selfie(ish) nation

rocky ridge
Before the fire: At the top of the Soberanes/Rocky Ridge loop in Garrapata State Park

Last night I dreamed I was in Big Sur, and the fire that’s been burning for more than two weeks (in waking life) was closing in. I could see big plumes of smoke just over the hills and hear the crackle of burning brush. It was terrifying.

When I woke up this morning, I found out Big Sur was placed under mandatory evacuation at 3:15AM, from the lighthouse to the canyon between Nepenthe and Deetjen’s. Rumor is they’re going to close Highway 1 at Bixby Bridge today.

When the fire first started and we learned the point of origin was just off the Soberanes Canyon trail, one of the busiest trails in the area, we immediately knew the cause. Tourists. I recently wrote in this blog about the issues Big Sur is having with tourists. They flock to the area by the carload, stopping at points along the way to grab a selfie. You can see them as you drive down the coast–dozens of people at every major turnout with their backs to some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, their eyes focused on a view they find much more precious: themselves. They leave their trash in the turnouts, run across the highway without looking, park like assholes and treat this untamed land like it’s disposable.

Last week, the official cause of the fire was released. It was an illegal, unattended campfire in Soberanes Canyon. This area is part of Garrapata State Park, and there’s no camping–and certainly no campfires–allowed. Not that it matters to selfie nation. Selfie nation feels entitled to do whatever it takes to get the best image of themselves for a few fleeting likes on Instagram or Facebook. If that means going a bit off a trail to build a fire near a waterfall and then leaving that fire to burn out by itself, so what.

Only this fire didn’t burn out by itself. It’s burned more than 55,000 acres (about 86 square miles), destroyed nearly 60 homes and led to one death. It’s caused all parks in Big Sur to close, impacted the livelihoods of businesses/employees who count on all those tourist dollars at the busiest time of the year and jacked the air quality for all of us.

I hope Big Sur makes it through okay and the losses don’t keep piling up, all because of  selfie(ish) people who thought the rules didn’t apply to them. At least they can’t post the awesome picture I’m sure they took of themselves around that fire. For selfie nation, that’s almost as bad as jail time.

“If I don’t post a picture of it, it didn’t happen.” The new version of, “I think, therefore I am.”

For more about the fire, including lots of dramatic images, Big Sur Kate’s blog has the latest. She reports things before the media does. It’s 9AM here, and still nothing from local media about this evacuation.

a plan for the future

IMG_0600Should I have the privilege of living to a ripe old age, I anticipate having to work until 70 before tapping into retirement benefits that may or may not exist by 2040. If I continue making my living by writing, that means another 24 years spent sitting at a desk, staring at a lighted box and type-type-typing the day away.

This is assuming my mind stays sharp, and someone is willing to pay me for whatever it is I’m writing about.

As jobs go, I’m pretty lucky. I love words and have always been a writer. But sometimes I have the fantasy of freedom. Of selling everything, getting a rolling home and moving from one beautiful state or national park to another with James and the dogs, picking up odd jobs that keep gas in the tank and food on the table.

Even in this fantasy, I know I’d find myself craving a home rooted in the ground. A place with a bathtub. Something with a view and room to grow food and flowers. But I wouldn’t want to be saddled with a 30-year mortgage, so I’d need to take a non-traditional approach to finding a permanent place. Which I think I’ve figured out.

A commune.

But not just any commune.

A special one.

Here’s the appeal of the commune concept. A group of like-minded people pool their resources to buy a big piece of land upon which they each have their own small home. They share chores–like keeping the garden, tending to the chickens, feeding the livestock. If there are children (which there won’t be in this scenario because we’ll all be old), the adults share parenting responsibilities.

This all sounds idyllic and lovely to me except for one thing–all those people. Can’t you just hear the screen doors creaking and slamming all day as people come and go in each others’ homes? The chortles of laughter in the garden since it’s weed-pullin’ day and everyone participates? The good-natured ribbing about how Jeremy doesn’t know how to make good coffee from people standing around on his porch holding their mugs with both hands as little puffs of coffee steam rise in their faces?

It’s not that I don’t like people. I do. I just don’t want to be around them all the time. Which brings me to the way this commune will be different.

It’s a commune…for introverts. A non-communal commune.

Same deal as described above. Garden. Screen doors. Coffee. Porch. The difference is, no one really hangs out at each others’ houses or shows up unexpectedly. There’s one communal area where you can go when you want to be social or need to discuss who’s not pulling enough weeds, but other areas are treated like a typical urban neighborhood. A friendly, non-committal wave in the morning, maybe a comment about the weather, then go back inside.

