as much as $300 per night. Each day, you follow a detailed itinerary that Randonnee has created specifically for you, based on your abilities and preferences. The only restriction is that you must arrive each night at a proscribed destination--usually a small hotel. On some walking tours, accommodations are inexpensive B&B's to keep prices down (such as a tour in France, which starts at only $126/day). Luggage is transported separately from place to place. The company is in its 13th year now and has built a loyal following with a generally older crowd of travelers. For more information, contact Randonee Tours, 100-62 Albert St., Winnipeg Manitoba R3B 1E9 (phone 800/465-6488 or 204/475-6939, or view the extensive Web site at randonneetours.com/.) Forum International Travel, of Pleasant Hill, California: In business for 38 years, it claims to be one of the oldest and largest of America's bicycle and hike operators. It achieves that status primarily through its strong ties with regional European bicycling and hiking outfits, offering about 30 different hiking trips between May and October. Like Randonnee (see above) most tours are independent and "self-guided" -- which means that you walk on your own, following a detailed, written itinerary that directs you to from inn to inn. Luggage is transported separately. In many instances, costs are as low as $80 to $120/day, including accommodations and breakfast. Tours in Europe and other parts of the globe are also offered with escorts in the standard group fashion, and tend to cost more. Contact Forum Travel International, 91 Gregory Lane, Suite 21, Pleasant Hill CA 94523 (phone 925/671-2900 or 800/252-4475, or visit the Web site foruminternational.com/ for more information. A Vermont-based company, Country Inns Along the Trail offers several unique bike, hike, and ski touring itineraries in this quaint yet rugged part of New England. Country Inns Along the Trail takes care of accommodations at lovely inns and B&B's in the Green Mountain State (with dinner and breakfast usually included), and maps out an detailed itinerary for you, based on your requests and endurance. It also provides some pickup and drop-off services if inns are spread too far apart for you. Prices vary depending on what kind of accommodations you select and the time of year, but expect to pay between $130 and $150 per person per night with two sharing a room. For more information, contact Country Inns Along the Trail at P.O. Box 59, Montgomery, VT 05470, phone: 800/838-3301 or 802/326-2072. Find more details on the Web at inntoinn.com/. California has a wonderfully long and varied coastline, and while you could drive along the crowded Pacific Coast Highway, nothing beats taking in the views and breathing in the salty air at a walker's pace. A non-profit group called Coastwalk arranges dozens of affordable walking tours throughout the state. You can trek along the beautiful sands of San Diego, the dramatic vistas of Big Sur, or the rugged coastlines in the north, all starting at only $50 a day for adults. Hikes vary widely in length and difficulty, and you sometimes have choices within each trip. On Coastwalk's eight-day "Lost Coast" trip in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties in northern California, for example, you can choose to join the group for the first four or the last four days, or walk along for the entirety of the trip. For all Coastwalk journeys, your gear will be transported ahead, and you'll only need to carry a daypack. In exchange for the baggage transport and bargain prices, you are expected to help out with some chores such as cleaning dishes and unpacking bags. Most trips involve camping and all trips include dinner. On some itineraries you'll stay at hotels, or eat at nice restaurants, in which case there is a surcharge on top of the regular fees. For more information, go to coastwalk.org. HF Holidays of England and Scotland (011-44-20-8905-9556) is another of our favorite budget-minded tour operators. While its rates are always reasonable (the most expensive tour is only £665, for 10 days in Greece) prices recede quite a bit in September and shrivel even further for October walks, although it is by no means too brisk at that time of year for an enjoyable tour. These prices don't include airfare. Web: hfholidays.co.uk/. As for other walking tours of Britain, a group known as the Rambler's Association, at 2nd Floor, Camelford House, 87-90 Albert Embankment, London UK SE1 7TW (phone 011-44-207-339-8500), London, publishes a magazine called The Rambler, (an electronic version can be seen on the Web site at ramblers.org.uk/) which describes walk opportunities and lists self-guided tours throughout the country. There are also forums for