As a travel blogger and author regularly enchanted and transformed by other countries, I’ve often wondered what aspect of traveling in my own country appeals to foreigners. It’s not as obvious as you might think. We’ve got awe-inspiring natural splendors and incredible geographic diversity – but nothing a native Argentinean couldn’t find in Patagonia, or a European in the Alps or an African in the Sahara. As for history, even our 300-year old landmarks would underwhelm tourists from places more long in the tooth.
I’m convinced that the stories travelers take back from the United States have more to do with how proud (and free) we are to fly our freak flags. Take last weekend in Florida, for example. I make the 6 hour drive down I-95 to Orlando as infrequently as possible. Too many wrecks. Way too many weirdos. We were driving over a bridge in Jacksonville a few years ago when Gary noticed a white panel van, bungee-corded together, driving suspiciously slow in the left lane. Something or someone was thumping the walls of the van from the inside. What’s creepy about this story is that we both shrugged and said “Freaky Florida” – in unison – before snapping to our senses and calling in the license plate to 911.
Last weekend changed my view of Florida. My brother-in-law turned fifty and we got to Deland with a few hours to kill before his surprise party. As luck would have it, the main street of this charmingly “historic” city was reserved for Harley Davidsons. It was Deland’s “Bike Day” – the kickoff of the world-famous Bike Week in nearby Daytona. I have never seen so much muscle, machismo and flat out sexy machinery in my life. The riders today are a far cry from the Hell’s Angels that made the bike an American icon. I saw as many cappuccinos as beers clutched in the fists of baby boom bikers walking up and down the streets. The mood was more family reunion or corner bar happy hour than motor-revving tough. One couple even got hitched. The biggest surprise to me was the creativity – there were keg-powered hogs, Harleys crossed with old-time horse buggies, side car grilling stations and paint jobs that would make Michelangelo swoon. This was American ingenuity and can-do writ large. And loud.
No wonder tourists flock to America, and states like Florida. Especially when Sky Dive Deland is just up the highway. It was packed with foreign tourists spending their money with huge, skin-flappy grins on their faces. That’s what happens to even lithe, fit people’s faces when they fall through 14,000 feet of sunny Florida sky.
I’m not sure who invented skydiving, or where, but it could not be more American in spirit. All it takes to get started is renting a parachute, watching a short video and a willingness to have a complete stranger ride on your back controlling your tandem descent. Money, media and instant intimacy – followed by high-fives and beer at the “Perfect Spot” bar adjacent to the landing field.
Most of the foreigners were in Deland for an international team skydiving competition, pitching tents in the field to save money for jumps and beer. This is the “America” they’ll talk about for years. American ambassadors don’t serve in far-off embassies. They spit polish their beautiful bikes. Jump out of perfectly good planes. Smile for any camera. Raise a glass, or a can, to any celebration. America’s biggest tourist attraction is our freedom to be and do whatever we can afford, no matter how freaky.