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Wanderlust and Lusting for Wanderers at the Great Vacations Travel Expo

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Wanderlust and Lusting for Wanderers at the Great Vacations Travel ExpoPhotos by Jesse Bethea.
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If you were to ask, “What’s the centerpiece of the AAA Great Vacations Travel Expo?” there would be a few perfectly valid answers. For one thing, there’s the event stage where celebrity guests Darley Newman and Josh Gates deliver presentations of what they’ve learned on their travels. Over there is a collection of luggage designs, including a slew of carry-on options, because who wants to pay for checked bags anymore? There’s even an entire Florida section – so denoted by giant, silver balloon letters reading “FLORIDA” – where the carpet is the color and softness of the Key West sand.

But the literal, physical centerpiece of the expo, positioned in just about the middle of the room at the end of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, is a long rack of travel guides and maps for just about every state, territory, province and region in North America. Some sections of the rack are mostly or entirely empty – one passerby quips, “All the good states have been taken.”

More than any other booth at the expo, perhaps this one best distills the dual restlessness that has brought everyone together today; the need to wander and the need for wanderers. Here on the rack is just about everything within driving distance, and the way you know it’s within driving distance is because these maps can all show you how to drive there. The next question is simple; the answers innumerable.

Where do you want to go?

If you went to the Great Vacations Travel Expo hoping for a clear and concise answer to that question, you were probably left wanting. Or perhaps longing, “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” if you want to be pretentious about it. Here, the booths represent just about every place everywhere, almost as if someone was asked to list all the places they’d ever heard of and from that list sprang the Great Vacations Travel Expo.

Alaska is well represented, as are the Rocky Mountains of Canada. There’s Aruba, Jamaica (both who want to take ya), the Grand Canyon, Holland – by which I mean Michigan. Just about every region of the country is here, from the West to the Midwest to the Southwest to the South. New England seems to be underrepresented, though I suppose if you need to see what Connecticut looks like you can just drive to Chagrin Falls.

There’s something kind of egalitarian about seeing all these exotic locales hobnobbing with the likes of Hocking Hills and Amish country. You can visit Counties Kerry and Cork, but why not Counties Clinton and Coshocton? Here it seems like nothing need be out of reach.

Take the Icelandair booth, for example. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Iceland is having a bit of a moment. In 2016, there were more Americans in Iceland than Icelanders. One of the Icelandair representatives gives me a quick rundown of why that is. Iceland is relatively close, only about five to five-and-a-half hours away, with a diverse culture, natural beauty, and it’s one of the safest places in the world, volcanoes notwithstanding.

On May 16, Icelandair will open direct flights from Cleveland, and a map on the booth’s wall illustrates how Iceland will then serve as a connection point to the rest of Europe. An arrow leads from Cleveland to the little North Atlantic island, where it branches off in different directions to all the European capitals, as if the whole thing was drawn by Eisenhower in preparation for Ohio’s invasion of the continent.

If Iceland isn’t your thing, change a letter but keep the puffins and you’ll have Ireland. Here, at the CIE Tours booth, sits Roger Kraemer. Why Ireland? one might ask.

“We’ve got sand, we’ve got sun, and we’ve got palm trees,” says Roger.

Ireland, like Iceland, is renowned for its natural beauty and its wonderful people – at least since all the troublemakers left for America. So now, says Roger, Americans love to visit Ireland, “because they want to see the history and a lot of them are coming to find heritage, to find out where great grandma and grandpa came from.”

I would, but I think my family might still owe money in Fermanagh.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. If you really want to get to Iceland or Ireland or Greenland or Lapland, you can find a way. But it still might be a once in a lifetime experience. Some of us need more than one adventure a lifetime. Millennials find ourselves cursed, for lack of a better term, with the same need to travel that afflicts most generations at our age, accompanied by unfathomable debt and wages that more or less equal expenses.

So we find ourselves thinking exclusively in terms of driving distance. And what sort of adventure – what sort of trouble – could we possibly get into in that mythical realm known as driving distance?

Here we must turn to one of our celebrity guests. Josh Gates is the star of the Travel Channel’s “Destination Unknown,” a world traveler with an archeology degree who carries such a cult following that his enthusiastic fans pack the audience space at the Expo’s stage two days in a row. This is his second year at the Expo. His presentation starts with technical difficulties.

