Problems of Authenticity

“Write drunk; edit sober.”  -Hemingway

Problems of authenticity have been much on my mind lately.  Part of what I assume Hendrik was writing about when he discussed some folks’ “limited mental freedom” is the lack of contextualizing research providing knowledge of the larger context.  Silly word though it has become, epic must be defined two ways, which inevitably come into conflict.  First, as relative to the experience of the individual in question.  Second, in reference to the wider world of collective human experience.  My memorial day trip was pretty damn epic for me, but compared to other trips out there is quite tame.  It behooves to remember both of these things; to write with drunken honesty about my experience and edit soberly with an eye on the world of which I am inevitably a part.  To do only the former truncates your experience, insofar as it only exists because it is shared with others.

This might be a comparable process to that which I wrote about last fall, discussing why GearJunkie.com is an irresponsible enterprise.  Contextualizing your adventures helps make them aspirational: “look at what I have done, and look at the road it might place me on.”  I think of it in terms of my dictum that there are no first descents in canyoneering.  While this may or may not be factually accurate (and determining whether it is or not is quite impossible, thankfully), it reminds me that the best thing about descending a canyon without beta is the pioneering experience, rather than fattening your tick list.  Adventures should work the same way, and even if your trip was a first in some way basic decency should prevent you from emphasizing that, or perhaps from mentioning it at all.  Modesty should let others sort that out.  Those whose opinions are of consequence will do so quite easily.

Another way of thinking about these problems of authenticity is to use what I wrote about contemporary landscape photography as a guide:

The problem is that landscape photographers are lazy.  To be more specific, they seem to be photographers first, and with few exceptions, outdoor adventurers second at best.  The result of this is that their understanding of and relationship with their subject is truncated and shallow, and this is reflected in their work.  Their interpretations are weak, and thus their art does not resonate. 

Simply put, if you don’t know where your adventure fits in the larger order of the world, and are thus unaware of the influences which have shaped your personal development, it is rather likely that your work on the subject will not be very interesting.  (I think this is why I find the Hike 734 project less inspiring than I ought to.)  As I said in the GearJunkie piece, the communication of our internal world dictates how we shape our lives with others, and thus has moral import.  Ergo, lazy adventuring and adventure writing (or landscape photography) is very much my and others business.

There is a lot (lot) of grey area here, and plenty of latitude for artistic license.  Take the photo above, taken from the BBC’s outstanding Yellowstone documentary.  Those are the Tetons, and while they are in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem they are not in Yellowstone park.  The film uses an intro pan of the Tetons about every 10 minutes, and despite the extent to which this might lead the uninitiated astray, the overall accuracy of the documentary inclines me to forgive them.  Even though 95% or more of the shots were made from a paved road (the cottonwoods of the Lamar below Soda Butte Creek have become a cinematic cliche all by themselves), the film nonetheless captures the essence of Yellowstone very well.  Or should I say, my essence.  That question of authenticity highlights how circular this whole debate really is.

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11 thoughts on “Problems of Authenticity

  1. Your link to the gearjunkie.com piece is messed up, fyi. Interesting piece. I think you could tease out some more about the two sorts of epic.

    1. Link fixed. Thanks for catching that.

      Much, much more could indeed be said on internal v. external epicness. For the moment, I prefer to let that play out in my mind and that of others. Or here.

  2. Interesting comments about the debate of “epicness.” Historically, an “epic” is a story — a long narrative poem, often written in elevated language, about the feats of a hero or the history of a nation. In colloquial use, the word has basically become the 2000s version of “Xtreme,” and with it an implied or open debate about the qualities or scale an action must possess in order to qualify as “epic.” But I think, in the case of external epicness, it all comes back to the story — if the story, or quality of narrative, is good, it actually doesn’t matter as much to others whether the adventurers were spending a weekend in New Jersey or crossing Antarctica on skis. The same could be said for internal epicness as well, since that assessment is fully held in the eyes of the individual adventurer, who also values his/her personal development and enlightenment over the perceptions of others, or at least should in a perfect world.

    Although I may be misunderstanding your larger point, I don’t agree about “editing soberly” when it comes to considerations for the larger world of adventuring. There will always be “bigger faster better epicer” endeavors out there, and using those to discount your own experiences does nothing to elevate them and only disservices your narrative. If you descend into a canyon truly believing you’re the first human being to ever set foot in that small crevice of land, I say go ahead and believe it. It’s a beautiful dream to be able to possess, whether or not it’s true. And if it’s not true, and you still proclaim it to the world in chest-thumping bravado, I say let the world sort that out as well. In the end we’re all just telling stories, to ourselves and each other, in everything we do.

  3. Good points Jill.

    I suppose my response to the later would be that you’re correct, internal experience is where it all begins. I do think that good writing, and good communicating in general, has as an essential part self-awareness. Perhaps not knowing for certain if you’re the first into that canyon, but at the very least knowing something about the reasons why you find the sensation of the unknown so stirring. Same thing with 1sts; being the first to do X is immaterial without a further explication of why that is of consequence.