meeting up with people to walk with. Some avid walkers are upset about the commercialization of strolling through Britain, believing the activity should always be do-it-yourself in style, sans tour operators. Such is the belief of Richard Hayward, of Seattle, Washington, who teaches classes in the area about the joys of unorganized walking tours. The whole point of walking, in Hayward's view, is to meet people of the host country. It is especially easy, he says, to meet Britons, "for whom walking is a national pastime. They care about the countryside, and if they meet you in that setting, their old-world reserve melts away and you are one of them. Organized walking tours can be a waste of time and energy because you don't meet the people as readily." Hayward has written several books about walking all over the UK. Backroads, 801 Cedar St., Berkeley CA 94710-1800 (phone 800/GO- ACTIVE or view the Web site at backroads.com)%20recently/ joined forces with British Coastal Trails. Backroads is better known as a bicycling operator, but it will also take you walking throughout the U.S. and to over 40 destinations on five continents, on tours that range from the walk-and-camp variety (which still tend to be rather expensive--over $225/night) to those using elegant inns for hikers' overnights (which are no doubt expensive--approximately $500/night). Among the least expensive walking vacations are Backroads' camping itineraries in places such as the Canadian Rockies, Utah's Bryce Canyon, Washington's San Juan Islands, and the Canadian Rockies. The luxury-loving Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond Street, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B IX3 (phone 800/678-1147) is another outfit known primarily as a deluxe bike operator, but one that has its share of walking tours too. Walking tours are offered in Europe's most chic areas (as well as in a few spots in North America, Asia, and Africa). Butterfield only uses top-quality lodgings and charges its traditionally high prices ($5,995 per person for seven days strolling the vineyards and hilltowns of Tuscany, is typical). Also online at butterfield.com/. Hiking holidaysSierra Club, the non-profit lobbying group with 750,000 members, is more than a mighty arm of the environmentalist movement. It's also an inexpensive tour operator with wilderness based adventures throughout the U.S and abroad. While the majority of its overnight hiking trips are in California and other areas of the West Coast, it offers a handful of options east of the Mississippi. Tennessee is home to swelteringly hot summers, but mid-September is a lovely time to get outside and hike around the Volunteer State. In 2002, Sierra Club had a five-day hiking trip in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area in remote northern Tennessee just after Labor Day. The trip costs $475 per person, and all food and cooking supplies are provided. You'll need to bring a tent or arrange to share one on most of Sierra Club's hiking vacations. Trip offerings vary from year to year, but a typical U.S. weeklong backpacking trip costs between $500 and $700, including all meals. The group hikes a manageable 25 miles total amidst beautiful gorges, rolling hills, and rushing creeks. To find out more about Sierra Club, visit sierraclub.com/, or call the Outing Department at 415/977-5522. Despite its name, Knapsack Tours says that backpacks are never needed on its 10 to 12 tours each year, with destinations such as Switzerland, Yosemite National Park, the Canadian Rockies, Montana, Washington State, and France, Italy and New Zealand. Either vans carry your luggage or you keep all your belongings at a base camp or other lodgings and head off on foot each day. Daily hikes are three to six hours long, and there are usually a few options to choose from (moderate to strenuous). Prices are kept down by the use of modest lodgings (tents, dorm-style, mountain huts, or simple hotels) appropriate (in our opinion) to the unpretentious nature of the activity. Occasionally singles can share rooms; if not, there is a $100 singles supplement. A five-day package with daily hiking in Yosemite led by naturalist guides, three meals a day, and a mix of dorm and camp accommodations (real toilets and hot showers every night) starts at $575/person. Five-day trips in Washington's Olympic or Montana's Glacier National Park, both of which include cabin or bunkhouse accommodations (no camping or tents to worry about), begin at $780. Find out more by contacting Knapsack Tours, 2586 Chinook Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94598 (phone 925/944-9435 or fax 925/472-0536, e-mail KThiking@aol.com, or check out the Web site knapsacktours.com/ ). Active Journeys is a