Vanishing Experiences

| October 10, 2013

Recently I had some business to attend to in Salt Lake City and was able to revisit some of my old haunts in the Wasatch Mountains. Things have changed, some in subtle ways, others more profoundly. In the few years I’ve been away, some of the once-bumpy mountain roads were paved; others were improved for easier travel. More striking were the trailheads. It was just a few years ago that I could count on my car being the sole vehicle in some of these, sometimes for several days. Today, the same parking areas are overflowing into the canyon roads, sometimes for 1/4 mile or more, on a weekday.

Change was evident on last week’s trip with long time friend and inspirational photographer Michael Gordon, too. Our first couple of days were spent in solitude, visiting anonymous places and camping among the aspens in the falling snow. On the second part of the trip, however, we headed east to an area rich in Native American history. Over the last couple of decades I’ve become accustomed to having many of these ancient sites to myself on almost any visit, but this time we had company in every one of them, including ones requiring long hikes. The high visitation was also evident in artifacts missing (stolen) from ruins and trash along the trails.

It’s an ironic situation in some ways. Of course I understand what drives people to these places. I also concede that photographers, like me, have been greatly responsible for introducing them to a wider audience. I don’t begrudge anyone going there, but at the same time I am painfully aware of the difference in feeling. It is not the same. Something much larger than popularity is at stake; something that often goes unnoticed: the experience. To visit these sites alone, and have the freedom to experience them in solitude and silence, is a deeply moving experience. It is not unlikely that in my own lifetime an unsuspecting hiker may have this experience for the last time, ever.

It is just as certain that many such experiences, in other places, will never again be possible.

I don’t really have a solution, and I doubt one exists. Change happens, whether we want it or not. It does, however, make me sad to think that some of the experiences that shaped and transformed my own life in such significant ways, ultimately will vanish; some perhaps sooner rather than later. It makes me appreciate what I have today even more, recognizing the importance of visiting these remaining places of wildness, quiet and solitude, as much and as often as I can, and to try to convey what little of it I can in my images and writings.

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (14)

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  1. QT Luong says:

    The most heavily used trail in Arches National Park leads to Landscape Arch. During the day, there is a constant stream of visitors. Last year, during the height of the season, I hiked the trail and stayed for several hours, not encountering a single person. I started at 11pm. A possible solution if one seeks solitude ?

  2. Russ Bishop says:

    Wonderfully thoughtful post as always Guy.

    I’ve experienced the same thing in more remote areas over the past several years. There is nothing to be done (nor should there be), but you’re right in that it changes the experience.

    Solitude is such a part of the whole especially in the Native American sites. But as QT mentions, if you’re willing to take a different course than the mainstream, you can still find that connection.

  3. Mike Houge says:

    I think most of us that have been in the wilds have been experiencing the same thing for years. Truth be told, this has been happening to folks for thousands of years. Some call it progress but it is sad to experience, I also enjoy my solitudes.

  4. Wade Thorson says:

    Having lived in Northern Arizona for 30 years now, I’ve seen those wild places become run by concessionaires. Free access replaced by tollbooths. I know what it feels like to loose the experience, at least as I knew it.

    Something else that hit me profoundly this evening was from an interview with Malala Yousafzai: “We are human beings and this is the part of our human nature; that we don’t we learn the importance of anything until it is snatched from our hands.”

    Then it dawned on me. I’m not just photographing. I’m preserving the experience, as I knew it. It’s my responsibility to capture those wild places, because those experiences are so easily snatched from our hands.

    Thanks Guy for the conversation.

  5. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, everyone!

    QT, that is certainly an option (though a visit to Arches in most fair-weather nights might make you think aliens have landed, with light painters hard at work under some of the formations). Still, it is a very different experience from a daytime visit and to me is not really a substitute.


  6. Tyson Fisher says:

    Great article Guy. This past summer I tried hiking a trail that I had not been on in quite a few years, and was surprised to find that it is now a limited entry area. It was a little disheartening but at the same time I understood why. I like that your writing always touches on fully experiencing the landscape. It’s an element that has everything to do with creating meaningful landscape images but is not always talked about.

