A Journey To Sissonville, West Virginia, Home Of Shain Gandee And MTV’s ‘Buckwild’

Tourism officials are always looking for promotional hooks, and using connections to popular TV shows has long been a common way to market a destination. In the ’80s, television programs like “Miami Vice” and “Magnum P.I.” boosted tourism in South Florida and Hawaii, while “The Love Boat” was a boon for the cruise industry. More recently a well-known PR firm is pushing Connecticut’s “Mad Men” connection and the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau is promoting “Breaking Bad” tours, despite the fact that the show’s protagonists cook meth for a living. The MTV show “Jersey Shore” boosted tourism there but officials in the Garden State were reluctant to formally promote the show given its bawdy content.

Earlier this year, MTV replaced “Jersey Shore” with a new reality show called “Buckwild” that depicts the lifestyles of hard-partying country kids from West Virginia who spend their days and nights boozing, hooking up, brawling and going “mudding” in trucks and ATV’s. Even before the show aired, politicians like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin were calling for the show to be taken off the air, arguing that it played on the public’s “ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.”

Calls to take the show off the air have intensified in recent weeks after one cast member, Salma Amin, was arrested on heroin possession charges and another, Michael Buford, was charged with DUI. And then last week, the breakaway star of the show, Shain Gandee, was found dead in a sport utility vehicle along with his uncle and a friend after they were last seen leaving a bar at 3 a.m. According to the AP, autopsies indicated that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly caused by their truck’s tailpipe being blocked with mud.I’m not proud to admit that I watched “Buckwild” a few times and was mildly intrigued, not so much with the clearly contrived story lines or staged antics but with the rural subculture depicted and the middle of nowhere appeal of Sissonville, West Virginia, where much of the show is shot. I live in a nice suburb of Chicago, where people ride their bikes to Whole Foods and an Arts Cinema that shows depressing foreign films, so I was curious to visit a place where everyone has peculiar accents and seems to spend their time mudding or hunting in the woods.

I was driving through West Virginia last Saturday, the day before Gandee’s funeral, but my wife, who has previously indulged me, albeit grudgingly, on lengthy detours for Amish donuts, nude beaches in Greece, and a tour of Justin Bieber’s haunts, among many other things, wasn’t stoked about spending a Saturday afternoon in Sissonville.

“Is it on the way?” she asked suspiciously.

“Sort of,” I claimed, despite the fact that Sissonville is on the way to nowhere.

The town is actually only about 15 miles north of Charleston, the state capital, but unlike other larger cities, Charleston doesn’t sprawl very far, so the place feels more like a quiet, country town than a suburb. It’s a humble little place with a mix of churches, businesses, modest new homes, decrepit old ones and trailers lining Sissonville Drive, the town’s main drag. We popped into a restaurant called Topspot Country Cooking and our waitress handed us menus that boasted that their food was “good enough for President George W. Bush to eat twice.”

“President Bush ate here twice?” I asked, looking around the dated little place, which was both relatively busy and silent at the same time.

“I’m not really sure about that,” said our waitress, who said her name was Stachia. “We have a catering company too and I think he ate some food from there.”

“What about other famous people?” I asked. “Do the kids from ‘Buckwild’ eat here?”

“Oh they do,” she said. “Shain was a friend of mine, and so are Joey and Ashley, the other two kids from the show who are from Sissonville.”

I ordered a meatloaf sandwich and a slice of peanut butter pie, which were both outstanding, and Stachia pointed out the window at a passing pickup truck.

“There goes Tyler,” she said. “He’s on the show too.”

She said she liked the show but admitted that some of the crew’s antics seemed a bit staged. I asked her about Shain and she said he was a sweetheart.

“Most of the people who have come through here because they’ve seen the show ask about Shain,” she said. “We had one guy who drove here all the way from Tennessee because he wanted to go mudding with Shain. He wasn’t here that weekend but if he was, I’m sure he would’ve gone with him.”

