“ ‘Keep the tourists out,’ some tourist from Salt Lake City has written. As fellow tourists we heartily agree.”
So wrote one of America’s most original, idiosyncratic “environmentalists” (it is questionable just whether he would have accepted that title, but that is not important here, maybe “freedom fighter” is better) about the basic conundrum we face as a society ever more full of travelers. We want that idyllic tourist experience, but we want it untrammeled by other tourists. We want to own the experience, meaning we want to wall it off from others, but, just not from ourselves.
And many of us want something reasonably authentic, not a tourist trap, not a manufactured or curated experience. It’s ours, it’s real, not a facade.
This desire to emotionally own an experience or a place is deep-seated I think. When the Lonely Planet publishes each year its new list of 10 hot spots, its readers want to go right away, and certainly before everyone else gets there. You want to make it yours, to be able to say you were there before it was discovered by the masses. Going to a place on last year’s list just won’t do. Of course, if Lonely Planet has discovered it, you already are a bit too late. By the end of the upcoming season, it will have been overrun by several times as many travelers/tourists as had been there the season before. After two seasons pass, it just isn’t worth even mentioning anymore.
This probably accounts for much that is good, protecting things and places from being ruined by overt forces. But, this isn’t without its costs, both physical and emotional. What might be saved from actual destruction might be ruined by too much love. And ownership has its own ugly side.
This past July I went out to Monhegan Island, 12 miles off the coast of Maine, for the third of my trips there in three years with a slightly rotating rash of cousins and siblings. (For some in our family a gathering of three or more of us is referred to as a rash.) I have written about Monhegan before and view it as a special place to get away, to seek some measure of solitude, beauty and nature. see Up the Coast.
But what I am going to write about here is a very small incident occurring at the ferry terminal after we had landed back on the mainland, having spent three days on island. We were waiting for our bags to be offloaded and my cousin Paul had taken a seat on the pier. A small, elderly lady in a Maine island chic pantsuit approached him and initiated the following “conversation” which I got to overhear.
Lady - Hello
Paul - Hi
Lady - Have you been coming out to Monhegan for long?
Paul - This is my second year
Lady - I have been coming here every summer for the past 90 years.
I wanted to metaphorically knock the sweet old lady over onto the greasy deck of the pier.
The whole exchange was exactly that long; it was nothing more than a set up for her to drop the last line and so tell a random stranger that she had won the “contest.” There was no way Paul was going to win that, he didn’t even know it WAS a contest. He is getting up there in years (plus 80) but he isn’t yet 90 years old. He was her only possible competitor on that pier and she crushed him.
To be clear, my dim attitude towards her was not because she was somehow wrong to have spent so many consecutive summers out there. All power to her if through a few major wars and an epic worldwide economic depression she had the wherewithal and spare time to manage that streak. But this did not come up in casual conversation. She did not ask about how he enjoyed it or anything really about him at all, or even about our own time there, where we stayed, what we did, where we hiked, etc. She didn’t even offer up her own experiences for small talk.
She simply initiated an exchange were she could, in just the space of a few words, something less than 30, “own” the whole “going out to Monhegan” thing more than he ever possibly could. That land was HER land. She owned it, “it” being simply the experience of going there, more than he did. She deserved the Monhegan experience more. More than any of us.
As I reflected on that, simmering with a fair amount of anger mind you, I had to ask myself whether I was at times equally guilty of trying to own an experience more than others, that I somehow deserved some location or experience by my actions or personal history more than just some random member of the traveling public. I have to admit, this is probably a pretty common impulse. Once tuned in, I started to see this all the time; and I recall times when I was guilty too.
I doubt any of us that travel much don’t at times become that sweet, old, grasping lady. We all succumb to the desire, maybe even the need, to own an experience, a place that otherwise is available for all to share. We want others to know that we own it more than they do. This may be as subtle as using an “in the know” name for someplace, emphasizing some local but esoteric experience that only you know about. And so on. I expect there is some degree of this even just in my act of writing this blog.
This, I have decided will be one of the major themes of Ditch’s Dispatch posts to come. It is an intractable problem. I have spent a fair amount of time over the past month not writing new posts here simply because I have been trying to come to grips with this very point.
Do I find myself, for example, on the side of saying that people should be excluded from locations because too many are going there, ruining the experience of all of us? Should only “deserving” travelers get to travel to these places? The ones that “own” it more than others by some objective metric? Should public access to sensitive areas be encouraged or restricted? Or do I think that everyone should have the same opportunity, even if it means overcrowding and degradation of the location? How do we draw a Venn diagram around public access and public responsibility? How can travel be sustainable? How do we seek travel sustainability but not be travel snobs?
I have several topics in mind to delve into this overall theme. And to be frank, at this point I keep running into myself.
As I head down one line of thought, I end up ramming into some other experience that steers me to the opposite conclusion. I feel somewhat like I have been climbing the stairs in an Escher lithograph, just when I think I have gotten to the top of the stairs my perspective shifts and I am back on the level where I started.
For example, I’ve started this examination with an exchange where I have portrayed a woman “owning” the Monhegan experience in an unflattering and aggressive way. Several weeks back I wrote about how sustainable travel requires a slower pace, seeing fewer places but seeing them each well. See Slowing Down. I believe personally that this is a vitally important lesson and hope that if you have not read that post then you will take the time to go back to it. Because I think it is very likely that a traveler who spends a week in a city will end up feeling considerably greater ownership over the experience of that place than had he or she stopped a few hours merely to click a couple of selfies and then move on. Ownership in that sense is not weaponized, it is not a contest. It is, I believe, a worthwhile goal.
For awhile I didn’t write because I hadn’t worked these conflicts out. Still have not.
At this point however, I think that it probably cannot ultimately be resolved; to reconcile the desire to live in a free land with equal rights to travel and experience places but at the same time ensure that tourist destinations don’t become over exposed, over utilized, may well be unsolvable. The impulse to own a place or experience is both ugly and beneficial. I am not going to promise to be consistent here.
That doesn’t mean it is a waste of time to explore this question. In fact, although this conundrum may not have a systemic answer, that could be the best reason of all to fully examine the matter personally. Enlightenment isn’t gained from reaching a conclusion at one or the other end of this spectrum, but from asking the questions from our own experiences. We might become better travelers simply because we understand better the conflicts, tensions and harm created by our own travel (not just the travel decisions inflicted on us by others).
So in some future posts I will try and unbundle experiences where these conflicts arise. These experiences or situations will be explored expressly to question some basic premises we probably share. They may not make even me very comfortable. But, in the end, if you travel, then these are questions that will speak to your own experiences and goals.
They are unavoidable if we are being honest with ourselves. As learned from another of my favorite quotes from Edward Abbey: “Freedom begins between the ears.”
He might well have been talking about the freedom to travel, whether we are the owners of the land, or not.
©️ 2019 D Abbott