Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Being a Travel Writer

I love history, I actually love to research (I can't help myself), and I love fieldwork (aka touring, road tripping, and trespassing). I see public history as a way to be able to do all of those things and even earning a living while doing it. To a certain extent, I toy with the notion of becoming a travel writer. When that comes up in conversation, someone invariably says, "Seriously, how does someone get a gig like that?"

While getting a job as a historian or cultural resources manager is still at the top of my priority list, I recently dipped my metaphorical toe in the heritage travel writing pool. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has started a Heritage Travel division. To get their website off of the ground, they've been inviting people to submit reviews of historic destinations. I believe that I saw their booth at the Tennessee Governor's Conference on Tourism this past September, and I know that I saw their booth at the most recent Trust meeting in Tulsa. I simply saw that they were asking for reviews and I'm sure that I heard something at the time about a contest, but I honestly didn't give it much thought. I put in a couple of reviews of places that I like to travel to, take guests to, and places where I am a repeat visitor.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I got an email out of the blue from Heritage Travel saying that my review had won the contest. I had just gotten in from my morning walk and my morning participation in a Wii Fit study (it's nice to know people in the Recreation & Leisure Department who need test subjects), and I thought that I was dehydrated and wasn't reading the email correctly. So, I loudly proclaimed that I needed a drink, left my desk in a huff (much to the confusion of my coworkers) and got myself a glass of juice. After reading it again and having other people read it, I filled out the forms and started to come to terms with the result of writing a decent review of a heritage destination.

Heritage Travel just sent out a press release and made a post on their blog about me winning their contest. I confess, that I am the one who submitted that silly picture. I tend not to like being in front of the camera, and when I do, then I overcome my discomfort by really hamming it up. The picture is actually of me posing behind a mellowing vat at the Jack Daniel's Distillery on one of my many tours of the site (they do a corporate tour like no other). The only picture of me in Winchester happened to be one where I was wearing a bag of ice on my head (don't ask), so I opted for something fun but not too over the top (there were several other options that I disqualified).

Me soaking up the smells at Jack Daniel's Distillery.

This is what I did with my free time when attending OAH in Manhattan in 2008, but I will not repeat this pose for any press releases on the Trust's theater tour. Inappropriate for a press release, but totally fitting for a blog.

I doubt that this bit of success will swing wide the doors into the world of travel writing, but it was nice to get such a great compliment of my writing (of which I am fairly insecure and overly self critical). It was just the boost I needed to dig back into my dissertation. So at the end of October, I will be doing a tour of New York's theater heritage thanks to the National Trust. I will be fully armed with a camera and will most certainly be writing about that adventure here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mapping Context

I love maps. Always have. I have a profound aversion to using GPS devices on my road trips, much to the consternation of fellow travelers. I like using maps as a puzzle solving device and looking at the terrain to see if it matches what I'm looking at with the map. I see them as a tool for exploration and a way to provide additional context and richness to my adventures.

While I tend to complain about doing demographic and statistical research for my scholarly endeavors, once I am well into it I am stunned at the pictures those numbers create. But what I love more are seeing the ways that those numbers can create a literal picture in a graph or a map. Even when I pull numbers from something like the census, I always look for a mapping option because the full weight of the numbers doesn't hit me until I see it in picture form.

We were talking about ancestry at work the other day and so I immediately went to go print out the ancestry demographics map from the last census and we had a great time talking about different aspects of it (it's an office full of historians so we have odd tastes in entertainment). So in light of that, I thought that I would share some of my maps of choice.

For most of these maps, you can get them directly from the source: the US Census. But their website is a bit difficult to navigate, so when I'm using maps just for conversation, I tend to just google them and make sure that they look right. When I'm printing out a report, then I go get it directly from the Census (and don't forget the Historical Census Browser)...but for blogging purposes, let's go the informal route.

For a quick view of what is out there, one blog has compiled most of the really intriguing census maps in one place. What they also include, though, are the religious maps. The Glenmary Research Center (located in Nashville, TN) compiles and maps out the religious data that comes from the Census. Despite being a Catholic organization, they compile information on all faith groups.

