When reading James Agee’s “American Roadside,” I was struck by his description of the cabin camp, an institution that has seemingly gone by the wayside for today’s tourists – or at least, neither my family nor I have ever used or even seen one on our road trips, of which there have been a considerable amount. I have, of course, stayed in a number of those roadside hotels. You know the kind: the Comfort Inns, the La Quintas, those cheap but clean hotels that are a few steps above a Motel 6. We never stayed in motels, because my mother was convinced that they were all infested with lice and cockroaches (which is pretty funny, considering the fact that my grandparents owned a motel in Albuquerque for many years, and my family actually lived there with them for a handful of those years).
When Agee describes “the vista of a city” that the auto-tourist catches sight of at the crest of a hill, I, too, can see the “second-class commercial hotel” with its “drab lobby” and “cheerless rooms” with my eyes closed (45). Sounds just exactly like the hotels I’ve always stayed in on the road with my family: every room in every cheap hotel I’ve stayed in looks the same (save for a change in carpeting and quilt design), with the same clean-but-faintly-musty smell and the fluorescent lighting in the bathroom. In contrast, the cabin camps sound so simplistic and peaceful, with an air of quaintness that I think I would’ve enjoyed: a bed, a couple of chairs, a row of hooks, a washbasin (47). I would much rather have tried out a cabin camp, and been surrounded by “a grove of cool trees” instead of the usual parking lots, Denny’s restaurants, and highway on-ramps (45).
But, contrary to Agee’s confident proclamation that the cabin camp, “like the automobile…is here to stay,” (44) it seems that the era of seeing a “little semi-circle of cabins” (45) off the side of the road has passed. Sure, there are little automobile camps and cabins for rent near where I live, but they aren't intended for tourists, or as roadside resting places for travelers. They're more like a cute camping getaway for the suburban outdoorsy novice (like me, for instance: I stayed at an automobile camp this summer, and it took me and a friend over an hour to pitch the tent - and it fell down twice during the night). Or maybe they are still around, but just not in the southwestern U.S. Hopefully Agee wasn't totally wrong, and I’ll encounter one some day. But until then, hello La Quinta.
In the excerpt from “The Tourist: Travel in Twentieth Century North America”, James Jakle discusses all of the ways that tourists were able o get around during the 1930s. First comes the car. Now just accepted as a road trip staple, affordable cars revolutionized travel. People were able to go anywhere they wanted. This very quickly led to a fascination with the car which left the places being driven though, quite literally, by the roadside. Smoother cars, and better highways meant that people didn’t have to think about where they were driving through at all, and could instead play games, sing songs or whatnot. I know that while I was growing up, playing car games was often done, even on shorter day trips in the car. But we also had the radio, and eventually tapes and CDs. Imagine what the tourists from the thirties would do if they saw minivan with a TV screen in the back for the kids!? Jakle also talks about how by making car travel easier, the road systems became more developed. Gas stations, diners, motels and so on, which very clearly led to the chain rest stops we have nowadays. But with so much comfort and new exciting things to see on the road itself, people became obsessed with the idea of driving travel without understanding what they were going to see. They rushed through the sites at the destination in order to DRIVE to the next one and on and on until they went back home. People still do this. I grew up in Albany, so in school we went to New York for a lot of field trips. Since coming to school here I have realized how crazy our trips were. For instance combining the Met, Ellis Island and the wax museum into one day is insane. Or doing the Bronx zoo combined with seeing a matinee show is a lot. As tourists we rushed through these landmarks which one should spend much more time at. Also, like many tourists, we did these things in strange orders. Going from one side of the island to the other and back again, as opposed to a more geographically logical procession. Tourists need people from the area to tell us what to do, but will continue to reject advice that does not fit into our preconceived notion of the place.
