Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Wiki Vacation

Last year, the state of Michigan, despite being hit as hard as any state in the union by the economic downturn, spent $10 million to buy ad time on national cable networks to entice tourists to come visit the Wolverine State. The state legislature allocated another $18 million total in their marketing budget, including over one million just to produce a series of ads.

It's interesting to consider why people choose their vacation destinations. Obviously, the geographical locations of family and friends is paramount in many people's decisions. Beyond that, specific hobbies and recreational interests are often integral in choosing where to go. I've visited Hibbing, Minnesota and Metropolis, Illinois in recent years, two locations that are of little appeal to someone who isn't already interested in Bob Dylan and Superman, respectively. And for some people, timeshares or tradition may play a role in how they determine where to spend their time or dollars. But does anyone see a TV commercial and decide, "Hey I need to go to Michigan this summer"?

One thing that I've never heard anybody say is "I need to take a vacation that will allow me to discover America." If someone were to utter such a thing, I would expect there is a good chance she or he would be laughed at. But for a good chunk of the 20th century, the Romantic idea of traveling for the sake of traveling, making a Kerouac-inspired road trip to get in touch with both the world and oneself, was an idea that celebrated in our culture.

Maybe this is a concept worth revisiting. I propose that at least once in a lifetime, every American should make a pilgrimage to another part of America for reasons not based on relationships, interests, or TV ads, but rather, for no reason whatsoever. Let the journey not the destination be the reward, and be open to spontaneous discovery. Of course, one should drive instead of fly, and follow country roads and state highways rather than Interstates wherever possible. Let Ichabod and Mr. Toad be your guide as you go "merrily, merrily, merrily, on your way to nowhere."

Still, we do need some kind of destination, if for no other reason than we have to know when to turn around and come back home. But I assert that this destination should be as random as possible. And the best way I know to achieve this is to use the random page generator on Wikipedia. Keep on hitting it until an American municipality comes up, and this becomes your vacation destination. I just attempted this three times and came up with these locations (which probably aren't covered by a tourism campaign):

1. Elk Falls Township, Kansas. Population 196. You could probably meet a significant percentage of the population. How many people who go to Las Vegas can make this claim? You could visit Mount Olivet cemetery, and maybe wade through South Fork Wildcat Creek. If I went to this township, I would try to track down the site of the school that Miss Dora Simmons taught at in 1870 (which I know about thanks to Google digitizing a 1912 book about Kansas history).

2. Hopkins Park, Illinois. Population 711. A rural community where nearly half the community lives below the poverty line, but they sport a nifty website detailing redevelopment plans. It seems that Octoberfest might be the best time of the year to visit.

3. South Branch, New Jersey. Part of Hillsborough Township, population 36,634. The Wikipedia page is taken verbatim from the Township website, which proclaims that the community was settled by the Dutch in 1750, with the Narticong Tribe of Native Americans living there before then. Diamond Jim Brady built a house for his mistress there.

I'm thinking that hitting up these three locations by car would enable anyone to learn more about their country, and probably more about him or herself, and would probably be a more fulfilling vacation than golfing or sitting on a beach. Hopefully in a few years I'll be able to pursue such a trip myself. If nothing else, such an endeavor should give me something to blog about. And maybe I could get a cut of a state's marketing budget.


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