The Grand Tour

I realized yesterday that, for all the weeks and days of vacations and purposeful travel I’ve experienced in the last few years, I have spent far MORE time on travel sites.

Google Flights, Travelocity, Trivago, Expedia, Kayak, Viatour, as well as the websites of hotel chains (dog friendly accommodations?), inns, tour companies, venues (the Paris Opera, numerous New York theaters and concert halls), and review sites.

In some ways, travel is easier now than when I was in my twenties, visiting travel agents, making calls to airlines and wandering into tourism offices. In theory, you can select, and pay for, your plane trip, airport transfers, hotel room, sight seeing excursion, museum admissions and theater tickets on a few Internet web sites. Then you just go…

But are you getting the best seat on the plane for what you’re paying? What did other people think of that hotel? What about the reviews of that restaurant or performance? What if it rains on the day you’re hiking the hills? What are the lines like at the museum, even if you bought the multiple-admission, cue-jumping ticket?

And could it all be better, less expensive, less anxiety-ridden, somewhere else?

I caught the travel bug from my parents who felt it was better to visit European cities and see the famous sights than spend a week at the Jersey shore. At the time, I agreed. After every trip my family took, I knew something about a place that, I believed, made me more aware of the diversity, excitement and sophistication of the world.

What a surprise, then, that because I did so much reporting about Atlantic City and the New Jersey shore, I agreed–for very little money–to write a Fodor’s guidebook to the place. I applied the same sensibility: what about the Jersey shore transcends its convenience? Where are the places that are truly worth a trip? When it was time to profile Asbury Park, a city that was, as Bruce Springsteen sang, in ruins, I dug up some of his friends, created a tour of the Jersey rock star’s “sacred” sites and called it “Stations of the Boss.”

The editor changed it to “Exploring Monmouth County.”

I aspired to be a travel writer and had a few pieces published. But I rapidly grew bored with travel writing tropes that justified the shallow views that most travel writers offered, and many travel editors sought to publish. Among those were  ____________ is a “compelling mixture of the old and new”; “it’s not the famous ___________ that gives __________ it’s subtle charm, but the friendliness of its inhabitants”; “you can’t help but be transported back to an earlier, simpler time,” and “a few steps away from the bustling _________ and its long lines of tourists, are the breathtaking sites that imbue the destination with its characteristic flavor.” I imagined myself as a Henry James or Mark Twain rediscovering the world for faithful readers back home, until I saw that Henry James and so many other wandering American writers wrote to prevent themselves from starving, and that the ultimate effect of so much anxious sightseeing and misadventuring was not the broadening wisdom that I craved, but a snobbery that compensated for so much bad food, unforgivable lodging, miserable weather, smelly transportation conveyances and the sour, ironic let-down you feel when you finally arrive at a world-famous place and discover that it isn’t changing your life, it isn’t providing an epiphany that justifies an arduous journey, and it doesn’t make you any better than the souvenir-laden tourist who, to quote W.C. Fields’ epitaph, “would rather be in Philadelphia.”

And yet, I still travel because I like that sudden sense of wonder from seeing beautiful things, eating good food and surviving the minor travails inherent in going from one place to another.  I’m pleased that I could hoist a cider in the London tavern favored by Samuel Johnson. I do not regret that the airline lost my luggage in Quebec City–some pieces of clothing purchased there are among my favorites. I smile when I remember how difficult it was to find a wine bar, or just about anything, in Venice, a second time. And a picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens remains more delightful than most of the excellent meals I’ve had in France.

The American urge to travel is complicated by the fact that, even now, our country is unknowably big, so huge that, like Huck Finn, you assume that if things get too crazy where you live, you can always pick up and go somewhere else that may be better. We have regions where people sound different, dress differently, and have far different attitudes about what is and isn’t American.

Then there’s that carefully cultured inferiority Americans still feel to Europe, the Middle East–wherever we’ve been told our ancestors came from. Yes, we have made our society bigger, better, cleaner, and despite so many violent criminal acts–safer, than the “Old Country,” but there’s an inescapable excitement in returning to places where, we imagine, things began. The old village, the old battlefield, the grand palace, the birthplace, the museum where we can glimpse, if only for a few seconds, the art and artifacts that royalty once kept for itself. Though we live in a post-modern world that questions and, typically, degrades authority and notions of truth, we like to feel that “authentic” experience–standing in the Colosseum, admiring the Parthenon, eyeing the Mona Lisa–is better than what we can get, or give ourselves back home. Mark Twain mocked Americans abroad. Henry James contrasted American energy and financial power with Europe’s seedy, ever-so-refined corruption.

As for myself, I quoted T.S. Eliot: “Oh, do not ask what is it. Let us go and make our visit.”

So why is it that the places I’ve visited the most have been web sites? Why has a plethora of choices made choosing so time consuming?

Perhaps one of the joys of travel is how it reduces choices. I remember leaving an Interstate in Indiana to buy gasoline. I saw in a window of the hut where I paid for the gas, a sign: Best Burgers in Indiana.

There were no other burger restaurants around. I bought three: one for myself, another for my wife, a third (without condiments or a bun) for the dog.

While I will never determine if this was the, in fact, the best hamburger in Indiana, it was good enough.