The Great American Vacation (Part 1)

mountains

A bit of viral information currently spreading its way through the parks and national forests out West is that 10,000 Baby Boomers are retiring every day. I don’t know if it’s literally true, though it’s a fair approximation of the rate at which we’re passing any given birthday. If you’re in the great outdoors right now, try sharing this news with the folks in the next campsite. Watch them swivel apprehensively toward the horizon, as if today’s 10,000 might be pouring over it already, riding a Mad Max convoy of punked-out Winnebagos.

Of course those geezers aren’t all headed for your favorite spot, but it has been a busy year for American tourism. Gas prices are low, and the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary by staging a publicity blitz. The summer crowds are diverse, but look around in the fall when the kids are back in school and the Europeans back at work: now you’re surrounded by an eerie sameness of folks who were all watching the Smothers Brothers the night The Who blew themselves up. Having suppressed its anti-establishment tendencies for forty or so career years, my generation is ready to escape, mildly annoyed that they don’t make VW buses any more. Then again, VW buses were small. These people are hitting the road in vehicles the size of their first apartments. “Living the dream,” says a bumper sticker we’ve seen attached to more than one giant RV. Not a dream, not one possible dream, but the one automatic and inevitable dream. It sounds like adventure, though I’m not sure what it really is, given the number of these things we see parked in neat rows with the shades down, lit from within day and night by the flicker of a television.

All right, bad example. The European river cruise people have our number too. The TV commercial shows happy folks passing around wine and pasta, while the voice-over goes: “It’s been said that the best way to know a culture is through food.” Really? Not through its history or politics, its literature and art – even, ahem, its advertising? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the food idea. I’m not saying it because I have friends who are very good cooks, and offending them would be to my disadvantage. But I don’t think that river cruise ad is aimed at people who want to know a culture. It’s aimed at people who’re hungry.

By now you’re thinking that Fidge got up on the wrong side of bed today, and that he’s one of those cranks who goes to tourist resorts and complains that they’re full of tourists, and that people aren’t vacationing in a manner he approves of. But come on – making fun of your shallow, thoughtless fellow travelers has been a legitimate sport for centuries. In the eighteenth century, young aristocrats returning to England from the Grand Tour of the continent were called “macaronis” for the affectations they brought home. Today, the problem of what constitutes intelligent, meaningful, “authentic” travel seems to get tougher as the world gets smaller. Ariel and I are fans of the European travel guides by Rick Steves, and we like to read his exhortations to get off the beaten path and mingle with the locals. We like the little out-of-the-way restaurants and hotels he recommends. We enjoy these places while trying not to notice that everyone in them is carrying the same yellow and blue book that we are.

My militancy on this issue got further encouragement from a recent visit to the dentist, where I found the May issue of Outside magazine in the waiting room. This publication was new to me. I don’t think I have the right stuff to be a regular reader of Outside, which offers features like “50 Excruciating Things To Do In The Wilderness” (that may not have been the exact title). But I liked Ian Frazier’s article called “National Parks Don’t Need Your Misty-Eyed Reverence.” Frazier is distressed about the way we address stale language to nature. He has a particular animus toward the phrase “magnificent outdoor cathedral” as applied to mountains and forests, but he’s really talking about the way we overlay our travel destinations with canned meaning instead of knowing them for what they really are. Mark Twain said pretty much the same thing in the letters that became The Innocents Abroad – his fellow tourists in the Holy Land had “brought their verdicts with them.” Frazier points out that beautiful places sometimes have ugly histories, and that willfully ignoring this makes us dumber.

I’ll see that idea and raise it. One afternoon not long ago I was in the lobby of one of the old national park lodges in the northwestern U.S. I’d been sitting there for a while reading contentedly by a big stone fireplace, when a determined-looking young woman came in and started shoving the furniture around to form a big circle. It was heavy furniture, big chairs and sofas made of rustic pine logs, and my first thought was to get up and help her. But I was pretty sure she was eyeing my chair too. I buried myself in my book.

