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.

20 December 2009

Quote of the Month

We’re not your typical drug-addled Americans. In fact, we hardly ever do drugs, not anymore anyway. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t dabble back in the day. And really, the drug culture is everywhere you look in the United States, so it’s kind of difficult to ignore. Sometimes, you just have to roll with it. Which is what we hope you do for this month’s quote.
“Whenever we’d tell our family and friends about our urge to travel to parts unknown, someone would invariably tell us, ‘You just think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.’ That always made us pause and reflect on the honest reasons for our journeys. It took us many years and many miles to figure out that saying had nothing to do with marijuana.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

13 December 2009

A Trip on the Subway

Once every blue moon—really, about as often as it snows in Las Vegas or the sun shines in Seattle—we do something completely stupid. It’s not that we started out with good intentions and everything turned out wrong. No. It’s just plain, damn stupid. Idiotic. Dumb. It flies in the face of common sense. Of course, it’s even worse when we do something like this away from home. Welcome to our world. —MB & JS
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One frigid night in Munich, Germany, we attended a party along with some friends a few subway stops from our apartment building. After the party, sometime after two in the morning, we stumbled outside to discover we’d missed the night’s final subway run. What to do? We were all students, way too poor to spring for a taxi.

Then we noticed the gate to the subway station hung open and unlocked. Like an invitation from a warm neighbor, we couldn’t refuse. Flying down the unmoving escalators, we burst into the station with an explosion of raucous noise. We howled; we whistled; we sang. It was ugly.

After the thrill faded, a friend asked, “Hey, why not follow the tracks? It’s only two stops.” Though it might sound like a crazy idea now in the sober light of day, we recognized at the time both the need to get home and the opportunity for adventure. So one by one, we jumped down onto the tracks.

We left the station lights behind and headed into the tunnel. Darkness consumed us. The soot-black walls swallowed all light; we couldn't see three feet in any direction. The air grew heavy with the stench of decay. Like bats, we used our aural senses to proceed when our vision failed us. We maintained a cautious pace, keeping away from the third rail. We were drunk, but not suicidal.

As we stepped over the wooden railroad ties, our senses on alert, anything seemed possible.

A light appeared ahead, like an angel descending into Hell to save us from our own stupidity. As we neared, we realized it was just the next subway station. We stormed past, shouting our hellos and fuck-yous at the security cameras, and dove back into the darkness of the tunnel. This time, our eyes adjusted more quickly.

Shortly after, we stumbled on the tracks. We found ourselves heading up a gentle incline, the tracks rising to meet our steps. Of course! Our stop was above ground. As we scrambled up the slope, so near our destination, our friend in front shouted, “A subway car!”

What a stupid thing to say to a bunch of drunks on the tracks after dark. We all nearly dove for cover.

But we noticed that there was indeed an empty subway train sitting to our left. Nestled into the hill on a level rail between the north- and south-bound tracks, it extended into a tunnel. The slope allowed us to climb on top of the spare train, so we did. How often do you get the chance to be on the roof of a subway car? It was like being in a movie.

The roof curved down only at the very edges, so the surface felt safe, sturdy: solid German engineering. Halfway down the car, a solid partition hung down from the tunnel’s ceiling, partially blocking the way. Ducking under it, one of us (and we won’t say which one) peered beyond the partition into what looked like an endless subterranean vault. Was that a light at the end of the tunnel? I didn’t know, but it seemed funny at the time. I continued along the roof, walking upright, squinting at that light.

The next thing I knew, I had bounced off the car’s huge metal coupling and landed in the gravel, on my feet, like a cat. It took me a moment to realize I had just fallen off the subway car’s roof, in the space between the cars.

I fell straight down because I possessed all the flexibility of a diluted mind and a drunken body. When I bounced off the coupling feet-first, my knees bent, absorbing the shock. My body acted instinctively. My mind didn’t have time to panic. So I landed safely, without a scratch.

Had I been sober, I might have landed in stiff-legged fear and broken an ankle. I might have lurched forward and not survived the fall. I might have done any number of sensible things and killed myself. Then again, walking on the top of a subway car in the dark, drunk off my ass is not the most sensible thing I’ve ever done.

Munich: it looks really nice from up here . . .

Lessons Learned: Did God protect us that night? We’re not religious by nature, but we still don’t know even after all these years. We did, however, learn a very important lesson: when you do something seriously foolish, do it with style, verve, and lots of alcohol. It’ll give you a story to write about later. Assuming you survive.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Munich “Franz Josef Strauss” Airport
Native Population: 1,400,000
Normal Attractions: Fast, efficient subway service to museums, fine dining, shopping, and many, many beer gardens and pubs. (For more comic relief about Munich, see: The Law of Gravity, October 2008)
Final Point of Interest: Like many large cities, Munich has a problem with subway suicides. Don’t drink and ride.