The Bible Belt should perhaps change its name to the Baptist Belt.

Even though Glenmary creates these maps, the best place to browse them is actually from a website operated by Valparaiso University: American Ethnic Geography. There are several things that I love about this map. One thing is that you get a real feel for why religion in the American South is so different. Another is that despite Glenmary being Catholic, they are located in the middle of the Baptist heartland. When people move to Tennessee, they initially think that I am joking when I tell them that many people here don't think of Catholicism as being Christian. But after a look at this map, you can start to understand why that situation has evolved.

While they do not differentiate between the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ (they split in 1906 and now bear very little resemblance to one another), you can clearly see that out in the midst of Baptist Country, there are two Church of Christ strongholds in Tennessee. Those areas happen to be where Freed Hardeman and David Lipscomb campuses are (Church of Christ universities for those not in the know).

Now, when you look at this map and then compare it to the ancestry map, there's a whole different level of information.

Who are your people?

When I first saw this map, I was shocked at the number of people who claim German as their primary ancestry (granted, this is self reported). When you compare the two maps, you see that the German Catholics and the Hispanics account for the large number of Catholic areas in the country. The reason why I was first looking for this map, though was as part of a discussion about why Southerners tend not to celebrate their European roots (I was trying to find a Robert Burns Supper for my grandparents to attend while they visited us in Tennessee and they were shocked that there were none nearby). I'd read an article talking about how the number of people who simply identified themselves as "American" had risen with this past census and that geographically, those people tended to live in the South.

There's a whole host of reasons for this. I could posit that because the South did not experience a great deal of impact from the waves of immigration in our history, the ancestry wars that took place in other parts of the country (people tend to strongly cling to what makes them different and separate when a new group moves in and supposedly "challenges" the status quo). The real battle in the South, until recent Hispanic immigration, has been about whether you are black or you are white. Also, when you take into account the Civil War and dynamics of how people must psychologically deal with a failed revolution (Are we traitors? Are we real Americans?), I think that the need to prove your loyalty by identifying yourself as American takes on a whole new meaning (although, I wonder if "Southern" were an option what people would pick).

But when you look back at the demographics of the American South, you see that while there are a bunch of "Americans," the legacy of Deep South slavery is still present on our landscape. To further that point, this is a map that I found at the US Census website when I was compiling a marketing plan for bringing African American tourists to Tennessee sites.

The American Black Belt still exists.

I am a product of the Southern Diaspora, which consisted of African Americans and Caucasians leaving the South in droves after the Civil War to find work and lives elsewhere. My great grandfather was born on a covered wagon on the trip north (they were from East Tennessee). I am also a part of the newer trend of return migration back to the South. After several generations, many families that left the South a century ago are again returning. While this is true for Caucasians, it seems to be almost doubly true for African Americans. For the first time in a very long time, there are areas in the South that are seeing a rise in African American population. For Southern heritage tourism purposes, there are all kinds of reasons that make the African American tourist audience very attractive to marketers, not the least of which is proximity. And I don't think that you get the full impact of how strong that audience is until you see something like this demographic map.

In terms of my own life, it was a demographic map in a 2007 issue of the National Geographic that made a huge impact on my perception of daily life and my future.

Where the singles live.

I'd been complaining that it was hard to find datable men...and then I saw this. You can clearly see both Murfreesboro and Nashville on this map as dots that illustrate a preponderance of single women. Where are the single men? West Coast. Where am I hoping to get a job once I finish my degree? You guessed it: West Coast. I mean, wow! The census has a similar map to illustrate the issue.
Brokeback Mountain doesn't seem so far fetched now, does it?

