Two years ago, I was driving through the Scottish countryside with my family. We pulled over onto a little offshoot of the one-lane two-way-traffic road that poked out into a narrow valley. Spectacularly green slopes rose all around us, and though they were tall and probably far away, their height made them feel close to us, like we were in the middle of a misty green hug.
We had stopped because my dad wanted pictures. So naturally, everyone jumped out of the rental car, and my brothers and I started jumping on the rocks that served as stepping stones through the wild grass and shrubs.
The scene was beyond words. The rocks, the grass dotted with thistles and Queen Anne’s lace, the huge hills, the moisture in the air that filled my lungs with life all worked together to create a moment in time that was too good to be true. The hills called me, and I longed to run through them, singing like Princess Belle, or spreading my arms wide like Julie Andrews, or on a mission like Katniss Everdeen. I was so close to something real. Something more than hiking trails and playgrounds. Something like… true freedom.
Ah, what a feeling. If only, I thought, I had no air-conditioned car to carry me away, and no carefully paved road to guide me. It would just be me and beautiful nature, and I would be free to truly, authentically experience this mossy wonderland.
There in that bright, narrow valley, my thoughts were interrupted because my foot missed a rock and instead dipped into marshy mud.
I had thought I was in a midst of a long, sweeping meadow that rolled over the hills and stretched on until the horizon. But upon further inspection, I realized that I was indeed standing in the midst of a giant marsh; the rocks peeking through the grass were the only sturdy ground until I made it back to the road.
For a second there, I thought I had arrived. I was so close to fulfilling that dream of running carefree over hill and plain. But then came the mud, and then came the tick that I found on my leg later that night.
I’ve noticed that people my age care a lot about authentic experiences. The topic comes up everywhere—in the commercials that try to push unwanted and unneeded products down our throats, in the carefully edited Instagram posts that we scroll past without ever really seeing, in the cheesy lines and lyrics of makeup-laden celebrities.
Our desire to find authentic experiences is so deep that it makes us overlook simple questions like, what are they? And why do we want them? And can we tell what is authentic from what is fake?
In psychology, authenticity is a term that measures how much a person’s inner self is expressed day-to-day. In existentialist philosophy, authenticity has a similar meaning: it is a measure of how closely a person’s inner desires match their outward actions. This concept has somehow broadened, and it can now also refer to experiences. But how can an experience be authentic? While this question seems baffling, we are exceptionally skilled in deeming certain experiences “fake” and “inauthentic.”
I’ve been a tourist multiple times. And something about the experience never feels truly authentic.
When I first saw the Colosseum in Rome four years ago, it was under construction for repairs. Scaffolding hid a substantial portion of the monument behind metal poles and tarps. And for the part not being worked on, the insane number of other tourists choked out its vast architectural magnificence. It felt small, like a walk-through museum. It did not feel like a real arena where real humans fought to the death and real spectators watched.
I did all sorts of things to try to minimize this inauthentic experience. I tried to dress like the locals of Rome, hoping that if I could conceal that I was an outsider, I would be treated like I genuinely belonged there. I tried to angle my camera in such a way that the scaffolding was cropped. I waited until the tour guide had led most of the group on to the next stopping point so that my pictures captured as few heads and shoulders as possible.
But of course these measures did not accomplish much other than leaving me walking around on 10 miles of Rome’s concrete sidewalks in uncomfortable, business-casual tops and fashionable—but paper-thin—flats. They left me with awkwardly angled pictures of the Colosseum where much of the photograph is sky and only the bottom is ancient Roman monument. They left me missing the tour guide’s most engaging stories and interesting facts because I was always the last in the group.
And what about this experience was “unreal” or “inauthentic,” anyways? It did, of course, really happen. Why do we hate being reminded that we are tourists, and that we do not belong in these places?
Maybe it’s because what we see as tourists does not match what we expect to see.
Dr. Elissa Weichbrodt is an art history professor here at Covenant, and when she lectures in the required freshmen seminar class, she talks about how the images we see effect the way we view reality. She says that everyone has a mental file where we store all of the images we encounter, whether on social media, in movies, on billboards, in illustrations, and anywhere else.
These images work together to define what we view as good, bad, and picture-worthy. Google the word “sunset,” she tells each incoming freshman class, and click on the Images tab. Every sunset that shows up has certain characteristics: highly saturated, vibrant colors; fluffy, sweeping clouds that turn golden in the fading sunlight; a natural horizon rather than urban; a breath-taking level of beauty.
Notice that these descriptions of the Google results do not match the typical sunsets that we see. A typical sunset is hidden by clouds, or it is obscured by telephone wires and buildings, or it colors the sky bland and pastel. We do not take pictures of these sunsets because they do not match the pictures of “good sunsets” that are stored in our mental files.
In the same way, I wonder if we define an “authentic experience” as one that matches the images we have collected. The images we see of famous tourist sites, despite them being tourist destinations, have a surprising absence of tourists. The images we see of the Colosseum do not depict it buried under scaffolding. And so, to match these idealized pictures that we think represent the “real” and the “authentic,” we try to cultivate pictures as close to these images as possible.
