I’ve never been much of a vacation guy.
I know some people who spend their entire summers traveling, visiting the corners of the world with frequent flyer miles or road-tripping to US hot spots. It’s my understanding people enjoy doing this.
Growing up, my parents’ idea of going on a summer vacation was blaring John Phillip Sousa on the home stereo at 7:30 and marching me out to the backyard in 2/2 time. My brother and I would fall in for reveille and be assigned a series of grueling and tedious tasks, like scraping the barn free of its lead-based paint or weeding an infield-sized plot of land that was more dandelions than mulch.
I didn’t see much of the world from my backyard, but my job working for a band gave me lots of travel opportunities. Over the course of two years, I visited 47 states (North Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii are the three; people always ask).
I’m glad I got to explore the country. It’s a Kerouacian, romantic thing to do, even in hindsight. I discovered some great places I’d love to visit again, including some places that took me by surprise (like, who knew Omaha was so cool?).
But after criss-crossing the nation’s highways and byways half-a-dozen times, I also came across places that should be avoided.
Submitted for your approval, the top 5 most bummer places I’ve ever visited.
A slightly obvious disclaimer: your mileage may vary. A lot of my impressions of cities are colored by my experience visiting them while working on tour. Tour can be fun and exciting, but it’s also agonizing and repetitive. Many places I visited four or five times and never saw more than a highway, a seedy club, and a three-star hotel by the airport.
So don’t get butthurt if your city makes the list. I’m sure it’s nice and unique in its own way.
5 – Houston, Texas
You know you’re in trouble when the best-known catch phrase about your city is “we have a problem.”
For starters, Houston is fucking hot. I’ve been to hotter places — both Arizona and Palm Springs were like 110 when I visited them — but desert heat is dry and pleasing, like stepping into a pizza oven or blasting yourself with a hair dryer. Houston’s heat is sticky and wet, like walking around in a pot of beef stock. You go outside and you’re instantly soaked.
Unlike Austin — cool hipster downtown scene — San Antonio — Riverwalk and the Alamo — Dallas — big hair and big malls — or even the wasteland of West Texas — Friday Night Lights — Houston bummed me out.
If there is a nice part of Houston, I didn’t see it. The streets were dirty, the neighborhoods were sketchy, and everyone shuffled around with a look on their face that said what did I do to end up here?
As far as I can tell, the best thing about Houston is James Harden’s beard, but my friend Jim lived there for awhile and he said he liked it. That being said, Jim worked for Mission Control during the Challenger explosion, so you can draw your own conclusions there.
4 – Petersburg, Va
I hate to even put this on the list because I don’t dislike Petersburg. I go there every year for a journalism adviser’s retreat and I really enjoy it. It’s got a couple of good breweries and a quaint downtown with cobblestone streets. Edgar Allan Poe honeymooned there with his wife/cousin, which is cool in a sort of depressing, incestuous way.
But this isn’t a list of places I necessarily hate; it’s places that bum me out. And P-burg is a Bummer-with-a-capital-B.
Petersburg has a vivid history if you’re into the Civil War or tobacco manufacturing, and it’s the birthplace of rapper Trey Songz…but that’s about it.
What made Petersburg thrive in the 19th Century was the fact that it was a major railroad hub between Richmond and the northern part of the state. The problem is that nobody uses railroads anymore, and the major highways of the state have essentially bypassed it altogether. So, like many once great American cities, it’s been left to rot.
Case in point: the city’s Wikipedia page has seven subheadings from 1748 to 1882, and then one entitled “20th Century to present.” The majority of the latter entry discusses Petersburg’s economic collapse, its struggle to annex more land in an attempt to expand its tax base, and its issues with racial infighting. Oh, and a 1993 tornado that ravaged downtown and destroyed a bunch of historic buildings and businesses. Even the weather gods aren’t above kicking a city when it’s down.
3 – Los Angeles, Ca
I’m not the first one to hate on the City of Angels. In 2000, the ska band Less Than Jake released a song called “Hell Looks a Lot Like LA.” A couple of months later, I heard the Goldfinger song “The City with Two Faces,” the chorus of which is:
If I was smart, I’d run out of this town
Sometimes I want to shout and scream
But come on, earnest 16-year-old me thought, it can’t be that bad. Los Angeles is the Manhattan of the West. Hollywood, Tower Records, The Whiskey. Swimming pools and movie stars.
Then I visited. No, it’s just as bad as those punk bands said it was.
I never felt comfortable in LA. It’s probably because I’m an east coast kid, where I learned to move fast, get shit done, and wear my opinions on my sleeve. Dudes from New York or Philly will tell you to fuck off without thinking. Bros from Boston won’t even tell you — they’ll just start pounding you and let you figure out why. But in LA, everyone pretends to be your friend.
