Traveling Old School

Traveling Old School

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.

Verizon Coverage Map

Lies, all lies.

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.

Scratch off 1 alien, win $2. 2 aliens, $5 . . .

Scratch off 1 alien, win $2. 2 aliens, $5 . . .

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.

Venice Canal Trip Advisor

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.

They're Lovin' It.

They’re Lovin’ It.

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.

Connection Failed

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.


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35 Comments on “Traveling Old School”

  1. continuitygirl May 10, 2013 at 7:59 am #

    oh yea, so much more adventure to be had than with GPS…that is unless the GPS dies and you don’t have a backup old school map! 😉


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      For our adventure we’ll choose to go on a gorilla trek or spelunking or glacier climbing or . . . over being lost in suburbia, but your mileage may vary. 😉


  2. The Fourth Continent May 10, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    I love having my iphone when traveling but wish that you could roam on it while being so expensive!

    We had one experience in Spain where the GPS we brought along didn’t work, so we ended up driving from Malaga to Granada and through some mountains back to Benal Madena using no maps and just signs…. Hated when there was a fork in the road – and not a person in sight! Still, cool experience and not many hiccups.

    As for no data on the phone – that’s my life every day now as it’s too expensive to use… old school huh? =)


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

      Yeah, roaming charges are ridiculous . . . which is why we look for free hotel/hostel/campground wifi almost everywhere we go.


      • The Fourth Continent May 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

        That’s easy enough in America. Which it was like that other places!


        • Brian May 12, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

          Where are you having difficulties? We had zero problems in Central America. Even places that didn’t provide window screens (or windows) still had wifi. We haven’t been to Europe in a while, but I don’t expect any problems there. I understand Asia is very well wired. I imagine Africa is less so, but figure we’ll still be able to find hostels catering to flashpackers.


          • The Fourth Continent May 14, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

            I’m in Greenland. Have been here for three months now living, and do not use internet on my normal phone because it costs too much. I pay over $250 a month for 4mB internet at Home. So still back In the 90s In thar regard!


  3. Laura Hilger May 10, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    This one was great-thanks for sharing!


  4. Stephany May 10, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    There is nothing I hate more when I’m traveling than being completely planless or directionless. My idea of spontaneity means choosing from several researched options – the result of sharing a few “Angry Days” of my own with my husband and family.

    Thanks for starting my day off with a laugh. This was a great post! (Love your blog.)


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for following along.


  5. Ruth Livingstone May 10, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Not sure I agree with you about myth #1.

    I’m walking around the English coastline and I use good old fashioned maps to decide my route. I rarely research in advance, except to check the weather and make sure I have somewhere to eat and stay. After I’ve finished the walk, I might do a Google search and read up on the places I’ve stumbled across. I often find well-known beauty spots are crowded and lacking in atmosphere. However, I have come across many surprising, amazing and beautiful places – and my personal experience of them is all the more powerful because they are unexpected.

    I would suggest there is a difference between being a ‘tourist’ and being a ‘traveller’.

    A tourist travels in order to see specific sights. For a tourist, the point of travelling is simply to get from sight to sight.

    And what is a traveller? Not sure. Still trying to work it out 🙂


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

      Hi Ruth, thanks for commenting. We expect and welcome disagreement, especially on posts like this that take potshots at conventional travel wisdom. Next up: a post on the “traveler” versus “tourist” fallacy. 😉


  6. spc30802 May 10, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I’m old school and really enjoy slowly going through maps of areas we are planning on visiting. I get a better sense of the area and often find tid-bits that are fascinating. Of course, that assumes access to good old paper maps. Though I have to admit I just as often now use Google Maps.
    Of course I’m not continually traveling as you, so my planning is almost never spontaneous.


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      I think maybe the bigger distinction isn’t so much how you plan (paper or digital) but whether you plan. It seems to me that much of the “Go with the flow. Wander about. Ditch the guidebook.” commentary is really more an excuse for laziness than it is anything else. Planning is hard work. It’s so much easier not to. So by pretending that unplanned trips also lead to better experiences we achieve Nirvana. But like anything that is too good to be true . . .


