Tag Archives: Baltimore

Kitschy but good

Someone on my Twitter list mentioned yesterday that she would soon be embarking on a trip to Alaska, and I immediately thought of the train ride Susanne and I took over in Skagway. At least four people told us to make sure we rode up and back on the old gold mining trail, so we booked our tickets well in advance of our cruise, and then we climbed on.

It was nothing short of amazing. The White Pass & Yukon Route train was a bit too modern to have jumped out of a steampunk novel, but it belched and groaned like a steam engine all the same, as it dragged us up 3,000 feet into the Canadian Yukon. We sat for much of the trip on the way up, but at the end the conductors moved the engine around, and our front car became the caboose. We didn’t miss the chance to stand on the end, marveling at the mountain ledges, miles and miles of the tallest evergreens I’ve seen in my life, and the detritus those thousands of Klondike miners left behind.

So it occurs to me that there are, in the quadrillions of tourist trap options available in the US, a few very choice gems that should get some fair due. They may be popular, they may be hyped, but they’re worth, say, wearing bright blue plastic ponchos. Here are a few favorites I want to mention:

The Maid of the MistNiagara Falls sounds like a great tourist destination, if it’s 1952. There are a lot of depressing buildings screaming out for fresh paint, and filled with plastic-wrapped souvenirs, but just follow the signs to this boat ride. I think the Maid of the Mist is more fun if you’ve gone to look at the falls from the top first, to help with a sense of perspective. It’s true that the Canadian side of the falls are more majestic; the US side is taller, but our neighbors to the north have the “horseshoe falls,” which I captured from the boat. No matter whether one takes the boat ride from the US or Canadian side, it will still travel into the heart of the falls. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by hammering, plummeting water. As tall as the falls are around the Maid of the Mist, that’s how much water she’s sitting on—170 feet on both counts. You better wear the silly blue poncho.

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National ParkIt can be argued that my entire generation first learned about this geyser from Yogi Bear and Jellystone National Park. I’m happy that Susanne didn’t rend me limb from limb as I repeated my Yogi Bear impression as we wandered around the wilderness. It might not be the prettiest geyser there, it’s far from the most colorful, like the “paint pots” were, but it was shocking to witness, the smooth vapor all at once belching and hurrying out of the way of boiling white liquid. This is 3rd grade science fair to the 20th power. Once it’s done with its 5-minute show, take a walk on the rest of the geyser platform, and by the time that’s done, Old Faithful will be just about ready to have another conniption.

The Baltimore AquariumLess kitschy and more just plain overcrowded, the Baltimore Aquarium is organized by ecosystems, very accessible, and proportioned well. I don’t feel like I’m in a tiny building with smelly fish, and I don’t feel like there’s a lot of wasted space (I’m looking at you, new MoMA). Plus it has puffins, the globe’s friendliest, funniest bird species, in my humble opinion. There are dolphin shows, it’s true, but at least they’ve gone to some trouble to unpack how the animals are treated, and they have a fairly prestigious breeding program for bottlenose. That said, it is expensive, so try to get your hands on some coupons or group deals, because at more than $30 a ticket, the cost adds up fast. But the sharks and manta rays, inches away from the homo sapiens, are really not to be missed.

Have any kitschy touristy fun? Pipe up and add your own in the comments!

Scissorhands of the instant haircut

Barbershops and hair salons, more than other locally owned businesses, seem to reflect the immediate community around them. Walking into one convenience store or another, things aren’t so different from town to town, although I acknowledge that the suburban WaWa in Maryland isn’t the same as the below street level no name mart of DC. But one cramped store or another, if you need bandages for your ouchie, you can get them anywhere. And you’ll probably get a similar indifferent quality of service at either, whether high school students with pimples or embittered older city clerks are the ones selling them to you.

Not so the barbershop. The barbershop, in my limited experience, is really about who lives in that neighborhood. There was one near my job in Baltimore that was like a scene out of Tim Story’s movie, with all the yammering and disagreement over the local sports team, in this case, the Ravens (go Ravens!). A line of tall mirrors all along the walls that were accidentally feminine and reminiscent of a beauty salon. Three customer chairs for the hair and beard trimming that were reasonably new and very nondescript. No actual decorating of any kind and I can’t even recall what color the walls were painted or even if they were painted. 

Barbershops seem to never have a name, other than to use the name of the owner, like Alex’s Barbershop, as in the preceding example. They relieve themselves of the cutesy but horrifically bad establishment names that plague the hair salon industry, like Kidz Cutz (which sounds like an alternative to abandoning your kids in Nebraska), Happy Beauty Salon (conveniently located next to the Happy Buddha all you can eat Chinese buffet), Shear Pleasure (only if you come out of there with something you like, right?), and She Bangz, which seriously has got to be one of the worst names I’ve ever heard of for a salon. But hey, there are more


Outside the barbershop in Walla Walla

Outside the barbershop in Walla Walla

Now I’ve gotten some pretty bad haircuts in my day, and by bad I mean torturously uneven, with a harsh line carved into the back of my neck so that people behind me can earnestly relive 1986, some bad dye jobs, you name it. Thus I have some trepidation about going to just any old place. I hesitated and procrastinated going anyplace once we moved to Walla Walla — I even went to a supercuts in Alexandria, Virginia, while I was traveling because I hadn’t gone to the barbershop in town, and I knew that at some point I was going to have to break down and just try it. In my defense, I did attempt to go once, but it was a Tuesday or something and god knows only half the stores are open on Monday and Tuesday around here. I nearly picked up my own clippers to cut my hair myself, but good sense won out in the end.

