While camping this past week, a last-minute trip for much-needed nature, I spent a lot of hikes revisiting a question that’s been in the back of my mind for years. The landscape around Ithaca is famous for gorges and waterfalls. Straight from the Visitors’ Bureau…
Because of some camper maintenance issues, this trip was being reimagined and rebooked with about ONE DAY’S notice. Like many librarians, I’m a planner. And like many librarians, I’m a savvy searcher. Between tourism websites, travel blogs, and review sites, you can know seemingly everything about a place before you lock the doors to leave your home. But how does that change your expectations about the experience?
My working theory is that it shifts the baseline of expectation. If I’ve researched a trail, or a campground, or a restaurant, and know in detail the terrain, view or most recommended dish, that expectation is now my baseline, leaving me less room for serendipitous discoveries. When instead, I only research the outlines – for instance so I don’t get caught without a place to stay over 4th of July weekend – my days feel more full of wonder. More wonderful? Instead of checking off a mental box that I completed the task I set out to do, I’m constantly asking myself what’s next — what’s over that hill or around that corner?
Scenario One: Hold a map in your hands and walk towards a dot listed “Rock City.” (And question whether you want to walk on the “Rattlesnake Trail” to get there…)
Scenario Two: Google AllTrails and see it has a 4.5 star rating from 158 people who have included 248 photos. Officially, “Rock City Trail is a 1.4 mile heavily trafficked out and back trail located near Morgantown, West Virginia that features beautiful wild flowers and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, nature trips, and birding and is accessible year-round.” Begin reading or listening to hundreds of reviews. Know the exact moment you reach Rock City and where to take an iconic selfie.
This past year was draining on all of us. While we faced uncertainty about big-picture questions related to the virus and the United States, we also faced a lot of monotony in our day-to-day lives. While seated at my desk in the library, my fingers can access just about anything the Internet can provide. On slippery rocks, however, my focus is more immediately careful foot placement. This past week, I walked by waterfall after waterfall with little knowledge about which was more famous or tallest or featured in a movie (or that there was—surprise— another waterfall). And I had no cell service between the cliffside walls to get that information, so instead of staring at the screen in my hands, I broadened my view to the moss and eddies and rock striations. Just yesterday, the Gorge Trail led to the Bear Trail and the end of the park map. In real life, there was a sign for a lake. Which led to a picnic glen. A lake trail. A heron gliding over a marsh I hadn’t known was there a minute before. A question from the only other hiking group about whether this was a good place to swim. (Ummm…not sure I’m your girl for that info, but go for it if you want.) In-the-moment decision making about whether thunder indicated an imminent or distant storm.
A half line from Robert Frost kept popping into my head: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way.” Yes, I doubted I’d be back this way again. On this path. In this weather. In this mindset. In writing this, I remember that I had actually planned to start the aforementioned hike with the rim trail and end in the gorge and only switched because of an off-hand comment a few days previously about how waterfalls look bigger when you are looking up at them. The unexpected lake wouldn’t have been obvious if I had chosen that route.
“Yet knowing how way leads onto way,” how similar to my online life. Alltrails.com to weather.com to reserveamerica.com one day while other serpentine web searches might start on the same trail at Buttermilk Falls and end – in as much as searches ever end – with a search for the country where pancakes originated.
Since I usually have my phone at my fingertips, ready to answer any question I might ask, I forget how rejuvenating it can be to have time for unanswered questions. Long uninterrupted conversations that aren’t being fact-checked in real time. Learning to anticipate waterfalls because of the ways they affect all five senses, not because I’ve been following directions from a website. Most of the time, I love that the Internet provides an outlet for my curiosity and all the answers I could seek. But perhaps there is a corollary to more predictable travel planning in that novelty is harder to grasp, limiting awe.
Wherever you are this summer, I hope that you are getting what you need for a fall reset. After all the disruptions to the last school year, I’m counting on libraries being busier than ever as people appreciate being able to gather together in larger spaces again.