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.

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.

a white girl’s experiences with the police

I spent the entirety of the 1990s bartending for a living. The nature of the job–plus the active social life of someone in her 20s–meant I was often driving home at 3 or 4 in the morning. Most of my interactions with the police happened during that period, often late at night. And I realize my experiences were very much shaped by who I am. White. Middle class. Female. A “non-threat.”

Anecdote A (I’m a jerk):
There was a problem with a taillight on my car. I kept replacing the bulb, but the light kept shorting out. I was heading home after a night out and didn’t know my light was out again. I was pulled over. Not by HPD–I think it was a constable.

It was late. After the bars closed. He came up to my window and said, “Did you know your taillight is out?” to which I replied, “Yes. I leave it like that so I can meet cute cops in the middle of the night.” (editor’s note: This was totally out of character, and I still have no idea why I said that.)

He laughed, we shot the shit for a while and I mentioned where I worked. A locals hangout that was on his patrol route. When I reached for my glovebox to grab a business card, I didn’t get shot or yelled at or treated with suspicion. Instead, he took the card and began stopping by to check on me when he was on the night shift, either idling in front of the bar or coming inside for a Coke.

Anecdote B (the cop is a jerk):
Putting gas in my car after a shift. It was probably 3:30 in the morning. I saw a cruiser sweep through the gas station but didn’t really pay attention to it. I left, the cop followed me. I drove carefully, not too fast/too slow, but I still got pulled over.

I knew I’d done nothing wrong. I was tired but not drunk. “Why did you pull me over?” I asked as I handed him my license. He stood there staring at my license and asking questions. What was I doing? Where had I been? Did I have a boyfriend? (Uh oh) I realized this aggressive man with a gun–and my license in his hand–was maybe going to be a problem. I sat there and talked to that asshole for 45 minutes because I was afraid to be confrontational. When we realized we knew some of the same people, he ended the conversation and I went home. I didn’t get gas after work anymore.

Now this is the difference between youth and middle age. I would handle that second situation very differently now that I’m full grown. And I think I would have handled it differently then if it had been the 10th or 50th time I’d gotten pulled over for no reason on my way home from work. I would have grown less and less accommodating, eventually reaching the point where I’d want to hop out of the car at the first sign of blue and red lights and say, “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT? Just leave me alone.” And I probably would have gotten a pat on the head in response.

I get to live my life as a non-threat. To have the opportunity to charm my way out of a ticket. To be in a dicey situation with a cop and still go home, unscathed. To be inappropriate, and not pay the price for it.

yes, that's a little bottle of scotch

My white male friends have different stories. And my brown and black friends have really different stories. Dave Chappelle has different stories (here he talks about how cops treat his white friend Chip. Spoiler alert: differently than they treat Dave).

The truth is, some of us have more to fear than others. And that’s a big problem.