25 July 2014


This just in: I have a new book coming out! It’ll be published by W.W. Norton … sometime in the future. It's a travelogue about a topic that I really should know more about--and you should, too. But most of us don't have a clue.

The working title is The Forgotten States of America: In Search of the Territories, Islands, and Far-Flung Specks of American Soil. From the book proposal:

When you get right down to it, the United States of America is not merely a nation of states. We are also comprised of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our territories. They’re filled with US National Parks and US post offices and people as proudly red-white-and-blue as any Daughter of the American Revolution.

And yet for most Americans, the territories are a mere curiosity. They’re extant but inconsequential, like poppy seeds or the Lifetime Network. Pop quiz: Name the US territories and tell me just one thing about each. Heck, just tell me how many territories there are. No, really. Try it. I’ll wait.

… Exactly.

The Forgotten States of America is a long-overdue introduction to the United States beyond the states, by way of a decidedly different sort of all-American road trip, to the five inhabited territories (there’s your answer: the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa) and other quasi-American points beyond.*

It’s a globe-hopping travelogue—with no visas or currency-exchanging necessary—examining the complicated histories of how the USA acquired each place (spoiler: military action, manifest destiny) and their ongoing role in the American Experiment (spoiler: military preparedness, manifest destiny). Most of all, the book showcases the here-and-now of modern life in the territories, with their diverse mix of millennia-old indigenous groups, opportunity-seeking immigrants, military personnel, and an eclectic array of dropouts, schemers, and dreamers.

Through the lens of my own experiences, I’ll show why the territories matter: How they made the USA what it is today and what they can show us—from their quasi-outsider position—about what it means to be American.

From bustling cities to quiet back roads to Lost World jungles of the we’re-definitely-not-in-the-states-anymore variety, I’ll be your guide as we seek answers and attempt to connect the dots between the territories and our nation of united … places.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left:
  • The Liberation Carnival on Guam, celebrating the decisive July 1944 battle when the USA defeated the Japanese Army, which had captured the island (then a USA territory) in 1941; 
  • the sign outside Hollywood Shooting on Guam, where Chinese, Japanese, and Russian tourists go to shoot guns and dress up like cowboys and feel Oh So American; 
  • a crew of National Park of American Samoa summer interns taking a break from clearing paths on the Mount Alava trail; 
  • probably the world’s most idyllic tropical-wonderland hotel, not telling you where because the owner doesn’t want publicity.

* Hello, people in Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. I know. I hear ya. “We’re commonwealths, dammit, not territories!” Check. I’ll explain the differences in the book. But that’ll require a bit of explaining, as you know. So for purposes of this post, I'm using “territories” as a catch-all term for “The parts of the United States that are not the states or DC.” Okay? We’re cool?

10 June 2014

Postcard Gallery: Stone Elephant, Magical Moose, and Top-Hatted Snail Edition

I get mail. Awesome, awesome mail. A selection of my recent favorites:

Some additional notes: 

This one might be my favorite, if only because of the comedic imagery of picturing a snail put on that bowtie. Think of the logistics that entails. (Top hats are easy, don't try that argument with me.)

This retro foursome, though, is also marvelous. Three of 'em come from excellent travel-writer pals; the fourth's from an excellent reader. There's Elephant Rock in the upper left, courtesy of Jessica Spiegel. To the right, the oh-so-modern Tijuana border, via Pam Mandel. The photo of the moose postcard, from Jenna Schnuerdoesn't do it justice, because it's one of those postcards printed on textured plastic, where the photo looks 3D, moving slightly as you tilt your head. And the oranges. LOOK AT THOSE THINGS. I've been to California. It's a pretty lush sort of place. Stuff grows. And grows. That's enough OJ for, like, a year's worth of breakfasts. Many thanks, Reader Melissa.

Also, by the way, the much-discussed Pantone Conspiracy is still going. After something like three years and well over a hundred of these things. I'm starting to think it's all part of some elaborate prank by the NSA: We know where you live. But for now, all we want to do is send you postcards. Enjoy! (But really, watch your back.)

Finally, this. A sly callback from a reader with a long memory, a reference to my very first published story, "Confessions of a Chicken Man."

04 June 2014

The Cabinet of Wonders Just Outside the Door: Notes on Exploring Your Own Neighborhood

The other day, Maren and I discovered a new species.

We were walking through a wooded section of a park in our neighborhood, listening for birds and trying to identify the swatches of feathers we could make out in the trees. Since we know nothing about birds, the conversation went something like this:

“There’s a robin!”

“There’s an oriole!”

“There’s a … um … Black and I Can’t Tell, Maybe Yellow-Winged—Yes, Yellow—Kinda Pudgybird.”

And then, in the undergrowth, a different sort of animal. Not a bird, but that’s all I can say with certainty.

