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Archive for August, 2009

In this great carnivorous land of ours, there are steak houses, and then there’s the Hilltop Steakhouse and Butcher Shop north of Boston in Saugus, Massachusetts.

The place is a brilliant anachronism, a throwback to traditional Western steakhouses, smack dab in the middle of New England. It’s got dark wood, cowboy boots and hitching posts (though no horses). Hell, there are even a bunch of plump cows out front (but they’re plastic; this is a minor detail).

It's a restaurant. And a metaphor.

It's a restaurant. And a metaphor.

The joint also is a living tribute to butcher-hood. You name the cut, you can get it there. Brisket. Porterhouse. Rump Roast. Don’t know what part of the cow your meat comes from? No worries—every placemat in the restaurant has a diagram to fill you in.

(Interesting fact from the placemat: A 1,000-pound steer yields 465 pounds of retail cuts.)

A friend and Boston-area native introduced me to this meat-loving Mecca about 15 years ago. Since then, every time I’m back in Beantown, I make a special trip.

As much as I love exploring new places in our country, there’s something nice about returning to the old ones again and again.

The experiences are like seeing an old friend—comfortable, calming and completely predictable. It’s the opposite of the “box of chocolates” line from Forrest Gump; you always know exactly what you’re going to get.

Especially when I travel alone, these bursts of familiarity energize me. The rituals are like reconnecting with an old friend, touchstones to provide perspective on the past. Sometimes, whatever the “Hilltop” might be, the same old same old makes the new experiences even richer, and, by contrast, harder to forget.

With all of this in mind, I returned to the Boston area for a wedding this past weekend. Wedding festivities began on Friday, but I flew in on Thursday for my Hilltop ritual.

Save for the disappearance of the Hilltop Brew, very little had changed since my last visit. The rooms were still named after famous Western cities. The steak tips (my regular order) still came with the option of onions and peppers. The servers—all Red Sox fans, of course—still ribbed me for wearing the Yankees cap.

In all, the meal was just like old times. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Is there any travel term as pejorative as “tourist trap”? It disses the attraction and it disses the doofuses (doofi?) who go there. Yeah, well, “tourist trap” is in the eyes of the beholder. We’d like to tell you about some places that others may scorn but we gladly allow to trap us.

Photo by rvaphotodude via Flickr

Photo by rvaphotodude via Flickr

The signs along I-95 South begin outside Philadelphia: “You never sausage a place,” “Best in this neck of the woods,” and “Be a Wise Guy.” They advertise South of the Border, a glorified (and Mexican-themed) truck stop along the freeway just south of the boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina. When I was a kid, my family passed the place on annual road trips from New York to Florida, but we never stopped. Then, in 1998, a buddy and I took a road trip specifically to SOTB. We bought sombreros. We ate greasy food. We posed for pictures with Pedro, the official mascot. We even stayed at the on-site motel. To this day the journey remains one of the funniest, weirdest and most existential adventures I’ve ever had. You can bet I’ll be back. —Matt

Photo by Jenna Schnuer

Photo by Jenna Schnuer

Giggles accompanied the planning for my first trip to Graceland. I’ve always loved Elvis’ music but Graceland itself would be all kitsch all the time, right? Not so fast. Yes, the shag carpet-covered ceiling in one room and the crazy wallpapers in pretty much every other room satisfied my kitsch lust. Yet, quickly, I realized Graceland was more about history. Granted, it’s a skewed version of history–the jumpsuits on display are all on the slender side and there’s nary a word of alcohol or drugs to be found. But the exhibits at Graceland helped me move past the gaudy and reconnect with the King’s legacy, music, and, ok, my true appreciation for his love of all things sparkly. —Jenna

Photo by julialat34 via Flickr

Photo by julialat34 via Flickr

I’m of the last generation that actually remembers Liberace and I wasn’t a fan or anything, but consider this: In 1954, Liberace sold out the Hollywood Bowl. In 1984, he broke sales and attendance records at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. Gotta to respect that, and appreciate his flaming, long before flaming was cool. (Although he was closeted until a 1982 palimony suit outed him.) The admission price for the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas is a steep $15, but it’s required viewing for kitschaholics. Liberace’s collections of costumes, cars and pianos are testaments to bad taste. As was his piano playing. May his memory live forever.–Sophia

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On a clear day atop California’s Mount St. Helena, the entire Bay Area comes into view.