The woman turned out to be a guide for an outfit called the Country Walkers, which organizes group tours of noteworthy places both in the U.S. and overseas. The last time I looked, you could find them in the L. L. Bean catalog. When the leader had finished turning the lodge into what looked like a nice setting for an AA meeting, her group filed in, sat down, and assumed solemn attitudes. They took turns talking so that everyone could have the floor for a while. What you were supposed to do was to tell everyone about your previous excursions with the Country Walkers. Some of the group were on their sixth or eighth outing with the same company. The first couple to speak had started with a tour of Acadia National Park, on the Maine coast. That trip, they said, had been amazing. Then they’d toured England’s Lake District and seen Dove Cottage, where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived for a while. That was “amazing” too. Other Walkers had specialized in American national parks – Glacier, Bryce Canyon, Olympia – every one of which was, without qualification, amazing. A fit-looking older couple had walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, the route in northwestern Spain that Christian pilgrims have been following since the Middle Ages. How to describe that experience? Time stood still while their minds ranged over the landscape of the English language in search of a suitable adjective:

“That was so amazing.”

After half an hour of this I started to have my own creative ideas for amazing the Country Walkers. Ariel, recognizing the signs, suggested we go somewhere else. I’ve since been told, by multiple reliable sources, that Country Walkers tours are regularly attended by interesting and well-educated people, many of them from academic backgrounds, and that they can be an excellent source of stimulating companionship and even lifelong friendships. You should assume this is true, and ignore the story I just told you. I’m not a reliable witness because I have a special, perspective-distorting terror of travel bores.

Mainly I mean the old kind of travel bore. It used to be a potent term. Lately it’s been watered down by people who wring their hands over social media etiquette, if that is a thing that even exists – people who think you might be posting too many vacation photos on Instagram. Never mind that. A true travel bore works parties and weddings and family reunions, where there’s no escape. He’s got a thousand photos on his phone and a lot to tell you about each one. He’s even interested in your travels, which seems flattering until you’ve taken the bait. Then he’s surprised you visited country X without having seen the unspoiled, less-touristy southeastern region, where the cholera epidemic can easily be avoided. He is dismayed that you visited city Y without eating at restaurant Z, where they still make the local delicacy the old fashioned way out of pigs’ ears and WD-40. In a short time, a really competent travel bore can make you feel that you’ve wasted not only your airline miles but your entire life.

The day may come when we miss these people, if the alternative is the new style of agreeing that everything is amazing. In its favor, this system does relieve you of the burden of remembering different cliches for different locations. And sometimes it’s just inevitable: no one sees the Grand Canyon without being amazed. (That’s unless you believe J. B. Priestley’s story about meeting George Bernard Shaw there. He said Shaw didn’t like the Canyon, because “he was jealous of it.”) Still, enough of our travel conversation these days stays so far inside the orbit of amazing/awesome/fabulous that I worry some kind of mass dementia is setting in. I’m not sure we’re even reserving a particular “misty-eyed reverence” for nature any more. A single sort of generic satisfaction will do equally well for a mountaintop, a quaint rural Irish pub, the Louvre. We congratulate ourselves just for being in these places, we post photos online, and life is good.

Oh well. Clearly this argument is about to teeter off into the kind of curmudgeonosity that we strive to avoid, or at least disguise, here at Gumby & Fidge. If you have traveled all the way to the Parthenon in order to take a selfie with it, that is your business. If you enjoy chasing whales in a motorboat, we’re fine if you want to call it “eco-tourism.” You’ll probably have plenty of company, given that 10,000 American Baby Boomers are joining the ranks of the retired every day. For reasons we’ll consider in the next part of this essay (if I ever get it written) these people are programmed to travel, and they’re probably using the same checklist of destinations that you are. It’s going to be amazing.

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