It was the greyish brown of our local rabbits, and shared their round, fat bodies and huge back feet. It definitely hopped like a rabbit. But its tail was tiny, a stump rather than a fuzzball. And its head was like a squirrel: small, pointy, with stubby ears. We spent several minutes tracking it, intrigued, and decided it was the result of a squirrel mating with a bunny. A squnny.

I’m sure the naturalists will tell me it was some well-known species. But I prefer to think of it as a curiosity hiding in plain sight, our own personal discovery.

There’s always new stuff to find, even when we don’t venture very far. I love wandering around Minneapolis and exploring new neighborhoods. But lately I’ve realized that there's Cool New Stuff even closer to home, just across the street. Proximity is no guarantee of noticing. You have to be paying attention.

We live near Lake Harriet. In this City of Lakes, this one's ours. It’s a three-mile walk around the whole thing, three miles of well-kept paths and sights and delights, both lasting and ephemeral, personal and universal.

A cabinet of wonders just outside our door.

Some of them, actually, would fit in quite well with the believe-it-or-not curios of the actual Cabinets of Wonders that old-time aristocrats used to have.*

  • Here is an elf house. Real thing. It’s in the hollow at the base of a tree. There’s a little ornately-carved wooden door with a little brass handle, and kids open the door and leave notes inside, and Mr. Little Guy writes back.
  • Here is an elusive sea monster, which moves from lake to lake. Also a real thing, a Brontosaurus-poking-its-head-above-the-water thing. (Yes, there’s a logical explanation; no, I’m not going to provide it.)
  • Here is the old trolley, the last remnant of a streetcar line that once crisscrossed the Twin Cities, one of the nation’s finest transit systems. Now, it’s a $2-a-head time machine that goes back and forth on a mile of track and across the generations.
  • Here is what I’m pretty sure must be The World's Smallest Sailboat You Can Sit Inside, But Only After Mastering Elaborate Cirque de Soleil-Level Contortions. It looks like a sleek coffee table—very Urban Loft—into which someone has stuck a mast.
  • Even more confounding are The Sailboats Large Enough to Sail Around the World, plying the waters of this mile-across lake.

Keep walking.
  • Over here, on the south end, are what I always think of as The Woods, where the path is tunneled with trees. And if you look through the gap—that gap, right there—you’ll get a view of the downtown skyline across the water, compact and modern, glass skyscrapers that glow (I mean really glow) at sunset, and you’ve gotta come here, to this gap, for the best view.
  • Over there, asserting their presence, are the Sketchy Dudebro Ducks. Nature, man. Nature can be awful, especially during mating season. These guys are so terrifying in their pursuit of the Ladyducks—chasing them across the skies, attacking in the water—that just watching them for thirty seconds would surely make even the most hardened human misogynist shudder and join the National Organization for Women.
  • On a happier note, here are the teeny-tiny ducklings following their mother in the water, little balls of fluff with beaks, paddling for all they’re worth while the runners and Rollerbladers and Sketchy Dudebro Humans in their Hummers stop on the paths and roads encircling the lake and stare and smile and let out a collective aww.

The humans. Cruising in their cars, whizzing past on Tour-worthy bikes, walking with their families … to say nothing of the runners.

  • Oh, the runners. So many varieties of runners that to begin to categorize them in any manageable way, you'd have to start up at Class before branching out into Family, Genus, Species. The fleet-footed, tattooed hipster moms and dads pushing their kids in their $1,000 strollers. The gangly high-schoolers who plod past with an air of youthful exuberance matched by stoic commitment to beefing up the ol' college-app resume. The bespectacled and manifestly Not Fit creative types whose pallor and physique betrays their many hours indoors, in front of a computer, and a general lack of familiarity with the sun or exercise.
  • Over here are the sedentary lake-goers at the beach. Satisfying the innate human urge to go lie on a towel on some sand, even if the body of water isn’t exactly the ocean, the waves decidedly un-surfable, the stretch of sand just a few yards wide. No matter. Just look at the sign: South Beach.

The curiosities aren’t all visual.

  • There are also the sounds. The community orchestras playing at the bandshell, the walkers gossiping, the cars slowly cruising (yesterday, “Call Me Maybe” was on heavy rotation).
  • My favorite, though, is what you hear when you walk past the sailboats parked at their buoys: their halyards, all clinking that just-right metal-on-metal note, bright and resonant and deeply satisfying. A cricket-like embodiment of All That Is Right About Summer.
  • And the tastes. Next to the bandshell, there’s a refectory—snack bar, if you prefer—called Bread & Pickle. I recommend the cheese curds (house made) and a hibiscus iced tea (ditto). An odd pairing, I realize. But it works.

Or at least it works for me. And that may be because part of the attraction here at Lake Harriet comes from that most potent of all wonder-makers, nostalgia. The broader kind—the street car and bandshell do their golly-gee darndest to conjure a Rockwellian Simpler Time—but also the personal kind.