In the mornings, a shroud of fog enrobes the Napa and Sonoma Valleys like a giant cotton ball, clinging to the green hillsides as the sun threatens to drive it away. In the afternoons, these same hillsides emerge as an undulating landscape, a lush version of the rolling waves due west, in the Pacific.

The view from the trail to the summit

The view from the trail to the summit

Perhaps the best time of day is evening, when the moon rises from the east like a silver saucer, illuminating the mountain in soft yet resplendent light.

It’s no wonder author Robert Louis Stevenson (yes, he of “Treasure Island” fame) spent a summer in an old mining shack here in 1880. Stevenson chronicled his experiences in the 1883 book, “The Silverado Squatters,” a great and detailed (albeit anti-Semitic in parts) read.

The book soon may be the only way for interested visitors to experience the park; the mountain and related trail systems lay within the boundaries of the aptly named Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, one of up to 100 state parks that might be closed by Labor Day to help eliminate a budget gap of $26 billion.

Faced with the threat of public lands no more, a buddy and I took a recent trip to the park to explore. We were blown away by how understated the place was.

Two images in particular lingered.

First, of course, was the spot where Stevenson and his wife spent their summer. No structures remain, but a concrete memorial in the shape of an open book on a pedestal now sits where the mining shack once stood. The memorial doesn’t say much—here lived Mr. Stevenson, blah, blah, blah. It was erected in 1911 by the “Club Women of Napa County,” whoever they were.

An understated memorial to an understated guy

An understated memorial to an understated guy

The second unforgettable image was the view from the top of 4,344-foot Mount St. Helena. The peak is the only place in Northern California from which you can spy land in three counties: Napa, Sonoma and Lake.

Ask any local vintner, and they’ll tell you that the schlep to the summit has become a Wine Country rite of passage. The summit was a reason to celebrate for us, as well; after the customary photo opp, Bill reached into his bag and grabbed two glasses and bottle of rose.

By the time my buddy finished pouring, the wind was whipping, the fog was burning off and we could faintly make out the silhouette of a hot-air balloon floating below us.

“To Stevenson,” I said, raising my glass. Let’s hope I can do it again soon.

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I love seeing civic pride displayed by B-list towns and cities, the ones that are on nobody’s bucket list. I first noted this in Abilene, Texas, which has both civic pride and cash (black gold, Texas tea) to back it up. Abilene is doing a lovely job restoring its historic downtown and it has some terrific museums, including the National Center for Illustrated Literature which, through September 19, has an exhibit of pop-up illustrations by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart.

That's Cheyenne's railroad depot in the background. Photo by Sophia Dembling

That's Cheyenne's railroad depot clock tower in the background. Photo by Sophia Dembling

Cheyenne, Wyoming has similar pride. Located on the high plains, it lacks (forgive me Cheyenne) the in-your-face beauty of other parts of the West. The town fills to bursting during Cheyenne Frontier Days, an annual rodeo and celebration of the West since 1897, but otherwise is more often passed through than visited.

But like Abilene, Cheyenne puts heart, soul and dough into its parks, museums, and historic downtown, including its old train depot (“The Most Beautiful Railroad Station Between Omaha and Sacramento!”). Horse and buggy tours of downtown are free, and locals turn up in droves for summer concerts on Depot Square Plaza. (On an unrelated shopping topic: The Wrangler is a swell downtown Western wear shop dating to 1943 and it has a cool sign that I took a bazillion photos of in the changing light.)

Great Western wear store, cool sign. Photo by Sophia Dembling

Great Western wear store, cool sign. Photo by Sophia Dembling

Over Labor Day weekend, Cheyenne is hosting the Cheyenne Cowboy Heart of the West Festival and the Magic City Bluegrass Festival. Music, poetry, bluegrass workshops, crap to buy … it’s all good. I’m giving thumbs-up to this as a weekend getaway. Flyover America fans give major props for a good attitude.

Do you have a favorite B-list town?

