Mount Rushmore Monument

Detourist in a Holy Land

Mount Rushmore Monument
Mount Rushmore Monument as seen from the viewing plaza (original photo by Dean Franklin, 2003)

In a remarkable essay of a sojourn to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, author Tom Fate reveals his own experience as a detourist. On his way from Chicago across the wide lands of South Dakota, Fate notes a moment of tourist angst, confronting his own “imperialist nostalgia” by recognizing his disgust with the constant flow of tourists on their way to Mt. Rushmore. Some of his distress has to do with the desecration of the Lakota Holy Land of He Sapa, what the conquerors renamed the Black Hills, where Gutzon Borglum, whom Fate describes as “a brash, arrogant engineer” boasting membership in the Ku Klux Klan, carved his insulting monument to racist imperialism. Borglum proclaimed that his grand sculpture, named for New York businessman Charles Rushmore, was “the first of our great memorials to the Anglo-Saxon.” Fate wonders of his own complicity in this whole sordid history of “the near genocide, and theft of Native American land.” He is on his way to reconnect with his friend, the Lakota medicine man Francis White Lance, who will tell him, “He Sapa is the Holy Land of the Lakota people. It is oracle and altar. It talks to you.” Clearly these garishly arrayed tourists streaming mindlessly across the plains were not interested in hearing the wisdom of the sacred ground.

Fate reassures himself by invoking a distinction as old as tourism itself: traveler versus tourist. In typical tourist fashion, he distances himself from the less noble sightseers by recalling the words of Paul Theroux: “Travelers don’t know where they’re going. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.” Fate takes to heart this difference: “for travelers, the concern is not with arriving, with the site, but with the journey, with seeing.” He wants to see as a traveler sees, to go “not as an ‘accidental tourist,’ but as an intentional detourist, whose journey is defined by a series of non-arrivals at some once-intended-but now unclear destination.” He goes on to relate the detourist’s erratic, unintentional travels to the practices of the writer: “a constant process of discovery, of confusing and sometimes risky detours” that produce, for both travelers and writers, “a creative tension: between the person and the place, between the culture you came from and the one you just stumbled into.”

Tom Fate sheds new light for me on the distinction between travelers and tourists. I have long dismissed the claimed differences between them; for me the claim merely indicates the tourist paradox: regarding oneself as a “traveler” amounts to little more than a rhetorical reassurance of denying one’s own loathsome engagement in touristic pursuits by denigrating others as “tourists.” In fact, we’re all tourists, all of us who leave home to seek aesthetic pleasures of one sort of another in unfamiliar landscapes. But Fate reveals subtle differences of awareness that guide the experiences of various travelers. The tourists in his distinction remain wholly unaware of the journey itself, convincing themselves that their destinations are self-evident and intentional. “Travelers” on the other hand realize they have no idea where they might arrive, that the aesthetic value of their travels is in the going and the seeing, not in the arriving. For tourists, the site is familiar to them long before they arrive; other people have determined for them what they will see, what they will do there, how they will feel and what it will mean to them. For travelers, every journey is unique; no one before or since has been on that road at that time in that peculiar way of seeing with their particular eyes. The experience of travel is theirs alone.

In this awareness is the genesis of a detourist mode of travel, heading out for some once-intended-but now-unclear place that leads the tourist into other landscapes and novel ways of seeing, being, relating. For me it is a creative mode of living worth aspiring to wherever I might be.

Tom Fate’s essay “Detours of Intention: Lost and Found in the Holy Land” appears in the Fall 2015 (Vol. 17, No. 1) issue of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. ♨

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