Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

29 July 2008

Keep Austin Weird

Wandering around the United States can definitely inspire stories that spark the imagination, where you fall into—however willingly—a wild adventure that you know you can write about later. But sometimes you happen upon a place with its own stories, where you’re just a keen observer. Austin, Texas, is such a place. —MB & JS

Most of Texas is flat, arid, and desolate. It’s the kind of place where tumbleweeds rule, explorers disappear, and jackolopes go to die. People live there through the good graces of diverted water and cheap oil. Cities like Amarillo and San Antonio survive because of technology and persistence. Some would say that’s the Texas way.

In the south-central part of the state, however, lies the Hill Country. Rivers meander through the rolling topography of the Balcones Escarpment to empty, eventually, in the Gulf of Mexico. One such river—the Colorado—winds through arguably the most habitable region in the state. Along the way, it passes the state capital of Austin.

While Austin today stands as a symbol of Texan economic, cultural, and political power, the city is also a place full of paradox and humor. It isn’t only the state capital, it’s a college town with a reputation for great music, a place where cowboy boots and Birkenstocks two-step side-by-side.

When we visited the area, we had a knowledgeable guide, an old friend who’d moved there years earlier. Our friend, whom we’ll call Wilton because that’s his name, owned a ranch about 100 miles west of Austin. When we arrived, he led us on a tour of his ten acres, carrying his granddad’s old .22 rifle, “just in case anything needed killin’.” Luckily, nothing did.

On a good day, he didn't kill nothin’.

After a few days of R&R, we drove “into town.” Anything to escape the quiet solitude of Wilton’s rustic hospitality. The long dusty drive ended at a Texas BBQ. Even though the Ironworks Restaurant sat on a street corner within spitting distance of Austin’s downtown district, it felt as if we hadn’t left the hills. A claw-footed bathtub full of iced bottled beverages sat by the door, waiting for us to help ourselves. The long wooden tables and family-style seating were already crowded with our next best friends. Beer bellies and cowboy hats waved us a “howdy”—and that was just the kitchen crew.

Wilton hadn’t let us down. The meat was so tasty we gave up trying to stay clean after the first rib. We washed it all down with a Big Red soda, which tasted just like bubblegum.

Afterwards, Wilton showed us the sights. We paid homage to the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial at Town Lake. We photographed the state capitol building, which is one foot taller than the Capitol in Washington, DC (everything’s bigger in Texas). After nightfall, we mingled with the 20-somethings outside the downtown clubs on Sixth and Congress, where we met enough characters to populate a Kinky Friedman novel: punks and hippies, cowboys and geeks, all staggering along to their own inner cowbell.

When you move to Texas, you have to become a guitar-playing cowboy. It’s not just a good idea; its the law.

In a head shop around the corner, we found a “Keep Austin Weird” ballcap. Although it seemed like the perfect souvenir for the wacky downtown scene, the slogan actually began as a plea by local small businesses to maintain the city’s cultural identity. It worked better than they could have hoped . . . or perhaps wanted. Now, the slogan lives up to its name, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wilton then took us to South Austin. While you could walk everywhere downtown, here you had to drive, but South Congress made Disney’s Main Street seem real by comparison. Ceramic figures and artistic graffiti adorned the shops and clubs. On top of one building, a meditating monkey in a fez prayed, probably to Allah. Did it indicate the broadminded tolerance of the Texan locals or was the monkey on the roof to avoid a lynching? It depends on who you ask.

South Austin’s a playful mix of businesses. Coffee shops and antique stores sit alongside gun shops and a meat processing plant. It’s where Bubbaville meets Hippyville, thus the ceramic monkey dilemma. But the area’s residents have agreed on one thing: a slogan of their own, which they devised for their friendly competition with the downtown scene. The motto—tauntingly offbeat yet surprisingly truthful—reveals their own down-home wit: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

Lessons Learned: Watch out for the weirdoes—not to avoid them, but to revel in their unique take on Texas life. Austin can be a great place for an adventure, as long as you keep your sense of humor. Texans, especially in that part of the state, don’t take themselves too seriously, except (presumably) within the state capitol building, which they’re quick to tell you is one foot taller than the Capitol in Washington.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Native Population: 710,000
Normal Attractions: The Live Music Capital of the World is home to South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Oh, it has museums and a zoo, too.
Final Point of Interest: Hippy Hollow is Texas’ only clothing-optional public park. Somehow, we missed it.

