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.

07 November 2010

Quote of the Month

The United States is a remarkable place and not necessarily because it’s a republic or because of its capitalist economy (although both help). The contradictions within our own borders are fascinating. The highways showcase literally hundreds of makes and models of cars and trucks, and yet the highway system itself could only have been built by the federal government. Sort of like capitalism riding on the back (or asphalt) of socialism. We actually love this country because of its people, as this quote demonstrates. Enjoy.
“Nothing says ‘American’ like a big-bearded, big-bellied man in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt with a little sticker on his chest that reads: I voted. Wait, that was Mark.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)

22 October 2010

Quote of the Month

We absolutely loathe corniness. We believe corny jokes should be punishable by death . . . or at least a rail right out of town. And don’t get us started on puns. That said, we do on occasion veer dangerously close to the line between pun and hate. Hey, you’re here, so you might as well read the following quote. You know you want to.
“We’ve done a lot of hitchhiking in our day. We’ve hitched for short distances and long, multi-day stretches. But we always arrived in one piece and with one line: ‘We just hitchhiked in from [wherever], and boy are our thumbs tired.’ ”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)

10 October 2010

Embarrassing Travel Moment of the Month

This month, we introduce a new feature here at Don’t Even Go There. We’ve put this off as long as possible, but these stories keep piling up. Each trip we take contributes another sad story to the backlog. As always, we hope you learn from our mistakes. Maybe you’ll even laugh at our expense. Go ahead. We don’t care. We’re over it. We’ve moved on. Really, we’re . . . oh God. Did we really do that? —MB & JS
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Many years ago, during our college days, we had the opportunity to travel abroad. You can find some of these twisted tales here on our blog. What you won’t find is this particular story because we’ve never shared it before. We’ve never even told our best friends. It was categorized as “Need to Know,” and of course, no one ever needed to know what really happened.

In our defense, we were victims of a series of events that led, one after another, ultimately to our demise. Looking back on it, we could have prevented this mishap any number of ways. But we didn’t. We just went along with the flow.

The date was Thursday, 3 July 1980. The place was Munich, Germany. As Americans in a foreign land, the fourth of July was just another day. But, we decided, we had to celebrate somehow. We had secured tickets to see the legendary Frank Zappa in the Olympiapark that night. What could be better? Zappa was as American as apple pie and baseball.

That afternoon, however, we settled in to watch Wimbledon tennis on the telly with an Irish acquaintance. He brought with him a fifth of Johnny Walker Black. We proceeded to dip into it with gusto, three fingers at a time. We stayed longer than we should have, but somehow made it onto a bus headed for the Olympic Village on time for the show, with our tickets. That was the last good decision we made.

Memories are a little vague after reaching the concert site, but at some point during the festivities, Mark lost his wallet. That was bad enough, but it led to an embarrassing travel moment that still makes us cringe. After retracing our steps without luck, we must have looked like lovelorn saps because no fewer than three pretty German girls stopped to ask us why we had such long faces after such a great concert.

Our German language skills were fairly sharp at that point. We had conquered the tortured grammar. We were conversant. But we were also stupifyingly drunk. We wanted to say that we had lost a wallet. The German word for wallet is “Brieftasche.” That’s what we meant to say. Instead, we used the word “Taschentuch.” Taschentuch. For those you who haven’t studied German, it means handkerchief.

No wonder those girls abandoned us. We’d have done the same. So instead of spending a night of solace in the company of sweet, caring, nubile natives, we experienced a night of confusion, hurt, and yes, poverty. Ouch.

25 September 2010

Quote of the Month

We have great respect for the masters. After all, they’ve been writing a lot longer than we have. Plus, they’ve traveled farther and by much cruder methods. You’ve got to respect that. This month’s quote comes from one of those masters. His saying struck us as so apt, that we had to share it with you. If you don’t smile, then you’ve never truly traveled.
“One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.”

–Charles Dickens (1858)

28 August 2010

Travel Advice of the Month

We have traveled extensively throughout the United States, only missing those really unforgettable states such as Alaska, Nebraska, and Michigan for some reason. We've traveled through select parts of Europe and Australia, too. We’ve traveled by ship, plane, car, motorcycle, bicycle, and foot. While not all of our experiences have been pleasant, we cannot stress enough the importance of travel on the life of the traveler:
“Most people settle within 50 miles of their birthplace. Then they complain about it. If you don’t like your current hometown, for God's sake, move! Expand your universe. You can usually find work elsewhere, and traveling—as opposed to moving, especially if you’re relying on friends—feeds your hungry soul unlike anything this side of Spätzle (which we find strangely satisfying). The point is that eventually, you’re bound to find someplace you like well enough to stay. Or maybe you’ll just grow tired of moving. Then you can complain about it.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)

17 August 2010

Quote of the Month

We just returned from a trip to those northern states of grace: New Jersey and Massachusetts. But this quote isn’t about either of these two places.
“It occurred to us, as we traveled yet again through the excruciating traffic of the Pennsylvania highway system, that every single highway construction worker in the U.S. must migrate to this state for work. Take our word for it: they are always busy. Even if they are nowhere to be seen, their handiwork is plainly evident in the cement barriers, abandoned equipment, and flattened hardhats we see scattered about.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)

23 July 2010

Homage to Conspicuous Consumption

We return once more to write about our new hometown: Asheville, North Carolina. In a way, it’s only fitting, since we chose this location for our very first post to this blog. In truth, it’s a city with charm, beauty, and contradictions. This story exposes one. —MB & JS
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Everyone longs to be wealthy. Well, every American, that is. People come to this country to “chase the American dream,” “strike it rich,” and “buy one, get one free.” In fact, if you asked folks from all walks of life—as we did—what they longed for, most of them would answer that they want to be so filthy rich, they have servants to complain about the weather for them.

