Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I Hate Being a Tourist

Cannery Row, 2012

I hate being a tourist.
That said, I was a tourist in California last week. But any time I was in areas designated for tourists I got edgy and realized that there is a big difference between being a “tourist” and being a “traveler.” At least I like to think there’s a difference between those who go to a place to do the same things they can do at home and those who go to wander, explore and otherwise experience the gestalt of a new place and new people.
Years ago I did research among people who vacationed at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a little town along the highway that leads up to the entrance to the Smokey Mountain National Park. The Smokey Mountains are beautiful. The people who went to Pigeon Forge liked to tell their friends they were “going to the mountains.” But the majority—at least when I was studying them—never got past Pigeon Forge’s resort strip. The mountains were clearly visible, barely a mile or two away. But the tourists never got there.
Instead, they went to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood amusement park. They went to a place where there was a caged brown bear that drank beer. They went to the Buford T. Pusser “Walking Tall Museum” and stayed at the Elvis Presley Heartbreak Hotel. And I don’t think I’ve ever been anyplace where people ate biscuits and gravy at so many meals.
I felt like one of those people last week while I was standing on the sidewalk at Cannery Row in Monterey, California. I don’t know what I expected from Cannery Row. I grew up reading the books of John Steinbeck. I knew Cannery Row had been a gritty and dangerous place in Steinbeck’s time. I anticipated that it would be a tourist district.
What I didn’t expect from modern Cannery Row was an almost complete lack of authenticity. True, there are a couple of buildings that have some history to them. But instead of housing museums or other acknowledgements of local history, commerce and culture, they house t-shirt shops, Starbucks, Johnny Rockets, Bubba Gumps and, coming soon, a PinkBerry.
[I should mention that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is first-class. There’s also the Museum of Monterey, a short distance away, that covers the local history, commerce and culture. But I’m willing to bet few of the tourists who wander Cannery Row buying off-price Pebble Beach golf shirts and having their names engraved on a grain of rice ever get there since it has the word “museum” in its name.]
Monterey Bay Aquarium, 2012

There wasn’t much time. But the morning we left Monterey I got up at sunrise and wandered over to the commercial wharf. It was cold out. Fog shrouded the hills behind me. Seals frolicked behind the breakwater. I talked to a couple of watermen getting their boats ready to head out into the Pacific. Pelicans fought over scraps of bait tossed aside by the fishermen. I talked to a few people rigging their sailboats. I even talked to a few mentally unhinged homeless people whose demons had driven them to the solace of the water’s edge.
After that, I left Monterey much happier and feeling more like a traveler than a tourist.

Monterey Commercial Wharf, 2012


  1. Sounds a lot like Virginia Beach.

  2. I've never been to that aquarium--I'll have to try to get there sometime if my travels keep me there long enough. Great photos!

    I always think of Paul Bowles' Sheltering Sky and his distinction between travelers and tourists. I think he saw himself as a traveler.