Walker Percy’s ‘double deprivation’
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Along with throngs of bus-delivered tourists, we arrived at the Old Faithful viewing area at approximately 1:20 pm. Spectators three rows deep already were gathered at the perimeter, standing on a carefully constructed platform equidistant between two clusters of restaurants, gift shops and snack bars. A wooden sign predicted the next eruption at 1:30 pm.
Now I typically gravitate to shade, so I migrated over to a group of older ladies eating a picnic lunch under a large conifer. Knowing the Institute’s larger mission this day (I am participating in a “Place as Text” institute), which was to focus on “an event,” I struck up a conversation with the woman nearest me, resting on a fallen timber.
After the typical “Where are you from? When did you get here?” questions, Old Faithful started to shoot up some streams and sprays. We readied our cameras, anticipating an impressive demonstration of power and pressure. But she didn’t blow; the geyser just kept spitting and sputtering. So the nice lady from Orlando and I began to wonder aloud, together, if this sort of squirting and misting were all we could expect to see. Surely not, right? Why would the National Park Service build a $27 million cathedral of a visitor center facing and, from the inside, framing the geyser if the every-90-minute show provided merely a 20-foot spout?
As we were preparing for disappointment, the spurts quickly became more aggressive, culminating in the 180-foot water tower we had come to see, the spectacle that inspired Congress to make Yellowstone a national park in the first place. Then the ladies left, immediately, en masse, before Old Faithful had even finished. They had all snapped a photo, recording on their own cameras a visual of the big event. Mission accomplished. Time to leave and reclaim a seat on the bus.
I didn’t get a chance to ask my new, temporary viewing friend why she and her friends had waited so long simply to take a snapshot of the eruption, rather than sticking around to experience it a bit more thoroughly. Maybe they were late for their bus; Old Faithful ironically blew about 15 minutes late. Maybe they’d seen it before. Or maybe, thinking about the quote from Walker Percy, the geyser spout was simply a visual commodity to be consumed, then re-packaged in the form of a photo to be consumed and shared, Facebooked, Instagrammed, and Snapchatted later.
Talking with a fellow group member later, we compared notes on this spectacle phenomenon, because she had noted the same behavior closer to the action: groups of people leaving immediately after snapping a photo.
There is evidence for this commodity theory. Old Faithful isn’t the most impressive of even that immediate caldera area’s attractions. But it is predictable, like the once-per-hour pirate ship battles of the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. And the park service has built around Old Faithful, from the visitor center to the viewing area, to the eating and lodging options rimming that main attraction’s launch pad. Consider how close to the attraction you can park. Consider how more impressive, from this consumer perspective, is the rustic, lodgepole pine interior of the Old Faithful Inn just a few feet away. Waiting to depart, another Institute member asked what most impressed me, and only half-jokingly I replied, “Lunch!”
In our van, we also discussed how progressively fewer people could be seen the further along the trails we journeyed, despite the collection of different sorts of sights along these trails. Gemstone blue abysses, burbling mud pots, burnt orange bacteria mats, and whole ecosystems of insects within the larger hot spring environment that is the Old Faithful caldera. Ted, Krystal and I had the mile-high viewing area to ourselves. The sights you had to work a little for, sights dazzling in their diversity, attracted no crowds.
No, the “tamed” tiger of Old Faithful got far more attention, at least until it inhabited, de-natured, the pixels of viewers’ cameras. The less-packaged, less branded bubble pots and bacteria mats of the rest of the park greeted visitors like stragglers at a cocktail party. According to the park service’s own statistics, four out of five visitors to Yellowstone come to see Old Faithful, or approximately 80 percent of 3.3 million tourists annually.
So Percy would seem accurate in his analysis of the double plight of consumer/visitors to national parks and of their anticipated national park “experience.” We’re told not to step off the boardwalk because we might instantly melt. We’re told to beware of bears and wolves. But it all seems so incredibly safe, even sterile at times. Inside the Inn, bears are personified in window etchings as party-going socialites, and in the gift store as cuddly toys and decorative details. Nature here has been carefully packaged for consumption. Call it Caldera Light.
Paradoxically, just outside this carefully managed, choreographed, planned “experience” are some of the 800,000 acres destroyed in the fires of 1988. Nature can be tamed and managed, but only to a degree; it cannot be controlled. Lightning strikes ignited an inferno that turned more than a third of Yellowstone into ashes, littering the otherwise stunning landscapes with ghostly white conifer stalks.
We like a hint of danger, the illusion of being in nature, but we expect that nature to be packaged, managed, and served up on time. The bus is waiting!
“The situation of the tourist at the Grand Canyon and the biology student are special cases of a predicament in which everyone finds himself in a modern technical society — a society, that is, in which there is a division between expert and layman, planner and consumer, in which experts and planners take special measures to teach and edify the consumer. The measures taken are measures appropriate to the consumer: The expert and the planner know and plan, but the consumer needs and experiences. There is a double deprivation. First, the thing is lost through its packaging. The very means by which the thing is presented for consumption, the very techniques by which the thing is made available as an item of need-satisfaction, these very means operate to remove the thing from the sovereignty of the knower.” — UNC Chapel Hill graduate Walker Percy