June 12, 2012

Today Lady Laura and I sat down and planned our summer vacation. Contrary to my normal life which is inspired by my highly-organized German heritage, our vacations are not organized and never have been. We usually rent a car so we don't have to worry about the old jalopy breaking down far from home and take off. And that's about all the planning we do. The rest of the time we wing it free-style, off the beaten path, and we have always had a great vacation.

The only time our vacation was organized is when we made our trip to the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Then the only reason it was organized is because I won the trip and the Food Lion Supermarkets paid for the whole thing and set everything up. That was a lot of fun and I didn't mind following an itinerary because I'm a big NASCAR nut and had never been to a live race.

What's the point of having a getaway from your day-to-day work if all the most obnoxious day-to-day people are packed into your tour bus, watching each other pass by the quintessentially famous outdoor cafes, or walking urgently from door to door, searching for an open stall at the same overused tourist bathrooms? It's not a getaway if everyone is following you around. You might as well have stayed at home and enjoyed the relative peace and quiet as all your neighbors spent their nest eggs trekking the Gringo Trail to the Mayan pyramids, the Taj Mahal, or the Great Mall of China.

Let me make it clear: If everywhere you go there are thousands of other people with little day packs, cameras slung on their necks, sweat pouring down from their sunburned faces, crying children, screaming parents, tour guides with megaphones in the center of busloads of bewildered bystanders, covered with floral patterned holiday shirts and blouses, then you are on the beaten path. You are one of the herd. You are just another mark for the local hucksters, another sucker looking to suck up the experience of a foreign country without ever actually leaving your own civilization.

When you travel and bring along your whole way of being, you haven't really gone any place. If you're still surrounded by McDonald's and Starbucks, and trinkets made in China for sale at the 147 souvenir stands leading up to the ancient ruins that everyone else in the touring world has pilgrimaged to see, then you might as well have stayed at home and looked up a video of the place on the Internet. The popcorn would have been fresher, the seating more comfortable, the narrator more intelligible, and the bathroom more available.

So where do you go if you want to get off the beaten path? Kansas City would be a nice start. (Motto - "Take a Nap in Kansas City.") And why go to Las Vegas or Reno only to be smothered by crowds when you can lose just as much money at the bus station in Winnemucca, Nevada? Why fight the hordes at the Grand Canyon when you can see a much more spectacular hole in the ground by investigating the sewer system of Phoenix. It may not be a tourist hot spot, but believe me, it's an unforgettable experience, and one which you can be fairly sure not one of your Facebook friends will be posting a photo of from their iPhone.

Don't stay on the interstate with every trucker going from L.A. to N.Y. and every traveler trying to make it to the Holiday Inn in time for Happy Hour. Get off on a side road, preferably one that isn't even marked on your road map, and just start driving to see where it leads. When you reach a dead end, then you know you've arrived. Get out and stretch your legs. Look at the weeds in the ditch. Dig up a rock or a worm to keep as a souvenir of your trip.

If you feel adventurous, take a hike down to the nearest mailbox, and up the driveway to the locals' house and ask them where the heck you are. The response will usually be something like, "You must be lost. We don't get many strangers around here." Now you're in for a real treat. You're about to have an experience that no tourist following his guide book has ever had, and one that no guide book writer would ever in their right mind write about. You're about to find out what life is like off the beaten path.