The map pretty much sums it up. It also gives me hope for my prospects in other parts of the country. But there are other things to look at in evaluating other parts of the country. The way that I cope with things that worry or frighten me is to research it obsessively. One of the things that I have problems wrapping my head around is the issue of hate. I suppose that in part explains my fascination with religion (there seems to be an element of hate/hope tied into religious practices and congregates). I am a supporter and subscriber to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report. When I want to freak myself out about the scary things that are out there, I peruse their website. In this last edition of the Intelligence Report, it came with a large fold out map that labeled the different hate groups in the country.

2008 Year in Hate

Aside from this being shocking in general, there are several ways that I can be dispassionate and analytical about it. I know that the New Jersey area has seen a spike in hate group membership in recent years and that this coincides with a rise in poverty and the loss of several of their major industries. I was a bit surprised that places in the heartland that have a reputation of harboring fringe elements did not really have a lot of hate group activity. If anything, you come away with seeing that high population areas and poverty stricken areas are where hate seems to thrive. I also noted that South Carolina (the only Southern state I have not visited) continues to struggle with a legacy of racial strife (brings to mind the words of James L. Petigru who in 1860 described his home state thusly, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.").

In sum total, it is sad. But it also shows the areas where we need to work harder and find better solutions.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Have You Done Enough?

This weekend's excursion was to Rock Island State Park. Three of us went and we decided to make a full weekend of it and camped at the main campground. The camping facilities were adequate, the staff was friendly, and the park offered some great scenic views. Because I of what I do, I no longer simply go and enjoy an outing like this: I analyze it. Each of us kept making little comments over the weekend about the little things that the park could do to improve their operation. Jen kept making comments like, "$20 would fix that problem." Most of what needed tweaking wouldn't require massive infrastructure changes or costs, but it would require an overhaul in state park management/staff philosophy.

Our car-side campsite featuring my new tent and our much tended campfire.

Before I get into the things that I would change to make this place more visitor friendly, let's talk about the aspects that I truly loved. The staff members that I interacted with were both knowledgeable and friendly. When we checked in, the woman at the desk asked us how many tents we had and recommended that we take a particular campsite because it was better for tent camping, and she was absolutely correct. When we were making our first attempts at making a campfire (once we got it going, we lovingly tended that thing until we left...a process I am now calling the saga of the campfire), a seasonal ranger stopped by and handed us a flier about weekend activities. He was friendly, approachable, and was able to answer other questions that we had about the park. Maintenance personnel were by every day to pick up our trash and they always said hello. Each person officially associated with the park seemed genuinely interested in quality customer service and seemed to love their job.

Not only was the staff attentive, but the buzzards took a keen interest in our campsite as well.

The hiking trails introduced us to much of the scenic natural beauty of the area. The different trails took us through woods that had a wide variety of wildflowers or out to the limestone river beds. The treks down to the river usually had you passing by one of many waterfalls that just seemed to be everywhere. It was lovely.

Megan and Jen winding their way to a small waterfall.

But here is where I start to get a bit nitpicky. The trails that led down to different spots on the river all desperately needed maintenance. We saw a similar deterioration at Fall Creek Falls State Park where a rock slide covered a section of the main trail (so much so that it took us a while to figure out exactly where the trail started again). Let me take back what I said earlier about cost...fixing those trails would take a chunk of money and labor to repair. And while the long forest trail seemed well maintained, it didn't make a lot of sense. The parking spot to start the hike seemed sort of accidental and then the path just meandered pointlessly through the woods. Perhaps a guided tour would have helped, but what about the occassional interpretive kiosk to say where we were, what we were seeing, put in a little bit of history. Greenways do this, so why not this park? We ended up coming out the other end without understanding why someone had chosen that path for us.

Footbridge that led from the historic cotton mill.

Some of the points of interest that other people remembered from years past were no longer available to us. One of those was the foot bridge that led from the historic cotton mill to the other side of the river. This park doubles as a TVA facility, which makes for an interesting setting as well. If there is water recreation involved in a site in Tennessee, then TVA is going to be there in some shape or fashion. So, in the middle of Rock Island State Park is the Great Falls Dam. While many TVA facilities used to be open for tours, in our post 9/11 world, many of them have limited public access. This site offers problems to that situation, though, because it is in the middle of a state park. The bridge from the cotton mill is closed and there are signs telling visitors that the TVA structures are not open to the public. There were some disturbing signs all over the riverbeds (that were littered with tourists) saying that you needed to leave immediately when the alarm sounded because the water level could change drastically.

