Back in 2008, I left Hawaii and set out on an adventure that took me across the USA by Amtrak train, I called it the Amtrek. This week, for the Vagobond Travel Museum, I bring you the collected articles and videos from that trip. The trip began in Honolulu and then went to Portland, Oregon from where I crossed the country and ended in New York City with a one way flight to Barcelona – the truth is, the trip has never ended since I’ve never gone home.
Along the way, I couch-surfed and asked my hosts the same set of questions, those videos are below and worth watching. Keep in mind, this was before couch-surfing had gone mainstream.
Here are the ten lessons I learned on that trip:
The trains through the Rocky Mountains have the most incredible viewing cars for enjoying the magnificent landscape.
Sacramento is a lot cooler than I thought it would be and the train museum is a must see..
Utah is an incredibly rugged and scenic state filled with some very cool folks in Salt Lake City.
I want to travel by train to Austin, Texas and Detroit, Nashville, and New Orleans. I’ve still never been to those cities.
I love New York and Boston – taking a train to them was the way to go. People in these cities rock.
Philly and Chicago are both incredibly cold in winter, but the people I met in them were pretty great.
It’s better not to hurry, a 14 day rail pass was too short for a true American experience.
Too many museums in too short a time can’t be appreciated – so get a longer rail pass.
Libraries are havens of free wifi and peaceful places to work – trains should always have wifi and should have libraries for passengers.
Making the wrong friend can suck out part of your enjoyment of life and destroy a train trip – the right friends can make a boring stretch very exciting.
New York City is packed with world-famous attractions; tell someone you’re going there on holiday and they’ll immediately start talking about sites like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Center. But if, like me, you’ve been before and seen all the most famous attractions, you might be wondering, ‘what’s next?’.
So, I’ve put together a list of of some of the best lesser known places to visit in the Big Apple. And of course, if you’ve stayed here before you’ll also want to make sure you choose different accommodation to last time (preferably in another part of the city, too, for variety) so check out your options.
Socrates Sculpture Park
Where: 32-01 Vernon Boulevard at Broadway, Long Island City, Queens
If there’s ever been proof that a little effort can turn something everyday into something special, Socrates Sculpture Park is it. Back in 1986, artists and activists teamed up to create the park on a landfill site – and it’s still thriving today.
Exhibiting sculptures throughout the year, the park is also very much a community space, hosting a regular market as well as free fitness and relaxation sessions, such as tai chi and yoga.
Where: East River
This little island is part of Manhattan, but has quite a different feel. Something that sets it apart immediately is that you need to hop on the only commuter tram in the metropolis to reach it – a journey that takes around four minutes.
This place is largely residential and it’s great for walking around, but there are a few places you shouldn’t miss, like the Gothic-style lighthouse at its northern end, and Southpoint Park. Head to the edge of the latter and you’ll be able to see the crumbling ruins of the smallpox hospital – a pretty eerie sight.
Paley Center for Media
Where: 25 West 52nd Street
New York’s fairly famous for its museums, many of which focus on high art. So, if you want to see something a bit different, it pays to come to the Paley Center for Media, which is instead dedicated to pop culture – particularly TV, radio and podcasts.
This interesting collection has more than 150,000 clips from various media, while it also regularly hosts talks from industry bods (like influential people behind major TV series). I’d therefore recommend checking out what’ll be on during your visit before deciding when to go.
Merchant’s House Museum
Where: 29 East Fourth Street
Seeing a preserved home in New York City is pretty rare. Actually, it’s so rare that the Merchant’s House Museum is the only 19th-century townhouse in the metropolis that’s been maintained just as it was both inside and out. Inside, you can see original furnishings and personal possessions dating back to 1835.
The Treadwell family lived here during this time, and it’s said that the ghost of Gertrude Treadwell haunts the place – she died alone after her father (reputedly) refused to let her marry her true love.
Hall of Fame for Great Americans
Where: Bronx Community College, 2155 University Avenue, 188 Street, Bronx
The US is home to its fair share of halls of fame these days, but the Hall of Fame for Great Americans is thought to be the original. It dates back to 1900, when it was built to pay tribute to Americans who have influenced the course of the country’s history.
Come here and you can see 98 bronze busts of key figures, including Alexander Graham Bell and Franklin Roosevelt. Plus, the building itself is impressive, being a 630 ft high open-air colonnade. As well as being a striking sight in itself, it’s also got some amazing views across the Harlem River.