  4. hope this gets some more play and writing. currently awaiting an epic day for our family, when our 2nd little one enters the world, so the mind is elsewhere, but when i read the original post a day or two ago i had these few fleeting thoughts:

    some days, when i read about what a curiak, petervay, ryan jordan, the author of this blog – or any number of amazing folks i know only from the internet have done, i simply want to stay in bed. i feel foolish doing my short mtb loop in the woods 5 minutes from the house. i feel like an amateur writing about that dirt road century. i feel adolescent pondering a 2 day bikepacking trip in my local mountains. i feel i should shelve the gear and say ‘why bother’ and drive down to the cafe and sip a coffee and figure out how to get some of the paying work done….

    its futile, for sure, when compared to and in reference to these other amazing and epic adventures. consider too that i am trying to do all those little things that make the big things that much more enjoyable – yoga, core, stretching, experimenting with nutrition, trying to control an appetite gone wild… it’s hard to see all the great and wonderful things being done out there, while i stretch on an exercise ball, or experiment with a new food while riding. while trying to be a self employed free lancer, loving partner, and involved father.

    i know that calling something epic in ones own mind when starting out is a sure sign it may not be what it is meant or thought to be, much like setting out to create a masterwork is unlikely to happen. or setting out to find enlightenment every time one sits. its not the goal – to be epic, is it? epic is a potential byproduct of any number of activities, choices, and actions.***

    the definition of epic in ones own experience though is certainly relative. as a high school student my first long bike ride to another county was ‘epic’. as someone who started doing brevets a few years ago – anything under 50 miles (most of my riding) – just feels tiny in my own frame of reference. as epic to me in 2006 was a 600k (ended before i finished with knee issues). these things of mine are miniscule in the frame of reference of tour divide riders, BMB, PBP, Ultrasport, and other long distance events.

    but, without pushing the mind to take us to that next level of ‘epic’ (or whatever we want to classify it) – one may never opt to ride from alaska to argentina, one may never opt to ride the tour divide – but walk all of the snowed in pass (to me, justin simoni’s ride this year was epic…)

    its somewhat like the uncertainty principle. if we stop enroute and are constantly examining and evaluating our journeys – we may never understand how far we’ve come, just what is under our feet, what others may think of the journey, and what we are feeling right in the moment, not to mention get to a destination. but if we never stop and look around (including peeking at what the world reflects back at us) – we don’t know what frames of reference are shaping our own journeys in a greater context.

    like art (and architecture) (things i’ve pondered, trained in, and work with) – epic happens, and history and peers and time are more the judge of epic than the participants, artist, or creator – at the time. yes, the ad man may want to sell us epic at every corner – but i hope that any epic i encounter is sublime and true – and i hope that it finds me when i am least looking for it – but when i am most at mind and body to handle it.

    *** an aside – much like authenticity and epicness, i have issues with folks running around saying they had a ‘zen’ experience – on the fixed gear, skiing, running, etc. – unless you’ve studied zen, please don’t discuss your run down the lake with the iPod on in this way. yes, there are elements of meditation that do relate and cross over into disciplines of physical activity – hill climbing reminds me deeply of a walking or working meditation – but they are not the same, although in my inexperience with the matters i do think that there are many places where the mind and body overlap many of these things.

  5. I saw that I got a few visits to my Hike734 site from yours which led me to come here to read the post. First of all, I appreciate you mentioning it as it has sent some of your readers my way. I also appreciate your honesty in your comment. I haven’t really shown all of my cards with my project which may cause my project to appear less inspiring, interesting, etc. The “first person to hike all of the trails in Glacier in a year” is admittedly a publicity stunt to get some people to care (don’t we love human achievement stories?) as well as help with a bit of funding. I’ve never shied away from the shamelessness of that. 😉

    First and foremost, however, is that I love to be out in the Park. I love doing epic climbs where I hit five named summits in a day to smelling a moose, then spotting her, to identifying some unnoticed white flower. I think the diversity of grandeur, beauty and power are intoxicating and I want to spend a lot of time in the middle of it. I also want to share that with other people. I hope to let them see deeper into the Park than a grizzly and Going-to-the-Sun Road.

    If I were to treat my experience in the Park as some personal, quiet endeavor, then I would still be stuck behind a computer as an IT professional meticulously planning out my 2-3 weeks of vacation time. This involves some economy which, I’m sure, cheapens it from a “purity of experience” point of view. In order for me to spend almost 100 days in the Park, however, this is part of the deal and honestly, I love it. I have helped people get excited about places they never knew existed. I bring a smile to people’s faces in Iowa who are wishing they could move back. I’m also taking pictures of places from trails that most photographers don’t take because it is more than 20 yards from their car (and to be thorough, I’m taking some of the same ones too).

    At the end of the day, I wish to be an expert on Glacier. While my journey isn’t the contemporary “epic”, it is an epic for me. It involves getting up and hiking when I’m excited to hike and when I’m not. Whether it’s raining or sunny, whether I have a hiking partner or not, I have to get out there and do it. I also spend hours editing photos and video. In the process, I’ve come to appreciate the Park in ways I’ve never appreciated it before. I’ve always said, “I want to learn my flowers”, but never took the time to because I was destination hiking. Now, I have to and it’s fantastic because I have to stop, video, then identify (which is a pain in the butt sometimes). This also with birds, peaks, etc.

    What I’ve unearthed from the Park is that there are three aspects to the Park that I wish to dive into. They are recreational, naturalist and cultural history. I’m loving how they interact and I never realized how much I’d fall in love with them. Discovering the stories of why a peak is named what it is, identifying Camas and learning that it’s edible and native americans would fight over meadows filled with them are sooo fascinating to me and I wish to put that together and communicate that out to a larger audience.

    While my project may seem on the surface like another ego trying to become a star, I hope that you’ll see a bit past it and wait, with patience, as I build something of substance that can serve as sweet resource for people that wish to see a richer place than they initially thought.

    1. Thanks for commenting Jake. I hope my thoughts (which is indeed all they are) did not come across as more harsh than they were meant to be. I’m teasing these ideas out over time, and admire your project. As you say, it’s a big one and demands a lot.

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