Reading about the birth of mass tourism during the depression was incredibly fascinating, especially the part about the start of paid vacations. We had an interesting discussion in class about how paid vacations weren’t even on the radar of unionized workers (who were fighting for higher pay, protection, etc) and how absurd it is that paid vacations are so standard to us now. What I find absurd is how much Americans currently work in comparison to the rest of Europe; we have less paid vacations, work more hours each week, and so on. In contrast to the union workers of the Depression, paid vacations are often foremost on our minds. Many of my friends and peers muse about moving to Europe after college to be able to live a life free of the American work-mania. But it seems almost as if the desire to have time off has reverted back to its Depression-era priorities, or similar; it is possible to get a job with weeks and weeks of paid vacation in America, if you’re lucky and/or hardworking. That isn’t exclusive to Europe. But it is nearly impossible to avoid the long days and long weeks of the American workforce if you aren’t working in Europe or living check to check etc. The priority seems to have shifted from leisurely travel back to wanting time to do “life” activities – in other words, live a life outside of one’s work.
This is far from exactly the same desires of the Depression era workers. But it is a desire to have a life AND a job, rather than just a job. It is a shift in lifestyle rather than a shift in how one spends one’s leisure time. And this shows: the travel industry is suffering, white-collar workers are having a huge number more clinically recognized mental health problems, and so on. So as we distance ourselves from the constructed, hyped travel-all-the-time-get-all-your-relaxing-done-in-one-week desires, we’ve been re-realizing how nice it would be to have a life and a job, rather than a job with a week of life once a year. It makes me wonder how American work habits would be different, and how the infrastructure of America would be different, and even how the mentalities and priorities of Americans would be different, if the travel habit hadn’t been pushed and successfully promoted. (Despite my love of driving, America, diners, the road, travel, photography, and so on, I think it might be a little better. A little more relaxed, a little less obsessed with money, a little more home and family focused.)
I haven’t done much living from the perspective of the tourist, but when I do find myself in that role, I can get quite uncomfortable. I like to know where I’m going, whether I’m driving through an unfamiliar area, on foot in an unrecognizable neighborhood, or relaxing on vacation in a new city. I can imagine this being quite tedious for anyone I’m ever with, but it makes perfect sense to me to have a map of the place you’re going to be exploring on vacation. I’ll only examine the map before leaving, though, and I’m loath to consult it while out and about. This, I admit, makes less sense, but it’s all part of my effort to never look uncool – it’s hard to show people how cool you are when you’re thoroughly confused about your surroundings. But in a way, this is where the “exploration” aspect of “tourism” kicks in. In this way, one sees an area a little more naturally, with a greater sense of spontaneity that might result in a more personal and enriching experience. At the same time, you run the risk of seeming like a total goof when you realize you have no idea where you are. No matter how one does his or her tourism-ing nowadays, though, it’s hardly like it was in Agee’s piece, “The American Roadside.” It’s not too difficult to imagine seedy motels planted not far from any Interstate exits in place of more communal and unique cabin camps. Though the hold the same basic purpose – a stop along the way to a more final destination, where you might stay at a hotel or in a house – the motel seems to be a generally franchised business with little to offer in the way of a distinctive experience. Honestly, most of the hotels I’ve stayed in have all looked exactly the same, too. My best experiences in traveling have involved staying with friends and fighting for the most comfortable couch to sleep on at night and spending all day roaming around and finding good food to eat; or paying attention to all the rest of the areas in the beach town where my family used to vacation summer after summer when my brother and I were younger; or just driving through an area near my hometown that I never bothered to investigate because there was no “reason” to be there. Tourism may be, in its bare essentials, the same as it was in the 30s, but the business of it certainly isn’t undertaken in the same ways anymore – it’s been perfected, and boiled down to statistics. I think the best way to experience a place, however, is to eschew the statistics and make your own vacation.
Jakle's description of American tourists' “Automobile Travel between the World Wars” seems to illuminate a widespread American fascination with statistics: not the field of study, but the numbers themselves, as if they could stand in for something meaningful, as if they were standardized units of experience. All that seemed to matter to many of the motoring tourists was mileage: more miles seemed to mean more vacation experience, more value for their two weeks off work. They would generally be far more concerned with beating their daily mileage records than actually looking at what they were driving through, eyes alternating only between the narrow road and the odometer. According to Thomas Wolfe, it was more important to “make” all of the national parks than to actually see what was in them. One brought back pennants and stickers signifying all of the places one drove through and plastered them all over their windshields, like kill marks on the noses of fighter planes.