A couple of times, I attended industry parties (it’s my understanding every party is an industry party) and always left with my skin crawling. The first part of every conversation must begin with an exchange of scene credentials, like a border guard demanding to see your papers. There’s a similar social dance in DC, but in DC a conversation begins with what do you do? In LA, it begins with who do you know?
Everyone is someone in LA, or at least they’re pretending to be someone, or wishing to be someone and hoping they can trick you into thinking they’re someone by wearing quirky sunglasses and espadrilles. Wherever you go, you’re up to your ankles in dropped names.
And yeah, the traffic is just as bad as the legend holds. I complain about my commute on the Beltway, but traffic on the 405 makes DC look like Topeka.
Southern California has its charm. Huntington Beach is Utopian; San Diego feels like what I wish Los Angeles would be. But visiting LA makes me understand why Fitzgerald drank himself to death.
2 – Eugene, Oregon
There’s lots I like about Oregon. It’s the home of The Goonies, Chuck Palahniuk, and some kick-ass craft beer. I also feel a weird sense of brotherhood with it because it’s the only state other than New Jersey that doesn’t allow its residents to pump their own gas.
Portland is a nice town. It’s got a very granola vibe that’s endearing and makes me want to buy a fuckload of Patagonia shirts and get obsessively into grinding my own coffee.
But Eugene is the pits. Everyone looks homeless, not in the chic Brooklyn way, but in the even-if-you’re-trying-to-be-a-hipster-you’re-still-disgusting way. People in Eugene walk around like they missed the memo that Vietnam is over and they can put away their daisies and get a fucking job.
Even the name Eugene bugs me. Eugene is that annoying kid down the street with the big ears that throws rocks at dogs and tramples flower beds and then pretends like it wasn’t him. He might grow up and try to go by “Gene,” but we all fucking know who he really is.
I’m mostly bitter because I had two guitars stolen from me in Eugene. The band had just finished its set, and I was loading the trailer. When I returned with my arms full of drum hardware, the Les Paul and Telecaster I had just brought out were no longer in the trailer. Some scumbag walking by decided they were his now.
Way to go, Eugene. Peace and love.
1 – Niagara Falls, NY
Niagara Falls and Petersburg are bummers in similar ways. They both stand as reminders that nothing gold can stay and exist only as former shells of themselves. I’m rooting for Petersburg and will continue to go back even though it bums me out, because I admire the hope of its residents and small business owners fighting to sculpt a new, post-railroad world.
When it comes to Niagara Falls, I’d be happier if we just handed it over to Canada.
The falls themselves are lovely for about 10 minutes before you get bored watching the physics of gravity. And then, realizing the only options in the visitor center’s food court are four different Indian restaurants, you stare at all the cool shit on the Canadian side and wish you had the foresight to bring your passport.
Niagara seems to be in denial about having one foot in the grave. I suspect it lives on as a tourist spot only through the memories of septuagenarians, who had a lovely time on their honeymoon there back in ’57.
My wife, who went to college in Niagara, must’ve gotten some travel advice down at the nursing home, because last year she booked us a weekend getaway there. The hotel was a little pricey for Western New York, but it was only a mile from downtown and had a jacuzzi in the room. I’d never had a hotel with a jacuzzi in it, but it seemed swanky and romantic.
Reader, it was not. Unless, of course, you have a thing for mildew.
We planned on having a nice dinner one night in Little Italy, which turned out to be a strip of buildings that housed one viable restaurant. The rest of the block looked like it had just suffered a V2 rocket attack. We drove to Buffalo for dinner.
The one redeeming venue was the outlet mall, which we visited three times over the course of our two-day visit. Melinda bought a nice Coach purse for a song, and I spent $60 in a store that sold 400 types of beef jerky.
There are six other Wonders of the World. You can skip this one.
Honorable Mention: The State of Florida
I’ve been to Florida a lot and have had some really good times there. But people from Florida are fucking nuts.
I thought everyone knew this and it was kind of a running gag, like New Jersey being the armpit of America (which North Jersey totally is). Most people get the Florida joke – Google “Florida man” and your birthday and you’re going to see some fucked up shit. The best episodes of Cops are filmed either in Florida or the part of Alabama which is basically Florida.
But I once made this joke to a co-worker from Florida and told her it made sense she was from there because she’s nuts. She had to excuse herself because she started to cry, which kind of proved my point and made me an asshole in one fell swoop.
Since then I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, but every time I meet someone from Florida, I think it. Hard.