“Just like last year, Josh,” shouts a fan.

Josh announces that he has a good feeling about how to fix the problem.

“Just like last year, Josh,” shouts the same fan.

It might be reasonable to expect Josh’s presentation to be a simple rundown of all the exotic places he’s been, all the tombs he’s raided, all the mysterious artifacts he’s chased: you know, places you can’t go, tombs you can’t raid, artifacts you can’t chase. But that’s not the trail he goes down.

Josh flashes a series of magazine covers onto the screen, each with a different riff on what’s the best place to visit in 2018. It’s the year of Japan, or the year of Canada, or the year of a half dozen other places that look nice with an Instagram filter. And at the end of this parade, Josh announces his conclusion on the best place to travel in 2018: “Wherever the hell you want to go.”

Josh Gates’ presentation.

“There’s no such thing as the year of Japan,” announces Josh Gates. “Canada isn’t going anywhere, and it’s the same this year as it was last year.”

Instead of the exotic, Josh emphasizes the unknown, and the unknown is always closer than you think. The travel memories we keep and the stories we retell, explains Josh, usually have nothing to do with relaxation or comfort. The best travel memories involve learning new things, trying new things and accomplishing new things.

So let’s reverse that thought, for a moment. We have here a generation of travelers looking for adventures in driving distance, and within that driving distance, a collection of communities that could use a break, and some tourists. How best to pair the two?

According to Darley Newman, host of “Travels with Darley” and “Equitrekking” on PBS, who presented at the Expo’s second day, if you want to attract travelers, interactive experiences are key.

“For people that travel a lot, I think they’re people that like to be engaged more,” says Darley. “Whether it’s a bike tour or food tour… I think that giving people something they can do instead of just walking around and seeing stuff, a way they can engage with locals and do something on their travels is good.”

Darley Newman presentation.

Based on several orbits through the Great Vacations Travel Expo, it seems one easy way to get travelers engaged is to be a community blessed with an old prison. Prisons are hot right now. I count three booths advertising historical prisons (though it appears Mansfield neglected to send Red and Andy down to sell everyone on Shawshank).

Marianne Thies is here to represent the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. According to Marianne, more than 33,000 people came to visit the prison last year, on tours of both the historical and haunted variety.

“I think a lot of people, of course, have probably not been in prison, so we always kind of wonder what it looks like and what it was really like,” says Marianne. “When you have tour guides that are former corrections officers and wardens, they are able to answer your questions and it just kind of fills it in. And one thing we’re very surprised about is how many former inmates come back and go on our tours. And they tell us that they used to live here so we always say, ‘Welcome home.’”

Over at the booth for the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, Rebecca Jordan Gleason is more than happy to run you through the story of the historic hospital her family now owns. It’s the second-largest stone cut sandstone building in the world. You’ve heard of the largest; Vlad Putin lives there. Construction started in 1858 in Virginia and finished in 1881 in West Virginia.

“There was a local gold robbery,” announces Rebecca, because that’s how you start a story. “Three years in, Confederates just put $27,000 in our local bank. 7th Ohio Infantry comes into town, liberates that money, took it to Independence Hall in Wheeling, which was actually the capital at the time. That money formed the state of West Virginia…and it actually funded the secession of West Virginia from Virginia.”

“Hence,” says Rebecca, pointing to a poster of the asylum. “The first state building.”

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum isn’t just any old asylum. It’s a Kirkbride. The Kirkbride Plan, invented by the psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride, was supposed to be a melding of architecture and medicine. Kirkbride believed that asylums could be constructed to allow for maximum open space, maximum natural light, and maximum calming influence to treat sufferers of mental illness in a time before mental illness was understood to any degree.

“What people don’t realize is the evolution of mental illness is in this building,” says Rebecca. “There are no pioneers here, only [practitioners]. But everything that was done for ninety years before the first medicine to prevent mental illness, Thorazine in 1954, they had to come up with different ways that they thought could help people.”

Even as society inches slowly toward better understanding and care for the mentally ill, interest in asylums and touring them is often rooted in the sensational and the macabre. It seems every old asylum – and every old prison – simply must be haunted, and it can also seem as if the tourists care more for the ghosts than the real stories of the real people who occupied those spaces. Rebecca prefers another approach.