  7. badwalker May 10, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Well said. Locals often can’t give directions – ’cause they just go there and don’t know how and don’t know about the good stuff. However, I do love paper maps. And figure the rest out myself.


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 11:55 am #

      It’s true. We also find that locals tend to point us to stuff we already knew about. Our latest local recommendation . . . Duck Boat Tour. LOL.


  8. lidipiri May 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    Though I don’t agree with much of what you say (maybe just a portion of it), this post made me laugh.
    Thanks for providing me with my daily amusement. 🙂


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

      We’ll take entertainment over agreement and consider it a win.


  9. Deb May 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    I think it all comes down to personality. My husband and I love to travel by just heading in a direction and seeing what we see; we’ve done this in Europe, North America and just into Africa. However we know many people that need everything mapped out. I may be partial to the “flying by the seat of your pants” system. I was once kicking around the U.K., a local suggested checking out a Welsh town an hour away, and I met my husband there (who also hadn’t planned the visit)….so I guess in my case the local knew the good stuff as I found a great town and a husband.

    It is really a project to teach children the concept of just going and seeing rather than planning every detail. Our kids are so over structured in school that it is taking them a while to get on board with how we travel. They are learning that not everything interesting has to be a tourist attraction, and they have discovered that you can also meet fascinating people along the way if you take the time to visit.

    I do think your post was a great post. It starts a discussion and shares different perspectives. Thanks for posting.


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

      You’re absolutely right that it is all about personal preference. There is no more a right way to travel than there is a right way to drink wine. If you’re enjoying it, you’re doing it correctly.

      But you’re also right that what we’re trying to do here is start a conversation, or maybe just provide some balance. We see so much written on the other side of the argument that much of it has really become clichéd and, in our view, counter productive.


  10. Gunta May 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    Knowing a few locals who live in Big Sur, they may not always feel overly helpful toward visitors. Imagine living in a place where your only route to shopping, doctors, you name it, is that single-lane twisty road with tourists clogging it up year round (summers are the worst – though winters present their own problems). Most folks live up on the sides of those mountains and have their roads and the highway slide into the sea on a fairly regular basis (I’m sure you ran into some road repair during your visit). That’s not to mention the wildfires that have been known to destroy homes. Personally, I’d classify Big Sur as one of the most jaw-dropping gorgeous spots in the lower 48, but it’s not the most tourist friendly. Much of that is due to that same gorgeous topography.

    As for planning trips… I started doing cross-country drives back in the late 60s, living in California with family on the East Coast. I would pick a different route each time (once clear across Canada coast to coast), stopping at National Parks along the way. Those days the parks were heavenly if you timed your trips after Labor Day. Many times I had the parks pretty nearly to myself. It was the days before Zion, Arches, Glacier and others were discovered by the hordes. These days I avoid what used to be my favorite spots because of the crowds. If they’ve made it into the guide books, or internet sites, then they’re likely to be jammed.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love that more people are discovering the joy and wonder of this beautiful country of ours. I just like my experience to include some peace and quiet. On the other hand, if you happen to like crowds, then I’d definitely stick to planning by the book (or internet). 😀 I still mostly rely on maps for the most part.


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

      Hi Gunta,
      It’s not that we necessarily like crowds (except for in cities. Cities really need to have the energy of a thriving local population or they feel either depressed or post-apocalyptic, but I digress) it’s that most of the world’s great places really have been found already – Zion, Arches, and Glacier are all just mere examples. That basically leaves us with two choices. We can skip the world’s greatest places. Or we can suffer the crowds. It’s mutually exclusive. We can’t have both, at least not anymore.

      You don’t often hear it put that way, but it’s true. What we usually hear is that the best places are also somehow unknown and that the trick to finding them is to set off aimlessly, which is patently absurd, of course. But that absurdity hasn’t prevented such thoughts from being handed down as sage travel wisdom.

