Several weeks ago, one of my favorite Instagrammers, Chris Burkard (@chrisburkard), wrote, “It’s only recently that I realized that one authentic experience during a trip is better than 50 tourist stops.”
This has probably been nagging at the back of my mind for several weeks, because I can definitely fall in to this trap. This spring, we went to New Orleans and ended up walking something crazy like 37 miles over the course of the long weekend, mostly at my behest. I tend to feel that if I am not doing, doing, doing I am not truly experiencing. This feeling is magnified like crazy when I’m in a new place. In NOLA, I wanted to have a truly authentic, meaningful experience and so I tried to cram as much into those few short days as possible. The results were hurried and stressful and although I got some great pictures, many of the tourist experiences I was hoping would feel truly meaningful, fell flat. My favorite experience of the whole trip was our first night when we had nothing planned and ended up experiencing a “true” New Orleans night on the town.
I’m not trying to say that tourist “traps” can’t be real or authentic and create amazing memories. On our trip this summer we ended up in a lot of really touristy places. Walking through Geyser Basin in Yellowstone and taking the ferry to Victoria, BC were some of my most cherished experiences of the trip and they were arguably some of the most touristy. However, when you walk into a trip with a list of items to check off, or you Google “Best Things to do in XXX” and try to accomplish them all in a short period of time, the chances of you truly feeling rewarded are not high.
As I mentioned, our road trip this summer was full of touristy places. Some were amazing, others were not. Sometimes tourist traps can really resonate. I think the key is to allow the space for things that work and to admit when things aren’t working and move on. I’m a planner and it can be really hard to get out of the mindset that every little moment needs to be planned. This summer was so good for me because 99% of our time was unplanned. I hadn’t spent hours pouring over Google for the best places to visit or planned our route based on tourist attractions. The most memorable moments of the trip were truly spontaneous and organic. Hammocking next to a river in the middle of Wyoming. Laying on a blanket under the stars in Oregon. Swimming in a mountain lake in Montana. Driving through the last light of the Eastern Washington countryside on a spur of the moment side trip.
And the worst moments? The moments when I most felt like I wanted to go home, the moments where I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting the most out of our crazy adventure? It was when I tried to over plan. It was when I Googled “Best Hikes on the Olympic Peninsula” and we ended up climbing a 13% grade with a million other people. It was when I planned a solid day around hanging out at a lake I’d seen pictures of on Instagram and it turned out to be a crowded, buggy swamp. It was when we started stopping places just to collect postcards rather than because we really wanted to.
That’s not to say that some of my high quality planning didn’t pan out. Taking the ferry to Victoria was magical. Seeing Glacier National Park was a highlight of the trip. We found the most amazing campsite by Googling “Best waterfall hikes near Bend”. I think the moral of what I’m trying to say here is what Burkard wrote. A truly authentic experience is worth so much more than checking off items on a list. Are those truly authentic experiences sometimes items off a list? Absolutely. One of my favorite memories ever is of the hanging bridges in Costa Rica which were absolutely a tourist destination and I’m sure my parents had planned based on some in-depth Googling. Is it wrong to plan those things? No. Not at all. But its also important not to plan every second and to let those authentic experiences happen. Because sometimes, you’re going to fly into New Orleans on St. Patrick’s Day and the torrential downpour is going to stop and there’s going to be a parade like nothing you’ve ever seen. Sometimes, you’re going to be waiting for your ferry in Victoria and have two hours to kill and walk a million miles to the neatest part of the city you never would have stumbled upon otherwise. Coming home from a trip with a camera roll full of pictures of the same iconic places that everybody who has ever been to there possess’ means far less than a truly wonderful memory. Does that mean a truly wonderful memory can’t include walking a hundred miles (are you noticing a theme here?) to the Golden Gate Bridge for some crazy great pictures? Not at all.
Make sure you’re present in the moment. Close Snapchat. Put down your camera for a minute. Take a deep breath and decide if what you’re doing in that moment is truly something you want to be doing. And if it is? Then enjoy the moment however you choose. If its not? Go find something that truly sparks your heart. Because that’s what travel is all about.