People want to be as wealthy as characters portrayed in such movies as Richie Rich, Being There, and Mr. Destiny. What do these movies have in common? They all used the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, as a location. Why? Because the Biltmore is “America’s largest private home.” That’s 175,000 square feet of conspicuous consumption.

Built in the 1890s, when you could pay a grateful unskilled laborer (think Glenn Beck but with calluses) six dollars a week, George Washington Vanderbilt spent many, many, many thousands to build his mansion in the middle of a mountainous rainforest. And yes, it’s very nice. It’s not just the many bedrooms and amenities; it’s the little touches of opulence, like the painted ceilings, the immense library, and the dining room for hundreds of your closest friends.

The house for you and hundreds of your closest friends.

The house and its estate (another 8,000 acres of mostly pristine land, designed by the guy—Frederick Law Olmstead—who landscaped New York’s Central Park) comprise a gated community all by itself. But this is one gated community you can buy your way into, even if the charge is just a rental fee. For 60 dollars (or about 20 dollars less than the full-price entrance fee to a popular amusement park in Orlando, Florida), you can buy a day pass to tour the house and grounds. There are no rides, unless you count the tiny elevator for those who can’t manage the wide staircase, and there are few interactive presentations, unless you count pushing your way through gawking tourists.

Like Disney World, however, Biltmore Estate hires smiling, helpful people to herd the crowds through, answer questions, and solve problems. Try as you might, you can’t break their façade of cheerful countenance. We should know; we tried. Instead of angry retorts, all we got were polite rebuffs:

“No sir; that tapestry is not for sale.”

“I do not know if Cornelia Vanderbilt slept in the nude.”

“Excuse me, sir, the bathroom is that way.”

 Here is Mark, trying to get his dog to pee in the gardens, because he couldn’t.

You can almost always get thrown out of a better hotel, but you simply cannot get thrown out of a finer house than this one. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds. As long as you’re there, you might as well tour the house. Give yourself time—you’ll need a good two hours to get through it. You’ll spill from the house, dazed, into the courtyard of what used to be the stable. Now it houses shops and a restaurant where you’ll feel the urge to overpay for trinkets, clothing, books, and food. Conspicuous consumption is apparently contagious.

Bring cash and lots of it. Bring not one, but two major credit cards. Besides the entrance fee, you’ll pay top dollar to eat at any of the “fine dining experiences” that pose as restaurants. The food’s good, but outside the protected, hallowed grounds of the Biltmore Estate, the city of Asheville has many great restaurants that offer meals at a fraction of the cost.

Lessons Learned: The only thing that’s free within the Biltmore is the winery tour and wine tasting, and both are must-do’s. You want to get your money’s worth, right? But be careful: After a full day pushing through crowds for a glimpse of a hundred-year-old divan, even a Biltmore Estate wine will taste like the Nectar of the Gods. They know this and expect you buy cases of the stuff. Don’t be fooled.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Asheville Regional Airport
Native Population: 75,000 (Asheville)
Normal Attractions (at the Biltmore): The Walled Garden (especially in April during tulip season), the Bass Pond, Antler Hill Village, the Winery, and the hiking and biking trails.
Final Point of Interest: Believe it or not, it used to be illegal to jog on the grounds of the Estate. You could walk, skip, jump, bicycle, and horseback ride along the trails, but not jog. Maybe it started in the 1970s, when fashion sense suddenly became terminally ill. They’ve since rescinded the regulation.

15 June 2010

Quote of the Month

Every once in a while a great Truth occurs to us. It usually happens when we least expect it: in the shower, in a car filled with strangers, or in the police station having our fingerprints taken. While scrambling to find a pen to write it down, it often gets skewed. So, without further ado, here’s our latest attempt at profundity. Hope you enjoy it.
“Have you ever stopped in the midst of an adventure far from home, taken a suspicious look completely around you, shrugged, and then continued along your way? If not, you’ve never traveled with us. It happens all the time to Jason and me.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)

09 June 2010

A Castle in the Suburbs

Here’s a strange but true tale with an unusual happy ending (unusual in that it has a happy ending at all). Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a trip ends in unexpected mediocrity or unmitigated indifference. Face it: this blog is based on stories that end poorly with dire warnings about where you shouldn’t go and why. Every once in a while, though, we like to surprise you with a place we found somewhat satisfactory. Bear with us. —MB & JS
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This isn’t the tale of a McMansion, nor is it the story of a recently built palace in a gated community. This is about a real castle that happens to be located in the suburbs of a real city. Unfortunately, that city happens to be in Canada, where nice people apparently live normal lives.

