When I was a child, my father drove a tour bus. One of his many jobs, I should say, because he married young without much education, and finding his place took a long time. He tried a lot of different things, most of them involving driving in one way or another—state patrolman, motorcycle salesman, cab driver, tour bus driver—before he settled on insurance sales later. He has a wonderful, deep, booming voice and, as a native of the area, was uniquely suited to drive the bus to the top of Pikes Peak and other places.
It was my father who, when I yearned to escape, to travel, to find adventure, to just go live somewhere else, for God’s sake, would say, “You can try, but the mountains will always call you home.” At this point, at fifteen or sixteen and dreaming of California and beaches and a lifestyle that seemed freer to me (we all dreamed of California then, and I’m often weirdly pleased to be mistaken for a Californian to this day), the mountains seemed immovable. Implacable. A wall to scale toward freedom in the Far West.
He drove the bus to the Air Force Academy to show off the chapel, and to the top of the mountain—the mountain, that is, Pikes Peak–around the narrow, hairpin turns to fourteen thousand feet, talking all the way to the tourists who crowded into town every summer. He made his living on it.
So did a lot of people. My friends in sixth grade were bussed down Nevada Avenue to our school from the motels along the north strip, theme motels with names like the B&B Motel. One was shaped like an A-frame house. Slumber parties were uniquely cool at motels, let me tell you, but I was disappointed to find out most of the families were just…ordinary.
Tourism was the lifeblood, or at least one of the main arteries of support in the town. The military was the other. While I was growing up, there were five military bases in Colorado Springs. The largest was Fort Carson, and this was the era of Vietnam, so there was a lot of movement, a lot of troops in and out, and soldiers and sergeants and their children, who made up the other pocket of my friends. Children who’d lived in places like Okinawa and Germany, who had exotic trinkets from far away—lacquered treasure chests with gold locks, and delicate silver jewelry and living rooms furnished with velvet hangings of tigers. Their fathers had bomber jackets with Saigon embroidered on them. The girls wore MIA and POW bracelets. (I am quite sure none of us really understood what the names, carved cryptically with dates into metal bracelets, meant. Not until much, much later.)
They were all so exotic, those soldiers and their families, the tourists who came from everywhere. They infected me with curiosity, with a hunger for the far away that has never abated.
And yet, I hated tourists, too. There were too many of them, doing odd things, talking too loudly in hick accents. I disdained their huffing and puffing, brushed by them as they stood gaping at the Garden of the Gods or shooting pictures of Pikes Peak. I scorned their pathetic ignorance, and pitied them when they bought plastic turquoise or rubber tomahawks to take back home to show off at the Dairy Queen in some humid place where the only thing breaking the endless skyline were silos and the odd, isolated tree.
I, in my infinite 10-year-old arrogance, knew about things, you see. I went to pow wows hosted by the Lone Feather Council at the Manitou Police Station. I knew real Indians, who honestly didn’t do anything so different that I could see, except the how business of dressing up for pow wows and learning to bead on soft leather.
I knew about the mountains and the shifts in weather. I knew about western ways and freedom and bright blue skies. I felt anxious over the influx of retiring Army and Air Force officers and what they might bring to my city, how it might change if too many people moved there.
Tourists seemed so clueless, shouting and shooting pictures in front of their camper trailers, wearing the wrong clothes, mostly just clogging up the entire city, the parks and sidewalks and my picnic spots, changing the landscape, making my world different. I resented them for it. Sometimes, still, I can feel the bite of it if I get stuck in a traffic jam on an August afternoon.
Yet, I am now a tourist, too. Or a traveler. I’m not sure which is which. If I join the clots of tourists in some cathedral (and it was truly impossible to have any experience at all of Westminster Abby, for example), I am a part of that mob, am I not? But how do I travel and not become a tourist?
Growing up as I did in a tourist town makes me think about these things–about tourists and tourism, about travels and travelers–quite a lot, especially since moving back to this center of tourism and traveling so much myself the past few years. I have no conclusions, mind you. I am only thinking for now.
What makes a traveler? What makes a tourist? What do you think?