Tourist Traps

“I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.”

Just outside of Palm Springs is a robotic dinosaur museum. From the highway, you can see the life-sized T-Rex with glowing orange eyes sizing up a life-sized Brontosaurus. It is one of the worst tourist traps ever, which paradoxically makes it a must-see.

There are amazing places like this all along the desert highways, places that have been there for decades. Out here in the shimmering heat you can always find a place with a two-headed snake on display. There may not be food, or water, or bathrooms, but there is always a two-headed snake. You wonder how they manage to keep attracting generation upon generation of tourists. Is it nostalgia, or curiosity, or boredom? Is it parents subjecting their offspring to the same torture they endured in some endless inter-generational string of schadenfreude? Or is it the same instinct that makes us slow down to gawk at a bad traffic accident?

Steinbeck tended to avoid these places, but we find them hard to resist. Gawking is one of the essential pleasures of a good road trip. Ghost towns, two-headed calves, jackalopes, the world’s largest thermometer; it’s all here, and it’s all terribly wonderful. It’s a sense of wonder that fills the parking lots at these places; not the awe-inspired wonder of a giant sequoia or a raging red sunset, but a surprisingly strong desire to see something unique, something slightly macabre, something great (even if “great” is a very relative term). Time and again we found that we were not alone at these places. Curiosity peoples this country, and for some reason the hotter it gets, the more interesting these little tourist traps become. We were sorry to leave them behind.

There were masses of traffic headed into LA on a sunny afternoon. It was stop and go, 20 mph or less, for over an hour. And then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the lanes clear and we’re back up to 80 mph. It’s just a bunch of people tailgating, slamming on the brakes, swerving between lanes, being stupid and generally creating chaos and gridlock.

There’s a lot of pleasure in a wide-open four-lane highway on a clear California evening with the sun setting over the Pacific. The light has a special quality; we know it’s the smog that does it, but even so.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

“In my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.”

In one small town, we stopped at a butcher shop to buy some steaks for the campfire. The walls were lined with a range of Italian goods, from tinned tomatoes to panettone, and the refrigerators were stocked with homemade fresh pasta in resealable sandwich bags.

We were greeted by a tiny man behind a huge meat counter.

“Hey, how ya doin?”

We smiled at his expansive personality.

“What can I do for ya?”

We asked for two of his best steaks.

“Great choice. Everybody needs a good steak. What are ya gonna do with ’em?”

“Cook ’em over a campfire.”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Best way to do it. I’ll give you sirloin. It’ll be best for an open flame. Not too thick. Cook more evenly. Inside’ll be done before the outside’s burnt.”

We asked where his meat came from, if it was local.

“Of course,” he squinted at us. “It’s my shop. I buy the meat. Buy it from a friend of mine down the road. Grass-fed cattle.”

We asked how long he’d been running the shop. He had come to small-town America from Italy 48 years ago, and he’d been running the same store in the same location for 40 years. He showed us an old photo. He still has the same haircut, although his hair is white now, and he still makes his own sausage with a hand-crank grinder.

“We passed a huge supermarket just a few blocks from here. Does that kind of place hurt your business?”

“Nah,” he said. “It’s a different thing. They don’t do what I do.”

“They don’t sell meat?” We were confused.

“Nah, nah, I mean it’s not the same thing.”

The looks on our faces prompted him to explain.

“Its about respect,” he told us. “You have to respect the customer. People don’t come back because the shop is pretty, even though it is; they don’t come back for the opera I play all day long, though lots of ’em comment on it; they come back because they like me and I like them. They come back because we have a relationship, and that starts with respect. That’s what’s missing in those giant wholesale discount places. Respect.”

In retrospect, that respect was absent from many of our interactions as well, even in the smaller towns. We reflected on one particularly warm afternoon, when we had passed a string of wineries along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Since we’d never tried New Mexican wine, we decided to stop. After a quick wander, the very friendly woman behind the counter showed us their tasting menu. Prices were listed by the bottle or by the glass. We decided to taste several wines.

“It’s three dollars for six tastes,” she explained, “but you can share the tastes if you want and just pay for one. And if you buy a bottle you don’t have to pay at all!”

This sounded like a good deal to us. We participated enthusiastically as we talked to her about our travels, about the reasons for the trip, about the curiosity that enticed us to pull off the dirty two-lane road into her gravel parking lot instead of making tracks for Santa Fe.

“Sounds like you’ve had quite a trip already,” she told us.

We chatted for a while, but after our six tastes of six underwhelming wines, we decided we weren’t interested in a bottle.

“Thanks, but I think we’ll pass this time.”

Her smile disappeared as she pursed her lips. “Oh. Okay.” She whisked away our glasses and stabbed at the cash register. “That’ll be six dollars. Plus tax.” So much for respect.

