Ordinarily, when I go on vacation, it’s to places that are in guide books. One hundred travel experts have already written up exactly what my itinerary should be, what hotel I can afford to stay at, which restaurant won’t give me ptomaine poisoning, which churches I should visit to see frescoes on the ceiling, with a fairly high assurance that the plaster won’t fall down on my head while I’m gazing up at the angels.
But at each highly recommended spot, there are usually one hundred other tourists carrying around the same guide books, all on the exact same trail of sights and sightings. All reading the same historical notes of interest to each other, in a dozen different languages. All snapping the same photos from the same angles as a million other guide book buyers have before them. We’ll each take home these digital mementos, the 21st-century equivalents of the horn of a rhino, or the head of a lion, proof that we’ve made our tourist pilgrimage, seen all the most important things there were to see, eaten each local specialty at the restaurant that specializes in it, kissed the religious artifact, genuflected in front of the sacred statue, got sunburned on the sands of the most crowded beach, waited in line at the most well-endowed museums – in short, did everything by the book.
What’s the point of having a getaway from your day-to-day work if all the most obnoxious day-to-day workers are packed into your tour bus, watching each other pass by the quintessentially famous outdoor cafes, or walking urgently from door to door, searching for an open stall at the same overused tourist bathrooms? It’s not a getaway if everyone you know is following you around. You might as well have stayed at work and enjoyed the relative peace and quiet as all your cohorts spent their nest eggs trekking the Gringo Trail to the Mayan pyramids, the Taj Mahal, or the Great Mall of China.
Let me make it clear: If everywhere you go there are thousands of other people with little day packs, cameras slung on their necks, sweat pouring down from their sunburned faces, crying children, screaming parents, tour guides with megaphones in the center of busloads of bewildered bystanders, covered with floral patterned holiday shirts and blouses, then you are on the beaten path. You are one of the herd. You are just another mark for the local hucksters, another sucker looking to suck up the experience of a foreign country without ever actually leaving your own civilization. When you travel and bring along your whole way of being, you haven’t really gone any place. If you’re still surrounded by McDonald’s and Starbucks, and trinkets made in China for sale at the 147 souvenir stands leading up to the ancient ruins that everyone else in the touring world has pilgrimaged to see, then you might as well have stayed at home and rented the movie; the popcorn would have been fresher, the seating more comfortable, the narrator more intelligible, and the bathroom more available.
So where do you go if you want to get off the beaten path? Kansas City would be a nice start. (Motto – “Take a Nap in Kansas City.”) And why go to Las Vegas or Reno only to be smothered by crowds when you can lose just as much money at the bus station in Winnemucca, Nevada? Why fight the hordes at the Grand Canyon when you can see a much more spectacular hole in the ground by investigating the sewer system of Phoenix. It may not be a tourist hotspot, but believe me, it’s an unforgettable experience, and one which you can be fairly sure not one of your Facebook friends will be posting a photo of from their iPhone.
Don’t stay on the interstate with every trucker going from L.A. to N.Y. and every traveler trying to make it to the Holiday Inn in time for Happy Hour. Get off on a side road, preferably one that isn’t even marked on your roadmap, and just start driving to see where it leads. When you reach a dead end, then you know you’ve arrived. Get out and stretch your legs. Look at the weeds in the ditch. Dig up a rock or a worm to keep as a souvenir of your trip. If you feel adventurous, take a hike down to the nearest mailbox, and up the driveway to the locals’ house and ask them where the hell you are. The response will usually be something like, “You must be lost. We don’t get many strangers around here.” Now you’re in for a real treat. You’re about to have an experience that no tourist following his guide book has ever had, and one that no guide book writer would ever in their right mind write about. You’re about to find out what life is like off the beaten path.