It seems that not that much has changed in the tourism trade, but we can also see this affinity for ranking real things, experiences and events as numbers and tokens, and then caring more about those signifiers than what they supposedly represent. Whenever I go to a concert, the majority of the audience seems more interested in taking photos and videos of the performance (and of themselves in front of the performance) than actually listening or dancing, reminiscent of, say, tourists in front of Old Faithful. Last.fm, a website which automatically tallies what music you listen to and charts it, has, for some, come to dominate instead of reflect their musical preferences: they cater their music listening to how it will make their public Last.fm profile look. Excessive reliance on statistics in (for example) educational systems is similar: teachers and students who are forced to fulfill certain statistical quotas or curves quickly learn to game the system, because all that their superiors see is a simplified representation of so-called performance on a sheet of paper, but there can be any number of ways to produce the desired result.
All of this seems to come down to an ignoring of the detail, richness and complexity of experience, a numbing of the senses in favor of simplification and easy abstractions that are easily communicated. The actual experience of travelling, going to a concert, listening to music, or of education itself is often glossed over by a need to look to the future, to communicate the validity of that experience through bumper stickers, Facebook photos, Last.fm charts, and standardized tests. The present experience becomes dominated by this desperate reaching for validity, and the experience itself is missed entirely. Were you there for the park, or the park's gift shop? Did you ever look at those sights with your own eyes, and not through a viewfinder? Did you listen to that song because you liked it, or because you want other people to like you? You did great on the SAT, but did you learn anything besides how to take a standardized test?
Tourists are not cool. In general, the population—and especially college-age adults—tend to agree on this fact. There is a reason why no one wears a fanny pack. There is also a reason why “real” New Yorkers don’t visit Times Square or eat at Lombardi’s or smile on the subway. Because the word “tourist” implies fake—that terrible label of not knowing the REAL insert-popular-travel-destination-here. Part of that fakeness comes from the emergence of unified brands gentrifying America for the ease of tourists (i.e., Wal-Mart instead of the local deli) and the insulating bubble these comforting brands create around the wandering tourist. While reading our texts, I thought about things like Wal-Mart, and how increased travel in a population sometimes has the effect of blending everything together to create a “deadly uniformity” Jackle mentions. And what kills local flavor faster than anything? Fast food. This industry, along with the psychology of materialism and fast-paced leisure that tourism created, leads to the manic, visor-wearing tourist we know today.
I wasn’t sure exactly when fast food started, but Wikipedia confirmed that the increased popularity and affordability of cars (and, I would assume, the emergence of the paid vacation) led to the introduction of the drive-thru restaurant in 1921 that modern motorists know all too well. Welcome to America, White Castle! Even the diner cult contributed to a rise in fast food, but the first real “fast food restaurant” emerged in our very own New York City in 1912: Horn & Hardart’s Automat. The franchised restaurant came in the 1930s, when Howard Johnson’s standardized menus, signs and advertising for all their branches. Mmm, nothing tastes better than a uniform America.
Jackle notes that “speed exerted a tyranny.” This is true on and off the road—and in the kitchen. Sure, Americans were getting paid vacations, but Berkowitz explained that they weren’t too long. And in order to keep workers from being idle, companies urged employees to “go on vacation.” Berkowitz also notes that the 1941 United States Travel Bureau’s slogan was “Travel Strengthens America. It promotes the nation’s health, wealth, and unity.” It’s no wonder that by the second World War “Americans had come to view vacationing as more than a trivial diversion…[they] considered tourism essential to their personal pursuit of happiness.” Well, yeah, it seems like by that point not going on vacation would be downright un-American. And in order to both see America and eat during their one-to-two-week vacation, it seems obvious that travelers would resort to the drive-thru’s and fast-food chains the modern traveler knows so well.
Jackle mentions how “tourists rushed from destination to destination validating experiences.” This led to the theory that rushing through things like Yellowstone is not, in fact, the best way to experience them—hence, camping emerged as a new travel tradition. Jackle, in fact, recounts the birth of many anti-tourist ideals we have today: drive off the beaten path, commune with the Earth, avoid tourist groups. But the “consume, consume, consume” attitude stayed with America into the fifties—the emergence of leisure also marks the emergence of materialism. And consuming vast quantities quickly and effectively can also be traced back to the birth of fast food.
