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Upstate NY native starring in new PBS travel show about hidden gems, history



Sophia Michelen has a passport that would make anyone with wanderlust wildly envious.

The Upstate New York native and photojournalist has visited over 70 countries and has lived on three different continents. But aside from a few favored haunts in the Empire State where she grew up, Michelen said she never extensively explored the United States.

Now, that’s changing in a big, public way.

Michelen is co-starring in a new PBS show that explores hidden corners of the United States captured in “Picturesque America” — a 19th-century travelogue considered one of the nation’s first travel guides. The book is filled with beautiful engravings and tales of magical places across Reconstruction-era America.

In the PBS show — called “America: The Land We Live in” — Michelen and Scott “Doc” Varn, her co-host, visit spots featured in the 150-year-old book. They try to stand in the exact spots where the engravings were made and see how each location has changed.

“It’s kind of bridging the past to the present. That’s the hook,” Michelen said. “But what I love the most is the people we meet.”

Viewers can watch “America: The Land We Live in” on, the PBS App or local PBS stations. The show airs on PBS stations across New York on Sunday, April 28.

The first episode of the “travel, adventure, history show” takes place in North Carolina and South Carolina, where Michelen and Varn explore cities and head out into the mountains to hike, raft and talk their way to the hidden places captured in the century-and-a-half-old travel guide.

But the experience that sparked the series happened two years ago in the Catskills.

Sophia Michelen, left, and Scott “Doc” Varn, right, hold up a page of “Picturesque America” — a 150-year-old travel guide — that features the exact spot they were posing at in April 2022 near Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills. The hike inspired the new PBS travel show “America: The Land We Live In”. Photo courtesy of World Life ProductionsPhoto courtesy of Sophia Michelen

Michelen, who lives in New York City, said she met Varn when they went on a hike with mutual friends at Kaaterskill Falls — a beloved, two-stage waterfall in Greene County that was featured in “Picturesque America”. During the walk, the group discovered the exact spot where the engraving included in the travel guide was sketched.

Growing up in Troy, Michelen was no stranger to Kaaterskill Falls. But the hike and engraving helped her see the well-known spot in a new light.

“We went to this trail in the Catskills that I had been all my life. I knew the area,” she said. “But once I stood in that exact spot, it was like I’d never seen it before.”

The experience forged a bond between Michelen and Varn — and led to the PBS show.

In the first episode, the co-hosts hunt for a towering oak tree east of the Mississippi and visit coastal waterways with a Gullah Geechee fisherwoman. The pair visit a “mysterious” old farm, PBS said, and a hard-to-find island.

Michelen hopes to eventually head home to New York to film a new episode of her show.

“The Battery in New York City is in this book, but also Kaaterskill Falls and Rochester and Buffalo,” she said. “It’s like the best of New York state.”

Upstate is widely featured in the vintage travelogue — including parts of the Capital Region and the Adirondacks. Michelen has visited some of the spots with family and friends, she said, and hopes to bring PBS along in the future.

That includes a trip to Troy, the city mentioned in “Picturesque America” where Michelen’s parents still live.

She has explored Troy, the place she long called home, through the lens of a nearly forgotten book. But she said explorers don’t need the travel guide to see Upstate differently.

“You don’t even need the book to guide you to see these locations in a new light. You could do that yourself,” she said. “It’s the journey. It’s the lessons in the histories you learn along the way.”

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