People Used to Be Travelers

Sometimes a single line from a book really knocks me in the gut. Earlier this week I was reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. Adams was chatting with his guide, an Australian named John, when John said, “People used to be travelers. Now they are tourists.” I paused to jot down the quote and as I did, the truth of it, at least as it pertains to me, really began to sink in.

One of the things my mom told me when I was young was that books could take me anywhere. In recent years, I have taken that to heart. Busy as we are, we don’t have much time these days for travel and adventure, so I have been getting mine through books.

Reading Cannibal Queen by Stephen Coonts, I’ve flown in a biplane to all of the lower 48 states. I’ve sat as a passenger with William Least-Heat Moon while reading Blue Highways and have twice traveled the roads of the country with John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I’ve gone into the Amazon with David Grann’s Lost City of Z.

I have a particular fondness for Alaska. I’ve been there with John McPhee in his outstanding book Coming into the Country. I returned there with Ken Ilgunas’s Walden on Wheels. I’ve spent time there with James Campbell in two of his books, Braving It and The Final Frontiersman. I can never seem to get enough.

I’ve traveled roads with journalists like Philip Caputo, who drove from the tip of Key West, Florida to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in The Longest Road; and with Charles Kuralt in Charles Kuralt’s America and Life on the Road.

I’ve sailed around the world with Joshua Slocum in Sailing Alone Around the World and I’ve survived at sea for 76 days in Adrift by Steven Callahan. I’ve gone from the earth to the moon in Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon.

What all of these books have in common is that they are stories of travelers not tourists. When I read, I tending to be the former, but when I travel, I tend to be the latter.

My wife and I recently celebrated our 10th anniversary. We are not big on gifts, but we got each other something for our 10th, and what my wife got me was a frame map of the United States complete with pins so that we can mark all of the places we’ve been together. I got started almost at once, pinning those places that we have been together (or with our kids).

Pin map of US

We’ve been all over the east coast and in most cases, we’ve driven the places marked by those pins. We like road trips. Sometimes, we go to the same place over and over again. We always drive down to Florida in December because we have family there. We often drive up to Maine in the summer for the same reason. Occasionally we pick a place because we’ve never been. This summer we took a road trip through parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

These are fun trips, but we are tourist on these trips. We stopped at Dollywood, and hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains, and spent a night in Gatlinburg. We visited Nashville and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Andrew Jackson’s home, Hermitage. In Kentucky we toured Mammoth Cave. These were fun and it was a great trip, but Mark Adam’s guide’s words still sting me a bit. We were tourists, not travelers. I want to be a traveler, not a tourist. I know there is an important difference, but I am not entirely sure I know what that difference is.

Our map shows only the United States. We’ve been outside the U.S. together. We’ve been to the Caribbean, and Cartagena, Colombia. We’ve been to Panama, and ridden a train down the length of the canal. We’ve been to the rainforests of Costa Rica, and climbed waterfalls in Jamaica. But in all those places, too, we were tourists and not travelers. Somehow, I need to learn that difference. It seems vitally important.

In the meantime, I plan to continue my travels through books. I enjoyed Mark Adams’s Turn Right at Machu Picchu and discovered he has a much more recent book, Tip of the Iceberg about his adventures in Alaska. I also plan to spent time flying around the Alaska bush with the late bush pilot Don Sheldon. He’s appeared in several of the Alaska books I’ve read and his story sounds fascinating.


    1. I like that. Earlier today I read, in other Mark Adams book, something that comes close to his distinction: A tourist is getting away from somewhere; a traveler (explorer) is going to somewhere.

  1. Great post, Jamie. I look forward to reading your posts and I definitely like the new direction which focuses on reading. Just a thought for a subsequent topic and that would be to discuss the ways in which you read, i.e., audio, electronic, and hard copy. Maybe you could talk about the pros and cons of each for you and how and under what circumstances you choose one of those formats. Cheers, and keep up the good work.

    1. Tim, thanks! I have a list of topics I’ve been keeping and I definitely will be covering the ways I read, probably in the context of how I interact with the books I’m reading and the relative easy or difficulty doing that over various mediums. Probably not this week but you should see a post on this topic in the next couple of weeks.


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