“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.