Being There

Myrtle Beach does not exist.

Myrtle Beach is in fact a copy of a place that does not exist.

Nearly everything in Myrtle Beach is a paltry derivative of some original form. For instance, most of the country has golf courses, in Myrtle Beach there are endless rows of putt-putt courses complete with sewage treatment blue waterfalls and variety of kitschy themes.

Myrtle Beach, SC Spring Break 2007, image by Curtis and Eric, flickr CCAnd where most towns attempt to draw in big name musical acts for their tourist venues, Myrtle Beach is content with impersonators, which can be found on any given night at any number of lounge venues hacking through pastiches of everything from Prince and Justin Timberlake, to a mock Grand Ol’ Opry. Myrtle Beach, SC putt puttBut I refer to Myrtle Beach as a copy of a place that doesn’t exist because on some level Myrtle Beach is just an imitation Vegas. But Las Vegas has already begun its transformation from imitator of itself to imitator of the world. Just consider the themed hotel resorts — The Venetian with its canals, The Luxor with its Egyptian theme and of course New York-New York — all of which are geared toward recreating aspects of other places together in one easy to reach spot.

Call it real-world virtual tourism.

The cynical take, for those of us that enjoy traveling to the actual destinations, is “hey, it keeps the annoying tourists out of the real locations.” And while I refuse to wholly give in to that notion, I nevertheless admit its appeal.

It is tempting for travelers to sit back and criticize your typical American, British or German on holidayGondola at the Venetian - Las Vegas (since those are in my experience the greatest offenders in this category) as if the traveler had somehow earned the right to be there — by virtue of, let’s face it, our own invented self-superiority — which simply isn’t true.

When I was younger I saw a movie, The Man From Snowy River which is set in Australia and involves a sort of feud between high country and low country dwellers (among other things). Both sides are snobs toward the other, the low country folk are rich and land holding while the inhabitants of the high country are mainly poor, but work the actual land — a fairly typical dichotomy in the western world circa 1900.

In the film Kirk Douglas plays an old wizened high country dweller who at one point tells the young protagonist, who is caught between the two worlds, “you have to earn the right to live up here.”

And that’s a tempting philosophy to cling to, but it has some problems. For one thing, at what point have you earned the right to live there? Who decides what is necessary to earn the right to live there? And the list goes on.

Still, anyone who’s been up to the top of an Angkor Wat temple to watch the sun set knows the appeal of the notion that perhaps, just to cut down on the crowds you understand, perhaps there ought to be some sort of trial in which you have to earn the right to be there. Everyone but you and I of course.

However, despite recognizing the inherent hypocrisy in the notion of earning the right to be anywhere, there is, I believe, a fundamental difference between a tourist for whom Myrtle Beach is an appealing destination, and, well, the rest of us.

“Traveler” is the suitably generic term I use to distinguish those who are not simply tourists passing through in air-con comfort. But the real difference between a tourist and traveler is philosophical.

A tourist attempts to see a destination much in the way we watch an enjoyable television program — peacefully and without too great of discomfort. Their philosophy (as I understand it from observing them) is to actually see a destination with their own eyes, rather than simply watch or read of it.

These individuals recognize that just watching Rick Steves’ thirty minute tours on PBS is not the same as actually walking through the Piazza San Marco in Venice — but that’s as far as they are willing to go. God forbid the air-con fail or the drinks lack ice. Piazza San MarcoFor this sort of approach to travel (and let me just say that I don’t think everyone on a package tour is necessarily that shallow) the imitation destinations like Myrtle Beach or Las Vegas are ideal.

The images dancing before your eyes are after all, at least on some level, virtual.

Thus the tourist’s expectations are largely met in a virtual destination — very little danger, the water is drinkable, the sights damn near the same and there’s ice in the drinks.

On the other hand, travelers don’t generally seem to be content with just seeing. There is a more full frontal approach if you will.

And for those that enjoy small children throwing up on them on crowded buses, accept dysentery as part of price to be paid for the joy of the foreign and who welcome the dodgy food, the suspect ice, the insects, the garbage, the poverty and all the other experiences which, for better or worse make up world travel, there still remains, well, the world.Which is why there’s an international airport near you — even in Myrtle Beach.

[None of the above photos are mine, click individual images for details]


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