Tailing someone in a National Park is a self destructive act. To your left is one of the longest river canyons in the western hemisphere. To your right are ancient volcanic ruins that have formed some of the most unique rock faces in the entire world. Yet, for some reason, there’s a car directly behind you on this scenic drive in Big Bend. They’re making it their life’s mission to complete the route in just under an hour. Maybe their conditioned air provides the sense of sterility and safety some people need to observe the wilderness or maybe they’re just hungry. Oh, to see nature’s wonders through tinted window panes and the rear of a Nissan Pathfinder.
You’ve both come here to see the landmarks. You just disagreed on the speed and the means. Both of you drove hours from urban landscapes to reach this spot, after all. So, just maintain your speed and course while calmly looking for car pull outs.
When you glance out of your rearview mirror right before a pull out, you notice the person in the passenger seat putting their phone out of the window. Air conditioning be damned, they need an Instagram story. They stop suddenly in the middle of the road after they pass you to document the golden-brown butte to the northwest and maybe share it online for some likes and comments. It leaves you bewildered – you were going to be the one to take a picture of that butte and share it. Plus, you saw it first. Now all that’s left is an oversized dirt mound about fifty meters from your idling car. “That just won’t do,” you think to yourself. As you wait for them to drive away you fill in the time by looking at your phone, double-clicking a few images, and adding one more video to your already extensive National Park Instagram story.
What will those videos or pictures tell friends and family? Will there be any truth surrounding your visual tale? It may look like someone has gone backpacking in the wilds of the Americas when really they were just driving erratically, hungover and depressed. Their hotel room is probably musty and old with bad art on the walls – an off-center photograph of downtown Austin, a screen-printed Eiffel Tower with a red and blue background, or just a blown up picture of a golden retriever the management found on google. But it’s got Wi-Fi. Clearly that’s the treasure that lies beyond the horizon, past the silhouetted shadows of the Chisos Mountain Range.
I should know. I’ve been tailed, and I’ve been the tailer. It’s nobody’s fault, really. Our culture makes us this way. Everyone finds out about facts, alternative facts (lies), places, experiences, and so on through a search engine or social media. We can easily aggregate information and curate an experience or identity for ourselves.
Before we even hit the road to go to the National Park, we know what it looks like and what we are going to see. We even know what each hiking trail is rated and whether more or less people will go on it. If you get hungry during your hike you’ll most likely be able to look up what type of take out is available right outside the park. It’ll even tell you the health score of the restaurant and save you a painful evening in the bathroom. If you don’t have service, don’t worry. Pretty soon we’ll be able to access the Internet from anywhere and at any time from a ring of satellites surrounding the entirety of the earth.
This is the unfortunate trade off to all of our conveniences. We become selfish and distracted. We want to fulfill a perfect and meticulously curated life. We’re even willing to pollute our earth’s atmosphere as long as we don’t notice the consequences. Technology aides our existence, to be sure – both our physical and mental beings. It also filters and manipulates how we perceive and experience the world. Most of us have a living identity and a virtual identity. Our virtual identities so often take precedence over the landscape that’s in front of us because we think it may offer us something better.
These virtual identities exist outside the rhythms of human biology. Humans crave novelty in their experiences. The more we see something or do something the less exciting and motivating it becomes. That’s just our nature. So, how can we get happiness and satisfaction out of life when our screens seem to say, “Everything has been done before. You can experience any thing you want through me”?
I’d suggest: the next time you pull your car over to let someone pass, put it in park and get out of your car for a moment. Stop thinking about the people who just passed you and let them be. Start walking over towards that large dirt mound that doesn’t look like much about 50 meters from the pull out parking zone. Somewhere in there you’ll see three vibrant color schemes – clay red, matte white, and dirt black – all for the first time.