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Up The Road: Travel That’s Not About You

Cultivar 413

These days tourism boards promote the newest selfie hotspot, and talk about top “Instagrammable” destinations—“to make your friends jealous.” So Up the Road’s opinion sounds out of step. Nonetheless: It really is time to leave the narcissism behind.

We’re living in an age of narcissism, one that can’t end soon enough, in my book. But it’s not as if it’s the first. Nazi Germany is the classic collective example, from last century. Still, if everything you see and do is always about you, you, you—and photos of you, to prove your own existence—then why travel? Changing the scenery won’t change the story.

This me-me-me travel story means shocking overcrowding at trendy travel destinations, of course. Like that recent traffic jam of well-heeled world travelers on Mt. Everest. And all those tourists trampling California’s super-bloom of spring poppies, also in search of the perfect selfie.

So: What will it take to shift our travel focus away from shallow, self-absorbed accumulation—of experiences too, now, not just material goods—and toward deeper appreciation of the world beyond our own skin?

Let’s start with better information. Even Californians don’t always know how special this place is, beginning with the land itself—a landscape isolated from the rest of the world, for eons, by ocean, sky-high mountains, and endless desert. That even early explorers conceived of this place as an island is a fitting irony, because in many ways—geographically, yes, but also in the evolution of plant and animal life—California was, and still is, an island in both space and time. An island with a diversity of landforms, climate, plants, and animals found in no other state—phenomenal natural divergence and diversity.

Just consider California’s flora. The Golden State is home to more than 5,000 species of native plants—symbolized by the orange glow of the California poppy, the state flower so thoroughly trod upon during Elsinore’s recent poppy apocalypse. More than 30 percent of these trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses are endemic, found only here. The Golden State’s native animals are exceptionally diverse too, those that still survive.

“In California, things name themselves, or rather Nature names them,” observed writer Joaquin Miller, in the 1800s, “and that name is visibly written on the face of things and every man may understand who can read.”

Too many of us have forgotten how to “read” this place, or maybe never learned.  People raised on “reality” TV and pointless pronouncements from self-centered celebrities may not know any better. They may not know that life is precious, and fleeting, and miraculous beyond measure. That appreciating and celebrating this immense gift is the whole point of being here.

Up the Road says: Let’s change that. Let’s turn away from self-involved travel—from the very idea that what matters most about a destination is that fact that you just arrived—and, instead, open ourselves to the world. This one, the real one, the one that continues, with any luck, in all its wonder, whether we’re here or not.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.