Anywhere humans tread, the relationship between local and visitor can get downright acidic. I remember chuckling uncomfortably when I first heard the unkind sentiment, “Why is it called tourist season if we can’t shoot ‘em?” Tahoe locals are known to call out as they zoom by wide-eyed tourists on a snowboard, mountain bike, or car, “Outta the way, gaper!”*
Perhaps it’s xenophobia, an irrational fear of people who are different. Or frustration that one’s late to work and the guy driving 10 miles-per-hour, swerving as he gazes at Lake Tahoe, is severely hampering one’s progress. At its base, I think it’s a need to feel one belongs to a certain group, to which other people can’t or don’t.
Any way you look at it, it serves little purpose other than to generate tension and nastiness. To see a visitor as an outsider negates the biological drive to explore new places. Imagine plopping a mountaineer into a cypress swamp, with the vague direction to avoid the crocs and water moccasins. Who’s the gaper now?
I just visited Kaua’i, Hawai’i, for the first time. Less than two hours after stepping off the plane, I was in Hanalei Bay, frolicking in the warm water, gazing up at sculpted mountains. Although I was definitely a gaper, I felt an immediate and indisputable connection.
It was xenophobia’s antidote: topophilia, a Greek term which literally means “love of place.”
While on the island, I realized a lifelong dream of riding waves on a surfboard. A tanned local named David, who looked part native, part Chinese, and part lord-knows-what-else, was my first teacher. His main teaching methodology was, “It’s easy. Just breathe.”
He commented that Tahoe is probably a lot like Kaua’i, full of tourists coming to visit an incredible landscape. I agreed and asked about the local versus visitor mentality. “I’ve known people for two weeks that belonged here more than a person whose family is third generation,” he said.
The term “‘gaper” is nearly a compliment. It means someone is taking the time to stand still, gaping about, awash in awe of such a beautiful place.
This month, a new Moonshine writer explores what a mountain would say, if a mountain could write and tell us all to slow down.
* Longtime Tahoe locals will remember the term “turkeys.” See Tim Hauserman’s column, “Growing Up in Tahoe.”