Remember the good old days of travel, when you relied on trusty Michelin Maps for directions and actually talked to locals to learn about area attractions? I sure do. Mostly, though, I remember how much all of that sucked.
Sure, we got by. On our first trip to France we somehow managed to get ourselves from a small town in Burgundy to the Loire Valley with only the aid of a giant atlas we hauled along in our even larger suitcases. All these long years later we still remember that trip, and our confusion driving through the city of Tours, as “The Angry Day.” Ahh, memories.
More recently we found ourselves unexpectedly thrown back into those dark ages during a four day stint in Big Sur, CA. No cell phone. No internet. No nothing.
In some respects we should have known better. This section of the California coast is bounded by the Santa Lucia Mountains on the East and thousands of miles of open ocean on the West. Given its remoteness and its rugged terrain we might have assumed we’d be out of touch for the duration of our stay. And we probably would have if not for the lying liars at Verizon Wireless.
“I can hear you now” my ass.
Needless to say, we were ill prepared for our digital blackout. Other than the location of our campground, we had no idea where we wanted to go or what we wanted to do.
Normally that would have been O.K. Big Sur is served by a single main road, which makes it pretty tough to get lost. More importantly, many of the area’s attractions are impossible to miss along that main route; so much so that many visitors drive right through, only stopping at the coastal overlooks along Highway 1. No prior planning required.
But we were going to spend four days in the area and were hoping to see more than just the inside of our car. For that, we needed some direction.
Travel Myth #1: The Best Places are both Undiscovered and Abundant
Every now and again we see a travel writer lament the loss of spontaneity that has accompanied the rise of our digital world. Thanks to today’s smart phones and global positioning satellites we mostly know where we’re going and that, we’re to believe, is a bad thing. Travel and Leisure tells us to turn off our devices and open ourselves to the “chance that some serendipitous, accidental discovery will make our journey all the richer.”
Sure, why not? But may we make a suggestion? While you’re busy “discovering” that gas station you needed to stop at for directions, pick up some scratch-off tickets and avail yourself of that other randomly enriching experience. After all, your chances of accidentally discovering great travel destinations are about as good as lottery ticket winnings.
Whenever I hear someone advise travelers to wander aimlessly or to get lost on purpose I always wonder if they imagine that we’re all traveling on Mars; a place where every turn leads to completely new and amazing discoveries. Here on Earth, where we actually travel, exceptional places are exceptionally rare. Finding them by chance means heading down a countless number of dead ends first. Fortunately, we no longer have to.
Unlike the largely uncharted red planet ours is crawling with 7 billion sentient individuals, more of whom have cell phones than have toilets. On our world virtually nothing is undiscovered and nearly all of it is posted somewhere on the web.
Had our Travel and Leisure writer bothered to do a simple search, he’d have found the “charming canals of Venice Beach” he “mistakenly wound up zigzagging around” prominently listed as a top thing to see on Trip Advisor. Not much of a discovery on his part.
Sure, he stumbled upon those canals by chance but he more easily could have found himself in a shopping plaza cul-de-sac – and probably did, more than once. We found those canals, too, only we found them on purpose – with our iPhone. We find shopping malls the same way, but only when it suits us.
Pfeiffer, Pfeiffer Everywhere
With Big Sur rendering our digital travel assistant impotent, we asked our campground host for advice on things to do in the area. She turned out to be a blizzard of information; a complete whiteout, in fact. We drove away thinking we had gotten some good tips, but quickly realized we didn’t really understand how all of the many details fit together.
Shannon and I were eager to find what we understood to be Pfeiffer Waterfall; an 80 foot cascade onto a secluded beach. It turns out there is no waterfall by that name. There is, however, a Pfeiffer Beach (but no waterfall), a Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and a Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, all in Big Sur. Roughly 5,000 acres of stuff named Pfeiffer, any small corner of which might hide the waterfall we sought.
If we were going to find it, we’d need some more help.
Travel Myth #2: Locals are always the best source of information
According to ancient travel lore omniscient locals can unfailingly direct you to the secret places you’d eventually happen upon by chance anyway. In the real world, though, word of mouth directions pretty much blow.
As a guy I’m undoubtedly biased but I strongly suspect that the reason most of us avoid asking for directions is because we know it’s a pointless exercise. Anything more complicated than simply going straight or possibly turning at the very next left is beyond the capacity of our internal compasses to comprehend, let alone remember.
Recommendations from locals are only marginally more helpful than their directions. Every once in a while we do happen upon someone who seems to share our tastes and points us in a good direction. More often, though, we’re directed to places that locals imagine tourists enjoy – like a restaurant in Belize serving $30 plates of barbequed chicken with sides of coconut rice and pasta marinara. Thanks for the tip.
It’s also increasingly true that locals the world over are converging on the same mediocre meals and contrived experiences. There’s a reason McDonalds has nearly twice as many locations outside the U.S. as it does domestically. It’s because millions of people really do like the food. Ask a local where they eat when they dine out and they very well might direct you to fast food or its equivalent.
Travel Myth #3: It’s all about socializing
Of course the bigger reason folks turn to their digital devices is so that they don’t have to bother actually conversing with other people. Because, lets face it, people are often tiring and time consuming bores.
“Yes, it’s a nice day, thanks for asking. Come to think of it, though, things haven’t changed that much since I last answered that question fifteen minutes ago. Now that we’ve established the state of the weather, would it trouble you terribly if I got on with my day now?”
Don’t feel bad. They’re thinking the same thing about you.
Naturally the extroverts among us will object. To them socializing is central to everything, including travel. And because they’re the ones always spouting off, their views become the ones most often heard. Despite appearances to the contrary, they really only represent about half the population. The other, quieter, half just wants to get where they’re going without all the drama and pointless chatter.
The nice thing about technology is that it gives people options. If you’re feeling particularly gregarious, by all means, engage with the locals and your fellow travelers. That may turn out to be the most rewarding part of your trip. But if you’re not in the mood or don’t have the time, you no longer have to engage – and that is just as O.K. The fact that you skipped the long breakfast conversation may end up meaning that you see or do something no one blathering back at the hotel will.
Back in Big Sur, we had no such option. Instead, we set off toward what we thought was our next best alternative. After following a wild goose through Andrew Molera State Park in search of a ranger’s station, we eventually located one several miles further south.
We pulled into the driveway at 3:00 PM figuring we still had plenty of time to find our waterfall. We might even have had enough daylight left for a short hike. Either way we were hoping to grab some trail maps to get ready for an early start the next morning.
At first we were heartened by a sign saying the Visitor’s Center was open until four. We had just made it. The locked doors and dark interior said otherwise. Apparently the internet wasn’t the only thing not working on this remote section of the California Coast.