It’s that time of year again. I can’t ride my bike around the lake anymore without the worry of a passing RV clipping my shoulder. The trails are pulverized into a dusty soup from the pack station’s industrial-style business model. Traffic on our tiny main drag slows to a crawl. Shrieks and howls emit from the bars. The tourists are back.
I’ve lived in all sorts of towns in my gypsy life, from inside national park boundaries to small island resorts to towns hanging on by their fingernails. It’s easy to tell the difference between the places where people visit and the ones they pass by. In southeast Alaska, the ports the cruise ships passed by struggled; the ones with regular visitors had vibrant coffee shops and events. Tourism is the driving wheel for most of the places I’ve lived.
Yet there’s always an uneasy bipolar attitude among the locals. They know that tourists are needed, but they kind of…hate them. Not hate individually, of course. It’s more of an all purpose hatred. Maybe hatred is too strong, although I lived in one town where, stubbornly, every business, even the gas station, buttoned up at five pm on Sundays, oblivious to the traffic passing through, desperate for food and services. “We live here,” went the rant. “These people think of it as their playground!”
Maybe it’s more of a begrudging tolerance. As a local, now, I certainly get fed up with the non-turn-signal-using, trash-in-fire-ring leaving folks who cluelessly start out on a trail and need to be rescued from lack of preparation. Not that they are all like this, of course. I actually like to come upon tourists in the wilderness, because our wilderness needs people. Slashed budgets mean we have no trail crew this year, and tourists are the ones who will carry the concerns to Congress, not the locals, who will instead storm the Forest Service office to threaten and complain (trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end). The tourists, who don’t take the wilderness for granted, because they come from concrete places, are the ones who might help the wilderness survive.
When I’ve suggested ideas to make this place more attractive to winter tourists, looks of horror spread across faces. “No way!” they scream. “Then this place would be just like (insert name of popular ski town here).” I can understand, because I have lived in towns that became increasingly difficult to live in as tourists bought up land and built second homes, relegating the service industry workers to further and further commuting. But I also see how we are losing a demographic. Try to find twenty to thirty year olds here and you will have a hard time of it. There just aren’t any jobs. You can’t make a living off the three months of the year that we are open for tourists.
It’s Friday and we watch uneasily from our table at the brew pub as they stream in, RVs and ATVs and power boats. The lake swarms with jet skiers, unsafe for kayaking unless we hug the shore. People jaywalk the streets, oblivious. They park in our driveways. In many ways, we all want our town back, just for us.
Then again, I’ve lived in desperate hovels of towns where people sped through, looks of dismay on their faces. Nobody wanted to stop there. Unfriendly faces greeted them in the gas station; one guy liked driving his pickup through town, adorned with a plow spray-painted “Tourists Go Home.” I’ll take the tourists over the closed minds anytime.
So I adjust my bike riding routes. I sprint up the trails to beat the pack trains. I avoid the popular lake basins. Do I always like it? No. I grumble with the rest of them. In the end, though, there is something great about living in a place people save up their vacation days to visit. I’ll deal with tourist season for the short time we have them here.