We like Canadians. They’re polite, honest people, even if they still believe in monarchy. Believe it or not, they actually have some major cities, like Toronto, Ontario. The city sports major league baseball, basketball, hockey, and football teams. We’re talking about a big city here.

Toronto is a clean, friendly place. The Hockey Hall of Fame makes Toronto its home, and if you’re a fan, it’s worth a stop. The underground mall below the downtown office skyscrapers features a maze of interesting and sometimes affordable shops. Queen Street West, another tourist destination, is the hip spot for music, but it also boasts shopping for all tastes (and we really mean all tastes). And let’s not forget the CN Tower that rises beside Rogers Centre (formerly called SkyDome). Toronto doesn’t lack for activities.

But if you know us at all, you’ll realize that we had to get off the beaten path, away from the hordes of tourists that flock there every summer. So we discovered a hidden treasure and took a trip to nearby Casa Loma. Located out in the suburbs, it wasn’t easy to find. We had to work to get there. Since we didn’t have a car, we had to navigate the Toronto transit system and then take a 15-minute hike once we disembarked. But believe it or not, it was worth the extra effort.

Built by Sir Henry Mill Pellatt between 1911 and 1914, it’s modeled after the medieval castles of Europe. Featuring 98 rooms and lush gardens (maintained by volunteers), the castle is a throwback to a different time, an era when one man could own the electric company for an entire city. That man was Sir Henry, and Casa Loma was his home.

The Great Hall has a 70-foot-high ceiling, 40-foot-long drapes, and even a freakin’ pipe organ. A pipe organ! When was the last time you even saw one of those monstrosities? Its resonant sound always reminds us of when we fell off the horses going around a carousel . . . hmmm, that was just last year.

In Casa Loma’s sunny Conservatory, we found a stained glass dome, bronze doors, and Italian marble floors. Every room in fact had something to make us wonder, whether it was the first Canadian indoor shower or the recreation facilities. Almost every room had a name: the Oak Room, the Round Room, the Windsor Room, and the Library. It was like being inside a game of Clue.

Then there’s Sir Henry’s grand bedroom, bathroom, and study (with its two secret stairwells), and Lady Pellatt’s 2,000-square-foot bedroom suite. We were pretty amazed that a Canadian could have attained such wealth and taste. Like us, he obviously traveled.

But the tour didn’t end there. We climbed spiral stairs to the tower, where we could see the Toronto skyline. Good thing the smog had lifted for us. After that, we descended below ground, through an 800-foot-long tunnel, to the stables, with its Venetian tiles and Spanish mahogany. All that was missing were the quaint piles of horse dung. Still, all in all, it was cool. We think it was the tiled interior that kept it at that temperature.

Once free of the castle’s charms, we stayed to stroll the gardens: they’re another highlight of the place. We had arrived in early spring, too early for the full effect, but we have imaginations and used them. (We recommend a mid-summer visit, when the flowers have all bloomed.)

This castle isn’t as grandly appointed as the “cottages” of Newport, Rhode Island, or as opulent as Hearst Castle, but it’s quite a find if you’re in the right frame of mind: curious, energetic, and bored stiff all apply. You can take the self-guided tour if you like—you know the drill, listen on headphones as you wander from room to room like a zombie—but you might enjoy the castle more without all the history. Make up your own stories; it’s more fun.

Lessons Learned: Let’s face it, with all the sights to see in the world at large, you’ll probably never return. That makes it one of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures, like shooting heroin. But this will leave a better taste in your mouth.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Toronto Pearson International Airport
Native Population: 2,500,000
Normal Attractions: Big city stuff like fine dining, shopping, museums, art galleries, and architecture, but also HTO Park (the city’s first urban beach) and the Hockey Hall of Fame. There’s lots to do in the city.
Final Point of Interest: Casa Loma was nearly demolished before a few citizen groups rallied to save it. Another victory over urban renewal.

29 May 2010

Quote of the Month

We wish we had something intelligent to impart, something you would remember for the days or months ahead. Unfortunately, we’re dry. So we (literally) dug up an old quote that we think fits our little blog. But don’t worry: it’s a quote from a master. We even wish we could have met him face-to-face, but then, we’d be dead now too.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
– Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1869)

30 April 2010

The OC

We return now to the United States, in particular to the “Left Coast,” so named as much for its geographic location as for its politics. We used to live in Southern California, land of outdoor hot tubs and perpetual sunny skies (except for the “June Gloom”). We’re here to tell you it’s not all champagne and roses. Heck, it’s not even all beer and carnations. Read on. —MB & JS
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When you think of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, you probably think of the Kingdom of Make-Believe—because almost everything in the park is an illusion. Under the cartoon character costumes are miserable, sweating park employees. Buried next to the Pirates of the Caribbean, according to legend, is the Disneyland Jail, where trespassers and other miscreants are brought to be tortured by an unforgiving Mickey Mouse. And behind the Main Street façades lies the true heart of Disney: a greedy and sadistic taskmaster. Ask anyone who’s ever worked there.

The streets that surround the park are lined with overpriced motels and bad restaurants, a subversion of the American dream. Anaheim is not a place to be caught after dark. If the thugs don’t get you, the cops will. Ask anyone who’s ever lived there.