  • Out there, in the middle of the lake, that’s where we walked last winter, when it was frozen solid. Where we made snow angels and waved at the jets landing at MSP, which is just a couple of miles over that way.
  • Here is the Peace Garden, where my friends Andrew and Becky got married.
  • Here is the field where, watching a movie-in-the-park with Maren on one of our first dates, I first fell head-over-heels in love with her. The table where we sat, drinking hibiscus tea and eating cheese curds and chatting until long after Bread & Pickle had closed for the night.
  • Here is the bench where, one unseasonably warm evening in March, I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me.
  • Here is the kiosk where you can rent a canoe or a kayak. We keep meaning to do that. A memory yet to be formed. 

I’m curious to see what fresh wonders await out there on the water.

* By the by, this is a fascinating book about actual old-school cabinets of wonder and the cabinet-of-wonder-evoking Museum of Jurassic Technology, whose exhibits may or may not be real. 

28 May 2014

Throwback Thursday, Lazy Writer Edition

It’s been way too long since I posted, but I’m working on some new stuff. Big stuff. You’ll see. Also, I’m way overdue on the Postcard Gallery updates. I got your mail, I promise. Yes, you with the endearing fake telegram; you with the oversized-produce postcard; you with the old-school aerograms. All coming soon to this spot.

In the meantime, hey, it’s Throwback Thursday, also known as The Internet’s Way of Generating Content When All You Really Have Is Old Stuff. So here are some old stories of mine that I happen to like and think you will, too. And some old photos, too.

Throwback #1: A sketchy hotel in Scotland
For starters, here's a photo from 1999, during one of my first trips abroad. That's me in the middle, with my sister and my dad, outside the Nigg Hotel, (sort of) near Inverness. This is the morning after the memorably odd day I discuss in "Seven Travel Rules From a Brooding Teenager." The story was my attempt to capture the angst of a teenager on a family-bonding trip just before he heads off to college. The hotel played along, offering plenty of fuel for my gloomy mood. Seriously: just try to tell me that place doesn't look like a Scottish stand-in for the Bates Motel.

Throwback #2: That other place in Scotland, the one where they play a game with a ball that (probably) symbolizes a severed head
My parents have a mild obsession with Scotland. Hence that trip in 1999, as well as a few other journeys throughout my childhood. My parents live frugally, largely so that they can save up for the next trip. About ten years ago, they moved to Scotland for a year, to a charming town with a certain offbeat tradition, a rugby-like game that involves hundreds of burly men. It was an interesting reporting challenge to try not to get run over, but I lived to tell the tale, "The Old Ba' Game."

Throwback #3: The park in Ecuador with 300 iguanas, all of them out to get me
I can be a bit, shall we say, jumpy. It's a theme that comes up in a lot of my stories (including the two above) because, while the world is a pretty cool and interesting place, it also sorta wants me dead, and is forever contriving new ways to make me think that my demise may well be imminent. At one point, I considered calling this blog A Neurotic Abroad. Mind you, I do have my own adventurous streak. I put myself out there. But then, pretty quickly, I reach the OH HELL NO threshold, like that time in Ecuador when an iguana mistook my ass for a chew toy.

And now, a Throwback to Look Forward.
Here's another photo from that 1999 trip to Scotland. (Based on photographic evidence, I wore that white hoodie the whole trip. I AM FASHION.)

That's me on the left and my friend Doug on the right. He's Scottish, I'm American, and we're posing with our respective national soft drinks. (His being Irn-Bru, which is the most cloyingly sweet substance yet discovered by science, bright orange in color, quite possibly radioactive, and kinda delicious for, like, the first two sips. Mine being Coca-Cola, which, aside from the color, could be described in largely the same terms.)

There's nothing more to that story, except that it's one small bit of evidence of my long obsession with Americana and the question of what things and ideas and archetypes make up our national identity. Which is one of the themes of my next book. More details soon.

07 April 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: Final Fjord (Plus Three More)

After 63 game recaps and more than 300 puns (and perhaps five good puns), the Tourist Trap Tournament comes to a close with the Final Fjord Plus Three More. 

Click for larger size.

Fjords v Las Vegas
Mascots: Haddock v Sinners

After a long run of flash and swagger, the Sinners made all kinds of questionable decisions, basically rolling right over and submitting to their Norwegian foes; there’s no doubt they were out partying a bit too hard these last few days, because they sure looked washed-out, as the Haddock darted around with ease. Some commentators have voiced suspicions that the Sinners were betting against themselves, but the reality is that the Haddock were simply the better team, with a positively oceanic gap between the teams in terms of endurance and general clean living.

Running of the Bulls v Easter Island
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Furious Foreheads

The Stampeding Hemingways often have their ups and downs--they may get knocked down, but make no mistake, the Run also rises. The Furious Foreheads never found the upper hand, and seemed weighed down by a mental block. The Stampeding Hemingways move on, as war-proven veterans, making for an intriguing final match-up against the Fjords: The Old Men and the North Sea. 

