Day 7: Distance
This is one of my ♥ favorite essays
Oregon Coast Bike Ride, Day 7
May 5, 2002
Humbug Mountain State Park to the California Line
4:46 saddle time
12.5 mph avg. speed.
Weather: Sunny and cool, moderate NW wind; morning rain.
Today, to my vast disappointment, I reach the California state line. This was, by all conventional measures, the best day of my trip. The roads nearly empty of cars; only a little rain, in the morning; mile after gorgeous mile opening in front of me.
By a rough calculation, I have had a hundred hours or so alone inside my head. Quite a lot of stuff is rattling around in there: my sick dog, my failed marriage, my new and not entirely welcome life of retirement. These thoughts are easy. More than a year ago I discovered a thumbnail guide to personal happiness, which has maintained my spirits through the messy stuff of my life. Besides, in my life outside this trip, I have day after day of nothing to do and everything to think about. Many of those 100 hours of thought eventually went into an appreciation of distance, and an assay of authentic experience.
One of the most striking discoveries I made on my trip is that whether I found a particular landscape or vista “beautiful” was almost unrelated to its textbook qualities of beauty. I found, for example, I had little desire to snap photographs of the usual postcard spots. My desire to record this little bike ride was smaller than the experience itself.
See, it’s like this:
The Oregon coast is a Designated Beautiful Place. No, really. Signs remind you constantly, they literally say “Scenic Byway.” On top of that, there are Designated Beautiful Places within the Designated Beautiful Place of the Oregon coast. They are Waysides or Viewpoints or Turnouts. They bear the official stamp of beauty, and have become shrines to a god of landscapes.
But when I’m moving at 13 miles an hour, they are mostly disappointing. By the time I’ve reached a Designated Beautiful Place, I’ve spent the past umpteen minutes riding through it. It’s only at the headlong speed of an automobile that I feel those places are really any different than all the other places along the Oregon Coast.
An interesting psychological effect of calling some places “beautiful” is that you begin to imagine all the other places as “not beautiful.” Ugly, even. It’s a short step then, from thinking of a place as ugly to treating it like an ugly place which has the queer effect of actually making it ugly. This phenomenon is most starkly revealed in the Tillamook area. Frankly, Tillamook has a lot of scenery going for it: it has a bay and rivers, pastures and cows and cute little dairy farms, hills in the distance. It’s as pretty as any Designated Scenic Place in the Willamette Valley. But ask anyone in Portland what the ugliest piece of the Oregon coast is and you’ll probably hear “Tillamook.” And we treat it that way. It is as if the shoulders are actually paved with broken glass. Cars roar by at 70 mph, anxious to get out of the Tillamook hellhole so they can idle for a few minutes at the next Designated Beautiful Place. And there”s nothing uglier, from the outside of a car, than a car.
Are some places really more beautiful than others? Of course. But that doesn’t make the other places ugly, it just makes them harder to appreciate.
In response to the elevation of some landscapes to “beautiful” status, we have evolved a ritual of landscape worship which serves to reduce the actual meaning of the landscape. On the face of it, it”s obvious that driving as fast as possible through a landscape will do nothing for your appreciation of it. After all, it took thousands or millions of years for that landscape to form; as a blur it”s nearly meaningless.
But this is what I really mean:
I stopped at nearly every scenic wayside on the coast (if for no other reason than to stretch, take a piss, or eat a powerbar), and at almost every wayside I saw this scene at least once. A car pulls off the road onto the wayside with enormous haste. The passenger side window rolls down, the passenger leans out with a camera, and takes a single photo. The passenger side window rolls up, and the car speeds away. The occupants of that car paid the least possible supplication to the god of landscapes at that particular shrine. They have their token of devotion, and they are on their way to the next Designated Beautiful Place to worship. In their careful adherence to the form of the liturgy, they have completely lost its importance.
The implications of my realization -- and it’s not unique -- could fill and have filled books. Ivan Illich made a career out of it. I could carp endlessly on cultural and psychological and moral implications: the erasure of place, the homogenizing of places, the loss of moment, the ecological disaster.
But really, so what? I won’t get anyone out of an SUV and onto a bike. I only know what I realized:
I would rather experience an ugly thing deeply than a beautiful thing superficially. We have the convenient notion that interesting things are rare and thus rare people experience them. Just as most places become “ugly” because only a few places are “beautiful,” a mere handful of experiences are “authentic” and the rest are commonplace. Taking a stroll on Mt. Hood is nowhere near authentic as climbing Mt. Everest, so why bother doing either? I’ll never climb Mt. Everest but John Krakauer has. I’ll leave profound experiences to the professional and rent the movie about his adventures. Besides, climbing Mt. Hood sounds so difficult; it would be much easier if you could drive there in a car. And either way you reach the top, right?
When we cheapen our experiences, it is economical to gather as many of them as possible. This is why the lazy pilgrims don’t even bother getting out of the car. When the closest we can get to an authentic experience is stopping at a scenic wayside, we need to stop at as many as possible. After all, 20 nickels are the same as four quarters. Rather than seeking to do a few difficult things, we’ll settle for doing lots of easy things. I fear that through our unslakable thirst for authenticity, packing into our lifetimes as many cheap experiences as possible, our lives may lose authenticity entirely.
I have a friend who correctly points out that because so few people live this credo, those of us who do get more of the good stuff for ourselves. When I was backpacking in Yellowstone almost 10 years ago I noticed that, while the highways and parking lots were packed with a hell of humanity, if you walked 100 yards on a trail the crowds dropped to half. If you walked a mile you were probably alone. National Parks have the reputation of being ovecrowded; but geez, Yellowstone is HUGE. A million people could walk around in it at once and barely glimpse each other.