“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
If you drive down I-40 East long enough, the rolling curves and ample exits of the North Carolina Piedmont will give way to a flat stretch of coastal plain. Periodically the highway will present a sign or two advertising a single gas station or fast food restaurant. How far apart you perceive these stops to be grows in proportion to how full of soda your bladder is.
After a couple of hours the landscape will give way to the outskirts of Wilmington, NC–ripe with all the generic trappings of any city between there and Barstow, California. Citgos, Shells, Wal-Marts, and Walgreens proliferate like weeds. Stick with your drive long enough and you’ll emerge from this artificial thicket into Wilmington’s historic and revitalized downtown.
My wife and I have made this drive every year since 1999 to celebrate our anniversary. We typically stick close to the downtown, which stands on the edge of the Cape Fear river. We park in front of our usual Bed & Breakfast and walk through the Victorian neighborhood down to the river walk. I’m still impressed by the river itself, which moves up and down with the tide alternately bringing the decks of docked boats into view below you and then, hours later, pushing them high above your sight.
The Battleship North Carolina sits permanently across the river from downtown. She’s been museum since the 1960s having long finished her impressive, though brief, tour of duty during World War II. The river has since ceased raising and lowering the warship, and instead has encased her considerable hull in mud. Once a day the river gets low enough to reveal that her last victory has been against the tide itself.
After all these years we usually find ourselves in the same old places. We’ve done all the touristy things: the studio tours and the historic tours, the walking tours and the riding tours. When all the tours have been done – and they’re worth doing – you’re left with the place itself. We would just rather be there by the river.
I just want to see the bookstore and the cigar shop. I want to see the boats rise and fall, and the battleship not. I want to walk by the old house that occupies two lots that used to look haunted, but now looks like a place I wish I could afford to live in. I want to walk by the oldest building in town that was standing while John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were still trying to work the kinks out of the republic.
After a few days we pack up and drive back through that generic stretch of road that we could experience anywhere in the country. The last impression you have is the contrast – the difference between a real place and anywhere.