Orange County, of which Anaheim is a part, reflects the same sentiment as the amusement park: a veneer of cleanliness covering a lack of soul. It’s especially true in South County, as the locals call it, where new stucco buildings exhibit all the character of a stick figure drawing. Everything in South County, it seems, is new and pristine. Like Disneyland’s Main Street.

“The OC,” which none of the locals call their home county, is not the paradise of the television show. Orange County is mostly a cultural desert, a whitewashed urban development run amock. The picturesque orange groves are long gone, bulldozed for housing developments or office parks, all of which look remarkably similar. The houses invariably feature a two-car garage surrounded by a few rooms. The offices are mostly white boxes surrounded by a parking lot. The county has become a nightmarish parody of planned communities, gated developments, and chain stores. The primary characteristic of the architecture can be termed “Post-Modern Boredom.” The culture has devolved into Fast and Cheap.

The OC is home to the Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters, aka Jesus’ Birthday Cake (whose main stairway is pictured here). It’s everything God could want . . . covered in gold leaf.

So if you find yourself traveling to The OC for a vacation (or a mistake), what can you do? Well, a two-hour drive north to Los Angeles or south to San Diego is always a possibility, as long as you can stand the traffic. Our advice is to take a trip to the beach—Laguna Beach. It’s a liberal arts colony of a town down the coast from ritzy, glitzy, neon-bright Newport Beach (whose motto is: “Our women have more silicon by age 30 than most cars”). Laguna is a breath of fresh air, at least on a good day when the smog hasn’t blown south from LA.

Laguna Beach features the usual assortment of tourist traps and souvenir stands, but it also has many authentic art galleries (ones that sell more than landscape paintings), unique craft stores, and excellent restaurants. Ask five locals about their favorite Laguna Beach restaurant and you’ll get five different answers, and each one will be worth a meal.

Home to summer art festivals—the Sawdust Festival, Art-a-Fair, and the Pageant of the Masters (worth a story all by itself)—Laguna is a great place to hang out for an afternoon or for a week. Food and entertainment are all within easy reach.

You can walk the beach or play volleyball on it. Park yourself on a bench to watch the mix of locals and tourists, young and old, and straight and gay (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Enjoy a margarita at the Las Brisas Restaurant in time for the sunset. Take a leisurely drive up Pacific Coast Highway (“PCH” to the locals) to Newport Beach to stare in awe at the trophy wives. Drive down the coast to Dana Point, where a picturesque harbor awaits. No matter what you do, you’ll realize “The OC” is centered not in Anaheim, but in Laguna Beach.

Lessons Learned: Make sure you have enough quarters to stuff into the Laguna parking meters. Twenty-five cents doesn’t buy much time during peak tourist season. If you plan to stay for a while, park in a lot. You’ll pay more, but you won’t have to rush back every two hours to feed the metered beast.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: John Wayne Airport
Native Population: 3,100,000
Normal Attractions: Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, professional sports (like the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), top-notch and high-end shopping, plus all those gas stations that help you get somewhere else.
Final Point of Interest: The University of California at Irvine was used as one of the locations in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Because it was an educational movie.

22 April 2010

Starving at Hunger Wall

Good things come to those who wait . . . or at least to those who return to our little blog. We recently dug up an old report from our European Vacation, which you’ll be relieved to learn is in no way associated with Chevy Chase. We apologize for the recent bout of inactivity, but you must understand that as self-unemployed writers, we occasionally have to stoop to (gasp!) working for a living. We hope this story will sate your appetite for our quirky travel tales. At least for a while. —MB & JS
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Europe has some great cities, but while Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris, and Rome all have their charms, all of them have been bombed at one time or another. War scars cities, and those scars mean more than lost neighborhoods. They translate into lost history.

One city, however, was spared. One city endured while others were shelled. It’s not because this city wasn’t important or wasn’t large enough. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps it was blessed. We think it was both. What city are we writing about? Prague, in the Czech Republic.

No one carpet-bombed its architecture into Swiss cheese. Its palace of a castle still stands, looking as it did in the thirteenth century. Only pigeons have attacked its public sculptures, and those attacks, we’re pleased to report, have done only moderate damage.

Walking through Prague, you can imagine the year is 1912 or 1856 or 1780. The buildings—ornate masterpieces of individual and collective pride—still stand as they did then. The town square hasn’t been crowded out by fast food, subway entrances, or modern superstores. It’s a wonderful city rich in history, art, music, and good food.

But take a lesson from us: it’s a city that awakens slowly.

During our visit, we consulted a travel book (which shall remain nameless) that recommended viewing the Charles Bridge—famous for its religious statuary as it spans the Vltava River—early in the morning. Wake up and see the sunrise, the book said. Avoid the crowds. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

So we rose just after the sun. Five AM. Intrepid travelers, we’d endured worse for the call of adventure. The travel book, we soon learned, was correct: the only people we encountered at the bridge were an amorous couple who kept giving us dirty looks. You’d have done the same; after all, we had cameras.

