To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. – Robert Louis Stevenson
The difference between a traveler and a tourist, according to historian Daniel Boorstin, is that the former is active and the latter passive. The traveler pursues people, adventure or new experiences while the tourist expects interesting things to happen with minimal effort expended. I’m reminded of a cartoon where two vultures are sitting on a fence and one says, “Screw this, I’m going to kill something.” Aggression generates momentum to propel the traveler forward. The tourist, on the other hand, “goes sightseeing,” and waits almost vicariously for others to feed him.
Determining which camp you belong to can be humbling depending upon your personality and destination. (Admitting that the two overlap only fuels the angst.) As we three avowed travelers navigated the steep grade into Mesa Verde National Park it was nearly impossible to separate our elevated view of ourselves from the masses cloying the place. After all, Mesa Verde is all about sightseeing, with most of its ruins restricted to ranger-led tours. While we weren’t necessarily averse to being participants, it certainly crimped our guerilla style. Our ace in the hole was Wetherill Mesa, an offshoot of the park with hiking trails leading deep into the rocky canyons. We were sure to leave behind the majority of the polyester-and-poodle crowd and focus on the less-traveled areas.
Or such, at least, were our plans. We had others, brilliant we felt, such as being first into the ruins to beat the tour bus groups. “They’ll get a late start while everybody is still ordering their bagels and lattes,” we crowed.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. As we waited for the visitor center to open, a string of tour buses hove into view, followed by a long convoy of cars. What had been an empty parking lot suddenly looked like a swarm of ants erupting from a disturbed mound. Our solitary perch on the balcony became standing-room only. I tried ignoring the others by concentrating on warblers flitting around in a thicket below us. Jim, looking surlier than usual, joined me. Chod, easily the more voluble member of our trio, pointed out a wild horse on a hillside and identified birds for those who asked. He was in his element, a one-man tour guide, glad to share his knowledge of local fauna and flora. Jim muttered imprecations under his breath.
When the doors finally opened we were herded inside like cattle to a slaughter house. Traveler and tourist alike—whatever the designation—we were all the same to the National Park Service. We were meat to be processed. We were the fuel that kept the fires of commerce stoked.
Which was all the most disturbing when the ranger, already looking harried by the throngs, many of whom could barely speak English, announced that the road to Wetherill Mesa was closed until Memorial Day. “We don’t have enough staff to open it,” she said.
Aghast, we looked at the electronic billboard listing tours to the three main sites and the number of participants enrolled. Some, with 60 already signed up, were full. We settled on a tour of Cliff Palace with a paltry 14 listed, reasoning that it must fall between tour bus operating times.
After a leisurely two hours spent birding practically undisturbed, we arrived at the trailhead to find dozens of vehicles already lined up. More appeared almost magically. They came in RVs and rental campers, motorcycles and cars, trucks and buses, they came singly and doubly and quadruply. A dozen languages filled the air with a Babel-like dissonance.
“And this isn’t even tourist season,” Jim spat.
“I suspect,” I said, “there are more than 14 signed up for the tour.”
One of the biggest drawbacks to being a traveler, and in particular a codgernaut (a subcategory known for its latent crankiness and elitist posturing), is that it’s nearly impossible to amalgamate into any sort of cohesion with tourists. Occasionally the codgernaut is forced by dint of necessity to put aside, however temporary, any distaste at being coerced into mingling with the rabble—certainly the case at Mesa Verde—though that does not mean he must act as if he were enjoying himself. In fact, so ingrained is the curmudgeon persona that rendering enjoyment is nearly impossible. The effect can be crippling.
As a long ragged line formed leading down to a platform overlooking the canyon, we lagged behind, and not merely in an attempt at jockeying for position. For his part, Jim decided he’d had enough: he would remain behind, happily chasing black-throated gray warblers around the deserted parking lot.
Chod and I had one last plan. In retrospect it was pathetically hopeless. From an initial observation of earlier tours, it was clear that the last photographers in line had the most opportunities for getting shots of ruins without people. The few moments separating groups might be fleeting but they held the most potential, indeed, the only potential.
That position, unfortunately, was claimed by an elderly woman dragging an oxygen tank. Since we clearly couldn’t trump her excuse nor toss her over the cliff, we made sure we were directly in front of her.
From there it went downhill, literally. When the tour bunched up to wait its turn, we noted with some disgust that the forward position was actually the better deal. And when the group finally made its way into the ruin, our ranger gathered us in a circle around the kiva to regale us at length about the history of the palace, the Anasazi, the Pueblo people of the southwest, the role of the park service, the sun and moon and stars and just about everything else she could think of, so that another tour began trickling in to make space for yet another that was waiting, and every square inch of trail was packed like sardines. So much for our plan.
We tried one last trailhead. It was even more crowded.
“I’ve seen all I need to see,” Jim said.
He pulled out a map and charted a course into the wilds of Utah. If we hurried we could make it by mid-afternoon. I cruised through the mob and kicked up the speed. From the back seat I heard Jim utter a few choice words, followed bitterly by the codgernauts’ mantra: “I hate #$@*^! tourists.”
(To be continued)