      In any event, happy travels, however you travel. 🙂


      • Gunta May 10, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

        I would never say I set off aimlessly…. there are still spots that haven’t showed up on everyone’s radar. Much (everything) depends on what you’re looking for. The Oregon Coast (if you haven’t already zoomed through here) has many little coastal towns along the way, each with its own flavor, catering to different preferences. I’d have to say that Bandon (on the Oregon Coast) is one that many folks pass by. I have serious misgivings about posting images of this favorite beach of mine, but then the summer fog layer has a way of discouraging quite a few tourists. 😀

        Happy travels to you, too. We generally do have internet access except for an occasional dead spot.


    • Brian May 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      Oh, and one more thought about “If they’ve made it into the guide books, or internet sites, then they’re likely to be jammed.” That’s probably true. But don’t fool yourself into thinking you can avoid these places by not looking at the guides. It would be easier to just stay home.

      Here’s TripAdvisor’s “Things to Do in the U.S.” They have 10,057 different locations each with multiple “things to do” – 1,900 in NYC alone. Altogether they may have a half a million things covered in the U.S. and the list grows every day. They even have 15 things in Bandon, OR. 😉

      That’s not to say that each of these things is”on people’s radar” or that all are overrun. Clearly that’s not the case. But they all have been “found” and the info about them is out there for anyone who wants to look for it. Not looking doesn’t really change anything.


      • Gunta May 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

        I do check into (& contribute to) Trip Advisor on occasion. Don’t mind me… you’re missing the point that I’m just an old curmudgeon looking back to the good old days when it really was possible to see the best of the best without being elbow to elbow with the masses… 😀

        I grew up in a Big City (Boston) and lived in San Francisco for some years, but started drifting toward a more rural setting as time went on. These days big cities scare the bejeezus out of me! Much the same could be said of the crowded theme parks our National Treasures have become.

        I do stay home during the summer when the crowds are the thickest… but even that’s no guarantee these days. I love reading about your adventures, but you cover many of the spots I would never choose to visit my own self. I prefer enjoying those in the comfort of my “rocking chair” (so to speak.)


        • Brian May 10, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

          We certainly understand and support your armchair travel. 🙂


  11. eric.rial May 11, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    We experienced the “loss of technology” last year at Big Sur. Definitely putting paper maps on the list next time we go. We managed to find most of what we were looking for, but did a lot of extra driving and stayed flexible!


  12. Allison May 12, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Other bloggers who travel have recommended Benchmark Atlases (paper) for good mapping and good lists of things to see and do. We haven’t experienced a total lack of input like yours in Big Sur. Now that you’ve written about it, we will make a note of it and research before going and get out our maps.
    This is a terrific blog, I just found it yesterday. What did you end up living in? I haven’t had time to read from the beginning, we have a mouse in the under bus storage which must be removed, today.


    • Brian May 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      Hi Allison. We’re so glad you’re liking our blog – and welcome aboard, btw.

      We haven’t written a ton about our motor home (so it’s no surprise you haven’t found the posts). We’re living in a Winnebago Sightseer 33c. We have some photos here and the floor plan here.

      Good luck evicting your stowaway.


  13. Jason May 20, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Hi Brian,

    Do you and Shannon use guide books? Perhaps these bridge the gap when technology does not probe the more isolated areas. In preparation for our trip in October we have bought two books: Eyewitness Travel: Back Roads California, 24 Leisurely Drives and Lonely Planet, California’s Best Trips, 35 Amazing Road Trips.

    I am very much an online researcher (to the point of driving Rose to distraction at times) however turning the pages of a book remains a satisfying form of research. Once we hit the road that information will remain at our fingertips. Regardless of coverage.

    Maybe a lack of coverage is an indicator that you are off the beaten track. It will be a sad day when you can get three bars of signal in every corner of the world.




    • Brian May 20, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      We do use guidebooks. The challenge with them, though, is that we’re in so many places we’d need an entire library of them. Where we find them most useful is answering macro level questions like: “we can go anywhere in the U.S., we’re starting in Texas and plan to spend the next six months driving north, what general route should we take?” With a U.S.A. guidebook we can kind of scope out a route that charts a logical course through the country’s big destinations. But once we get somewhere, we won’t have a specific enough guidebook to be much help so we rely on the internet and visitor centers.



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