“I try not to push the scary part ever,” says Rebecca. “We do the scary part for about six weeks out of the season. But we teach history eight months out of the year, six days a week.”

And so for the historically inclined, crossing a famous Kirkbride asylum – one of the few still standing – off the list might be the right sort of accomplishment to make an adventure memorable. But of course, when it comes to historical events in America that offer an abundance of “collectable” adventures, one conflagration looms large over all.

“There are a lot of Civil War freaks out there in the world,” says Fran Tiburzio. “Sherman is another stop, another pinpoint on the map for them, they have to see Sherman’s place…If you like the Civil War, you’re going to see Sherman. And, you know, either side. They want to come and revile him or they want to come and adore him.”

Ah, yes. William Tecumseh Sherman, the pyrotechnic Union general who laid waste to the Confederacy from Atlanta to the Atlantic and who came from humble origins in Lancaster, Ohio, represented at the Expo by Fran Tiburzio and Visit Fairfield County. Fran’s booth even has a life-sized cutout of the General in his familiar, unsmiling, arms-folded, fire-admiring pose.

In Lancaster, history travelers can find the General’s birth home still as it was. But Fran knows there are a lot of different adventurers looking to accomplish a lot of different goals.

“We’re developing trails now through Fairfield County,” says Fran. “We’ll have a covered bridge trail, local restaurant guide, wineries and breweries, and we’re looking at some other natural phenomenon to have trails on.”

Fairfield is apparently famous for its covered bridges, boasting more covered bridges than any other county in Ohio. Just like with the Civil War, there are all kinds of covered bridge freaks out there.

And after prison history and Civil War history and covered bridge history, what’s something you can find in driving distance that you can’t find anywhere else? Lots and lots of local booze.

“Let me tell you, breweries are huge now,” says Fran. “Wineries are, I think, kind of dissipating a little bit and people are more focused on breweries and distilleries are coming to Ohio.”

“Breweries have changed a lot of things,” she continues. “People now travel to drink and I am totally down with that.”

It’s the same story over at the Coshocton booth, but with perhaps a different spin on the longevity of wineries. Coshocton has 17 wineries, six of them on the Three Rivers Wine Trail, now joined by a distillery and two breweries.

The Coshocton County Booth.

“That actually helps us, we’re a big fan of craft breweries,” says Matt Baldwin of Raven’s Glenn Winery in West Lafayette. “Because when people try a craft brewery, you know, if you have a couple that goes out and one spouse likes the beer, one spouse likes the wine, we can kind of collaborate.”

“Collaboration has been very important to Coshocton County.”

That’s Mindy Brems, Executive Director of the Coshocton Visitors Bureau

“It’s taken several years,” says Mindy. “But our wineries understand that when they work together, even though they’re all wineries, you could think, gosh we’re all competing with each other, but they’re really not, because when people drive a distance to come and see one winery, they want to visit two or three other ones.”

Over at the Athens County booth, beer is depicted as an integral part of the adventure, with several growlers stuffed into the metal basket of a three-wheeled bicycle. The Hockhocking Adena Bikeway is the centerpiece here, as are the trail’s five breweries. In some destinations, you can consume; in other destinations, you can exert yourself. Athens says, why not both?

“We really look at things that people can come and visit that are active,” says Paige Alost of the Athens County Visitor’s Bureau. “We’ve a very active community. We also have a very vibrant arts scene, but we know what our top draws are and they include our bikeway.”

So here we are, in the middle of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, on the last day of the Great Vacations Travel Expo. There’re trips to book, luggage to buy, passports to renew. But where are we, dear reader? And where do we want to go? The question is simple; the answers innumerable. I can’t answer it for you. Nor can Darley Newman, nor Josh Gates, nor any of the county visitor bureaus in the great state of Ohio.

I’ll tell you this much. On my way out, I came upon a booth I’d missed the first few times around. “Underwater Connection” it read, and underneath, “Columbus Sea Nags.” Columbus, one of the most landlocked cities in the country, has a scuba diving club. I stopped to talk with Ben Anderson, owner of Underwater Connection. He told me of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, not too far and not too deep, where the freshwater keeps the wrecks in pristine condition, just as they were when they went down. All of them in driving and diving distance.

So I know where I’m going. What about you?

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