Sunday, June 24, 2012

101 Places Not to See Before You Die

It's the middle of summer here in the hot and humid Midwest and we've had to postpone our August trip to Denmark and Sweden. Though I'm disappointed that instead of wandering the streets of Copenhagen and picking my way along the Swedish coastline I get to have surgery and lay in bed for 4 weeks; I can at least comfort myself that I've seen many of the 1000 Places to See Before you Die and missed almost all 101 Places Not to See Before you Die. (I, too made the mistake of visiting the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA.) As I'm still alive and kicking at this writing I still have time to see some truly great and truly awful things on this incredible planet of ours.
I picked up Patricia Schultz's 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and Catherine Price's response, the slightly less lugubrious and satirical 101 Places Not to See Before You Die at our local library after listening to an interview Rick Steves did with Patricia Schultz. Obviously, they're pretty different books; one organizes the world into regions and countries, and like Rick Steves' guidebooks, recommends the best, most unique places to see in each location; the other is an often hilarious send-up of places you would not want to see or be, for instance you would NOT want to see Pamplona from the perspective of the bulls running the streets during the annual Running of the Bulls #14, or be on an Overnight Train in China on the First Day of Your First Period #7.

I enjoyed reading both of the books, one to satisfy my bookish sense of curiosity and the other, my boundless sense of the ridiculous. Reading 1,000 Places to See Before You Die reminded me that I need to put a lot more cash in my travel account. I may never get around to staying in a Yurt in Mongolia and Jenni's already told me I will visit India without her, but I'm confident that I'll make it to Tuscany at some point. Thanks to Catherine Price, I know I can cross visiting A Giant Room Filled with Human Crap off my list #23.

I usually have little bad to say about my trips or the places I've been. Enjoying travel as I do, I generally have a sanguine attitude about whatever might happen. However, as I was thinking about places 'not to see' I have at least five I wouldn't recommend. Feel free to send me yours.

5) San Jose, CA. I hate to pick on San Jose again. But while driving the Pacific Coast Highway  from San Diego to San Francisco, Jenni and I arrived exhausted in San Jose, CA. It had been a great road trip to that point and something I would recommend to everybody. We had a terrible time finding anything to eat and anything to do in San Jose. As I mentioned above we visited the Winchester Mystery House. I found it a huge waste of time and money, a very large, empty and claustrophobic experience. I called it the anti- Hearst Castle. Maybe I just needed some sleep, maybe I wasn't there long enough, or maybe I needed a million dollar Internet start-up under my belt. Regardless, San Jose has been on my list for some time.

4) Manchester, England. Fortunately I'm far enough away that no Man U fans can get to me as I write this.  After driving up from the south during one of our trips to England, I found myself stuck for the night in suburban Manchester to await an early flight back to Chicago. I didn't find Manchester an easy place to drive, so after a few hours out and about we called it a day. The roads were congested and our hotel was nearly impossible to find. When we did get to the hotel, we sat down in the bar and realized our hotel was hosting a wedding party that evening. It turned into an all night fest of drunken Mancunians banging on the walls, knocking on our door and celebrating/fighting loudly beneath our window. We didn't get much sleep and embarked for the airport early the next morning. Spending several hours in the Manchester airport, which I hadn't enjoyed arriving in, also tops my list of places not to see again. Short of Wrigley Field's toilets and the gents at New York, New York, I've never been anywhere that smells so strongly of urine, and like any public toilet, not a place you want to linger.

3) Las Vegas, NV. Also on Catherine Price's list #84, I dislike the Strip in Las Vegas. I know Vegas is America's naughty playground, Sin City, the 'What Happens in...' place to be, where you can gamble all night, visit over the top shows, and rave along with Deadmau5 at the Wynn. But though I've visited for conferences, March Madness and bachelor parties, I hate being stuck in a casino on the Strip for any length of time, and more than that, wandering down the Strip in the evening. It could just be my way of looking at the world, but spending days with the background tinkle of slot machines, the endless miles you're forced to walk inside the massive casinos and shops, or simply watching the hookers work the floors, it all conspires to make me feel cynical and depressed. Sorry Vegas, I know I'll see you again soon, but I'm not looking forward to it.

2) Phoenix, AZ. There was little I enjoyed about my time in Phoenix, brief though it was. On our way down through the smog I actually felt our plane heat up. When they popped open the door it felt like a soda can opening up. As with Las Vegas, I have friends who have defected from the Midwest's hot, humid summers and wet, frigid winters for the consistently asthma friendly Western lands of Phoenix and Tuscon. Phoenix and it's suburbs were the brownest places I've ever been and like Dallas gave me the feeling I was in a city that shouldn't be there. Many of the places we drove through were rundown and trashy like the neighborhood we lived in back in Chicago, but without trees or grass. After spending a couple of sweaty days there considering a job, I was happy to drive up to the greener and far cooler cities of Flagstaff and Sedona for the remainder of the trip.

1) Central Illinois in winter. I can't let my home-state off the hook, can I? I have lived in Illinois for 41 years. The company I work for transfers employees in and out of Bloomington regularly. It's also a hub for consultants and external contractors from around the world. I have yet to see a newbie not struggle with the capricious Illinois weather, especially after Halloween. Even one of my Lithuanian coworkers seemed a bit down one year, and this was a guy who had no problem defending Stalin. The temperature on Halloween, itself might drop 20 or 30 degrees from an Indian summer-like day to a sudden deep winter-like night and then flip flop again and again for the next month. Winter arrives in November and remains a presence until mid-March. It can sometimes linger into May. It isn't so much the length of winter that's a drag in Illinois; it's the gray sky hanging over you, the sudden, feet deep snow, punctuated by the inexplicable warm day that's followed by an ice storm. We can, at times get a lot of snow, about every 4 years, but there's not much you can do with it in a land that's so flat but plow it and go to work. You need mountains, or at least hills, to really enjoy snow. And in years without snow it's just a long season of browns, still very wet and usually, very windy. There isn't much to do but watch football and basketball, and wait it out. I have some good winter memories, but those are because this is my home and my family is here. It's unlikely you'll ever see a travel brochure with the line, "Come see Iowa, Illinois and Indiana in January! Come for the ice, stay for the slush!" But if I wrote 101 Places Not to See Before You Die, 'Central Illinois in winter' would be my number 1.  

On a side note, 'Central Illinois in summer' tops Jenni's must miss places.

Brad and a centurion at Caesar's Palace

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