In an age of vehicles and photo-sharing, the experience of wilderness has been dulled and framed. Thru-adventuring is a chance to engage the senses again.
Usually, sitting under a redwood would make me stagger back and gaze up. Instead, all I could focus on was how cold I was. Three weeks into a bicycle tour of the Pacific Coast Highway, my wife Janna and I came coasting down the back hills of the Lost Coast into the heart of the Redwood State and National Parks in northern California. Most days were spent staggering between bits of warm sunlight that fell through the sieve of marine layer and then smacking into the cold damp of that same cloud cover. It was beautiful, but it also wore on our desert-honed bodies. We were used to the ultra-dry conditions of the Arizona with its almost perpetual sunlight. We chose to ride the coast precisely to experience ecosystems of America we had yet to visit.
To experience these climatic zones, we chose to ride steel-framed bicycles along the Pacific Coast Highway. Using the useful maps sold by the Adventure Cycling Association, we packed our bikes and gear into a rental van and headed to Vancouver. As with all extended self-propelled trips, getting into the swing of constant motion tore our bodies and pushed us the first week or two. Once we settled into the rhythm of ride and sleep, we flew. However, we both were racked daily by the struggle to thermoregulate. Cold damp mornings would lead to constant shivering. As soon as we were awake, we would stuff our tarp away and suit up into damp bike shirts and chamois. Uncontrollable shaking would follow. Turning onto our route, I would gaze ahead hoping for a sharp incline. Riding over hills and mountains meant physical exertion, aka. metabolic heat. Headwinds would strike our bodies most of the time (despite our southerly direction) and add to the cold. Around noon, sun would bake the fog out of the sky, and humid heat saturated everything. Although my skin seemed to hold up, Janna’s hands developed blisters due to the constant exposure of sun, wind, and cloud.
Last day of our ride as head to the border.
I loved it though. It was real and it shook me down. Without the comforts of windless rooms set to an always comfortable 72 degrees, my body had to fight the environment. To be clear, I never found myself in a true survival situation; just constant mini-battles for homeostasis. Riding along the coast in the this style was sense experience. Throughout the ride, I grew aware of the lack of sense experience in today’s world when it came to nature. The wild, in all its sizes, has increasingly become a commodity of the framed experience.
“The wild, in all its sizes, has increasingly become a commodity of the framed experience.”
Wilderness as framed experience is exemplified by the drive-by-stares in most parks today. These are the people who pull into the coveted back corners of nature, only to stare through the windows of their cars before drifting on. Or, they jump out the door to take a quick photo/selfie before driving away. The experience is framed: the windows and phone provide the medium to capture a moment. But that’s it. Just a moment. There is just enough tint and glass to make you feel like you experienced something, but all you really did was stare at it.
Framed experiences are dull. Staring out of the window of a car into a canyon can be thrilling – I’ve been there. It’s just that a quick photo shared on social media doesn’t really capture what it means to let a place be wild. You rely on your eyes. Sense experience relies on all facets of feeling. Want to see the deeper sharper image of a place? Stay an extended time. Small nuances become more apparent as the patterns of living things leave marks in your mind. Temperature becomes something to deal with, not escape from. Sense experience allows a place to become richer. When I listen to an unfamiliar genre of music or when I see art techniques I don’t understand, I can still enjoy the piece. When I take the time to dive into those items more, I see patterns. The patterns decipher a whole new level of complexity I come to see elsewhere in the world around me. When I sense experience a particular wild area, I take those same details and see them everywhere. After several forays into the Grand Canyon, it is no longer just stunning to stare at. I now hunger to explore the smallest eroded valleys I find anywhere. The experience has transferred.
I want to be clear about photography here. Photography is not a framed experience. I definitely use Instagram and snap photos when I’m out. Neither necessarily is driving up to a lookout to see a sunset after work. Framed experiences are persistent mini-moments strung together over what should of been an immersive outing. If you visit a state/national park and find you spent most of your time perusing gift shop aisles, meal stops, and the inside of your vehicle’s electronics, you probably just had a framed experience. Your photos constitute, no doubt, a sizable impression on your memories and psyche. I’m not saying you didn’t create genuine emotional memories (indeed, recent research suggests snapping pics does not alter the perception of enjoying an experience). It’s just that you didn’t receive that sense experience of wandering into a natural spot to let you senses be maxed by inputs. These inputs don’t have to a harsh battle to survive or thermoregulate, they just have to involve using your proprioreceptors to balance down a rocky trail. Or smell the slight sweet decay of leaf matter around you. Perhaps even the sound of nothing that happens when you are away from humanity. Maybe it’s even as extreme as strong discomfort from heading up a mountain. The point is, your eyes were the dominant player in the field. Glass didn’t size the wilderness before you. There are tons of photographers who sense experience the wild while framing it. The difference between the two is that one remains outside and doesn’t immediately climb back into the car.
Years prior to our redwood ride, Janna and I had visited the exact same location on a trip north to backpack around the circumference of Mt. St. Helen’s. We pulled into places, snapped our photos, climbed back in, drove to the next spot, and repeated. We even visited the Lady Bird Grove on a few side trails. It was awesome. Yet, this time back via thru-adventuring by bicycle, I was stunned. Did I really come here before? What the hell? There was something vivid to it this time. The strong scent of the trees pervaded everything, and the sun coming through the branches before hitting us had a new shade. We got to sleep under the trees in our tarps and pull off wherever we wanted. Bikes forced us to slow our progress (as compared to a car) and feel every hill and every piece of shade. They afforded us an opportunity to stop in front of every tree we wanted. There was a liberty, an imbuing of sense, that made it seem like I had just been here for the first time.
Thru-adventuring provides a unique way to sense experience the wild. No longer separate from the conditions (adverse or beautiful) of the ecosystem, you find yourself pushing up against the world. Nothing is easy, but nothing incredible is overlooked. As Janna and I prep up for our southbound hike on the Appalachian Trail, I am looking forward to this sense experience in the green of the East. I grew up in the midwest and I am familiar with the green tunnels, humid summers, and muddy trails. However, I know that the sense experience provided by this thru-hike will open up a new imagery. It’ll be difficult everyday. Yet, I know walking away when finished means I will have a new definition of the Eastern forests. A new richness will outline them.
No longer separate from the conditions (adverse or beautiful) of the ecosystem, you find yourself pushing up against the world. Nothing is easy, but nothing incredible is overlooked.
This type of wilderness experience is not just for the backcountry. Urban escapes and local venues can easily still be a sense experience. As a teacher in the sprawling city of Phoenix, taking my students into the local city mountains was still a chance for them to butt up against it all. Just as with music and art, there was at first just an appreciation of the view from the tops of the city mountains. I urged them to look around, but they claimed desert rocks are not much to look at. Fast forward several weeks, and I take them to Oak Flat outside Superior. My students spend the day clambering down a side canyon and up a partially dry wash. We scramble around bends, climb over boulders, and they say their muscles burn. We summit out on a ridge and look out over the high desert full of yuccas in bloom. One of my students take a photo. She stops and says that these rocks (arguably the same as in the city mountains) are now beautiful to her. It just took spending some time outside the car and in the wild.
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