The search for the road less traveled leads to the end of authenticity.
If you’re sailing from Europe, as the English explorers did in the 16th century, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are just about the first piece of the New World you run into. But if you’re driving from New York City 400 years later, they seem very out of the way Ocracoke, the southernmost inhabited barrier island and our vacation destination this year, is roughly two hours from the middle of nowhere. That, of course, is its charm. What better escape than a quaint fishing village of 600 souls, so isolated that its 20th century inhabitants are said to still speak with the Elizabethan accents of their colonial ancestors?
What we found once we got there was not a quaint fishing village but a Quainte Fishing Village. For centuries, virtually the only visitors to this oceanwracked sandbar were shipwreck survivors; today, about 250,000 people take the ferries to Ocracoke in season. Shops selling T-shirts and sea shells ring the harbor, restaurants with upscale pretensions compete with the beach bars and crab shacks, and the artists, massage therapists and eco-hippies have moved in. One can still see the remains of the old village under the vacation real estate–thanks to the vagaries of geography, transportation and politics, Ocracoke’s touristification is fairly recent–but the island’s culture has turned out to be as fragile as its ecology. Even the famous Ocracoke dialect has disappeared under the influence of top 40 radio and cable TV.
We weren’t really surprised. After all, if Ocracoke were still a remote island community, you wouldn’t find New York Jews like us there. So while Ocracoke’s empty beaches and moonlit waters were fully up to the standards of a Norwegian Cruise Line commercial, I couldn’t help but feel a little distressed in ocean paradise. I was caught in tourism’s Heisenberg principle, which holds that you can never experience the reality of another way of life, because in the very act of observing it, you change it. This beautiful, remote island was a reminder of the impossibility of getting away
Not that people have stopped trying. The melancholy of tourism may well be the force that has made travel one the hottest sectors of our burgeoning leisure and entertainment economy An ever-expanding global consumer culture has put a premium on those rare spots whose environments are “natural” or cultures “authentic.” That’s what made the architecturally intact cities of Eastern Europe (now tourist traps) so appealing and the African safari the status vacation of choice (now old hat). The super-premium niche of the travel business has boomed as the well-to-do ransack every corner of the earth in search of an escape from the very forces from which their wealth is created. And for those without the money or time for exotic travel, a different kind of underdevelopment, the sort that has turned fabled Route 66 into a tourist attraction, is in the making. These towns, condemned to economic oblivion when the interstate passed them by, now hope to cash in on the very fact that development left them behind.
Or check out Newton County in the Ozarks. Certainly Newton is unspoiled. The poorest county in Arkansas (its roads were first paved in the 1960s), it is filled with desolate hollows and old, hand-hewn log cabins without plumbing. Today in Newton, that relic of the War on Poverty, the Volunteers in Service to America, is training the locals as tour guides. For a fee, they will teach Ozark tourists the secrets of subsistence living (a subject on which they are apparently expert). Who would have thought in VISTA’s early days that the key to combating poverty was not, over time, education or jobs? Who would have guessed that poverty’s most exploitable resource would be poverty itself, reborn as a tourist attraction for those seeking to escape development?
Newton County is not that different from Ocracoke 30 years ago, when it, too, had a subsistence economy, and its “unspoiled” culture would surely share Ocracoke’s fate if it ever succeeded at the tourist game. That’s the problem with underdevelopment; like fossil fuels, it’s a limited, non-renewable resource.
Ultimately, there may be but one refuge from the melancholy of tourism. We passed it on the way down to Ocracoke, off Virginia’s I-295, nestled in the very hills Disney coveted for its thwarted Civil War theme park: Colonial Williamsburg. This three-dimensional replica offers something the Ocracokes cannot: a chance to see and experience a truly other way of life. It is the cultural equivalent of a wildlife preserve, historically accurate because it is outside of history, authentic because it is counterfeit. While Ocracoke can only claim to be the fake real thing, Colonial Williamsburg is the real fake thing. Which may be as close to authenticity as late 20th century tourists are going to get.