Go Away With … Steve Hely

Steve Hely 2

By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Content Agency
June 21, 2016

An avid traveler who has written for television (“American Dad,” “The Office,” “30 Rock”) and received an Emmy nomination (“Late Show with David Letterman”), Steve Hely also hosts the popular podcast, “The Great Debates.” His latest project is “The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World” (Dutton, $27), where he writes about his adventures traveling from his home in Los Angeles to Patagonia.

“That was the best trip of my life,” says Hely, 36. “One place that jumped out as a true wonderland was Peru.” For more about Hely, follow him on Twitter or head to his website.

Q. To someone who was going to Peru for the first time, what would you recommend that they do during their visit?

A. Eat! The food in Peru is such a wild mix of indigenous, European, Asian and every other kind of influence. Plus, there are fruits and vegetables you’ve never seen, let alone tried before. In the Andes, there is something like 4,000 varieties of potatoes. I say this as a picky and prickly eater. But, for a visitor, Peru is as close as you can come to checking out a buffet on a brand-new planet.

Q. What was the first trip you took as a child?

A. When I was seven, we drove to Cape Cod and stayed in a motel called The Sea Crest. That was the first time I’d slept anywhere that wasn’t a relative’s house. There was a Pac-Man machine in the rec room. In the restaurant they had ice cream. I was hooked! Ever since then, I have taken any chance I can to stay at hotels.

Q. Where are your favorite weekend getaways?

A. Joshua Tree National Park is just a perfect, otherworldly trip from Los Angeles. The next level of adventure up from that is Death Valley. I’ve also had some great weekends fly-fishing in the Eastern Sierras.

Q. What are your five favorite cities?

A. Boston, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles are all fantastic. But how can you top Barcelona for its medieval alleys, warped modern architecture, the best in food and good times, endlessly interesting cultural weirdness and artistic mania? And on top of that, it’s on the beach.

Q. Where have you traveled to that most reminded you of home?

A. There were towns in Ireland where, as a Massachusetts kid, I was like, “Yup, I get this. I’ve seen this before.” More than anything, the people reminded me of my aunts and family members I’d grown up around. Probably no accident — no doubt if we did the genealogy charts they weren’t too far.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A. Africa. That’s an overwhelming answer: it’s a huge continent. I want to see all of it and I don’t know where to start! I live near Little Ethiopia here in Los Angeles, where the food and hospitality is so welcoming, so maybe that’s first up.

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. A good book to read. Everything else you can get there, but good books in English can be hard to find. On the other hand, if you chance it to luck, sometimes you find some great new books. So, I guess, take nothing.

Q. What would be your dream trip?

A. I’d love to be plopped down in some town somewhere in Brazil with orders not to come back for three months.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go away on a trip?

A. Obsessive checking of web forums, message boards. If Anthony Bourdain has been there, I’m definitely gonna check where he went. The Lonely Planet books are still just amazing. I can’t believe the army of intelligent, engaged people they have around the world. But better than anything is talking to someone who’s been there or, better yet, lived there.

Q. What is your best and/or worst vacation memory?

A. My family is all pasty, fair-skinned people who fear the sun, so we would go to the beach at four or five p.m. Everyone would be leaving and we’d just be showing up. Those evenings were pretty much magic. Sailing from Panama to Colombia on a catamaran with 17 ragtag Australian, European and American wanderers was also impossibly great. (That) has to go down as one of the best.

Worst might be driving my grandfather’s second cousin from Abruzzo into the heart of Rome. Driving in Rome requires a Jason Bourne-level of concentration and skill and fearlessness. When I finally got out of the car, I was drenched in sweat, terrified and wildly exhilarated. I looked down and there was the Coliseum. So, (that was the) best and worst.

Q. What is your favorite vacation destination?

A. I’m not sure if it’s fair to say the state where you live, but I’ve yet to get bored of California. The desert, the Sierras, the redwood country. … You will not soon run out of jaw-dropping destinations in my state alone. There’s close to nine hundred miles of coastline, some of it pure natural beauty and some of it dotted with some of the weirdest coolest beach towns in the world.

Q. Have you traveled to a place that stood out so much that you felt compelled to incorporate it into your work?
A. Tough question. As a travel writer, I feel like my job is to travel to places, feel compelled and incorporate them! The first time I went to Marfa, Texas, that strange art mecca/West Texas ranch town, it blew my mind so much that I used it as the setting for the climactic scene in my first novel, “How I Became A Famous Novelist.” “The Wonder Trail” is all about traveling and feeling compelled. In fact, I took three months of doing just that to prepare to write the book.

Q. Where is the most romantic destination?
A. Big Sur in California is a homerun for romance. But if someone takes you somewhere special to them, shows you their favorite haunts and includes you in what they love, that’s always a warm exciting feeling.

Q. What untapped destination should people know about?
A. Colombia. Storybook countryside, innovative cities, old churches, beautiful, half-medieval small towns, mountains, jungles, prairies, and tropical beaches from your best-ever dreams. Word is starting to get out to Americans I think that there’s a lot more to Colombia than likes of Pablo Escobar.

Q. If you’ve ever gone away for the holidays which was the best trip?
A. New Year’s 2010, I was on a beach on the west coast of Puerto Rico. I’d never been, was there with some great adventurous friends, went to some wild club in a local town and woke up on New Year’s Day on the beach. Hard to top.

Q. What are your favorite hotels?
A. The 29 Palms Inn near Joshua Tree and Deetjen’s near Big Sur both radiate good vibes, as we say here in California. In South America, at opposite ends of the price and luxury spectrum, but equally great in comfort: The Palacio Nazarenes in Cusco, Peru; and the Parklife Hostel in Popayan, Colombia.

Q. What is your guilty pleasure when you’re on the road?
A. Not doing anything. I’m a big believer in having days where you don’t do anything. No museums, no sites, no destination at all. Just wandering aimlessly. Frequently the best days.

Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your travels?
A. There is nothing that tops being shown around by a local. If you have a third cousin twice removed in Berlin or Belgrade, you should look them up and see if they’ll show you a night in their home town. Taking in a city with someone who knows it well — or at least better than you — is always the best way to really experience a place. I’ve been stunned over and over by the generosity of local folks and their eagerness to show off their favorite spots.

Q. What are your favorite restaurants?
A. There was a converted farm I ate at on a road trip in Italy. They served lamb cooked over a fire. I have no idea where it was or how to find it again, but I think about it at least once a month. That place. Also, Chipotle.

© 2016 JAE-HA KIM

Comments (2)

  1. Pat Carey says:

    He seems very interesting!

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