24 July 2008

Quote of the Month

This new quote perfectly encapsulates many of the hard lessons we learned from traveling in less-than-ideal circumstances. Unless you’re a jet-setter with mountains of money, take this advice to heart:

“No one likes to get sick while traveling. It wastes time, forces compromises, and just plain sucks. Regardless of where you are, we recommend drinking plenty of quinine water with a laxative chaser. It’ll keep you going.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

04 July 2008

You’ve Got a Friend

Finally, a motorcycle story from the archives. Since today is Independence Day here in the United States, it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on the greatness of our country and the freedoms we enjoy. Of course, we have to include a Don’t Even Go There twist. Otherwise, why would you be here reading this? Enjoy. —MB & JS

Years ago, we attempted a round-trip, cross-country motorcycle tour. The route we chose took us from Southern California, across the vast wasteland of Texas, to New Orleans, along the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, into New England, over the border to Canada, around Lake Erie, through the canyons of Utah, and back down to LA. Seven thousand miles in one month. It’s a trip we’d recommend to anyone with the time, the resources, and of course, the wheels (two are preferable).

The First Law of Motorcycling: keep the rubber side down.

We stayed with friends and relatives whenever possible. It’s become a yardstick for dedicated travelers like us. In how many places can someone you know put you up for the night? If you’ve traveled and made friends and moved often, you should have contacts in nearly every worthwhile burg on the continent. We’re not counting ex-girlfriends who take you in out of pity when you show up saddle sore on the doorstep, only to kick you out early the next morning without so much as a slice of toast. Not that it’s happened to us.

Despite our connections, we occasionally had to venture out past the cocoon of the familiar into the room rental wilderness. In that cash-crazy world, we had to pay the same rate for a stuffy room in Van Horn, Texas, as we did for a suite right outside the French Quarter in pre-flood New Orleans. Go figure.

Most of the time, however, we did better than merely survive; we flourished. A restaurant owner outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, gave us all we could eat while allowing us to pick the ambient music. A motorcycle mechanic in Warwick, Rhode Island, included a free polish with our oil change. A waitress in Grand Junction, Colorado, gave us an extra helping of pie just to listen to our adventures. A New Yorker actually apologized after bumping into us on the subway.

We met friendly people at every turn. Even the weather cooperated. Warm, dry, sunny days followed us from one state to the next . . . until our ride from Virginia to New York. It rained tabbies and terriers, as if to make up for the sun we’d been enjoying. In case you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, we can tell you that riding in the rain is bearable with the right gear. Bearable, but never fun. You can’t ever relax.

Despite the rain, we made decent time until we hit Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where everything came to a stop. In case you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, we can tell you that riding in the rain is bearable with the right gear as long as you’re moving. Once you stop, you realize how miserable you really feel.

When traffic began moving again, we positioned ourselves in the far left lane, entertaining the illusion it was still a passing lane. We left plenty of space in front of us, for emergency stopping on the slick surface. That’s when we noticed a pickup truck behind us, right on our taillights. He flashed his lights. We smiled and waved back at him. After all, the state’s motto was: “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” It said so right on their license plates.

We continued for another twenty feet, but the pickup refused to back off. So we did the natural thing: we slowed to allow even more space in front of us, in case of accident. This apparently wasn’t what the pickup driver wanted. He inched even closer and honked like a lost goose over Greenland.

The situation had turned dangerous. We’d seen nothing but courtesy from drivers in every other state, but here in Pennsylvania, we were all but assaulted. When we finally found an opening in the next lane, we pulled over and the pickup sped by to tailgate the next car in line.

We eventually made it safely to New York City, where we spent a few days drying off, but we learned our lesson: We don’t have any friends in Pennsylvania.

Mark in full rain gear: it's as uncomfortable as it looks.

Lessons Learned: Besides learning that we had no friends in Pennsylvania (ultimately destroying the myth and leading to the state removing the slogan from its license plates), we learned that people around the country are actually a lot nicer than we’d given them credit for. You’ll find jerks everywhere—in New York, in California, even in Pennsylvania—but they’ll get what’s coming to them. Karma and bad driving habits have a tendency to catch up with you.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Harrisburg International Airport
Native Population: 49,000
Normal Attractions: The state capitol complex (including performing arts), Strawberry Square shopping mall, and the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show, the largest agricultural show in the US.
Final Point of Interest: Harrisburg is famous for its CowParade, which featured fiberglass cows designed by local artists and scattered around the city. We think this qualifies it as a cow town.