Today, we have things like the “Slow Food” movement, and cleverly-concealed maps so you “don’t have to look like a tourist.” Jackle, Berkowitz and even Agee (when we consider how fast food billboards claim the modern roadsides) all discuss the birth of tourism as an industry, something which I think also marks the death of travel. Since then, the nation has been unraveling fast food and the manic consumer attitudes created by the initial tourism advertising—we are still searching for the real America.
As Americans it really seems like we are conditioned to travel. This was a fact I didn’t quite realize until I got out of this country and started experiencing other cultures. Last semester, I studied abroad in Ghana. My time there was great, but truth be told, the city of Accra was not my favorite place in the world, so my friends and I spent a lot of time traveling around. Not only did we see a lot of Ghana outside of the capital, but also we ventured outside to neighboring countries Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin (not the greatest tourist destinations, but awesome cultural experiences) for long weekends and made it as far as South Africa and Namibia (much more in tune with Western ideas of tourism) for spring break. While I saw these trips as a great experience and really cool for my passport, Ghanaians that I interacted with every day couldn’t understand why we were always going somewhere. When discussing travel plans with a TA from one of my classes, I asked him if he ever wanted to go to the United States or Europe and he answered, “No! Why would I want to?” Prior to leaving for spring break one Ghanaian friend even said, “OH, you Americans like to travel too much!”
And in fact that might be the case, we Americans do indeed like to travel, whether it is just throughout the country or abroad. Michael Berkowitz’s essay “A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure” reminded me of my anti-travel experiences abroad. It’s strange to think that something core to our culture is so absent from other cultures (it is understandable in terms of economic development and the fact that in Ghana tourism isn’t a top priority because of that, but to lack the desire to see other parts of the world seems a bit odd). Berkowitz quoted Don Thomas on the nature of travel in the United States in the 1940s: “it is regarded as a necessity purchased by 60 million Americans.”
It is interesting how we moved from travel as a luxury to travel as a necessity and how it became so ingrained in our culture. Regardless, through the interwar period it became a quintessential part of our lives as Americans such that many even saw it as “essential to their personal pursuit of happiness” (Berkowitz 207). Whatever the cause of our cultural obsession, I won’t fight it. My many travels have been some of my greatest experiences and great sources of learning – I would have had no idea of other’s anti-travel viewpoints had I not gone to Ghana and experienced it firsthand.
Feeling like a tourist sucks. You stick out like a sore thumb. But love of travel supersedes fear of looking ignorant and so we ramble on. In my travels, I have found that there are distinct differences in how tourists are treated in their own country versus elsewhere in the world.
When I was in 8th grade, I went with my Chinese class on a bus tour of the east coast of China. It really was a great experience, and one that I will never forget. Being in a wholly Asian community made me realize just how impossible it is to “blend in.” I am not Chinese, and even though I spoke the language at the time, this fact was regarded as a novel and kitschy feat. People assumed I didn’t know much more than “Hello my name is Julia” or “how much for that purse,” and even though they were pretty much right I was horribly offended when they immediately started speaking to me in English. I wanted so much to emulate their culture as much as I knew how, simply out of fear of being regarded as a mere tourist. For some reason there is a stigma surrounding tourists that paints them as ignorant, dumb, and vulnerable. And while some of that is indeed true (sort of comes with the package of exploring unknown territory), being a full on tourist (fanny-pack, Hawaiian shirt and all) takes a whole lot of courage, even though it shouldn’t! The strangest part to me is that this stigma exists in our own country as well.
I visited Montana last year over the summer, and since I have lived all my life in the United States, I never assumed that my secret tourist identity would be discovered. The first question a shoe salesmen asks me, however is “Where are you guys from?” I should have lied right there on the spot, but instead I hesitated, and then mumbled “California…” When we got back to where we were staying, my dad had picked up on my embarrassment and asked me why I felt that way. To be honest, I couldn’t really explain myself, because in reality I have nothing to be ashamed of. I am proud of where I come from, and yet I try so hard to join the community I visit, however short my trip is. It’s not always fun to be viewed as an outsider, especially when you feel like you have something to prove. Regardless, I have learned to just suck it up, and represent your home in the best of ways throughout your travels. Screw the tourist stigma.