Anyone interested? There will also be wifi.


don’t be a tourist

James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. On weekends, traffic makes it almost impassable, which really sucks for the poor bastards who live along the road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can't handle the traffic.
James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can’t handle the traffic.

A newborn bison was euthanized Monday because a couple of tourists in Yellowstone thought it would be a good idea to give the little feller a ride in their warm SUV (it was cold outside), causing the mom and rest of the herd to later reject it.

Tourists reaching the end of the Appalachian Trail are behaving so badly, the park is considering moving the end point to something a little less Instagram-ready in hopes of preserving nature.

A tourist was gored by a bison in Yellowstone while posing for a selfie just a few feet away from it. And a group of tourists who own a clothing store in Canada were just charged with violating Yellowstone’s rules for going off trail with their cameras to capture themselves near a beautiful spring. (Yellowstone seems to make tourists crazy. Or stupid.)

Last year, selfie deaths outpaced shark attacks for number of fatalities.

Heavy tourism is causing major damage to beautiful places around the world.

In California, Muir Woods has gotten so crowded the National Park Service has asked tourists to stop coming.

Key word for all these stories: tourists. Not travelers. Tourists. Tourists are people who bang and clang their way into a situation with no regard for where they are. Instead of Hawaiian shirts, bermuda shorts and socks + sandals, today’s annoying tourists are identified by the smartphones blocking their view. They’ll do anything for a great selfie or epic vacation pic. Going off trail. Getting too close to wild animals. Walking past numerous signs warning of danger or imploring them to respect nature. Thinking the rules of good behavior are for all those other people, people who aren’t as special as they are.

The biggest problem? Everyone thinks they’re special.

We see it every time we head to Big Sur. Tourists are crammed into every turnout or darting across the road without looking, many even leaving their cars partially on the highway while they glance at the breathtaking view then quickly turn their backs on it to take a picture of their stupid faces.

If you manage to find a turnout with room for your car, don’t look down when you get out. Since Big Sur is very rustic, there are few bathrooms to be had. So intrepid tourists are just letting ‘er rip in the turnouts, leaving their soiled toilet paper (probably napkins from the McDonald’s they had on the way down) on the ground along with their waste.

Here in the Monterey Bay, tourists in kayaks keep getting too close to wildlife, routinely trying to lure otters onto their vessels so they can take a picture. “Getting close to the locals!” the caption will say. Thumbs up, asshole.

As a glance to the right of this post might suggest, I take a lot of pictures that I then share on Instagram. I love being in a beautiful place or seeing something funny and sharing it with my family and friends. And I enjoy being able to look back through my posts to be reminded of the good times or mundane moments I chose to capture.

So I understand why tourists want to get that shot with the wind in their hair and the Bixby Bridge in the background. I get why they want to go off-trail in Muir Woods to find a green, quiet spot away from all the other tourists. I’m sure a bison that’s small enough to pick up and put in your car is incredibly cute (and makes for an awesome Facebook post). But in the quest to document how amazing these places are, these places are being ruined.

This isn’t just handwringing or pearl-clutching. There are demonstrable bad results from ill-behaved tourists. Emergency vehicles are having a hard time navigating side roads in Big Sur because tourists have literally blocked them with their shittily parked cars. On my favorite trail, tourists who don’t want to do the hard work of descending down the steep, sandy path keep walking in the grass on the sides of it, causing trail creep. In some places, the trail has grown as wide as a road instead of being as wide as your shoulders. Tourists are driving back roads and setting up camp where they please, leaving piles of poop and smoldering fires in their wake. Guess they think their moms are going to clean up after them?

The world needs more travelers and fewer tourists. Staying on the trail doesn’t mean you’re that trail’s bitch–it means you respect nature and want to preserve it for other people to enjoy long after the glow from your potentially awesome off-trail selfie has faded. It means if there’s no parking at the place you’d planned to stop, you continue adventuring on down the road–you don’t double-park with your rental car hanging its ass out on the highway. It means you need to stay at your hotel and drink coffee until you’ve done your morning business, you don’t drop trou in a turnout and leave a mess for the next person who comes along.

It means picking up your trash, not having fires when there’s a burn ban, letting wild animals stay wild, not climbing up or down something you aren’t capable of getting back down/up without having to be rescued, turning down your iTunes when you’re on a trail other people are using and realizing that everyone is special–thus, no one is special. We’re all hurtling through space on the same rock.

Let us be travelers, not tourists.