* * * 

Thanks so much to all the fans on the blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. These two teams wouldn’t have gotten this far without you--the Fjords had a particularly strong base of supporters who most certainly nudged them forward.

Let’s look at the match-up:

Running of the Bulls:
Strengths:  Brute force, killer instincts, famous fans, and man can they run.
Weaknesses: Easily distracted by the color red, frequently called for charging, not a ton of finesse.

Strengths: Long reach, incredible history, rock-solid foundation, stoic endurance beyond compare, utter charm, ability to get out of tight spots.
Weaknesses: Slow-moving, stuck in their ways.

Final result: Running of the Bulls!

(After--by my count--more than 300 puns, I’m fresh out right now, so no extended recap. Maybe later!) 

03 April 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: The Most Excellent Eight

Once again, some fierce competition in the Tourist Trap Tournament, as the Most Excellent Eight battled it out: 

Art & Architecture final: Pyramids at Giza v Easter Island
Mascots: Pharaohs v Furious Foreheads

With their dueling long-standing traditions and chiseled physiques, these two teams were closely matched. The Furious Foreheads finally found their legs at the end, while the Pharaohs lived up to their reputation of slowing down, looking petrified out there and, at best, merely walking like Egyptians, and leaving the crowd tut-tutting .

Culture (or Something) final: Running of the Bulls v Forbidden City
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Dynasties

The Forbidden City was strong, no question, ruling the court and showing off the philosophies of their famous playbook, Classic of Rites. But in an amazing race-to-the-end finish, the Stampeding Hemingways narrowly beat the horn, ending the Dynasties’ long run.

The Natural World final: Norway’s Fjords v Maasai Mara National Park
Mascots: Haddock v Big Cats

This was a wild one, with raw natural talent on full display, with breathtaking shots all over the place, shutters clicking everywhere. The Scandinavians’ chilly, stoic might won the day, getting out of many a tight spot.  

Cities & Squares & Markets final: Las Vegas v Dubai
Mascots: Sinners v Shiny New Stuff

These two teams entered the competition with outsized reputations for swagger and excess and more than a bit of trouble in their backgrounds—and a hope for redemption. The Sinners’ strong suits: sprawling reach, a willingness to take chances, and a reputation for conjuring big-time magic. The Shiny New Stuff’s key strengths: boldness and ambition like no other, style somewhat less profane than the Sinners’ ways, and an array of innovative ways of doing things. Ultimately, the numbers simply favored the Sinners and their decades of experience in the game.

* * * 

And then there were four:

Easter Island v Running of the Bulls

Norway's Fjords v Las Vegas

Make your picks in the comments! 
click for full size

31 March 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: The Supreme Sixteen

Round 3 begins with sixteen competitors--that's the Supreme Sixteen to you (because, trademarks)--and ends with a Most Excellent Eight. All the recaps below! And if you're just joining us, you can relive all the excitement, game by game, round by round, over at Tourist Trap Tourney Central

The current bracket! Click for full size.

Pyramids at Giza v Sydney Opera House
Mascots: Pharaohs v Avenging Arias

The crowd-pleasing Avenging Arias soared early once again, but came out flat after the intermission, their long run ending on a bad note. The Pharaohs, meanwhile, had their day in the sun, with an epic Ra-Ra-Ra spirit—they’re gods now.

Manneken-Pis v Easter Island
Mascots: Wee Whizzers v Furious Foreheads

Purists may cry foul over the Wee Whizzers’ style, but there’s no question that the little lads of Brussels have their eyes on the prize, Number 1 in their sights. Problem is, they’re atrocious at long range. And though some teams get distracted by the Wee Whizzers’ antics, no one keeps a stiff upper lip like the Furious Foreheads, the enigmas of the islands, the face of Pacific exceptionalism, long a regional secret but quickly becoming world-famous, and rightly so.

Running of the Bulls v Oktoberfest
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Drunks

You have never seen such a chaotic bloodbath. The Drunks finally stumbled—and how. They could barely keep upright, their communication was off, and everything they threw up was awful, a case study in what not to do. The Stampeding Hemingways ran right through their opponents, showing no hint of mercy. They’ve taken a circuitous path to get this far, but they’re in the home stretch now—the question is, Can anyone stop them?

Hagia Sophia v Forbidden City
Mascots: Mosaics v Dynasties

It was a classic showing by the Mosaics: unquestionably stylish, but mighty complicated. If there’s one knock against them, it’s that they’re the very definition of Byzantine. They sure looked it against the Forbidden City and their renowned guards and penchant for order—in the Dynasties’ hands, the venue became a Hall of Supreme Harmony,  

Lake Atitlan v Fjords
Mascots: Holistics v Haddock

The magic finally wore off for the Holistics of Lake Atitlan, its famous towering threesome all but dormant while the Haddock made waves with their outlet passes and world-class spread.

