There has been much discussion in the past few months about how the significant, perhaps even colossal, surge in those camping and going outside will in effect unite the insta-hipster trend of the past 5 years with the COVID-induced cabin fever and lack of options. Those who went camping twice last year, and wouldn’t have considered it a decade ago, may well go 12 times this year. My anecdotal experience with local traffic, as well as the availability of Forest Service rentals recently, supports this. Accompanying this demographic shift is the expected naval-gazing guidance on the part of the Outdoor Media, much of which has been exceptionally horrible. The following is my screed, a hope for newcomers and those newly serious in the outdoors that we will not let a rare year such as this pass by without using disruption to accelerate change, or even to shift the paradigm entirely.
1: Your stoke will not save us
Ethan Linck’s 2018 essay has become canonical in the way it summarizes and then deconstructs the founding myth of recreationalism. In the process he casts the moral basis of outdoorish capitalism in deep doubt. His concluding suggestion, that “…place attachment may be the only thing that cuts across socioeconomic divides to predict environmentally friendly behavior” both provides a way forward after his critique, and deals a further blow to the trophy-place ethos which so deeply pervades recreationalism in the social media era.
2: Tourism won’t fix our economy
Anyone who suggests otherwise is ignorant or disingenuous. For every Boulder or Boise, places whose economy is not directly dependent on the nature which surrounds it, there is a Whitefish or Moab, a place where the second-order impacts of tourism has made it ever more dependent on nearby nature and ever less able to support those full time residents who make such towns, towns. There are ways to make tourism fund teachers, answers which have nothing at all to do with selling more soft shells, and everything to do with the sort of tax policy nature-rich states have historically avoided. When you relocate to or vacation in a place, take an extra moment to consider what that resort tax or sales tax does and does not do.
What recreation, and recreation infrastructure, might do is help change the economic paradigm of nature-rich locales, and break up the binary between the Boulders and the Moabs of the country. For each of those two types of place there are 2 or 3 Townsends, Worlands, or Panguitchs. Places whose 50 mile radius is as rich as anywhere when it comes to outdoor opportunity, if not outdoor spectacle, and who are generally caught in the demographic trap wrought by the nature decline in agriculture and extraction, and the moral paradox of keeping more wild places intact without sundering them all over again with publicity. If we exit the pandemic with more jobs no longer tied to place, such places can quietly build trails and boat ramps and attract new residents who will (hopefully) be able to pay enough taxes to keep to local K-8 open without also demanding the culture-flattening presence of Starbucks. The future of the wild world, in our lifetimes, is very much on human terms.
3: Safety is not the same as comfort
Camping and being outside for extended periods is not about using knowledge and $$ to mimic the four walls of home. It is about using technique and an open mind to discover new ways of being in the world. I understand that companies can’t sell a new widget each year to further open minds, which only further highlights the extent to which capitalist recreationalism is an uneasy campmate to sustainable, wild nature.
4: Subtle is sexy
Here I think a phallocentric metaphor is entirely appropriate: our preferences in scenery and in activities for an Outdoor Trip have become quite the same as wanting big tits and a six pack in our romantic partners. The fantastic may have its birth in reality, but the exceptional should not define everyday reality when imaging so thoroughly disguises both the rarity and the labor inherent in such things. (end metaphor) The Zions and Yosemites of the world are valuable because of the way they can shock complacency out of routine. A preoccupation with the spectacular runs the very real, daily risk of making invisible the interest close by, be that interest in the terrain or in the modes of travel to which that terrain is best suited. Red rock riding is surely the most interesting form of off-road riding, a fact which should only enhance the depth to be had in riding Iowa back roads. Finding inspiration in the subtle, ideally closer to home, solves several problems. It facilitates place attachment (see #1, above), it spreads out user impact (see #2), and it hopefully promotes exploration in places less definitively documented (see #6).
5: Statistically speaking; no one shreds
Buried in some recent mountain biking press release or interview (I think it was from Trek) was a candid bite from an upper marketing person: “Statistically speaking; no one shreds.” This is true, and in the time of the shredit an important and difficult thing to keep in mind. Not only are these folks and the like exceptional talents and practiced professionals, they have the benefit of many, many tries, suggestive camera work, and a custom made trail.
This is a corollary to #4; a reminder of both the gap between representation and execution, and of the extent to which our society has struggled to celebrate the more contemplative forms of travel in nature. The public side of this has created real problems, be it neophyte backcountry skiers diving right into avy terrain, or schralping giving the Sierra Club dog walkers more ammo against mountain biking. To say nothing of the inferiority complex foisted upon ambitious newcomers.
6: Leave your phone in the car
Photographing is not the same as seeing, and taking a photo of a previous photo a sort of experiential poison. As DeLillo wrote; “Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.” Or Turner; “I had become a tourist to my own experience.”
Turner wrote his Aura essay close to 30 years ago, and to put it simply, it is well worth contemplating how his ideas (and those of Walter Benjamin) might be extended to the age of the gram. My suggested experiment is to, at least once, go on a keystone trip (whatever that means for you) in totally novel terrain without media devices, without taking photos or video. You might learn something about seeing.
7: Adventure is founded in vision
My closing rule (ha) is the outgrowth of leaving ones camera at home, and my personal favorite discovery from the past decade relating to how I experience the outdoors: within the limits of my human life, the possibilities for adventure, exploration, for experiencing aura, will always be truncated by my own perspective, by my vision, experience, and lack of imagination, before it is limited or circumscribed by the miles of trails, number of ridges or creeks, or variety of trees. There is a consistent tension between reserving the unknown for the future and seizing the moment in the name of uncertainty. What cuts across that whole debate is that beta should be approached with abundant caution in an age when commerce, more than anything, is pushing us towards easy archiving of, well, everything. If, to summarize, aura is the gateway to profundity and thus to place attachment, any coherent future of conservation is grounded in turning away from apps, waypoints, and indeed excessive and insulating technology.