My fast-growing but thinning hair needs a cut every 4 weeks or so, so I trudged on in to Sung’s Barbershop here in town, not having any faith at all that I wasn’t going to look like a stuck sheep upon my exit. Having a friend named Sang I was prepared for meeting someone with the present perfect tense of the name. Hey, Sang’s a nice guy. Sung is not a nice guy. Sung is a taciturn woman with a scarce smile and an obvious sense of skepticism. I appreciated all of that. 

This barbershop, or rather, barber’s shop, was unlike any other I have ever had the fortune to enter. There was a  beat-up, used-to-be-white sofa on one wall, and which only gave access to patrons on one half, because the other half was already occupied by a dozing sharpei. One wall was covered in baseball caps and below them, seemingly random pictures that I supposed had specific meaning or value to Sung. A piece of torn, white cardboard announced the pricing structure: Haircuts, $12 Seniors, $9 Beard Trim $5. Wow, I can get a senior for $9? That’s a bargain.

A small, dirty mirror allowed customers to see a 3 square inch area of their heads while she was clipping away, and the lone chair was a relic from the 1940s. I wonder how many people have had a haircut in that chair. Must be thousands. There were lots of pictures of the Walla Walla valley, old pictures of the valley ridges before the windmills moved in, sending who knows how many kilowatts to California. It was kind of Old West meets baseball fanatic.

In a town of 29,000, of course it stands to reason that the person already in the chair getting his haircut was one of the 16 I’ve met since moving here. He stood up at the end of his cut and shook my hand. She gesticulated that I should sit down. This was no suburban Supercuts, nor was it a DC/Baltimore chat shop. I told her how I like it cut, not using any parlance like “high and tight,” and she cut it exactly as I asked, in 6.2 minutes. I was really happy with it, which of course I couldn’t show her because I was certain it would unravel the time/space continuum in the store, or something. I gave her a generous tip and headed out, relived that I have a place to go when Susanne starts making comments about how long my hair is getting. I just have to remember not to go there on Monday or Tuesday.

Where the buffalo roam

Okay, 310 mere miles later and no bison have been spotted. I was nervous this morning because the moving company had not informed us of when the truck was supposed to arrive today, and after making about 47 phone calls, I still was not any closer to having an ETA. One little threat to call their home office and the Better Business Bureau, however, generated a lot of phone traffic, and it just so happened that right then the truck driver and crew descended upon us and quickly began moving all of our personal possessions out on the sidewalk. 250 boxes, 5500 pounds of belongings, one light cleaning and two showers later we were in the car, heading…

Heading pretty much nowhere. From home to just past Baltimore took an hour and a quarter, one last “screw you” from the traffic in the DC metropolitan area. As if we hadn’t heard the whispers from the city enough, like the disembodied voice in the Amityville Horror: G-E-T  O-U-T.


Baltimore stovepipe somehow represents so much about the city

Baltimore stovepipe somehow represents so much about the city



iPod plugged in, cell phone in reach, tons of toll money, full tank of $4 gas, and we were ready for the sluggish traffic. Things cleared up in Delaware, after rush hour. We made a pit stop in New Jersey at Mastori’s Restaurant, this fabulous diner/restaurant in Bordentown that was a favorite of my parents’. Susanne ordered Baby Back ribs wholly unlike anything seen at Chili’s, and I ordered veal vantellani with cremini mushrooms. We ate our enormous piles of meat slowly, letting the realization that WE HAVE MOVED sink in. Our things are somewhere, with a dour guy from Seattle named Cliff, who is currently headed to Missouri. Too bad the boxes of our stuff can’t manage their own blog of their trip.

Best thing about New Jersey, other than the delightful cheese and cinnamon breads at the diner, was this:


Gas pump in Bordentown

Gas pump in Bordentown

Eat that, Washington. We actually got a better price, $3.43, for paying in cash. And that’s for full service, folks. 

We breezed through the Turnpike, dealing with more crazy drivers, though in somewhat less frequency than say, on Bladensburg Road in Northeast. My personal favorite was a driver who was weaving up 95 with plates that read “Relax.” Somehow being told to relax in fact elicited quite the opposite for me.

We’re here at my sister’s house now, a couple of drinks in us (yes, after we got out of the car), and waiting for the hot tub to get up to temperature. And then tomorrow is a new day. Our first day not living in DC.

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