Stachia said that her brother used to date one of the female cast members and mentioned that Ashley, one of the cast members, moved to North Carolina because some people in town harassed her after the show came out. I asked her if the cast members’ heads had swelled after their newfound fame and she said she didn’t think any of them had changed for the worse.

“Of course they’re going to change a little bit,” she said. “I mean come on, people from little old Sissonville don’t usually get to be on TV.”

But an older couple sitting next to us wasn’t as keen on the show and the infamy it has brought the town.

“I watched an episode and a half but couldn’t stand to keep going with it,” said the man, who sat on the same side of the booth as his wife. “I don’t think the kids around here act that bad in real life.”

We drove down the street towards Shain’s home, referred to as the Wolf Pen holler on the show because it’s on Wolfpen Drive, and passed Larry’s Bar, the tavern where he and his cohorts were drinking on the night they died. It’s a nondescript building with tiny little windows – a great little hideout. There was a banner with the Miller Lite logo posted outside the building, which read, “We Will Miss You – Dave, Shain and Robert.”

I drove up Wolf Pen Drive, thinking I might talk to a few of Shain’s neighbors, but I soon thought better of it. They were still grieving and it felt wrong to swing through town with a notebook and a slew of questions. But visiting his neighborhood was an eye opener. Shain’s street is lined with ramshackle dwellings, some of which seemed ready to collapse, along with a host of trailers, and some tidy, modest homes.

I know that MTV and the cast members of this show have been lambasted for supposedly giving West Virginia a bad name but after seeing the Wolf Pen, I felt like I couldn’t blame Shain and the other kids from Sissonville for doing whatever it takes to make a living. Press reports indicate that they were set to make $4,000 per episode for the show’s second season, which is now in doubt as network executives decide if the show will go on without Shain. That is awfully good money in a place like Sissonville.

The show is undoubtedly a kind of cultural pollution. One does feel a bit dumber after watching it. People tune in to laugh at the country kids from West Virginia but after seeing Sissonville in person, I can’t help but conclude that the local kids who made it onto the show are smarter than they might appear.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, MTV]

Solo Spring Break Options Not As Depressing As You Might Imagine

Traveling solo for spring break sounds kind of depressing. All alone during a time when others you know are kicking it up in the fun and sun someplace does not sound like a spring break memory in the making at all – or does it? If the idea is to actually get a “break” from school, work and/or the people you might be with 24/7 otherwise, maybe going it on your own is not such a bad idea after all.

Do Something Amazing
I know, it sounds like a stab at an awesome advice photo from Pinterest or Tumblr but there is something relaxing and refreshing about what we feel in the aftermath of stepping outside of our comfort zone. The better news is that if you try and fail miserably (and that bothers you), your friends will not be around to laugh.

Find Other Solo Travelers
Cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts are obvious choices but some are better than others. A short three-day cruise will have more singles, party people and spring break fun. Adding on days also adds maturity; four or five days will still have singles but more young families. That holds true for up to seven-day voyages. Sailings of eight or more days are the cattle call for cougars and seniors, many of which may be solo travelers themselves, if you’re into that sort of thing.Do Something Good Or Watch Others Doing Something Good On TV
As part of an alternative Spring Break, MTV and the United Way along with mtvU are bringing 50 college students from around the country to the New York/New Jersey area to help rebuild communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Spring break icon Perez Hilton reports the cast of Jersey Shore (Snooki, JWOWW, Vinny, Sammi, Ronnie and Deena) will be on hand to help.

Check The Internet
Odds are, other solo travelers are too, and not just Online Booty Call either. Wall Street Oasis has some ideas as does Cheap Flights. If your singularity is more of a permanent state, travel agencies that specialize in just that include Singles Travel International, Best Singles Travel and for the adventure traveler, aptly-named Adventures For Singles.

No, there is absolutely nothing we can’t find on the Internet, including spring break ideas for solo travelers and tips on getting in shape for it all as we see in this video:

People To People Partners With MTV, Give Back

People to People Ambassador Group will be sending over 100 students to Japan in July for the first time since a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit in 2011. This week, People to People launched the Act for Japan contest in partnership with MTV Act to give away one full tuition travel scholarship.

