We’re still getting flack in the comments on our posts about cities that didn’t resonate with us: Austin, Salt Lake City, Savannah, Provo, the Salton Sea, Portland. The intense anger that others feel, just from knowing that two people — two strangers whom they probably wouldn’t like anyway — didn’t like their city continues to strike me as odd. This passage from The Best American Travel Writing (2000 edition), by editor and travel writer Jason Wilson, states it best:
“The misperception is that the travel book is about a country,” Paul Theroux once told me. “It’s really about the person who’s traveling.” Travel stories are necessarily told in the first person. This point of view is one of their strengths, and where the importance always lies. Great travel writing is guided by a strong voice that is not afraid to take a stand. The writer’s biases and misperceptions are also paraded before the reader, for they create a context for the writer’s hard-won insights about a place. There’s little attempt at a supposed objectivity. One of the important messages of a good travel piece is, This is my trip and no one else’s.
Still, for some reason, I feel the need to explain some of my biases, misperceptions, and questions.
Thanks to my extended family and past personal relationships, I have a deep fear of civic group-think, especially when it comes to organized religion. I shut down when I feel like someone is telling me what I should believe or how I should live my life. This is a bias of which I am fully aware but doubt I’ll ever be able to change. Sometimes the group-think is obvious — like in places like Salt Lake City or Provo. Sometimes it’s less obvious, more insidious, in places like Portland or Austin, which have their own kind of religious group-think. Unquestioned belief makes me nervous, just like being in a country where I don’t speak the language makes me nervous. It takes time to overcome this nervousness, time we sometimes don’t want to commit.
What is our responsibility to a place? Independent, free travelers that we are, are we morally required to stay in a place until we figure out how we can make ourselves like it? Or, barring any limitations, are we better off moving on and finding another place we like better? Over the past year, we always opted to move on, understanding what we were doing and accepting our potential misperceptions for what they were. Besides, if we liked every single place we visited, wouldn’t that then make our recommendations less impactful?
It likely will not be the last time we’re in any of these places — for one, my love of the Utah countryside will bring me back to Salt Lake City at some point. If you disagree with a post — on this site, or on any site — and feel compelled to provide feedback, the most valuable feedback you can provide is insight into what we (or others) missed. What makes the city work for you? How can a traveler understand the things that make you love your hometown? What are your favorite trails, markets, museums, bars, coffee shops, restaurants? Give us the tools to change our opinions. If we ever find ourselves in these places again, we’ll thank you for making the experience more enjoyable.
Again, from Jason Wilson:
…Perhaps travel writing’s foremost lesson is this: we may never walk this way again, and even if we do, we will never be the same people as we are right now. Most important, the world we move through will never be the same place again.