A project of Zach van Schouwen.


Boise, Idaho

It's painful to admit it -- and I'm sure more than a few people would laugh, but here I am to tell you, in my best impression of an older man's voice: "I'm getting older, man." And with age comes some strange shifts in taste. Not so long ago, I would have laughed if you told me I would have enjoyed a week in Boise. I think the early days of this blog would be far enough back.

But hey, you guys know me. I lean on my stereotypical blue state personality and tastes like a hip crutch. I like to be surrounded by people and old buildings at all times. People with piercings. A million Italian restaurants. You know the deal. Well, my tastes have shifted a bit. And when I just want to ride my bike, it's amazing to discover that, at this point, I'm just as happy to do it in a sprawling western city. Particularly one that's as remarkable as Boise.

A weird thing. Despite my praise, there's no denying that it's sprawling. Sprawl-y even. All the good restaurants are in strip malls. The main roads through downtown are six lanes, cutting between three-story buildings from the pioneer era. While here, I made my home base an anonymous hotel room on the upper floors of a 1970s hotel, one big window overlooking a parking lot and the woods around a creek. A creek that, as it turned out, fed into the Boise River:

The river has been, sensibly, preserved as a greenway, with an eighteen mile bike ride through city, suburb, alfalfa fields and eventually an endless straight shot down the unbelievably gorgeous deep river canyon to a reservoir. (Not pictured -- cameraphone just would not cut it.) In fact, I never got off my bike. I drove the car four times in a week. Go on, check it out.

Now that I've admitted my own stereotype, here's a few more: At the dairy freeze (there are several, of course), people wear ties. Cowboy hats are almost as prominent as the John Deere tractor hats, despite a remarkable lack of hipsters to match. Signs announcing the 45th parallel. It's 50 degrees when I wake up, 90 at 3 PM, and back down to 50 around sunset. "OPEN RANGE, WATCH FOR CATTLE." Golf courses in the middle of an unbelievably barren desert.

I know that sort of thing is an ecological disaster, but honestly, the whole thing was fantastic.


Summit Hill, Saint Paul

Our venue has changed a bit lately. Places That Don't Suck has relocated to sunny, sotwarey Seattle, so look forward to some new destinations here. Say, every six months, if the past is a guideline.

Getting here was an exercise in difficulty. My girlfriend and I chose to drive across the country, rather than taking one of the more conventional methods like, say, a plane. I bought an SUV (see, more blog posts *are* coming), filled it with junk, and we started driving. Four hundred pounds of books and clothes followed us by Amtrak. (I highly recommend this shipping trick. Dirt cheap, and you don't even need a receiving address.)

The only problem was that two days before we left, I came down with some sort of death flu. I spent every day lying on the couch moaning, periodically going down to fill up the car -- an act which drove my fever up about 2 full degrees each time I did it. So it was slow going. I drove across the country, popping aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol, cough drops, dextromorphan, etc. in roughly equal doses. This was enough to get me to about Columbus before I endured a full system collapse. After recuperating at the Short North Wendy's, we traveled on to Cincinnati, then back up to Chicago, then to Bismarck, with chills and shakes the whole way and multiple hospital visits.

(Adding insult to injury: When we got to Seattle, we both came down with strep throat immediately. The first week-and-a-half was spent in our miserable, humid, messy hotel room.)

So it was a mixed bag. But there's one gem in the entire experience (well, a few, really):

Summit Hill, baby. Saint Paul does not disappoint a worn-out traveler. My goal was to see the F. Scott Fitzgerald house -- for a while last year, I was trying to write a biography of its architect, William H Wilcox, a strange man who drew a famous map of the battle at Antietam (during his Civil War service), designed the Williamsburg Bank Building in Brooklyn, then went on to build half of St. Paul, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. So I had to walk down Summit, which has at least twelve houses he designed, not least of which was the home of young Francis Scott.

It's one of the houses mid-row. Not bad digs at all. But the rest of Summit is just stunning. Easily one of the prettiest streets I've ever seen, right up there with South Portland in Brooklyn. And it goes on forever.

I can't say we stopped in Minneapolis -- we didn't. I also didn't realize the river I was looking at from the park on Summit was the Mississippi. Later on, in Fargo, I was trying to figure out when we were going to cross it. Turns out Fargo is the RED River, genius. Oh well, I'll catch it on the next cross-country road trip, I guess.


Kingston, Ontario (and the way there)

Good evening, fellow motion junkies. Things have been a little grim around here recently, kinetic energy-wise. If it wasn't on the L train, I wasn't going there. It's too cold and snowy to bike. A man starts to get ideas in his head. A few weeks ago I stole a car (from my mother) and drove it to Canada for a total of one day.

The first stop on this trip was Oswego, New York, part of a small obsession with the history of my cagey family that I've been cultivating lately. Armed only with this sixty-year-old advertisement

I set out in search of my great-grandfather's metal shop, and found it. The Adams Hotel had undergone several reincarnations (the Joy Bar, the Smith Hotel and Tavern), and was now suffering out its last couple decades as a beat-up flophouse. Windows were broken, but some lights were on upstairs, and a sign on the door gave a phone number you could call to get a room, probably fenced in with chicken wire.

It had seen better days. You can tell where the turret used to be. If you make your way through the snowy parking lot, you can even see where the workshop was:

Not much to look at lately, but probably well-preserved. Okay, on we go, because I'm learning that East 3rd Street is kind of a bum hangout after dark.