We enjoyed the quiet and took many unimpeded photos of the guy copping a feel. Then we got a few pictures of the views and of the bridge’s statues in the early morning sunlight. It was peaceful and warm there in the heart of this ancient and beautiful city. We felt strangely nurtured. We had nowhere to be, and we had coins of the realm in our pockets. We basked in the glory of a rare success. Everything seemed right with the world. This was what traveling was all about.

Our preliminary plan was to cross the bridge to Prague’s “Lesser Town,” wander the curving streets, and then have a full breakfast in at a quaint café. Once our bellies were full, we’d tour the magnificent castle high on the hill. It was a good plan, as plans go. After all, we had all day.

Unfortunately, it seemed, so did Prague. Every café was closed, every restaurant shuttered. Even the little neighborhood kiosks were still awaiting their delivery of fresh baked goods. We couldn’t bring ourselves to buy some week-old, shrink-wrapped muffin. We wanted Breakfast: eggs, fresh bread, meat, stuff like that.

So, like the experienced travelers we were, we altered our plans to fit the circumstances. We searched for the John Lennon Wall—the site where, legend has it, revolutionaries gathered during the Communist years, inspired by the songs of the ex-Beatle. People sometimes forget the impact music has in other cultures. We wanted to see it first-hand.

After a few wrong turns (and with no one around to ask directions), we eventually found the wall tucked away in a nondescript courtyard. Graffiti and spontaneous artwork covered the cement like vomit on a Grateful Dead T-shirt after a three-show weekend. At least it suppressed our appetite, momentarily.

The John Lennon Wall: a piece of history or a mural gone too far?

After a snapshot or two, we wandered aimlessly in search of food. Ironically, our trek led us to Prague’s Hunger Wall. A stone wall ascending Petøin Hill, it essentially divides nothing and goes nowhere. The wall was built by the city’s poor in the 14th century in exchange for food. Sadly, we would have done the same, given the chance.

With nowhere else to turn, we headed toward the castle. Uphill all the way. The castle didn’t officially open until ten o’clock, but we hoped to find food somewhere in the neighborhood. Bureaucrats have to eat, don’t they? We’d even settle for a street vendor selling borscht, as long as it was relatively fresh. As we neared the castle, the city began to come alive. We didn’t know whether it was the passing hour, the proximity to the castle, or the power of positive thinking.

We eventually found a three-table restaurant. The hard wooden seat felt like a thousand cushions. The bitter coffee tasted like 100-year-old brandy. When we asked for a menu, though, the waitress raised a bushy eyebrow at us. That should have given us a clue, but we were too tired and hungry to pay attention. The food came and we consumed it quickly. We didn’t really taste it then. We didn’t have to. We tasted it for the rest of the day.

Lessons Learned: Enjoy the charms of Prague, but forget making plans. Pack a lunch instead.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Prague Ruzyně Airport
Native Population: 1,250,000
Normal Attractions: Old Town, Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, the old Jewish quarter, architecture (including the new Dancing House), as well as fine dining, museums, and lots of shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Franz Kafka lived and wrote in Prague. If you stay in the city long enough, so the story goes, you too will develop a paranoid tendency to rival his. Unless you refuse to sober up.

16 April 2010

Quote of the Month

We recognize we haven’t posted in a while. We apologize. We’ve been researching . . . er, we mean traveling to . . . new places. In the meantime, we’d like to share the saying off a T-shirt we saw in Mexico. It’s in English, and it fits our little blog to a “T.” We hope you enjoy it.
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)

03 March 2010

Cubs Lose . . . Again

In honor of Spring Training, that annual rite of hand-wringing for all fans of the grand game of rotisserie baseball, we thought we’d relate this true story from our past. We wanted to worship at a famous shrine, and we thought we should visit while it still stood. Read and enjoy this bit of historical drama. If you’re not into history, baseball, or the meaning of life . . . read it anyway. —MB & JS
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Long-time baseball fans, we undertook a pilgrimage to Chicago’s fabled Wrigley Field. The brick façade. The ivy-covered walls. The deep, rich, futile history. As of this writing, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. In most of the seasons since, they’ve been painfully awful. But they play in a cozy park, plunked down in the middle of a residential neighborhood like a playground. Only this park has batting cages instead of swing sets while professional athletes, not children, do the sliding.

From the outside, the stadium walls towered majestically above us like an ancient coliseum, a temple to gods named Hack Wilson and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. The streets surrounding the park teemed with people. Maybe, since the Cubbies were losing again that summer, no one wanted to rush into the park to get to the business of baseball.

We picked up our tickets and wandered toward our entrance. The bleachers: home of cheap seats, bleacher bums, and drunken brawls. Wrigley’s bleachers held a special aura. Whenever an opposing batter hit a home run into the bleacher seats, the fans threw the ball back onto the field, as if to disallow the runs. Even though game balls are the most sought-after souvenir, the practice continues today.

Inside, beneath the center field stands, the exposed steel support beams seemed unnecessarily utilitarian, but once we reached the top of the ramp, the park’s charms—the green grass glistening in the sun before the red brick—teleported us back to an earlier time. This is where “Tinker to Evers to Chance” thrilled crowds and where Babe Ruth hit his “called-shot” World Series home run.