Maasai Mara v Petra
Mascots: Big Cats v Obodas

The pride of Kenya pounced again, with the Big Cats working their Mara Triangle offense to great effect, thanks to their Big Five. The Obodas showed off with some Siq moves, but it wasn’t enough.

Great Wall of China v Las Vegas
Mascots: Earth Dragons v Sinners

Nobody puts on a show like the Sinners, proof that with cash comes flash—and a reputation for offensive powers. So it was an incredibly close contest with the Earth Dragons and their famed defense, until the Great Wall showed some gaps and lapses, and the luck ran out, as always seems to happen against the Sinners.

Times Square v Dubai
Mascots: Bright Lights v Shiny New Stuff

With famous cheerleaders like Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z, the Bright Lights are big-city ballers with pedigree, and were their usual impressively frenetic selves, with ceaseless action in the lane. But in this showdown of two decidedly unsubtle competitors, the Bright Lights hit a roadblock in the form of the Shiny New Stuff and its dizzying excess—all height and go-for-broke style—led by its famed “seven-star” all-star. 

* * *

That leaves us with eight teams, with the regional finals coming up next. Make your picks in the comments!

Art & Architecture final:
Pyramids at Giza v Easter Island

Culture (or Something) final:
Running of the Bulls v Forbidden City

The Natural World final:
Norway’s Fjords v Maasai Mara National Park

Cities & Squares & Markets final:
Las Vegas v Dubai

30 March 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: Cities & Squares & Markets, Round 2

Sure, the Tourist Trap Tournament proceeds at a slower pace than its basketball-centric imitator, but travel just plain takes longer than tossing a plaything around little ol' room. In any case, Round 2 has just finished up, and here's where things stand, with recaps from the Cities & Squares & Markets Regional below.

Click for full size.

Great Wall of China v Piazza San Marco
Mascots: Earth Dragons v Gondoliers

The Earth Dragons have had their ups and downs, but their talent stretches clear to the horizon—and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve recently acquired a famous fan in First Lady Michelle Obama. If only they could get over their tendency to put up bricks over and over again, as they did on this occasion. No matter, though--the Earth Dragons slowly found their footing and eked out a victory over the Gondoliers, whose smooth strokes (and snazzy outfits) weren't quite enough.

Las Vegas v Red Square
Mascots: Sinners v Embalmed Lenins

As the Embalmed Lenins learned all too well, the Sinners are a tough team to read. Cool and calculating, they know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em; they know when to walk away and know when to run. The Embalmed Lenins were left lying lifeless, seeing tsars.

Angkor Wat v Times Square
Mascots: Dancin’ Asparas v Bright Lights

The real American Hustle? That would be Bright Lights, known for their skill and flash. The Dancin’ Asaparas were their usual splendorous selves, all timeless elegance, but they we no match for Times Square, who last night shot the lights out for an hour. [Topical! -Ed.]  

Dubai v Machu Picchu
Mascots: Shiny New Stuff v Altitudinous Alpacas

Known for their sheer height and innovative formations, the Shiny New Stuff are establishing a wide gulf between themselves and their challengers (although there are also quite a few whispers of scandal behind their sudden rise).  The Altitudinous Alpacas remained a mystery, Inca-trailing the whole way.

28 March 2014

Tourist Trap Tourney: The Natural World, Round 2

Lake Atitlan v Iguazu Falls
Mascots: Holistics v Naipís

After a pep talk by superfan Aldous Huxley, the Holistics erupted stunningly, continuing their improbable run and leaving the Naipís utterly drained. The oft-overlooked Holistics are quickly turning into cult favorites to usher in a new age in this competition.

Great Barrier Reef v Fjords
Mascots: Bombastic Coral v Haddock

The Bombastic Coral had the crowd support from all their swimmer friends--the whole school, in fact, but the tide was simply stronger for the Fjords. The Haddock were efficient [say it out loud … -Ed.] in their efforts, and impressed with their skerry guards.

Copacabana v Maasai Mara
Mascots: Tan Lines v Big Cats

The Big Cats came in with something to prove to the world—namely, that despite their internal rifts and reputation for spottiness, they’re still the pride of the Africa, and prey to no one, certainly not the oh-so-vain Tan Lines. The result: a thorough Brazilian waxing. [Yup. -Ed.]

Petra v Grand Canyon
Mascots: Obodas v John Wesley Powells

The rugged Americans entered this match-up as heavy favorites, and they quickly showed why, as they ran wild with their dapper, speedy starting line-up—nicknamed the Class Five Rapids. The Obodas had impressive staying power, but were slowly worn down and left, as one commentator put it, “rose-red as if the blush of dawn.”

27 March 2014

Tourist Trap Tourney: Culture (or Something), Round 2

Running of the Bulls v Graceland
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Gyrating Hips

Perhaps the sequined outfits were a bad idea for the Gyrating Hips, who faded fast, their early vigor giving way to something more melancholy and bloated, a desperation that said “Don’t be cruel.” To which the Stampeding Hemingways taunted, “A little less conversation, a little more action,” and showed the way with a terse, urgent, no-frills style that nonetheless captivated the crowds—a noble effort, indeed.  