It’s ironic, isn’t it?
Last summer, my family and I fulfilled my dad’s years-long dream of traveling to France. We stayed in three different locations throughout the trip: Paris, Nice, and les Gorges dus Verdon, the Verdon Gorge.
This gorge has been described as the Grand Canyon of Europe. At its base is the winding, glowing, turquoise Verdon River. Flat sheets of white rock shoot up on either side of the river and, as they stretch upward, form into the slopes and peaks of mountains. These rocky slopes are studded with dark trees and narrow two-lane roads that nervously trace the steep edges.
We stayed a few nights in Rougon, a village—if you can call it that—with a population of 104. It lays in the fold of one of these mountains, and it encapsulates every charm imaginable: an eroded cobblestone alley winds through the twenty-odd buildings, the ruins of an ancient castle look down from a narrow point, the town’s baker bakes his bread fresh every morning and then sends the correct number of loaves to each home. A content dog lays in the threshold of the ice cream and grocery shop in the cool of the evening. The town’s only restaurant does not have hours; it remains open until the last laughter has died down and the owners are ready for bed.
Rougon only has one road leading to it, but it serves as the crossroads for a maze of hiking trails that surround the gorge and stretch through the region for miles in every direction.
My family was enchanted by these trails and the nature all around that called us in, so naturally we ventured on some meager expeditions. One took us from Rougon down to Point Sublime, a lookout which dropped down sharply on nearly every side and gave us a magnificent, sweeping view of the river, the gorge, and the surrounding mountains. Another trail led from Rougon up to the tiny, steep point where a castle used to stand guard over the town. Yet another trail led up behind Rougon to the peak that overshadowed the town.
Each of these trails proudly displayed the majesty of nature, yet none of them quite seemed to satisfy me. My brother Evan voiced my feelings well when he said that he wanted to forge his own way. He did not want a guided trail telling him where to go; he wanted to “trailblaze,” as he romantically called it.
I remember having two very conflicting reactions to this: on the one hand, I wanted to join him. I knew the desire he felt, and I had it too. But I also remember asking myself, “Why is the trail not good enough?”
He later described sticking to those hiking trails as being “a tourist through nature.”
My analytic self said “What?!” to this notion. “Look around! It doesn’t get more ideal than this!” But my sentimental self whole-heartedly knew exactly what he was talking about. Like being a tourist at a famous destination, there seemed something inauthentic about hiking. I had always felt that, but never been able to express it until having this conversation with Evan.
And it reminded me of Dr. Weichbrodt and that darned file of mental images. I remembered car commercials that used to inspire my brothers and I. We started using “jeep” as an adjective to describe something really cool and skilled in kicking butt after seeing a commercial like this one, that showed Jeeps driving off roads, hurling through water, and jumping off ledges.
And similar commercials continued filling our heads with mental pictures of what true adventure looks like. Watch this 2016 Mercedes-Benz SUV commercial, scroll through Pinterest for a few minutes, or check out some of the most-followed Instagram travel accounts and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Our brains are constantly flooded with a concept of what travel and adventure should be. It looks like this: we are alone out in the wilderness or in front of some monumental structure, the colors are all bright, there is no evidence of imperfections or difficulties.
Maybe this is where we get our idea of “authentic experiences” from. Maybe when we say we want an “authentic” experience, what we really mean is that we want an experience that allows reality to meet this idealized montage of pictures in our heads. That is certainly what travel writer Gary Arndt wrote in his Atlantic article “7 Reasons Why the Authentic Travel Experience is a Myth.” He claimed that one reason our desire to seek authentic experiences will never be filled is that we are “taking photos too literally.” In this article from Under30Experiences, author Kacey Mya lists wanting to repeat what is seen on social media as a reason that millennial travelers are seeking more authentic experiences.
I’m definitely guilty of this. I see stunning images of empty cobblestone streets, and sweeping videos of a woman running through woods and fields, and I want to take part.
I distinctly remember having a sad realization in high school: I may never get to just run through a field, or a wood, or any other stretch of wilderness. Why? Well, for one thing, I realized that I did not know of any nearby wilderness. Every place I knew of was private property, meaning I would have to trespass in order to fulfill that dream of running through the tall grass of a dandelion field with arms stretched open, Princess Belle style. Secondly, my 15-year-old brain realized with dismay, running through a field in such a manner would be miserable. Tall grass is itchy. And muddy. And full of ticks.
As Dr. Weichbrodt pointed out to me, we assume that a photograph, unlike a drawing or a painting, represents reality in accurate and objective documentation. But no single image can do this, because each is limited in its scope, its perspective, its framing, its central focus.
The “authentic” images of travel and adventure show us the beauty of natural landscapes and the charm of towns across the world, but they never show us the ticks. And real life is full of ticks.