10 great places to find true Americana

In an increasingly techno-world, there are still places and events that remain rooted in the heart and soul of the American past. Author Gary McKechnie searched for such Americana for the recent National Geographic book USA 101: A Guide to America's Iconic Places, Events and Festivals. He shares favorites with Larry Olmsted for USA TODAY.

Little League World SeriesWilliamsport, Pa. "Of all the things I've seen in America, few are as wonderful as the Little League World Series," says McKechnie, who compares the ballpark in Williamsport, headquarters of the Little League since the organization's founding in 1939, to the baseball classic Field of Dreams. The 63rd tournament starts today and runs through Aug. 30. Like all Little League games everywhere, it's free, so bring a blanket and find a spot on the grass. 570-326-1921, littleleague.org

Mark Twain's AmericaHannibal, Mo. With its carefully preserved small-town living, the author's birthplace bills itself as America's Hometown, and McKechnie agrees. "Mark Twain created the American dream of childhood, whitewashed fences, exploring caves, swimming holes, the benchmark for the next 150 years." In Hannibal everything Twain is celebrated, from the author's boyhood home (now a museum) to the famous fictional fence, riverboat cruises, guided cave tours, theater groups, horse-drawn tours, and Twain and Tom Sawyer impersonators. 866-263-4825, visithannibal.com

All-American Soap Box DerbyAkron, Ohio Soap box derbies peaked in popularity in the 1950s, yet kids from around the world still make their way to Akron each summer for the sport's main event. "It is absolutely one of my top favorites, bar none," McKechnie says. "You think it is just kids rolling down a hill, but it is so much more, so nostalgic. Jimmy Stewart postponed his honeymoon to attend, Ronald Reagan went, Indy 500 drivers go." The annual week-long event is held in late July and includes parties, parades and races on Derby Downs, a 954-foot track. 330-733-8723, aasbd.com

Miss America PageantLas Vegas Beauty contests are an American staple, but this is the Super Bowl. McKechnie says the event has enjoyed a renaissance of popularity since moving from Atlantic City six years ago. There are three days of preliminaries before the finals in the pageant (the next one is Jan. 26-30), and tickets are sold for each round. "One night they do talent, one night evening gowns and so on, so it is pretty easy to buy tickets. Whatever they choose to do for the talent show they do very well, so the quality of the performance is as good as any show on the Vegas Strip." Tickets go on sale in December. 609-653-8700, missamerica.org

Indianapolis 500Indianapolis It is the Mother of all Races, but many do not realize that the Indy 500, held the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, is the culmination of the three-week 500 Festival, including the world's largest half-marathon — run on the famous oval. Though NASCAR has surpassed open-wheel racing's popularity, "from a standpoint of pure Americana, the Indy 500 is well in the lead," McKechnie says. "It's like a small-town celebration — and the largest single-day sporting event in the world." Four hundred thousand fans have attended, yet unlike other top sports events, tickets are readily available and affordable. 800-822-4639, indianapolismotorspeedway.com

Rock CityLookout Mountain, Ga. Since the Great Depression, more than 900 barn roofs across the Southeastern states have been painted with the cryptic words "See Rock City," and thousands of visitors do just that. What do they find? McKechnie says Rock City is "America's minimalist theme park. Kitschy, cool and an American original, there are no fireworks, no thrill rides, no stage extravaganzas." The namesake feature is a natural "cityscape" of streets and avenues through the boulders, with rock and swinging bridges and a waterfall. Other highlights are extensive gardens and an overlook from which you can see seven states. It is also one of the nation's only such attractions that welcomes pets. 800-854-0675,seerockcity.com

Tournament of RosesPasadena, Calif. In 1890, the Tournament of Roses included the now-famous Rose Parade and sports such as ostrich racing and bronco busting — football was not added until 12 years later. Today there are more than two dozen bowl games, but only the Rose Bowl is synonymous with New Year's Day. "This one has all the tradition. After Macy's Thanksgiving, it's the country's most famous parade," McKechnie says. "The Granddaddy of Them All" is also the oldest bowl game, the first broadcast on radio, and the first on TV. For the parade, grandstand tickets are sold in advance, sidewalks are free, and the event commences at 8 a.m. on New Year's Day, followed by the game at 2:10. 626-449-4100, tournamentofroses.com

Groundhog DayPunxsutawney, Pa. "You won't find a town its size in America that is as famous for something," McKechnie says. That "something" is Punxsutawney Phil, the weather-predicting groundhog. Groundhog Day is always Feb. 2, but first comes Groundhog Day Eve, similar to a county fair, except in frigid temperatures. Then there is The Banquet, the town's social event of the year, held in a high school cafeteria. "You get hundreds of people in tuxedos and ballgowns. It's the best $25 I ever spent." At midnight, the community center screens the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day. Beginning at 3 a.m., visitors — 40,000 of them — are bused to the top of Gobbler's Knob, where Phil makes his appearance at sunrise. 800-752-7445, punxsutawney.com

Albuquerque International Balloon FiestaAlbuquerque For nine days each October (Oct. 3-11 this year) the skies above Albuquerque are filled with balloons partaking in rides, races and competitions in the largest event of its kind. The days start before dawn, and most wind down with fireworks. "It's not just something you watch; you can also participate," McKechnie says. "You get a lot of international pilots who come without a ground or chase crew, and you can register as a volunteer, work a few days, and get a flight thrown in." Paid flights are offered, tethered and non-tethered alike. 888-422-7277, balloonfiesta.com

Grand Ole OpryNashville The Mount Everest of country music, this is where virtually every star in the history of the genre has performed. It remains home to the nation's longest-running radio show and offers live ensemble performances several nights a week. "Every show, the talent is incredible. It's like if every basketball game you went to was the All-Star Game," McKechnie says. The Opry Complex includes the Grand Ole Opry House, Acuff Theater, Opry Museum and Opry Plaza. The Opry's original home, the downtown Ryman Auditorium, is still used for smaller concerts. 615-871-6779, opry.com