Oktoberfest v Terracotta Warriors
Mascots: Drunks v Mount Li Legends

The party’s only just begun for the pride of Munich. Against all expectations, the Drunks stumbled to victory, unfazed by the Mount Li Legends’ seeming ability to be everywhere, all the time—perhaps the Drunks are simply used to overwhelming numbers due to their tendency toward seeing double, or triple (and, anyway, their Party Zone defense negates any concern about man-to-terracotta-man coverage).

Blarney Stone v Hagia Sophia
Mascots: Kissers v Mosaics

The Kissers are a one-trick team, but what a crowd-pleasing trick it is. They found their sweet spot again and again against the Mosaics—who seemed like they were having a bit of an identity crisis about how their very foundational identity, and could be seen raising their hands to the heavens for guidance.

Wall Drug v Forbidden City
Mascots: Jackalopes v Dynasties

In a classic showdown between East and Old West, the Dynasties were the emperors of the court, using some 8,886 box-out moves to keep the Jackalopes at bay. The South Dakotans looked flat-footed and lethargic, causing many fans to yell, “Why not rush more?!”

Tourist Trap Tourney: Art & Architecture, Round 2

The Pyramids at Giza v The Parthenon
Mascots: Pharaohs v Athenas

The Pharaohs made a strong showing in the first round, but it turns out they’d kept some of their secrets under wraps, and they came out shockingly strong, albeit with an odd lurch in their stride, as though they’d been resting for a millenia or two. The Athenas’ showed an impressively diverse skill set, from wisdom to craftiness, keeping things close, but for the Pharaohs, the writing was already on the wall, in their native hieroglyphics.

Sydney Opera House v Edinburgh Castle
Mascots: Avenging Arias v Mighty Tartan

The Avenging Arias were flat at times but left this one on a high note after settling into a good rhythm. It was all too much for the Mighty Tartan, who fell short by a Royal Mile.  

Bilbao Guggenheim v Manneken-Pis
Mascots: Starchitects v Wee Whizzers

The Wee Whizzers are a team everyone either loves to hate or hates to love, the pint-sized scamps with the hot hand and the titillating reputation. Quite the contrast to the Starchitects, with their refined, even haughty sensibility—well-earned, given the hardscrabble roots—and penchant for going almost out of bounds before slyly pulling back. The irreverent little chaps from Belgian pulled it out when no one else expected it, though, and got the W.

Easter Island v Taj Mahal
Mascots: Furious Foreheads v Marvelous Minarets

After toppling Stonehenge in the first round, the Furious Foreheads were expected to have another strong showing, although there were concerns that they’d get [wait for it, you know what’s coming …] big heads. But leading up to this match-up they remained tight-lipped, even while the Marvelous Minarets grandiosely waxed poetic, evidently as a tribute to a deceased loved one. When it came to the actual face-off, the Furious Foreheads were rock-solid, using a Hack-a-Pishtaq strategy to great effect against the Marvelous Minarets.

25 March 2014

Tourist Trap Tourney: Cities & Squares & Markets, Round 1

The first round of the Tourist Trap Tourney concludes with the Cities & Squares & Markets regional, featuring several closely-watched match-ups, like the Piazza San Marco against famous imitator, Disney World. 

Great Wall of China v World’s Largest Truck Stop (Walcott, Iowa)
Mascots: Earth Dragons v Bulldogs

With both teams in it for the long haul, this was a match-up for the ages. The Earth Dragons’ defense was a bit shoddy in places, contrary to the reputation, but no matter, they lived up to their reputation as a dynasty to watch, and truly one of the world’s rising superpowers. The Bulldogs suffered breakdown after breakdown, and had continual problems driving the lane.

Piazza San Marco (Venice) v Disney World (Orlando, Florida)
Mascots: Gondoliers v Ridiculous Lines

As many an observer has noted, Disney World copies many of its signature moves from Piazza San Marco. But nothing compares to the real deal, and the Gondoliers in their trademark striped shirts glided right past the slow-moving Ridiculous Lines and their cartoonish ways.

Las Vegas v Asakusa (Tokyo)
Mascots: Sinners v Scarlet Gang

The Sinners are renowned for their secretive if wild ways, but enigmatic as they are, they’re a solid bet. The Scarlet Gang looked great down low, and clearly picked up some samba style pointers from the Copacabana Tan Lines, but just couldn’t compete with the Sinners’ stacked deck and penchant for rebounding.

Red Square (Moscow) v Blackpool (England)
Mascots: Embalmed Lenins v Peerless Piers

The Embalmed Lenins are known for their long line of stoic strongmen (and, it must be said, for their creepy mascot), and their current leader follows the trend, claiming territory and ceding nothing despite pressure from all comers. It’s all slash and no flash—unlike the Peerless Piers, who showed a razzle-dazzle flash of a million watts in this close contest, leaving the ticket-buyers giddy and sated.

