Should Tourism, Like Charity, Begin At Home?
Last summer my grown son and I took a two-week R.V. road trip to Mount Rushmore. The area is a sightseeing paradise and I loved every foot of the 3,000 miles round trip from San Andreas to the Black Hills. According to Statista, on online research outfit, tourism added 1.5 trillion to our GNP in 2015 and is projected to add 2.6 trillion dollars to the economy by 2027. As with anything with that many zeroes attributed, some bad comes with the good. For me, travel offers wonderful educational opportunities and this journey did exactly that.
We started on I-80 and endured the heat of Nevada through Salt Lake City and beyond. We stayed at campgrounds like the Wind Caves, the Badlands, a dry camping site in the Black Hills halfway between the Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments. My son being an accomplished home brewer, we even devoted one day to taste-testing the products of three micro-breweries in Hill City before an obligatory, if disappointing, visit to a very commercialized Deadwood. Devil’s Tower was a must-see and so was the northern route home to avoid a repeat of the Nevadan heat. Heading west, I saw a long line of RVs on a hill and a light bulb went off; we had to be close to the Little Big Horn. Surprise, those RVs were waiting to get into the park honoring Custer’s fatal battle. That monument to folly was a jewel.
The plan had been to also dodge Redding’s heat by taking a right at Grant’s Pass. We almost got stranded there because the hills nearby were on fire. A different forest fire was threatening Redding. Enduring sad flashbacks of our own Butte Fire, I dropped my son off in Sonoma County and drove the R.V. home so we could both rest up. Vacations are usually busy times.
The impressions of our trip that linger with me are not brochures you’ll find on a travel kiosk. We drove for days and saw nothing but wide-open spaces and big sky. That’s not a bad thing unless you distrust the Electoral College, but I digress. Once we got past Salt Lake City what struck me most was what appeared to be a million rolls of hay. I’m used to rectangular bales. Research tells me that the rolls are for local consumption. The block variety is easier to stack and transport. That meant there had to be a huge amount of local cattle somewhere in the expanse. Ditto on the coal mining operations because we also saw endless trainloads of coal. Like the cattle, the extraction operations were off the main roads, but it was obviously a thriving industry. Later I found out that Wyoming’s #1 ranked production of coal is almost triple that of West Virginia. Surprise.
When we finally saw a windmill farm on the bluffs above the Columbia River, I was shocked to realize that during all the spaces of Nevada, Utah, South Dakota and Wyoming and Montana, we never saw any evidence of alternative power sources. We saw lots of snow drift fencing and miles of roadwork cones preparing the roads for more tourism, but zero solar installations.
I see some similarities with Calaveras County. Ranching and tourism are its primary industries and a quarter of its citizens are retired. Still, there are more solar installations in my neighborhood than we saw on our circuitous journey. Recreational vehicles abound and there is a constant ebb and flow of local and distant travelers making the hard pull up mountain ranges in gas-guzzling vehicles their drivers hope will at least get double digit in miles per gallon. Most do not.
It’s an old argument; do we restrict travel to protect what people pay good money to see? Do we kill an industry just to save it? I remember the howls when Yosemite toyed with the idea of making visitors hike into the park. Do we continue to let the methane from countless doomed food animals rise to mingle with the fire smoke and the exhaust from airplanes hauling tourists which is already choking our atmosphere? Our southern neighbors are rapidly turning life-supporting rain forests into pastures for more cattle to feed for our unhealthy fast food industry. The economy is booming right now but is ever volatile. Should we borrow from the defense budget to feed and house people? Should travel, like charity, begin at home? Can we afford to not ask such questions?
Yes, the world is a paradise, every fragile corner worthy of our protection. We just can’t keep kicking the can down the road, myself included. Or, to extend the metaphor, we can’t keep driving carbon spewing tin houses on wheels into the sunset forever or we will soon witness mankind’s last sunset.