Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Off the beaten path

The following is a journal entry I wrote while hiking in the Badlands in South Dakota. I left the majority of it as I wrote it that day. However, I did include some edits, such as a few changes in word choice (not many, only where to correct improper word usage), a few instances of explaining a philosophical concept into a little more depth since I have had more time to reflect on the concepts present, and the inclusion of an excerpt from Edward Abbey's novel "Desert Solitaire" which I referenced originally in the entry. I am keeping much of the original entry in order to leave myself an online trail of my development, of sorts, to show the organic process of my intellectual and spiritual growth...well, at least growth in my consideration. I can leave it to others to form their own opinions.

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Badlands, South Dakota
Mid Day

I went off the tidy, constructed trail (aka boardwalk) which is titled the "Cliff Shelf Nature Trail". After hiking up the tallest hill nearby, I noticed a skinny, sloping pasture to my left separated from me by a network of small fluvial erosion chasms and talus. The narrow channels were created from water rushing down the sheer cliff faces that hung just beyond the pasture to all sides. The channels bottomed out in front of me, creating 10-50 foot pits. I surveyed the area, attempting to find a passable route to the opposite side of the pits, where I would then have to find a scale-able portion of the talus. I attempted to scope out my solution but was only finding dead ends to due to questionable sturdiness of the ground upon which I needed to leap upon over the chasms coupled with portions of the talus which appeared too steep or loose to scramble up. Persistence paid off when I found two mounds of sediment that created doable hops over the pits, as well as leading to a decent runoff funnel that I figured I could make my way up without dire consequences if I were to slip and fall back down. (Note: Calculated risk here, loved ones...I did not put myself in serious jeopardy...maybe a twisted ankle or scrapes or bruises, but nothing more.) After deciding it was worth the risks, as well as contemplating how I would feel if I did not attempt (worse than I would feel if I failed), I lunged across the gaps and quickly scrambled halfway up the 45 degree slope. At that point, I had to use the full surface area of my body and lay down against the steep slope, crawling the remainder of the way up sprawled out like a 4 legged spider. But once I made it up, hamstrings aching, feeling a sense of relief and exaltation, I realized there was still more hiking to do. There, I found myself below a 10 foot ridge sprinkled with gnarly Juniper trees. I found a Big Horn sheep path grading against the ridge and followed it, only to be stopped by a freshly fallen tree. I switched back down the ridge, breaking my way through dead branches and back up the ridge, past the obstructing tree. I noted to myself that Abbey was not exaggerating when he described the pleasant fragrance of a Juniper in his nihilistic environmental masterpiece "Desert Solitaire" and was pleased with this firsthand experience. I soon found out that this was not to be the only realization of some of his truths, which he experienced and wrote about in the 1950s and 1960s.

The search, struggle, and any small dangers were worth it. The pasture was nestled in between hills/mounds on my right, jutting cliffs exposing colorful sedimentary layers to my left and behind, and a steep drop hundreds of feet down to the open prairie, dotted by otherwordly plateaus directly in front of me, complete with a small band of wild horses (not the postmodern alt-rock group, but actual animals) grazing below. I sat beneath the much welcomed shade of an aromatic juniper, hearing only the rustle of the tall grass, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, and Canyon Wrens. The same landscape and sounds I had been experiencing back on the paved loop highway and its corresponding overlooks and developed trails, but this seemed felt different. It was if I was now privy to the real Badlands. Not the experience sold to you. As I peered down westward at the serpentine pavement, complete with its pullouts and viewpoints (for your convenience and comfort!), I recalled Abbey's prediction about the development of the National Park system, also known as the destruction of the natural ecosystems and beauty it purported to protect. Here, he is talking about the Arches National Monument, but he was foretelling the development of all of our national parks and I believe applies to my experience of the Badlands.

As I type these words, several years after the little episode of the gray jeep and thirsty engineers, all that was foretold has come to pass. Arches National Monument has been developed. The Master Plan has been fulfilled. Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year, the "visitation", as they call it, mounts ever upward. The little campgrounds where I used to putter around reading three-day-old newspapers full of lies and watermelon seeds have now been consolidated into one master campground that looks, during the busy season, like a suburban village: elaborate housetrailers of quilted aluminum crowd upon gigantic camper-trucks of Fiberglas and molded plastic; through their windows you will see the blue glow of television and hear the studio laughter of Los Angeles; knobby-kneed oldsters in plaid Bermudas buzz up and down the quaintly curving asphalt road on motorbikes; quarrels break out between campsite neighbors while others gather around their burning charcoal briquettes (ground campfires no longer permitted -- not enough wood) to compare electric toothbrushes. The Comfort Stations are there, too, all lit up with electricity, fully equipped inside, though the generator breaks down now and then and the lights go out, or the sewage backs up in the plumbing system (drain fields were laid out in sand over a solid bed of sandstone), and the water supply sometimes fails, since the 3,000-foot well can only produce about 5 gpm -- not always enough to meet the demand. Down at the beginning of the new road, at park headquarters, is the new entrance station and visitor center, where admission fees are collected and where the rangers are going quietly nuts answering the same three basic questions five hundred times a day: (1) Where's the john? (2) How long's it take to see this place? (3)Where's the Coke machine?
Progress has come at last to the Arches, after a million years of neglect. Industrial Tourism has arrived.