Angkor Wat (Cambodia) v Mall of America (Minnesota)
Mascots:  Dancin’ Apsaras v White Walking Shoes

Pity the Dancin’ Apsaras, who clearly tried to take the moral high road when the White Walking Shoes offered up all manner of steals—to prey so much undoubtedly seemed like bad karma. And yet the gentle giants from the Midwest insisted, evidently believing that it would pay off in the long run. Not so. The Dancin’ Apsaras don’t have the mass of the White Walking Shoes, but they’re towering nonetheless.

Times Square (New York City) v Thamel Shopping District (Kathmandu)
Mascots: Bright Lights v Singing Bowls

Despite shedding its longtime reputation for dirty stuff, Times Square still has its detractors—some of whom miss that old grit. In any case, the Bright Lights stole the spotlight from the Singing Bowls, in spite of the latter’s laudable cooperative efforts and artistic moves.

Dubai v Medina of Fez (Morocco)
Mascots: Shiny New Stuff v Labyrinth

Another close battle here—the trendy Shiny New Stuff, who are generating buzz for their make-no-small-plans boldness, versus the truly timeless and multi-faceted stalwarts of the Labyrinth. Dubai’s efforts seemed unsustainable, but the Moroccans couldn’t start their engines at all, and at times looked lost out there.

Machu Picchu (Peru) v Bến Thành Market (Saigon)
Mascots: Altitudinous Alpacas v Hagglers

In this surprisingly tight match-up, the Hagglers showcased an impressive stinginess, using a series of cunning moves to keep the Altitudinous Alpacas at a disadvantage and shuffling between twos and threes. Once the Peruvians settled in, though, it was a clinic in precision work—truly masterful. 

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Through our first round of competition, here's where things stand: 

Click for larger version.

Don't forget: You can still submit your picks, which maybe possibly will affect the outcomes of the remaining games. Fill out your bracket right here and email it to doug@douglasmack.net.

Tourist Trap Tourney: The Natural World, Round 1

The competition's heating up, with bracket-busting upsets left and right, including one absolute stunner ... 

Mount Everest v Lake Atitlan
Mascots: Oxygen Tanks v Holistics

Mount Everest came in as a heavy favorite to win it all, thanks to its peerless size and legendary might. But the scrappy Holistics had some tricks up their tie-dyed sleeves, and pulled off the upset of the tournament, although there have been some questions about what substances, precisely, were in their pre-game smoothies. The Oxygen Tanks showed fortitude but also a whole lot of cockiness, as though their wealth and snazzy outfits alone gave them bragging rights.  

[In light of this shocking defeat, here’s a guest commentary about Mount Everest’s planned changes to improve its core Tourist Trap strengths and reputation.]

Igauzu Falls (Argentina/Brazil) v Niagara Falls (Canada/USA)
Mascots: Naipís v Honeymooners 
Two very evenly-matched teams, formed of the same stuff, both known for their thrilling flow and thundering dunks. While the Honeymooners draw the crowds, the funhouse atmosphere can be more of distraction than anything else. The Naipís keep powering along with that famous South American style. This match-up goes way, way back, and that famous call of announcer Eleanor Roosevelt still holds true: “Poor Niagara!” [Actual fact! - Ed.]

Great Barrier Reef (Australia) v Table Mountain (South Africa)
Mascots: Bombastic Coral v Cable Cars

In a game packed with highs and lows, the Bombastic Coral simply outnumbered the Cable Cars time after time. The South Africans had the smooth style, to be sure, with swing plays galore, but in the end, it was the Aussies and their surgeonfish precision that won the day.   

Fjords (Norway) v Victoria Falls (Zambia/Zimbabwe)
Mascots: Haddock v Thundering Smoke

Employing a variation of the Amoeba Defense that they call the Haddock Hold-‘em, the Fjords claimed the victory thanks to their absurdly long reach and careful maneuvering that was simultaneously weaving and steady. Most of all, it was a strategy of containment—the exact opposite of the Thundering Smoke, a porous defense if ever there were one, with everything slipping right past.

Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) v Copacabana (Rio de Janeiro)
Mascots: Snowballs v Tan Lines

In a different era, the Snowballs were justly famous, a sight to behold. Today, they’re fading fast, a widely-lamented sign of a changing climate. Against the ascendant Tan Lines and their hotter-than-hot samba style, Mount Kilimanjaro stood, well, a snowball’s chance, its three-point efforts continually cratering.

Maasai Mara (Kenya) v Equator Park (Quito, Ecuador)
Mascots: Big Cats v Latitudes

No question that the Latitudes’ attitudes are winningly optimistic, but the South Americans couldn’t quite hit the mark, while the Big Cats prowled and pounced at every opportunity. It wasn’t so much a motion offense as a swarming feeding frenzy, with many a fast break as the crowds went wild and flashbulbs popped.