Up and through Watertown, NY, which hasn't been dug out since 19 inches of snow fell. I had the address of a diner, and drove around for an hour asking unhelpful old men where it was. "You know where the auto parts store is?" -- "No, I'm not from here." -- "Okay, well, go to where Jim Franklin used to live, then turn left, then get in the middle lane, then drive eighteen blocks, then turn right on Oak Street, and watch out, there's no sign." When I found the diner, it was boarded up. I dejectedly skidded my way back to McDonalds, read USA Today, regrouped and crossed the border.

Kingston is worth it, fortunately. They have a nice Motel 6, where I set up camp, but I was wishing I'd stayed across the street

-- oh well, next time. Kingston also has more of that conventional Ontario gorgeousness:

You can skate in front of City Hall. The whole city is about three miles wide, and afterward the countryside goes on forever. It gets windy but it's gorgeous. In December the town basically breathes and bleeds snow. You just stumble from place to place through storms. My great-great-grandmother supposedly died after too many hours walking on unshoveled Kingston sidewalks. I'd be okay with walking around Kingston as an old man until my feet gave out, honestly. What a great town.

No big message here. "Kingston has good hamburgers?" "Cross the border more?" I drove almost 800 miles in one weekend, Modest Mouse style? I dunno. I need to keep moving. I'll leave you with this ancient barn on Perth Road, halfway to where guard dogs and a snowy dirt road prevented me from reaching my great-great-great-grandfather's old farm. Happy trails, y'all.


Ravenna, Seattle (and environs)

Recently, JetBlue was kind enough to offer me a trip to Seattle! All I had to do was pay them hundreds of dollars. I'm no fool. I didn't let this chance pass me by.

Prior to this trip, I'd been on the west coast a grand total of once. As a travel-blogger and all-around guru, this sort of thing damages your credibility... really, there was no choice. I'm pleased to report that not only is Seattle a Place That Doesn't Suck, but that I was able to Illustrate it.

Seattle is wonderful, first off, strange and empty and mild and beautiful. Especially by comparison to certain East Coast cities. Does the photo to the right, taken on a typical residential street in Ravenna, blow your mind? If not, I know at least one thing about you: You have not been living in New York for the past five years.

I went to a lot of neighborhoods in Seattle, but I'm singling out Ravenna as the new west coast love of my life. Reasons: (1) bizarrely quiet, (2) rose gardens, you can ride your bike (3) everywhere, because there is no traffic, and (4) trees. Oh my lord, the trees. The air. It's possible that breathing here was the most pleasant experience of my life to date. Don't get me wrong: Go everywhere (at least in Northeast, I can't vouch for all the other compass regions as confidently) -- but take a quick stroll here and remind yourself that urban life doesn't have to be oppressive.

The Mansion District, Albany

A bit of a change of pace here, although I haven't updated in so long you've probably forgotten what the pace was like to begin with. But in this case I don't know the history and can't be bothered to even make it up, so let's just talk appearances.

When you're upstate for awhile, you start jonesing for NYC, I find. After a certain number of quaint farm towns and general stores and state troopers, etc., etc., you really wish you could just look at some tenements for a few minutes. The next best thing, as it turns out, is to cut through Albany.

I never really knew a lot about Albany, although being from Springfield it wasn't exactly a long hop. But, I mean, why would you go? Even when I tell people about it now, they don't understand what I was doing there. What I was doing was just picking random freeway exits. If you happen to take Route 20 and pull over when you're driving up a giant hill, you'll hit the Mansion, an old townhouse neighborhood just across the highway from downtown.

Let's be frank: the Mansion is a slum. At 2 PM people are drinking out in the street, and half of the [beautiful] row houses are boarded up and being left to rot. Still, it's beautiful, and familiar-looking enough to tug on even the most diehard downstater's heartstrings. A Brooklynite like me familiar with the traditional course of gentrification might be tempted to drop three months' rent and buy a house [note, remove this slight exaggeration before publishing], fix it up, see where it takes them. Of course, then you're stuck living in Albany.

So act now! You too can have your own little piece of the 1970s! When you're bored, you can go to Empire State Plaza, which is one of the most underrated architectural disasters in America. Sure, it's a flat ugly Modernist hellhole, but hey... there's a reflecting pool! And the State House sure is purdy. At the very least, you should visit.


Yorkville, Manhattan

Oh, man, what are you doing with your life?

If somebody walked up to me on the street and said, "Oh, hey, Zach, how's it going? You've really lived such a great and virtuous sixty years that here, take my three million dollars," I would know immediately what I would do. I would hop on the 5 train, walk east down 86th Street, and buy one of the houses on Henderson Place.

As an old man in Manhattan, I would look back and say, "Yeah, I really did live a pretty good life. That was lucky of me. Now I live quietly in the smallest house on the Upper East Side, walk in the park every day, and play piano every night." I'd rent my ground floor apartment to destitute friends for free, make small talk with the various German shopkeepers, babysit their kids and live in a tiny brick house with a giant door and vines growing up and down the sides. Unwanted relatives would visit constantly.

Oh, man. Money cannot buy happiness with this single overriding exception.


A Bit Delayed

Mostly because I lack a means of conveyance. More coming soon.