Travel has long been part of my professional life. I worked in tourism for almost 20 years, selling meeting and convention space as well as tours to companies from around the US. One of my assignments was to give these meeting and group tour planners a “taste” of our destination, so a few times each year, we held what is called a familiarization (“fam”) tour. We invited meeting and group tour planners to an all-expenses-paid visit to our area, in hopes they would return with their groups to fill the hotels, eat in the restaurants, and buy tickets to the attractions.
Our time was limited, so the itinerary was crammed full from sun up until late in the evening with tours of beautiful places, event spaces, attractions, and restaurants. Each stop on the tour provided a souvenir to help customers remember it. And often, when the planners would discuss their visits, they would mention the souvenirs in place of the name of the business! It was the souvenir that was memorable, rather than the experience of the place. We jokingly competed against other cities to have the best collection of souvenirs to tell the story of our destination! This is the mindset I brought to my RV travels.
Like many others, we had to wait a year to get our new Unity MB. So we spent that year pouring over destination websites, ordering travel guidebooks, and reading posts about places to eat. When we finally took delivery of our Unity MB, we were more than excited to get on the road and see all the places we had read about. In fact, we already had a jam-packed itinerary planned for the first year’s worth of travel. From the tip of Key West to the far reaches of Maine, each trip was my own personal fam tour. Wait, what? I rushed through my days at work with these fam tours only to rush through my vacations on the same tight timeline?!
On these early trips, “getting there” was our primary focus, so we maintained a fam itinerary pace for almost two years, spending just 2 days in most locations. And while checking the “must-see” boxes was fun, the pace of our travel was pretty exhausting. We realized there was something missing with this mode of travel. These should have been bucket-list-worthy trips filled with memorable experiences, but in reality, they were a blur of places and people with only souvenirs to remind us of what we had seen.
Nothing ever becomes real til it is experienced – John Keats
Experiential Travel Vs Souvenir Travel
If you are new to RV travel, getting on the road sounds exciting – and it is. We loved seeing so many places and talking about our trips to friends and family. But there is a difference between seeing a place and experiencing a place. We liken our fam tour years to drinking from a firehose: you get wet, but you don’t really quench your thirst!
It wasn’t until we saw a movie about Idaho’s natural wonders that we decided to spend a full week in one place to explore the area. That decision changed our perspective on RV travel. We shifted from collecting souvenirs to collecting experiences at each place we visited. From our base camp at Henrys Lake State Park, the extra time allowed us to see and do things we surely would have missed had we been on our previous type of hectic schedule.
We walked beside Mesa Falls, surrounded by a mossy, fern-covered canyon and felt the mist on our skin as the water plummeted over a basalt cliff.
We ventured down a gravel road to find Big Springs, a first-magnitude spring producing over 120 million gallons of water each day. It is a primary source of the Henrys Fork of the Snake River. We watched a school of rainbow trout swim in water that was so clean and clear, it looked like an aquarium.
We found a local guide who gave us a personal tour of Yellowstone National Park – not just the geothermal features where all the tourists clamor for a photo opp, but taking us to her favorite places for up-close views of wildlife, like bison and antelope herds roaming the fields on either side of a gravel road. We watched mountain goats clamor up the side of a cliff, spooked by the noise of the van motor, and watched a grizzly feed on a deer carcass (through binoculars, of course!).
We even met the fly fishing guide from the Idaho movie (Bob Jacklin), and he gave us a casting lesson.
These are experiences that stop you and suspend time, even if just for a few moments. You step out of your “schedule” and become immersed in the present. Your senses are heightened and your focus is on the moment. The events of yesterday and tomorrow fade into the background. That’s the difference between souvenir travel and experiential travel; one checks the boxes on a list, the other checks your breath. Had we been on our typical fam tour schedule, none of these experiences would have happened. We would have made a quick stop, taken a few photos, picked up a t-shirt or hat from the gift shop, and hurried off to check the next box on our itinerary.
Experiences Are Everywhere
While it might sound as if experiential travel is reserved for big landscapes and far away places, we found that there are collectible experiences almost everywhere.
Just before a tropical storm forced us to evacuate, we were strolling on the white sand beaches of St. George Island in Florida. The sky was heavy with dark storm clouds and the wind sent beach umbrellas tumbling – CATCH! We saved one and returned it to the grateful owner. We retreated to the beachside deck of a restaurant to watch the rain blow in, but the vacant scene was ethereal and wild. Surf crashing, the Gulf whipped into whitecaps, and the sand gleaming white against the darkening sky is a picture worth remembering.
But we have also found beaches to be interesting in winter, with fewer people and more overcast weather. Edisto Beach State Park in South Carolina hosted us in January, and the break from quarantine was so very welcome. Large driftwood branches bedecked with shells and fishing line, ribbons, and grasses created larger-than-life wind chimes, the shells clinking and clacking in the breeze. Further down the beach, another branch, much larger than the first, was covered in shells and surgical masks. That broke the COVID fear cycle and made us smile. Creativity is an amazing experience.
While camping on the shores of the Penobscot Bay in Maine we encountered otters and eagles, but the most surprising sight was when the tide went out. There on the floor of the bay was a labyrinth made of carefully placed rocks. We walked out onto the bottom of the bay and around the pebble-covered spiral, viewing the shoreline from a very different perspective.
We have also found immersive experiences in small towns. St. Michael’s on the Chesapeake Bay is so delightfully quaint, we thought we could live there. We wandered through the farmer’s market sampling fresh produce and purchased fresh bread and homemade jam. We also happened upon a Saturday “coffee and cars” club and chatted with the owners of some lovely antique vehicles. Breakfast at a small sidewalk cafe allowed us to watch the town come to life one morning, and we imagined ourselves as part of that community.
The night sky can be an immersive experience too. If you are fortunate enough to visit a “dark sky” site, you can enjoy a starry show on most clear evenings, viewing “billions and billions” of stars. But even in a rural campground, the night sky can be spectacular. One of our favorite experiences was a night hike at Skidaway Island State Park in Georgia, where our flashlights caught the glint of “green glitter” among the leaf litter. Turns out those were spiders’ eyes watching us. We learned from the park ranger that spider eyes reflect green, and alligator eyes reflect red!
Slow down your travel pace to build memories – collectible experiences of how different places make you feel. Look for special activities that open a door to a different side of a destination; talk to park rangers or chat with local merchants to find out how they enjoy the area. We learned about apple picking in the hills of North Carolina from a local grocery store cashier. When we wanted to see manatees, we found a naturalist in Crystal River, Florida, who guided us on a kayaking tour of Kings Bay.
Each trip has its own charm, with attractions, food stops, and outdoor activities. You might think they all begin to look the same. What we have found is that it is not just the activities that are collectible experiences, but also the places and the way we enjoy them together or with friends. It’s the sense of awe, the laughter and conversations, the quiet moments stargazing, the songs around the campfire. These are the fabric of memories that suspend time. When I think about a trip we’ve taken, I do think about the beauty of the place, but my mind always comes to rest on an experience – what I felt while I was there, what we talked about, and the laughter shared.
One of the best ways to collect your travel experiences is by keeping a travel journal. Take a few moments each day to note what you did and how you felt about the place you’re visiting. Reading through these entries a year later will do more than help you recall your trip. It will take you back to the place and how you felt at that moment, just like a time machine. Collectible experiences have that power.
When you’re sitting on your front porch watching the day wind down, will you browse your collection of souvenirs, or will you step back in time to recall a beautiful place, an amazing activity, or a laugh shared with friends from your collection of RV travel experiences?