good outfit for tours that combine kayaking and rafting with hiking throughout Europe, and a few spots in the Caribbean, Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa and Australia. While all of these tours are "active," by no means do you need to be a mountaineer or world-class athlete to participate; each trip offers a variety of activities for persons at different levels of fitness. This is not a company aimed at the budget traveler, but many of its more active vacations average out to just $130-150 night. Some of its self-guided hiking tours seem to be especially good values. An eight-day hike in the lovely Cinque Terre region of Italy starts at $990, including standard tourist hotels, breakfasts, maps, and luggage transfers. A 15-night coast-to-coast hike in England (from St. Bees Head, on the Irish Sea, to Robin Hoods Bay in North Yorkshire) costs $1,525 with accommodations, maps, and luggage transfers. There are also hiking vacations offered in Argentina's Patagonia region, several spots in Canada including the Rockies and the eastern provinces, Australia and New Zealand, Mexico, Kenya, and all over Europe. Some itineraries should only be attempted by serious hikers, while others can be managed by casual walkers, so be sure to find out ahead of time what kind of a vacation you are signing up for. Find out more at the Active Journeys Web site (activejourneys.com/, by e-mailing info@activejourneys.com, or calling 800/597-5594. The major trekking specialists Wilderness Travel, of Berkeley, California, offers treks to favorite destinations like Nepal and the Alps, but also emphasizes treks to Europe, Africa (Mt. Kilamanjaro and the Serengeti is always a favorite) and South America (Macchu Pichu and the Inca Trail), to which a tenth of its passengers go. Both the founders of Wilderness Travel have spent considerable time in Peru and the Patagonian region of Argentina and Chile; fittingly, four of the company's expeditions in the region (each one lasting more than two weeks) are among its most popular programs. Impressive, too, are the expertise and experience of Wilderness's tour leaders, many with Peace Corps backgrounds or graduate degrees. (In a recent communication to us, they've noted that their clientele has gotten older over the years, and that, consequently, they've improved the amenities of their treks.) Prices average out to cost between $175 and $350 per night. For interesting literature, contact Wilderness Travel, 1102 Ninth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710-1211 (phone 510/558-2488 or toll free 800/368-2794 outside California. Or view the Web site at wildernesstravel.com/. Mountain Travel Sobek of Emeryville, California, is one of the largest and oldest of the companies, operating an extraordinary variety of treks on six continents. Called "deluxe" by its competitors, its rates--in my reading of them--are only slightly above the industry level: an average of $115 a day on camping-based trips in Nepal, from $150 to $300 a day in most other mountain regions (plus airfare, of course). (Prices are on the high side if you are on a trip with most nights in hotels or inns.) Those other areas include Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Switzerland, Scotland, France, Patagonia, and Tibet. Like all trekking companies, Mountain Travel Sobek provides the tents, foam sleeping pads, and cooking gear when necessary; you provide the sleeping bag. For the free, four-color 150-page Mountain Travel catalog, contact Mountain Travel-Sobek, 1266 66th St., Emeryville CA 94608 (phone toll free 888/MTSOBEK. Or view the Web site at mtsobek.com/.) Himalayan Treasures & Travel, of Pinole, CA, features treks led by Peter Owens, a former chemistry professor who since 1976 has conducted over 100 trips a year. Owens' treks exact extraordinary environmental care and set aside profits to subsidizing solar lighting systems for impoverished Nepalis. Prices vary widely among different tours and destinations: full service trips average $80 to $90 a night, while the more basic lodge to lodge trips are around $40 a night Prices are based on the size of the group--more personal tours for one or two people are $140 to $150 a night for full service, and $100 a night lodge to lodge. There are seven itineraries in Nepal (such as the seven-night "Nepal Sampler" starting at $810), as well as a sprinkling of tours throughout Asia, including Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam. Accommodations tend to be simple guest houses and basic hotels to keep prices low. Owens is very popular and his trips tend to sell out as much as a year in advance. Contact Himalayan Treasures & Travel, 3596 Ponderosa Trail, Pinole, CA, 94564, phone 800/223-1813 or 510/222-5307. You