FIVE Strange Travel Experiences to Which No Writer Should Ever Be Exposed
So with travel writing on the brain lately, I’ve been reflecting on some of the weirder experiences I’ve had on FAM trips. Not that I’ve been on a whole lot of them, but it seems weird comes with the territory.
To some degree, this is good. I know the people who put these things together work hard to show travel writers, and travel agents (who are often on these tours as well), anything unusual they suspect might sell the destination. But there’s weird, and then there’s just implausible, freaky, off-putting, or a little too scary for prime time. I’m almost always up for a bit of weird. I just don’t want to get killed doing it.
#1: Orlando As A Cultural Destination
Upside of this trip: wow, swag out the wazoo. Not only is the hotel a five-star wonder, with those crazy 7000-thread-count sheets and a plethora of complimentary rubber ducks floating in your sink and your bathtub every night (I was very, very popular with all my friends who have kids after this trip), but upon my return to my room each night, there was a new giftie basket of some sort resting on my pillow. I do not expect swag, other than lots of informative literature, on press trips, but being a starving freelancer I’ll sure as hell take it, whatever it is, if it’s being offered. I know, call me shallow and unprincipled.
Downside of this trip: No matter how hard they tried — and believe me, they DID try — it was pretty much impossible to wrap one’s head around the trip’s theme, “Orlando as a cultural destination”. We toured a former artist’s colony/kibbutz sort of thing. A huge art museum (fifteen minutes, no loitering, have a complimentary cracker and everyone back on the bus, please). The home of Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and other chronicles of black folklore. The studio of a ballet company (did you know Orlando has TWO ballet companies?) where we bellied up to the barre and practised plies we hadn’t done since we were collectively 12. (Soooo not pretty, folks. I have the unpublished pictures to prove it.)
Attended a production of La Boheme which I quite enjoyed. (My parents would be so proud of their little opera rebel.) And would you believe. A holocaust museum. Yes. In Orlando.
But the thing about Orlando is, you cannot, cannot, cannot escape The Mouse. No matter how hard you try to pretend the place is about something beyond that. He’s there when you get off the plane and he’s in your face every second until you get back on another plane. And that’s how every single editor I pitched felt about it too. Not one of them believed I could sell Orlando as a cultural destination, which made it all an epic fail because I let down the kind folks who flew me down there and even hosted me (and the other journalists) an extra day at said five-star hotel avec ducks when the flights home didn’t work out. To this day, I’m hoping someone will buy the story, but it’s just too big a stretch.
#2: The Barns of Southern Kentucky
So here we all are in unexplored southern Kentucky. Land of bbq and coal mines and billboards promising you that Jesus will strike you dead for your sins. Land of former coal mines now, optimistically but spectacularly unsuccessfully, being turned into questionable tourist destinations. (SEE … the, um, coal mining equipment, now on display in our Coal Mining Museum. SEE … the entrance of the mine, but don’t go in because it isn’t safe. SEE … the coal miner’s one-room cabin which we will now rent to you for $1500 a week if you have a hankering to be somewhere completely deserted and uninteresting so you can write that novel without fear of distraction. SEE … oh, never mind.)
At one point we all emerged from the coal mine attraction and were taken on a tour of southern Kentucky’s charming rural barns. Now, all the other writers on the tour likely rolled their eyes at this point (don’t remember for sure), but this was where my ears (figuratively) perked up. Horsey girl like barns. Horsey girl can sell story about barns.
I’m not sure what went wrong with this part of the tour, but we got to the little town where we were supposed to pick up the local expert who was going to tell us the gripping history of these century barns and explain the architectural features which made them unique to the region. I could barely contain myself. Seriously. The expert, however, was a no-show. Instead the local tourism and convention board had sent along a woman who very obviously had only been informed she was being pressed into service about 10 minutes before we pulled up in the town square. She was fumbling with a map where barns were clearly not circled. Off we went onto the back concessions of Kentucky, while she gamely tried to remember where these barns were, and failed, for the most part. I think there were 10 that were supposed to be on the tour and we found three of them in the end. Did a lot of pointless driving up and down dirt roads, though. And as for the three we did find … well, they were charming century barns with some rather unique sort of overhang things in the front that I would dearly have loved to know more about. Function? Origin? But she didn’t know anything about them. Nada. Zip. “I think this one is pretty old” was about the wisest thing she contributed in three hours. Total fail.
#3: Taxidermy and Torture: How Restful
Still on the southern Kentucky tour. I alluded to this hotel in my last post, and thanks to Wikipedia being my friend, I have finally come up with its name for you: it’s the Cumberland Inn in Williamsburg, KY. A Must-See Destination. If you are less easily creeped out than I am.
So we land at the Lexington airport and then drive about five hours straight south down I-75 (if I’m remembering correctly) and I am running on about 45 minutes’ sleep and I start to nod off in the mini-van. Finally we pull into the parking lot for some huge white colonial thing which we are told is the bedrock of local employment round these parts, because it not only is the finest hotel in the region but it provides training for the local kids who are enrolled in the Hospitality Program of the adjacent University of the Cumberlands. Okay, that’s admirable, thumbs up to that, especially when we are told that the region is otherwise pretty much devastated and jobless. (If I hadn’t been zoned out I probably would have picked up on that by the vast quantity of beaten-up mobile homes visible from the highway.)