Interesting sidenote: Chinese people were really into taking pictures with us (a predominantly white/African American crowd) and would stop us on the street to do so. I can just hear it: “Look! I saw an American today. Such silly creatures…”
So I guess what is surprising is that while one part of the population is suffering, hungry, homeless and vagrant, the other part of the population is enjoying itself, having fun wandering the country, or different countries as tourists. Surprising? I would not be too sure about that...isn't that still the case? Anyways, what I found really interesting in Berkowitz's text, is the idea that this leisure, the payed vacation and all those new benefits, were not entirely opposed to the depression, bu rather,, were a way to reach a possible economic prosperity, as Berkowitz writes, “The crisis of the depression was ultimately responsible for completing the transformation of tourism into a mass phenomenon.” So far from being opposed, it seems tourism emerges well because the depression happened. Also, what I find intereesting is that the movement towards paid vacation goes along with the idea of the New Deal, and even more interesting is the a certain shift which occurred between the socialists ideals of a paid vacation, and the use of tourism as a business tool, as Berkowitz writes, “local business leaders and government officials began to establish a network of professional tourism promotonial associations. (…) Community businessmen and government officials, for their part, observing the rise of paid vacation and improvements in transportation, began viewing tourism as a potential strategy of economic development (…)” So clearly, tourism is viewed as a possible tool to create a new economic prosperity . What I find intereresting, also, is the whole way in which tourism becomes a kind of mass consumption, justified by the general consensus and enthusiasm, and how it introduced a new approach to work and travel, thus reshaping, in a way, the culture, and the “American way of life.” Paid vacation and travel also reshapes the notion of place and motion we have extensively talked about and it seems that the idea of travelling for leisure generates another notion of the relation between the individual and place- travelling is no longer an exile, but a pure pleasure... and it is travelling out of choice, no longer out of constraint. Paid vacation, even today, is an essential element in society, the French would know about it... with their 6 weeks vacation... and some would argue whether it really helps the growth of the economy... while others, like Sarkozy, use happiness and leisure time as a way to think of GDP...
Americans don’t like to be told what to do—especially when they’re on vacation. At least that’s what I thought before I read Being Elsewhere by Baranowski and Furlough. It seems that vacations have been, from the inception of the word “vacation” in the American lexicon in the early 20th century, largely set up by the capitalist agenda, totally bypassing the sort of Rousseauian freedom we would like to think vacations are for. As America became a more service-oriented country, with less people working the fields or factories, the idea of giving the brain a rest from its daily computations seemed necessary for human survival. Paid vacations began during the depression (!) and continued to soar in popularity even in the very worst parts up to the beginning of the war. The government had a lot of control over this. Many jobs were created to advertise for vacations, and local business got a boost. It was a new deal. Because we just don’t know what to do with ourselves, do we? It’s nice to have someone tell you that you have to go on vacation. Too bad no one is going. The American workweek is supposed to be somewhere around 40 hours a week. 40 percent of American workers end up working over 50 hours a week. $21 billion dollars of vacation pay goes unused annually. Why? Because we’re workaholics. In France, they can hardly convince people that 35 hours a week is enough, and the world mocks them for it. America is constantly treading water, it seems, to try and keep it’s head above the surface of the economic global community. I think that people need to be encouraged to go on vacation even more. Unless… …You work at Google. On a recent tour of Google’s offices in Chelsea, I wasn’t surprised to find that being in the office required most of my requirements for a good vacation. Loads of free food? Check. Video game center? Check. Massage therapy? Check. “Napping stations”. Double check. I swear half of the working staff slept there. Why would you ever want to leave such a monster company like Google and go to some mountain? We are making people much too soft in these big companies. A vacation becomes meaningless. And what about the children? Obama is proposing a year-round school year with no summer vacation PLUS longer school days. Although the prospect is terrifying in purely nostalgic terms, the logic behind it is pretty sane. Obama makes the assertion that the school year was designed around working families who required their children to come home and work the fields before bed. These days kids just come home and play video games. Are we denying them the time they need in school to learn and compete with South Korean kids? I sure wouldn’t mind letting my kids go to school all year long, that way, I wouldn’t have to deal with them as much.