The Nation's Pulse

What’s in a Vacation

There's a big difference between the sedentary Eastern and adventurous Western styles.

By 6.3.11

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Summer is soon upon us, and with it the vacation-travel season. Despite the obvious unpleasantness of high gas prices and Janet Napolitano contemplating our unmentionables, I've lately been thinking that Americans -- depending on where they reside -- have different ideas as to what a vacation is. I'm thinking East-West here.

A few years ago some eastern friends of mine came to Wyoming for a vacation. After my advising them not to, before arrival they booked a room in the same Cody motel for eight consecutive nights. Consequently, we had to be back in Cody every night and couldn't wander very far afield as I guided them through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and nearby Montana. It would have been better to travel with the night's sleeping accommodations a mystery, as the region is peppered with small towns replete with Mom and Pop motels, not to mention ubiquitous Holiday Inns and Best Westerns. Every night we closed a small loop of a couple hundred miles as we returned to Cody. My friends -- though visiting the Rockies -- are definitely what I call "beach people."

Having grown up in the Northeast, I'm familiar with the standard destination-beach-resort-summer sojourn. They were an annual staple of my youth. I remember days at the Jersey Shore where vacationing consisted of lying on the beach, frolicking in the waves, and watching small airplanes fly by towing banner advertisements for local restaurants and amusements. Evenings were spent on the boardwalk in an orgy of rides, food, silly games of chance, and salt water taffy, as we nursed that day's sunburn, then considered a healthy sign of a fun vacation.

The resorts are more upscale nowadays and found in Florida, Mexico, and Caribbean. You can cruise to them. There can be a theme park or public policy slant present. Journals of opinion now sponsor cruises in Europe, chilly Alaska, and the balmy tropics. For instance, on a cruise ship you can meet Mickey Mouse, P.J. O'Rourke or John Bolton. Chances are you won't see Mickey Mouse, P.J. O'Rourke, or John Bolton in a slot canyon in backcountry Utah. If you do you can probably blame it on bad water obtained when you filled your canteen from a spring farther back on the trail.

When it comes to their vacationing, Westerners (and by "Westerners," I also mean Californians, though it's true that the Golden State is home to millions of beach people) have always had a sense of adventure, an inherent trait rooted in the settlement of the West itself. In all aspects of their lives they have more of a transient streak than Easterners. The West is vast and the object of a vacation is to move around on it. Westerners aren't as concerned with hotel reservations as Easterners are. I never hear my Western friends going on about their timeshares. And they don't plan vacations as much as Easterners do. It's that devil-may-care spirit of adventure again. Let's just go.

Westerners fly, of course, but not as much as Easterners. I have friends who think nothing of driving (though not lately due to high gas prices) from wintry Idaho to the warmer Southwest. This is the equivalent of driving from New York to Florida, something Easterners don't do as much as they used to.

Camping is more popular out West. Westerners view roughing it as a great way to escape the stresses of everyday life. After a hard week at work, they look forward to a weekend of being cold, unshowered, and sleeping in a tent. Eastern beach folks are more concerned with creature comforts and daily personal hygiene. Easterners eat seafood in a restaurant; Westerners fry freshly caught fish on a smoky campfire that they'll smell on their clothes the next day. Though lately something called "glamping" (as in "glamorous camping") has started at a few upscale mountain resorts, notably in Montana. Glamping is camping with valet service, rustic-but-luxurious hot baths and showers, gourmet meals and a wine list. It seems to be popular with beach people on western vacations.

While Easterners are supine on the beach, Westerners are out exploring things wild, cultural and historical. Westerners are suckers for caves, entrances to old mine shafts, or the gray rotting ruins of a cabin high in the mountains. They like to soak in natural and sulphurous-smelly hot springs. And Westerners like to collect things: rocks, old bottles, deer and elk antlers, and stone-like pieces of petrified wood. Other than picking up shells on the beach, Easterners gather their souvenirs in retail tourist shops because they are enamored of shopping more than Westerners. Western tourist towns certainly understand this, as their Main Streets are increasingly seen to cater to the whims of visiting beach folks. The locals shop at Walmart.

For me, the epitome of the Western traveler is my friend and fellow TAS contributor Happy Jack Feder (HJF). To say that HJF has a travel modus operandi is a stretch. For example, he doesn't own a watch. His car -- a venerable Toyota Corolla -- is always a mess, as HJF is fond of impromptu side-of-the-road camping. He avoids standard Forest Service campgrounds with potable water and vault toilets, and the nominal fee, of course. HJF spends hours hiking, napping, reading, or otherwise wasting travel time with odd diversions in the middle of nowhere. If he's due in town for a visit and tells me that he'll arrive in the late afternoon or evening, he'll probably show up at two or three the following morning.

I have a hard time envisioning HJF having his picture taken with Mickey Mouse on the deck of a cruise ship. Fred Barnes? Jonah Goldberg? Possibly.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.