I grew up in a place no one visits. To be fair to the people who never go there, there’s not a lot of draw in Fargo, North Dakota. While a growing number of quality of life studies underscore plenty of things about Fargo that lure folks to live there, there’s not much average tourists (excluding Roger Maris fans) would go out of their way to see, as they might for, say, the Great Wall of China, or Machu Picchu. (Although, have you seen the Hjemkomst Center? Okay, so maybe it’s technically in Minnesota – but you can see it from Fargo if you stand in the right spot…I know, I’m grasping.)
Which brings me to my first instinct when I recently ran across a list of “San Francisco must-sees” in a mainstream tourism publication published here: As I scanned the checklist, it dawned on me that, even though I’d lived here nearly a year, and it’s my job to know about such things, I had been to only a pitiful fraction of the spots on the list, and most of those were when I came here with my family when I was 11. Perhaps, I reasoned, as a native of a place where no one goes, I am simply not accustomed to my town meriting a list of must-sees, nor do I know how to act accordingly. I mean, I pay rent here. Aren’t I supposed to use my valuable weekend time tracking down the best burrito joints , pilates instructors, and independent clothing boutiques?
But there is more to it than that. The truth is I feel ridiculous lining up with the fanny-pack wearing, camera-toting crowd on Saturday morning and snapping pictures of sea lions at Pier 39 while waiting for the boat to Alcatraz. It’s almost offensive that I should have to join the tourists in the town where I live, especially while friends are tailgating before the Cal game, hitting the farmers market in Bernal Heights or surfing at Ocean Beach.
I know I’m not alone in my reluctance to mingle with the tourists in the place I call home. Mountain towns even have a word for the clueless out-of-towners who sport ski gear from a couple decades ago and clog up the lift lines: gapers. Perhaps then, the fear of becoming, or being perceived as, a gaper in one’s own town ought to be known as Gaperophobia.
I’ve had Gaperophobia in pretty much every city I’ve lived since I left Fargo. In DC, I could tell you where famous political hacks were to be found drowning their sorrows after a tough appearance on Hardball, but I stubbornly refused to set foot inside the incredible (and free!) Smithsonian museums unless dragged by visiting friends. I could tell you the best deli to get an egg on a roll near my office in Manhattan, but a boyfriend and I got in a fight on the street because I snubbed the idea of waiting in the long line for Empire State Building tickets. (Of course, when I relented and stood awestruck admiring the panoramic view of one of the world’s great cities, I was both delighted for having finally done so and embarrassed for having waited so long, not to mention for having put up such an asinine fight.)
Luckily, I found a cure for my Gaperophobia one weekend not long ago. It was an unseasonably glorious day in San Francisco: the sun was the only thing in the sky, the wind was but a breeze, and the temperatures soared into the mid and upper 60s (yes, the upper 60s constitute “soaring” in San Francisco in February). I woke with piles of work glaring at me from my desk and heaps of laundry mocking me from my closet floor. But the sunshine beckoned, and I walked my dog at Alamo Square, a San Francisco landmark, home to one of the city’s prettiest views, right across from the Painted Ladies (anyone who watched TV in the early 90s might recognize the famous row of Victorians from the opening credits of Full House). After an exceedingly-large crab-cakes Benedict brunch, I picked my way to the top of Twin Peaks, a popular stop on San Francisco’s 49-mile scenic drive, to work off the calories while admiring the rare unobstructed view of the Bay on a clear day.
The Tour de California bike race time trials were that afternoon, so I trekked across town and found that the best vantage point to watch the world’s leading cyclists cross the finish line was from atop famed Coit Tower. Later, after noshing on the signature fried egg pizza in the cozy confines of acclaimed Pizzetta 211, I wound my way through the storied tree-lined lanes of the Presidio with friends to marvel at how much better beer imbibed from a bowling-pin shaped bottle tastes at the alley there.
Before bed, I took my dog out again and she decided to do her business in the middle of Lombard Street, on the famous one-block stretch known as San Francisco’s crookedest street. Searching for a garbage can to dispose of my pooch’s fashionably-placed poo, I laughed to myself. In one day, without having done so intentionally or consciously, I had doubled the number of attractions I’d seen on that must-see checklist.
The cure for Gaperophobia, it seems, is simply to experience the sites your town is famous for by stumbling across them, rather than seeking them out. By seeing them spontaneously, I did so with my dignity intact –- and without the help of a checklist or fanny pack.
I’d love to hear your brushes with Gaperophobia. Are there places in your town you wish you could visit without having to join the tourist masses? Have you ever had a Gaperophobia-curing day? Did a rainstorm force you to duck into the MOMA, where you ended up spending the entire afternoon? Did you suddenly decide to take that ride to the top of the Sears Tower, after having walked by it hundreds of times on the way to work? Did you ever dip your feet in the fountain at the National Sculpture Garden after a pickup Ultimate game on the Mall? Any and all “tourist-at-home” stories are welcome here!
My name: Tasha Carvell.
How I earn my keep: I work on Creative Strategy for Travelocity.com.
Fondest travel memory: Listening to the Gaelic-speaking locals sing traditional jigs while eating blissful homemade carrot soup and drinking a pint by the fire late at night in the lone pub on Inis Meáin, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland. Unrelenting, bone-chilling rain was coming down outside, but I'm pretty sure there wasn't a cozier, more welcoming place in existence anywhere on the planet that night.
Travel ambition: To go to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.
My most beloved place in the whole world is: Mott - a tiny rural town nestled between the rugged Badlands and sprawling plains of Southwestern North Dakota. This barren country has captured my heart thanks to the inimitable personality of the folks who live and work there and the sense of community and utter serenity I get when I'm visiting my family there. If you're on a road trip to one of the more traditional travel destinations nearby - Yellowstone, Sturgis, Mount Rushmore - do yourself a favor and make a pitstop in Mott. Stretch your legs with a stroll alongside the Cannonball River or a hike up Black Butte, stop by George's Office for a beer or the Poolside Drive-in for a malt, then make your way out to the Final Go Around roadhouse for steaks and local gossip. If my cousin Claire is your waitress, give her a hard time and an extra-big tip. If my uncle Paul is bartending and you're secure enough to withstand some hazing by the beer-drinking regulars, order a Pink Squirrel - they are girly but so delicious and no one makes 'em better.