Before setting out onto the Great Trail in 2019 we applied for sponsorship to every outdoors company and outfitter in Canada and we were promptly refused from everyone. Some were kind and courteous, others thought the undertaking was absurd (who would hike for science and birds?!?), while a few commented that “there was little point in hiking across Canada because it had already been done.” Their focus in supporting ventures was “to get that once in a lifetime outdoors moment, that was unique and that no one had yet to experience”. Two responses bluntly stated that “If it has already been done by someone no one will be interested in it.” “To be noteworthy it has to be rare and a unique experience. If others have already hiked it then your venture is not unique. ”
Unsurprisingly, we disagreed with these assessments that anything already undertaken is not worth revisiting or experiencing for ourselves. Our view is that that every moment in nature is unique and that it is personal and worthwhile to each individual. Just because someone else has seen an American Robin or visited the same tree does not make the experience any lesser for anyone else.
Unfortunately, this sense of things has begun to pervade the world. People are more likely to visit a place if it appears on a ‘must do’ or ‘top 10 list’ rather than exploring a region. Travelers often stick to the proscribed itinerary, set out in accord with guide books, and visit the ‘essential selfie spots’ for the ‘must see views’ rather than wandering and discovering for themselves. Similarly, many birders ignore the supposed ‘common species’ in favor of rare sightings to build up life lists. Publicly, exploration these days seems to more often take the form of a Google Search rather than an aimless amble in the forest.
Now don’t get me wrong, it is an easy mindset to get into. Despite protestations of our individuality, we all seem geared towards doing what others do, collecting the same experiences, seeing the same things, and eating the same foods, all the while being driven by a ‘fear of missing out’. Consciously or not, we all do it. Just as many of us take and post pictures that get more likes, garner more comments, and get more reactions. We are especially guilty of this when choosing which pictures get posted and which do not.
I had never realized how influenced I was by this type of social thinking until trekking on the Camino Frances across Spain. On this pilgrimage most people dutifully follow their Brierley guidebook, set their schedules by its itinerary, stop at the most recommended albergues, eat at the suggested cafés, and stay strictly to the route that is marked with yellow arrows and shells. Residences that are further down the list in the guidebook, are off the trail a bit, or restaurants that are a block or two away are often far emptier. People were stunned when we wandered through towns at night (well off the Camino route) to explore and photograph. Questions by other pilgrims followed us across the country : How do you know where you are going? What are you looking for specifically? What happens if you get lost? What is over there to see? What happens if you get over there and there is nothing to see? Why would you go that way, nothing in the guide book mentions anything of interest that way.
One night on the Camino we had dinner with a wonderful couple from New Mexico. As the evening moved on the conversation wove and dodged from topic to topic, but at one point the wife of the duo turned the subject towards her field – art. She was particularly bothered by what she had seen happening in the museums and galleries of Europe that she had visited before setting out en route to Santiago. According to her, in each institution there were predictably hundreds of people lined up to see some of the world’s rarest and greatest works. However ,she was soon stunned to discover - most were not there to actually look at them. Instead, after hours of waiting, people would get to paintings such as the Mona Lisa only to quickly pull out their cell phones, turn their backs on the iconic work, and take a selfie. She was horrified to realize that most people were venturing across the world to visit the likes of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, or to see the ancient sites of Rome, yet never took the opportunity to look at the displays, relics, or art. What they wanted was a selfie with that ‘bucket list’ item, or a ‘rare work’, or those things that ‘were once in a life time to see’. No one was looking, they were just mechanically collecting.
She had begun to notice the same thing on the Camino. Where guidebooks listed a particular place or church as iconic or unique everyone would take pictures. Where there were designated photo spots along the pilgrimage route – in areas that wooden frames had been set up and where individuals were encouraged to take pictures, people would be lined up to get the ‘must see vista’.