In this consumer’s world of competition and commoditization, difference becomes a disadvantage. Stores focus more on merchandise and less on building relationships with customers. At the winery, the personal connection was nothing more than a sales tactic; the sale, rather than the long-term connection, has become the most important thing. This in turn drives standardization of products because no one can afford to be different. Hotel rooms, coffee shops, banks, are all standardized to the point of absurdity. There is certainly a sense of comfort in the sameness, the familiar sign that entices you to pull off the road, the familiar furniture inside, the familiar uniforms and colors and smells and tastes. But when you stop to think about it, the point of travel is to experience difference, and if everything becomes standardized, then the experience of travel, even the point of travel, is diluted.

Steinbeck noticed this in its early stages, with the standardization of language through mass consumption of TV and radio. Even our food has fallen victim to this tendency. “Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” (82) He lamented this loss of regional accents and the homogenization of language. He also experienced the loss of regional foods and the standardization of cuisine brought about by the highway culture of fast, cheap hamburgers, the same in California as they are in New Jersey, all untouched by human hands. At the same time, he also acknowledged that the days before this standardization left something to be desired, despite the attraction of nostalgia. Mom’s home cooking was not always tasty or healthy, and the bygone days of fresh, unpasteurized milk were also days of illness and early death from unknown diseases. It is in our nature to protest change, even if it’s change for the better, but Steinbeck also argued that trying to hold it back would only result in bitterness, because it is a battle that can’t be won.

Even so, we hope the kind of respect we encountered at the butcher’s shop prevails.

Honeymooning in a Tent

“Every safe generality I gathered in my travels was cancelled by another.”

We came through Eagle’s Nest and Angel Fire and over the brilliant red Sangre de Cristo Mountains into Taos, with its bright blue sky and sun-baked adobe. Here is a place where artists own galleries full of overpriced pottery, paintings, and jewelry, all aimed at tourists, and all done in the bright colors that seem to reflect off every surface of this landscape. The bikers populate dusty bars at odds with the tourist money that lubricates the cogs of the bustling downtown, in silent conflict with the artists over ownership of this beautiful corner of the world. The ghosts of the bohemian artists who originally populated the town would hardly recognize the place. We were surprised by the sprawling suburbs spreading down from the foothills and onto the distant desert floor. There were lines of traffic snaking in and out of town, the blinding sun glinting off German hood ornaments. We turned off the traffic-choked highway and into the mountain passes, looking for a quiet place to spend a desert night.

When we pulled into the campground under a sliver of moon and a dazzling blanket of stars, Matt was muttering under his breath, “Please don’t let us be next to that giant RV, please don’t let us be next to that giant RV… we are. We’re right next to that enormous RV.” But after we met the occupants, we were happy with our temporary neighborhood. We’ve even forgiven them for running the generator several times throughout the day, which is unusual magnanimity for us, reserved for people we genuinely like.

Harold and his wife Alice, and Katie, their little black poodle, are consummate wanderers. We met Harold this morning as he was standing next to our fire pit, practicing his golf swing. We discovered that he is a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, an exclusive organization open to membership only by invitation. In the three years we lived in St. Andrews, we never managed to gain entrance. Harold has a world-renowned collection of antique golf clubs, which he started collecting long before it was fashionable. The sale of individual pieces from this collection is what continues to fund their mobile life.

“The first time we came back from Scotland, I had a shipping container full of the things,” Harold remembers. “It came into the Port of Long Beach in California. I had to go down there and pay an import duty, but nobody could decide what a shipping container full of old golf clubs was worth.” Harold grinned and winked one watery blue eye. “I suggested five cents a club. They just shrugged and went for it. I tell you, even in the 1960s that was a steal.”

We were invited in for a tour of their RV, which was warm, comfortable, and convenient. It was the first time during our trip that we got to see the inside of one of these vehicles we had passed so many times on the road. While trying to pass them on two-lane roads and overtake them on mountain passes, we had seen them only as an annoyance, but once inside, they become a place of warmth and friendship, a truly mobile “home” in which you can welcome strangers and turn them into friends. While we preferred our tent for its privacy and mobility, we were tempted by the comfort and camaraderie of their self-contained world.

Harold and Alice told us tales of their travels and their migration from an old, square-sided canvas tent to their current 22-foot RV, which Harold calls “cheating.”

“We honeymooned in Yosemite, 66 years ago, in a tent.”

We did the math and figured out that Harold was 94. He and Alice have been all over. Their first RV trip was in Tasmania, where they rented a rig. He had fond memories of Adelaide and the Great Barrier Reef. He kept up their rig himself, Alice informed us, and while he insisted it was no trouble, she told us it was a lot of work. We believed her. Harold and Alice come from an active generation, where everyone did for themselves, and all that activity keeps them young. They have no children, which seems to have given them a lot of freedom and maybe even promoted longevity. Harold jokingly suggested that having kids takes 18 years off your life expectancy.

Our time with them was short. “We’re keeping you from your hike,” Harold kept saying. “Nobody wants to listen to old people talk.” On the contrary, they gave us hope and courage. It was much needed. Harold said he’d see us in Scotland. We really hope he makes it.

We know we’ve been surrounded by these Leviathans too long when we see their RV in our rearview mirror and Alissa comments, “Actually it’s not that big.” Everything American is huge. The cars, the trucks, the landscape, the farms, even the sky is bigger out here.