I’m sitting in the car, staring at a long road ahead, thinking, “Damn, what is that!?” It’s a large copper mine in the distance. It looked like a mountain that had been ripped away & drained of its water, trees, animals, & natural beauty. Actually, that’s a pretty accurate description of what happened to it. Nearby, some tourists marvel at the man made wonder. But I know all too well that this thing is a scar. It has polluted the waters & caused this little town to now be a dusty depressed remnant of what I would call devastation.
The other tourists might look to me and wonder why I see it so different than them.
Maybe it’s because it’s not the only little mining town I’ve seen. Maybe it’s because it’s not just the mutilated mountainsides, but also the missing old growth trees replaced by vacant swaths checker-boarding the mountains for countless acres at a birds-eye view. Maybe it’s just because I happen to know a little something more about water quality, mineral extraction, and forgotten wisdom of our natural roots traded for the pursuit of profit. I don’t know. But I do know that I wish I could show them the way I see it now.
Travel is a curious thing. It is more often thought of for its benefiting qualities, which there are many. It can make you appreciate cultural diversity, be less bias, open your view to new experiences, allow you to meet new people, make you more active, teach you new languages, allow you to see more biodiversity, & get you to appreciate your very existence. But it’s also true that, if you do it right, If you travel to experience & learn, you’ll be devastated.
There’s a couple of reasons why.
One: you expect things. You have preconceived notions of what the world is like. It’s likely that these are often just plain wrong. Until you go, you really don’t know. Many of the perspectives of what a place is like are based off of older held views – extended ideas set decades ago. This is the nature of society. We tend to hold on to views of what a place is like based on what our parents tell us. Advertising also plays on these notions and often exaggerates features to boost tourism. So, a place that people think of as “wilderness” will likely have been so 40 years ago maybe. Whereas now, it’s probably something else, more than likely “wilderness themed”. It’s holding onto that idea, often due to retention of profits around that idea…but the idea is slowly dwindling. And it’s fading into a new idea. So, when you come bouncing into this fantasized wilderness retreat, if your paying attention, you’ll probably see pseudo-wilderness. And if you came here because of your love of wilderness, such pseudo-wilderness will devastate you.
I use this example particularly because it’s both very common and very dear to me. I have had a similar experience multiple times. Wilderness is something I adore. But my view of what wilderness really is has changed over the years. I was originally an east coaster (US) and so I viewed the great American West as a remote frontier, with pockets of wilderness to lose myself it. In the words of John Muir, I wanted to, “lose my mind and find my soul.” But back then I hadn’t yet traveled there and I also had forgotten that the days of John Muir were long ago. A lot has changed since then. The dam he fought so hard to avoid had been built. The park he fought so hard to establish had been replaced with crowds, fires, animal conflicts, & bucket-lister tourists who are essentially “petting it to death.” That is devastating.
A similar example is that of forests. I love forests. I love walking through them, hearing birds, seeing wildlife, touching mosses & ferns. I love spending evenings high on ridges overlooking the forest. But as I started to pay attention, as well as read & learn, grasp the economic & political sides, I began seeing something else. A checkerboard. Logging. Later I learned that the national forests are more of tree farms. I learned that old growth trees and forests are nearly gone yet still dwindling. I learned that fires are worsening from human interferences and climate change is threatening more of these forests than ever before. It was devastating.
One more example. Native history. As I traveled I learned more about their displacement. I see people reading road-side signage with a, “that’s cool!” disposition but when I read it my reaction was more of an eyebrow crunching disgust. I realized these were repeated tales of people being systematically removed and de-cultured. It was devastating.
So, if you’ve stayed with me this far your probably thinking, “So why the hell would I want to travel?” or maybe, “What’s your point?”
My point is actually that travel is amazing! You might say, “What!? After all that!?” Yes! I’m not necessarily crazy (not in this case at least). And I’m not necessarily a toxic tourist (Yes, that’s a real thing. Anything for a buck, right?) I’m just one of the few very different kind of travelers & part of that is that I’m also a life learner. Travel allowed me to learn the truth. The truth is not something we can learn if we are looking only for things that make us feel good. The truth is simply: the truth. Neutral. We don’t truly learn until we accept it as that. And we get a lot from learning! We become smarter, more culturally appreciative, open-minded, less anthropocentric, better at making informed decisions, we know what we don’t know, we know what we want out of life, we know what we love, and we know what we believe in. Hey, that rings a bell, doesn’t it!?! Those are the great things people say we can get from travel. But if you go about traveling to look only for things that make you feel good (or simply to check a bucket list or impress your friends) rather than to learn the truth, explore, & be changed by the things that are devastating, you won’t find those great things. So let it devastate you if you really want to experience the benefits of travel.
Devastation to enlightenment is kind of like what failure is to success. You almost need to fail to become strong enough to know what you really want & wise enough to reach the goal. Failure is also sometimes a change in direction that serves as a compass to a place you didn’t know existed. Likewise, you almost need to be devastated to be keen enough to learn the truth & wise enough to appreciate it all. Devastation can also serve as a compass that leads you to new experiences as you navigate the full terrain of possibilities. Travel is not just a physical journey, it’s a journey of the mind, too.
More Devastating Discoveries
Interested in a couple more of the devastating discoveries we’ve experienced during our adventures? Here are some more tough lessons:
- There is garbage floating in the Arctic Ocean in a dump belonging to a town, Tuktoyaktuk, which was only just connected to civilization via roadway in 2017.
- There’s a giant pit of toxic water, called the Berkeley Pit, in Montana, which threatens to overflow into the towns water. It has been indicted for the death of some geese that sadly landed on its waters in 2016 only to face death as result.
- A lot of the land is paved over. We thrive on finding back roads, & there are a lot of those. But so much has been paved & continues to be at an increasing rate. We would like to just have dirt roads, & probably less of all roads. Dissected habitats are having critically negative impacts on many species well-being & survival.
- There seems to be no more rush hour. That’s not a good thing, because what I’m really implying is not a lack of rush hour but that it is nearly constant in most cities. When we drive through any city, it’s always a standstill. I found this article that lists some of the worst cities for traffic and as I write this we’re making our way through a very congested Portland (which made 7 on that list).
- There are cows all over U.S. public lands. All. Over. Interesting fun cow facts: There are nearly 100 million cows in the US (while there’s about 300 million people). Globally, human population is rising at about 1.2 % per year, livestock numbers are double that – at 2.4% ! (You can read more about this livestock population crisis)
- As a result of the aforementioned point, there are traps & cyanide bombs scattered on U.S. public lands to destroy livestock’s threats such as wolves & deemed nuisance animals like coyotes (Doesn’t work, by the way, as research shows coyotes increase their litter size as a result of these previous deaths ). If you haven’t read the sad story of Canyon who watched his dog suffer a death by cyanide bomb, here’s a link . The family is still fighting for justice today. This all makes us a bit more nervous about public land excursions. As Idaho and Montana continue to grapple with trapping, states like Colorado, Washington, California, and Arizona have thankfully banned trapping on public lands.
- There’s a lot of pollution everywhere, including public lands. Most accessible campfire pits are full of garbage, campsites scattered with glass & clay pigeons, cigarette butts all over, dirty diapers left, plastics in waterways, toilet paper tossed around, & bread clips at just about every site!
Time for a Change of Mood?
These are just a few “highlights” (or lowlights if that’s more accurate). If, after all that, you need an uplifting alternative, check out my other article about the top inspiring things we’ve learned from traveling.