In August 1761, George Washington soaked in the supposedly restorative waters of Berkeley Springs, a rough wilderness spa in what is today West Virginia — one of the only vacation spots he ever knew.
In recent months, urban dwellers such as myself, hemmed in by the coronavirus, are practically tripping over each other en route to the same sort of rustic destinations — an attempt not to rid ourselves of disease but simply to avoid it.
Limited to our immediate surroundings and forced into the outdoors, our holidays have gone full-on 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s, from swimming holes to weekend barn stays.
“You lug your stuff down to the riverbed, and you get on boats, and you canoe yourself out there.” It could almost have been George Washington speaking but was instead Hillary Galloway Davis, a Baltimore lawyer who rented Sharp’s Island, a one-acre rocky outcropping in the middle of the James River in downtown Richmond, for two nights of camping in August.
The unusual destination, inaccessible except by boat, sits on the fall line where Virginia’s Piedmont meets its coastal plain, causing rapids, islands and waterfalls. Hauling jugs of water and food from the mainland and chopping wood with an ax were all part of the appeal. With the traffic from the nearby Mayo Bridge drowned out by the rapids and the city only visible in the background, the island is almost pure urban wilderness, save for a hip-looking A-frame cabin for use should it storm.
Despite the pandemic, “we still wanted to try to do something where we all just sort of were together and decompressed, but obviously much more local,” said Galloway Davis, who camped with two of her children and husband. “We weren’t going to any cities this year,” she added.
Going to a nearby nature destination has become, in 2020s cultural parlance, the sourdough starter kit of vacations. The trend is evident on Airbnb, where U.S. travelers this past Labor Day weekend booked cabins at more than double the rate of last year, while its apartment rentals fell by half. Meanwhile more than half of all bookings made in May were for rentals within 200 miles of a guest’s origin (a round trip generally doable on one tank of gas), compared with a third of all bookings before the pandemic in February.
Sharp’s Island, which is listed on three websites — Airbnb, Hipcamp and Outdoor Access, for about $50 to $80 per night depending on the day of the week — has seen an increase in bookings, even as the tourism industry flounders.
“This winter into the spring it just exploded, and I can only imagine that’s because of covid,” said co-owner Andy Thompson, part of a group of 10 families that purchased the island two years ago, originally for fun, before listing it online. Now their getaway is booked nearly every weekend to the end of October.
Everything from ancient log cabins to yurts as well as overnight listings such as “Go gold panning on working farm” or “Sleep in a caboose on a bison ranch” are available on Hipcamp, something of an Airbnb for camping. Between May and July, the site saw three times the bookings over the same period in 2019. That’s not bad, especially during a year in which travel spending in the United States is expected to take a $505 billion hit, according to the tracker Tourism Economics.
If these vacations superficially hark back to the olden days, there is something distinctly modern in their DNA, according to Eric Zuelow, an expert on the history of tourism and national identity.
“I think if you scratch a little deeper, what we see is just how deeply enshrined the idea that we should go on a vacation is. We’ve internalized this, and that’s not really true earlier,” the University of New England professor said.
In other words, George Washington’s trip to Berkeley Springs — now a state-run spa — was not the norm. Throughout the centuries, leisure trips and vacations have become more democratized. At the dawn of America, they were for White elites.
A stay in a shepherd’s hut, which Airbnb says nearly doubled on wish lists this July over last, would hardly be a vacation for someone back then. But it represents the same sort of break from the grind people in the mid-19th century began to crave.
At that point in history, “you begin to have a class of people who work at the kind of jobs where one can take a vacation,” said Cindy Aron, a University of Virginia professor emerita and author of the book “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States.”
As the corporate economy grew, white-collar professionals emerged as a middle class, and vacations became a means for staving off what was seen as the “debilitation and brain fatigue” brought on by paper pushing, Aron said. By the late-19th and early-20th centuries, African Americans had also created their own vacation places, such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard or Highland Beach in Maryland.
Battling “brain fatigue” is precisely how I found myself perched on a raft in the middle of a quarry lake in Maryland on a random Monday in August. The Caribbean is where I had wanted to go this summer. An afternoon at the Beaver Dam Swimming Club in Baltimore County is where I ended up.
In operation since the 1930s, Beaver Dam, whose placid green-blue waters are surrounded by trees and short rock ledges ideal for diving and cannonballs, struck me as the kind of place the Werther’s Original grandpa might have once hung out.
“After World War II, what happened is we increasingly became more consumer-driven, so the kind of fairly staid version of a holiday before the war became more complicated because you could start to express yourself through the type of trip that you took,” Zuelow said.
Stripped of this means of expression, it seemed everyone was heading to the swimming hole, which reached capacity and stopped admitting guests nearly a dozen times this summer, a representative said.
“I don’t want to call myself a pioneer because I’m far from it,” said Bryan Kyllonen, whom I spoke to as he planned an off-grid two-night hiking excursion in Washington state’s North Cascades. The Seattle-area tech worker and his wife, who canceled a trip to Banff, Alberta, because of the pandemic, came up with the trail hike as a remote alternative.
Although he was planning on bringing some “multipurpose and multiuse” cooking equipment — in a throwback to the Oregon Trail days, when there was no room in the wagon for a full kitchen — other pieces of Kyllonen’s gear were distinctly less Laura Ingalls, such as a backpack for his dog to carry her own food, water and “maybe” a ball. “If you need it, you carry it,” he said.
He was also packing a fairly healthy suspicion of others — not so much in the Old West vein but in a wise, covid-wary way. “The parks are always full, and that’s just not something that I’m okay with. I don’t want to be around people right now,” he said.
A few states over, more than 955,000 people passed through Yellowstone this July — up 2 percent from a year earlier — in the middle of a pandemic.
At Flat Creek Ranch, a luxury dude ranch near Jackson, Wyo., where a cluster of five cabins are nestled in a wilderness canyon surrounded by mountains, “the phone did not ring at all for March and April, and if it did it was a cancellation,” co-owner and operator Shelby Scharp said. But in mid-May, a strange thing began happening: The ranch, near both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, started getting multiple last-minute requests as tourists poured into that part of the state.
With a summertime three-night weekend package for two starting at $3,300, trips to Flat Creek are generally planned months in advance. “For us to get a call like, ‘Hey we’re in Jackson, your place looks amazing, can we come tomorrow?’ That’s not our norm,” Scharp said.
Located just 15 miles from the city but an hour-and-a-half drive because of rugged terrain, the ranch’s hiking, fly-fishing and horseback riding seemed to be the type of extremely remote, socially distanced escape modern America was looking for.
In this devastating year for American tourism, “We’re kind of crushing it,” Scharp said.
Milfeld is a writer based in D.C. Find her on Twitter: @Becca_Milfeld.