Words and Photos by Sara Aranda
Dear Social Media,
Vanity doesn’t function in the outdoors. If you’re thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I doubt you’re worrying about whether or not your pictures show you looking sexy, or how your social media channels are doing. Nature can be very unforgiving, and the wild will challenge you for your intellect, awareness, agility, and fortitude, not caring how you look or who you think you are. There are voids in time out there, where your character and morals hold no weight and survival comes only to those who know how to scavenge for it.
The world of climbing and other outdoor sports is an odd place for vanity, isn’t it? Search Instagram and find many men and women looking flawless in the outdoors. All those beauties in trucker hats looking clean and savvy in their vans. You have to ask – how real is it all? I just spent a week climbing low-angle off-width and pushing my lead head on 5.10 cracks, shredding hands and forearms, bruising legs and I end up looking like someone took a bat to my body, not to mention the dozens of swelling mosquito bites I endured. And when I lived out of my Jeep and pop-up camper trailer last Fall, my hair grew greasy and tangled. So how the hell do they look so flawless?
Those photos are often just as manicured and posed as the people in them.
To me it seems obvious, but many folks from beyond these natural areas, they don’t seem to get it. I have a love/hate relationship to social media. I want to promote the outdoors and all the activities I love, and I enjoy testing gear and writing about this and that, but the more the outdoors are being talked about and shared, the more I see young people snow-shoeing into the backcountry in their Uggs, or trash and toilet paper left behind boulders. People see what advocates like me promote and (it seems like) they don’t do the research. Look how easy it must be! So they pay for their trip and show up, expecting things that aren’t real for them. They come face to face with the woods and know nothing about how to navigate it if they get lost, or what to bring, or what’s appropriate to wear when the forecast calls for rain (did they even check?), or what Leave No Trace entails. They come but they don’t respect nature.
“We can spend a lifetime in parks and wilderness areas and on adventure-travel trips and remain starved for wild country and wild people.” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (29), 1996
Living in Yosemite Valley, every weekend I saw people park their cars in meadows. I watched a woman take posed selfies with her red, red lips for five minutes before renting a bike from me. And it’s the manner in which she carried herself for which I judged her: why is such a photo more important than where she is, what she’s about to do; or what message is she sending her audience? Look how I look in nature.
I overheard a few women talk about their outfits for their climbing class and how “spandex looks better for face climbing.” I can understand leggings being a preference for comfort and mobility, but looking better over pants? I shake my head at tourists, yeah, feel bad for their sunburns, feel sick when another one goes over a waterfall. But obviously this extends beyond tourism. Local enthusiasts can be just as clueless or have ill-intention when they dismiss signs, leave trash, or deface natural resources. We all must be held accountable.
Thus, more and more, I look at my own social media and wonder what messages I’m sending. I remind myself of the original dirtbags, daring mountaineers, and avid outdoorsmen/women who could care less about media and, well, how they looked to others. And every day I question whether my self-promotion is warranted – will this actually help further my freelance career or am I just being…vain?
With the introduction of climbing into the eye of the social media beast, vanity and a plague of visitation would inevitably rear their ugly heads. Outdoor brands are obviously drawn to good-looking people to sell and rep their products (which are often hired models), and now that us outdoor-athlete ‘Millennials’ are showing off our social media skills, we’re ever more likely to be picked for their ads and campaigns. As exciting as it is to become ambassadors or adventure ‘talent’, it’s a tricky line to balance. At what point do you sell out? At what point do you sound arrogant, cliché, or labeled as a spray queen? And at what cost to those who aren’t media savvy but are more badass and are actually pushing the boundaries to the sport? I’ve heard stories of professionals losing sponsorship to the fresh, young, not-as-groundbreaking, social media guru.
Vanity and being boastful will never be a virtue in my opinion, and will never hold weight amidst the elements. I question whether or not I want this career path all the time. And, unfortunately, shameless self-promotion is necessary, especially for those of us trying to gain footing in the industry, and it makes me sad. The value of the actual writing is only permissible once the audience knows what you look like and what social media channels you’re famous on.
But associated issues extend beyond this, and becomes a discussion about tourism and land management in general.
“Humans become foreigners to the wild, foreigners to an experience that once grounded their most sacred beliefs and values. […] Wilderness tourism is not a free lunch. Its worse consequence is that is conceals what should be its primary use: the wild as a project of the self. […] The kind of wildness [the founders of wilderness preservation] experienced has become very rare – an endangered experience. As a result, we no longer understand the roots of our own cause.” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (86), 1996
Tourists and locals alike have asked, “Where are all the attractions?” and I laugh and tell them to look up. I see news highlights on people disobeying Park regulations in Yellowstone and putting a baby bison in their car or trampling beyond boardwalks. I scolded someone for feeding a squirrel with a pretzel in her hand, for a photo. She was feeding it right in front of a sign that said “Keep Wildlife Wild! Do not feed the animals.” I was livid. There’s just too many of us fiending to #getoutside but with no foundation nor proper outdoor ethics. Many seek National Parks and beautiful public lands as if they are going to an amusement park or a zoo, to pose with “wild” animals and be highly “entertained” – is it because media presents these places as such? And with so much media and virtual overload in today’s society, how do you amuse a city-slicker stepping into the silence of the forest for the very first time?
We remind them of how imperative nature is to our psyche, our physicality, our spirit. We teach them to cherish the self-will inherent in nature, to respect the living planet, to remove themselves from the stage they are so used to walking on.
“We accept abstract information in place of personal experience and communication. This removes us from the true wild and severs our recognition of its value. Most people don’t miss it and won’t miss it in the future. Most people literally do not know what we are talking about.” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (25), 1996
I consider the mountains, the deserts, the oceans, to be a sanctuary, a living haven for wanderers to seek refuge, to meditate, to dream, to fall in love, push comfort zones and relish existentialism beneath the cosmos, strengthen bonds with friends and family, discover pieces to the puzzle that is life. These are NOT places to claim or conquer, trash, or manipulate. Be grateful these places are still here – we must savor every raindrop, look up, remember our place against the sky, feel the Earth and how it trembles when the thunder speaks. We are as soft and transient as the dogwood, and we must remain so – tread as lightly as a wind passing through, paying homage to the wild from whence we came. It’s romantic, but it’s so fucking true.
“We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” – Stephen Jay Gould, “Unenchanted Evening,” Natural History, 1991
So if us outdoor promoters are to continue to be stewards of the places we hold so dear, we must remember to extend our knowledge and outdoor ethics as well. If we are the ones people look up to as a resource, then we must be responsible, lead by example and be active teachers. We must be selfless in this way, give back to the planet, act sustainably and promote environmental agendas. We can’t be afraid of activism. Otherwise, the wild will continue to be a diminished experience, and every place will be viewed from a tram ride with virtual animals and virtual trees.
Imagine how claustrophobic we would all be, already are, becoming.
“One of my heroes said he could imagine no finer life than to arise each morning and walk all day toward an unknown goal forever. Basho said this is our life. So go for a walk and clear the mind of this junk. Climb right up a ridge, over the talus and through the whitebark pine, through all those charming little grouse wortleberries, and right on into the blue sky…” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (66), 1996