Summer is the time to be a tourist. I like being a tourist and taking pleasure in geological truths (the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains). I also enjoy the kitschy, corny tourist traps of myths and humor that tickle our imaginations and encourage us to laugh.
While on vacation many years ago my wife, daughter and I drove from Portland, Ore., to San Francisco. Making our way down Route 101, also known as The Redwood Highway, we came upon those mythical giant trees that are taller than the Statue of Liberty and seem to jump from the pages of Michael Crichton’s book and Stephen Spielberg’s film, Jurassic Park.
Standing at the base of a tree that size confuses the brain. It’s like seeing a daisy as big as a Ferris wheel.
We’ve all sat in those giant rocking chairs at a roadside restaurant that made us look like children as our legs dangled over the edge. Perspective plays tricks on us. Sitting in a passenger jetliner and looking down, Niagara Falls looks like a bit of foam scaring the distant landscape, but standing beside the falls while listening to the volume of water thundering over the cliff, you’d think the earth sprung a leak.
On our journey to San Francisco, when I saw a sign that read “Drive Through a Redwood Tree,” I couldn’t resist. My daughter chuckled, and my wife rolled her eyes. “Hey!” I laughed. “It’s only $15 per car. How many times will we have the chance to drive through a tree like this?”
I was equally interested in drinking from the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Fla. While it is a myth that in the late 1400s the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was seeking an elixir that would slow down aging, it is true that he was with Christopher Columbus on the explorer’s second voyage to the New World. History has a way of mixing up stories, but who wouldn’t want to risk $19.95 on the chance that the waters from a Florida aquifer would retard the wrinkles in our faces? For thousands of years, people believed there was such water somewhere deeply placed in our imaginations and in 19 dollars and 95 cents.
But my favorite tourist attraction is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC: the moon rock!
For over 300 million years, people looked at the moon, worshiped or feared the moon, and wrote poems about the moon. And right there in Washington, you can walk into a building and, for free, touch a piece of the moon. Specifically, it’s a piece of basalt, an iron-rich volcanic rock from the Valley of Taurus–Littrow, the landing site for the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. But it’s a piece of the moon!
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon. He and his colleague, Buzz Aldrin, walked around the place for three hours. Now that is what I call a great tourist adventure.
The Irish writer Oscar Wilde, in his story The Nightingale and the Rose, wrote “Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the sun in his chariot of gold, and the moon in her chariot of pearl.”
I liked the pleasures of being a tourist, being whisked away on vacation on a chariot of pearl with my wife and daughter as we drank to our waning youth, mingled with the roots of a giant tree, and felt the power of the moon under us vulnerable fingertips. Life, especially on vacation, is dear to all.
Christopher de Vinck’s latest novels are “Ashes” (HarperCollins) and “Mr. Nicholas” (Paraclete Press). He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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