can also look up information on the Web at himalayantrekking.com/ or send an e-mail to govindsh@himtrek.com. Peregine, an adventurous Aussie-based outfit, offers 24 different trekking itineraries in the Himalayan region, and five non-trekking trips. Most tours last more than ten days, and combine serious outdoor adventures (rafting, safaris, mountaineering) with up-close cultural experiences (interaction with the locals is a priority). To keep costs down (usually around $100/night), accommodations tend to be simple guesthouses or camping. Tours are usually kept small -- 12 or under is the norm. A typical tour is the "Annapurna Circuit," a 22-day round-trip adventure out of Kathmandu that rambles along a trail through Tibetan villages, and zigzags up into the Annapurna range. The tour costs $2,130, and includes transfers from the Kathmandu airport, as well as all your meals, entrance fees, accommodations, porters, medical equipment, sleeping bags, tents, and guides along the trek. Several tours in Southeast Asia, China, Africa, Antartica, the Artic, Europe, South America, and Australia that involve transportation by local buses and trains as well as some traditional trekking on foot, are also offered by Peregrine and its partner company, Geckos. Prices are usually among the best around. For more information, visit the Peregine Web site at peregrine.net.au/. Above the Clouds Trekking, of Hinesburg, Vermont, is still another small company whose strong suit is the Himalayas, with a sprinkling of other tours in Europe (mainly in the mountainous regions of France, Italy, and Switzerland) and in the Patagonia region of South America. "Everest from Goyko," using the less-traveled route there, involves 27 days of strenuous trekking (out of 30) and is among the company's most innovative $110-a-day offerings. Costs in Europe average $200 per day, Patagonia $300 a day. Above the Clouds stresses cross-cultural lessons, and designs its treks to maximize contacts with local residents. For brochures, contact Above the Clouds Trekking, P.O. Box 388, Hinesburg, VT 05461. Phone 802/482-4848 . Or view the Web site, aboveclouds.com/. Worldwide Adventures, of Toronto, is a leading Canadian trekking company, attracting more and more participants from the U.S. Treks average US$150 a day, although some cost upwards of $200/day. Destinations include Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, Tibet, the Andes, and Africa. A handful of tours are arranged for special groups, including ones in Nepal, India and South America for travelers over the age of 50. You'll be impressed, I think, by its innovative approach set forth in a 80-page catalog, obtained from: Worldwide Adventures, 1170 Sheppard Avenue West, Suite 45, Toronto, Ontario M3K 2A3 (phone 416/633-5666 or 800/387-1483. Or view the Web site at 1000adventures.com/. And for a trekking company owned and operated by Nepalese themselves (perhaps the most socially responsible way to trek), you'll want to consider booking with AmaDablam Adventures of Kathmandu. The company specializes in ferreting out the lesser-known and uncrowded routes. Prices in Nepal average between $60 and $80 per person per day on many itineraries. For more information and a brochure, contact the company's U.S. representative, Adventure Center, 1311 63rd Street, Suite 200, Emeryville, CA 94608 (phone 510/654-1879 or 800/228-8747, or view the Web site at adventurecenter.com/). Amadablam is one of the most prominent of the local companies. But it's simple to find even the smallest operators by simply viewing the Nepal Visitors Web site at visitnepal.com/. Most tour companies listed on the site are based in Kathmandu, and many are contracted by the companies above to guide their tours (hence, you can save a bundle sometimes by booking direct) Other recommended local operators include Snow Leopard Trek (phone 011-975-232-1821, snowleopardtreks.com/), Sherpa Shangri-La (Web page shangrilatrek.com/), and Eco Trek (phone 011-977-23-2074-424113, Web: ecotreknepal.net/). Explore Nepal also arranges treks for altruists willing to clean up rubbish along the trails; these usually depart in May and October or November and can cost as little as $2/day (Web page xplorenepal.com/) Of course, it's often possible to wait until arrival in Kathmandu to book with these (or countless other) agencies; there is usually last-minute availability, and you can shop around. Finally, here's the exception that proves the rule: not all challenging treks are in Nepal or Peru. For a change of pace: Ibex, a company that specializes in Swiss trekking. Self-guided tours run from mid-June to mid-October; guided tours in the higher altitudes run from July to September. Treks run five to 14 nigths. Trekkers