In contrast, there was us. She was intrigued by us because she often saw one of us in the middle of a field taking pictures of interesting landscapes, or in town at night photographing beautiful buildings or city streets. She was interested not because someone carrying a heavy camera and binoculars was unusual (though it was), but because of the people who she saw watching us. As she observed, most people who noticed one of us would either quickly take a picture in the same direction without knowing why, or have very confused looks on their faces, while many also began quickly consulting their guide books to figure out what they were missing out on.
Of course, as we all do when we are younger, we each believe that there is always more time and another opportunity to come back and see things again. Yet I increasingly have a sense that many people now go through life assuming that common things will be seen and enjoyed in the regular course of events and that only the ‘ultra rares’ and ‘once in a life time moments’ are worth our dedicated attention. How different are those people who collect Pokemon, from those who take selfies, from those who build life lists?
This way of approaching the world leaves me with so many questions. What makes something ‘a rare’, ‘unique moment’, ‘and something that we should not miss out on’? Who decides these things? How do these attitudes affect those who are just beginning to explore the world? Would a woodpecker be made more magnificent or noteworthy if it was any more colorful? Would a warbler be more important if it had a sweeter song? Or would our avian friends be more important if so many of them were not simply ‘Little Brown Birds’? Doesn’t reducing things to subjective notions of ‘common’, ‘rare’ and ‘must do’ ignore the uniqueness of each moment? Doesn’t it ignore the intrinsic beauty in each species? And doesn’t it risk each of us missing out on our own chance to have a personal once in a life time experience?
This sense of the world and the approach to the outdoors that is promoted by guide books and emphasized by Google results has, I think, begun to become a barrier to experience, inquiry, and exploration. If a trail or a forest isn’t included as a top recommended spot then it likely goes unnoticed. If a region isn’t listed as a hot birding site it’s often rejected by many as a waste of time to visit. The Google prioritization of the world also impacts upon how we conceive of nature, and time in nature as well. So many people that we have talked with think of nature as only being found in places of ‘pristine wilderness’ such as Fundy, Algonquin, Whiteshell, or Jasper, or in exotic locations. Yet nature can in fact be found (and explored) everywhere from our own backyards and community parks to urban trails in the most unexpected of places. The reality is that if we let ourselves believe that nature can only be found in remote locations and ‘must see’ spaces, or believe that we have to be a certain person or look a certain way to participate in the outdoors, then we miss out on all of the possibilities regularly available to all of us, right here, right now.
Regardless of where you are, how detailed the Wikipedia entry might seem, how many online reviews there are, or how well everyone might think that a region, site or species is known, there is still a lot more of the world to be explored and discovered. So much of nature is just waiting for your curiosity and your questions.
In my opinion, regions are more than their top 10 hotspots, more than their best cuisines, and more than their iconic sites. They are better understood in their own daily rhythms, sounds, and the unique feel of each area in the moment they are experienced. The heavy smell of fresh bread coming out of a bakery in the morning. The bliss of sitting in the shade of a tree on the hottest of summer days. The feel of the ocean’s spray on your face as you sit on the coastline. The sound of a paddle as it breaks the water as you move across a lake. The call of a loon in the morning outside of your tent. The smell of your clothes the day after sitting around a campfire. The feel of sand between your toes on a beach. The pleasant conversations had with strangers as you visit a new town. All of these things (and so much more) are at the heart of exploration and experiences. Each are unique to the moment and to you when you are in the middle of them. The world is full of so much more than the ‘must see lists’ online and ‘top 10 things to do’ recommendations of Facebook groups.
So many people these days seem caught between having a ‘fear of missing out’ and only wanting to have those ‘once in a lifetime moments’. In the process of waiting to only see the world at the perfect moment and at the designated place the reality is that we are missing out on so many essential and unique moments.
This year, as things get back to normal, we encourage everyone to take some time to step off the main trail every once in a while, to see the world through your own eyes, and to explore nature in your own way…and at long last actually have that once in a life time experience that is unique to you.