An old-fashioned, hand-operated scoreboard rose above the center field stands like the last remaining wall of an ancient temple—the Wailing Wall of Chicago for many Cubs fans. Beyond the low right field bleachers, across Sheffield Avenue, stood apartment houses with rooftop seating—a few rows of covered ballpark seats. Rooftop seating peeked over the left field bleachers on Waveland Avenue, too. Voyeurism is apparently a Chicago tradition. We’d make sure to draw our hotel room blinds that evening.

The park filled quickly as game time neared. Cubs fans are said to be passionate, knowledgeable, and extremely dedicated. When you’re a Cubs fan, you’re a Cubs fan for life. Despite the team’s lack of success, they fill the park every year.

Beside us, a young Latina played with her small son. Around us, fans consumed beer in such quantities we could smell the froth. A row of rowdy frat boys converged behind us and immediately started a shouting match with the right field bleachers. What surprised us was their language—they shouted nothing cruder than the word “sucks” (which by the way you can say on TV). The boys, obviously drinking heavily, had enough wits to keep their game clean. When one of them did slip, the others were quick to apologize to the young mother beside us.

Another surprise came later, when the curser returned with dripping cups of foam for himself and his friends, along with a gift—a souvenir baseball he’d bought for the little boy in our row. We were touched. Who wouldn’t be? Were these the infamous drunks who fought with fans of other teams? Were these the same boys who were quick to ridicule a home player when things turned bad?

Maybe, we soon realized, the bleachers weren’t home to the uncaring, unthinking, unfeeling fans we’d heard so much about. If true, the Cubs deserve to win more. Karma, you might say, is created day by day. That day, those frat boys created good karma, for themselves and their team. Or maybe we just got lucky in the right seats on the right day.

Lessons Learned: In case you’re wondering, the Cubs lost the game (again), but Sammy Sosa hit his 400th career home run, a blast into the left field bleacher seats. The ball was not returned to the field. You could look it up.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Chicago O’Hare International Airport
Native Population: 2,850,000
Normal Attractions: One of America’s largest cities, Chicago has everything: dining, shopping, sports, history, architecture, museums, you name it. Even without our help, Chicago draws millions every year, and not just for Cubs games.
Final Point of Interest: The story goes that a few New Yorkers were sitting around one day grumbling. They decided to move west and helped found Chicago. When asked why, they replied, “We liked the crowding, the pollution, and the crime, but New York just wasn’t cold enough.”

22 February 2010

Quote of the Month

Welcome to a blog post from the road. We are in the Boston area, where the cold is as fierce as the traffic. The quote this month involves this provincial backwater. We hope you enjoy it and continue to return again for more stories about places to avoid throughout this great world of ours.
"Boston is known for its baked beans, which has become the butt of many jokes (pun intended, unfortunately). One consequence of eating baked beans has gone largely unnoticed. Until now. Whenever we eat baked beans, we become the most deadly contributors to global warming in the room. And unlike the Watergate scandal, it's not something easily covered up."

-Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)

15 February 2010

Roadkill to Go

Days before we undertake another road trip (this one by car to New England), we thought we’d share the following story of advice . . . if for no other reason than to remind ourselves what we have to look forward to. This next trip is going to be a multi-day drive, so anything can happen, but it’s OK: we’ll be wearing clean underwear. Wish us luck and look for the next story in a couple weeks. —MB & JS
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Food always presents a challenge when we travel. Sometimes, we have the time and foresight to pack a meal or two to take with us. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice our health to the Gods of Fast Food. Sometimes, we can’t find anything anywhere, and roadkill starts to look appetizing. The truth is, experience has taught us that how we travel has a lot to do with how well we eat.

Airline food has become passable, now that we’re paying separately for it. But airport food is still overpriced and appalling. Picture your favorite sandwich left under a heat lamp or in a semi-refrigerated bin for fourteen hours. On first bite, you can tell there’s no difference in consistency between the bread and its contents.

Train terminals, at least in other countries, often feature one good restaurant. In the US, however, train stations rarely have any food at all, unless you consider donuts as a separate food group, like some Americans we know. Besides, who takes the train in the US anymore?

Then there are bus stations. Hmmm. Suddenly, the candy bar in the vending machine looks like a good bet. Take it from us: If you leave the driving to someone else, you’re throwing away any chance of a good meal as well.

People with recreational vehicles (a group that doesn’t include us) can cook whatever and wherever they like because they’ve taken the kitchen with them. Of course, it costs extra to haul all those pots and pans around. Those who camp when they travel can grill something easily enough over a toasty campfire . . . as long as the weather cooperates.

If, like us most of the time, all you have are four wheels and a seat, you’re probably driving a short distance (meaning less than a day’s drive). Food becomes less important when it’s only one meal you have to worry about. Take a snack or stop for a quick bite.

When we’re in for a long haul, however, whether traveling by car or by thumb, finding good food is the trip’s Holy Grail, something to actually write home about. But it’s not easy. Roadside diners serve greasy slop to patrons who don’t want to linger. Truck stops at least offer variety—although take our advice and avoid any buffet you see, especially if it’s in Las Vegas.

When you take a long car trip, make sure your vehicle is comfortable and—most importantly—larger than you are.

