Two things Dan Eldridge really hates in travel guides: One, "When the author has just fawned over something ... and you get there and it's so obviously not the case." And two, stuff like an outline of a one-day sightseeing tour ... that's impossible to complete in one day.
So when Eldridge got the chance to introduce Pittsburgh to the world, he vowed to "write the book that I would want to read." He says the folks at the California-based Moon Travel series made it easy. "I was allowed to be 100 percent honest when I wrote this book," says Eldridge. "That's much rarer than most people think when it comes to guidebooks."
Moon Pittsburgh (Avalon Travel, $17.95) was published this summer, and even its cover image reflects Eldridge's input: He convinced the publisher to forego the hackneyed sight of Mount Washington's inclines for an ironic image by photographer Mara Rago juxtaposing a dinosaur sculpture with the glass spires of PPG Place.
The book reflects the inveterate traveler's status as both a local and an outsider. As the child of a military family, he moved often, eventually graduating from Peters Township High School. After plans to become Jack Kerouac fell through, Eldridge studied at CCAC and Pitt, confirming his love of travel in Pitt's now-defunct Semester at Sea program. Stints in Seattle, San Francisco and Istanbul were followed by a 2003 return to Pittsburgh to launch his writing career, which included about a year as CP's music editor.
It was the Moon gig, in fact -- along with interest from publishers of the renowned Lonely Planet guidebook -- that let Eldridge quit the 9-to-5 grind to pursue his desired career. But his first challenge as a travel writer was to learn about where he already lived.
His target audience was wide: temporary residents and business travelers as well as tourits, and perhaps even locals re-entering the dating pool. He sought to write each description of a neighborhood, shop or arts group "like a little review."
Moon Pittsburgh outlines a two-day whirlwind tour; how to do Pittsburgh on a budget; and where to take visiting parents. Inspired sidebars, meanwhile, catalog things like our repurposed churches (now nightclubs and brewpubs) and a Warhol-themed spin through town. It's also pedestrian-friendly: Eldridge, who lives in Bloomfield, only recently bought his first car.
Eldridge, who's 33, says he wrote much of the illustrated, 300-page book off the top of his head. And indeed, he demonstrates a flâneur's easy familiarity especially with watering holes and coffeehouses. But it didn't all come easily. Much of his year on the project was spent researching Pittsburgh history -- new enough territory for Eldridge that we might forgive him misidentifying the Point as "the site of the French and Indian War" (it was a sprawling regional conflict), and his baffling references to "steel miners." Also puzzling: an account of the 1877 Pennsylvania Railroad Strike, but no mention of 1892's more infamous Homestead Strike.
But the biggest research challenge for this used-book-and-record-store guy involved other retail. For help on sections like "clothing and accessories," he turned to his girlfriend, Carrie Voegel, a graphic designer who "pretty much wrote the entire thing herself!" he says.
Meanwhile, Eldridge kept his vow of candor. "Like most people who've lived here a long time, I've definitely developed a love/hate relationship with the city," he says. "Steer clear of the tofu," Eldridge writes of one restaurant in Moon Pittsburgh. And he shrewdly (but unjudgmentally) describes the Pittsburgh Regional History Center's "uplifting, rah-rah enthusiasm" and characterizes its exhibits as "rarely challenging or disagreeable."
With Moon Pittsburgh published, Eldridge continues gigs including updating the Thailand chapter in Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. He's also planning to become an ex-Pittsburgher, with a fall move to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, his publisher tells him Moon Pittsburgh is selling well, and Eldridge knows the book has already made one convert: its own graphics coordinator. "She's sort of like a Pittsburgh booster now, even though she's never been here."