stay in family-style hotels, guesthouses and dormitory-style "mountain huts." Be advised: the company requests that you pack lightly, as transportation for luggage is difficult in the rugged, mountainous region. Those who must have a suitcase can arrange to have it sent ahead earlier to the final destination. One of the least expensive Ibex treks is the the Bernese Oberland self-guided tour, a seven-night tour for as low as $749, with four nights in double occupancy inns and three nights in dorm facilities. Participants trek during the day, and at nighttime, bunk down after a hearty dinner. On guided tours, groups average eight participants with two tour leaders--a maximum of 14 are permitted on most tours. Contact the company at 505/579-4671, or visit the Web site at ibextreks.com/. Trekking without a tour company It should be noted that when it comes to trekking, booking with a specialist or agency is not always the cheapest way to go. The truth is you don't need to have a guide (most trails are obvious and maps are easy to come by), porter (pack light or leave belongings in your Kathmandu hotel for a very small charge), or even equipment (you can rent gear in Kathmandu for about $10). If you fly independently into Kathmandu, stay in the backpacker's neighborhood known as Thamel, where meeting fellow solo travelers is easier than tripping over a rickshaw. Use the well-trafficked bulletin boards outside the Kathmandu Guest House and inside Pumpernickel's bakery to hook up with trekking partners. Once you've got your partner(s) and you've chosen your trekking route, head across town to the permit office (any driver will know the way), where you must register your trip with the government for $10 to $90, depending on the trek and its duration. After that, a ticket on a local bus ($1 to $4) is all you need to reach the trailhead. Teahouses and inns line every major trekking route, so you won't go more than a few hours without passing a cheap place to eat or sleep. Prices increase the farther you walk, but usually range between $2 and $8 for a night's lodging and $1 to $6 for a meal. That means you can conduct your own trek for daily costs of as little as $6. Be aware, however, that if you are trekking in the high visitor season of October and November, popular trails may be backed up with hikers for miles, and inn vacancies may be hard to come by. Trekking! Is this not the ultimate trip, the answer to the vapid vacation, the plastic "package," the madding throng? "When you have to walk six days to a village," a trekker once told us, "you can be pretty sure it is unspoiled by tourism."

Inspiration

The Civil War in Under a Week

Onward came the Confederates, an experienced and disciplined army of 12,000 soldiers striding my way across an open field. Flags flying, their battle line stretched for a mile in perfect alignment. I could see their determined faces - would they detect my trembling fear? - as I stood on Cemetery Ridge. A foot soldier, I was part of a strong Union force that had taken a defensive position on high, rocky ground just outside the little Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg. It was July 3, 1863, a momentous day. History books would call it the turning point of the Civil War. No, of course I wasn't really there that day. But I could easily imagine I waited - steadfast but frightened - to thwart the famous attack that became known as Pickett's Charge. Again and again, the Civil War comes vividly alive like this as I walk over the very ground where great battles were fought. I can see the fields, woods, ridges, and gullies that determined how generals plotted their strategies. And I begin to understand the challenge facing the troops ordered to carry them out. How would I have fared? It's a question surely every Gettysburg visitor must ponder, as I have. You, too, can step back into the past on a budget-priced drive into the heart of the Civil War. It will give you intimate glimpses into the life (and, so very often, the death) of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the tragic four-year conflict between North and South. Amidst the horrible carnage, incredible tales of courage on both sides stir the soul. Our nation was shaped by the Civil War, and its ramifications are still with us. I grew up never having to fight in a war. Our national Civil War battlefields, the only ones I know, help me better appreciate the sacrifices of those who did. A Civil War buff, I've plotted a practical, six-day, 600-mile auto tour from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg and five other nearby battlefield parks, where many of the bloodiest and most crucial clashes were waged. On this four-state drive, you will eat and sleep cheaply