  7. I know the feeling too, especially when it comes to slickrock country and archaeological sites. When I went as a kid, Cedar Mesa felt like true outback and the Moonhouse was an enticing rumor discussed over 7.5-minute quads with a friend who had seen it but couldn’t quite recall where. Times have certainly changed in a number of western landscapes, especially the ones considered particularly iconic or located near the cities.

    But there’s still a lot of country out there that has the opposite story: trails on the map disappearing on the ground for lack of use; old homesteads and mines being reclaimed by the wilderness; inadequately maintained forest roads eroding away; and no shortage of solitude. Two places I’ve spent a lot of time, southwestern New Mexico and central Idaho, saw way more backcountry use in the ’60s and 70’s than they do now. And we keep seeing articles about the aging demographics of outdoor recreationists and national park visitors, with worries that the America of the future will lose much of its appreciation for wilderness and natural scenery. Whenever I get frustrated by trailhead parking, crowds or permit requirements, I try to remind myself that no one visiting these places would be very bad news. I’d very much prefer a happy middle ground, but it’s good to see that our landscapes have a constituency, and I have no trouble finding solitude and silence when I want it. Though I too would like a chance to experience it again in Arches or Anasazi ruins.

  8. Tim says:

    As Mike Houge said, this has been happening for a very long time. Even in the brief history of the US, there have been several waves of groups feeling saddened by the loss brought by crowds. A perfect example is the stereotype of the frontiersman who has to keep moving further west to get to a less crowded area.

    I wouldn’t mind so much about the crowds if those people were actually enjoying and experiencing the place. Instead, there are lots of folks who just want to check off an item on their list, take some snapshots, and move on to the next spot. Many of them seem to only look at the scene through the LCD on their camera or phone. They might as well be at Disneyland.

    One benefit of enjoying landscape photography is that it really encourages you to take the time to experience a place. Maybe you arrive and see that the light will be better in a bit, so you can relax and enjoy where you are. Long exposure work is great because while the camera is working, you can just be.

  9. Allan Culver says:

    Point Lobos a highly trafficked park in the summer, but I can go there in July and feel totally alone. I arrive when the park opens, drive past the first two parking lots and stop at Weston Beach. I usually will have the first 2 hours to myself.

    You can be by yourself in highly populated areas, just pick your time and don’t stop at the first parking lot you come to.

  10. It’s always impressive to see changes that can go quite far. I don’t know if we can say it is bad or good to have more people at a place, I think it really depends on the people that are going there. The output will of course be different if you’re talking to a shop owner not far away or just someone wanting some peace…

  11. Jim says:

    I often find myself writing about this same topic on my Google+ and Facebook pages, which I use basically as a blog. After a while I started feeling a bit guilty about it; as though I was being greedy and selfish when I wrote about how different an experience is when you have the area to yourself versus being part of a crowd. It’s impossible to tell people they need to care about our national treasures while simultaneously telling them they aren’t allowed to visit them. It’s encouraging to find that there are many others who feel the same way. As you wrote, it’s not about selfishness, it’s about the loss of experience and spiritual connection with the location.

    It used to be that if you encountered other people at these locations, they tended to be like-minded and were quite respectful of the site and the other people around them. That’s not the case anymore. I tend to vent my frustrations on the bulk of the visitors, but in reality it’s a handful of people who make things miserable: those who steal artifacts (as you mentioned), vandalize historic sites such as Native American rock art (as we saw to such an extent in National Parks this past summer that some of them had entire areas closed), are loud, disruptive and obnoxious and those who leave the trails and sites littered with plastic bottles, cans and empty snack wrappers.

    By all means go and enjoy the amazing parks and landmarks around the country, but please stop actively degrading the experience for the rest of us.

  12. Wonderful post Guy, and it hits me right between the eyes. I can easily relate to your story. I have witnessed the degradation that comes with the addition of people to the swamps, springs, and beautiful land over the last 40+ years since I first started visiting those beautiful places. I too don’t have an answer, and I’m sad that it will continue.