View from just under the Great Falls outlook.

In general, I am in favor of not having people play around dams and water generation facilities (in the name of safety). But the large groupings of power lines often intersected hikes and the impact of TVA was ever present...but there were no attempts at telling that story on the landscape. And that seems to be a wasted opportunity. And that got me to thinking about something Dr. Spencer Crew said in our May-mester class. When evaluating sites of conscience, he would ask us if they were doing enough. And that is quickly becoming the standard by which I judge heritage tourism sites. With the natural and historic resources on this landscape, I wish that they were doing more to leverage those assets and create a more educational and dynamic visitor experience. There's only so much those helpful staff members can do and then the site needs to do some of the work on its own. Currently this park needs a more solid interpretive foundation to make the efforts of the staff more effective.

I'm a huge nut for signage and while there were several signs welcoming you to the park, but once you were inside the park, none of the signs faced the other direction. That meant that we did a lot of turning around in order to find things once we were there. That was one of the situations where just a little bit of money and a bit of foresight would make a huge improvement: print labels on both sides of the signs. Also, it was basically required for you to drive around the site. The hiking trails were scenic, but they were self contained. The roadways did not have room for pedestrian traffic and it was even a bit treacherous for car traffic in some areas. It seemed a bit silly to be so automobile dependent on a camping and hiking trip.

One of my favorite signs for the park, though, is one that I did not take a picture of (for some curious reason), and it was a large iron fence that looked like it belonged at the entrance to a western ranch. It proudly stated that you were entering "Rock Island." In addition to being the location of a state park, Rock Island is also a town. It was picturesque and had the types of shopping that campers needed. But more importantly, it had one of the smallest and cutest depots that I have ever seen. And it looked like someone was living in it!

Rock Island Depot.

And yet, even the town had a lot of untapped potential. Are any of these places doing enough? No, I think that they are coasting upon what they have. TVA has shifted its focus over the years and recreation is not one of its main missions anymore. But in terms of being an effective business, they have the opportunity to engage customers at sites like this and they are passing up that chance. The state parks are strapped for cash, but in the case of this particular park, they seem to have employees that have a strong emotional investment in their workplace (not always the case in my experience of Tennessee state parks). But without a solid intepretive foundation on the landscape, those employees are limited in what they can accomplish. And while the town has an impressive sign to welcome visitors, maybe their visitor outreach could move beyond the corner gas station (and contextualize that business by integrating it with the community which supports it).

I want them all to do more and be more thoughtful in how they approach shaping the landscape and serving their audience.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Old School Tourism

Last weekend I went to Mammoth Cave with my friend Megan. I was joking with another scholar of heritage tourism that I should take my copy of John Sears' Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (a standard for anyone studying the history of tourism in America). We went in part to continue our hiking trend, but we also planned to drive some of the Dixie Highway and explore the fabulous roadside attractions on that route.

Our tour guide/ranger laying down the law before we entered the cave.

The Park was beautiful and we saw deer and one turkey. We did an outdoor hike to get ourselves warmed up and then we went off on the Grand Avenue Tour, which was supposed to take 4.5 hours, but I think it lasted a little longer than that. The tour was very interesting. There was just the awe inspiring aspect of the cave itself. I kept wondering to myself if this was how a worm saw the world (if they had eyes, that is). They incorporated a lot of history and even demonstrated a historic lantern that early tourists would have used. They pointed out historic graffiti, talked about cave ecology, and even talked about some of the current conservation efforts.

Rangers of various types swapping stories in the Snowball Room.