and well - and see the greatest number of sites (small entrance fees) in the fewest miles (to keep gas costs down). If time is short, spend a day at one or two of the parks. Each is a good introduction to the war. Why Washington, D.C.? Except for Appomattox (last stop on the drive), the parks are all less than 120 miles away. And, as important, two of the city's trio of airports - Washington-Dulles and Baltimore-Washington - are served by low-cost airlines. The drive takes you through lovely pastoral countryside only little changed since the nineteenth century. Count on stopping at one of Virginia's many wineries to sample (free) a fine vintage. In summer, go for a swim (small fee) at a state park lake. And stroll the inviting old streets (no charge) of each of the towns in which you'll stay. You will need a car. Among nationally known rental companies, Rent-A-Wreck (202/408-9828) often offers the lowest rates locally at $175 a week. But free mileage is limited to 100 miles a day, and you'll have to take an airport bus ($16) into the city. In summer, when business travel is slack, look for a better bargain at a major rental agency with airport pickup. For an August rental this year, Budget (800/572-0700) quoted an economy car rate at Baltimore-Washington airport of just $188 a week with unlimited mileage. The very dramatic prelude Let me set the scene before I send you on your way: Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Confederate capital, is located just 100 miles south of Washington, D.C., the Northern capital. The proximity of the two enemy cities turned the landscape between them blood red in a series of horrendous battles marked by courageous charges and catastrophic blunders. The North's basic strategy was to capture Richmond and end the war. The South, realizing its military strength was limited, sought to punch and poke at the North - holding on until the Union wearied of the fighting and granted the Confederacy independence. The story unfolds chapter by chapter at the battlefield parks. (The per-night lodging rates I cite below are for two adults in summer high season. Fall and spring are cheaper, and in winter, prices at many motels drop to as low as $30 to $35. Children usually stay free.) Day 1: Gettysburg National Military Park If you can visit only one Civil War site on this trip, make it Gettysburg National Military Park (717/334-1124) in Pennsylvania. Before Gettysburg, the South seemed headed for victory; after the battle, a terrible loss for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy was doomed - although the war staggered on for two more years. In exhibits here, you get a good overview of the war. Stand in the well-marked Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, as I did, and look across the slender valley of green fields and pastures below to Seminary Ridge, which sheltered Lee's troops. For three sun-baked days, the opposing armies watched each other from these rocky perches separated only by a mile. Today, on the two ridge tops, imposing equestrian statues of the commanders - Gen. George Meade for the North and Lee for the South - still maintain a vigil across the valley in easy view of each other. On this site, where Pickett's troops marched to disaster, you can sense the terror the poor foot soldiers must have experienced as their world exploded around them. That they fought so valiantly makes me wonder at the sometimes incredible strength of the human spirit. Admission to the park is free. But to understand the battle, catch the 30-minute electric map presentation (adults, $3) in the visitor center. The map recreates the battlefield landscape and its significant landmarks in miniature, and colored lights mark the movement of the armies. Also in the visitor center is the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War (free), where room after room details a soldier's hard, dangerous life. At this point, consider yourself ready to take the park's 18-mile auto tour (free), which follows the path of the three-day battle chronologically. To see it as the soldiers did, walk at least partway. Catch a free ranger-led talk or living-history encampment here at Gettysburg or at the other parks (schedules at www.civil wartraveler.com). And relax and swim at Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park, Thurmont, Maryland, about 20 minutes south ($3). Getting thereI-70 from Baltimore or I-270 from Washington north to U.S. Route 15 north, about 80 miles. Where to stayGettysburg offers a choice of reasonably priced motels and cafes - although they're a bit more expensive here than elsewhere on this drive. Within a five-minute walk of the visitor center, the 30-room Three Crowns Motor Lodge (800/729-6564), $50 