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The laziest form of travel learning

By Brendan Francis Newnam, Special to CNN
"The Adventures of Augie March," by Saul Bellow, captures the energy and bluster of Chicago.
"The Adventures of Augie March," by Saul Bellow, captures the energy and bluster of Chicago.
  • Armchair travel isn't as engaging as the real thing, but at its best it can transport you
  • Tomato sauce led the author to a family-owned amusement park in Pennsylvania
  • Watching a documentary about Bruce Springsteen evokes the Jersey Shore

Brendan Francis Newnam hosts a national public radio show called The Dinner Party Download produced by American Public Media. He's the author of the travel column "The State I'm In." Follow him on Twitter @bnewnam.

(CNN) -- Travel is the laziest form of learning. Just go somewhere you've never been, tend to your basic needs and lessons will be learned -- if only about your basic needs.

The laziest form of travel? Entertainment. No ride to the airport, no 2.5-ounce can of shaving cream, no comburent rage at your fellow man.

OK, it's not the same as travel, but art can reawaken you to places you've been or whet your appetite for places you want to go. At its best it can even transport you.

I've done a lot of the laziest form of lazy learning lately. Even though my body hasn't slipped my ZIP code in weeks, I've visited Chicago, Pennsylvania, the Jersey Shore and more. I've traveled by book, film and tomato sauce. Here is my itinerary:

Destination: Chicago
Tour guide: Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March"
Mode of transport: Novel

This book's famous first line drops you right on the shores of Lake Michigan:

"I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles."

That's the Augie of the book's title speaking. The book is written in his voice. The book is his voice. Part slang, part philosophy. Him describing at breakneck speed his life, his loves, his thoughts, his mentors and, of course, his city: Chicago.

Sure the palate of the sky on a winter day might be somber, as the above quote suggests, but the town, as it is portrayed in the book, is anything but gloomy. Augie is an exuberant tour guide. He deftly sketches out different parts of the city, and then colors them in with the immigrants, politicians and hucksters Chicago is known for.

The reader joins him as he lights cigarettes for a real estate magnate taking his daily float in Lake Michigan; as he cuts school and heads to the Loop to ride the elevators in City Hall. The prose is so rapid fire and evocative that one might need to rest between chapters.

Big Sur and the greatest bench in America

Like the city it describes, the book lacks a classic plot. Instead, it's simply a container holding all the bluster, energy and industry of people trying to survive the Depression. Chicago, of course, has changed radically since then. The city has boomed and busted, most recently regaining its swagger for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is the fact that one of the most powerful people in the free world has a home there; I'm speaking of Oprah Winfrey, of course.

President Obama has digs there, too. As does Kanye and the white hot commodities exchange. And for all its changes, Augie's Chicago hasn't completely disappeared. The smart Chicagocentric website Gaper's Block (named after what the locals call "rubbernecking") produced this slide show, which tracks Augie's adventures in contemporary Chicago.

Destination: Jersey Shore
Tour guide: Bruce Springsteen via "The Promise: The Making of 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' "
Mode of transport: Film, music

In case you haven't heard, Bruce Springsteen was born in the USA. Specifically, Long Branch, New Jersey. "The Promise," a newish documentary about the making of his fourth album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town," takes place nearby in 1973.

But the camera rarely leaves the studio. It's the songs themselves and the occasional home movie clip that evoke Monmouth County, New Jersey, in the '50s and '60s. Monmouth is the northernmost part of the Jersey Shore, which means it's filled with beach towns and New Yorkers' second homes.

Like the Big Apple itself, the county abuts wealthy bankers and industrialists with the folks who work for them. Springsteen writes mostly about the latter. His songs feature the 7-Elevens, the muscle cars and the stale beer-scented stupor of townies with few prospects.

The song "Factory" is a dark ode to one of the blue collar jobs his father held. "Racing in the Street" follows greasers as they cruise their way to the fire roads and interstates where they will race their souped-up cars.

This is the world of Springsteen's music, but his life revolves around the tonier enclaves of Monmouth. He lives in Rumson, a handsome town made up of big Victorians sitting on lots of land. He attends a gym in Red Bank, a town inland with nice restaurants, boutiques and several theaters including one named after Count Basie, its most famous resident.

The throughline for all these communities is the ocean. Come summer the towns swell with visitors. The coast fills up with body boards and ice cream cones. Saltwater taffy and bikinis. The town of Deal fills with luxury automobiles with New York tags.

Meanwhile, Asbury Park, the town from which Springsteen sent us a postcard on his first album, stands, like much of America, a faded beauty struggling to pull herself back together. Much of its iconic amusements have been sold or demolished, but there is a feeling that change is afoot.

The Berkeley Carteret, a hulking red brick hotel overlooking the water, has been recently renovated. New businesses have appeared. The town's boardwalk pavilions have been reconstructed. And the Stone Pony, the dive bar where Springsteen got his start, still has bands play. The Boss himself even makes the occasional appearance.

Destination: Central Pennsylvania
Tour guide: The DelGrasso family
Mode of transportation: A jar of tomato sauce, the Internet

Free food trumping my personal values is a recurring theme in my life. As a proud home cook I usually make my own tomato sauce, but recently I found a few free jars of LaFamiglia DelGrosso at the radio station where I work. (One of the company's executives is a public radio enthusiast and left them behind when he stopped by for a tour of the recording studios where I do my day job.)

A few days later, in a post-tennis state of famine, I found myself pouring a jar of the sauce on some pasta and a minute later pouring the pasta down my throat. It was I-might-try-to-pass-this-off-as-my-own someday good. I couldn't believe I'd spent countless hours in the past making my own sauce.

But was it really family owned? Or did some scientists and hipster brand consultants manufacture the charming immigrant family tale on the label to make it seem authentic? I found out that it was family owned, but while researching the brand I discovered something better than verification, I found an amusement park, a go-kart speedway and a miniature golf course with a 22-foot mountain and a five-tier waterfall.

Turns out the DelGrossos got their start making tomato sauce in a shack in the back of an old amusement park they bought outside Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1947. Since then the company has gone from making five cases of sauce a day to 4 million a year.

Meanwhile, the amusement park has grown alongside the business. What started as a dance floor on an old farm is now an amusement compound with a stage for live music, a classic carousel and a water park with five slides, water-spouting mushrooms and fountains. People come from all over central Pennsylvania to relax and to enjoy the food. They claim to have the best amusement park in the country.

Not sure how a stomach full of sauce does on a whirl-a-cup, but I'm going to find out next time I get out of the house and find myself in central Pennsylvania.