Crowds, Chaos, & The Death Of Solitude

I did not grow up with “Nature-Deficit Disorder”, as Richard Louv puts it. Thankfully, I grew up exploring the outdoors, climbing trees and rocks, going camping, and eventually going on more arduous adventures to extremely remote places.

Now, when I see “kids these days” getting out to do their so-called outdoor adventure activities, it is often very disheartening. I lost count of how many “is that a backpack or a boom box?” music-blasting cohorts I’ve encountered on the trail, shattering the peace and quiet with everything from extremely vulgar rap music, to nauseating electronic dance/pop music.

Hey, kids, I feel ya. I’ve been known to play “The Joshua Tree” quietly around the campsite when in Joshua Tree National Park. When in Rome, right? (Sometimes I listen to Enya – The Memory Of Trees, too, when I’m seeking the solitude of a forest… Although for the best possible audio experience, be sure to queue up Aaron Copalnd’s “Appalachian Spring” right as you drive into the tunnel at Tunnel View. You’re welcome!)

Here’s the thing though: you’re really not experiencing the outdoors. What you’re really doing is, you’re dragging your bubble of civilization, tech, and social media with you to what you probably see as just another hot selfie spot.

National Parks Are Being Celebrated To Death

I forget if it was Edward Abbey or someone else who said of the National Parks, “it is possible to celebrate a thing to death”. This is indeed what is happening. For all our apparent love of the outdoors, we are severely lacking in PASSION, (let alone COMPASSION) for the outdoors.

CONSIDER: Visiting popular places on a Weekday / at Midnight / In the dead of Winter

So, what if you really do want to make a positive change in the over-crowding of popular places, yet you’d still like to visit famous places like Zion or Yosemite? It’s time to consider going in the middle of the week, and/or in the middle of the winter. Yes, it might be a bit more brutal of an “outdoor experience” than you’d prefer to have, but you’ll also be rewarded by stunning sights to see, and fewer crowds.

“Secret” Landscape Photography Locations

Maybe you really do love the outdoors enough to go off the beaten path, and find a “secret” location which contains some delicate features or artifacts. Maybe YOU respect the place, but you should probably think twice about how casually you share that location, or even the image itself, on Instagram or Flickr or wherever.

Simply put, it’s time to keep certain locations just a little bit more secret than before. Not because you’re the ONLY one who deserves to be allowed to go there, while others do not. That’s not it at all. It is simply because you cannot trust the sheer volume of people on the internet anymore. Sad but true.

Some have asked me, “well if you’re sharing your photos on social media, what is the point? Aren’t you sharing these photos on Facebook/Instagram in order to share the location with others?” Well, yes and no. Yes, I’m “sharing the location” with you. But really, that’s as far as it goes. The vast majority of the time, what I’m really doing is bringing the location to people who may never be able to go there, simply because they live too far away, or just aren’t that outdoorsy.

The real reason for sharing images on social media is actually much bigger: to promote conservation, to encourage the protection of these beautiful places, so that they aren’t destroyed before future generations can enjoy them.

In other words, I’m not doing this with the hope that everyone who reads my words or views my images will get inspired to go there themselves. Furthermore, it’s not hypocritical to hope that few enough people visit these places to keep them pristine, either. I share my images and stories simply to increase the overall level of appreciation and respect towards these places, by viewers and society as a whole.

Traffic and Crowds At Popular National Parks

The bottom line is this: if you’re of the mindset, “who cares, if people want to sit in traffic, let them sit in traffic!” …then you’re totally missing the point. The point is not whether X (million) number of people are willing to sit in horrendous traffic. I live in Southern California, and let me tell you, there is no short supply of folks who are OK with taking 1-2 hours just to go a few miles; many do it 5+ days a week!

No, the real issue is the long-term effect we’re having. We need to start seriously considering what’s going on here, and how it will impact what future generations see when they come to these same places.

I’m so incredibly lucky to have grown up visiting places like Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. In the 80’s and 90’s, these places were still “packed” on a Saturday in the summer, but it was still a magical adventure. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to turn back the clock that many decades, unfortunately.

 

The best thing we can do is, find ways to reduce our footprint on the existing high-traffic areas, whether through stricter transportation, permitting, or “reasonable” fee increases. Personally, I absolutely do struggle with what to do about all this. As a photographer, it’s my passion to document beautiful places and share the imagery with the world. By posting photos on Instagram, tagging locations, etc. etc. I’m literally part of the problem, and I don’t know what to do about it. I can encourage people to not trample on wildflowers just for the sake of a selfie, but that is such a fleeting thing; the flowers will eventually wilt anyways, and next year it will be roughly the same.

Explore The Outdoors (And Share Your Experience) For The Right Reasons

I do know this: I’m going to begin by making sure that I do not just mindlessly circulate my “content” for the sole purpose of my own traffic (fame) or even financial gain. (No, you will not see my Instagram account using the hashtags like “#epicshotz” or “#instagood”…) Yes, I’d love to do outdoor photography full-time, but not if it is an abuse of those places that I love. So, I will start by making sure that what I do share with the world is given as much context as possible, concerning the reality of the situation. I’m not seeking out remote, beautiful locations because I want more “likes”, I’m seeking them out because I want to actually see the place with my own eyes, and document it, in hope that the images might aide in preserving that place, not merely increasing traffic to it.

If you message me asking for GPS coordinates or advice on places to go in general, I may not respond. I do love making new friends, however, and even crossing paths with others in the outdoors, so if we do cross paths online or in the real world, and I get to know you pretty well, then I might share a place with you.

But, it is no longer safe to just share special locations with strangers. The absolute best advice I can give you is to have a true passion for the outdoors, not just a selfish desire for stimulation and excitement. Whether on the beaten path or off, you’ll find plenty of adventure out there. Just keep in mind that what we’re doing today may very well be sealing the fate of a place for tomorrow. So at a bare minimum, don’t litter, don’t go off the trails, …LEAVE NO TRACE. And please respect the sacredness of peace and quiet as you venture off the more high-traffic trails.

In these past two decades, the real meaning of wilderness—solitude, peace and tranquility, open space—has disappeared from the wilderness debate. And understand that instead, the emphasis has shifted away from preservation of the natural world to the exploitation of its very beauty for fun and profit.