weekdays/$65 weekends, tempts with a large swimming pool. Nearby are the 25-room Colton Motel (800/262-0317), $50 weekdays/$60 weekends, also with a pool, and the 40-room Home Sweet Home Motel (717/334-3916), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends. A mile from the park, the 25-room Perfect Rest Motel (800/336-1345), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends, with pool and morning coffee, enjoys a quiet country setting. Where to eatA few steps from the in-town motels, Gettysburg Eddie's is a Victorian-style charmer. It looks fancy, but prices are right. An entree of grilled chicken breast, lightly seasoned with lemon pepper and served with a salad and wild rice, is $9.95. Take $2 off all dinners Monday through Thursday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Up the street, General Pickett's Buffet Restaurant charges $9.95 for a full dinner, which includes an entree (meat loaf, for example), a large salad bar, and a sinfully tempting dessert bar. Day 2: Antietam National Battlefield Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Today, Antietam National Battlefield (301/432-5124, $2 per person) in little Sharpsburg, Maryland, is the prettiest of the Civil War parks. Beneath a wooded hillside, Burnside Bridge, a stone arch, leaps Antietam Creek so gracefully it has starred in countless tourist snaps. Yet ironically, it is here that the horror of the war seems most evident. On a single day, September 17, 1862-the bloodiest of the war - 23,000 men were killed or wounded, partly because of the blunders of their commanders. Attempting to invade the North, Lee was halted at Antietam. Union troops failed to pursue Lee's army, and he would march north again a year later at Gettysburg. At the visitor center, watch the movie; tour the museum, which puts a human face on the battle, and then take the nine-mile auto tour of the battle sites. To stretch your legs, hike the Snavely Ford Trail, a 2.5-mile wooded path along Antietam Creek where Union troops outflanked their enemy. Afterwards, head for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (304/535-6223, $5 per car) in West Virginia. Strategically located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the little mountain town - a munitions manufacturer at the war's outset - switched hands time and again. Earlier in 1859, abolitionist John Brown was captured in Harpers Ferry after he seized the federal arsenal in a move to arm slaves. Many of the town's original buildings are preserved as part of the park, and they have been turned into small museums telling the story of Brown and the war. In warm weather, rafters tackling the Shenandoah rapids splash past in laughing groups. Getting thereTo reach Antietam, about 50 miles distant, retrace your route south on U.S. 15 to Frederick, Maryland, home of the fascinatingly gruesome National Museum of Civil War Medicine (adults, $6.50). Pick up U.S. 40 Alternate West to Maryland 34 south. Pack a picnic lunch, because food options are limited. To continue on to Harpers Ferry, follow back roads south along the Potomac River, about 15 miles. Where to stayFor the cheapest lodgings on the drive ($16 per person), check into Harpers Ferry Hostel (301/834-7652), a 39-bed Hostelling International-American Youth Hostel property in Knoxville, Maryland, a few miles from the park. (I sit on the board of directors that manages the hostel.) The rambling frame house perches near a ledge overlooking the Potomac. Hike the Appalachian Trail alongside the river into Harpers Ferry. Up the road in a scenic country setting is the 23-room Hillside Motel (301/834-8144), $50 daily. For a city setting, double back to Frederick to the 72-room Red Horse Motor Inn (301/662-0281), $67 daily. Where to eatAcross from the Hillside Motel, Cindy Dee's Restaurant is a friendly family eatery where a plate of liver and onions, mashed potatoes, and corn goes for $6. In Frederick, the Red Lobster ($9.99 for Santa Fe chicken) is near the Red Horse Motor Inn (above). Day 3: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Midway between Washington and Richmond, the old colonial river port of Fredericksburg, Virginia, earned the dubious nickname of "battlefield city." Four major battles were fought here - two (Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863) in which Lee was triumphant and the final two (the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, in May 1864) in which he was forced to withdraw south when hard-charging Gen. Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered to outflank him. All four battles are commemorated at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (540/373-6122, $3 per person), and the park distributes a free auto tour map. On the route is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the famed Confederate leader died of wounds accidentally inflicted by his own men at Chancellorsville. The most unsettling of the park's sites is the still partially standing stone wall behind which Lee's troops sheltered during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union troops, charging the high ground, were slaughtered in masses. Getting thereU.S. 340 south to U.S. 17 south, 110 miles. The route passes through the heart of Virginia's wine country. Outside Fredericksburg, catch the beach at Lake Anna State Park (adults, $6). Where to stayYou'll find a cluster of well-priced motels at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), $48 weekdays/$62 weekends, with pool and continental breakfast; the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), $50 weekdays/$55 weekends; or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443), $38 weekdays/$49 weekends. Where to eatNear the motels, the cheery-looking Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features menus in the "down-home Southern tradition." With buttermilk biscuits, "Pam's Fish 'n Chips" is $8.99. Day 4: Petersburg National Battlefield In June 1864, Grant trapped Lee's forces in Petersburg, Virginia, but for nine-and-a-half harrowing months, Lee held out. Partially encircling the old city, the Petersburg National Battlefield (804/732-3531, $5 per person) preserves Northern and Southern earthworks and the Crater, a massive hole created by a blast set off from a tunnel beneath Confederate lines. A four-mile auto tour leads to the Crater. The civilian side of the story - the lives of the 18,000 residents who endured hunger and cannon bombardment - is found in the Siege Museum ($3) in the historic district. They kept up their spirits at "starvation balls" - lots of dancing but no food. Getting thereI-95 south to Route 36 east, about 85 miles. Where to staySeveral budget motels are located at the intersection of I-295 and U.S. 460, about a mile from the park's entrance. They include the 120-room American Inn (804/733-2800), $45 daily, with pool; the 48-room Budget Motor Inn (804/732-1646), $40 daily; and the 32-room California Inn (804/732-5500), $40 weekdays/$46 weekends. Where to eatAll the motels recommend Roma's Italian Restaurant just up the highway. The place bustles, and the aromas are rich. Spaghetti with mushrooms is $4.50, or go for the veal cutlet parmigiana with a salad ($8.50). Day 5: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park The other Civil War battle sites commemorate the violent clash of armies. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (804/352-8987, $4 per car) in Virginia is a place of peace, a memorial to the dignity, honor, and generosity of the combatants in the final days of conflict. Here on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his tattered army to Grant. He had broken free from Petersburg and was attempting to escape into the Carolinas. At this tiny village, Grant blocked his way. Today the restored village looks much as it must have at the surrender. A tavern, the general store, the courthouse, and the jail are clustered atop a grass-covered hill ringed by acres of rolling farmland. In the McLean House - the finest home in the village - Grant and Lee met in the parlor to sign the surrender. A formal ceremony, the stacking of arms, took place three days later. The Confederates filed uphill between Union ranks to lay down their arms for the last time. No jeers assaulted them; the victors stood silently in respect. As Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who was there, later wrote: "On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead." Getting thereHead west on U.S. 460, about 90 miles. Or take "Lee's Retreat," a historical route with signposts pointing the way on country roads that follow Lee's flight more closely. Phone 800/6-RETREAT for a detailed map. Stop for a swim at Holliday Lake State Park (admission $1 per car, swimming $3 per adult). Where to stayTwo fine motels are located about a mile from the park in contemporary Appomattox: the 20-room Budget Inn (804/352-7451), $45 daily, and the 45-room Super 8 (804/352-2339), $50 weekdays/$56 weekends with breakfast pastry, juice, and coffee. Where to eatClose to both motels, the Homeland Cafeteria can't be beat for its prices. A full dinner - fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables, salad, rolls, and dessert - costs just $5.99, $5.49 before 4 p.m. Day 6: Closing the loop Return to Washington via U.S. 29 and I-66 north. Remember, on this drive you've seen only the highlights of the Civil War. More battlefields, monuments, and museums await another visit.

ADVERTISEMENT