Travel is different today than it has ever been. Things are crazy right now with lockdowns, quarantines, and more. One of the hardest hit places in the world is New York City. We, here at Vagobond love New York, and who doesn’t? Our hearts and thoughts are with New York and we just want you to know – we know that you will get through this. We offer you the following with optimism and hope for the future. We know that we will get through this and when we do…travel will come back – different, for sure, but also the same – things will be slow at first and we imagine that people will be staying a little closer to home, not going abroad as much.
If you’re travelling a little bit closer to home, New York is one of the most exciting destinations in North America. It’s a huge city with plenty to do and to see. However, there are some activities and places you simply shouldn’t miss.
During the day, New York has a rich selection of sights to see. The Statue of Liberty is iconic, and you can’t leave the city without seeing it. It’s also worth taking time out to visit Central Park (and if you’re with kids it’s a great chance to let them run off some excess energy), or taking the (free!) Staten Island Ferry for an extra bit of sightseeing. And of course, don’t miss the fantastic shopping opportunities New York has to offer right in the centre of the city, including the chance to see the famous Times Square.
In the evening, the one activity you shouldn’t miss out on is the chance to see a Broadway show. Famous around the world for exciting theater, often featuring film stars over from Hollywood, this is the best place to see the latest hit everyone is talking about. There are 41 large professional theatres on Broadway, meaning the choice of shows is wide-ranging and there is something to suit everyone, whether you are a couple, a group of friends, or a family. If you’re struggling to decide, take a look at the infographic below. It will help narrow down options through a fun quiz, and even suggest some shows you might enjoy based on your personality!
I originally published this 11 years ago back in January 2009 upon the eve of what I thought was my final departure from the United States. I’m still looking for my shire. It’s not Morocco and it’s not Oahu and probably not the USA – Turkey was wonderful, until suddenly political and religious bullshit ruined it. Who knows where it might be but I wonder if I will ever find it?
The Journey’s Reason/ The Quest
Let’s start with the obvious, I leave the United States this afternoon. I have no idea what the future holds. I’m not even sure if I will ever be back here. That’s part of the reason why it’s nice to have been able to visit Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Chicago, Boston, Providence, Warwick, New York City and Queens before I leave. In addition, I was able to look at just about everything in between from the windows of the train. It’s an incredibly beautiful country filed with a lot of wonderful people.
New York is a magical place, but unless I somehow become wealthy enough to have a car service, hire taxis every day, and have a beautiful apartment here, it’s just too cold in the winter for me to ever consider calling it home.
Ultimately, that’s what this trip is about. It’s about finding a place to call home so I can dig in, plant some roots, and put my energy into creation. What about Hawaii? Well, Hawaii is great but I like it to be a little cooler than Hawaii (but not as cold as the Northeast), Hawaii is too far from other places, and unfortunately, I saw myself staying in one service job after another if I stayed there. Or becoming an academic and frankly neither option appeals to me.
So that is why I am leaving. It’s a journey, a searching, a quest and I suppose unlike the Lord of the Rings, this quest starts from a magical land and ideally takes me to the Shire. I’m looking for a Shire, not too hot, not too cold, not too far from the world, and connected via the internet.
As my friend James pointed out the other day, we are getting older and it is becoming obvious. Of course sometimes it manifests in ways that I don’t expect and I have to admit to not enjoying that at all.
On the upside, I am more in control of my life than I have ever been before. My capacity to make decisions is unsurpassed in my own life experience. I have learned the lessons of this life I’ve lived (hopefully) and I feel like I am cooler, smarter, better looking, and more together than I have ever been. That’s a pretty good upside.
The downside is more subtle. I’ve been having a hard time finding couches to surf since the West Coast. I attributed it to my lack of planning more than anything else, but there is another possibility that I have to consider. I’m 37. It says so on my couch surfing profile. Even though I meet people and they generally think I am in my late 20s to early 30s, I usually find that their behavior towards me changes (if they are younger) when they find out my age. It happened over and over again in college.
The book of the dead and those reflected in it.
