Hazards of the tourist trade

Helpful tips to ensure your summer vacation goes as smoothly as possible

Illustration By robert armstrong

It’s that time of year again, so we might as well own up to it: Vacations, at best, are a crapshoot. Sure, we all pile in our planes, trains and automobiles for the annual summer jaunt with the best of intentions. Somehow, during the next two weeks, we’re going to wipe out the workday horrors of the previous year—along with our savings accounts—and return refreshed, recharged and ready to tackle the next year.

Hey, everybody has a dream.

Reality, of course, is an entirely different creature. Most people return from holiday more fried than when they left, because they fail to follow the two simple rules, first established by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s, that guarantee a positive vacation experience.

No. 1: Don’t blow up on the launchpad.

No. 2: Don’t burn up on re-entry.

These guidelines apply whether you’re going from the Earth to the moon or Fairfield to Fresno. Scoff if you must, but my recently completed summer vacation demonstrated the rules work, if followed precisely.

Preparing for liftoff is always a nerve-racking experience, and this year it’s doubly so. Your head is in the clouds, but thanks to inflation and a floundering economy, your paycheck is in the dumper. Fuel prices have rocketed, making flying, driving and throwing Molotov cocktails expensive propositions. If you couldn’t afford a vacation before, how the hell are you gonna afford one now?

No worries! The buzzword this summer is “staycation,” meaning you stay at home and save money. This year, more than half a million people elected to stay home on the Fourth of July weekend compared to last year. So far in 2008, Americans have driven 20 billion miles less than they did by June of last year. The invisible hand has us by balls (or ovaries, if you prefer), and it’s not letting go anytime soon. The more it squeezes, the more you just want to curl up and die. Which is why I elected to spend the first week of my vacation in Big Sur and Monterey, and the last week at home, in Sacramento. Call it a “vastaytion.” That’s what it took to get me to the launchpad.

Naturally, such behavior is gouging huge craters out of the tourism industry in California, the nation and abroad. Sacramento, not exactly a tourist mecca, lost 1,000 jobs in the “leisure and hospitality” sector of the economy during the past year. The effects of the economic downturn on cities and regions that are more dependent on tourism than Sacramento are predicted to be devastating.

As if to accentuate that point, Big Sur burst into flames just days before my launch. Don’t go, friends warned. This is California, I retorted. We fear neither earthquakes nor wildfires nor plagues. Let it rain frogs! Honestly, no one in their right mind is going to pay nearly $5 per gallon for gas and drive 250 miles to camp in a burnt-out cinder cone—unless, of course, there’s a major incentive. In Monterey County, they call that incentive “Big Week.”

Big Week kicks off the Central Coast tourism season and includes two major events: the California Rodeo at Salinas and the Laguna Seca MotoGP motorcycle race. At the latter this year, myself and 50,000 spectators witnessed Italian superstar and my personal hero Valentino Rossi defeat current world champion Casey Stoner in a nail-biting duel that will be remembered as one of the greatest races in MotoGP history.

I would have gladly paid 10 times the $50 admission to have been there. Nevertheless, attendance on race day was down 10,000 compared to last year; the rodeo suffered a similar decline. For me, Rossi’s victory justified the $4 soft drinks offered at the track, the $5.20 per gallon gasoline in Big Sur, the $25 entrance fee at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the $100 dinner at the fish house only the locals know about, the entire wad I shot on my vacation. For other folks, that’s a lot of money to blow on something they could have watched on cable.

Not the French and the Germans, however, who were thick on the ground at Big Sur, no doubt thanks to the favorable exchange rate brought by the dollar’s declining value compared to the euro. They’d pile off the tourist bus at the park entrance and stare out at the charred hillsides to the east, as far as the eye could see, literal aliens against a figurative moonscape, with money to burn but no place to burn it, because the park was closed thanks to the fire.

Re-entering the real world is never easy, but returning to Sacramento a week early certainly smoothed out the landing. I slid in under the radar, taking no phone calls, answering no e-mails, watching the headlines out of the corner of my eye, hoping the horrors I’d left behind had somehow vanished. Then the market dropped a couple of hundred points. Bombs exploded in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lone gunman shot up a church. I went back to work.

Yep. It’s the same old world I left behind. Best take it in slowly. Otherwise, you’ll burn up.