For the long-haulers just trying to get from Point A to Point B without even taking in the sights along the way, we recommend frequent stops. Get out and stretch. Take that pee you’ll regret not taking later. And when it comes to food, pack as much as storage will allow. Fruit is a good snack, and you can toss the waste right out the window: it’s biodegradable.

The best way to ensure that you stop frequently is to load up on water, soda, and/or coffee. Nothing gets the juices flowing like lots of liquids. Our favorite road food, believe it or not, is cola and chili-flavored corn chips. Scoff if you like, but medical research has proven that chili-flavored corn chips irritate your stomach lining, gnaw at your intestines, and head straight for your bowels. When the cola you’re drinking aggravates the entire process with sugar, caffeine, and other, ah, less natural ingredients, you’ll have to stop every fifty miles to pee and buy antacids.

This diet might slow you down a little with all those pee breaks, but that gurgling in your stomach will keep you from dozing off behind the wheel. And arriving safely is always our first concern. It should be yours as well.

Lessons Learned: While it’s true that it might take you a few days to get over the physical strain fueled by a diet of soda and chili-flavored corn chips, you are going to need a few days to adjust even without the junk food. You might as well do it and stay safe. The lesson will steer you toward flying next time.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1 (depending on the part of the country you’re driving through)
Communication Breakdown: 1 (unless you talk to yourself)
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: You might want to fly home
Native Population: 1—You, alone in the car, for hours and hours and hours and . . .
Normal Attractions: Counting the different state license plates, trying to find anything on the radio besides talking heads and country music, singing along to country songs, sideswiping RVs.
Final Point of Interest: We don’t actually recommend our readers eat roadkill, although we have actually had raccoon, moose, and deer . . . under less questionable circumstances.

29 January 2010

Life Is a Circus

Now we can add Sarasota, FL, to the list of places we’ve visited and written about. Why Sarasota? If you really asked that question, then you need to read more of our posts. Sarasota has a real highlight that we think you’ll be glad you missed. It’s all part of our civic duty. It’s all part of the service we offer here at Don’t Even Go There. We hope you enjoy this brand new entry. Be sure to come back and read from our extensive backlist. —MB & JS
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Like most places in Florida, Sarasota sits along a coast. We believe there actually are parts of Florida that aren’t highway or coastline, but we haven’t found them yet. Maybe it’s like one of those Floridian urban legends we keep hearing about, like hill country or English-speaking policemen.

We went to Sarasota for a specific purpose, and it wasn’t sunbathing, fly fishing, or mosquito-wrangling. We went to see the circus . . . or more accurately, the Home of the Circus. Sarasota, you see, was the winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the place where all the animals and performers could rest and train between circus seasons. These days, it’s called The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Yes, there is an art museum on the grounds (one building with many, many galleries), but that’s not the reason most people pay $25 to get in. The real draw are the three museum buildings full of circus paraphernalia and Cà d’Zan, the Ringling family mansion. Despite the fact that the mansion’s name sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, they tell us it’s actually a Venetian dialect of Italian. It’s all Greek to us.

Anyway, back to Sarasota. Cà d’Zan has 56 rooms, some of which are human-sized. Its ornate furnishings, hand-painted ceilings, and exquisite views make you think that you paid too much to see trapeze artists the last time the circus came to town.

But you didn’t. Even in the age of steam trains, the circus employed thousands. It was no small feat to move the whole affair from town to town, tend the animals (however cruelly, according to some), set up and tear down the big tent, and still put on show that could wow even adults. It boggles the mind to think about it, but in the museum’s Tibbals Learning Center, you can actually see it in glorious 3D. Howard Tibbals created the world’s largest miniature circus, complete with trains, people, animals, and part of the town. If that weren’t enough, the whole scene changes from day to night every few minutes. Try to find the mule kicking a handler, customers peeing in the men’s tent, the boy getting a needle in his ass, the fallen acrobat, and the drunk in the Big Top. They’re all highlights.

The miniature circus includes 59 train cars, eight tents, 152 wagons, 1300 people, and 800+ animals, according to our count.

The best part of the tour by far were the unofficial, off-the-cuff stories told to us by our guide, meaning Mark’s brother. Remember that circus life placed untold pressure on the performers. The circus life was a hard road. It was arguably worse for the so-called freaks who had nowhere else to go. They stayed in Florida during the winter, and not surprisingly did not welcome gawkers.

One such freak, Grady Stiles (aka Lobster Boy)—a man born with limbs that resembled lobster claws—was a heavy drinker and notoriously abusive. Even the other circus people avoided him as much as possible. He murdered his daughter’s fiancé on the eve of the wedding, confessed, but was given 15 years probation because no prison was equipped to handle someone with his deformity. Then years later, he was murdered himself . . . by his own family. His wife claimed it was the only way she could protect herself and her children from his physical abuse.

So next time you hear someone wanting to run off to join the circus, talk him or her out of it. The circus life does something to people.

