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Vagabond Tales: Can Travel Writers Take A Normal Vacation?
I know what you're thinking. Travel writers are always on vacation, so what a silly concept for an article.
Sure, climbing active volcanoes in Chile and staying in castles in Ireland sounds like an enjoyable time, and often times, it is.
But it isn't exactly a normal vacation.
When others might be bathing on the sundeck of a dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef, travel writers instead find themselves interviewing the boat crew on the proper method for dealing with an irukandgi sting, lest they report an inaccuracy on one of the world's deadliest creatures.
Or, when returning from four days in the Andes after having climbed over Peru's Salkantay Pass, vacationing members of your tour group are enjoying $10/hour leg massages while you instead find yourself panting in the thin air of Cuzco in an effort to find an Internet connection because the four days in the Andes have left you woefully behind on deadlines.
Then, of course, there's the electronic merry-go-round of attempting to keep all your gear charged. As the travel world gets sucked deeper into the shrunken screen of a smartphone, so too must travel writers add more tools to their yak hair belt. Writer, photographer, videographer, researcher, coder, Webmaster, blogger, ad sales director, marketer and, of course, social media ninja.
This constant juggle of responsibilities invariably leads to such pleasurable experiences as sifting through the markets of Pulau Bintan looking for a new adapter, clandestinely blogging from a van parked outside of a New Zealand McDonalds (free HotSpot!), buying camera lenses from a questionable Thai gangster in Bangkok and avoiding strange looks as you send emails from inside the airport bathroom because you're on yet another six hour layover and it's the only outlet in the whole damn airport.
Exciting? Yes. A vacation? No. Believe it or not, it's actually a lot of work.
Which is why, on a recent cross-country road trip, I was bound and determined to simply take a normal vacation.
Thinking I had gotten it out of my system, the itch struck me again the next evening while grabbing a stout at the Broadway Brewhouse in Nashville.
When most normal people would simply enjoy the beer and figure out which bands they wanted to hear that night, I instead found myself crunching numbers in my head about how many breweries I would have to visit every day to write a book featuring every microbrewery in America (Answer: 5.82).
Similarly, later that night, instead of simply enjoying the music of Nashville's hopping honky tonks, I instead found myself wracked with guilt for not compiling a "first-timer's guide to Nashville honky-tonkin."
And although I did better in Paducah, Kentucky, with only a ten-minute stop to take notes on the history of shipping on the Ohio River, I failed miserably once again about 90 minutes south of St. Louis when I learned about a winery inside of a cave.
"C'mon, it's only a 15-minute detour," I pleaded with my wife.
"But I really want to see this." (Translation: This is the perfect topic for an article.)
And so the notepad came out once again, its tattered edges failing to collect dust in the way I had originally planned. A brief interview here, a few snaps of the camera there, and a sudden urge to a do a ten-part series on the oft-forgotten wine trail of the Ozarks. Sigh.
The problem for writers, I think, lies in our inquisitive nature. Towns on a map are not simply towns on a map; they are places with histories and stories to tell, and to pass by even a single place without uncovering its story is to commit the greatest form of travel sin. Rest and relaxation be damned, I want to learn about this place. And this one. And that one ...
This thirst for not only knowledge, but the ability to compile and share that knowledge is not logistically amenable to a 4,300-mile road trip. The logical reality is that you can't delve into the story of every single place you pass, and unfortunately, places are going to have to be skipped.
Which is why it was so painstakingly difficult to make the decision to pass by the 100th anniversary of the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri in favor of making it to the 100th anniversary of the Wyoming State Fair in the ranching outpost of Douglas, Wyoming.
The deciding factor was that one featured a Dierks Bentley concert and the other one didn't. Bypassing 900 miles of towns and their associated stories (Lincoln, Nebraska: "What It Means To Be A Cornhusker", Chimney Rock: "Oregon Trail Icons" and Ogallala, Nebraska: "Towns You Can't Pronounce And Have No Need To Go To"), I eventually wound up at a KOA campground on the outskirts of Douglas en route to a jam-packed country music concert.
"OK, Kyle," I told myself. "You're going to enjoy yourself like a regular traveler for a day. You're not going to take videos of the concert and post them to your YouTube channel, you're not going to research the 100-year history of the fair, and despite Douglas having been voted one of the 'Best 100 small towns in America,' you aren't going to write an article detailing the friendly atmosphere of the main street diners where refillable mugs of coffee are still $.75 and ranchers gather for breakfast at 9 a.m. even though they've already fixed 12 fences and have been up since 2:45. And whatever you do, you're not going to research how Douglas is officially known as the home of the 'jackalope,' and how hunting permits are sold for the jackalope hunting season, which runs on June 31 from midnight-2 a.m. Got it?"
"You're also not going to draft quick posts about the happy hour special at Snake River Brewery that features three different types of meat (beef, elk, and buffalo), about where are the best places for encountering buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, or about how the Beartooth Highway was justifiably named by Charles Kuralt as the 'most beautiful road in America.'"
You won't do an expose on the Sunday afternoon pig races of Red Lodge, MT, tweet about the best places to stand-up paddle in Seattle, transcribe Lewis and Clark quotes from their famed landing in Long Beach, WA, or take any videos whatsoever while hiking the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park or of touring the wine country of Oregon's Willamette Valley."
"You're just going to put the computer away, put the notepad away, and try to enjoy yourself like an every day tourist. OK? The history of the Modoc Indians and digging in to the hippie/yuppie dichotomy of Mendocino, CA, can wait for another time."
Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the "Vagabond Tales" over here.
[Photo credits: Heather Ellison]