On the American Trail

It's been a few years since the creation of the USA's National Millennium Trail system, and if you haven't taken advantage of these trails yet, they offer an attractive combination of being able to "get away from it all," while still staying fairly close to home. There's a good deal to offer both natives and visitors, though, and anyone interested in learning more about this outdoor commemorative collection would be well advised to begin their investigations at On The American Trail.

Hosted by Altrec.com (an outdoor recreation retailer), On The American Trail is a Flash-based introduction to the 16 National Millennium Trails, which were designated in June 1999. While much of the trail system is geared to the seeker of the great outdoors (the Appalachian Trail, which covers 2,160 miles from Maine to Georgia, is the longest footpath in the world), cultural and historic elements along each route mean that many points of interest are also accessible by car, and in at least one case, by subway.

The main page of American Trail offers a map and three methods of choosing a route to explore: Numerically (for the orderly mind), by name, or by geographical location. Mouseover a particular trail and you'll receive responses in all three indices – the name and number listings will be highlighted, and all the states that the chosen trail passes through will be indicated on the map. Click on a trail, and the site will offer a line or two of introduction and an invitation to explore further.

The names of some trail, such as the Appalachian and Iditarod, will be familiar to even the most avidly armchair of armchair explorers. Others follow a historical theme (Civil War, Lewis and Clark, the Underground Railroad), but the most surprising trail in the collection is also, without doubt, the most heavily traveled. While there may be a distinct lack of trees, wildlife, and wide open spaces, the seeker of America's cultural history can do no better than the International Express trail, which follows the Number 7 train on its seven-mile route from Flushing, N.Y., to Times Square while passing through the nation's most ethnically diverse county.

Choose a route, and the site will load an introductory essay, complemented by a map, a list of Activities and Interests, suggested Gear (linking to Altrec's online store), and an unfortunately small collection of four photographs per trail. (It should be noted that the gear lists are generic as to activity, rather than specific inventories for each trail. At least I don't think the site seriously recommends packing a compass, headlamp, and especially, fire starting supplies, before exploring the cultural diversity of Queens, N.Y.)

Since American Trail largely serves to whet the appetite for further exploration, Resources provides additional links specific to individual trails, as well as general links and suggested reading. In addition, a Personal Trail Finder allows visitors to search the National Millennium, and the 51 Millennium Legacy, Trails for a match to such user-selected variables as location, activities, and available services. (As part of the strange and oxymoronic world of web standards, the Personal Trail Finder exhibits the odd behavior on my Mac of loading normally in Internet Explorer, but loading and then immediately replacing itself with a "Not Found" page in Netscape. If you encounter this roadblock, and don't have Explorer installed, you can find further information through the offsite Millennium Trails link, at the bottom of the browser window.)

There is also an HTML version of the site available. Apart from a brief animated intro for the Flash version, and some cosmetic interactivity, the two alternatives are impressively similar. Even with a high-speed connection, there are some advantages to the HTML version. The HTML pages scroll their text more smoothly, and the "Return to main page" link actually returns you to the main page. (On the Flash version, "Return to Main" momentarily reveals the main page, but then reloads the Flash splash page – requiring visitors to reload and restart explorations from scratch every time they are finished with a trail.)

Apart from a popup advertisement when the site is first loaded, Altrec's commercial interests are never an intrusive element of the site (though they stand ready at a moment's notice). And while there are URLs offering more detail after a specific track is chosen, the Altrec site is as good as it gets for an introduction to the entire trail system.

On The American Trail can be found at http://www.altrec.com/features/ontheamericantrail/.

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