Offbeat Travel: Rebels With a Cause

Welcome to the Local Offbeat Travel Club.

We’re the ones who consider “off the beaten track” to be less to do with where you are, than how you approach where you are. In other words, we never say “ooh, weird,” snap a photo, and then move on. Instead, we linger–to find out the “why.”

Having been appointed National Geographic’s Offbeat Observer for this very reason, I consider it a duty to take things deemed “odd,” “unusual,” and, certainly, “offbeat” very seriously. And, as clubs go, I’ve learned that this one isn’t as weird or lonely as you might expect.

Let’s start with the word “offbeat.” As a term, it got going in the 1920s and ’30s, when musicians increasingly began experimenting with different beats and challenging listener expectations. (Much of a little thing we call “rock ‘n’ roll” would spring from this rhythmic tension.)

Apply this definition to how we experience the world and you’re on to how “offbeat travel” works.

Mention Venice, and a hard-wired vision of canals and gondolas swims into people’s brains. Type that into a search engine and you’ll likely get the same response. This is all fine. But type in Venice and, oh, rugby, and you get something else–something less expected (like this).

Is applying such a lens a worthy pursuit in our travelers, or is it just being different for different’s sake? (Honestly? “Yes,” and “sometimes,” respectively.)

The U.K.’s 3:AM Magazine, ground zero for the so-called “offbeat generation,” is composed of anti-mainstream writers working under the tagline, “Whatever it is, we’re against it.” A bit broad, perhaps. Still, one piece neatly nails the “offbeat travel” aesthetic, claiming that the best writing “renders the inconsequential with the greatest consequence.”

Travel can work that way, too, as long as the “inconsequential” subject is meaningful to you.

Let’s turn to New Jersey.

In 1989, Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran started Weird N.J. to serve as a repository for local legends and unusual phenomena that other travel resources roundly ignored. The fanzine has since evolved into a Weird franchise of books, including Weird U.S.

“I was always interested in local history, but the things no one else was writing about,” Sceurman explained to me over the phone. “When I travel, I’m not interested in seeing General Washington’s headquarters anymore,” Sceurman continued. “I did that when I was 15.”

And just as Washington’s headquarters is preserved for future generations, Sceurman felt a responsibility to record and share the less conventional parts of history. “It’s important to document these things [because] they won’t live forever,” he said.

Flipping through my copy of Weird Oregon, I find I’m less drawn to more popular UFO stories than a feature on hundreds of ash-coated 10,000-year-old sandals discovered on the shore of a prehistoric lake bed, or how one seaside town dealt with a giant whale carcass (with dynamite, which naturally led to blubber dents on nearby cars). I’ll keep these stories in mind when I travel anywhere near those places.

Sceurman recalled one reader who visited a purportedly haunted place that had been featured in Weird N.J., and saw nothing. “There was no ghost. Your magazine sucks,” he wrote in. Sceurman asked me, “How can you respond to that?”

I’d just tell the guy he’s not in the club.

One of my favorite resources for alternative travel is Atlas Obscura, currently home to more than thousands of listings about “wondrous” and “curious” sites around the world. One word you won’t find there? “Kitsch.” And for good reason.

“Kitsch doesn’t do justice to many places,” co-founder Dylan Thuras told me. “The tone is wrong. It can be condescending to a place, too. It’s better to get at what makes a place for what it is–the human story behind it, why it’s there.”

I clicked on the “Random Place” button on the site, and found myself directed to the Stevenson Bridge in Winters, California. Built in 1923, it’s a rare tie-arch bridget that’s covered in graffiti–and sometimes slated for demolition.

Reading about it made me wonder if the bridge was named for Robert Louis Stevenson, who had honeymooned in an abandoned mine about 45 miles west. Finding nothing online, I called an archivist at the Yolo County Historical Society, who didn’t know of the bridge, but was happy to research a possible connection. (See “Comments” for updates!)

This appeals to me. And the next time I’m in the Napa area, I’m definitely making a detour to Winters.

One last thing: Cyndi Lauper.

Propelled irresistibly towards her by the name of her She’s So Unusual albumShe’s So Unusual album–or perhaps it’s her haircuts–I did some more “offbeat” research, and found myself fascinated (by this and that). The album title refers to a Betty Boop song from the 1920s. And the album’s artwork–an Annie Leibovitz photo of Cyndi in a punkish prom dress in front of a dilapidated building–snagged a Grammy for best cover in 1984.

More interestingly, I learned that the cover shot was taken outside a closed wax museum on a Coney Island alleyway. In the photo, a twisting Cyndi’s wearing chains on her hips and ankle, apparently to symbolize the oppressive gender roles women deal with. I had never noticed that before.

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Checking Google Street View, I found the setting much changed. Bare white buildings stand in the museum’s place, just behind Nathan’s Famous. I must have walked down that alley several times not knowing the connection.

Seeing this on my screen felt a little like Richard Linklater’s heartbreaking coda in Before Sunrise, a replay of all the locations that figure into the movie’s key scenes emptied the next day.

My mind turned to Tulsa in the summer of ’84–my sister playing the She’s So Unusual cassette by our backyard pool, the taste of chlorine as I submerge to drown out the tinny guitar of yet another round of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” I can almost hear the Holmans’s lawn mower next door, or see the skeptical eyes of Wally, the best of our half dozen bulldogs, resting poolside.

What I get from all this is mostly a memory. That pool is no longer ours. Wally is long gone. That Coney Island alley is sort of gone, too. But the next time I’m there, I’ll see it in a way I never have before.

Maybe that’s not travel. Maybe that is odd. Either way, it feels right.

And if it does to you, well, welcome to the club.

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Offbeat Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @reidontravel.

> How do you plan for trips? Share your travel philosophy with us for a chance to appear in National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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