I’ve noticed a new travel trope this year. Newspapers are writing articles of the “Don’t go here—go there,” sort. The Smithsonian, I’ve read, is offering a course in how to travel without being overwhelmed by crowds. It seems that no one any longer enjoys what were once bucket list items—the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Machu Picchu, or a gondola ride in Venice. There are just too many people.
These articles and courses offer different strategies to avoid the hordes. One might make a careful list of all the places in the world where cruise ships dock—and avoid them. One might travel only in the off season. One might skip Amsterdam and visit Utrecht instead.
But this summer, it’s occurred to me that my grandparents’ generation might have had the best strategy. They vacationed close to home, up in the hills.
My grandfather, for instance, lived in Rutherford, N.J. He had a summer place--he called it "the camp," though it was a house and a garage-- on a small lake in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It was about an 80-mile drive, and the elevation changed from 66 feet at Rutherford to 1,400 feet at the lake. Those small numbers made a major difference. Rutherford was close to the miasma of the New Jersey Meadowlands. The lake was surrounded by cooling trees. You could enjoy being outdoors at the lake.
(I pause here to acknowledge that not everyone’s grandfather had a lake house, and not everyone gets to be jaded with Venice. I’ve been fortunate.)
I can remember being at the lake in late August, and it was cold in the mornings, so cold I didn’t want to get out of my warm bed. (I was, and remain, a bit of a wuss when it comes to temperature.) The house at the lake didn’t have air conditioning and didn’t need it.
In my youthful stupidity, I didn’t appreciate this. I didn’t like the traffic jams on Sunday evenings as people headed home for the workweek. I didn’t like the way the muddy bottom of the lake felt when I walked into it. I didn’t like the fact that we were far enough from the New York City television stations that you could only get snow on most channels. I didn’t like the fact that one of my chores each day (until I was seven or eight) was going to a well in the neighbor’s yard, pumping it, and bringing in a bucket full of drinking water. Maybe that was the etymology of the term “bucket list.” I grew up wanting to spend my summers in places where I didn’t have to tote buckets of water and everything was unfamiliar. That meant flying off to exotic destinations, which I have done as much as I can ever since.
I was not alone. My grandfather’s lake house was not far from the resort hotels of the Catskill Borscht Belt, which catered to New York’s Jewish population. (See the film “Dirty Dancing.”) In the 1970s and 1980s, tastes changed and people sought other destinations. Those once flourishing hotels closed one after another. Why spend your vacation in the Catskills when you could fly to Paris?
Most of a lifetime later, I know why. Air travel, even if you’ve got the points to fly business class, has become a time-wasting, soul-sucking experience. And when you get to Paris and want to see the Mona Lisa, you'd better have bought time-stamped tickets. Even if you have, as the New York Times reported a couple of days ago, Louvre patrons are “herded like sheep in a long, coiling line.” They get a minute to look at the painting, snap something with their phone, and move on.
During the past couple of weeks, I have seen the future, I think. My wife’s family had a meeting in Asheville, (elevation 2,134 feet) N.C. For Southerners of 100 years ago, the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia were the equivalent of my grandfather’s Catskills, naturally cool and pleasant. That’s still true. While I was in Asheville, daytime highs were in the low 80s. And, contrary to the state of affairs a few decades ago, Asheville is now a world-class foodie town. I had a meal at a restaurant called Marketplace that was superb. You don’t have to go to Paris any more to dine well. And in Paris, you can’t get an appetizer of Tennessee peaches wrapped in ham, or a drink made with bacon-infused bourbon.
One morning on this trip, I and a few cousins-in-law took an excursion higher up into the hills, led by Chris and Bonnie Allen of Asheville Photography Tours. We drove into the Pisgah Natural Forest. We saw waterfalls. By the side of the road we stopped and shot a rushing brook, experimenting with different shutter speeds. (The picture at the top of this page was taken with a slow shutter speed.) We drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway and photographed mountain vistas, stony summits wrapped in clouds, learning again why the Smokey Mountains are called that.
Inspired, I took a drive a few days ago up to the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. There were wildflowers, and butterflies, and spiders to photograph. In both North Carolina and Virginia, concessionaires provide some simple, clean lodging and casual restaurants with panoramic views. The sun and cooler air are free. So are the hikes to waterfalls and mountain peaks.
So, while one never says never again, I don't see myself going to Europe so much any more, particularly in the summer. I think I will do what my grandfather did, and stay closer to home, up in the hills a bit.