The reason for this change and perhaps for this prejudice against people my age on things like couchsurfing.com is probably justified. Let me repeat that, I think it is probably justified. The truth is that for every guy like me (adaptable, smart, fun, and ‘ahem’ fairly normal) who is vagobonding, there are probably 10 weirdos of the same age that are out to exploit, steal, or who are just crazy. Let’s face it, at 37 I’m supposed to be married, in a career, a father, have some money in the bank, and be living a ‘responsible’ life. Either that or there is potentially something wrong with me…or (as in the present case) I am just a very different type of person who hasn’t followed the usual path.
Frankly, I feel like I think I was supposed to feel in my mid to late twenties. And I’m okay with that, actually, I’m really okay with that because I plan on living for a really long time so there is no need to become old prematurely. The problem is that for the past six nights I think I have been put in an ‘old men’s dorm’ at the Chelsea International Hostel. Nearly everyone in my dorm has been the same age or older than me and aside from ungodly snoring, farting, and other loud bodily noises, I’ve noticed that there has usually been something not quite right with these guys. So you see, maybe I’m guilty of the same prejudice. Here’s a funny thought, maybe all the old guys in the room (including yours truly) all are thinking the same thing.
In any event, I’ve become fairly certain that my age is working against me on couchsurfing and now in this hostel at least. Incidentally, aside from price and location, I wouldn’t recommend this hostel. It’s loud from repairs and old pipes, it doesn’t have a comfortable common area, no chairs in the dorms, and it doesn’t provide wi-fi. I think wi-fi and a comfortable place to sit are high on my list of desired traits in hostels.
And that brings me to cafes.
In the age of the laptop, a cafe without wi-fi is like a cafe without coffee. I’ve been staying in Chelsea and for such a hip and cool neighborhood, I have been surprised to find the only coffee shops with comfortable seating to be Starbucks. How much does that suck? At least in Honolulu we had the option of Starbucks or a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and at CB &TL there was free wi-fi if you bought anything. Here, the Starbucks are packed and the wi-fi is a big rip off from AT&T.
I found a handful of places offering wi-fi and out of those the only one that actually worked was here at the Brooklyn Bagel Company. And I have to wonder if the brushed metal seats and marble counters and tables are designed with making asses and elbows cold. I do like this place though. Great bagels with huge gobs of cream cheese, free wi-fi that works, and some interesting art on the walls.
I spent yesterday at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was astounding and wonderful and overwhelming. It is filled with millions of objects d’art from all over the world. There are entire Egyptian Temples, dozens of mummies, giant rooms filled Picasso, entire rooms from famous mansions and when I say entire rooms, I mean the floor, the ceiling, the wainscoting, and everything else. There is a library parlor designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and everything else you can imagine.
The problem with all of that is that I was trying to see it all in a day. I’ve come to the conclusion that I would rather spend long periods contemplating one exquisite piece of art than to be running around manically trying to appreciate so much in so little time. Not that I would change having gone yesterday, I just realize that I missed a lot by seeing so much.
And finally, Let’s look at the United States.
As I’ve said, I love the land and I love the people, but I think that we, as a country have lost something within my lifetime. I don’t know if it was born of the cynicism of Vietnam or the excesses of the 1970’s and 1980’s, but there is a sort of ugly greed that exists here. The culture here has become very much “The United States of Me” rather than “We the people”. The difference is of course in who is being served and who is taking responsibility.
I decided to do a different perspective of Venus. I don’t think she noticed. Nice, huh?
It’s not a big surprise at this point that we are heading into a fantastic depression. It might be a good time to start reflecting on those famous words of JFK “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I’ve lost faith that Americans are capable of such selflessness and perhaps I am simply one of the first rats fleeing a ship that I think is sinking.
Obama might be a fantastic change in the right direction though. I hope. We will see. The United States has become such an incredible slut to Israel, multinational corporations, and institutions such as the world bank, the WTO, and the IMF; unfortunately, I don’t see these relationships changing under Obama. I hope I’m wrong.
And then there is the racism. I’m terrified of the possibility that some nutjob racist will kill Obama. Or some foreign government pretending to be a nutjob racist. My mom, a bit of a nutjob herselftold me to focus on survival skills when I should have been focusing on math because she said that someday there would be a huge race war. She wasn’t a white nationalist, she was a freaky christian hippy, with some odd ideas and some leftover 1950’s prejudice. Frankly, I never considered her crazy ideas to have any merit even through Rodney King, Reginald Denny, and the LA Riots, but when I think of Obama getting shot by some redneck, suddenly I can picture LA happening on a nationwide scale…
Okay, not really. I think we are more rational and better than that, but it could certainly cause some problems. And what happens when Hope gets killed? It’s like the Langston Hughes Poem “A Dream Deferred”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it sag on your back like a heavy load?