Lessons Learned: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art: it’s not the only reason to visit Sarasota, but it may be the best reason to do so. If you find yourself stuck south of Tampa with nothing to do, get in the car and drive someplace else. Quickly.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Sarasota-Bradenton Airport
Native Population: 52,000
Normal Attractions: Historic buildings, killer humidity, and institutions of secondary education. Colleges: because normal people wouldn’t want to live there.
Final Point of Interest: Sarasota does have a major league baseball spring training site, and it is almost famous for its golf courses. Funny, just like most other Florida cities.

17 January 2010

Quote of the Month

This month’s quote comes in the form of a very reliable, remarkably uncanny travel tip. Unfortunately, it’s not one of ours. Still, in our effort to bring you the best (and worst) of travel stories and advice, we felt this quote perfectly fit the bill. Read, learn, and enjoy. And come back next week for another exciting tale from the road best abandoned.
“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

Susan Heller

03 January 2010

We’ll Always Have Venice

For some travel destinations, we have to strain the bounds of incredulity to make them fit our nefarious purposes. For others, like the one described here, all we have to do is show up, look around, and take copious notes. In truth, these are the places we long for. These are the locations that deserve our attention. We hope you agree. —MB & JS
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California is known for its eccentrics, and for good reason. The culture and the climate both encourage people to venture outdoors—people who in other states would remain hiding in the woodwork or at least getting weekly therapy. But where did they all come from? History reveals that the California Gold Rush of 1848 drew dreamers, schemers, underachievers, and neurotics to the state, and despite finding nothing of value in the hills, they decided to stay. Now they’ve had time to produce something like eight generations of inbreeding.

Southern California has more than its share of oddballs. Former child stars, now homeless, lurk on street corners handing out bad poetry for spare change. Environmentalists demanding justice assault mall patrons with protests and new car dealers with explosives. Acting students—working in every restaurant, café, bookstore, and crack-house—care more about their careers than your order. These people have no boundaries and believe the world owes them, if not a living, then at least a large beer.

We recommend you steer clear of the state. On one short ill-fated visit, we swear we encountered most of the region’s nutcases all in one place. It’s called the World’s Greatest Free Freak Show, but we didn’t know that when we arrived in Venice Beach, an ocean-side community south of Santa Monica. We had only heard of the famous boardwalk along its beach, where athletic joggers share space with bikini-clad rollerbladers, where dog-walkers and skateboarders somehow co-exist.

We found the town easily enough and spent the first carefree hour sightseeing for a parking space. Once we made it to the beach, we were immediately impressed with the high quality of its characters. We’re not your average tourists—not by a long shot—but even we could never attain this level of weirdness. The beach area held the cream of California’s crop of crazies. This was no easy feat, considering that rental prices in the community range from “High” to “Oh My God.” Where these people actually slept was a mystery. Maybe they flew in every morning from San Fernando Valley.

The beach scene was a carnival atmosphere, where anything goes. We’re not saying we were solicited for sex or drugs, but we won’t deny it either.

The least deviant people we encountered were the bodybuilders. Flexing and squatting and grunting, they exercised at Muscle Beach, an outdoor gym that sits right on the sand. It seemed narcissistic for someone to exercise in front of curious, funnel cake-eating onlookers, but then bodybuilding is narcissistic by nature.

All along the boardwalk, littering the sand like gnats, were “buskers,” “artists,” and “merchants.” Usually such terms evoke visions of people with talent and ambition, or at least teeth. Most of these “businesspeople” looked like they lived where they sat. Some looked as though they’d somehow survived on handouts without moving since 1972. They certainly hadn’t changed their clothes.

Then things turned worse. A Jimi Hendrix wannabe latched onto us. He played his electric guitar with mock emotion through a portable amplifier strapped to his waist while rollerblading through the crowd at high speeds. He followed us, skating backwards to “Purple Haze” until we paid him a couple dollars to leave. Even then he circled us a few times before darting off. We were glad to see him go; he stunk—not his guitar playing, his body odor.

This stolen image (we never got to photograph our assailant) only hints at the weirdness that is Venice Beach.

Of course, Venice Beach has lots to offer besides the people who inhabit it. Coffeehouses and boutiques line the boardwalk. The shops—with names like Surfing Cowboys, Johnny B. Wood, and The Modern Dog—sell almost everything, from hemp clothing to modern furniture. We’re talking Eclectic with a capital E. Since rents are so high, you might find that one-in-a-million whatever, but you’ll have to pay through the nose for it.

By the end of the day, we felt raw, sunburned, overwhelmed, and broke. All in all, that’s not necessarily bad, but it wasn’t the kind of day we had expected. Sometimes, you just chalk it up to experience. Other times, you realize you just picked the wrong day to stop snorting marijuana.

Lessons Learned: The reputation of a place (any place) gets cemented in the distant past. By the time you arrive for a visit, you’ll often find, as we did on this occasion, that the area has deceived you in a bait and switch. Whatever you expected, you’ll likely find a shallow representation instead. Venice Beach has its charm, but it’s like the grubby, bohemian artist who insists that he’s still relevant. To you and me, he’s not.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 4
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International Airport
Native Population: 38,000
Normal Attractions: Muscle Beach, beach volleyball courts, the boardwalk and its businesses, plus the people who inhabit it. In other words, it’s all about the sun. And commerce.
Final Point of Interest: Downtown Venice actually has some cool bars, nightclubs, and art galleries.