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The Quiet Traveler

The North Shore of Lake Superior

Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior, with its images of rugged shoreline pounded by waves, weathered cedars clinging to barren rocks, and rivers and waterfalls rolling down from the hills above, has long been an attraction for sightseers, hikers, campers and resorters. Those images are now being replaced by the appearance of condominiums, luxury resorts, and golf courses. The highway is now being cut through and under hills instead of following the meandering shoreline.

So what is the problem with the changing tourism on the North Shore? Basically, it is the same problem as with tourism in general. We Americans are becoming drive-by tourists and luxury tourists. Encountering a forest, a desert, a mountain or another culture is not really what we are looking for. We are looking for a "getaway," a change of scenery that we think will relieve us of the pressures we in fact place upon ourselves in order to live a "comfortable" life. And in order to enjoy that getaway, we pack up all the luxuries of home and then some and take them along to our destination. Those luxuries are not just what we pack in our bags or our vehicle, but the much more intrusive ones: the condominiums, the luxury resorts, and the golf courses. We fool ourselves into thinking we are getting away and perhaps even learning something of another place or culture when all we are doing is taking home along with us and placing that barrier between ourselves and the environment or culture we are supposedly visiting.

And the last thing we would ever bring with us is time. Time to actually enjoy the places we visit. In our haste to see as many places as we can or in our compulsion to avoid the discomforts that go with travel, we are robbing ourselves. We never escape the turmoil of our lives; we just bring it along with us. Our travels are not quiet travels.

Judi, my wife, and I are not what one would call world travelers; most of our trips are within several hundred miles of our home. But even so, how we travel defines not only how enjoyable the trip is but also what effect it has on the place and the people we see. Riding our old 1979 Honda motorcycle subjects us to the vagaries of the road: weather, finding a place to stay, and especially, having along only what will fit in our two saddlebags and one box strapped on the back. It's less comfortable and more risky but also less confining and more exhilarating.

People regard us a little differently on the motorcycle, especially kids. To kids the motorcycle is an adventure (Isn't that what it is for us too?), and they look and they wave. Even adults wave to us and are curious about where we might be headed. Some might shake their heads; I remember one woman doing so as we rode off in the pouring rain, but what was she really thinking?

Whether Judi and I travel by motorcycle or with the kids by car or by camper, invariably the best trips have been the ones where we take the time to stay in one place for a while. This may mean spending days exploring a state park or a good part of a day exploring one small patch of nature. And this has to be done by getting out of the car or camper and walking. It cannot be done by looking out the window. This past summer on our trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, we spent a whole afternoon and evening casting about a small area of the sand dunes in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It was an extremely quiet part of the trip and also one of the best parts of the trip.

In 1973 British writer Ted Simon took off on an around-the-world motorcycle trip that lasted four years. Talk about an adventure! He had never ridden a motorcycle until he began planning this trip. In a recent article in Rider magazine, he voices some of his thoughts on why he took the trip and how it changed or perhaps reinforced his perspective on life. He questioned why people do the things they do in order to accumulate the things that they think will make them happy:

...I found that most of the things that people do in their everyday lives are frankly trivial and hardly worth doing, and I wonder why do they bother. When you've been to the places that I've been to, you wonder why would anybody want to drive through traffic for two hours a day. Why would people go to such trouble to get certain kinds of clothes or certain kinds of food or money - the things that people indulge themselves with - simply in order to compensate themselves for the things they didn't need to do in the first place?

Simon found in his travels that "Even if people were poor, if they were free to do the best they could in the circumstances, they generally managed to maintain a pretty high level of morale and spirit. But where they were in the clutches of some bigger organism that was simply squeezing them dry, that was when it seemed to me it was miserable."

We in the US are part of Simon's "bigger organism" that we carry with us when we travel, especially if we travel to foreign countries. When Simon took his trip, he didn't even clean his motorcycle, since he felt that a clean motorcycle would make him seem unapproachable to some of the native people he encountered. The tourism "industry," however, does the opposite. It takes our culture and throws it into a foreign culture so that we are more comfortable in our travels. In the process, we not only impoverish the culture and the people we visit, but we impoverish our own travel experience.

Perhaps the best description of the kind of quiet awareness we might take into our travels is by W. H. Hudson, a nineteenth-century naturalist, who, in sorting out his travels in Patagonia, speaks of suspense and watchfulness:

During those solitary days it was a rare thing for any thought to cross my mind.... Elsewhere I had always been able to think most freely on horseback.... This was doubtless habit; but now, with a horse under me, I had become incapable of reflection... To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something there which bade me be still, and I was forced to obey. My state was one of suspense and watchfulness: yet I had no expectation of meeting with an adventure, and I felt as free from apprehension as I feel now when sitting in a room in London. The change in me was just as great and wonderful as if I had changed my identity for that of another man or animal; but at the time I was powerless to wonder at or speculate about it; the state seemed familiar rather than strange, and although accompanied by a strong feeling of elation, I did not know it...until I lost it and returned to my former self - to thinking, and the old insipid existence.

Further Reading

There are many travel journals and books on travel available. The following are some which convey a sense of place and a state of "suspense and watchfulness":

For further discussion of the cultural and environmental impact of the tourism industry, see the following:

The Badlands of North Dakota

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Copyright ©1997
Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

December 5, 1997