Petra (Jordan) v Dunn’s River Falls (Jamaica)
Mascots: Obodas v Dr Nos

The Dr. Nos like to play the villains, with their slippery ways and devious misdirections and cryptic trash-talking. And with the Obodas’ charms initially hiding from view, this was a tight one. But by the end, the outcome seemed predetermined, the Obodas’ emerging magnificence well worth the wait, and the Dr. Nos tumbled hard down that rocky slope of defeat,

Grand Canyon (Arizona) v Torres del Paine National Park (Chile)
Mascots: John Wesley Powells v Gallopin’ Guanacos

This stunner of a match-up offered a whole raft of jaw-dropping delights, with the John Wesley Powells carving out a victory in the end, thanks to a series of fast breaks. Torres del Paine is one to watch in the future, to be sure—step by steppe, it’s sure to be a contender soon. 

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20 March 2014

Tourist Trap Tournament: Culture (or Something), Round 1

More heart-stopping thrills in Day 2 of the Tourist Trap Tournament, as competition got started in the Culture (or Something) regional. And if you're just joining us, we suggest that you start from the beginning and also fill out your own bracket so as not to miss any of the action.

Running of the Bulls (Pamplona, Spain) v Kimchi Museum (Seoul)
Mascots: Stampeding Hemingways v Fermenters

The Stampeding Hemingways, in their trademark playoff beards and red bandanas, came out strong, with energy and movement like they were being chased. The Fermenters, meanwhile, took too long to really get going, and quickly found themselves in a pickle, while the Stampeding Hemingways kept charging with a bullish optimism.

Graceland (Memphis) v Mardis Gras (New Orleans)
Mascots: Gyrating Hips v King Cakes

In a closely-watched match-up between two American favorites, the Gyrating Hips proved to be King-Cake-Eaters (or is that King Cake-Eaters?). The King Cakes showed an impressively wild style, but had a terrible time finding their famous little guy in the middle, and their famous coconut throws routinely missed their targets and fell to the ground.

Oktoberfest v Kyoto Golden Pavilion
Mascots: Drunks v Monks

It was a tale of two styles: the plastered versus the placid. The Monks showed off a refreshingly zen approach, meditative and deliberate. But no one drains ‘em like the Drunks of Oktoberfest, and in the end, they were toasting themselves after stumbling to victory thanks to their sneaky Belgian’s triple-dubbel.

Terracotta Warriors v Avenue of Stars
Mascots: Mount Li Legends v Paparazzi

The Legends are known as visually imposing but ultimately flawed defenders, their movement nonexistent, like their feet are stuck to the ground. This time, though, they lucked out by drawing an opponent who happened to be not only equally lethargic but notably vain, spending all their time posing for the cameras. The Legends got a major assist from their deep bench, the skills equal from the sixth man to the six thousandth.

Blarney Stone v International Museum of Toilets
Mascots: Kissers v Crappers

Gross. This was a tough one to watch, with the Kissers flopping all over floor and the Crappers’ #1 and #2 generating all kinds of foul problems. The Crappers had some unstoppable runs, and their truly international line-up was awash in global styles. But those legendary Kissers were coasting on a bit of residual Luck of the Irish from Saint Patrick’s Day, and they flushed the Crappers for good.

Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) v Full Moon Beach Party (many locations)
Mascots: Istan-Bulls v Glassy-Eyed Bros

What was billed as a transcendent, almost spiritual match-up turned out to be a bust, as the Istan-Bulls—formerly the Constantinoples, but that’s nobody’s business but the Turks—showed simply more staying power, more determination than the Glassy-Eyed Bros, who spent much of the competition staring at their hands and giggling. It was like comparing a chandelier and a glow-stick: no contest, really.

Phallological Museum (Reykjavik) v Wall Drug (Wall, South Dakota)
Mascots: Super Schlongs v Jackalopes

Pity the Super Schlongs—where once they were symbols of vigor and power, here they looked as lifeless as museum pieces. The Jackalopes, though, hopped all over the place, racking ‘em up and well-hydrated by their famous Free Water. Throughout the night, the Super Schlongs’ ball-handling was as impressive, but try as they might, they just couldn’t get their happy ending. [I’m so sorry. -Ed.]

Forbidden City (Beijing) v Currywurst Museum (Berlin)
Mascots: Dynasties v Saucy Sausages

Keep your 1990s Bulls and your early-Aughts Lakers—for a true dynasty, look at, well, the Dynasties. The pride of Beijing from Ming to Qing, they’re quite the Thing, with particularly strong guards. The Saucy Sausages will never get far with all the double dribbling going on, and though they do have a tendency to come back on you, the outcome of this contest was never in doubt.

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Next up: The Natural World! 

Make your picks in the comments.