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Is the 2.5-hour wait to get up to the Skydeck of Chicago’s Sears, er, Willis Tower worth it? (Oh, that name change!) Without hesitation, I say yes yes yes. Stepping out onto one of the new glass box observation decks with my sister-in-law and nieces is my favorite travel memory of the summer.
over Chicago

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We don’t dispute that the best kind of travel is the kind you do on your own—those trips where, upon poking around, you discover things you never would have discovered any other way. That said, sometimes guided tours are pretty fun, too. Every once in a while, we hardened travel scribes put our journeys (and stories) in the hands of skilled professionals whom we trust to share their knowledge and teach us about the places they call home. Here are our recollections of memorable guided tours from over the years.

hey there

Photous interruptus, flashlight-tour style


Few places seem as off-limits as a cemetery at night. But with the head historian from Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery leading the way, we set off for a flashlight tour of the grounds. Though the moon was out in full, it would have been easy to turn down the wrong path. We were saved by two accordion players up ahead, their tunes acting like sound magnets to pull us forward. All went quiet when the historian unlocked the gates on one of Green-wood’s catacombs. Inside, it was hard to push off the fear that I would end up locked inside for eternity or, at least, until the next flashlight tour swung through.–Jenna

Before I took the tour at Napa Valley’s Schramsberg, the oldest sparkling wine house in the country, all I knew about bubbly was that I liked to drink it. Everything changed during 75 minutes in the caves with Art Lee, our guide. Holding court beneath black lichen resembling spider webs, Lee gave us a crash course in all of the intricacies of making wine fizz. He used humor. He used props. He also set the record straight: If it ain’t made in the Champagne region of France, it ain’t champagne. All told, the information was complicated stuff, yet somehow, I digested it all. Afterward, we washed down our new knowledge with four generous tastes.–Matt

Photo by Sophia Dembling

Photo by Sophia Dembling

If my memory didn’t suck, I’d recount all the cool stuff I learned on my Adventures in Beach Combing walk in Texas’ Matagorda Bay Nature Park. That’s my problem with tours: I learn fascinating stuff and promptly forget it. Here, Master Naturalist Linda Serrill explains seaweed or something. We saw Portuguese Man-of-Wars washed up on shore. And according to my notes, some snail eats Man O’ Wars. My notes also say “morning glory,” “welk, state shell, left handed welk,” “egg case I’ve probably stepped on them and not known it, tater chip,” “shell bean used as snuff boxes,” “giant murex, shells as species,” and “quahog.” Make of that what you will. I enjoyed the tour, though. Really.–Sophia

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The rise of “singers” such as Miley Cyrus, Fergie and Lady GaGa make me long for the days when our musical artists were just that—artists.

At times like these, I long for singer/songwriter/troubadour Paul Simon.

I contend that no musician since Woody Guthrie has done a better job at spinning musical yarns about journeys through the heart of America. He’s subtle. He’s explicit. And he has lessons for all of us travel writers.

Still crazy good, after all these years.

Still crazy good, after all these years.

The songs “America” or “American Tune” appear on just about every “Best Travel Song” list ever written (including my own). His classic paean, “Armistice Day,” paints the picture of small-town parades in dozens of patriotic small towns across the country. The former Mr. Carrie Fisher even wrote an entire album about the wonders of Graceland.

Hell, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” is a potentially evergreen anthem for New Orleans ad campaign.

Here at Flyover America, we’re also particular fans of “Hearts and Bones” off the album by the same name. The song makes reference to one-and-one-half Jews traveling in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of New Mexico.

We like it because we’re two-and-one-half Jews, and because those peaks could very well be the most spectacular and underrated in all of North America.

The list of superb Simon songs about Flyover America could go on and on (I haven’t even mentioned “Trailways Bus” from The Capeman, until now). Instead, I submit a detailed defense of Paul as a travel-writing muse:

  • His metaphors. Somehow, Simon is able to use words to paint universal pictures which work for everyone. Case in point: “Graceland.” Sure, he’s referring to the Elvis Mecca in Tennessee, but he’s also speaking about the personal Graceland for each of us.
  • His attention to detail. All great travel writers provide colorful, specific examples and Simon seems to do this with ease. He and Kathy aren’t counting cars on any road in “America,” they’re on the New Jersey Turnpike.
  • His ability to self-edit. Authors like Pico Iyer, Ian Frazier, Simon Winchester and Paul Theroux have 400 pages to tell their tales. Paul Simon usually gets across his messages in three verses or less.

More than anything, I heart Simon for his elegance. While describing a Fourth of July celebration in “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” he writes, simply: “We watched the fireworks/till they were fireflies/Followed a path of stars/over the endless skies.”

In a word: perfect.

Which musical artists do you admire for the way they paint a picture of the nation you know and love? Why?

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