Platinum selling recording artist and People to People alum Jordin Sparks will act as the final contest judge selecting one student to travel to Japan to provide aid in communities devastated by the 2011 tsunami.

“MTV Act is all about connecting young people with opportunities to take action and celebrating incredible organizations like People to People,” Liza Vadnai, director of public affairs for MTV said in a release. “We’re honored to partner with them on this initiative, and know that this opportunity will be a life-changing experience for the winning student.”Students interested in entering the contest and participating in hands-on service projects through the Spirit of Japan program must submit a video explaining why they love Japan and want to give back by May 18, 2012. Jordin Sparks, who participated on a People to People program to Europe last summer, will select the contest winner. The contest is open to full-time students in junior high and high school ages 13-19. Contest submission details can be found at www.P2PActForJapan.com.

“MTV Act is dedicated to helping teens engage and take action. We couldn’t ask for a better partner to work with us to give one deserving student the opportunity to live out their dream by traveling to Japan and giving back to this amazing country,” Peg Thomas, president of People to People Ambassador Programs told Gadling. “Japan was a natural choice to launch our Service in Action programs, which we are organizing as part of our heightened commitment to building a better world through service.”

[Photo by PeopletoPeople]

Top 5 MTV music videos that inspire travel

If you’re as old as or younger than MTV, which turns 30 today, then you probably can’t recall when MTV (short for “Music Television”) played music videos and nothing but. MTV launched on August 1, 1981, with a handful of videos filmed mostly on stages or sets tricked out with some lighting and a few props. As MTV grew in popularity, more and more musicians went on location to shoot miniature films backed by pop music soundtracks. Indeed, some of these videos, shot in places such as Venice and Prague, were like postcards beckoning viewers to find out more about the locales.

I grew up in the years when MTV was at the forefront of popular culture and credit the network with fueling a number of my travel fantasies. It is in this spirit that I list the top 5 MTV videos that inspired my desire to travel. Note that all of these videos were made in 1989 or earlier.

1. Like A Virgin – Madonna. As a known Italophile, I’m often asked what my favorite film set in Italy is. This Madonna classic, which must have single-handedly inflated ticket prices for a gondola ride when it was released in 1984, is always the first thing that comes to mind. Watch the video and tell me it doesn’t make you want to go to Venice.

2. Never Tear Us Apart – INXS. The sweeping views of Prague and INXS’ somber walks through that city, in particular their stroll through the Jewish Cemetery, is one of the most beautifully filmed music videos of all time. I still haven’t made it to Prague and that fact makes me sadder than this video usually does.

3. Personal Jesus – Depeche Mode. I distinctly remember the first time I saw this video and perked up when the VJ announced it had been shot in Spain. “Personal Jesus” was filmed in the Tabernas Desert in southern Spain, the location for many Spaghetti Westerns of yore.

4. Rio – Duran Duran. There is really nothing particularly related to the city of Rio de Janeiro in this memorable video by Duran Duran, but the shots of the white sand beaches and glossy sailboats gave me an itch for Caribbean travel. Apparently this video was shot in and around Antigua.

5. Going Back to Cali – LL Cool J. Even 24 years after it was made, LL Cool J’s funky black-and-white homage to L.A. is a love letter to the City of Angels even if LL continues to insist he’s not going back there.

Lady Gaga’s attire not an immediate threat, says TSA

When leaving Los Angeles after the MTV Video Music Awards, performer Lady Gaga was spotted with a handcuff hanging directly in front of her from a belt around her waist. The singer was leaving town after picking up eight awards and was dressed, well, as expected.

Always clad in shocking attire, Lady Gaga’s exploits looked like they were putting her on a collision course with the TSA, as handcuffs and chains were incorporated into the clothing. She had no problems, however. According to the Daily Mail: “A spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration said the prohibited items list is based on what experts assess and analyse as a threat to aviation security.”

Now, if they are paired with mile-high ambitions – that would be a much different story!