Illusions of Discovery

When GG was in Switzerland last year, his daughter wanted to visit Lauterbrunnen (near Interlaken and Grindelwald) and then take the train up to Wengen.  OK, great idea.  As we rose up from the valley floor and the train turned back to the north, she snapped a picture.  She then studied it for a minute and then looked at a brochure and pronounced success: she had captured the same picture.

This was not a unique moment, and it seems something of a cultural shift.  GG knows of folks who seek to reproduce photographs already taken (one of the funnier stories was one person seeking to replicate Ansel Adams’s “Clearing Winter Storm” and actually managing nearly everything only to discover in the darkroom that an RV was clearly visible). Google has imaged the whole world one way or another.  You can see it from satellites in Google Maps. Turn on “Show Imagery” in Google Maps in even some pretty obscure places and you’ll find pictures.  Use Google Earth and you can pretend you are anywhere.  The most extreme version is street view: you can, for instance, visit the Routeburn Track in New Zealand in street view.

Maybe this is behind the scourge of selfies these days.  After all, if all the photos worth taking are taken, the only way to make yours unique is to be in the photo.

The flood of information means that we always know what to expect.  There is ample room for disappointment: you can’t see the mountain, you didn’t get the room with the cool view, etc. (A hut warden at Lake MacKenzie on the Routeburn gives a wonderful evening talk that included this: he noted that the “guided” visitors, who stay in a motel nearby, were getting a Powerpoint presentation on what they would see the next day.  But those listening to his talk, he noted, would be different than those folks the next day because if the weather closed in, his listeners would not know to be disappointed, but the guided walkers would know what they missed.)

GG remembers his first backpack. He had no idea where things were, what they would look like, etc.  It was exhilarating to walk through some trees and see an alpine meadow for the first time. Even with significant backpacking expertise, although you’d know the terrain from the maps and you’d know of maybe one or two sights from the guidebook (often printed as an awful grayscale image), what was actually there was unexpected and new.

Now 20 or 30 years ago, it wasn’t like you would really be discovering a new view of anything if you were hiking in the Sierra or the Rockies. But for you, a new hike was a discovery. You could have the illusion, particularly if you walked more than five paces off a trail, that your view was one none before you had seen. There is a certain innocence in that viewpoint.

Today it feels like there is less discovery and more reproducing the experience of others. Maybe that is part of how jaded many of us are.

GG is heading for most of the Muir Trail this summer with that teenage daughter. He bought the “Mile, Mile and a Half” video recorded by some hikers who did the Muir Trail thinking his daughter might want to get a sense of what was in store. “No Dad, I don’t want to see that. It would ruin the surprise.”

Maybe there is still hope.


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