I’ve always told friends and family I can’t just drive from Point A to Point B without stopping at C, D, and E along the way. It frustrated me that I would drive six hundred miles along the interstate highways only to later learn I was this close to a covered bridge, amazing state park, or hidden waterfall. But after a few years of taking an hour to drive fifty miles I discovered I was more frustrated with my drive by tourism than missed opportunities and suddenly I learned a valuable lesson to share with others.
Every once in awhile I see this map floating around Facebook. You visit this page and select all the states you’ve visited, the map fills in with a vibrant pink, and then you post your conquest for all your friends to see. I’ve seen this map in my newsfeed more times than I can count. Some people would brag about the twenty, thirty, or forty states they had visited across the country.
But one day I asked a friend a very simple question, “What did you do in each of those states?” Her response came quick and was entirely predictable. “Well most of them we just stopped at a rest area off the interstate or hopped off at an exit to get supper.” So although she had checked off Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona on the map she had actually done nothing in any of those states other than drive through as quickly as possible on her way to family in San Diego.
This never really sat right with me.
In the fall of 2016 I was on a road trip from Syracuse, New York to Chattanooga, Tennessee for the fall colors. This was my first van dwelling adventure and I had set a stringent rule of no interstates during the road trip, a rule that remained unbroken thirty days later. I wanted to really see America, discover all the great hidden spots, and have a thrilling adventure.
But that wasn’t good enough. One day on that road trip I was traveling across southern Pennsylvania when I realized I was pretty close to Gettysburg National Military Park. I called up one of my oldest friends who was a fanatic for visiting these kinds of battlegrounds across the country and asked him what I could do with two hours in Gettysburg. My old buddy paused for a moment before bluntly replying, “Barnette, there isn’t much of anything you can do with just two hours. I spent that long at the visitor center.”
Despite his warning I pressed on with my plans because I wanted to be able to say I had “visited” Gettysburg. I wanted to be able to capture a few photos to share on social media and write a quick blurb about it for the travel blog. That is the very epitome of “drive by tourism”. A desire for nothing more than just enough time to say “I’ve been there” but never enough time to experience it. In fact that used to be my travel motto I would tell people: I always have just enough time to see a place but never enough to enjoy it. If I ever find an old Delorean hidden inside a cave in the midwest I am going back in time to beat my own head against a wall long enough to forget that stupid motto.
It wasn’t until weeks later, long after my road trip had ended, that I had an epiphany. I was looking at the handful of photos I captured at Gettysburg on that cold and windy autumn day. The photos were decent, but certainly not on par with what I normally capture. I remembered the next day I spent in Washington, D.C. the weather was warm and gorgeous.
That was the moment when I slowly shook my head and muttered, “Eureka,” softly to myself. I realized I was on a road trip with no set itinerary and no strings attached. I should have spent the night in Gettysburg and returned to the park the next day.
Instead I pressed on despite only spending two hours in the park. I look back at that now I can’t really write about my “experience” in the park. What could I tell? I spent most of it in my car trying not to get lost on the criss-crossing motor trail and freezing my butt off in that wind that knocked a tripod-mounted camera over. I still shake my head at this stupid decision because a year and a half later I have not made it back to Gettysburg, and right now I just don’t know when I can.
Since then I have changed the way I travel. I plan to spend more time in fewer destinations. I give myself time to just sit and watch the clouds move across the sky. I force myself to slow down. The rewards have been immeasurable and countless.
Now I can tell stories of Lake Jocassee in the South Carolina Mountain Lakes region with waterfalls that spill off a cliff directly into the lake.
And I can tell stories about the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and the connection of Red Clay State Park, the Hiawassee Heritage Center, and the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park in Tennessee.
I can also tell stories about Paducah, Kentucky, and the wall to wall murals and what it means to be an UNESCO Creative City.
It took me a long time to realize the frustration of visiting a place and not experiencing it was far worse than the frustration of passing it altogether. I have learned it is better to visit one place for a day than three places in a single day. Slow down, sit down, and close your eyes. Experience the destination. Stories of these experiences are so much more rewarding than simply checking off a destination on a map you post to Facebook.
I ended drive by tourism on my trips. I still take the long way ’round and it still takes me a full day to drive five hundred miles. But now I stay in one place long enough to smell the flowers, hear the sounds of nature, and feel the sun on my skin. Now I have better stories to tell.
What stories will you have to tell?