06 December 2009

Shaking and Quaking

When it comes to finding thrills in out-of-the-way places, we’re your men. Not only do we find the horrible in the ordinary, we find the exquisite in the unexpected. These places are usually located in places so remote or so foreign that it takes effort to find, reach, and enjoy them—even in this era of the Internet. We feel that’s our duty. It’s our responsibility to our loyal readers (and even those of you who just drop in from time to time). Here’s a real “ruby in the rough.” Enjoy. —MB & JS
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Who doesn’t enjoy a trip to the carnival when it rolls into town? The rides, the games, the food . . . it’s a smorgasbord of delights. Prices are reasonable, and you’ll never suffer long lines.

A local carnival offers simple fun that reminds us of childhood, when the Tilt-a-Whirl, Ferris wheel, and roller coaster used to thrill the bejesus out of us. Now, parents bring a new generation of kids to watch their eyes light up. It’s an American tradition, like taking your son to his first baseball game or force-feeding him his first beer.

Yet there’s something even better. Scattered across the US landscape (and indeed, throughout the western world), old amusement parks—the kind with permanent attractions like the Haunted House, House of Mirrors, and Dodge ‘Em cars—patiently bide their time, catering to small crowds in out-of-the-way towns with nondescript names. If you’ve never been to one of these quaint parks, you are missing quite an experience.

Today’s gargantuan amusement parks boast all the thrills the latest technology can provide, but in their haste to wow customers, they’ve left something at the door: a touch of humanity. The new parks herd customers from ride to ride, to wait in lines long enough to qualify them for a federal assistance program. These parks aren’t interested in people; they’re interested in profits.

The new rides, too, are high-tech marvels without a pulse. The new roller coasters, for example, try to atone for the long wait times by taking riders higher and faster than ever before. But the rush arrives at the pit of your stomach, not in your vivid imagination. You’re squeezed into a molded, cushioned chair with a padded shoulder harness that Hercules himself couldn’t break out of. You can get more thrills doing ninety miles-per-hour in a Cooper Mini in the midst of rush-hour traffic.

The old roller coasters, on the other hand, were invariably made of wood. Wood: the same material they make toothpicks out of. Waiting in line beneath the mammoth wooden structure, hearing the screams overhead while seeing the wooden beams sway and bend every time the cars whiz past, you feel like you’re looking up at Mount Saint Helens seconds before she blew her top.

Talk about thrills—when you step into an old rollercoaster car, all you get to more or less keep you in the slippery plastic seat are an old-fashioned seat belt and a metal bar four inches from your lap. You and your riding partner squirm together as momentum whips you first to one side, then the other. Talk about terror. You are never really sure if you’ll be front-page news or merely a shaking, quaking, satisfied customer. Film at eleven.

The Flyer Comet at Whalom Park in Massachusetts: Certain death or a quaking good time?

Riding a wooden rollercoaster is a thrill unmatched by modern amusement parks, and it’s yours only if you take the time to find those old relics before accident or government regulations shut them all down for good. To get you started, below is a short list of wooden roller coasters we’ve discovered:
  • Beast, Paramount’s King Island, Mason, Ohio

  • Boulder Dash, Lake Compounce, Bristol, Connecticut

  • Dragon Coaster, Playland, Rye, New York

  • Ghostrider, Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, California

  • Giant Dipper, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California

  • Leap-The-Dips, Lakemont Park, Altoona, Pennsylvania

  • Raven, Holiday World, Santa Claus, Indiana

  • Shivering Timbers, Michigan’s Adventure, Muskegon, Michigan

  • The Cyclone, Astroland at Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York

  • Tonnerre de Zeus, Park Astérix, Oise, France
Lessons Learned: There are many, many more wooden rollercoasters throughout the world, often in small amusement parks that cater to a local-only crowd. Track them down and take a spin. Don’t delay. These rubies in the rough are date-stamped. Like the right to drink and drive, this thrill might not exist much longer.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 5

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Leave the airports behind. Drive.
Native Population: Mostly in small towns
Normal Attractions: Wooden roller coasters, other old-timey rides, cotton candy, hot dogs, and the smell of the old park.
Final Point of Interest: After you survive the ride (assuming you do), you’ll want to get right back in line to do it all over again!