This hotel also has Something Special, though, and although we are all fried and absolutely starving, we are all scheduled to take the tour before we are fed. The Cumberland also fancies itself a museum. And as we wander from room to room, we’re all pretty sure we ain’t in Kansas anymore and that Toto has met with a horrible end. Mercifully, my brain has blotted out a lot of it, but in addition to the previously-referenced collection of miniature Bibles, there is also a room full of crucifixes. And by room, I mean the “Carl Williams Crucifix Collection”, with over 7000 individual depictions of a human being writhing blissfully on a cross with nails through his hands and feet. Surrounding you. On every surface from floor to ceiling. Collected by an Air Force chaplain who thought they would be soothing or inspirational to future generations.
If you’ve been reading this blog at all (and I have no idea why you would, but thank you all the same) you probably have a sneaking suspicion by now that I am a godless heathen, and you’d be right on the money there. But even if I did buy into the Christianity thing, I cannot imagine in a million years how this room could be inspirational to anyone. It was, frankly, horrifying and beyond disturbing, and now I can say it. At the time, I was trying to be a gracious guest tiptoeing semi-respectfully through the Bible Belt, and I kept my mouth shut (and booked it out of that room as soon as I could locate the door — only to find myself in an almost equally horrifying space full of stuffed dead things with glass eyes).
Hey, dead Jesus times 7000, followed by dead animals in grotesque poses. Thanks for the great night’s sleep, Cumberland Inn.
#4: Puddles O’ Fun
Same state, different tour. I seem to have spent a lot of time in Kentucky. Hmm. Wasn’t deliberate.
Anyway. This FAM tour was more central Kentucky-ish, and for the most part it was really good. We had an extremely personable guide who was well-prepared, knew the region and had a sense of humour, thank Christ (see above). If you haven’t seen the Mammoth Caves or any of the plethora of other caves down that way, I highly recommend them, kitschy though they might be … and I will more than likely expand on that experience in future. But I’m going to tell you a little about the cuisine of Kentucky, which as far as I can determine is designed to kill you with surgical precision.
Ever have something called a Hot Brown? This is a diabolical open-faced sandwich. Turkey, ham, bacon, a huge hunk of bread, and enough cheese sauce to throttle the arteries of a humpback whale poured over top. It is absolutely fucking delicious for about six bites, and after that you want to hurl at the sheer, stratospheric trans-fat content of it. If they could do a version on one quarter of an English muffin, it would be just about perfect, I figure.
Then there’s the local version of barbeque. Now the whole barbeque thing is an American cult, or rather a series of cults because each region has its own special way of making it. At Billy Bob’s Belly Bustin’ BBQ (I kid you not) the barbeque sandwiches themselves are yummy, but the sides that come with it are: fried green tomatoes. Fried potatoes. Fried sweet potatoes. Fried pickles. Fried zucchini. Fried okra. Fried mozzarella sticks. Fried coleslaw. You name it, it’s breaded and fried for your nibbling pleasure, and the folks serving it up have clearly been living on a steady diet of it since 1946. Eek. It’s rare that I hanker for a small green salad, but this place stirred up a hankerin’.
The piece de resistance was being treated to lunch at the original restaurant of Colonel Sanders hisself. Well, actually, his wife, Claudia, who apparently was responsible for most of the actual cookin’. At the Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, one can partake of the ‘real’ recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which tastes a whole lot like the franchise stuff, and I guess that’s oddly reassuring. But at a franchise KFC, you can’t get the truly unique selection of vegetables and sides you get at Claudia’s. As I recall, there are eight, and they all come in one texture: liquid. You can get a puddle of creamed corn, a puddle of creamed spinach, a puddle of something called “mock oysters”, which I gather is really eggplant (well, okay then …), a puddle of squash, a puddle of … something sort of gray … and I don’t remember the rest, but trust me, teeth were superfluous.
My digestive system did not handle it well, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
On the upside, the whole restaurant is adorned with photos and paintings of champion Thoroughbreds and Saddlebreds, which I grooved to.
Oh, and finally, there is Kentucky bourbon. Which I’m sorry, call me a philistine, but it’s undrinkable. Though the distillery tours are fairly interesting.
#5: Lethal Weapons
Not so much about the FAM tour, which was brilliant, orgasmic even (again, figuratively, since I don’t recall getting laid there). A riding and gastronomic tour of Tuscany. Oh, it was loverly, except for the timing.
Ruh-roh. International air travel a bit of a bother at the time.
All okay on the way there; once again I thank all the imaginary deities, past and present, for my Canadian passport. But on the way back I nearly get cavity-searched at the Frankfurt airport because I have a pair of eyebrow tweezers — the scissory-y kind — in my carry-on bag, along with the blush I hope will keep me from looking like death warmed over by the time I get off the bloody plane 17 hours hence.
I am told I am packing a lethal weapon with malice aforethought.
Actually it had never occurred to me to try plucking someone to death, but I suppose it could be done, if you’re bored with waterboarding and you like detail work.
Narrowly escaped incarceration (and German incarceration, at that) as well as missing my flight, by surrendering my very best, uber-reliable eyebrow tweezers to the Authorities.
Okay, lame ending. But I wanted to have five.