-Edward Abbey "Desert Solitaire" (Chapter 5: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks)
The stark difference between my experiences, driving the paved loop and utilizing the pullouts and marked trails versus going off into the undeveloped Badlands, was palpable. I felt it. It was not just a thought or dialectical argument I constructed post-experience (those simply sum up the feeling of the experiences). This became analogous to my experiences the previous night (and entry). I experienced, in my entire search & adventure, human existence in the raw sense. And to say it "feels more real" does not drive the point home enough. Throwing aside the constructed comforts that were readily available for me to assume and consume allowed me to experience the moment; it gave way to a present-mindedness that grounded me there and now. This is drastically different from the socially constructed existence that is known as a "National Park", which feeds you an objectified experience in which you are shielded from actually experiencing yourself in the moment, in that place and time, as one with your surroundings. The objectified experience is dependent upon the spectacle, preconceived expectation of an objectified thing, and you are the observer and the park is the object you are observing. This, of course, is done for the convenience of people not wanting the perceived discomforts and having to get out of their isolated, bubbles of comfort and get down in the fullness of nature. It is also done for the economic machine of the park system because it creates a systematic experience that the government can sell to people and provide as a commodity, much like a ride in an amusement park. There is a sinister detachment lurking below this experience.

The National Park as a product experience is full of these preconceived expectations and obligations. The expectation is for you to Behold this thing for your enjoyment (as opposed to in-vivo experience). There is the way to do it and there are feelings you should feel. You are obligated to be like the family who passes through in the R.V. or car, stopping at the pullouts and their viewpoints for just enough time to behold this thing and snap a picture as if to prove they experienced this thing. Much like the conversation I overheard of a family of a mother, grandmother and four youngsters. The kids complaining because they wanted to go hike up one of the plateaus, but the mother and grandmother were disallowing. The youngsters' response: "But we paid like 25 bucks to drive through here and we're bored. Why are we even here?" Mother: "To appreciate this. And we are getting our money's worth. Now get over here and take a picture so you can show your friends you were here!"

You've purchased this experience so you had better get your money's worth!

I think this is an example of man/woman's folly in the erosion of the fullness of experience for the sake of comfort, to not feel pain, to have a "bad" time, to risk death or injury. We have objectified experience. The modern day manifestation of that is that experience is now to be consumed. It is boxed up and sold to us in tight, neat little packages, if not literally, then figuratively. I am certainly guilty of this kind of consumption, as well. I did drive this loop that I speak of and use the pullouts to gaze upon the land and admire from a distance. I did use the viewpoints to snap some photographs. So I speak of these things not from high up above as if I am giving some sermon on the mount, but mired down in the problematic contemporary Western existence. How do we break free of these voluntary chains and shackles? How do we let go of the objectified and comfortable existence?

Back in the present away from human corruption, by that I mean development, social order, systemization of experience, my experience is a totality of existence as a creature in the world. This is something I wrote of yesterday, but would do well for myself and if I share with others, to elucidate. Using this term, "creature in the world" is a ripoff of sorts of Heidegger's "being-in-the-world", as well as other texts I have read, and my synthesis of this concept that is this reiterated: humans are in the world, not separate from it. Existence is not a place of subjects and objects to be manipulated, but of beings, as Heidegger puts it. Beings are the things which to be, and the totality of existence is what Heidegger describes as Being, which is the verb to be. (Side Note: Now, I merely mention this to give admission to my Heideggerian influences, but I certainly am no Heidegger expert, in fact I have admittedly only read excerpts of his work as well as the analyses of his work by others. But what I have seen is that the way I express my understanding of these concepts does sound Heidegger-like as I come to know more and more of his work.)

So as a creature in the world experiencing the totality of existence I've felt fear (of falling, rattlesnakes, not being adventurous), frustration, happiness, exhaustion, thirst, hunger, satiation, jubilation, wonder, paranoia, worry, anxious, discomfort, longing, satisfaction, and on and on with words to describe the spectrum of human experience. Mostly, I felt I belonged. Home. I'd say in a weird way, but that's only my socialization which governs how I first interpret words. Especially upon further reflection, I used "weird" to describe feeling home, which is a contradiction. One does not feel weird when at home. That's the essence of home. What I realize I meant was that it felt weird to feel home. This exemplifies the serious condition of displacement and alienation present in contemporary Western culture, a collective sense of homelessness that permeates our culture today. (Side note: I think this is derived from our aforementioned objectification of reality, which essentially divorced us from a primordial state of coexistence with our natural home, our planet, but I digress again...) I lay in the grass, no longer obssessively worrying what dangers could befall me. That's socially learned nonsense -- the worrying. Caution is natural; an evolutionary adaption. Worrying is the pathological form of caution, ingrained through social experiences. But I'm no longer in the constructed experience that is a National Park, the Badlands, but I am experiencing. Simply. Here. Now.

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  1. They Heard us around like cattle. Big question for me is who are THEY?. everyone is innocent everyone is guilty. Off the path is a metaphor but ought to be the antidote.

  2. Off the path is certainly a metaphor, but it requires awareness in knowing that it is substituting a comparison for the real thing.

    So to say that I am off the beaten path implies that there is a standard way of doing things, and I have consciously chosen, to veer away from that.

    All said and done, I agree that "off the path is the antidote", but that is not a metaphor for redemption from the problems of modernity. You can't say you will find yourself if you just leave modernity and go out into the wilderness. No, it's much more than that. You must leave your own SELF...and all the constructions around that are your life, all the comforts it affords; that is to get off the path.

    I'm not sure if this is what you meant. But this is what I mean, by "off the beaten path".