What I really liked about the tour was the level of humor. Our main guide/ranger was young, told us that he was a chemistry major and that this was his strength. If he didn't know the answer to a question, he was honest and told you that he didn't (and I pelted him with a bunch of technical and maintenance questions, so I was impressed with his amiability in light of me being such a pest). And he wove in quite a few jokes without over doing it.

Our lead ranger talking about cave ecology and trail maintenance. Note the electrical box next to him.

Analyzing Mammoth Cave as a tourist environment was a lot of fun (to me) as well. The ranger pointed out old tourist paths (from a time when people didn't have to worry about lawsuits from tourists apparently), talked about the CCC putting in paths and how they maintained them, and some of the damaged to the cave system. The paths were obviously constructed and there were a lot of stones stacked to keep people on the trail, prevent them from touching sensitive areas (ie, the gypsum), and to mask some of the electrical infrastructure. It was the electrical stuff that I was particularly interested to see. In Sears' book he talks about tourists a century ago complaining about the light shows and the kitschiness of Mammoth Cave.

Fellow tourists in the Drapery Room. You can see some of the artificial lighting in this picture as well.

While the lighting did create a sort of artificial setting, I can see how it increases the safety of tours, and it makes it possible to highlight certain features without a tour guide trying to find them in the dark with a flashlight. There was mold on some of the walls of the cave where the old halogen lamps had caused unnatural growths, but the new LED lights were supposed to stop that from continuing. The damage to the gypsum, particularly in the snowball room, was kind of disturbing, but I can see the arguments for that not being too terrible because there are plenty of places in the caves where the gypsum is not damaged and continues to grow. It does give me pause to think about balancing access with conservation.

But the artificial part that I loved the most were the bathrooms. The little restaurant set up in the Snowball Room was fun, but the bathrooms next to it with the stacked stone treatment was fabulous. The stacked stone is kind of a pet peeve of mine because all of a sudden you see it everywhere in new construction (which means it will start to look dated just any time now). Here is kind of worked because it was using natural elements to shield something unnatural. But the stacked stone doesn't really echo the cave setting, rather it echoes the human stacked stones along the pathways and around the light fixtures throughout the cave. The second bathroom still has institutional brick, but I suspect that stacked stone is in its future.

Bathroom at the Snowball Room.

The second bathroom on our hike.

The second part of our excursion was to travel to Cave City and enjoy the 20th century roadside attractions that are still there despite commerce moving away from highways to the interstates. We were both so excited that we took a lot of pictures of colossi of various sorts and several great business signs (complete with neon). Growing up in Michigan, one of my favorite parts of our regular trips to the Upper Penninsula was seeing the giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox at Castle Rock. There were also plenty of roadside colossi here, including a Dinosaur World that looked fabulous.

Megan posing with "Big Mo"

But our main reason for this excursion was to travel a bit of the old Dixie Highway (which also runs through Murfreesboro, and Megan is writing her MA thesis about how the highway reshaped Murfreesboro both aesthetically and socially...or I think that's what she is doing) and to see concrete tipis. For roadside architecture enthusiasts, the phenomenon known as "ducks" is a particularly joyful find. Ducks are any building that is designed to mimic something else. So some of these buildings look like actual ducks, or shoes, or elephants. And the ducks that people seem to love the most in Kentucky are the Wigwams. We were so excited to find it, we walked around the grounds, took pictures, went into the gift shop, Megan bought a post card. It completed our roadside tourist experience.

Concrete tipi at the Wigwams.

And while I argue for historical accuracy/authenticity in some settings...in both Mammoth Cave and Cave City, it is the carnival nature of the sites that tickles my heart. I am not saying that every place needs to be this way. It is that kind of boom and bust infrastructure that has crippled tourist economies and I am definitely in favor of most places moving towards a sustainable tourism model (as opposed to continually building fake attractions). But that doesn't mean that some of these relics from the heyday of roadside attractions can't stay around. I think that they have their place and their context. And I'm perfectly okay with celebrating them in their limited niche.

And seriously, who wouldn't want to stay in a wigwam?