There are two types of tourists: there’s you and then there’s everyone else.
You’re not like those other tourists. Look at them in the gift shop with their cameras and their blank faces, exhausted by travel and over-stimulation. You’re in the gift shop too, of course, but you’re in it ironically, so it’s cool.
When I was still in Canada, it was far easier to convince myself that I wasn’t part of the gawking, shopping mob. I wasn’t a tourist; I was a visitor. Howdy, fellow Canadians. Thanks for inviting me to your city. Aren’t those Germans funny? Can I take your picture for you, adorable Asian family?
When I was in Canada, I still had my fancy-pants camera, which made it possible to rationalize that I wasn’t snapping cliched tourist shots; I was framing artistic renderings of memorable Canadiana.
But after my camera was stolen and we entered the United States, there was no longer any question; if you’re wielding a point-and-shoot in a foreign country, you’re a tourist.
But just because we joined the herd at Yellowstone National Park doesn’t mean we had to jump on the tour bus. We were still cooler than everyone else, right? I mean, I don’t even own a Tilley hat. We were non-tourist tourists.
I did, however, indulge in the number-one tourism activity, which is judging other tourists. The number-two activity is looking for the bathroom. The problem is that no one has ever figured out a way to make money out of these activities. There was the shameful pay-toilet period years ago, but this scheme was thwarted by a great popular uprising, which I sincerely believe may have been civilization’s finest hour.
At Yellowstone, we followed the guidebook suggestion and visited the Norris Geyser Basin, with its bubbling sulphur pools, steam vents and the sporadically spitting Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest when it has a major eruption, which last occured in 2005.
But as a non-tourist tourist, you keep your eyes open for the off-beat and ironic. I was fond of the warning posters depicting a small boy who has wandered off the designated trail. He’s in shock and pain as his foot cracks through the thin crust to the burning, acidic water below. Safely on the path, a little girl looks on in horror. Talk about “sulphur the little children…”
After our visit to the Norris Basin, we decided not to visit Old Faithful because we figured it would be mobbed with tourists — you know, “them.” Besides, when you’ve steamed one geyser, you’ve steamed them all.
At Yellowstone, then, I could still convince myself that we were sage expeditionists, exploring landmarks and geological marvels without buying the personalized souvenir fridge magnet.
But then we travelled to Mount Rushmore, the American crossroads of patriotism and profit. After all, the sole impetus for sculpting Rushmore was to attract tourists to South Dakota, which, quite frankly, doesn’t have much else going for it. And there’s not much to do at Rushmore either except goggle at the rock. Anywhere else and they would have built a water slide coming out of Lincoln’s ear, but this may be the only place in America where taste trumps commerce.
Not that we weren’t up for some bad taste. Abby, for instance, took the obligatory “picking Roosevelt’s nose” photo, which might actually be a federal Homeland Security offence, I’m not sure.
Like propping up the leaning tower of Pisa or holding the Statue of Liberty in your hand, Abby’s photo and its ilk are tourist things to do, even if the doer thinks he or she is being original. But there’s no originality in tourism. The tour guides have heard all the jokes. On the access road to Rushmore, I noticed a rock formation that looked unmistakably like a penis. “That’s the Clinton monument,” I said. My family wasn’t amused, probably because they’d heard that one before too.
As we sat beneath the presidential heads of Mount Rushmore eating our overpriced cafeteria lunch (the number-three tourism activity), I could no longer deny it: we were tourists. We even bought the personalized fridge magnet.
This, though, was our last major stop. Driving the remaining 2700 kilometres home to the Townships in two days, we were no longer tourists, we were no longer visitors. We were just plain tired. As every seasoned tourist says, it’s good to be home.