Or does it…Explode?
Anyway, I’m leaving. I might be back. I hope Obama can fix everything while I’m gone. Good night and good luck.
Saying you are going to visit New York is like saying you are going shopping. Where? For what? With whom? So it’s time to stop being vague and start being specific. Let’s talk about neighborhoods – each neighborhood in NYC has its own character and purpose, and you can easily spend an afternoon eating and drinking your way through them without ever having to descend into the train stations or spend money on a cab. One of the best neighborhoods for adventurous foodies is Hell’s Kitchen.
Hell’s Kitchen, roughly 40th-60th streets on 9th and 10th avenues, got its name from the time when West Side Story was written. It used to be a rough hood, full of gang strife and hoodlums. Even through the 80s, a nice kid like me would never walk west of 8th avenue – it was just not a savory neighborhood.
However, the cleaning up of Times Square has brought good along with the evils of Applebee’s, and some of that is that Hell’s kitchen has become safe while retaining its many wonderful ethnic restaurants. Starting south all the way uptown, you can literally develop gout from the delicacies:
Sandwich Planet – (http://www.sandwichplanet.com) ignore the $27 dollar BLTs elsewhere and come right here for the best things between sliced bread. Ignore the fact that it is located on the “wrong” side of Port Authority. Come for the reasonably priced beers, the thick milkshakes, and the truly unbelievable sandwiches. Served on artisan bread and with the best ingredients possible, these babies are chock full of home roasted turkey, fresh vegetables, and served with handmade fries. Order a burger for something different – they are some of the best and juiciest in town, served on tangy sourdough bread.
99 Cent Pizza (569 9th Ave)artisanal this ain’t, but you have to love how day or night, Christmas or New Year’s Day, whenever you want, you can get a slice for just a dollar. This place won’t win any prizes for originality, but its thin crust under oregano heavy sauce and oil slicked, bubbly cheese is nostalgic and comforting at 2 am after a long night.
Esca – (http://www.esca-nyc.com)debatably the best seafood restaurant in town. This Mario Batali joint is part owned and run by its chef, Dave Pasternack, who goes out fishing to bring back the best that he can offer. The menu often changes twice daily, so customers know that they are getting the best seafood possible. The crudo are always fresh and clean, the pastas are handmade, and the affogato is a delight. As a bonus, the wine list is extensive and interesting. This isn’t cheap, but the food is so fresh and flavorful that you won’t mind dropping few bucks.
Amy’s Bread – (http://www.amysbread.com)if you want bread, this is where you come. There are better cakes and cookies to be had, but the bread here is incredible – that is why there is always a line extending out the door of this tiny shop, from dawn till dusk when it closes. Go for the potato dill, the fennel raisin, or the chocolate sourdough twists. The breads are unique, baked daily, and beg to be tasted the minute you have a loaf in your hot little hands.
Pam Real Thai – (http://www.pamrealthaifood.com) there are many Thai restaurants that line 9th avenue, but none is as spicy, as garlicky, and as mind-blowingly funky as Pam’s. Both of her locations, just 2 blocks apart, serve up home-style Thai food that is closer to what you might get in Thailand than what you might get in NYC. The pad kee mao is especially hot and flavorful, redolent of garlic, chiles, and fish sauce. Order it extra spicy for a hit of chiles that will have you wiping your brow. Cheap beers and dollar sodas finish off an awesome deal.
Azuri— (http://www.azuricafe.com) bye bye soup Nazi, hello falafel Nazi. Though Ezra Cohen may growl at you if you take too long to order, the chastisement is worth it. Juicy grilled meats, smoky babaganoush, crisp falafel, and fiery hot sauce is among the best in the city. You may feel yourself transported to Israel by way of this truly exemplary food.
Me taking a picture of the Gutenberg Bible at the New York Public Library.
I love New York. A few more photos in slideshow format of some of my time in this amazing city. I can’t wait to go back again. Obviously, the big hole in the ground is where the Twin Towers were – since then Freedom One has gone up.