By Tao Tao Holmes
A rice paddy in Bali, a medieval Italian fortress, a logging town in Washington, and a few hunky-dory hiking trails have all found themselves at the center of a lot of unexpected attention.
It's a matter of a few bestselling books, written by authors who likely never imagined the devotees and disciples who would want to recreate their journeys (real or imagined), step for step.
Conversations in these places now revolve around a specific author. In each place, the book is different, but in every place it’s become inescapable. Have the effects of these books diminished the magic that they tried to capture? We worried no one was even reading anymore; are these places actually being ruined by books?
A rather unlikely spot—Ubud, Bali—has morphed into “a sponge soaking up lost souls.” These particular lost souls belong to readers of Eat Pray Love, in search of the self-transformation described by Elizabeth Gilbert in her 2006 bestseller. In fact, there are so many lost souls in this once-tranquil village that locals now refer to them as “EPLs.”
Blogger Sarah Van de Daele visited Ubud in 2008 and returned there in 2013. On her first trip, there were still just two main streets, a few shops, and some restaurants—busy but not crazy busy. “By the time I got back, it was filled with shops, restaurants, yoga centers—completely transformed in a short amount of time," she says.
The local economy capitalized on the media craze, which was amplified by a 2010 movie starring Julia Roberts, which in turn led to dual descriptions of “Elizabeth Gilbert’s Bali” and “Julia Roberts’ Bali” (which white woman does Bali belong to?!). Fancy a nice resort? Book the Eat Pray Love Package to “experience Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-discovery journey in Ubud,” which includes a bicycle tour of the movie set (promo code EATPRAYLOVE).
A sign to the home of the medicine man made famous in Gilbert's book.(Photo:Annie Mole/flickr)
Blogger Ashley Fleckenstein loosely qualifies as an “EPL”; she began dreaming of traveling to Bali after becoming enamored with the book at age 16. When she arrived in 2013, Ubud was not the quiet, empty haven described by Gilbert and instead plastered with branding—“everything from ice cream shops to veterinary clinics were branded,” Fleckenstein said. She and her friend visited Ketut Liyer, a medicine man prominently featured in Eat Pray Love, and each paid $30 for the same palm reading. They also visited a healer from the book, Wayan Nuriayasih, who gave them leaves to improve their health.
By now, all the taxi drivers know where Ketut and Wayan live. Van de Daele explained, however, that Wayan and Ketut are traditional Balinese names given to the family’s first and fourth born—which means that tourists often end up visiting the wrong Wayan or Ketut.
The new and not-improved Bali has been described by visitors as damaged beyond repair. I asked Sarah whether Ubud has lost its world-renowned meditative magic. “It’s very curious, but that magic is still there,” she says. “It does go away a bit, because there are so many western people there, and that takes a bit from the authenticity. But it’s still there.”
Once barely known, the Pacific Crest Trail is now known in the mainstream, thanks to the "Wild effect." (Photo:Dan Hurt/flickr)
A few years later, in 2012, another American woman published a different post-divorce self-discovery memoir, and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) has not been the same. This book? Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, adapted into yet another blockbuster film (2014), set on a trail that runs 2,663 miles from the California-Mexico border all the way up to Canada.
Before Wild, about 300 people registered with the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) each year with the intention of attempting a thru-hike. In both 2014 and 2015, the number of registered hikers jumped to well over 1,000—a craze that has been coined the “Wild effect.” Traffic on the PCTA website is up 300 percent, and the PCTA has reacted with a new permit system to ensure that no more than 50 hikers set out on the same day.
Michael Benko thru-hiked the entire PCT in 2014 and had been planning the trek since 2009. He averaged 25 to 30 miles per day, staying mostly ahead of the season’s pack. “Everyone we did meet, invariably, especially in a big group, would bring up the book,” he said. A lot of folks talked about how you wouldn’t see anyone for months, and now you suddenly find yourself in clusters.
But what about the magic of the trail? Has the book inadvertently eroded it?
Benko says Wild has damaged the “trail magic” but not the trail’s magic. Trail magic refers to volunteers and “trail angels” who provide help to hikers in the form of food, water, and shelter, free of charge—or previously free of charge. But there is a finite contingent of trail angels, and they haven't been able to support the boost in numbers. For example, there are volunteers who drag gallons of water into the Mojave Desert, the driest section of the trail. Hikers depend on those caches, and if the water’s all gone, they're in a bad spot (a place where Strayed too often finds herself, and somehow extracts herself during her hike). Because of the new influx, Benko says these services are now transitioning to fee-based; apparently the Mojave’s most famous trail angel recently closed her doors entirely.
On the trail of self-discovery. (Photo:Miguel Vieira/flickr)
Wild has inspired all sorts of readers to tackle sections of the trail, and, like the author, they’re often solo women. Many of them are as inexperienced in the outdoors as the hero who inspired them. Benko has heard of people dropping out on day two or being helicoptered out for minor issues, though his biggest concern is trail preservation and maintenance. He’s hopeful that the new attention will improve PCTA resources, while mentioning the Appalachian Trail, which saw its own boost in hikers after Bill Bryson’s 1998 bestseller, A Walk in the Woods (and may see a second boost after the movie adaptation, released in September 2015). “There are shelters there that look like Coachella got transplanted,” he said.
And even before Wild, there was Into the Wild by John Krakauer (1996),which spurred a different sort of wilderness pilgrimage. This book charts the self-seeking journey of a young man named Chris McCandless, who ended up starving to death while living in an abandoned bus on Alaska’s Stampede Trail. His story is about a man who threw off the shackles of society to live a freer, purer life, and the message turned out to resonate with many, who then began to plan their own McCandless pilgrimages.
Even wilder? The abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail in Alaska where McCandless' body was found. (Photo:Erikhalfacre/Wikimedia Commons)
However, Alaskan locals often lie to visitors looking for the bus. Many pilgrims end up requiring rescue, often getting stranded, or drowned, by the Teklanika River which one must cross to reach the now-hallowed bus. Local Alaskan Craig Medred described Into the Wild pilgrims as “self-involved urban Americans, people more detached from nature than any society of humans in history, worshipping the noble, suicidal narcissist, the bum, thief and poacher Chris McCandless.”
When it comes to inspirational outdoor adventures, let's just hope that the recently released Everest movie (2015), based on Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997), doesn’t send any more green explorers into the Himalayas. After all, Krakauer himself regrets publicizing his journey. Recently, he told the LA Times that “Everest is not real climbing."
"It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done,” he said. “When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”
But what about fictional beings inhabiting real places? Teenagers tend to seek out vampire destinations over meditative vistas. And where better to do that than Volterra, Italy and Forks, Washington?
A 'New Moon' (Twilight) map of Volterra, Italy. (Photo:Michael Pollak/flickr)
Volterra, in the Tuscany region of Italy, has been around since the 8th century BCE, but not until 2006 did it establish itself as the safest place in the world from vampire attack. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Volterra is home to the Volturi, some of the world’s oldest and sexiest vampires.
Accessible only by road, Volterra never garnered much tourist attention, but lately that’s been changing. Local businesses now offer tour packages such as “Volturi VIP Tour” and “Volterra, Shadows of the Volturi,” which includes the guided walk, “Hot on the trail of Edward and Bella” (the main vampire couple). It’s “warmly recommended” that you read at least the 20th chapter of New Moon to make the most of your visit.
Tens of thousands of tourists (mostly teenage girls) have descended upon Volterra, prompting the town to reevaluate its identity. Does it cash in on sexy vampires, or stay true to itself and its medieval heritage? During the financial crisis, Volterra’s vampire tours were sold out for months, cushioning the city from impact. Some locals have complained about the city becoming a Disneyland, while others were upset that a neighboring town served as the set for the movie.
A tourist visiting the high school attended by adolescent vampires Edward and Bella. (Photo: Neeson Hsu/flickr)
Meyer had never visited Volterra, but simply found it through the internet and thought it was fitting for her story. Same goes for Forks, Washington, where another arbitrary literary decision (she Googled “rainiest place in the U.S.”) produced a physical and aesthetic impact. Forks, which was not featured in the films, jumped on the opportunity to turn itself into Twilight Town.
Twilight tours, info signs, and tourist maps direct Twi-hards to places vaguely matching those in the books—residential houses, local restaurants, the town high school. The Book is everywhere—you can find Twilight-themed motel rooms, “Bella Bundles” of firewood, and “Bella-sagna” at the local pizza joint. It’s been a major and totally unexpected boost to the local economy.
Of course, places already on the beaten path see these kinds of effects as well—Dublin after Ulysses (1904), Amsterdam after The Fault in Our Stars (book 2012; film 2014), and Boston after Make Way for Ducklings (1941), at least for ducks. But popular books have a more pronounced effect on places previously tucked away, once invisible to the masses. They have the potential to become inextricably intertwined with these places’ identities—to maybe even erase their magic.
But at the same time, many of these books are inspiring readers who have never set out on their own adventures before, and who for the first time dare to depart the comfortable and the familiar to try something new. And that, you could say, is its own kind of magic.